This time of year, as summer’s humidity settles in, my thoughts turn to catfishing and a crusty river rat named Al Dorsey.
My parents were always saying “you don’t need to be hanging around that old man, but I assumed it was because he was pretty much a stranger to soap and warm water. Parental strictures notwithstanding, his offbeat personality and bizarre lifestyle held great allure for boys. He seemed a local incarnation of some of the stranger or more unsavory of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River characters.
Old Al always looked unkempt, drank more than a bit, wore a visible layer of grime on his ankles and lower legs, and dressed in a somewhat unusual fashion for hot weather with overalls, long johns, a long-sleeved shirt and brogans. The clodhoppers were worn without socks. When one was downwind of A, the air tended to be pungent indeed.
Yet I found him, as did other boys who spent appreciable time along the river bank, endlessly fascinated. He was kind to apprentice river rats, kept a watchful eye on our youthful shenanigans and was an absolute wizard when it came to catching catfish.
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Moreover, he readily shared his considerable knowledge of the fine art of catching Mr. Whiskers. He plied his fishing trade in a variety of ways — limb lines, jug lines, throw lines and trot lines were regularly checked from a home-made, flat-bottomed boat he poled about the river with a sure touch born of vast experience. When not checking his lines, he kept the boat chained to a tree and stayed busy with a batch of cane pole rigs baited with such delightfully noxious things as chicken entrails, beef liver and shrimp, which was a bit off.
Al somehow knew when he hooked a big catfish on one of these primitive rigs, and on such occasions would set the hook, throw the pole in the river and clamber into his boat. The buoyancy of the long cane poles kept constant pressure on the catfish, and eventually, after chasing the periodically emerging pole around the river, Al would grab the black nylon line affixed to the pole and wrestle a fine catfish into his humble craft.
So passed many a summer’s day. For a starry-eyed boy enchanted by anything connected with hunting or fishing, his knowledge of the river had a mysterious, magical quality. To his credit, he kept an eye on a number of youngsters who, like me, spent a lot of time fishing and piddling around at the river. From the time I was 10 or 11 into my mid-teens, I spent endless hours around the old codger. Every minute was pure pleasure.
It was only decades later, while browsing through old newspapers that I came across a startling headline. The local weekly for Nov. 6, 1925, reads: “Al Dorsey, Slayer of Muse, Gets Sentence of Ten Years. Was Tried for Second Degree Murder.” The subhead: “Sentence Regarded as Extremely Light.” At this point realization belatedly dawned why my parents suggested I should avoid Al’s company, never mind Dad readily acknowledged he was masterful when it came to catching catfish.
They knew all about the murder but considered it a subject unfit for youthful ears. Indeed, Daddy, a teenager at the time, had been one of the first on the scene of the town square shooting. It was a sordid story of an unfaithful wife, passion run amok and ruined lives. The man I knew was dramatically changed from those days and his time in prison. Happily, long after my times with Old Al, he found religion, joined the local Baptist church and cleaned up not only his act, but his person.
To me, his unknown past never mattered. I just viewed him as one of those delightful characters, today in increasingly short supply, who brought wonder and magic to my boyhood. This troubled, tattered soul may not have been the finest of role models, but he was a first-rate mentor when it came to one particular type of fishing. He lent a degree of color to my youth, which has only become more striking with the passage of time and acquisition of additional knowledge about him.
Whatever his shortcomings and sins, my memories of him are filled with fondness. I’ll never hear Alison Krauss sing the grand bluegrass classic, “Catfish John,” without thinking of “Catfish Al” and being stirred by the lyrics, “I was proud to be his friend.”
His gravesite, unmarked for decades following his death in 1982, recently received a marker. Though simple and lacking either the size or splendor of many nearby tombstones, the catfish engraved on the stone bears mute but meaningful testament to a man for whom catfishing became a metaphor for his post-prison life.