Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I REMEMBER - 'Men only' - Fish Camp with Cousins & Uncles

There are lots of good memories in our lives and for those that are blessed with large families, there are often even more.  Interaction with different personalities that might doom a relationship outside your own family, but are preserved forever because they are “blood” relatives  Blood is thicker than water.

Most of my relatives were in Oklahoma and when my Mom and sister and I moved to California, it was like Marco Polo sailing off to the edge of the known universe.

We went back a couple of times for a visit and family reunions.  Being young, skinny wearing glasses, with all my 6’+ farm boy older cousins and Aunts and Uncles, I was often lost in the mix.

One of my favorite memories was a week-long, guy’s only, fish camp expedition.  There were lots of trucks (one with a huge freezer in the bed), chicken guts, “Catfish Charley” stink bait, treble hooks for snagging catfish and trot-lines.

We stayed at a fish camp on the Arkansas River…little shanty cabins right on the river bank.  We had big campfires at night and I drank lots of soda…I seem to recall my uncles and older cousins drinking something with the word “lightning” out of mason jars, getting louder and crazier as the night wore on.  We had made a side trip to this little farm to pick up the mason jars.  I waited in the truck.

We caught a couple of month’s worth of fish, mostly catfish and bass.  We cleaned and gutted them and packed them in the freezer right there.  We also had fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner (good to get home and have a hamburger).

I watched my older cousins catch catfish with their bare hands in little washed out recesses in the river banks.  There were lots of yelling and new words for me to learn when they got spiked with fins. 

My fondest memory after 50+ years was a nightmare at the time, which is often true with many good stories.  Being the youngest (and most naïve) on this “man trip”, I got initiated into the “Chiles Clan” one night.  We were sitting around the campfire and the mason jars were being passed around – not me.  

One of my three uncles announced that it was time to check the trotlines and needed a volunteer.  All my cousins volunteered me.  It was pitch black and very late at night.  I was terrified to even go much beyond the campfire area, but had to “man up” and not let it show that I was about to wet myself in fear.  

I had to take one of the “Jonboats” off the shore and paddle out into the night following the rope tied from one tree to another across the river and check the dangling baited hooks to see (had a lantern) if we had any fish on them, pull them up, remove the fish – drop them in the bottom of the boat (club them in the head if they flopped too much), rebait the hooks and paddle back.  No problem.  I am thinking, I can do this.

I faced my fear of the dark and took off as calmly (on the outside) as I could and was about halfway out when the initiation happened.  One of my older cousins slipped into the water behind me and quietly swam out to the boat and came up over the side behind me with a loud moan.  I now knew the monster stories were true and I was soon to be a dead man (boy actually).  Never one to go down without swinging (I had lost my fair share of playground fistfights) I first screamed at the top of my lungs then grabbed the paddle and wacked the “monster” over the head a couple of times. 

The distant laughter from the camp that had started with my screaming at the top of my lungs, turned into several enlightening four letter words from my half-drowned cousin and my uncles on the shore – one of which had to swim out and help his dazed “monster” son back to shore…and then the laughter started up again back at the camp after confirming everyone was still alive.  This time they were laughing at my soaking wet, gash-on-forehead cousin.

I was now officially in the clan…even offered a sip from the Mason jar (after they applied some to my cousin’s wound - man, did he ever yell even louder than me). Tasted very much like gasoline, but not as smooth…I think my eyes crossed several times from just enough to wet my flaming lips. I slept well.

The story was passed around at the next week’s family reunion.  Me, swelling with pride, my cousin embarrassed and my Mom whacking her brothers (my uncles) for allowing such a thing.  

My uncles were 6’3”+ - my mom was 5’1” – They were laughing so hard, I don’t think her punches were felt much.


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