~ Summer Vacation, 1967 ~
by Michael Gafford
Please remain seated until the vehicle comes to a complete stop, and with that admonition I set the dials on the console of the Way Back machine to 35.1 degrees north latitude and 90.0 degrees west longitude with a date of July 7, 1967, Memphis, Tennessee. Duration 186 hours.
Friday, July 7, 1967
As the screen comes into focus, we see the Gafford family at the dinner table discussing the upcoming summer trip. With the city in a summer heat wave, Mom has placed a bowl of ice cubes in front of the large fan in the dining room window. It offers some relief but it remains uncomfortably hot. Dinner tonight is fried okra, purple hull peas, creamed corn, with fried minute steak, cornbread, onion and sweet tea. Not very appetizing to this 13 year old boy. Later I would enjoy it but as for now I gag when trying to get it down.
"Kids, listen up. We're going on vacation tomorrow and we have a lot to do. We are going to Pinedale and meet Travis and his family and your grandmother and grandfather. We then will go to Sardis and camp for a week."
Our home is, I guess, the average baby boomer house of the late 50s and early 60s. Dad has moved out of town to the suburbs and has purchased our part of this great country. The house and the yard is small but it is ours.. There are proximately 40 houses on our block with ever 4Th one the same. The house is two bedrooms, one bath, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and an unpaved driveway where Mom's.1965 Ford Custom sits, Dad's truck is parked in front on the street. There is an adequate front yard probably 50' by 50' with the same dimensions in the fenced back yard with two large cast iron Ts used to hold the strands of wire for our clothes line. There, in the rear, Dad has placed our boat; the only one in the whole neighborhood best I can tell. That's really not surprising because of all the kids that I know, none of them has a dad that takes them fishing, much less owns a boat. Mounted on the back is a 18hp Evinrude outboard motor that could definitely make ones hair blow in the wind, if we had hair; my two brothers and I have the standard issue flat top.
"Son, bring me that bucket." Dad instructs me and I go to get a 5 gallon white pale full of nylon line, hooks and such.
"We are gonna fix some lines." Dad says, as he ties one end of the white nylon braid rated for 200 pounds to the fence post.
"We need about 20' or so at the front of the line. We need to fish the bottom; that is where Mister Whiskers stays. Now we make a loop to attach a weight to carry it down and hold it in the strong river current. Now we need to place a drop every 6 feet to attach hooks."
So the process continues until we have a line stretched across our backyard, post to post, with drops for hooks and weights. At the end we will place another weight with one or two in the middle depending on the number of hooks. Next we go back and add the hooks and then carefully wind them around a large piece of Styrofoam. After creating 6 or 7 lines and carefully storing then in the white buckets, we turn our attention to creating the weights that would hold the line and bait on the bottom. Retrieving discarded bricks from construction sites offers us the materials we need. Taking two of these bricks, we tie then together. Each new bundle will then be used to weigh down a section of the line once we are at the river. After a couple of hours of work we have lines and weights ready to load into the boat.
So now it's Friday afternoon, and we are waiting for Dad to get home so we can be on our way. The car is loaded and we are all excited. As Dad pulls in the driveway we all go in to use the bathroom, because we don't stop once we get on the road. And then we are off. We all ride on this excursion in Mom's 1965 Ford custom, except Dad. He still has a few stops to make and will meet us there. Diane joins mom in the front seat, while Pete, Bo and I hold down the rear.
Soon we pull into the drive at my grandparents' and we are greeted by Bill, the family dog, but not my uncle or his family. Chicago is 600 miles away and it will be late before they arrive.
"Will you pass me the sausage please?" I ask, and Mom passes a plate full of sausage. I take two, wedging them between the sharp cheese and preserves on my biscuit.
"Load up." Dad bellows, and with that admonition we pile in the cars and head toward the lake created by the dam near Sardis, Mississippi. (This dam was created for flood control as part of President Roosevelt's WPA projects.) About an hour later we pull into a well shaded spot big enough for two campsites and stake our claim by placing lanterns and ice chests on picnic tables.
