PERHAPS I SHOULD WADE OUT of this dream water for a while toward something a little more rational and positive—say, my grandfather. Ah yes, Granddad, my mother’s father, now there’s someone who would never shrink and scream at me from a puddle. Maybe we’d both shrink and scream at someone else from a puddle, but at least we’d be in it together. Had Granddad been in that boat on Long Lake with me instead of my father, he probably wouldn’t have tied me to the seat. More likely he would have joined me in my ecstatic lurchings until we capsized. We were an odd couple, a pink, coddled English professor’s son and leathery retired wheat farmer, but we both had an obsession with fish that bordered on unhealthy.
In the early Fifties, when he’d take me fishing in his battered, dust-clogged ‘36 Chevy, replete with a back seat full of gunnysacks to hold the catfish we caught, I learned to be ready for episodes like the following:
A young jackrabbit runs out in front of us and pings off of the front bumper. As I watch it pinwheel in the rearview, Granddad’s eyes light up, like he’s just spotted a bag of money. He skids to a stop, jumps out, grabs it by the hind feet, whangs its head against the back fender, tosses it on the gunny sacks behind us, gets in, and heads for the nearest farm pond. As I turn around and stare at it, bug-eyed and quivering in its death throes, I’m hoping that this thing won’t wind up on the dinner table this afternoon, so I venture the question.
“What’s the rabbit for?”
“What’s that, Bub?”
“The rabbit, what’s it for?”
“Don’t you know what a rabbit’s for?”
“Same thing these are for but better.” He pats the Ball jar next to him, still warm with its contents, the guts of a freshly killed hen.
When we get to the pond, he unrolls the trotlines from their coffee cans. To Granddad, these trotlines are finely honed tools on which he sharpens the one to two dozen hooks every evening before he goes fishing. Soon he has skinned the rabbit and cut its flesh into half-inch cubes, which we pop onto the hooks. Then he takes a stake at one end of the line, I take one at the other, we stretch it across the deepest corner of the pond and we shove the stakes into the mud. While we wait for trotline action, we take some chicken guts and toss them in the shallow water near shore. In less than a minute, several huge crawdads coalesce out of the murk and we reach out and grab a couple behind by the back with our thumbs and forefingers so that they flip their tails and wave their ominous claws about until we pull off their tails and throw their front halves out on the pond. We then untie the cane poles from the roof of Granddad’s Chevy, bait them up with the fresh tails, toss our corks out and wait.
All of these little killings, guttings and beheadings were a bit surprising to me, but they never seemed brutal. They just seemed like a part of Granddad, who more often than not, carried a slight smell of fish and blood along with the usual cigar smoke. Hitting a wounded rabbit’s head against a fender or tree or wringing the neck of a downed duck or quail was as much a part of his outdoor ritual as sharpening his hooks or cleaning and polishing his shotgun.
On one of the rare occasions when my father (who never hunted) went hunting with me, I shot a quail and he, obviously distressed, walked over to where it was fluttering and flopping in the wheat stubble.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, “it’s still alive. Shoot it again, quick.”
“Why?” I said. A product of Granddad’s ethics, I had no idea why Father would be upset or why he would want me to waste another shotgun shell.
“It’s suffering,” he said.
“Not for long,’” I said. When I walked over to the bird and pulled off its head, my father started to cry. Seeing my father like this, I would have cried too, had I not been twelve years old and a hardened product of playground bullying. I knew that Father had been a lieutenant on a destroyer which had survived a direct hit by a kamikaze, so I figured that the crying must have been over something other than the little head clutched in one of my hands or the little body dangling from the other. Back then, I had no idea how much Granddad resented Father for stealing Mother, his only child and his best friend, or how Father was growing to resent Granddad for stealing me.
Damn, I’m starting to make shit up so I’ll sound deep. Back to the pond.
After about ten minutes of watching our corks bob over their crawdad gobs, some swirls begin to appear where we’ve set the trot line, so Granddad unstakes one end and picks it up to expose three bullhead catfish and the head of a huge snapping turtle.
“Let’s get that turtle off,” says Granddad. “Lift the other end.” So I pull up the stake on my end and we drag the fish and turtle to the bank. While the giant turtle hisses, gacks and scrabbles, he opens his jack knife, saws off its head and casually frisbees the body out over the pond. It goes whop when it hits the water and hasn’t yet sunk as he returns to unhooking the mudcats and tossing them into a wet gunnysack.
After a few hours, the gunnysack sags with several flopping pounds when I lift it from the water, so we chug and bump back over a few miles of red dirt road to the farm where we throw the wet sack of writhing fish down in the chicken yard and go up to the house and get Grandma to clean them. Yes, that’s right, I said we go up to the house and get Grandma to clean them. I have to repeat that because I have trouble myself believing that such a thing happened. Grandma is another story.