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‘Less gardening and more fishing’

February 9, 2012

I have one dominant mental image of my Uncle Acie.

It is summertime in southern Oklahoma, mid-July when the daytime heat is humidity-laden and feels as if it could melt your skin.  I see the back of the modest, clapboard house where he and my Aunt Bonnie lived. The leafy magnolia tree is there with its sweet smell, and I spot the TV antennae on the side of the roof that seemed like a relic from another time, even then.

We are standing in the middle of his garden. I say “garden,” but this is really what most folks would call a farm. Acie, wearing a humorous, oversized straw hat, is proudly presiding over a full acre of produce like some kind of emperor. He looks at me, sweat running down his face and staining his shirt, his outstretched arms portraying the pride of what he and God – and, of course, my Aunt Bonnie – have wrought together.

I wait expectantly for the words; for they are the same words I have heard the year before, and the year before that.  But I always look forward to hearing them again, and I react each time as if I am being confronted with some new idea.

“Next year,” Acie says with a dramatic pause, “I’m going to do less gardening and more fishing.”

Acie was a fine gardener, but fishing was his passion. Anything that was not fishing was simply time passed between fishing trips.

Acie spent most of his life, except for World War II when he marched into Berlin, within a mile of the site of the ramshackle farmhouse where he grew up, surrounded by trees and hills and rivers and lakes and time to plan mischief with his brother and sisters, one of whom is my mother.

At 16, Acie got a job as a school bus driver. They apparently forgot to ask him in the interview if he could drive. He couldn’t. But he motored around in the pasture with his siblings until he got the hang of it.

He had a mischievous streak, did not make wise decisions in regard to women (until he married Bonnie) and had been given to heavy drinking and fistfights. Although from childhood I knew Acie as a sober, devout, prayerful, Bible-reading and believing man, he always seemed oddly nostalgic for the days he was punching someone’s lights out or falling down drunk. But he didn’t actually do those things anymore, and that was that. He could sure talk about them, though, and my mother would always cringe the moment he began.

One of the things Acie did between fishing trips was try to make a living as a dairy farmer, rising while it was still dark and heading to the old country school he had bought and turned into a barn. As a kid, I loved to watch him milk the cows, and I laughed when he squirted milk into the mouths of the happy felines lucky enough to board there.

Trips to see Acie and Bonnie also meant I would get to see my grandmother, who lived in the neighboring town until her death in 1974. At either home, it was likely that I would be awarded a Coke – which, for some reason I could not understand, my aunt Bonnie always called a “pop.” It wasn’t as if I was deprived of cold soft drinks at my home in Texas. But there was just something special about having them in Oklahoma. That alone was worth the 2-hour drive.

Our visits also meant that Bonnie, best cook in Murray County, would have a table full of food laid out upon our arrival, despite my Mom’s predictable and fruitless advance protestations: “Now Bonnie, don’t make anything for us this time, we’ll just eat before we get there.”  Along with the fried pork chops or fried chicken and biscuits would be delicious fruits and vegetables from the mammoth garden. I particularly remember the cobblers for dessert. Oh, the cobblers.

If we were lucky, we would get to eat fried catfish at some point during our stay. Inquiries were usually made shortly after we arrived on the question of how the fishing was going that year, and whether the freezer was adequately stocked.

We weren’t much on catching fish, but we were hell on eating them. Acie was just the opposite, and so this worked out well for everybody.

I guess at some point in his life, Acie had fished every pond, lake and river within 25 miles, and you could blindfold him and leave him anywhere in the woods, take off the blindfold, and he could tell you exactly where he was. He had a smelly “fishing car” in the garage, packed with rods and reels and nets and nasty stink bait. A set of old clothes was ready to go as well, and his wide-brimmed straw hat was hanging on a nearby hat rack. Acie was always prepared to depart quickly and drop a line into a prime location where they were biting.

One early morning, Acie, half-shaven, donned his big straw hat and grubby gear and hiked down to a muddy river bank with his rod and reel. About lunchtime, a kind woman came through the woods to deliver him a plate of hot food. He thought nothing of it, except that this was very nice of her. The next Sunday, the same lady saw Acie in church, all cleaned up, and sensed that he bore a resemblance to the transient she had fed a few days earlier.