Decisions, Decisions. Do I go with Dad and Uncle Travis to pick up bait, or do I attempt to scale that behemoth of a hill that was created to hold back the water? I opt for the bait shop and load into the back of Dad's truck with my two brothers and cousin Joe. The hill will be there later.
Tidwell's was what the sign out front said. Pulling the boat up in front of the pumps, Dad opens the gas tank and pours a pint of 50 to 1 oil and then begins to fill the 6 gallon tank with gasoline. He then repeats the process for the spare tank in the back of the truck.
Like a flash, I am across the lot and into the store. (Youthful enthusiasm or tender feet on gravel?) Once inside I run to the candy aisle and pick out a real treat, a banana Moon Pie -- not just a Moon Pie but a banana Moon Pie with a 7-UP to wash it down. At the counter I fish a dollar out of my shorts and place it on the counter. This is money I had earned chasing a Briggs and Straton around numerous yards in our neighborhood back home, and also money from my morning paper route.
Across the crowded floor, past the groceries, past the inflatable rafts, past all the other stuff, are three concrete enclosures with an aerator suspended above each one. One is empty, one holds minnows, and the other holds gold fish (our bait of choice behind pond perch and brim, but they are hard to get).
"Give us ten dozen; that should be enough," Uncle Travis says. So it is settled, ten dozen.
Dad pays for the gas, bait and fishing licenses for Pete, Troy and me.
Once back at camp, we race to get the site ready and still have enough time to set out as many lines as possible before it gets dark.
The site is really quite primitive. There is a concrete table on a concrete pad. There is also a BBQ pit. Toilet facilities consist of his and hers outhouses, each with 3 or 4 stalls. There is an outhouse for about every 20 camp sites. There is also an outside shower with one choice of water, very cold artesian well water.
At the camp we all pitch in the task of erecting our tent, a real "beaut," three sections, floored, and with a canopy for the front porch. The first task is to stake the tent down on level ground cleared of branches and rocks. Next we assemble the aluminum tubing to complete the structure with a few pieces extra. We place cots and mats in the tent, along with bedding and food, and hang a mosquito bar between two oak trees. It's not much good in the rain, but on a hot clear summer night, mosquitoes can't get in (or out).
The tent completed, Dad and Uncle Travis head out to launch the boat, but before heading down river, they unload the tub portion of an old Maytag washing machine and anchor it in the shallows near our camp. Dad then pours about half of the goldfish into the tub and covers it with an empty feed sack. The waves coming into shore will supply oxygenated water for the goldfish, helping them to stay alive.
The next task is to gather firewood. Joe, my brothers and I fan out and begin to drag up limbs that have fallen off of the many mature oak trees all around.
Fixing my gaze toward the horizon, I stare at Mississippi's answer to Mt. Everest, the levee created to contain the water behind the Sardis dam. The beast rises from a level base at a 45 degree angle for 300 or 400 yards then levels off again for 30 yards. This level spot contains a concrete drainage canal and then begins another assent before leveling again and so on till there are four tiers with a two lane highway on top.
Joe and I climb up three times and run, fall, and tumble down it each time. On our way back to camp, Joe and I take the long way to hunt for additional wood and go past the swimming beach. Something seems different this year. The girls are looking different, and that is a good thing.
We return just in time for dinner, hot dogs, Lays potato chips and a coke. After dinner Joe and I walk to the water's edge to wait for the return of our dads and to get caught up on the latest news. Shortly, we see a flickering light and it seems to be heading toward us. It is in fact a very tired Dad and Uncle Travis.
"Joe, come get the end of this." And Joe reaches out for the end of the ice chest. I run ahead and pull the sack back just as they arrive to pour the goldfish back into the tub.
"Did you catch anything?" I ask.
"A couple of small ones," Uncle Travis replies.
"Want me to get the live net?"
"Let me get it," Dad replies, and a few minutes later he has pounded 2 limbs the size of fence posts deep into the Mississippi mud. Next he stretches the net between them, and Uncle Travis dumps first a 5 pound channel cat and then a yellowish brown flat head catfish that weighs about 8 pounds. A good start -- and there are high expectations for tonight; hopefully the big ones will feed tonight and the gars won't get the bait first.
