Saturday, September 11, 2010

It's Just a Song

I wish I could have taken my friend, Terry, on a cross-country trip in a private jet and he could have taken me for a ride in the cab of his locomotive.

Maybe he could have been there that night in 2000 when I was flying back to Washington from San Jose in the company jet, exhausted after four long days of merger planning. Too tired to sleep, I worked on my PC until I stared out the window into the night about 2:00 a.m. and noticed the lights of a small town just south of us. I glanced at the navigation screen on the seat back and was surprised to see that it was Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where Terry and I went to high school.

That would have initiated a long discussion of the things we did and the people we knew growing up there and eased the remainder of the flight into Dulles. A long, happy discussion, no doubt.

Terry and I fished Casey Creek in western Kentucky a few weeks back. Though the temperatures were near triple digits that week, the creek, fed by cold spring waters and completely shaded by large trees along its banks, felt at least ten degrees cooler. Like air conditioning. We didn’t even break a sweat.

We chatted a while with two guys who had somehow driven their small car through the woods and parked on the gravel stream bed. They sat on folding chairs maybe ten feet from their car with its open trunk lid and seemed to have fished the same empty pool for hours.

We got our bearings and decided to fish downstream, beyond the highway bridge, because the guys told us that upstream the water had never even been stocked. That's fisherman talk for "we're heading upstream where the big fish are, you boys should head downstream to stay out of our way".

The pool under the bridge looked a tad deep for wet wading, so Terry and I decided to walk back up to the road, cross to the other side and find a way down the bank. The fenced-in pastures on either side of the creek downstream from the road made that difficult, but there was a rather steep path down to the creek right next to the bridge. Terry struck out ahead and found a rope that someone had left, with knots placed every couple of feet, tied to the bridge's guard rail to help with the descent.

I was concerned about Terry making it safely down the bank, given his advanced age, but he made it without a hitch. I, on the other hand, slipped and fell on my ass, but I was able to hold my fly road in the air and avoid damaging it.

You know you're a true fly fisherman when you fall and, on the way down, you worry more about your fly rod than your hip.

Terry stepped first into the cold water, turned around and smiled at me and said, "Oh, you're going to like this."

I cast a dry fly with a nymph dropper near a log that had fallen into the stream, the shallow water cold even in mid-August. I stared intently at the fly, saw some movement and set the hook with my stripping hand.

Damn! You must’ve seen that fish open its mouth. How did you set the hook so fast? I didn’t see any movement at all.”

“I was watching the dry,” I told him as I reeled in the small fish. "I saw it move."

“Yeah, well if you focus any harder when you go to set the hook you’re gonna rip that fish’s lips plum off.”

Last winter, Terry sent me a photograph of a barn surrounded by a snow covered field and the bluest sky I had ever seen. It was just a barn in a field somewhere near a railroad track in the Midwest, but it was stunningly beautiful and it reminded me of our time in Kentucky. I imagined Terry, on a typical workday for CSX, treading frozen ground in heavy work boots and wearing insulated coveralls, taking the picture with the new iPhone that “his girls” had given him as a present, and then getting back to the job at hand.

He has an eye for simple, beautiful, earthy things, a good glass of bourbon, a sweet country song, old friends, or a winter sky that a lot of us would simply take for granted. And, he'd give you the shirt off his back.

Terry and I have known each other since dirt. We've been friends for fifty years. My grandparents and his foster parents were close friends before dirt. They’d get together after high school basketball games (both men coached basketball) and we’d play together in Terry's bedroom while they talked, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee in the living room.

Terry is country as a green onion, to borrow his expression, and you can’t listen to him talk without smiling. It isn’t that he talks like a country boy (he does), it’s his expressions. Like the time he asked Herky to help him move a heavy exercise bike out the way, but Herk couldn’t lift his end.

“Herky,” Terry told him with a smirk, “I swear, you don’t even have a place where muscles ought to be.”

Three years older than me, Terry always seemed happy to have me around and he treated me like a peer. It didn’t matter if he was nine and I was six or he was 19 and I was 16.

That age difference worked to my advantage in high school, when he got a drivers license long before I did. He’d drive me around in his bright red Plymouth Valiant, the model with a push-button automatic transmission on the dash, that we called “Elvira”. He also had a cool little Yamaha motorcycle.

When we were younger, we liked to play his small basketball board game that used little spring-loaded levers to toss a ping pong “basketball” through a small, wire hoop. When I had kids of my own, I bought them the game, too, though it was never really a threat to replace Nintendo's Super Mario World. When we were older, Terry and I played countless real basketball games in my driveway.

Terry’s foster parents eventually moved from Dawson Springs to Elizabethtown and a few years later, when a job opened up, Terry’s foster father, Aubrey, suggested that my grandfather, Bradley, apply for it. He got the position and after a few years bought a house across the street from Aubrey on Perry Avenue. That’s where we lived during my high school years and Terry lived right across the street.

For the next four or five years, before I left for college at UK, we spent nearly every day together. We both got part-time jobs at the Ramada Inn near the Western Kentucky Parkway.

Terry was not only three years older, he was a lot stronger. He played on our high school baseball team and he was tough as nails. But, he also played trumpet in the school band and wrote songs.

He still does. He played guitar for more than a decade in a band called Up Country. He writes great songs, funny ones like A Whole Lot Longer and bittersweet tunes like It’s Just a Song. I keep them on my iPod.

He works with artists from Nashville, writing songs with them on his front porch over a glass of Woodford Reserve and recording them in his basement.

