Middle School is one of the most trying times for a young boy. Middle schoolers can be some of the meanest people on the planet. Perhaps it’s because the average middle schooler is a walking identity crisis and unsure of their self. This insecurity causes many to lash out at everyone else. Combine this with questionable parenting and the rural Alabama Public Education System and you’ve got the makings of a pretty miserable place for anyone to be, much less try to learn. When I was in Middle School, so much of the teacher’s energy was spent on misbehaving kids who weren’t interested in learning and their parents who weren’t interested in anything that there was little left for students who were there to get an education. As I recall, I got in a number of fist fights in middle school. I don’t say this to brag, but to let you know that I’m not embellishing when I say that middle school was one of the most trying times for me as a young boy. I guess it did prepare me for the real world. I remember everyone getting picked on in my middle school, fat kids, skinny kids, tall, kids, short kids, black kids, white kids, mixed kids, locals, new kids, foreigners, boys, girls. Maybe your middle school experience was different. You should write about it. My experience in middle school is one of the reasons that I am still in youth ministry today.
I tell you this so that you will understand why I would have rather strung tomatoes than taken a field trip to Atlanta with some of the meanest people I knew. When I convinced my Mom that most of my class would be on the field trip and there would be no point in going to school, Dad decided to take the day off and float the river with me. Ordinarily, we would have just gone fishing, but as I recall the boat motor was out of commission, so we decided to float from the Kelly Creek landing to McGraw’s landing, a few miles down the Coosa River.
I remember it being cold as we got an early morning start at Kelly’s Creek. The morning was still and there was fog on the river as we launched the boat. I think when you’re on the river at daybreak you get a more perfect understanding of what God meant in Isaiah when he promised to extend peace like a river. The river is one of the few places where you can still imagine what it the world was like before the industrial revolution, automobiles, and, well, before people moved in. When you’re out there it’s not hard to imagine that the forest you see on the bank goes on for miles and miles.
It was always fun to observe the wildlife on the river, a turtle as big a manhole cover, or a water moccasin, but on this particular day it seemed like we saw more wildlife than usual, probably because we didn’t have our loud outboard motor to break the still air and disturb the peace. One of the first things we saw that morning was a raccoon sitting on a log that hung down into the river from the bank. After pausing for a moment to study us, the raccoon turned around scurried back into the woods. As Dad steered the boat to the Eastern bank with the trolling motor, we watched a pair of turkeys fly silently through the fog across the river, they were just a few feet above the water. When we got to the eastern bank a deer jumped into the river and began to swim across. All of this happened within a few minutes of being on the river.
It seems that the fishing was good that day, even if Dad had to do it all himself. Dad knew all the best spots. We would anchor the boat and sit until the fish stopped biting. Bass like to be around underwater structure and we were anchored by an old concrete pipe when we noticed a school of gar breaking the water not far from the boat. Gar have swim bladders that can be filled by gulping air. They do this to supplement their oxygen in poor water conditions. If you’ve ever seen a gar, it will make you think twice about swimming in the river. They are long skinny fish with long snouts and long sharp teeth. Gar comes from the old English word for spear and they just look mean. Normally, you wouldn’t want to catch a gar, because they’re not good to eat. But on this day, I thought it might be fun to catch one. Dad made a single cast into the splashing school of gar and caught one on the first try. When he finally reeled it into the boat, it was about four feet long and too big for our net. The top snout had been broken off about halfway down. It’s funny how you remember odd things like that. You have to be careful cutting your lure loose because those gar teeth are sharp.
As the day wore on it began to get hot. We anchored the boat a little south of Buzzard Island in hopes of catching a few fish. I forgot to mention the other wildlife creature that we always seemed to encounter on the river: mosquitoes. The mosquito’s favorite food source is human blood. They sound pretty sinister when you read it like that. We sat in a visible cloud of mosquitoes while Dad tied on a new lure. Since it was so hot and the mosquitoes were eating us alive, we decided to jump in the river to cool off and escape the mosquitoes. It’s surprising how cold the water can be when the sun is as blistering you on the surface. I can never swim too long in the river because my imagination gets the better of me and I start thinking about gar, and alligators, and alligator gar, and water moccasins, and the Loch Ness Monster, and before I know it I start thinking that I’d rather take my chances with the mosquitoes. It’s a little harder to get into the boat than it is to dive out. Especially when you think that there is a five hundred pound snapping turtle about to get you. You’re afraid for a second that you’re going to sink the boat as you climb to safety. Even so, every time we went fishing after that I wanted to go swimming. You tend to forget about the river monsters when you’re about to die of a heat stroke on the river.
Somehow, Dad knocked a rod and reel into the river as he was climbing back into the boat. I should have been more sympathetic, but I was just glad that it wasn’t me that did it. He tried several times to dive and retrieve it but to no avail. He had owned that reel since he was just out of High School, and I know he was upset about losing it, but he didn’t let it ruin our day. It’s never fun to lose a tangible object that is dear to you, or worse have it taken from you. But I value the memories that I’ve taken from the river more than I value the physical things that I’ve lost in the river. Or that Dad has lost river. I think he shares the same sentiment, although I’d be afraid to ask him about it if I had have been the one to lose his fishing pole.
We finally made it to McGraw’s Landing in the late afternoon with a cooler full of fish and a heart full of memories. Of all the years we spent fishing, this particular time stands out vividly. Maybe it was because I was skipping school with my Dad to go fishing. Not that anyone else was at school, since most everyone in my class went on the field trip to Atlanta. I’m sure they had a good time too, making fun of each other, and stressing out the chaperones, but I am pretty confident that many of them might have benefited more from a day on the river with their father than any field trip our public school system could have offered.