As a youngster, I always got great enjoyment from visiting Aunt Annie Bell and Uncle Croff. I especially enjoyed watching Uncle Croff work on the little boat motor that was “sometimes” used to propel the little green and silver “jon boat”–green where the paint remained and silver where it had worn away—he and my daddy shared ownership of. I say “sometimes” because, more times than not, Uncle Croff and Daddy “motored” out onto the water, in the little boat, but had to paddle it back in.
Uncle Croff was forever tinkering with the motor. Often, Daddy, with us kids in tow, would ride over to his house to check on his progress and to see if any “patabah worms” were on his “patabah tree” (our word “patabah”, I later learned, was actually a transliteration of “catalpa” or “Catawba”).
Entomologically speaking, Catalpa or Catawba worms are hairless caterpillars of the Sphinx Moth, whose taxonomic designation is, “Ceratomia catalpa”; of course, none of us knew that then, not even my “college educated” father. All we knew, was that they made for some awesome fish bait.
Many days, Uncle Croff could be found in the backyard of his home, with the boat motor attached to the inside lip of a 50-gallon drum of oily water. He’d tinker a bit then yank the starter cord, causing the motor to cough, sputter and spit, much like Uncle Croff coughed, sputtered, and spit when he hocked up his huge luggies.
Occasionally, and I do mean occasionally, the motor would crank. The motor would growl to life, its propeller, submerged deep inside the barrel, causing the water below to churn and the water at the surface to bubble, boil and smoke like some wicked, “witches brew”.
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”
On the few occasions when the motor started—and stayed running—the reticent smirk, which served as Uncle Croff’s smile, and the jubilant grin, that breached Daddy’s face, bore witness to how much that seemingly simple act meant to them, as they spoke loudly over the roar of the motor about the upcoming fishing trip that was sure to happen, now that the motor was “running”.
It was on one of these occasions that Uncle Croff shared the following “lie” with us; of course, all of Uncle Croff’s “lies” were “true”, (I’ll leave you to ponder that statement as we listen to Uncle Croff’s tale);
‘So, a little Black boy and his daddy was fishing from the bank at the ‘backup water’ one day. This was the little ‘Tom Tanka’s’ first time fishing in such a large body of water (“Tom Tanka”, being one of Uncle’s favorite terms of “endearment”). He was used to fishing on creeks and such.
The day was a nice, quiet day. Off in the distance could be heard the occasional splash of a big bass jumpin’ up out of the water to catch a mayfly, or ‘snake doctor’, or some such flyin’ booger, then come’a splashin’ back down into the water. That sound always made me want to throw my fishin’ line out to the spot where he splashed, but I guess those jumpin’ fish only like flyin’ boogers, ‘cause I never caught a one of ‘em.
The only other sounds which was heard was of a Whip-Poor-Will and a ole Screech Owl talkin’ to once another. The Whip-Poor-Will called, unmercifully, for the floggin’ of some poor miscreant named Will, who the owl must have not have heard tell of, b‘cause he kept’a hollerin’ back, “Who? Who? Who?”
Then the Whippoorwill would holler back, ‘Whip-Poor-Will!’
I always wondered what old Will had done, to deserve such a whipping. Perhaps he done stole a pie coolin’ in some poor widow’s window, who knows?
Well, anyhigh, they’d been fishing for an hour of two when slowly, another sound creeped to within earshot of the boy and his daddy. It started off as a low hum, like locusts hummin’ in the trees, but wasn’t no locusts yet ‘cause it was still early in the day.
The hum increased to a buzz, like a old worrisome horsefly buzzin’ ‘round ya ears. Then it was a moan, like the sound Sister Bessie make when she gits the Holy Ghost. Then all of a suddenly, it quit. There was nothin’ but silence, ‘ceptin’ for Whippoorwill callin and the old owl saying who, who, who.
The boy and his daddy peered off into the direction the sound had been comin’ from and could jest make out the figure of two White men sittin’ on a jon boat. ‘Them there is White men boy’, the boy’s daddy whispered. The little boy sat awestruck cause he had never seen White Men a’fore.
One of the men was drinking from a jug of “spirits” and the other was tuggin’ furiously at the starter cord which was attached to the little motor, on the back end of the john boat. Parently, it had done choked out and he was temptin’ to get it started again.
The boat had continued to drift closer towards the boy and his dad. Now they voices could be heard and the two White Men, by tone and gesture, appeared to be arguin’. The one who’d been sipping the liquor from the jug, hollered out, “Dammit man! The damnation thang is probably out of gas!”, with that he grabbed a large gasoline can from the bottom of the boat and began to stumble toward the back of the boat, where stood the other man, with one hand on his hip and the other scratching his shiny white forehead.
Along the way, the boozer tripped on somethin’ and the gasoline can flew outta his hands into the water; all of the gasoline spilt out the can and into the water.
The other man, yelled at the tipsy one saying, ‘If you weren’t a dranking this here ‘shine you wouldn’t a have spilled the gasoline ya dang old drunk!’ With that he reached into the bottom of the boat and grabbed out a jug of shine. He uncorked it and poured it into the water, while his snookered partna scrambled to get to his feet to stop him. The tippler was unsuccessful, as the stream of shine hit the water with a splash.
The man who was still standing, grabbed a second jug from outta the bottom of the boat and poured it into the water, while the ole stumblebum railed aginst him. The man poured the second jug into the water. ‘Now grab a paddle you ole drunk and start to paddle’, he said as he pulled out a pack of cigarette papers from his vest pocket.
He loaded a cigarette paper with tobacco from a red can and licked it closed, then he pulled a match out of from his front pocket and struck it against the back pocket of his dungarees. After lighting his cigarette, he tossed the match into the water, setting alight the ‘shine and gasoline mixture, thus causing a great explosion and a fire that spread acrost the water!
The little boy was awestruck! When him and his daddy return’t home, he couldn’t wait to tell his momma what he had seent. ‘Ma!’ he yelled, mostly out of breath. I saw the most amazing thing today’. ‘You did honey?’ asked the momma, ‘And what was that?’ she finished. ‘Daddy showed me a White Man. ‘He did reply the momma’, ‘Yeah it was amazin’, finished the little ‘Tom Tanka’.
‘These two White men was on a boat. One of ‘em was drunk! They started to argue and the drunk one fell down. The other one musta been real mad ‘cause, he grabbed thunder outta his shirt pocket and lightening outta his front pocket! Then he scratched his ass and set the whole world on fire! Ma! Them White Men is some TOM TANKAS!’
Momma chastised the little Tom Tanka for exaggerating and cussing, and sent him out to clean the fish.
The moral of the story is this: Perspective is a Sumbitch!