Whenever my family and I would visit DeRidder, Louisiana, we would stay with my dad’s father, Charles A. Peddy. To me, he was Papa (pronounced “Paw-Paw”; no doubt a function of dialect). Papa was a small man, maybe 5’5″ tall, and one hundred thirty pounds soaking wet (this is the only way people are weighed in DeRidder, at least from May through September; the humidity is just ridiculous). He had been many things during his life, from Texas Ranger to good-for-nothing shiftless bastard, depending on who you asked. Sadly, those that described him in less than reverent tones were, by and large, those that knew him best; often criticisms of him arose from praise sessions regarding his deceased wife (pronounced Maw-Maw), who by all accounts was a God-fearing, saintly woman (I barely knew her; I only remember a hug that would crack a spine). Apparently, God had tested her faith by matching her with a scallywag heathen dog. She had passed, and her reward was the kingdom of heaven. Papa, conversely, was doomed to pass through the gates of hell despite having known her. No matter; I knew him as a guy, in his late seventies, who still dragged his riding mower around on a trailer and cut the massive lawns surrounding stately colonial mansions set in and around DeRidder. To me he was tough, fearless, and as comfortable as a racoon in and around the swamps and forests of western Louisiana. Where most men his age were simply grateful for another day and used immobility to stave off death, Papa was on the go, facing life head on with the energy of a man one third his age.
Papa and I had something in common: we both loved to fish. Where I come from (Arizona), fishing is often just that: an attempt to entice a finned creature, unseen and underwater (and assumed to be in attendance), to take an offered bait, with often little or no success. In Louisiana, there was never any question of success; it could just as easily be called “catching” rather than fishing. No one gets skunked fishing in Louisiana, unless they’re so drunk they forget to bait the hook. Once, when I was eighteen, Papa offered to take me fishing on the Old River (I’m not sure if it was an official name, or if he just called it that). I jumped at the chance.
I quickly found that driving with Papa was an adventure all its own. Whenever he would point out something of interest to me along the way, he would invariably turn the wheel of his truck in that direction; on the narrow, two lane back roads upon which we traveled, we often would end up driving on the shoulder of the opposite lane. I have no doubt that the skeletal remains of several unfortunate pedestrians lay in the woods alongside roads my grandfather had used. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease; it manifested itself in the slow, halting way in which he spoke. Combine that with the fact that he never put his teeth in (if he had any); I couldn’t understand a word he said. Our conversations, as we drove through the woods together, likely went something like this:
“So…you…scrawny…hippie. Your…hair…halfway…down…your…butt (it was). Hope…you…ain’t…a…fairy.
“I’m not sure. I think so.”
Soon we came upon a little dirt road before a small bridge, pulled off into a small clearing, and backed the boat trailer into the river. We unhooked the small aluminum boat, which I held in place by rope while he parked his truck and trailer. Both of us climbed in; Papa started his small outboard motor, and off we went.
This was not a river, by any obvious definition. There was no discernible current, no gurgling sounds as water churned around jutting rocks, and no waves or surface movement in the water other than the wake caused by the boat and motor. After two or three minutes, we had already made several turns, and I was hopelessly turned around. Our safety and ability to get back to the truck was now entirely in the hands of an ancient man who, despite his penchant for living, could slump over dead at any moment. This was no river; we were in a swamp, complete with brown water, partially submerged trees and overhanging branches covered in moss, all surrounded by thick, impassable forest. If something happened to Papa, my only hope would be to be discovered by some family of inbreds who, after reenacting the rape scene from Deliverance (starring me as Ned Beatty), would have mercy on me and dump me somewhere within sight of civilization. I was getting a little nervous.
Things quickly got worse. This swamp was filled with all manner of foul creature. There were several different groups of huge, mean-looking feral pigs standing at the water’s edge or rooting in the bushes; getting out of the boat to pee was not going to be an option. We went putt-putting under several different tree branches hanging over the water; each seemed to have its own resident snake basking in the sun. A rather large snake swam in a zig-zag pattern alongside our boat for several yards; though horrified, I was somehow transfixed by its apparent lack of concern over our relative proximity.
“Water…rattler.” Muttered papa, without inflection.What the…water rattler? I thought. They’re cool with water? Are you freakin’ kidding me? Why the hell are we here, then? God, don’t let me die in Louisiana.
“Really? I didn’t know they liked water. Huh.” I managed. I hoped I’d managed to stifle the little girlish whimper that rose up in my throat before he could hear it. It was important to me that he not know I was afraid; he obviously wasn’t. It occurred to me that he might not necessarily grasp the situation; stupid people can appear brave when in fact they’re just stupid.
