I remember this one day most specifically when fishing Beulah Bay with Daddy and Dr. Belue. Once Dr. Belue ran over a log full speed, while we were hollering at him, and knocking the outboard up into the boat. That was why I sat in the stern and ran the motor from a very early age.
When I first started fishing, Daddy had a wood fourteen foot with a eighteen horse Elgin. But the day that stands out so specifically, we were in Daddy’s fourteen foot Aluma-Craft with a twenty-horse Electra-start Johnson.
Daddy, Dr. Belue, and I put in at Hatchett Ridge and went back through some islands toward Beulah Bay. I don’t know how Daddy ever came to find our secret place everytime. Daddy navigated me and had me zig-zag through some small islands and then we came to a specific one. I steered the boat into an opening of some water bushes, cut the engine, and raised the foot.
We grabbed hold of the bushes and pulled the boat through the shallow water, the water bushes scraping the sides of the boat. We came up into a clearing, with a canopy of tree cover overhead, and we fished there up close to the tree trunks growing in the water.
Dr. Belue sat in the middle, and wore this big life vest, because he couldn’t swim. Daddy and I kept ours stuffed under the thwarts. Daddy always sat in the bow because he paddled the boat. He called it paddling but I called it sculling. He put the paddle blade down in the water and moved it in such a way as to make the boat pull along quietly.
Daddy had huge dark muscular forearms. He wore short sleeves all the time. Even in the winter his forearms were tan.
He sat in the very bow, had the paddle handle in the crook of his arm, gripped the paddle near the blade with his right hand and sculled. He fished with his left hand. When we stopped to work a spot real good, he would gently lay the paddle over in the boat by his right leg. But up in our secret Beulah Bay spot, Daddy didn’t have to paddle at all.
As soon as we got situated, Daddy turned his transistor radio on full blast, listening to the Braves. Daddy was a Braves fan ever since they moved to Atlanta. Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese hollered out what was going on. Felipe Alou was at bat. Felipe Alou seemed to always be at bat or on first. I knew Daddy would soon complain Hank Aaron was just going to stand there and get struck out. That if he’d swing at it he’d get a homerun probably but always seemed like Hank Aaron was going to stand there and just watch them pitch him out.
We fished with these little bitty hooks. We tore worms in half to bait them. I told Daddy I thought the hooks were too small. He said we were fishing for bluegills not crappies.
I liked to go fishing but I didn’t like to fish. I liked driving the outboard, going down the river, through the islands in the backwaters, and swimming around after we fished. I didn’t necessarily like catching fish.
Daddy put his little radio up on the bow. That’s where it got the best reception. Dizzy Dean was talking about how that ball was back, was way back, was out of there, and Hank Aaron and Felipe Alou jogged around the bases.
We started pulling in these big bluegills. They were dark and almost the size of crappies. I told Daddy these might be world records, that some of these bluegills must weigh almost over three pounds. He said they were big all right, but there was this fellow out in Texas caught a bluegill that weighed over seven pounds. That satisfied me. I felt an obligation if one had a world record, he should let it be known.
Like, later, when Dr. Belue was ninety-five and still practicing medicine. He was the oldest practicing physician in Alabama. I worried it might be unmentioned he was the oldest in the country. He just laughed, said no there was some doctor practicing out in Texas who was ninety-seven. I didn’t say that doctor might have dropped dead since, or that it seemed like a lot of world records going on out there in Texas.
Daddy pulled in a bluegill and knocked his radio over into the water. He was quick and grabbed it before it sank too far down. If all those Texas records were a bunch of scams the bluegill was a world record. He took the fish off, put it in the basket hanging over the side of the boat.
He took the back off the radio, waved it around, shaking the water out. He put the back back on. It played. Those little Zeniths were like Johnson outboards, you just can’t kill them. Daddy said we didn’t miss anything. I asked how he knew. He said because Dizzy Dean was singing The Wabash Cannonball. Felipe Alou, for some reason or another, was up at bat again. Daddy said if they threw the ball anywhere near him at all he was going to be on first.
Dr. Belue had his hearing aids out. They dangled from the temple pieces of his glasses, so you had to holler for him to understand you. Daddy was hollering at him, something about Pee Wee Reese.
Between the ballgame blaring and hollering at Dr. Belue, it was pretty noisy. Daddy claimed the thing about being quiet when you fish wasn’t true and he pulled in a three pound shell-cracker to prove it. In a shallow place like this, though, you couldn’t stomp around in the boat, or bump into logs. That was another story, that would distract the fish, Daddy said.
Daddy took the fish off, put him in the basket, baited up and threw the line back out next to the tree trunk where he just caught the shell-cracker. The cork started bobbling. Dr. Belue commented the fish was just playing with it.
About that time a cottonmouth fell from overhead into the boat. Daddy just looked at him, took the paddle, got it under him and flung him back out into the swamp, but away from our hot spot.
