I had the best of intentions, I really did. I was only trying to help. I did not mean to cause chaos on the farm and make Papa mad, but I did. As far as I can recollect, it was the only time in the seven years that Papa was part of my life that he got mad at me, his eldest grandson. Most of the time, I could do no wrong, as far as he was concerned, but on this day I blew it.
Papa was a fisherman (actually, that’s somewhat of an understatement). He fished to eat. Speckled perch, shell-crackers and bream trembled at the thought of Papa even being near the lake. I believe if they could have, they would have jumped directly from the water into his fish cooker to avoid the humiliation of being hooked. He caught fish when no one else on the lake or even in the boat was catching fish.
In fact, he was so good, that only once in all the times that we went fishing did I beat him. The last time we ever went fishing together I caught more than he did. It caused such such a stir in the community that local legend and Outdoor Hall-of-Famer, Jack Wingate took my picture with my fish and hung it on the wall of his restaurant where it remained for over 25 years.
It was not unusual for Papa to go fishing 4 or 5 times a week. Since he lived way out in the country and the nearest bait store was several miles away, he developed his own bait supply. He had a nice worm bed where he would throw old coffee grounds and grits. The worms grew fat and sassy and were always in abundant supply.
He also had a minnow tank that he had made out of one of those concrete vaults that go inside graves in the cemetary. He had located it out behind his tractor shed. It had a hole in the center that served as a drain. Plugging this hole was a piece of one-inch metal pipe. Filled with water and oxygenated by an aerator, it provided a nice abode for about a thousand minnows. They were very happy in their concrete fortress, blissfully unaware of the fact that they were destined to be eaten by bigger fish. They were also ignorant of the fact that outside that tank, the area was infested with about twenty or so cats that hung around the shed.
It was in January of my fifth winter that the Incident occurred. We had a particularly hard cold snap that left a sheet of ice about an inch thick over the top of the minnow tank. You need to understand that it hardly ever gets that cold in South Georgia, so this was a new experience for me.
As I looked at the minnow tank, it seemed likely to me that the minnows would not be able to get enough air to breathe. There was no way that oxygen could into the tank through that layer of ice. I could just imagine the ice thawing out in a couple of days to reveal a thousand dead minnows who had suffocated.
I knew if that happened, Papa would be out bait for the speckled perch that I so dearly loved to eat. In addition, he would have to buy more minnows to restock the tank and that would be a lot of trouble. So, I decided to do him a favor.
I climbed up on the cinder blocks that the tank was sitting on and leaned over the side with a stick in my hand. I figured that if I could break the ice, the minnows would be able to breathe again and the crisis would be averted. Alas, for the best laid plans of five year old boys! I leaned over just a little too far and fell into the tank, breaking the ice and completely soaking myself. That was undoubtedly the coldest water I have ever felt. It was so cold that suddenly the minnows looked like penguins.
My younger brother stood there gazing in astonishment as I came up for air, too cold to even scream. All the noise I could manage was something that could best be described as a combination of a shriek, a gasp and a wheeze.
In all the excitement, I managed to dislodge the metal pipe that served as a drain plug. The water began to pour out of the bottom of the tank, taking a thousand hapless minnows with it. The ground was was literally covered with flopping minnows (They did seem to be happy about the fresh air, although they were probably wondering where all the water went).
I don’t know how the cats discovered the smorgasboard so quickly, but before I could even get out of the tank, they came pouring in from all directions like good Baptists coming to a covered-dish supper. In the days to come, everytime I would walk by the shed they would gather around me with the expectations that I would provide another feast for them.
About that time, Papa came around the corner of the shed and saw what was happening. I had never seen the expression that came across his face before. It was a “what-in-this-world-are-you-doing-why-in-this-world-would-you-do-it-how-in-this-world-could-you-do-it” look.
We went back inside the house. While my mom and grandma tried to get me out of my wet clothes, Papa started telling me how mad he was with me. He told me that I could never come to his house again. I couldn’t even come in his yard (we lived next door at the time). He told me he was going to put up signs that said, “No Trespassing, Scoot” (“Scoot” was my nickname back then). If I wanted to talk to Nana, I would just have to get her to come to my house or either stand at the edge of the yard and talk to her. Of course, in my semi-frozen condition, I thought he was serious.
After a couple of days, I realized that he wasn’t mad anymore and started going back to his house, but I didn’t get anywhere near that minnow tank.