“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”– Virgil
“Wanna catch some fish, boys? Then get your poles and let’s go.”
They weren’t really my family, by blood. But I knew them as Father, Mother, and Brothers near enough to be kin. I practically grew up at their house; in their yard. Then they moved away and I visited in the summers. The memory that now comes swimming up from the depths is of an event that occurred one muggy afternoon about forty years ago, when Big Bro’ took us fishing.
The eldest of four boys, he was of a different family. His mother had died of the same heart condition he, himself would inherit, and his young father remarried. Perhaps that’s why he did what he did that day. Maybe he had inherited a double portion of motherly love.
We grabbed baby brother, about three years old, and dove into the pick-up with all our gear. We were going catfishing; so, of course, the gear included treble hooks and Catfish Charlie. The latter substance, a killer whisker-face attracter, had an aroma that would have stopped the Mongol hordes in their tracks, and sent old Genghis Khan galloping back to Uzbekistan. A blood bait with the consistency of crusty play dough, Catfish Charlie caked on a treble hook with a sprinkle of oatmeal to give it some body was like a trash pile in a Campbell’s Soup can for a hungry bottom-dweller.
Turning off into a cow pasture through an old barbed-wire (pronounced, “bob-wahr”) gap, we trucked out through head-high Johnson grass and a horsefly drone or two ‘til we found a waterhole about the size of a blue-collar swimming pool, as a couple of cows raised their heads at some funny-looking conquistadors riding in to lay claim to their land.
Reels, poles, corks, hooks and a cup of Charlie in hand, we hit the bank and found four spots for sporting. Three-and-a-half, actually, with little brother close in tow to whomever was nearest the action.
When catfishing, unlike when bass fishing, one sinks bait and sits, waiting for old potty-mouth to come whisker-sniffing and vacuum up the miniature refuse pile caked on one’s treble hook.
Pungency and patience soon were rewarded, as a couple of us hauled in some eating-sized cats. But little brother hadn’t gotten a bite.
Sneakily, Big Bro’ devised a scheme to distract the little fella, and made middle brother and me swear complicity. Leaving our rods and reels posted in some PVC pipe we had stuck in the ground, we took the tyke around some high grass ostensibly to get a closer look at a cow. Big Bro’ then hooked the biggest fish we had caught on Little Bro’s pole, and slid the fat boy back into the pond.
“Y’all come quick! I think little brother’s hooked a hoss!”
Tripping over ruts and anthills, the tot took the lead as we raced back to grab the pole already bent like a willow branch, its line pulled taught by that slimy-skinned, bottom-seeking diver.
“Here, little fella, grab a hold and start reeling! I’ll let out the drag a bit so he don’t snap that line,” Big Bro’ blurted frantically. Eyes bulging widely like he’d just seen a T. Rex, Little Bro’ caught hold, his fingers blanched like pale noodles rapped around the rod handle.
Each of us pitched in to get that river hog hoisted up on the bank before it took our little guy for a muddy ride. We finally hauled in the big croaker, its fins erect in a full-fledged defensive posture.
“Grab that sucker behind those fins, while I get the pliers out to unhook him.”
I’m sure I’ve never seen a more ecstatic, euphoric child, as Big Bro’ praised him to the skies for his natural angling skills, telling him how proud his grandparents would be when they heard about his adventure.
That was a time before cell phone cameras and Facebook posts. But my brain took a record of the experience – a rich one, with sights, smells, and personal histories – all captured on the Kodak paper background of relationships that never fade, despite that challenge of passing years.
Who knows what measure of confidence a child gained that day because of the actions of his oldest brother? Who knows how big that ailing heart swelled to see a little boy reveling in pure joy? Who knows how many angels smiled and sang because of a kindness shown? Because, at that time, in that particular place, four children simply and joyfully played before the Lord in the tall grass by a pond where cows stood knee-deep in muddy water to watch the show?
Years later, while visiting Big Bro’ in a hospital where he waited, hoping for the heart that never was to come, I drifted back to that warm and innocent summer day on the pond bank, thinking then, as now, of the irony: he surely had possessed the biggest, healthiest heart in the room. And, a donor himself, he left a part of it here with us.