Since people kept saying, “What does a GOOD near-drowning story sound like?” I thought I should tell one which amuses me. It also highlights a few anecdotes about my Dad. I have some terrible stories about drowning, but this is the furthest thing from that.
My Dad had a propensity for outlandish humor. He wasn’t safe about it, either. I have a library of pranks my Dad was involved in, some of which border on pathological. For example, one year during one of the excursions to the “Deer Woods,” he and his drinking companions tied one of the other hunters to the top of a large stump and set it on fire. I’m not sure they had a contingency plan if he failed to be freed in time, although I wouldn’t put it past them to announce that he was part of the BBQ and break out the sauce. More than once, some fool would throw a box of ammunition in the fireplace or in the campfire. When we lived in Tontitown on old 68, Dad threw a box of ammunition in the fireplace inside the house. It went as you would imagine.
Although this is a tangent, when I was very young, I couldn’t figure out which state the “Deer Woods” was in, or why so much alcohol had to be taken for the trip. It perplexed me to think that a handful of grown men needed 30 cases of beer and a dozen bottles of whiskey.
Even if bears wanted a drink, a lot would get wasted, no pun intended.
Dad was mercurial, a word often used to disguise the fact that someone is a moody, temperamental asshole. Other days, the fog would lift from his brain and he’d decide to enjoy life, or at least be carefree. Had he had more of those days, life would have been markedly different for him – and for all of us. On one such day, Dad insisted that I go with him fishing. Inviting me to fish was akin to bringing a framed picture of Satan to your first prayer meeting.
While I had hoped for a trip to Lake Elmdale on a smaller boat, instead, I found out we were going with Uncle Buck and their friend Jerry, who I’ve written about in another story, the one in which Dad sneaked into his house and poured a pitcher of water down his rear while he was bent over and washing his hair. Going to “the” lake, Beaver Lake, meant we’d likely take Uncle Buck’s bass boat. I wasn’t a boat aficionado. It wasn’t simply because I couldn’t swim well. It required me to be in close proximity to my Dad. Such circumstances often yielded the opposite of whatever a child experiences during a visit to Disneyland.
I wasn’t a good fisherman, but I did well. That annoyed my Dad. I loved watching the water and the complex machinations of those who enjoyed fishing. Most of it seemed to be entirely arbitrary. Watching Saturday afternoon fishing shows proved this to me. It amused me to think that grown men would ridicule their wives for watching soap operas, but would sit in front of a TV and watch other people fish. Additionally, like my Uncle Buck, a lot of men I knew bought fishing magazines. I used to joke I was going to do a fishing show and magazine. The magazine would just be a picture of a man casting a line into the water, followed by a page that said both “Reel in” and “Repeat.” Shockingly, no one in my family appreciated my well-aimed commentary at their expense.
If I felt really funny, I’d mock them for feeling proud that they could spend thousands of dollars just to outsmart a bunch of fish. Uncle Buck tolerated my quips. With Dad, I had to guess his mood before any such contemplation.
We went to Uncle Buck’s house. He lived in one of the first bigger subdivisions in Springdale on Ann Street. I jumped into the bed of the truck hauling the boat. It had a camper on it. Dad, Jerry, and Uncle Buck sat in front. Despite Dad’s morning sullen demeanor, he was beginning to pick at both of the other occupants of the truck. How Dad had done it is beyond me, but when Uncle Buck pulled away from the side of the house, the truck bounced crazily. When Uncle Buck exited the cab of his truck, he discovered Dad had put holding blocks a few feet from the rear wheels. “Damnit, Bobby Dean!” This would be the first of many “Damnit Bobby Dean!” utterances for the day. If Uncle Buck were particularly chagrined, he’d invoke the name of God with the phrase for special emphasis. While Dad pranked Uncle Buck less often than other people, he’d been known to lift up the rear axle a few inches off the ground, put an ignition firecracker on his truck (these things actually existed and Dad LOVED them, or do a variety of clever and interesting things to amuse himself.
Though it’s not relevant to the story, it was around that year that Uncle Buck had been pulled over in Springdale. “How’s your day, officer?” He asked the policeman who pulled him over. Uncle Buck was generally good-natured and loved to ‘jaw.’ “Did I leave an arm hanging out of my camper again?” The officer said, “No sir, but can you explain your license plate? Can I see the slip for your truck?” Uncle Buck dug the paper out of the glove box. In such matters, he was meticulous. At times he was so meticulous that I doubted he and my Dad could actually be related. The officer asked Uncle Buck to come around back. In place of his license plate, there was an antique plate from another state, one that looked to be fifty years old and shot with a .22. Uncle Buck knew immediately that my Dad had switched his plates. By the time he got to Dad, he realized that it was funny and couldn’t stay mad. He’d been driving for over a week with the old plates. For quite a while, Uncle Buck made a point to see if anything was amiss on his vehicles.