I looked up at the branches above me. I wondered out loud if there were any more cottonmouths up there. Daddy said they weren’t going to bother us. Then he told how our cousin Maxie in the Depression used to spot a cottonmouth a hundred yards away and with his rifle turned upside down in one shot would shoot its head off. That Daddy, as a kid, he would wade out through the infested swamp and retrieve the cottonmouth with the blown-off head.
Daddy wondered out loud if Hank Aaron was going to just stand up there and watch that man strike him out and never even swing at the ball. But I was worried about the cottonmouths. On the way to the river we stopped for Dr. Belue to check on one of his patients. She’d been bitten by a cottonmouth.
About that time something scared me. A snapping turtle crawled over the gunwale of the boat. Dr. Belue laughed, asked if it scared me, told Daddy it was a snapper. I had no idea how he could crawl in like that.
Daddy said he wished things would stop falling into the boat, that it was disturbing the fish. Then he said he told us Hank Aaron was going to stand up at the plate and just watch himself get struck out. And there was Felipe Alou on first with nowhere to go.
The snapping turtle was trying to climb up the other side of the boat, acting like it was mad the boat was in its way. I picked it up and set it over in the water. It swam off into some water weeds.
Another snake fell into the boat. It was long and black. It seemed stunned from the fall, then crawled up under the empty thwart between Daddy and Dr. Belue. Daddy commented it was just an old water snake, snorted, and didn’t even bother to undertake to get it out of the boat.
Daddy and Dr. Belue pulled in a bluegill each at the same time. Felipe Alou was rounding third, he was going to slide in. I heard this plop in the water behind me. I turned around, then looked up, wondered if it was raining snakes or what. Daddy was hollering at me, told me a bluegill was pulling my cork to Cuba, that those snakes weren’t going to bother me. Felipe Alou slid as someone threw in to home. The umpire called him safe. Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese went wild.
Then everything quieted down. Dr. Belue passed out Nesbit Oranges and NuGrape Sodas and suggested to Daddy maybe we should get the snake out of the boat. Daddy picked up the paddle and jabbed it around under the seat. The snake crawled down the length of the boat, beside me—I leaned over to give him plenty of room–over the transom, down into the water.
The Braves won. Daddy turned the radio off.
The fish were so heavy they straightened the hooks we were using. Daddy bent them right back, still contended they were the right sized hooks. Then Daddy started telling Depression stories, started telling about before the TVA backed up the Tennessee River, telling about coming down to the river, to Beulah Bay fishing and camping out.
We still pulled bluegills out but not as frequently and not as world record big. The air was getting coolish. And it was getting a bit darker up in there, as sundown was near.
Then Dr. Belue told about the first appendectomy he ever did. Dr. Belue was born and raised one county over, but didn’t have a Southern accent. He went to medical school at Vanderbilt, did his internship in New York. That was all after he was a school teacher and then went off to World War I.
He told how a man’s wife’s appendix had ruptured. Dr. Belue visited the home and diagnosed what they already feared. In those days, a ruptured appendix meant death. But Dr. Belue said there was hope. He can operate on her and possibly she’ll live. The man refused. For whatever reasons, perhaps religious ones, the country people in the main of that day did not believe in operations, that perhaps it was against the will of God.
Dr. Belue at that time had never performed an appendectomy. He read about them, followed them closely in the medical journals. He was sure it would be a simple operation. But Dr. Belue did not argue the man’s religion, did not argue his mores.
Dr. Belue returned to town to his small office. He sat in a chair and collected his journals on appendectomies. He quietly studied them over. Near midnight there was a knock at the door. It was the man. He said his wife was dying. He wanted Dr. Belue to operate.
They got the bag of surgical tools and the journals and went back out in the country to the man’s house. Dr. Belue got the lady laid out on the kitchen table, used the husband for his assistant, and by the light of a kerosene lamp, performed the first appendectomy in North Alabama. It was a success. The woman lived for many years.
I noticed Daddy’s grin. A grin that sometimes he did. Part smile, part grin, part embarrassment, as though he was proud of praise but wanted to hide it. And in that moment, he grinned as though he himself were the one who performed the operation, as though he were the one who opened the door to a new age of medicine into the region.
It was almost dark. We took up our lines and began pulling the boat back out through the shallow water, the boat scraping against the water bushes and trees. When we were in deeper water, I cranked the outboard. Daddy navigated me. Daddy thought it was funny that I could get so lost and disoriented among the islands of the backwaters.
Dr. Belue was telling Daddy about something, but I only heard the hum of the outboard. At certain places I could see out to the channel of the river and the reflections of the setting sun.
Sometimes I wonder if I went back to Alabama, after all these years, these decades, if I could go out into Beulah Bay and find the secret fishing spot again without Daddy to navigate me.