Leaning over the ridge I watched as the water ran its course down the creek. I listened. It always astonished me how the burbling drowned out all other sounds making it easy to forget there was an outside world moving around me. The Creek was one of the forbidden mysteries of grandma’s house. Although as children my mother and her sisters played in the creek when it came to the grandchildren ‘they might get hurt’.
Grandpa tapped me on the shoulder causing me to jump in the air. Laughing he asked, “Do you want to go to the dump with me?” Excited I climbed into the passenger side of his Toyota pickup. I loved visiting Grandma and Grandpa on the weekends. Whenever I did something with Grandpa, it was an adventure.
On the way back from the dump we stopped to clean the pond’s water filter. I sat on a log rambling off random questions. He tossed a frog from the filter at me. Laughing at my screech he answered my questions the questions always lead to him telling me stories. Many of my life decisions are based on these stories. This day he confessed about a stolen watermelon and what it was like being shot with rock-salt. He spoke of swimming holes and friendships. He expressed affection for his mother as one of the gentlest women he had ever known. It ended with him telling me about his 16th birthday and a conversation he had with his father. I remember my grandfather as a mischievous man with a powerful sense of right and wrong.
The three boys walked hurriedly along the dirt road following the fence line until they were sure old farmer Murphy wasn’t watching. Dropping to their bellies they slipped under the wire getting covered in dirt. The smell of the hot dry dirt was worth the sacrifice for their intended reward. Quickly they sprang to their feet, running to the largest watermelons they could find, they scooped one up and grabbed an extra. Then fast as light, they crawled back under the fence running down the dirt road laughing with each step cherishing their victory. First, they heard a loud sharp ringing sound and then felt the familiar sting in their backsides. It repeated. Nearly dropping the loot they ran faster not stopping until they reached Carson’s Creek. Dropping to their knees, laughing and out of breath, they sat the melons in the soft green grass. The stinging reminded Odell that their getaway wasn’t clean; he kicked off his shoes and pulled off his shirt. Looking for relief, he grabbed the rope tied to an old cottonwood and swung into the water. Each boy followed finding relief from the hot dry sun. With the cool water dissolving the salt, they knew in a few minutes all the pain would be gone; they began to enjoy the water. This wasn’t the first time they had pulled this stunt and certainly not the first time they had caught a spray of salt rock. After a few minutes of horsing around and enjoying the crisp cool water, they retreated back to the grass.
Billy grabbed a sharp rock and struck one of the watermelons passing a piece to each of them. Each boy spread out in the grass looking up at the sky as they ate the loot. After a few minutes, Henry remarked, “It’s lucky for us that old farmer Murphy is half blind. My pa would kill me for sure if we got caught.” He grabbed another piece of melon.
“Not so blind he can’t still hit what he aims at,” refuted Odell. Placing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes the hot sun began to dry his clothes. With a slight smile, he added; “Besides it’s his own fault growing such a big field of perfect watermelons.”
Ignoring Odell’s teasing Billy’s mind switched gears, “Hey, Odell what you wanna do tomorrow? I mean after doing your chores and all?” Billy lived for something to do. The three boys had gotten into many scraps because Billy just couldn’t wait to find something to do.
After a couple of minutes of consideration not that there were a lot of choices, Odell answered, “Fishing, if my dad allows,” then his returned to his thoughts. He’d been acting preoccupied, Billy and Henry could tell something was up but until he was ready Odell wasn’t going to share it so they let it go. The boys went for another swim then lay in the sun exchanging small talk. As the sun started to hang over the west side of the sky, a fall breeze began to blow. Odell stood up picked up the extra melon and said: “I’ll catch you after chores”.
He started walking down the road. Henry and Billy knew the stolen melon was on its way to Mrs. Winters, a widow with three pretty daughters, and two small boys. Odell always did things for her. The boys agreed if they took one for themselves they would get one for her. Giving her a melon was restitution for the one they ate.
Fall then winter now it was spring Odell knew the time had come. He rehearsed his words over and over in his head. Listening as mama rattled things in the kitchen it meant that the fire would be hot and the kitchen would be cozy. His youngest sisters’ voice crept up the stairs. Peggy always got up with mama. She was 11 years younger than Odell and the youngest of seven children. Odell called her ‘mama’s shadow’ when mama did something Peggy followed right behind her. The morning was their special time.
Odell slipped down to the kitchen when he thought it would be warm. Mama set a hot cup of coffee in front of him and kissed his forehead. With a hug she wished him a Happy Birthday then she set about her business. Mama stepped outside and headed for the barnyard. Peggy followed her brown pigtails bouncing with each of her steps. She picked spring flowers while mama gathered eggs and feed chickens.
Odell was enjoying the warmth of the fire when his father entered the kitchen. James poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. “Birthday Son” he offered as he glanced over the paper.
“Thanks, Dad,” Odell replied with his eyes fixated on every move his father made. Odell loved his father, but his father also puzzled him. James was a complicated man who professed to love his family but his actions contradicted this claim. Odell and his father looked a lot alike, both with sandy brown hair and a square chiseled face. Odell stood as tall as his father and sturdy like him. Blue eyes that were serious or fun depending on the situation, by all accounts everyone could tell they were father and son. The biggest difference between the two, Odell never drank, James did.
Odell’s older brothers, Virgil and Dick, found their way into the kitchen. After wishing Odell a happy birthday the three of them strolled out to do chores. Mama and Peggy returned put the flowers in a jar and began fixing breakfast. About that time Juanita made her way down she surveyed her surroundings making her way to the wood stove. Stopping to smell the flowers she noticed her pa, so she busied herself with setting the breakfast table.
After breakfast James studied Odell, he could see something was troubling the boy he’d been squirrelly all morning. “What’re your plans?” being his birthday he didn’t have to work the fields, the other boys would pick up his work for the day.
Odell stood up; It was time to be a man. Odell grabbed for the words he had been rehearsing and spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, “You won’t be hitting me or mama anymore.”
The room grew still and silent, all eyes were fixated on James. Eddie Bell looked from her son to her husband anxiety was starting to knot in her stomach. She slipped her hand into Peggy’s squeezing softly. James stared at Odell their blue eyes locking; after what seemed like an eternity James slightly nodded his head, they had reached an understanding. Odell opened the door and started walking toward the barn he was going fishing.
Mama began clearing the table; taking her lead the boys high tailed it out the door. James sat silently staring out the window. His son walked down the road fishing pole in hand. All of a sudden James was seeing Odell in a new light. Not a boy anymore but as a formidable man. Eddie Bell closed her eyes and whispered thank-you.
Over the years I heard many stories about my Grandfather one of the stories shared was as he gave each of his daughters away, he warned his soon to be Son-in-Law “you better never lay a hand on my daughter.” To the day Grandpa died he always thought a good day involved fishing.
Sadly, James died alone, they found his body lying on his couch with a bottle of booze in his hand. It’d been 3 days.