As we were leaving, I heard Dad ask Jerry, “Do you think it will work?” Jerry, who momentarily lost his sense of reason, said, “What, Bobby Dean?” Dad cackled, ready to fire off one of his favorite punchlines: “Windshield wipers on a duck’s ass.” Dad’s glee at being able to repeat this joke more than once on the same person was legendary.
We stopped at the bait shop near the old bridge by Beaver Lake, before the road was improved. Dad had a couple of containers of worms as he walked out. He wasn’t drinking, so I knew this would be a great day. My goal was to not annoy him. Because he had an audience, he walked up to the boat where Uncle Buck was talking to Jerry and someone Jerry knew. Dad took the top off the container and fished out a worm. He popped it into his mouth and swallowed it. I knew his secret: swallowing it quickly resulted in almost no taste. Before you ask, yes, I did have to eat a couple of worms in my life. I had to eat a whole lot of disgusting things growing up. None of them resulted in “making me a man,” as Dad hoped.
Dad held the white plastic container out for Jerry’s friend. “Want one?” The other man made a terrible face. Dad responded with one of his favorites Southern sayings: “Boy, you sure don’t know what’s good!” (You can still hear this today in the South. It’s the classic point made after someone declines to eat something, usually with an unreasonable amount of mayonnaise in it.) My Mom often said this, even if she eating something that smelled like it had been discovered in an abandoned fridge under a bridge.
Jerry was usually a good sport. While I don’t remember who else was present when he did it all those years ago, Dad grabbed Jerry’s face and kissed him on the mouth to flabbergast him. (Dad was drinking heavily.) “Could you put on some lipstick or something,” he asked him when he pulled away. “And I don’t like my women to have mustaches.” It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed. Technically, it was assault. But yes, still funny.
As they got back in the truck, Jerry got in the middle. He started to yawn for some reason and Dad ‘yawn raped’ him. While there are other names for sticking your fingers into the open mouth of another person as a surprise, ‘yawn rape’ best describes the enthusiasm with which Dad would do it. He would almost choke you at times. Though you might not agree with it, sticking one’s fingers in an open mouth is almost a right in most Southern states, especially for dads. In this particular instance, you should remember that Dad’s fingers had just been in the worm bucket. Jerry just nodded his head. This was one of the ways he’d let you know you had drawn his attention.
Note: it’s never a good idea to draw the attention of someone who loves those 80s Charles Bronson revenge movies. Like Charles Bronson, Jerry was often silent. I grew to appreciate his ability to think about ways to strangle you while smiling.
We arrived at the lake and Uncle Buck swiveled the truck to back in toward the boat ramp. Dad made me help get the boat into the water. I was more likely to contribute to the boat sinking, truth be told. I was wearing cutoff shorts and no shoes, so I didn’t care how wet I got in the process. Dad was wearing his plain work boots, which in reality were just simple cowboy boots of some type. I never understood going to fish in boots. What did I know, though? Like the trick with Charlie Brown, Dad loved signaling to Uncle Buck that the boat was loose. As soon as Uncle Buck gassed it, Dad would yell “Ho! Wait.” He could do this repeatedly and not tire of it. It amused me, too. Uncle Buck was the perfect straight man in a comedy routine. When Dad was in a great mood, he would offer to pay me to help him pull a prank on Uncle Buck. We often succeeded. While he didn’t say, “Et tu, Brute” to me after finding out I was involved, Uncle Buck did enjoy picking on me when I helped his brother torment him.
Uncle Buck parked the boat while Dad bothered with the boat. It gave him the chance to disconnect the spark plug wire from the outboard motor. We used the trolling motor to pull away from the bank. Jerry took a moment to carefully check the cooler for the fish. On more than one occasion, Dad had packed the cooler with a snake so that the first person to open it would be greeted by a snake looking back at him. Dad was also not above grabbing a snake out of the water or the trees and throwing it in the boot at someone’s feet, either. If Dad had been drinking, you’d have to be a fool or filming a documentary about the lives of crazy people to get into a boat with him.
Dad had thrown snakes into a person’s lap before, too, as they sat in their car or truck. Often, just to alarm them more, he’d say, “You mean to tell that some snakes are poisonous? I had no idea!”