Back at camp, the dual mantle Coleman lantern begins to hiss and dim and Dad pumps it back up, the light becoming bright again.
Shortly after 1:30 a.m., I feel a touch on my leg. "You ready?"
"Yes sir." And with that I'm up and out of the tent, already dressed.
As I reach the river's edge, I see a sleepy Joe with his dad dipping goldfish from the tub into the ice chest. I sit next to Dad on the rear seat and Joe is next to his dad on the middle seat. Shortly Dad says, "Hold her steady!", and as I hold the handle he turns away from the wind to light a cigarette.
"Open her up." With that, I turn the handle clockwise and we are off.
"Let me out!" Uncle Travis pleads, and in five minutes or less we have crossed the open water and enter the much narrower river. After traveling to the line that was the fartherest, we prepare to run it and then the rest on the return trip. The first line is tied to a mostly submerged oak tree that has fallen into the river after the current washed away much of the land under it. The water is deep, 20 or 30 feet and it is swift.
"Joe, shine that light around that tree," Dad says.
"Leave my friend alone," Uncle Travis says.
"Let your friend come in this boat and see if I don't break this paddle over both of your heads."
"It's hung up," Uncle Travis replies.
"I told you this hole would be too hard to fish," Dad says.
Wrapping the nylon line around the neck of the paddle a couple times, Travis tells dad to ease forward. Dad places the boat in gear and turns the throttle. Slowly, the 14' Monarch begins to ease forward. Suddenly the line breaks loose from its hang up.
"Now you've gone and woke him up," Travis states.
"Son, better get the net," Dad says. "Remember to net him from the front because he doesn't have a reverse. If he touches the net he will swim right in to it. About that time a forked tail slaps the side of the boat, throwing water on both Joe and me. A few moments later, not one but two 15-20 pound white humpback catfish are flopping around in the bottom of the boat. While this species may not get as big as the flat heads, for my money it's better eating, and this is a treat.
Our confidence buoyed, we continue up river and run the remaining lines, removing two flat heads and two channel cats, each about four or five pounds, but the big catch of the day is a massive alligator gar that we discard. Leaving the narrow river, we start across the wide lower lake. Suddenly, Dad opens her up and the sudden gust of air blows my hat off. A quick U turn and the hat is retrieved. This time I pull it on snug as the cold water streams down my neck.
About halfway across the lake, Dad sees an old friend from Union County, and we pull up alongside a large pontoon boat.
"Step on board," Troy invites.
"Nah, I got a few runts I need to get back in the water," Dad replies.
"I see you're not particular who you travel with," Troy says, reaching forward to offer Travis a hand and a smile. "How you doing, Travis?"
"Great, good to see you Troy."
"Any luck?" Dad asks.
"Caught a flat head last week that would go 50 maybe a little more. I've lost a jug tonight. That's about it. I've had a hard time finding good bait. Who else you got down there?"
"Hello, Mr. Murphy. How are your boys?"
"Just fine. They got a new rope swing over the water. Get your dad to bring you over."
"Oh, we'll come over. Got any tomatoes?"
"We might be able to find a few. It's really good to see you."
"You too, Troy." As dad pulls away, he says, "We going to cook fish Wednesday. Bring Louise and the boys."
"Good people," Travis mutters.
"Yep, good people."
Dad tilts the motor up as the boat eases over to the sandy shore.
"Can you guys get the fish?" Travis asks.
Joe grabs the net and I load it with some very agitated catfish. Stumbling to the live net, we hold them as Uncle Travis loads them into it.
"Hungry?" Mom asks.
"Nah, tired," Uncle Travis responds.
"I guess so. You drove 600 miles and haven't slowed down all day."
As we near, the deafening roar fills the misty air. Pete slows down halfway between the two rocky sides. Without saying a word, Uncle Travis waves Pete on and we ease farther into the mouth of this great beast. Finally, Travis turns and says, "Hold it here." He grabs an anchor and throws it over the side. As Pete gently cuts the throttle, the boat eases back until the anchor gets a firm grip and holds. Using our rod and reels, we cast the shiners and worms into the frothy water.
