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Friday, January 2, 2009

Fishing on the millpond

Fishing on the millpond
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 829

The middle of tobacco season is no fun, and 1966 was no exception. Frankly, there never was an exception, not one in the thirty summers I gave to that crop. The day began at 3 a.m. when we arose, shaking off the unresolved aches of yesterday and the days before, to drive the tractors with flat trailers through the dark of not even morning yet to the barn filled with dry, dusty, freshly cured tobacco.

I would climb onto the second of the ten tiers, take the sticks down two at the time, and pass them to the person on the ground, either my mother or brother. The other would pass them to my father on the trailer where he would pile the sticks, still two by two, carefully. When the barn was empty, we drove to the pack house where we moved the tobacco by hand, still two sticks at the time, from the trailer to the room inside where it would stay until we had time for the next steps in the endless process.

Breakfast passed, and we went to the fields. The men worked in the fields, pulling the sticky green leaves from the stalks and piling them in a trailer for the younger boys to drive to the barn. The boys took the leaves from the trailers, and piled them on a long table at the barn. From the other side of the table, the girls gathered the leaves in groups of three or four, depending on the size of the stems, evened the stems with a tap of a palm, and handed the bundles to the women who tied them to the sticks. A boy would carry the heavy sticks to the racks by the side of the barn. This process continued in endless repetitions until the end of the day when the men returned from the field, arranged the trucks to light the work, climbed into the barn, and arranged the sticks on the ten tiers as the women and children passed the sticks from the rack to the barn.

This work continued without relent for six to eight weeks. A late season would see the opening of schools delayed by a week or two. Not even the opening of dove season pulled the men from the fields and barns. The only respites were Sunday and church, the occasional snake to be killed, and the daily beating of a child for mishandling a precious leaf.

One blessed Wednesday, a rare event occurred. We had no work. Dibs were had for the couch and recliner, the rockers on the porch, and the lawn chair under the pecan tree. I took none. I wanted my afternoon elsewhere. With my Zebco 33, tackle box, water, and snacks in hand, I took my bike, wobbling under the load, to Wilson’s millpond, which lay about a mile down the dirt road. My stated goal was to fish in the shade. My intent was to nap in the shade.

I left my bike in the grass by the boat shed, and loaded the small boat. My boat of choice was about seven feet long, hardly two feet wide, and designed to hold a single person. I paddled the boat slowly across the pond, the hot sun roasting me twice, once directly and once in its reflection from the brown water. The swirls in the water from the cautious paddling drifted out and away, fading long before reaching the side of the pond. I aimed the boat for a stretch of water shaded by a large canopy of willow oak stretching from the muddy bank.

From the shady side of the canopy, I cast my line into the water. The ripples around the cork settled quickly. No breeze blew this day, and the reflection of the leaves carried all the depth of reality that appeared in the leaves above. My boat drifted with undetectable motion on the surface of a mirror, and I leaned back into the seat, smelling the slightly soured water molding on the bank, ignoring the sounds of humanity stirring unseen in the far distance, giving passing recognition to the occasional twittering bird, and slipped into the blessed sleep so long denied this season.

The snake fell squarely between my feet, squirmed, rose, and greeted my awakening self with a nose-to-nose hiss. Not being one to argue with a snake, I abandoned the boat, leaping toward the shore, the boat rocketing away from the shore, and I fell face first into the water that moments before had been directly under me. Seconds later, I had traversed the 20 feet of millpond, and was crawling, if not writhing, up the ten feet of festering pond bank. At the top, I turned, breathed, and saw my boat still sliding across the water. The snake lifted his head above the side of the boat, looked my way, grinned as only a snake can grin, and slipped soundlessly into the water.

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