One day in high school, I was talking with my friend and college roommate, John, and he made a strange statement out of the blue.

“Terry,” he asserted, “is not going to take up for you in a fight just because the two of you are from Dawson Springs.”

Wondering where the comment had come from, I smiled and said quietly, “John, that’s a theory you never want to test.”

I never did figure out why he had raised the issue, but a few weeks later when the three of us were together, John raised it again.

“John, if you can whip my ass,” Terry responded, “I’ll shake your hand and call you a friend. . . but you can’t whip my ass. I whipped Johnny Thompson’s ass and that boy was muscled up like a bear.”

John smiled and changed the subject.

Terry had a great old beagle named Dinger when we were in high school. Dinger went everywhere we went. He was always around, but never in the way, a trait I greatly admire in dogs.

One summer evening, Terry and I were walking down Perry Avenue, in the middle of the street of course, with Hart and Kirtley. We might have been walking to Bob’s Market for a Coke or to the Park Drive-In for some fries. Or, we might have been going nowhere in particular at all, except that the memory feels like we had a purpose.

Dinger walked with us, but up next to the houses instead of in the street. He was walking between the houses and the shrubs just in front of them.

A lady standing on her stoop was surprised by the noise and asked no one in particular, “Is that a dog in my bushes?”

Terry answered, but only loud enough for us to hear, “That’s no dog, Lady, that’s my Dinger!” The three of us stumbled to the curb and rolled in the grass laughing.

Terry could out-shoot, out-fish and out-swim us all. He performed perfect dives off the diving board at the public pool and he could swim the entire length of the pool underwater. I can't remember ever beating him at a game of nine-ball.

He got more game with that single shot 12-gauge than anyone else would hit with a pump or automatic. I remember Terry, Kenny and me squirrel hunting early one fall morning. After we split up, Kenny and I saw one squirrel, but neither of us could get a shot. When we met back at the car a couple of hours later, Terry had three.

Dinger was a beagle, but you didn’t need a dog to flush a rabbit at Rabbit Ranch. That’s what Aubrey called the small piece of land he bought to build a house on near the outskirts of Elizabethtown. There was a rabbit behind every tree. A time or two we camped there.

One night we camped out with Hart and Kirtley and planned to fish at a small pond we’d seen nearby. When we got to the pond the next morning, we found Posted signs. The pond was surrounded by woods in the middle of nowhere, so we decided to ignore the postings, but we felt a little nervous about the potential for a farmer with a shotgun.

I was fishing with a lure called a HulaPopper. It was a black plug with a white “hula” skirt of little strips of rubber and a cupped, red face like an open mouth that made the water pop when you gave a quick tug on the line.

After a half hour or so of no action, Terry asked to borrow my rod. He cast the plug all the way across the pond, near a dead log and some grass. He gave a quick tug on the HulaPopper that made a little gulping sound on the pond's smooth surface and the biggest largemouth bass I ever saw come out of a small pond hit that plug instantly.

Terry reeled in the fish and was holding it proudly when we heard what sounded like a footstep in the woods, something or someone stepping on a dry stick. A few seconds later, as we stared quietly at each other holding our breath, we heard a second twig snap. It might have been a cow for all I know, but we imagined that it sounded a lot like a farmer with a 12-gauge.

Someone yelled, “Let’s get outta here!” and we all grabbed our gear and ran back across the fields in the direction of Rabbit Ranch, Terry carrying his largemouth bass by the lower lip as he ran.

As we walked out of Casey Creek last week with our fly rods over our shoulders, through a field of weeds that Terry predicted would leave us covered with chiggers, climbed a metal fence and crossed the one-lane paved road to our cars, I reminded Terry of the days in high school when we both worked for the Ramada Inn in E-town.

“Remember Bob Camby?” I asked about the man we had worked for.

“Man, I hated that son-of-a bitch," Terry told me. "I’ve always been a peaceful guy, but I never wanted to hit anybody as bad.”

Bob ultimately fired Terry, not for anything he had done or hadn’t done, but because he decided he didn’t like him. Not long after that, Bob himself was fired for various alleged improprieties that were never really discussed. The only thing I knew for sure was that he had tried to leave the impression all over town that he owned the motel, to what end I couldn't say. Actually, he was only the manager, and the owners lived in Lexington, far enough away that Bob could get away with the story.

He probably also fired Terry because he was afraid of him. I wasn’t at the hotel that day, but my friends told me that after Bob fired him and before he left, Terry would walk near Bob smiling and quickly raise his arm, only to scratch his head. Every time he did, according to my friends who relished every minute of it, Bob would duck.

Bob’s behavior led us all to believe that he was gay, but despite the stereotypes of small town southerners, no one seemed to care one way or the other. I never heard anyone disparage Bob when he was around or when he was not. Not for his sexuality, anyway. There were a good number of disparaging remarks regarding his being a prime, Grade A jackass, though, especially when he was drinking.

“You know,” I said as we waded the middle of Casey Creek last week, “I always thought Bob was probably gay.”

“Gay?” Terry replied with a straight face. “He was absolutely thrilled.”


Marilyn said...

What a lovely piece of writing!
You probably don't remember me or even know me, but I lived on North Miles until my freshman year and also had Mrs. Ingles as my fifth-grade teacher and Mr. Ingles for physics. Is this the same Aubrey you talk about here?

Dirk Cotton said...

Sorry to reply so late, but yes, that was him.