A coke and bologna sandwich later, we pull up anchor and head back to camp.
Today is the day. I will swim to the barrels. I guess I could get to shore if the boat ever flipped over, but I am by no stretch of the imagination a good swimmer. I have never attempted to swim out to the barrels at the swimmers' beach, but today I will leave the kiddie pool and swim out with the big boys. The barrels are strung together with a massive steel cable that keeps the swimmers safe from motorized traffic. The distance to the barrels from the spot where I can stand is about 50 yards, not that far in some ways -- but in some ways it is.
After several false starts, I am literally at the point of no return. It's sink or swim, and I swim. After several stops to check to see how I'm doing, I finally feel the rough cable slip into my palm. Success! I turn toward shore and see that nobody is watching. Well, I'll just have to wait. I want people to admire my success, plus I am not totally sure I can make it back.
Troy and Louise are distant relatives by either blood or marriage, maybe both. Troy has retired from work in Memphis and now lives at a very comfortable home on the river. He has three sons that correspond in age to mine and my brothers'. We tour his new deck and shop. A lot of time and energy has made this a very nice place. Behind the shop is a successful garden. After a nice visit, we leave with a sack of tomatoes and the promise of a visit for dinner tomorrow.
Fishing has slowed some, but we have caught one flat head that weighs 40# and several more over thirty. Back at camp as night settles is we turn the radio on and tune it to the 1967 All Star baseball game, a real pitcher classic with the NL winning on a 15th inning dinger by Tony Perez off the "Catfish." The game pits greats like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale against Al Downing and Catfish Hunter. And among the smell of Coppertone and Off and above the static and Dizzy Dean, I drift off into a peaceful sleep.
Wednesday ~ July 12, 1967
The first task is to select the menu. Dad picks out several channel cats, a large white humpback, and several flat heads. He also includes four or five small ones to be cooked whole. The fish are cleaned, sliced and put on ice. Fixing a fish dinner is easy, not a lot to worry about. Fresh tomatoes are nice, slaw is good, French fries and hush puppies are necessities, and we must have sweet tea or Pepsi to wash it all down. Coconut cake and banana pudding are good finishers.
By early afternoon, as people start to arrive, Dad fires up the cooker, a burner from a hot water heater welded into a steel frame, a propane tank and a large pot of oil. As more guests arrive, people begin to graze. A whiffle ball game is started. The football is introduced to solidify bragging rights and for those less athletic, there are horse shoes. The party lasts long into the night, long after I have succumbed to sleep.
Thursday ~ July 13, 1967
It is decided that Uncle Travis will leave tomorrow and head back to Union County to see his parents and in-laws again before heading back to Illinois. We will stay one day longer and leave on Saturday.
Friday, July 14, 1967
As I sit on the shore facing the setting sun, emotions flood my mind. Soon another vacation will be gone, but this one feels different. In a few short months, I will enroll in senior high school, Pete and Carolyn will begin their senior year. Already the fairer sex is claiming more of my attention and thoughts. Finances are starting to be a reoccurring thought. I am becoming more and more aware of the importance of work and the benefit of having a few bucks. Then there is the race in space with the Russians and the race with ourself over civil rights. Yes, the future is changing but it is good to have times such as these.
Saturday ~ July 15, 1967
The screen begins to flicker and fade. Soon the monitor is blank with the exception of a single dot in the middle of the screen . . . and then it disappears.
Watch your step as you exit the vehicle. Hope you enjoyed the trip. I know I did.
Michael Gafford writes to USADEEPSOUTH:
"As my uncle refers to a birth of a calf as a cow finding a calf, Mom and Dad were living in Memphis but visiting back home in Union County, Mississippi, when they 'found' me that cold December day in 1952. I was raised in Memphis, graduating from Memphis State University (BA 1977). I worked in the security field before recently retiring. I presently live in southern New Jersey and return home as often as possible."
The Snipe Hunt
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