|Childhood memories are something to treasure if you are fortunate enough to be reared in a family of memory makers. On that note, I must count myself truly blessed, for my parents and extended family of aunts, uncles and grandparents were just that, memory makers. Story telling was an art in our family and some of the stories told by my grandfather were often accompanied by hand, facial and body gestures along with sound effects in some cases. Remembering his tale about the giant pumpkin still brings laughter to me. When my father worked at the defense plant on second shift, mother would have my sister and me sitting beside her on the sleeper sofa and read wonderful stories from all sorts of books. My imagination would run wild with mental images of the characters' lives and happenings, particularly the stories about the Yukon gold rush days. From the time I was a lad of perhaps five or six, I clearly recall our family making the Sunday journey to see my paternal grandparents and Aunt Mary, grandmas spinster sister who lived with them. It was a wonderful time for this lad. Their house always seemed warm and inviting with the special fragrances of homemade breads, cakes and pies. Their stories of long ago carried the same warmth and rich flavor. You see, Grandpa was the family oral historian and I sensed early on that he not only enjoyed a good story, but also was compelled by history to tell us everything about the family. By the time I learned to write, or I should say print, my mother encouraged me to keep a journal to record the daily events and in particular the stories I heard. She and my father also encouraged my imagination and let me run wild with it, for those were hard times during the Second World War when so many things were rationed and toys were not high on the list. From those crude journals and memory, I have written many short stories in the third person about my childhood adventures and the following is just a sample of life in the Nineteen Forties. I was born in August and eight years old at the time long ago. I was a child of summer with my skin tanned a soft brown, my hair was sun bleached white, and my buddies called me Cotton. This is a Cotton tale.
It was mid July and the weather was hot, humid, and absolutely perfect as far as Cotton was concerned. His hair was already sun bleached white, which was the reason for the name his buddies gave him.
His skin was a soft brown tan from the long days spent in adventures around his hillside home and the wondrous woods. For the young lad, this was the most perfect existence one might have and he wished it would never end.
Most summer days were spent in his woods with his best buddy Roger and together, they made repairs to their fort and even added on to it. This would give them room to camp out, if their parents would allow it. The cool depths of the woods offered the boys some relief from the heat when most folks sought out a fan or a cold glass of lemon aid under the shade of a wide porch to cool off during the heat of the day.
The lads often lay on the soft bed of leaves and looked skyward through the tall canopy of trees, dreaming the dreams of adventurous youths. Only the flying acrobatics of the gray squirrels or Midnight, Cottons solid black cat, would break the reverie.
There were some days when the lads' fathers took them fishing on the creek bank below the Chickamauga Dam. Ever since Cotton caught his first fish, the lad was hooked and loved this adventure almost as much as any other in his list of best things he liked to do. It was also nice that the two men were good friends and worked together at the defense plant.
One Friday afternoon, Cotton's father told him to get up early the next morning, because they were going with Roger and Raymond, Roger's father, to seine minnows from a small branch. "What we catch will allow us to fish all weekend."
This news made Cotton so excited about a new adventure, it took him longer that normal to go to sleep that night. Visions of a huge fish on the end of his line kept swimming through his dreams and the harder he pulled, the closer he slipped toward the water.
Saturday morning dawned already hot with hardly a whisper of a breeze. The window curtains did not even move and there were beads of perspiration on his mothers face as she fixed them breakfast. After quickly eating and completing his morning chores, Cotton was ready. At seven thirty, he heard a car pull into the drive. The lad bounded out the back door to greet Roger and Raymond.
"Hi Cotton, you ready to go fishing?" the dark skinned lad asked.
"You betcha," Cotton replied and pantomimed holding his fishing pole with a big fish on the end of the line.
The two boys were ready for this trip and the fun they would have, because catching fish of any size was a perfect way to spend a summer day. Father brought out four large buckets and placed them in the spacious trunk of Raymond's nineteen forty-one Chevrolet. The minnow seine and other equipment was already stowed and as soon as everyone was in the car, Raymond told them to hold on, for they were off to Georgia. With those words said, they pulled out and headed off for adventure and great new fun together.
"What type minnows will we find?" father asked.
"Oh, probably shiners and some chubs," Raymond replied. "My brother and I seined from this branch a few weeks ago for his bait and tackle store."
Cotton and Roger sat on the back seat and looked at the new sights as they listened to their fathers talk. Both boys enjoyed the occasions they went on trips together and there was the usual good-natured joking and poking going on. They also learned from the men, because in those days, fathers were heroes.
"What about crawfish?" Father asked. "You know Bass and Sauger love to hit them."
"We'll let the boys catch them," Raymond replied with a big grin and a wink as if there was some sort of surprise in store for the lads.
