Already told to go pound sand by mom, dad enlisted his first born, me, as the perfect accomplice for a project he was planning for sundown.
“It’ll take us five minutes, just five minutes, swear.”
Common family knowledge was that if dad estimated five minutes on a job starting at sundown that meant we might make it back by dawn, and usually in need of stitches, a splint or antihistamines.
It all started when dad had a rocking chair chat with a couple of the local guys down at Rheinman’s store. Since that confab, he had been obsessed with fulfilling this mysterious rustic Jeremiah Johnson live off the land dream.
And without saying exactly what it was, he was hard selling the experience as a wilderness epiphany; an ultimate homage to the local food chain and a pioneer-style boon to family togetherness.
Mom’s eyes never stopped rolling.
And grandma, who was raised on an Illinois farm, had been there, done it and preferred store-bought lunch at the club.
On the front porch of the cabin we had rented at Lake Toxaway in North Carolina for summer vacation, I found dad gazing wistfully at the sun sinking low over Hogback Mountain while sharpening a small three-pronged fork-like tool with a whetstone. He had inserted the end of a long dowel into the hollow circular bottom of the pointy sharp thing creating a fork on a stick. It was a trident like those wielded by that seaweed-bearded, flipper-footed bad ass, Neptune, in cartoons.
In front of him on the porch bench were a couple of flashlights, a big burlap bag and (aw, hells bells) my little brother. He was all duded up in jeans, a sturdy plaid shirt, hiking boots and enough “Off” bug repellent to give him hallucinations.
He was giving me the extra hostile stink eye.
He had already been told to stand down from this mission by mom and grandma and he was pissed that I, a girl, was getting to fulfill my dominance by birth order. He could come along but only to watch. Mom had indicated that she would kick dad’s tall ass if my little brother got so much as a chigger bite.
“I just need you to hold the flashlight for me steady tonight, got it?”
“Sure dad. On what?”
Mom hollered from the kitchenette, now exasperated because she had not successfully shut this thing down.
“Damn it, John Louis, you’re on your own. I am not going to clean them, or cook them and sure as hell not going to eat them!”
“C’mon, let’s go. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. You’re going to love this…”
We gathered up the equipment and scurried down the steps out into the night. I figured dad was up for some kind of nocturnal spear fishing and since we’d been fishing together before, I was liking this.
We wound our way down the horse path through the apple orchard smelling the sweet late summer rot of fallen heirloom fruit and the comforting tang of horse poop being careful not to slip. The golf course lay ahead of us with its obsessively groomed fairways, buzz cut putting greens and shiny rippling water hazards teeming with stocked fish. Bream, bass, trout – all fun to catch, good eating and I was getting excited.
The golf course ponds positively thundered this particular night with the cacophonous grunts and squeaks of horny mating bullfrogs bubbling out their chins with aural gusts of seductive sound. Frog mating calls so loud they echoed across the rills and hills surrounding them. The whole place pulsed and vibrated with bullfrog song…
HuhRUMPH! Bree-deet! Aerk-aerk-aerk!
My father certainly was enthralled. Not in a pastoral poetic way though.
We picked out one of the ponds, the biggest, and dad sat the two of us down on a tee box for the briefing.
“Boy, you will sit here and watch. Girl, you go hunt out the frogs on the bank of the pond, put the flashlight on ’em from behind me, and I’ll gig ‘em real quick like this... “
He demonstrated his technique by sneaking up on an imaginary frog, all Elmer Fudd –like. He raised the trident up, took aim, and smote the ground with a moist thud.
“DAD! You’re going to stab frogs? NOOOOOO!”
“Calm down and don’t be a baby. They don’t feel it because you gig them in the head, if you’re doing it right. And they’re just amphibians. OK?
"Oh my GOD, dad. Eew."
"Hey, it's 'oh my gosh.' You know your mom hates that. Now, after I have them stuck on the gig, I’ll hold them up so you can get a good grab to pull them off the prongs and put them in the burlap sack…”
“Uh uh NO! Dad, I can’t do that…Why are you doing this?”
“Frog legs! They taste just like chicken. You’ll love them. C’mon now...No guts no glory. ”
I got up on my feet. “No. I’m not gonna. That’s just gross!” And I locked my knees.
From out of the tense darkness, a small, grubby, poopy-headed voice piped in.
“I’ll do it!”
Up stepped my little brother with all the cheeky bravado of one who finally saw his best shot materialize to join the testosterone club in the family. He was going to earn his eggs right there, right then.
For a second, I think my dad calculated whether mom’s ass kicking would be worth it, determined it was well worth it and some, and made a command decision.
“Well, ok then. Looks like your brother has more guts than you do. Go on, son, tie that gunny sack to your waist, grab a flashlight and let’s go.”
Now, I don’t know if it was blood beating through my mortified head or the sound of the proverbial gauntlet smashing down to the ground. One or the other goaded me to snatch that flashlight and bag out of my brother’s grasp, and stomp not only down onto the bank of that pond, but directly into it. I waded up to my waist in the dark, muddy and, as we came to find out later, moccasin-infested water.
I would NOT be called a coward by my father.
The burlap bag floated next to me and I turned around to face the bank of the pond. I could see my father’s silhouette, my little brother a small blob of shadow beside him.
The frogs went silent. Thousands of shining amphibian eyes glowed back at me.
I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“OK, dad. I got one in the spotlight. Let’s GO."
Next morning, grandma, a half-smile on her lips and her grey hairpiece neatly pinned to her head, was drifting around the little kitchenette in the cabin when I woke up. I smelled day-old sale donuts in the oven that she had cut in half, buttered, and broiled to a caramelized golden brown crunch. The table was set and she was scrambling bright yellow eggs in an improvised double boiler. Next to the eggs, the cast iron skillet huffed and hissed with aluminum foil on top covering the contents for cooking.
Mom got her coffee and plunked down in a chair. “Hey, what’s in the pan? Bacon?”
Grandma went to show her, but was upstaged by several loud tapping sounds. The tin foil on the fry pan dimpled up with each tap like dings in a cheap car door. Then it flew off, just levitated, and fell to the ground as though of its own accord, revealing last night’s quarry, breaded, frying up, and twitching reflexively in hot bacon grease.
“Ha!” said grandma, “I forgot they still like to be a-kickin’ while they’re a-cookin.’”
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