The little white Baptist church near his house, sitting on a piece of land donated by my grandmother, filled much of Acie’s life. To this day, it bears a plaque with his name and one of those shovel pictures when he joined other men of the church to break ground on a new addition.

I loved to hear Acie talk about family history, and we often planned a trip that never happened to look up relatives in Tennessee. I pored through his box of old photos, listening intently to the stories associated with each, particularly one about two men hanged in a barn. I remember the surprise I felt the first day I learned that in his quiet hours, he wrote poetry – about unrequited love, Jesus, and conflicts with his brother.

Besides fishing, he lived for arguments over religion, politics and football. This created an interesting dynamic with my father, who agreed with Acie on only one of the three (religion). Acie was a Republican whose ancestors took the Union side in the Civil War in a part of East Tennessee where aristocratic slaveholders – all Democrats — were despised. (Later, however, Acie had a shocking Damascus Road political conversion when President Clinton was locked in a stalemate with Congress, halting the delivery of VA checks. He suddenly became a Democrat). Acie listened to OU football games on the radio in his kitchen, and the final score of the Texas-Oklahoma game would lead to a family debate that lasted a full year – until the rivalry was renewed. On the day of the game — if Texas won — my Dad enjoyed phoning Acie to claim he had missed the game and wanted to find out the final score.

Politics usually caused the biggest uproar. On our way to his house, my Dad would routinely resolve to avoid political discussions entirely. This normally lasted until just a few minutes after arrival, by which time Acie had needled him to a point in which he could take no more. One day we were sitting on the front porch when Acie said something that caused Dad to shoot up from his chair like a rocket, turn to me and say, “Let’s go home.” Cooler heads prevailed, and we stayed.

One of the best decisions I ever made, and one of the worst, both involve my Uncle Acie.

After my wife and I had moved to Amarillo, and I was approaching my 30s, I had a sudden impulse to go fishing with Acie, whom I had not seen regularly in years. At that point, oddly enough, we had never been fishing together. He used to invite me as a kid, but either I (stupidly) thought I had better things to do or it just didn’t work out. I had a strong sense of wanting to make up for lost time. So one day, I called up Acie and I told him I wanted him to teach me how to fish. He eagerly agreed.

The first time I cast a line out on the river with Acie, I came up with a channel cat. It wasn’t a huge fish, but it was mine, and I was hooked. Trips to go fishing with Acie became a regular feature of our lives after that, with my wife Kerry, who brought along some previous experience, often landing the largest haul. After we moved to Grapevine, it was a shorter trip, and we had some great weekends together.

Kerry had one of her biggest days as an angler in the stock pond across the road from Acie’s house on the other side of a barbed wire fence with a large “NO TRESPASSING” sign. Acie never felt that this type of signage applied to him, and perhaps it didn’t, since everybody knew him. But not everyone knew Kerry and me, and so it was with some trepidation that we crossed over while my uncle, then 80 years old, held the fence apart for us. When we gently suggested to him that perhaps we should heed the sign, Acie pointed out that, some 50 years earlier, he helped dig that pond. If he couldn’t fish in a pond he helped create … well, where was the justice? I do recall that we spotted a large bull in the vicinity as well that we did not see until nearly reaching the pond, but all went well, and Kerry pulled fish after fish out of the water.

Renewing my relationship with Acie was one of the best things I have ever done, and I knew it. It was like reclaiming a part of childhood that I had somehow missed. One of my worst decisions came only a few years ago, shortly before he died.

I was driving to Oklahoma City to spend the weekend with my good friend Rick, and decided I would stop on the way and call on Acie and Bonnie. When I got there, I found out that Acie had been admitted to the little hospital in town. He had been sick for awhile. I took Bonnie to see him. When we got there, he was so glad to see me that he immediately asked if I could stay with him that night. I said I couldn’t, that I was on my way to visit a friend and could only stay a while. He understood.

I have always regretted my selfishness that day. I have relived the moment a hundred times, each time doing the right thing: “Sure, Acie, I will stay with you, as long as you want.” I failed a significant test but have reached a point where I am able to forgive myself.  I finally decided that Acie would want me too. I presume that, these days, he is finally able to do less gardening and more fishing.

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