Posts Tagged ‘Indian Creek’

White Owls

October 14, 2013
Evening Watercolor Sketch of White Owls

Evening Watercolor Sketch of White Owls

“Dad, why do we always go to the Mississippi River to fish all night?”  We were seated in the backyard of my parents’ home, enjoying a cool summer evening.  My son was about twelve years old, had not lived with me since his mother and I separated when he was young, but an essential part of our visitation was an annual summer camp-out on the Mississippi River dike near Neely’s Landing in southeast Missouri.  Three generations—my father, myself and my son—made the journey and stayed out all night on the dike, fishing for catfish, alligator gar, sturgeon, buffalo, carp—anything that would bite on minnows or nightcrawlers.  I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, but took this approach: “Well, I guess I still consider fishing with Dad a key part of my rite of passage.”

“What’s a ‘rite of passage’?”

“That’s the transitional moment when the boy becomes the man.”

“I don’t get it.”

I looked behind me at the half-open kitchen door, checking to make sure we were not being monitored by my parents.  I had to reach far back into my childhood memories to pull out the thread that I wanted to explain carefully to my inquisitive son.

My own father never talked much.  A decorated combat veteran from the Korean War, he chose not to talk about what happened that night in 1952 on Hill 191.  We knew only that it was unspeakable, and for that he was decorated with the Bronze Star.  Getting married, raising a family and working as an auto mechanic left him weary in the evenings, and he was content to be left alone with his evening paper and the television while we did things that small children do.  By the time I was twelve, he began taking me fishing, and his profound love for that activity resonated profoundly with me.  I don’t know how much of it was the outdoors, or how much of it was the reality of being invited to spend quality time with my dad—I just know that fishing Indian Creek in southeast Missouri where my father grew up was an important part of my own growing up.

On one particular excursion, Dad had chosen not to fish, but to smoke his White Owl cigars and meander up and down the creek banks while I fished the holes for bass and bluegill.  I was using a Lazy Ike, and on one particular cast, put it too far over the hole, where it landed in a tangle of weeks and tree roots on the opposite bank.

“Dad, I’m hung up.”

“Wade out there and get it loose.”

“I can’t go out there.” (I was worried that there might be snakes in the water.)

“You know why?  Because you’ve been petted all your life.”

Those words stung me.  Enraged me.  My father never spoke much.  But on this day he did.  So that was what my silent Father thought of me!  A sissy.  A momma’s boy.  Petted all my life.  I threw down my rod, waded the creek up to my armpits, untangled the lure and returned to fishing.  And stewed.  “You know why?  Because you’ve been petted all your life.”

The next day I still wasn’t over that stinging rebuke, though nothing further had been said between us.  I approached my dad as he sat in the living room, while all the other in-laws chatted about nothing worth remembering.  But he was sitting there silently.  My father never spoke much.

“Dad, I want to go fishing this afternoon.”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“But I want to go, alone.”

“You’re old enough.”

“There are snakes.  I should take the .22.”

“You know how to use it.”

“I might stay until dark.”

“Be careful.”

I gathered up the fishing tackle, the Mossberg .22 bolt-action rifle, and borrowed cash from my mom.  Then I set out on the three-mile trek to Indian Creek, stopping first at Marlin’s store, an old-fashioned country store at a bend in the county road.

Walking into the store, I leaned my rifle against a wooden bench and approached the counter.  I was going to need food and provisions for this day-long rite of passage.

“Five pieces of bubble gum, a Royal Crown soda, two Pay Days, and a Slim Jim.”

“Will that be all?”

Looking up to the top of the shelves behind the clerk, I pointed to the stacked boxes of cartridges.

“And a box of .22 long rifle shells.”

The clerk reached up and took down a box of cartridges, setting them down next to the candy and soda.

“Anything else?”

Looking beneath the glass at the tobacco section, I added:

“And a couple of White Owls.”

The clerk set the two cigars down before my delighted gaze and asked if there would be anything else.

That afternoon, I ate my provisions, smoked my cigars, fired my rifle at phantom snakes in the weeds, and fished.  And felt large, that the twelve-year-old had become a man.

As I finished relaying this rite of passage story to my son, I turned and noticed a movement beyond the kitchen door behind us.  Someone had been listening.  My dad wouldn’t do that, but Mom probably would. And if she heard, there is a good possibility she would pass it on to Dad.  But he would not be the type to say anything about it.  Dad never talked much.

Four o’clock came early the next morning.  Bleary-eyed and silent, the three of us loaded the Chevy pickup and piled into the cab.  It was still dark, and we had a two-and-a-half-hour drive before us.  Stopping at a convenience store to gas up, my dad and son got out.  I knew my son would want to go inside for soft drinks, candy, etc., and Dad would be filling the tank and then going in for coffee.  I chose to stay in the cab and doze.  A few moments later, I was startled awake by the thump of a package tossed through the open truck window, landing in my lap.  A package of White Owls.

Dad never talked much.