February 17
by Bill Booth

Epiphany: a revealing moment

A sudden gust of wind shook the sides of the small tent, waking me in early morning light. I rolled onto my back and looked through the open front of the canvas relic that served as my shelter. Dark clouds, darker even than the old boat down by the lake, covered the sky and rolled south. It was a Wednesday morning in early August, the third day of what I hoped would be a week-long fishing trip in northern Arkansas. It appeared the weather might not cooperate.

The year was 1958, and I had hitch-hiked alone nearly four hundred miles from Marshall, Texas to Newport, Arkansas where I intended to fish the White River for its famous smallmouth bass. Since I had only recently turned seventeen, this trip required a little subterfuge.

My friend Mike Baker had picked me up at home the previous Sunday under the pretext of a week-long camping trip on the near-by Sabine River. My parents were accustomed to our taking extended camping trips together, so this trip didn’t really raise any eyebrows. Mike unfortunately had other obligations and couldn’t join me, so he dropped me with my backpack and fishing tackle at an intersection on the outskirts of town. And because he lived on the opposite side of town from us, the likelihood of Mike being seen by my parents was small. I stuck out my thumb and arrived after dark many hours later in Newport, where I spent the night in a small, downtown hotel.

Monday morning, feasting on bacon and eggs in a little coffee shop at the hotel, I met a local businessman who seemed intrigued by my interest in local fishing, and possibly by my spirit of adventure. He insisted on introducing me to a farmer who owned a nearby lake that supposedly overflowed with large bass. Since my new acquaintance volunteered to drive me there, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
When we got to the farm, I shook hands with Ben Parker, a short, thin man dressed in bib overalls and a tee shirt. His white forehead contrasted with his brown, wrinkled face and dark eyes. I guessed him to be about fifty years old. “Just call me Ben,” the little man said after I addressed him as “Mr. Parker” a couple of times.

The businessman left, and Ben pulled a plug of Brown’s Mule out of his top pocket. After offering me a chew, which I politely declined, he bit off a generous chunk and deftly lodged it inside one cheek. Ben asked where I was from and a few other things, and after we chatted for a little while, he motioned me over to his old Ford pickup. I threw my gear in the back, and he drove us down to the lake.

The lake was manmade, probably about ten or twelve acres in size and spread like fingers on a hand through the woods. It was situated in a valley between hillsides covered with hardwoods, brush, and pine and was supplied by a spring-fed creek that flowed down between the hills. The lake was quiet, its water dark and tannin-stained, but still clear. Lilly pads floated in corners of the small coves, and dragonflys helicoptered above them. The air was warm with the scent of pine needles and oak leaves in summer sun.

I dropped my pack and assembled a fly rod before getting into a small, flat-bottomed boat with Ben. For the next couple of hours, I flipped popping bugs under overhanging willow and cypress trees while Ben quietly sculled us along banks of the shady lake. Except for the swish of my rod and line, the only sounds to be heard were occasional calls from jaybirds back in the pines accentuated by sudden eruptions on the water’s surface by bass or bluegill attacking my artificial bug. I thought I had found heaven!

Ben owned the farm and the lake, and he graciously offered to let me camp out and fish as long as I liked. After catching and releasing several nice fish, I told Ben how much I appreciated his offer and that I would like to camp there for a few days. The White River would just have to wait until I had had enough of this fantastic place.

Tuesday was a repetition of the first day. I was on the water by sunrise and caught and released fish until my arms were tired and sunburned. Both days were sunny and cloudless, and I appreciated the meager shade from trees near the bank. Ben accompanied me a couple more times, paddling the boat and saying he just liked to see me catch fish. It would be much later in life before I understood that it could be more fun watching a youngster catch fish than to catch them yourself. Ben even planned a trip for me later that week with Elton, his cousin, to fish the White River – which, as we both knew, was supposedly the real reason I had come up here.

