The joys of a boyhood lived outside
By John N. Felsher
As schoolchildren break for the summer, I think back on how I spent my vacation as a boy. Before the Internet and smart phones, children made their own entertainment – and maybe even a little mischief – in that wonderful place called “the outside.”
When my father couldn’t drive me to “real” fishing places, I often bicycled to several canals near home. While fishing a favorite hole, a drainage ditch running under a highway, I crossed the road to explore a patch of woods on the other side.
I quickly found a rustic old home occupied by an elderly widow who loved to care for her flowers. On her property, a long narrow pond with the prettiest black water ran parallel to her boundary fence. Thick shrubs hid what seemed like a wilderness barely yards from the highway. The kindly lady said some boys could fish her pond as long as we didn’t touch her flowers. The pond contained monster bluegills and other species.
On the last day of school one year long ago, a friend and I made a bet to see who could catch the most fish before school started in the fall. Throughout that summer, my friend and I kept track with each other’s piscatorial progress. Sad to admit, he gained a considerable lead over me with just a few days before school began. One blustery day right before school started, I headed to that long pond. With bragging rights at stake, I needed to try.
Unfortunately, the fish didn’t cooperate. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get anything to bite with time running out quickly. Then, I noticed schools of minnows swimming near the surface. The rules of the bet simply stipulated that we could catch any fish species by any legal hook and line gear, but not in nets. Every fish we physically touched scored one point.
I came up with a plan. I tied on the smallest hook I could find and baited it with a sliver of bread from my lunch. I dangled the bread in front of the minnows. When a minnow grabbed the bread, it couldn’t get its mouth over the hook, but it held onto that morsel. I quickly swung it over to the shoreline where I grabbed it, scoring a point, and released it to possibly catch again. In about an hour, I racked up just enough points to win the bet and annual bragging rights!
That same friend got me out of a tight scrape another time. An underground drainpipe ran parallel to the highway and into our fishing hole. One day, we decided to explore the pipe, the closest thing to spelunking in our flat swampy, country. As we followed the tube, it gradually decreased in diameter. My skinny friend could easily navigate the ever-narrowing pipes. I couldn’t.
Before getting stuck, we looked for an exit. Fortunately, we found a side pipe with sunlight shining at the other end of it. My friend suggested I go first. If I could get through, he could also. If not, he could go back the way we came and seek help. I crawled through this pipe, which also decreased in diameter. Finally, barely out of the sunlight and freedom, I could go no farther. Not wanting to do all that backtracking, my friend shoved me as hard as he could from behind. I popped out of the culvert about two miles from where we started. I bet that pipe never looked cleaner.
Another canal connected to our favorite fishing hole and ran through pine forests before it crossed under an interstate. One day, I decided to follow that canal looking for new fishing spots. Before I left home on a sweltering summer day, my dad gave me three very explicit instructions: One, be home at a certain time. Two, don’t cross the interstate. And three, NEVER SWIM ALONE!
The trail along the canal led to a new borrow pit where workers extracted clay to build the interstate. Surrounded by woods, the pit sat far enough from the highway so people in passing vehicles could not see it. My dad was miles away and could not possibly know about this pond, which he could only reach by hiking through the forest. That seemed unlikely on such a hot day.
Worse than a growling bear
At the pond, refreshing water beckoned. If my clothes remained dry, no one would ever know, right? Fish weren’t biting, so I decided to go skinny-dipping. (Someone might more accurately describe my swimming efforts as “fat flopping.”) I piled my clothes on the beach and dove into the cooling waters.
I enjoyed myself so much that I lost track of time. My dad didn’t lose track of time. Several hours after he expected me home, I made one last dive into the refreshing water. When I surfaced, I heard a rather angry growl behind me. Unfortunately, it was not a bear or lion waiting to eat me, but something much more frightening. There, on the beach, stood my dad holding my clothes, looking over the top of his glasses at me and not making a happy face!
I couldn’t think of an excuse for swimming alone in the pond, across the interstate, several hours after my appointed return time. I couldn’t escape without my clothes or stay in the pond indefinitely. Technically, I didn’t “cross” the interstate. I went under it, but at this point, all I could do was take my lumps – and did I ever take them!
I guess that was the price of freedom to a boy who loved the outdoors so long ago and still does.
John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com