D elbert P. Axelrod stared at the stock tank that was still in the springtime sun. “I’m hot.”
Cousin wiped sweat from his forehead. “It’s still September. Of course it’s hot. Dad says it won’t cool off until Halloween, if we’re that lucky.”
“Maybe he’ll melt into nothing by the end of the day,” I said hopefully and checked the status of the limp worm on the end of my hook.
It was Labor Day weekend; our last free day before school started, and we were thirteen. We’d reached the end of what others called the Summer of Love, but at our age, the love of the outdoors was all we were interested in. I dialed the radio in my pocket to a more noticeable volume to drown out Delbert’s yammering.
Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane pounded out “Somebody to Love.”
It didn’t work to cut Delbert off, though. “How about we go swimming?”
He pitched a bobber into the pool. The water was so still the concentric ripples touched all the muddy banks. Dirt daubers gathered mud on the crusting edges.
“You’ll scare the fish.”
“They’re not biting anyway.” He laid the Zebco 33 down on the steaming bank.
“That’s because you keep talking.” The worm on my hook hung limp, but still appeared juicy enough to entice a fish. “Dad says you have to be quiet when you’re fishing.”
For the first time in my life I understood the things the Old Man said. He’d tell me the same thing when I was jabbering away in the boat. Wait…he wanted me to be quiet. Fishing was supposed to be relaxing. When I talked, it bothered him—just like Delbert now pushing me over the edge.
I cast and the bobber splashed. “You should sit here in the shade with us. It wouldn’t be so hot.”
Delbert frowned and pointed at his still bobber. “I can’t cast to where the fish are from there.”
“How do you know that? You haven’t caught one yet.”
“I just know. I know everything about fishing.”
“What size hook are you using then?” I figured I had him on that point.
“One that’s big enough to catch a catfish.”
Stymied, I had to study on that answer, because it seemed right somehow.
My bobber twitched. “I got a bite.”
Delbert inexplicably took that moment to pull off his tee shirt. The whiteness of his skin was more blinding than the noonday sun overhead. “I’m going in.”
Cousin couldn’t stand it, so he twitched his bobber to match my own bite. “We’re getting nibbles. Wait.”
“You guys are trying to fool me.” Delbert sat and untied his U.S. Keds.
“No, I really am getting a bite.” My bobber twitched again and I stood in preparation of yanking the rod and running back up the bank, our tried and true method of bringing a fish up all nicely coated in sand.
“Don’t ruin it,” Cousin said at the same time his bobber moved an inch. “I really do have a bite.”
Delbert’s jeans went next. “You guys are faking it. I’m going in.”
His drawers landed on the grassy bank, scattering yellow grasshoppers.
“No! I really have a bite, dummy!”
He stepped onto the mud, carefully avoiding a fresh deposit of cow flop.
“Hey, cows pee in there.” Cousin watched his bobber, ready to set the hook.
“So do fish.”
He didn’t listen to either of us. The crust of mud broke and Delbert buried up to his calves in the mud. The odor of a hog pen wrapped us in its sensory glory. “Hey, I can’t get out.”
“Good.” I set my hook and the bobber disappeared.
Cousin’s line shot across the water toward Delbert, who refused to stop. His foot came out with a pop and he stepped into the warm, stinking water. “Here I go!”
I reeled. “This is a good fish.”
Delbert dove forward and disappeared under the water.
“This one feels like about two pounds.”
“Mine’s about the same!”
Delbert surfaced. “Something brushed my leg.”
“It was my bobber.”
“No, it was slick.”
“Get out of the way!”
Our lines crossed under Delbert and he paddled toward us.
“I can’t get it in!” Cousin reeled, and it finally rose to the surface only inches from Delbert. “Look at the size of that snapping turtle!”
He splashed away, toward my submerged line. I stopped reeling. “Get away!”
With the tension gone, my bobber popped back up, and a large snake followed, angry at being hooked. It hissed and undulated toward Delbert, likely intending to climb out onto his back.
Delbert frantically dug at the water, kicking up a fountain. “Yaaahhh!”
He swam over his red and white bobber and dove under. He came back up with a wild look in his eye. “I’m hooked!”
My snake threw the hook at the same time Cousin’s line broke. Delbert swam to the bank and stood in the waist-high water, weeping from the pain.
“Come get this hook out.” He pointed, terror in his eyes. “I don’t think it’s in too deep.”
We stood there, transfixed until Cousin finally broke the silence and made the statement we remember to this day, fifty years later. “I thought you were using stinkbait, not red wigglers.”
Email Reavis Wortham at [email protected]