Sometimes, especially when the fishing would slow down in late morning, Ben and I would talk a little about farming, or fishing, or growing up poor. We talked about families and how they sometimes didn’t understand men doing the things they did, things like camping out, fishing, and hunting.

“And spelunking,” Ben added, almost as an afterthought.

“Cave exploring?” I exclaimed. “I’ve never explored a cave!”

Ben confided that he and cousin Elton had secretly explored a large cave outside the little town of Cord when they were younger, unbeknownst to their parents. It had been a great adventure, and they had told few people about it. He still remembered the old farmer on whose land the cave was located, but they hadn’t talked in years. I confessed that I had always had a desire to explore a cave, but there weren’t any that I knew of in east Texas. The subject usually drifted around to fishing again before we paddled back to camp.

In the fifties, it was fashionable for young men (perhaps not as young as seventeen) to smoke pipes. Evenings after supper, I puffed contentedly on my Kaywoodie briar, and enjoyed the rich smell of pipe tobacco while reclining near the campfire. Clear skies sparkled with constellations I could not yet identify. I drifted to sleep nightly watching fireflies blink endlessly around the lake and listening to the rhythmic chorus of cicadas and tree frogs accompanied by bull frogs singing bass.

The weather and the camp were perfect. My WWII army surplus pup tent sat at the bottom of a hill on a slightly sloping piece of grassy ground. Inside the tent, a Sears-Roebuck sleeping bag lay on top of another army surplus item, a leaky old poncho I used for a ground cover.

I fished until late morning each day, catching and releasing several bass, bluegill and an occasional bowfin, which were always a disappointment because they didn’t put up much of a fight. I kept a fish or two daily for supper, since my rations brought from home consisted only of dry stuff like oatmeal, cornmeal, rice, and flour with a little vegetable shortening, salt and pepper. Basically, I could survive at least a week without adding to my supplies, but I also planned to eat fish as often as possible.

Tuesday night, after another delicious meal of fried bass fillets and hot water cornbread, I smoked my pipe and read for a little while by the light of the campfire. The syncopated songs coming from the woods made me drowsy, and when a group of barred owls gathered nearby for a laughing contest, I could barely keep my eyes open. I crawled into my sleeping bag a little after dark, and sleep came immediately.

Shortly before dawn, I awoke to the sound of wind blowing through the tall pines around camp. All the insect and frog noise had stopped. A strengthening breeze blew steadily from the northwest, and the night was pitch black.

Sensing rain was coming, I crawled outside and dug a trench around the tent, using a hatchet and my hands for tools. After that, I went back to a restless sleep.

Wednesday was a dreary day. After a ritual breakfast of oatmeal with raisins, I fished from the bank and, surprisingly, caught several nice fish. I wished Ben would visit, but he didn’t.

Intermittent rain showers began late that morning, confining me to the limited headspace of the pup tent for the rest of the day. The temperature dropped, and it was necessary to slip into a long sleeve shirt by late afternoon. Having a good book to read, I didn’t mind the close confinement except for having to be careful not to touch the condensation on the inside of the canvas. I dozed and read all day through the drone of light rain overhead and went out to stretch my legs during brief respites from the weather. Cold, leftover fried fish and cornbread from the night before made a filling, if less than satisfying, supper. I blew out the candle and crawled into my sleeping bag shortly after dark, expecting the wind and rain to diminish gradually through the night. Boy, was I was in for a surprise!

Much later in the night, I awoke when a tremendous explosion shook the ground and a prolonged play of lightning illuminated the lake area as bright as day. I sat up and tried to collect my wits from a deep sleep. Rain fell in torrents, and I saw that my attempt at diverting ground water with a trench was a pathetic failure. Water flooded under the sides of the tent and over the poncho, soaking me in my bed of cotton.

A deafening boom of thunder sounded almost simultaneously with another lightning bolt, and a tree near camp crashed to the ground. The roar of the storm was unbelievably loud. Rain came in a deluge that threatened to collapse my flimsy shelter while it flooded the ground beneath me and filled the interior of my tent with a dense, fine mist.