The trip seemed to take forever for Cotton. When they drove over the Market Street Bridge, he looked down and saw their favorite picnic spot far below them. He also saw the boat dock where he caught his first fish several years ago. At the wharf, he saw a steamboat tied up and trails of black smoke coming from the two tall stacks. A tugboat struggled to push a string of barges upstream toward a port north of Chattanooga.
Raymond drove them right down Market Street between the tall buildings and shops, and then crossed over to Broad and took a left toward Lookout Mountain. When they passed the tannery, everyone held their noses, for the smell was terrible. A little further, they turned onto Saint Elmo Avenue that led them past the Incline Railway.
"What would happen if the cable broke?" Cotton asked as he looked up at the steep slope of the mountain.
"Oh, not much. The car has brakes on it that would stop it from crashing to the bottom," Father answered.
Cotton was reasonably satisfied with the answer, because he knew his father would not tell him a lie. His father, Sky King, and Sergeant Preston would never tell lies.
Shortly, they crossed over into Georgia and after a brief distance down the road, they pulled off into a picnic area beside a branch. The boys darted from the car with eagerness. They stood along the branch to look for minnows, while their fathers removed the buckets and seine from the car trunk.
Cotton looked into the cold, clear water and saw flashes of silver minnows darting for cover. "Here's some," he called.
Roger spotted a school a little further down stream. "Oh wow, here is a bunch."
Both boys were excited with their discoveries and it was a miracle they did not fall into the water the first few minutes they were there.
"Come over here, boys," Father called.
Cotton and Roger walked along the bank of the branch to a spot where father sat next to some large boulders at the base of the mountain. "Here is where the water comes from," he explained as he pointed to a yawning cave.
From that opening came a torrent of cold water and an equally cold breeze that made the nearby bushes rustle and shake. Even though the day was already hot, this blast of cold air made Cotton shiver, but it felt good.
"This is Blowing Springs, as everyone knows it, and later in the day, the area will be full of families enjoying the cool breeze, cold water and the shade under the huge trees," Raymond explained.
To the boys' delight, Raymond dropped a watermelon into the cold water for them to eat after the chores were finished.
"Well, it's time for some fun, boys," Raymond said as he and father spread the minnow seine and stepped into the branch about fifty feet downstream.
"Oh man, that is cold," Father said as his feet sank to the bottom.
"You boys splash and make some noise to drive the minnows to the seine," Raymond told them.
Oh wow, this was so much fun for the lads and they could not have had a better chore. After all, cold water in a branch and boys bare feet are a natural playground. Cotton and Roger lined up and started to thrash the water by jumping up and down with much fun and delight. The boys slowly herded the schools of flashing shiners toward the awaiting seine their fathers held.
"That's it. Keep it up," Father called to them.
With a wet swoop, the men lifted the seine up to reveal what appeared to be hundreds of flipping and flopping silvery minnows. Quickly, the men walked to the bank where the buckets had been left three-quarters full of cold spring water. As they held the seine out, Cotton and Roger used hand nets to scoop up the shiners and dump them into the buckets. Some of the minnows flipped around so much they were able to escape, but there were so many, a few escapees did not matter.
With one trip of the seine they caught enough shiners and a few chubs to supply loads of fishing for them over the next few days. Raymond and father carried the buckets to a cool spot near the car and settled down to enjoy the morning watching their sons play and just be boys. "Hey boys, catch us some crawdads," Father called out to them.
"Yeah, we might catch some large bass on them," Raymond added.
Cotton had seen crawdads before, but had never caught them by hand. This was going to be something new and loads of fun, he thought.
"I'l lift the rock and you catch the critter,"Roger said.
Cotton watched his best buddy lift a big flat stone in the water and suddenly, a crawdad swum out backwards, right into his hands. Cotton grabbed the critter with some giggling and laughter. The problem with crawdads is, they grab back. To Cotton's total surprise and anguish, that old crawdad clamped down on a finger with a big claw.
Cotton let out a whoop and a holler, and danced up and down with that ugly critter dangling on his finger. It seemed the more the lad shook his hand up and down, the harder that beast clamped down, but nonetheless, the creature was at last sent flying back into the cold water with a splash.
Father and Raymond hooted and laughed till their sides ached. Roger was laughing too, and then Cotton was caught up in laughter as he felt the pain go away. I must have been a real funny sight as I jumped up and down hollering, he thought. Cotton learned something from the experience other than how not to catch a crawdad. Sometimes, it's great fun to laugh at ones self, and just enjoy the moment.
It was no great surprise the boys laughed so hard they fell into the water with much splashing and wild kicking, which only made the moment more perfect, on a perfect summer day, in a superbly perfect month of July. Not even the cold slices of watermelon or a seed-spitting contest would make it any better.
Joseph Schild is an older writer with a slightly twisted sense of humor who strives to be a soft curmudgeon. Joe loves writing about childhood adventures and many of his short stories are from that era.
©Copyright 2006 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.