“This…is…a…good…spot.” Papa shut off the motor, and dumped a coffee can filled with cement and attached to a rope over the side.
To die as any, I thought as he handed me a cane pole. It had only a few feet of line tied to it, with a hook on the end, and no reel. I had never fished this way. This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. I can’t even cast, I thought. I decided to make the most of it, however; anything to get my mind off of everything around me. As it turns out, he did know what he was doing, and you don’t need to cast. There’s a lot going on under the water on the Old River, even right under your boat.
Lake fishing in Arizona is without mystery. When you hook something, it’s “Oh, I got a bass”, “feels like a catfish”, or “it’s a boot with no laces.” Fishing on the Old River was like fishing off the bottom of the ocean; you never knew what you were pulling up. My first two catches were, in succession, a large snapping turtle, which looked like something from Satan’s pond (“snappers…ain’t…no…damn…good.”) and a two foot long alligator gar (are you kidding me?). Both looked decidedly evil, capable of inflicting great pain, and both stared at me through cold, soulless eyes. Furthermore, both clearly wanted a piece of me. I did catch a bunch of fish that day, probably over a dozen, but I don’t remember any of them, only these two freaks of nature. Is there any place safe on this damn river? I whined to myself.
That thought was answered fairly quickly when I noticed something odd along the shoreline directly across from the boat, perhaps sixty yards away. It was a clearing of sorts, like a beach. However, the beach was black in color and as I focused my eyes upon it, it appeared to move.
“Cottonmouths. Bunch…of…’em.” Papa said, matter of factly.
Oh, yay! Sure enough, there were dozens upon dozens of water Moccasins, an extremely aggressive and venomous snake, basking in the sun at water’s edge. As if on cue, a very large representative of said species began to swim directly at the boat. Papa had a .22 rifle on board, and started shooting as it swam closer. I tried to appear calm, but as the snake came within ten feet or so and its intent to enter the boat became increasingly apparent, I dispensed with any remaining signs of feigned manhood. As I jumped to my feet and began a more than passable impersonation of Michael Flattely in Lord of the Dance, Papa tried to shoot the offending serpent as the boat rocked back and forth. Just before it reached the boat and I jumped out of it, the snake disappeared below the surface.
“Screw this!” I yelled. “I want to go. Now!”
“Heh…heh…heh.” It was obvious that my grandfather had perhaps seen through the thin facade of masculinity behind which I had attempted to hide. Papa started the motor, and we rode in silence all the way back to the truck. I was impressed that he seemed unafraid of everything in that swamp and that he knew the way back. I suppose in retrospect that it’s possible to be really stupid and still have a good sense of direction.
I was so relieved to see the truck as we rounded the final turn, but as we got out of the boat, I could tell there was trouble. There were two other trucks parked in the same clearing, and behind them stood six or seven inbred hillbilly giants (my perception at the time) laughing and drinking beer. We went about our business, putting our gear in the truck and loading the boat onto the trailer without incident. It seemed we might get out alive until Papa went to the back of the truck for something, paused and then walked straight over to the group of men.
“Which…one…you…sumbitches…stole…my…tools.” It was not a question, but a statement, and unlike everything else he had said in my presence, I understood every word. So did they.
“****(take) off, old man, nobody touched none of your ****(things).” Drawled one of the men. I quickly surveyed the situation. A decidedly old, small man, accompanied by a tall, scrawny, long-haired eighteen year old, was challenging a group of large, cow-tipping rednecks and accusing them of stealing from him. God, don’t let me die in Louisiana. I wondered if Papa’s cries of pain and anguish would haunt my days if I ran away while they pummeled him about the head and shoulders; I can’t tell you how close I came to being able to tell you now whether or not they did.
Thankfully, though, Papa went back to talking unintelligibly, and the hicks seemed to regard him with some amusement. He motioned for me to get in the truck, got in himself, muttered one last mystery phrase to the group, and off we went.
I felt bad for him then, as we rode together in silence. He’d had those tools forever, and they wouldn’t be cheap to replace; he wasn’t exactly rolling in it. I learned something about my grandfather that day: he really wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, and good-for-nothing heathen dog or not, I told myself I’d try to be more like him in that respect. I tried to think of something to say that might make him feel better, when all at once he pointed to his left, muttered “Over…yonder…is…the…( something or someone)…place”, and we were on the shoulder of the oncoming lane and everything was back as it should be.