Monday, May 29, 2006

Going Fishing

There used to be a tradition in our family of going out and camping for the week-end. The two I can remember were over the course of a July 4th week-end. There were at least two of my uncles, my aunt Lela and family, my aunt Elsie, Mama, Bubba and me. Lela's group consisted of husband Albert, sons Clebert, Donald Ray, Darrell and Buddy, daughter June and her husband, Bobby and which ever one she was married to at the time, and Sue Baby. That was a lot of people, but the women seemed to know instinctively how to set up a fish camp.

Getting down to the creek was as big a part of the adventure as was camping out itself. There would be a caravan of old cars, pick-ups, a station-wagon thrown in for good measure, each filled with chatting women, hollering kids, with the occasional threat by some adult that "you kids better settle down back there." At a point which seemed as random as the occasional cloud, the caravan left the road and headed down to the creek through miles of pine forest.

Once the caravan was unloaded of people and materiel, the men and boys went off to fish for supper while the women set up their camp kitchens. Catching enough fish for supper was no problem with a dozen hooks in the water. The young kids were set up between the watchfull eyes of the older ones, while the men sought out favored spots remembered from previous years.

In the South before air conditioning, there were a limited number of things one could do in the high heat of the day. Napping on a hamock in the shade with a glass of tea or a cold beer is one of them, fishing is another. Dusk and calls from the women brought us back to camp from that first day's fishing. The men had finished earlier than the youngsters and had returned to camp to drink beer and clean fish. The first task at hand was for one of the uncles to come and compliment the young fishermen and discern which ones were keepers and which ones were not.

The first night's feast was a testimony to fried foods. Besides friend fish, hush puppies were fried and finally potatoes -- to clean the fish flavor out of the grease. The only condiments I can ever remember are ketchup and Cyrstal Hot Sauce. We also had the treat of soft drinks. In those days, we were lucky to get a coke on Sunday night after church. At the fish camp we could drink as many as we wanted which better not be too many. Somehow the adults just seemed to know when you'd had your share for the day.

Dessert was a banana pudding made by my grandmother. She had a large, yellow crockware bowl and she used for two things, making biscuits and banana pudding. The banana pudding would be layers of bananas, pudding and vanilla wafers, topped with a meringue which was then browned in the oven.

As evening settled on the fish camp, several campfires would glow, but the light was more likely to come from glass lanterns which burned kerosene. They wouldn't give off as much heat, so they were the light of choice. We didn't have tents, but we did have mosquito netting. Our sleeping bags consisted of a old blanket or quilt spread across the ground. It's amazing how many swamp Irish you can crowd under one 6'X 8' mosquito bar. Cheek to jowl, we settled to sleep by midnight, the last sound being an adult voice warning you to settle down or face the consequences.

Morning seem to happen fully born. By the time I awoke, the air was filled with the smell of coffee and pine burr burning. We kids didn't generally get coffee, but if there was any left over after the adults had had a couple of cups, we got to get a cup of black mud to which we added twice as much canned cream and a good tablespoon of sugar. Breakfast would be left over fried fish and fried bread.
The main project of the first morning was preparing a barbeque pit which required the actual digging of a pit into which a hot fire is built for the purpose of slow barbequeing brisket of beef, chickens and sausages. While the men were seeing to that, everyone was given chores. Gathering wood for the pit was generally under the direction of a seasoned adult who knew the kind of hardwoods desired for pit barbeque. Hickory was the wood of choice. When the pit was ready and a fire built, we had a lunch of hot dogs, although I know we didn't call it lunch. Again, the condiment of choice was ketchup, but pickle relish was also very popular, with some of us choosing both, and neither of those choices excluded mustard or mayonaise.

We energy of the camp was dispersed for the afternoon. It was again time for the kids to get away from the adults who preferred napping and reading to the constant buzz of excited kids. They never worried about us getting lost. Country kids are raised with a lot of common sense. If you go DOWN the creek for a couple of hours, chances are you need to come back UP the creek for about the same amount of time. They knew we'd come back about the time we were hungry, and that would probably be just about right.

I like to remember this fish camp as a tradition, but I think it probably happened twice. The first time it was a huge success. It answered the need of my aunts and uncles to get together with their siblings and for all of the kids to get to know each other. Family bonding wasn't taken for granted. It was taught. Not consciously like a sermon, but by giving everybody time with each other. The second time, we were rained out by a thunderstorm of such ferocity that we lost gear. And on the way out from the creek through the forest, lightening struck a tree immediately next to out car, leaving my face red and warm from the flash. Scared the pee out of me and I've glowed in the dark ever since.

And that's the truth.

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