Drawing by Judith Wolfe
When It Was We Almost Got Croaked
One year me and Troy Patterson and Johnny Gregg from Karnack cornered the market on bullfrogs---not to sell, but to eat. Johnny's old man was a river rat, and spent much of his time on the water, running trotlines and selling catfish from the Big Cypress. He had several boats, and had given names to them. They were just beat up old flat bottom boats, bent and dented like a stomped beer can from being jammed so many times between cypress stumps and hanging up on high center in the sloughs.
- Of the four boats, Johnny's favorite was "Yellaw", which was a green boat with some black wiggly stripes brush-painted down the side. I noticed that the tan colored boat was named "Old Bloo", and Johnny confirmed what I had began to suspect.his dad was colorblind. He identified the boats in ways other than the color, and that was obvious.
- The three of us favored Yellaw because it was narrow and ran shallow. We could ease along the banks and sneak up on the frogs without disturbing the landscape and causing them to jump. Frogs had little Doppler radar units on the sides of their head, like kettledrum covers, and they could sense vibration and noise better than old man Gelling who ran the theater could. Actually the whole thing with old man Gelling reminded me of frog catching, the way he would kind of crouch and spring at you just when you thought you were hidden. See, the thing was, you slumped down in your theater seat and kind of shrieked during the most tense love scene, and someone in the audience would shout back "Quiet!" That would get an exchange going and here would come Gelling, his flashlight searching out the culprit. He had radar like those frogs too, and many a slumping kid got pinched on the ear and walked out into the lobby. Some of those kids never returned. His office in the lobby was undoubtedly like a frog's den, with musty moss and slime, and piles of bones from the kids that had created ripples on his pond.
- Johnny hung just over the prow of the boat, Troy skulled it through the water, and I sat in the middle with the tow sack for the frogs. We would start at the tip of Pine Island, and run the sloughs along the banks. Both Johnny and I had big flashlights scanning the shoreline like pattern searchlights, looking for the frogs. Once pinpointed in a crossbeam, we issued direction and target distance back to Troy, who would slip us over there quietly.
- We had a gig, but Johnny only used it for situations where the frog was just out of reach. He preferred to hand-grab the frogs, which minimized the damage to them and kept them fresh and lively all night.
- We just crept up on them and let Johnny do his magic. My only test came on the hand-off, when it was my job to take the catch from him and put it into the tow sack. Once or twice in a night I would drop one, because frogs have a way of squirting you from unpredictable but very precise angles. They are engineered and designed like a pivoting water pistol but you see the thing is, it ain't river water that they're squirting.
- All of us marveled at their enviable ability for omni-directional squirting. You had to be careful, though, for as a weapon, it was unreliable. If pointed at Troy for example, the shot might discharge instead at a perfect right angle, or worse, sometimes as a backfire, dangerous to the shooters own face and eyes. A face shot would cause you to immediately have to dunk your head in the river, always at the risk of drowning.
- Well, if I dropped a frog and forbid it got away, Johnny would give me a cold silent stare like I had walked on his grave. Lucky for me, Troy saved a few mishaps by holding them down in the bottom of the boat with his paddle. All this commotion in the boat would sound like someone dumped a box of bricks into an attic fan. In the still night air; the noise from such a frog scramble inside an aluminum boat would travel to Jefferson and back. It was particularly irritating to Johnny, since all that activity disturbed the calm of the slough and jumped the frogs. I would remind him often that my career record was way over 90% overall. His look assured me that wasn't good enough.
- We usually did pretty well, and would call it quits after twenty or twenty-five frogs, or when the air got too damp, whichever happened first. We would clean the frogs on the banks, and throw the innards back into the river for the catfish. Nothing wasted. Then we would pick a Saturday that we could all get together, and Johnny would cook those frogs. We cooked outside, on a butane burner his father melted lead with to mold his trotline weights. Johnny would fry them in a big, well-seasoned iron skillet---a critical and essential vessel for frog legs or catfish.
- There was nothing finer. Johnny would drench the frogs in a beer batter, made up of flour, Cajun spice, and a light dusting of corn meal. We would all gather up close to the cooking, because right at first, those legs would usually jerk from the hot grease and tension on the tendons. Johnny said if the frogs in the pan didn't hop, it was bad luck, and your next frog trip would be bad.
- I remember too that Johnny told me once you could make a bull-nettle poultice out of urine mixed with chili powder and axle grease. If that was true I figured, the cure was worse than the injury. But he also said one time that if you thought about it in depth, the movie Psycho was really a love story; so Troy and I had obvious reason to examine his thought process. But we always felt the need to be accommodating to Johnny and not to challenge or scoff at his stories. We knew he was the only way back out of those sloughs when it was after midnight and you couldn't tell one inlet or pass from another.