Uncle Buck repeatedly tried starting the engine of the boat. “I’ll take a look.” Dad leaned over the motor housing and connected whatever he had disconnected. “Look here, I found it,” he said, in a serious tone of voice. As Jerry and Uncle Buck looked, Dad raised his hand away from the motor. He was giving them the bird. He laughed. When Dad was in a humorous spirit, his laugh was infectious. I can’t imagine what life would have been like for him if that laugh had been his predominant characteristic.
As we sat in a cove, the three adults fished. I made it my mission to be silent and watch the treeline and water. Out of the blue, Dad asked, “Do you want to take a swim?” He was talking to me. I calculated how best to respond. Jerry intervened on my behalf. “No one wants to swim here. There’s probably snakes everywhere, Bobby Dean.” Dad thought about it. “How else is he going to make friends?” He laughed. I realized I had been holding my breath. For a second, I really considered hurling myself into the water just to be done with it. Waiting for a madman to decide one’s fate is worse than voluntarily jumping off the mountain.
If you don’t understand the above logic, congratulations; you’re normal.
Later, we pulled in another nearby cove. Jerry took over the boat because he knew the cove very well. Uncle Buck could trust him, whereas letting Dad drive the boat ran the risk of answering the question, “Can someone actually jump a boat over land like they did in that Burt Reynolds movie?” Jerry eased in closer to the overhanging trees, though still quite a safe distance away. He was a genius with anything mechanical and was the best fisherman of the group.
Dad started singing one of his favorite songs, one which he usually performed while drinking: “Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble,” by Mac Davis. It’s no accident that Dad looked a lot like Mac in his prime. “You’re going to scare the fish,” Uncle Buck told him for no apparent reason. Jerry piped in. “You’re going to scare ME with that voice. You should be singing, “Lord, It’s Hard Not To Stumble,” Bobby Dean.”
One of my best fishing observations happened one day I was out on the boat with Dad. “When the fishing isn’t going well, silence is mandatory. When the fishing is going well, most of the adult men chatter like startled magpies – and no one complains.” Fish magically knew which scenario was occurring in the boat above them.
Jerry slowly turned the boat away from the trees.
As Dad sang, he stood up in the boat and went to one side. When Dad got his fishing pole in both hands to cast it near the trees, it happened.
In a perfect alignment of opportunity, vengeance, and humor, Jerry gunned the powerful boat. The front end rose as the boat lurched. Dad surprisingly did not see it coming, which made it much more comical.
He went off the side as he fell, while holding his fishing pole. Jerry gunned the boat more. Despite the engine, I could hear Dad’s indistinguishable yell of surprise. He hit the water and went under. Those cowboys boots were probably less than ideal at this point.
Jerry let off the throttle and began howling with laughter and pride. It was a rarity to catch Dad that far off guard. He was sputtering water, trying to stay above water while holding his pole. Despite his bravado, he didn’t look like he could stay afloat.
“I think he might need a hand, Jerry,” Uncle Buck said calmly. His voice was surprisingly calm. I think he could have said, “I see a shark” with the same calm. “Seriously.”
Jerry eased the boat around and throttled it momentarily. The boat eased into the cove near Dad. Dad was still spitting water and struggling. He put a hand on the side of the boat and reached a tie-off on the side.
Jerry knew better than to attempt to help Dad get out of the water. Uncle Buck tried to help hoist him in. The water made him much heavier. I took his fishing pole.
Finally, Jerry came over the side. Instead of reaching out to help Dad into the boat, he jumped into the lake. The look of surprise on Uncle Buck’s face was complete shock. How was he going to get two fools back into the boat? And did he really want them in the boat anyway?
As Jerry came up, he said what I was thinking. “I might as well jump in. Bobby Dean won’t be satisfied until either I’m in the water or the boat is on fire.”
Dad managed to get onto the boat. Jerry swam a bit and reached up for the boat. Uncle Buck and Dad grabbed him to help. Just as Jerry started to say, “Don’t let go, you asshole,” Dad let go and Jerry went back into the water.
Finally, we ended up back in the boat. They were all laughing, even Uncle Buck, who said, “I’m not jumping in.” At the risk of being proven wrong, I said, “Me either.”
I don’t remember what kind of fishing was done that day. I didn’t care, either. As long as it was rolled in cornmeal and fried like Uncle Buck fried it, I didn’t care if they caught a used pair of leather gloves. I tended to observe the fishing process with disinterest.
Fishing, after all, could easily be ‘drowning adjacent.’
Given the choice between hush puppies or fish, I’d opt to skip the drownings on the lake and sit at home and fry up a bucket of hush puppies. Fishing was a lot of work for no greater enjoyment in eating.
That day, though… It was golden-fried, too. I see that now.
Those days help mask the others, the ones hidden in shadows.