Trash Fish: Watermelon, Pop Corn, and a Two-Dimensional Possum

Fly Fishing BluegillI MENTION THESE various attempts by my Oklahoma kin to procure culinary wonders through questionable methods in order to set the stage for my cousins, Ralph and Leo. They were Grandma’s sister’s sons who lived in their mother’s tarpaper house on the Salt Fork River. When Ralph was a toddler, he had fallen off of the porch of that house and on to a piece of glass so that he was half paralyzed and still walked with great difficulty, even at sixty when I knew him. Leo had tried marriage, work, business and the military but wasn’t that fond of any of them, so he returned to Ralph and the tarpaper house on the river.

Now, considering my post-Deliverance perspective, I might be a little more guarded about those visits to Ralph and Leo, what with their overalls, their union suits with drop flaps, their dental incongruities and Ralph’s propensity for yodeling when he talked. But as a child, I felt like Granddad and I were visiting magicians as they emerged pale and blinking from the tarpaper darkness, pulling up their suspenders and offering fresh popcorn and watermelon from their patch out back.

Eating watermelon with Ralph and Leo was an experience in itself. When it had been a modest watermelon year, Leo would cut them with a knife and we would try to conduct dialogue between swallowing and seed spitting.

Ralph would lower a slice from his mouth with his good hand and get the conversation rolling with something to the effect of, “nnggoodhuhngpatooi.”

“How’s the, schlorp gulp, wheat this year. Foooof…..ting.”

“Looked like it was gonna get forty (gackahack) bushel till that hail hit, schlomp.”

“This sure is good. Gurk, hoof hoof hoof….”

“Go easy there, Boliver. Don’t choke yourself.”

On better years, when melons abounded, Leo would dispense with the knife and crack them open on a log, the steps, his knee—whatever was most expedient. We would also dispense with dialogue—and with the hindrance of seeds, choosing rather to dig the hearts out with our hands, eat them like apples, and throw the rest to the ubiquitous chickens.

Once the watermelon was out of the way, we would enter my cousins’ profligate realm of fish gathering. Granddad would bid me to fetch whatever roadkill we might have found on the trip to the river from its bed of gunnysacks in the back of the Chevy. The freshness of the kill wasn’t crucial to Ralph and Leo. In fact, something that had baked and flattened in the road for a day or two would frequently be more suited to their purposes. A flat possum was usually easier to tie to the mesh at the bottom of their fish trap than a three dimensional one. And the local catfish that had acquired more sophisticated tastes preferred one that exuded a certain piquancy and perhaps even a few maggots.

That the trap approximated the size and shape of a coffin lent a macabre element to the process, especially when combined with the image of Leo’s pale skin turning slightly blue after he stripped and eased into the chilly water to situate the device. Because the two brothers had long since abandoned fishing poles for their lack of efficiency, we were, on occasion, hard pressed to find entertainment while waiting for prey to seek out the submerged carrion. Sometimes Granddad would bring his .22, and he and Leo would take turns blowing the heads off of turtles where they sunned themselves on distant logs, and sometimes Ralph would regale me with woodland lore such as the tale of the large water moccasin he had seen choking down a duck or the saga of the twenty pound carp he had harpooned single-handedly with his pitch fork.

And I, pressed by youth and inexperience, would concoct colossal lies of my own streamside daring-do. I would tell them how I packed a cherry bomb into a ball of Wonder Bread, and after chumming the water with crusts, threw the ball into the feeding frenzy and how, after the explosion, I caught the raining sunfish in my baseball mitt. I would tell them how, during thunderstorms, I could hold my Zebco spin-casting reel to my ear and pick up radio stations in Mexico. During my lies, Granddad and Leo would look off into the trees and blush, but Ralph would hang on every word, sometimes lending approval and validation with, “I seen dynamite do the same thing,” or “I heard a fella talkin’ French when I took the fence out back in my teeth.”

Then, toward late afternoon, we would all haul at the rope tied to the front of the trap until we saw dark shapes moving then heard the frantic flopping of large catfish.

There were other occasions when Ralph and Leo would tire of such primitive methods and resort to Twentieth Century technology. On such occasions, the fish trap would lie dormant, high and dry on the bank, and they would head for the large pools the river left when it receded during dry weather. They would, as Leo put it, “phone up a few.”

Though it employed cutting-edge technology, it was a rather simple process. Ralph would kneel at one end of the pool, cranking furiously on the handle of a country telephone generator, a device common in farmhouses of that period, and Leo would kneel at the other end of the pool, cranking furiously on the handle of another telephone generator. Soon the surface of the pool would be aquiver with its occupants, the furious cranking would stop, and the dipnetting would start.

Copyright © 2008 Greg Keeler. Excerpted from Trash Fish: A Life with permission of Counterpoint Press.