- We had four or five frog cookouts in the summer, and never ran short of supply. Johnny's older sister sometimes would make us her special hush puppies and would cut up some new potatoes and onions to cook with them. It was some of the best eating we ever had, just sitting in the yard on some old stumps, swilling iced tea with lemon, and french-harping those frog legs.
- Frogs were food for the gods and exceptionally fun to catch, until Saturday May 20th in the late spring of 1961. That night, we were one man short, as Troy had been grounded for egging his math teacher's house. That meant I had double duty with both the paddle work and bagging, and Johnny had to shine the light as well as do the grabbing. I had brought one of my grandmother's garters with me so I could quickly tie off the tow sack and still paddle the boat. I admit I was not as good with the paddle as Troy, but he wouldn't make much of a sack man, either. Besides, you don't stand under a streetlight when you're up to egging your teacher's house.
- We were out of our usual slough, closer to the river edge beyond Pine Island. I was running a little more parallel to the bank, because the soft current was pushing against me, and I couldn't keep the boat altogether crossways. We had gathered maybe a dozen big bulls, and Johnny wanted to stay close to the river. We kept brushing into low hanging Spanish moss and cypress limbs, and were having to duck and weave our way along.
- We were drifting quietly past some brush, with the big flashlight focused on a frog the size of one of those chalk dogs you won at the fair. It was truly an exceptional one, and it didn't see us coming.
- Just then, the dead quiet was broken by a loud mushy thud in the middle of the boat.
- I stopped paddling and pondered that sound. It was nothing like I was used to, such as the sharp thud from the heel of a boot. Yeah, mushy truly and accurately described that sound.
- "Quiet, dammit!" said Johnny firmly, but almost in a whisper. "Did you drop that other big frog?"
- My next words carefully formed the world's most absolutely perfect sentence, spoken with utmost care as if being analyzed by Miss Selma Brotze for clinical annunciation and grammar. It was a simple, eloquent phrase:
- "That wasn't me."
- The sound of those words chilled us both, as if suddenly the night fog had draped over the two of us without warning. Johnny turned and shined the light around in the boat. There, parallel to the bottom of the gunwale, was an especially solid, fat, water moccasin. It had casually dropped in on us from one of the limbs we had brushed. We both recognized it as a moccasin, because the snake rule was simple: All snakes dropping into your boat at midnight in the river are cottonmouth moccasins, period.
- Questions flashed through my mind as Johnny froze the light beam along its wavy shiny figure. "Does light blind a snake?" "Don't they have to coil to strike?" "When you slash across a fang mark and suck out the poison, what if you accidentally swallow some, or have a cavity that hasn't been filled yet?" I began to regret having played sick to skip my last dental visit with Dr. Pierpoint.
- There were no answers to these or any other of my electrically charged thoughts.
- Suddenly it was if the world's tardy bell had sounded, and the same level of panic hit both of us at once. Johnny was beating the snake with his frog gig and I with the paddle. It was as if all the Maverick Band drummers had been transfused into our arms at once. Our weapons were flailing at the speed of fan blades, and the boat was rocking and pitching wildly. The flashlight was now on the floor of the boat, illuminating everything like a flashing strobe. As it rolled and bounced, it was hard to tell where the snake actually was. Then, with a lucky stab, Johnny speared the snake with the frog gig, just behind its neck. That allowed me to pin it down. Only one point of the gig had pushed through it, but it was enough to lift it out of the boat. The snake coiled quickly around the pole of the gig, and Johnny heaved it as a complete unit off into the river. We were more than pleased to donate our fishing gear to the Big Cypress.
- We had the presence to shine the light around the boat for another, as Johnny said often they twist and weave together in the trees like giant black licorice sticks. I didn't like licorice much anyway, it reminded me too much of castor oil. But I absolutely never had another plug of it after hearing that.
- I pushed us back out into the current, and we headed back, a journey that seemed like an eternity. The dim lights at the pier on Pine Island was the most welcome landmark I can ever remember.
- We talked about that close call many times, and each time the snake got bigger, until its girth approximated Mickey Mantle's upper arm. The frantic and furious beating took on the dimension and character of a collective crew of railroaders pounding spikes in unison on a stretch of track. I would tell the story, and Johnny would corroborate it, then vice versa.
- After that, the only time I was ever in Yallow again was to do a little peaceful bream fishing. Once when Troy, who had missed the whole thing, suggested we all get together again for a night of frog catching, Johnny and I answered in unison.almost as if rehearsed:
- "Hey Troy, like to hunt squirrel?"