May has always been a magical month for me with my mind drifting back in time and place where every boy is blessed with a grandfather like the one I had.
Lacking that, at the very least read a Robert Ruark’s “The Old Man and the Boy,” a timeless book on the relationship between a grandfather and a boy. It’s sporting literature at its finest, and I had my own “Old Man” in the person of Grandpa Joe.
In many ways Grandpa Joe was a boy trapped in an old man’s body.
He was full of tricks as a pet ’coon, tough as a seasoned hickory sapling, and imbued with 70-plus years of wisdom accumulated by living close to the good earth of the Smokies. He possessed an adventurous spirit when it came to hunting or fishing. I enjoyed the good fortune of being his sidekick on many of these outings.
Grandpa had a knack of turning something such as a simple afternoon of fishing in the Tuckasegee River into a grand enterprise involving the two of us as a dauntless duo.
Alas, our escapades didn’t always work out as planned such as a late spring day at Devil’s Dip.
Devil’s Dip lay just a short walk downstream from Grandpa’s house.
It got is name because of its powerful hydraulics and a strong backwater gave it the appearance of a whirlpool.
We had fished it before, but on this particular day the two of us ventured into uncharted territory. Hopping from one rock to another we went farther out on the shoals adjacent to the turbulent water than ever before. At one point, scared a bit by the nearby torrent, I told Grandpa: “If we aren’t careful we’ll fall in.”
He nodded in agreement before giving a response which settled matters as far as both of us were concerned. “You might be right, but every time we move we catch more knottyheads.”
Sure enough, my prophecy came true. I’m not sure whether I slipped and grabbed Grandpa or if he fell and reached out to me. Whatever the case, both of us were immersed in the frigid waters of Devil’s Dip.
We scrambled out, shaken and chilled, but no worse for wear other than Grandpa had lost his straw hat. Purchased just the day before with hard-earned cash money, the hat made four complete circles in the backwater with he tried unsuccessfully to snag it with his long cane pole at each passage. The fifth time around it caught the current and headed downriver toward Fontana Lake, never to be seen again.
By that time we were shivering and dreading the coming confrontation with Grandma Minnie. My paternal grandmother was a tiny woman, weighing at most 100 pounds, but she had a 300-pound temper and a tongue that could flay the hide off a razorback hog. The family in general, and Grandpa Joe in particular, were in constant awe at her wrath, and did their level best to avoid being the focus of one of her periodic eruptions.
We both knew that showing up on the doorstep of their home, looking like a pair of drowned muskrats, was going to earn us a tongue lashing. Grandpa acknowledged the inevitable, muttering: “They ain’t going to like this one bit.” The “they” Grandpa referred was Grandma Minnie. In situations such as this, he found it more comforting to use an impersonal pronoun rather than her name.
I silently nodded agreement and followed close on his heels. Grandma met us at the door and what I now realize was a millisecond of relief immediately gave way to rage.
She directed her initial verbal sally towards me. Punctuating every word by poking me in the solar plexus with her gnarled index finger, she said: “The only thing worse than a young fool is an old fool,” and, having switched to prodding her spouse in mid-sentence she quickly added, “Here stands a matched pair.”
At that moment I dared a glance sideways to see how Grandpa was reacting, only to discover he was, while never breaking eye contact with Grandma, slowly retreating. I wasn’t about to be left alone to face her ire and moved to join him.
As we backed through the doorway and around the corner into another room, Grandpa winked at me and whispered softly: “I reckon they won’t be cooking any fish tonight.”
We had a supper of cold cornbread and milk.