2007-07-18 / School & Sports

BACKROADS AND BOBTAILS

CLETUS AND JOHN LEE GET OFF ON WRONG FOOT
by Bob Kornegay

The man waiting in the truck snarled like a rabid pit bull.

"What's he doin' here?" he growled as young Cletus Monroe climbed into the cab.

"John Lee, this is Cletus," Clete's father replied. "Thought it might be time he learned what duck hunting's all about."

"How old are you kid?" the man-monster growlingly queried.

"Nine, Sir," Clete stammered in terror.

Driving down the gravel road in the predawn darkness, John Lee mumbling something about worthless young'uns, deep rivers, and weighted burlap sacks. The short ride to the cypress swamp took forever, Clete silently begging the Lord's forgiveness for incessantly hounding his father to take him waterfowling.

John Lee Marbury had been Mr. Monroe's duck hunting buddy for years. He was a living legend, at least based on tales of his godlike exploits as an expert waterfowler. John Lee, it was said, was a duck hunter supreme. He could build a blind with one hand and a flashlight. He could steer a johnboat without a paddle, using subtle movements of his fanny. He never missed a shot and, hearing him blow a call, one would swear his mama was a mallard hen.

A budding sportsman, Clete longed for the day his dad might grant him an audience with this duck hunting king. He had never met John Lee, a shadowy figure who never exited his vehicle when he stopped by the house. Hence, he was unaware that, in addition to his hero's reputation, John Lee also possessed a notorious dislike for children.

As Clete's dream came true it quickly reached nightmare status. From John Lee's formidable mutterings, it seemed here was a man who ate young boys for breakfast and would surely devour him when his father's back was turned. He must try his best to make a good impression.

The truck halted and Clete, disembarking, planted a boot-clad foot on John Lee's ingrown toenail. He plainly heard a pained, whispered reference to himself as future trotline bait.

"Fetch John Lee's gun, Cletus," Mr. Monroe ordered.

Hurrying to please, Clete leaped into the truck bed to grab John Lee's storied old Winchester Model 12. Doing so, he tripped and lost his footing. The shotgun flew from his hands and the handcrafted walnut stock made audible contact with John Lee's lower jaw. The fall also broke the heads off three of the man's handcarved decoys. Things went downhill from there.

In the boat, Clete stepped on John Lee's duck call, reducing it to splinters. He dropped their only flashlight into the pond and, though it was not he who forgot the boat's plug, it was only natural that he was blamed for that as well. Within an hour, a fed-up John Lee paddled ashore, boarded his truck, and left the two Monroes to get home as best they could. Clete never thought he'd see his adversary again.

Then one day, 15 years later, the old curmudgeon called Clete and invited him duck hunting. Clete was overwhelmed. Obviously, John Lee was now a lonely old man, needing a friend and willing to let bygones be bygones. The invitation was graciously accepted.

As day broke over the swamp, John Lee eyed Clete from the back of the boat.

"How tall are you, kid?" he asked.

"Uh, six-one," Clete answered.

"Bout what I figgered." From beneath his seat, John Lee removed a large burlap bag. Next came a roll of baling twine. Then Clete heard the concrete block scraping the boat's floor and prudently decided to abandon ship. It was a cold, but enthusiastic swim.

I later amusedly assured Clete that John Lee always used block boat anchors and camouflaged his outboard with burlap.

Clete never bought that, firmly believing old memories do, indeed, die hard.

Looking back, I can't say I blame him. After all, there have been numerous times in Cletus Monroe's company when I, too, would have given much to possess a concrete block, a hank of twine, and a big old burlap sack.

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