2011-09-07 / School & Sports

BACKROADS AND BOBTAILS

If I had it to do again
by Bob Kornegay

Willie fished the creek above the bridge, in the woods at the bend where the stream slowed to a barely discernible crawl. He sat on the bank, stoically watching a bottlestopper cork bobber float lazily on the tannic-stained water.

The creek was a creek then. Irrigation, drought and beaver engineering had not yet taken their toll. It was a creek a young boy could wade and fish, a creek one young boy often did.

I spied Willie there many times. He fished whenever the white man’s field or the white lady’s yard did not require his attention. He was an angler of habit: always the same hand-cut pole, the coffee-can bait receptacle, the five-gallon bucket, the strong back always resting against the same tree trunk.

Early meetings went unacknowledged by either party. White boy and black man ignored each other. I passed without word or gesture, feeling that pall of uneasy interminable silence I feel today in crowds of strangers. Later came casual nods. Still later, smiles. Then the universal fisherman’s ice breaker.

“Catchin’ any?” I asked.

“ Two little breams so fuh,” Willie replied. I didn’t ask what kind. Most fishermen I knew never discerned between bluegills, shellcrackers and redbreasts. They were just bream. Or, to Willie, “breams.” Likewise, the worms in his can were “baits,” never redworms or wigglers. An earthworm was a “bait,” species notwithstanding. Willie was a “bait” purist, and he always fished for “breams.”

“Once in awhile I catches a pipe (pike) or a trout (bass), but I likes breams a heap better.”

Not a whole heap, though. When I shared my catch with him he gratefully accepted every “pipe” and “trout” I tossed into his bucket.

Time passed and our creekside visits lengthened. Self-consciousness passed and days without Willie at his usual spot were not the same, a little less enjoyable. He became a landmark of sorts, like the sandbar with the log or the big spring near the white man’s fallow field.

Our relationship, for its time and place, was unique, a throwback, I think, to an era when rural comradeship between white boys and old black men was not uncommon. The age/race difference was not lost on Willie or me (It was, after all, the 1960s), but was for a time not a point of issue. We were comfortable with likeness and difference. He showed no concern for my amusement over his unique “English” and his chuckling at my “big words” likewise caused no pain. He openly laughed at my “scientific” attention to line weight and hook size while I jokingly ridiculed the garlic he added to his worm can.

“Fishes likes baits what stank,” he said, grinning.

We use the word “friend” a trifle liberally, I think, often failing to recognize the wall dividing friend from just friendly. Were Willie and I friends or merely two friendly fishermen sharing a creek and its denizens as a common bond?

I’d like to say for certain it was the former and, were it not for one thing, I would.

One day Willie asked me a question, the subject of which I have forgotten. My reply, however, is well remembered. I answered, “Yes, sir.”

The change in Willie’s demeanor was immediately evident. He hid it quickly and well, but for a few seconds it was there, a look of concern and, I believe now, fear. For me, the response came easily. I was simply a “ raised right” Southern boy addressing an elder in proper fashion. For Willie it was different. As an old man of color he understood what I did not, on a level too deep for a south Alabama white boy. He was acutely conscious, as he no doubt was all along, that he was not the local grocer or the man at the filling station or the man whose fields he tended. He was black, and a line had been crossed. I need not have feared the crossing, but he had reason to.

It took me years and the learning of many more “big words” to understand that.

Understanding, however, does not always foster comfort or resignation. What it engenders in this case is stubbornness. Given identical circumstances today, would I “Yes, sir” Willie again, even knowing I would once more see shock and fear in his eyes?

Yes, I would. He deserved the title. He needed to know that.

That said, Mr. Willie, would you still fish the creek with me?

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