Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
The other day, one of The Observer's friends on Dr. Zuckerberg's Fantabulous Electric Book o' Countenances posted a story about how giant Asian carp — bottomfeeders built like zeppelins — have successfully infiltrated the watershed of the Great Lakes. That story got us thinking of something we haven't thought of in a good 15 years, which soon had us laughing.
Back when The Observer was still in high school, Pa got us into frog gigging. He was a driven man and loved frog legs, so his quest for them wasn't limited to scoping out the local ponds for little croakers. No, he wanted the Moby Dick of frogs — frogs that had never laid eyes on a human being. To that end, The Observer spent many a weekend night in the summer trolling Plum Bayou near Scott.
While it might be a kayaker's paradise now for all we know, back then Plum Bayou was something straight out of Jurassic Park, all vines, sawgrass, leaning trees and mud. Turn on a light, and the mosquitoes would soon be blizzard thick around your head, to the point where we started wearing bandanas over our mouths in self-defense. Some stretches, there would be a fallen log to drag the boat over every 30 feet, and everywhere we looked, it seemed, there was another giant cottonmouth, eyes like rubies, bodies fat and gleaming with poison. Some nights, we saw great, writhing wads of them floating together — mating, we suppose. You may shiver in silent horror now. God knows we are.
If The Observer winds up in hell, we figure it might look like Plum Bayou on an August night. That said, the frogging was extremely good: foot-long giants with drumsticks worthy of KFC. Some nights, we'd leave there coated in mud head to toe, lugging great, squeaking baskets of them ready for the knife and then hot grease. And man, the eatin'.
To get on with the getting on, though, there were four of us on Plum Bayou that night, each perched on a seat in a aluminum flat-bottom boat: The Observer, Pa, and two school friends, Ryan and Roger. The night was like being boiled in Vaseline, crawling with bugs. We'd been seeing snakes all night. At one point, Pa's big, car-battery-powered spotlight picked out a marvel: a fish skipping sideways across the top of the water. Only when it reached the bank and mounted the land did we see that the fish was in the jaws of a vast onyx serpent that soon coiled protectively about its meal.
It was long after midnight, the baskets getting full and all of us exhausted. Pa was running the five-horse Evinrude at the back of the boat, and every so often he'd pull over, cut the light and motor, and take a silent smoke break in the dark.
It all happened very quickly. We were sitting against the bank waiting on Pa to finish a Camel when we heard a thump, and then some giant, scaly, slimy thing was among us, thrashing and rolling and flopping in the bottom of the boat, surely the King of All Cottonmouths, come to claim us at last. Worst of all, we were using that battery-powered spotlight and when the beast jumped in, it knocked the clip off the battery.
So there we were, in Jurassic Park, in the pitch dark, on the nastiest, snakiest slough you can imagine, five hard miles from civilization, fighting a giant, wet, scaly sea monster that had invaded a 14-foot flat bottom boat. Roger, bellowing like a man fighting gremlins in a dream, brandished a shorty boat paddle and soon reduced it to splinters. Ryan, who had been doing the gigging from the front seat, stood up with his toes on the front lip of the boat, then went to screaming and stabbing at our feet in the dark with the barbed gig. For perhaps 30 seconds, wailing, bug-eyed terror reigned. Between the dark and the scaly, muscular thing in the bottom of the boat and the gig and the fear of tumping over into the water with all the snakes, it might have been the bar-none most terrifying moment of The Observer's life. And that's saying something.
It wasn't until Pa dad got a flashlight out of his pocket that we realized it was a gatdamn fish, one of those giant Asian carp. It has grown to whalelike proportions in The Observer's mind over the years, but we do know that — for a reason that only made sense to us at 16 — we took it home and put it in Ma's clawfoot bathtub, and the nose touched one end and the tail touched the other. That's a lot of fish.
Ah, memories. So long ago. Amazing where we've been. Amazing we survived. Amazing what you can forget, and how lovely it is to discover what you have forgotten again.
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