Time and again, thunder and lightning split the sky, leaving the smell of ozone in wet air. I was terrified. Never before had I felt so close to death. I was certain that at any second, the next strike would kill me instantly.

My thoughts went to what would happen next. In the morning, Ben would find me – lying cold, stiff, and dead in my rain-soaked sleeping bag. He would go through my personal stuff to get the names and addresses of next-of-kin, then call my parents.

What would Mother and Dad think about me? I had lied to them about where I was going. They would wonder why. Was I in the process of running away from home? Everything seemed to be going okay when I left. I even had a new girlfriend, and she wouldn’t know why I had left home or what in the world I was doing camped out in north Arkansas by myself.

Another clap of thunder shook the ground, causing me to cringe even lower. The end had to be close. Mother and Dad would be heartsick over the thought that I had run away and been killed, wondering what they had done wrong. I knew I was the one to blame, but they would have no way of knowing that. Sitting cold, wet, and frightened in the little tent, I prayed they wouldn’t be too hard on themselves and that they would recover from my sudden, unexpected death without too much difficulty. I knew I had been less than an ideal son. If I just had a chance, I could change that. But if it was in the books for me to die that night, then so be it. My brothers, Gene and Bob, would still be around to comfort our parents

Lightning split another tree only yards away, and I was amazed to find myself still conscious and breathing. If I somehow survived this ordeal, I promised God I would never again lie to my parents or sneak away on another foolish adventure. I would even quit smoking, if that really mattered. God, just let me live through this storm!

Minutes later, I noticed the thunder was beginning to follow the lightning by noticeably longer intervals and was not quite as loud. Maybe I would live to see another day after all. I curled up again in my wet sleeping bag and dozed fitfully until dim sunlight woke me at dawn.

I surveyed the aftermath of the storm. The camp and woods were still and quiet but soaked with water, as were all my belongings. The ground was dotted with puddles. Broken limbs lay in disarray all around, and the boat was half filled with water. The lake was muddy and out of its banks.

A campfire was out of the question, but I had a can of Sterno and a small, collapsible metal stove. A hot pot of oatmeal and a cup of coffee brightened my spirits, but I knew fishing would be dismal for a couple of days. I decided to dry my gear and pack up. I could leave in the afternoon and be home sometime tomorrow. Smallmouth bass and the White River had lost their attraction.

Later that morning, Ben arrived in his pickup truck and found me hanging my sleeping bag and clothes over tree limbs in the meager sunlight. He killed the engine, climbed out of the truck, and squirted a long stream of brown juice toward the woods.

“I tried to drive down here last night during the storm,” he said. “Couldn’t even see the jeep trail, it was so bad. Barely made it back to the house.” He aimed another jet of juice at the remnants of my last campfire. “How’d you make out?”

“Oh, it wasn’t too bad,” I lied. “But my stuff is all wet.”

Just then, the sun came out and a fresh breeze blew through camp, taking some of the misery with it. I looked around at emerald-green leaves sparkling in morning light and slowly inhaled the fresh, clean air. Back in the woods, birds began singing.

Ben looked at the lake and spat another stream of juice into a puddle at his feet. “You want to try fishing for a little while?”

I hesitated, thinking of the resolutions I had made only a short time ago. The breeze freshened, and a sunbeam suddenly lit the whole camp. Clouds lifted. I dug into my backpack and brought out my pipe, lit it, and took a few draws. In two weeks, I would begin my senior year in high school — but I wasn’t expected home for another three days.

“Well, the fishing probably won’t be any good, but I guess we ought to see if there’s any hungry bass still out there.” I knocked the ashes from my pipe and reached for my fly rod, then paused before walking down to the boat.

“Say, Ben, do you think you could tell me how to find that cave you and Elton explored that time?”

Word count: 2,530