It was the summer of 1988 and I was vacationing in a rental cottage at Dekle Beach with my mother and seven year-old nephew. Mama was taking a nap one afternoon when Hogun came banging in the screen door. He had a pitiful look on his face as he said,“Aunt Polly, all my friends are gone and I’m out of quarters.”
It was a plea for companionship or money for pinball. I was happy right where I was, reading on the porch in the shade. It was hot outside, and I sure wasn’t going to let go of any of my precious quarters. Four quarters could buy a gallon of gas back then.
“Go take your boat for a spin in the canal,” I suggested. We had brought the Tapetanic with us, our old 12 foot fiberglass boat with a four horse motor.
He sullenly replied, “If I can’t take it out of the canal by myself, what’s the point?”
I had to agree with him. The lure of the Gulf was strong and being confined to the canal was not fair. I put down my book. “Let’s go fishing.”
We got two Zebco 33s out of the trunk of my car, rounded up some frozen shrimp for bait and headed west out of the canal into the wild blue yonder. Actually, we didn’t go but just a few hundred yards off the end of the dock because you never knew when the duct tape holding the Tapetanic together was going to start coming loose. But it was plenty deep enough to fish and most importantly, we were out of the canal.
After I made Hogun bait my hook, we cast and began to drift. The two of us had fished together on many occasions and these exploits became the topic of conversation.
“Aunt Polly, remember the snakes trying to steal our string of fish?”
“Yep,” I answered.
This anxiety producing ordeal happened at our favorite spot off Kelley Grade, a place where you were guaranteed to catch a good mess of little bream if you didn’t mind beating back the poisonous water moccasins.
He continued to reminisce, “Aunt Polly, remember the day you busted up the boat on the rocks in the Aucilla?”
It was why the boat was now held together with duct tape. No one told me the tide went out on the Aucilla River. The water was deep and placid when we left the boat ramp. Returning a few hours later, it was fast and rocky. We sheered a pin, disabling the motor, then the current took us on a wild ride, bamming and booming our boat against the rocks. Hogun had hooted with joy while I hung on for dear life, trying, unsuccesfully, not to wet my pants.
“We should do that again,” he suggested.
I grumbled and was just about to shame him with the memory of the time he reeled in a boot at California Sinks, when his rod bent double and the line whirled. He stood up, leaned back and began to reel as fast as he could. The Tapetanic rocked violently.
“Sit down!” I yelled.
“Whoa, it’s a big-un!” he yelled back, ignoring my command.
I lowered my center of gravity to steady us and grabbed the net, silently hoping the little freshwater Zebco and line would hold up to whatever was on the hook.
Suddenly, something as big as our boat broke the surface right where the line disappeared into the water. It rolled and splashed in a frenzy and was gone as suddenly as it appeared. We both looked at the fishing line. It was still taunt in the water.
“What was that?” he asked softly.
“I dunno.” I whispered.
“Cut the line.” Hogun said, his face suddenly devoid of color.
“No way. Reel it in ya big chicken,” I encouraged him.
He handed the Zebco to me, “You reel it in...bigger chicken.”
“I don’t think so,” I said with attitude. I reached out an felt of the line, there was clearly still something on it.
"Aunt Polly, you should reel it in. You are the grown-up.”
This was a dubious claim and he knew it. Even though this was my twenty-fifth summer, I could provide plenty of evidence to the contrary and my parents were sure to back my case. But instead of arguing, I played a different card.
“Yeah, but you’re the man.” I smiled triumphantly.
He cut his eyes at me briefly and began to slowly turn the reel. The only sound in the air was the tick tick tick of the Zebco. Leery, I leaned over and peered down into the dark, expecting Jaws to explode from the water at any moment.
At first I didn’t see anything. Then a big catfish head came looming into view. I furrowed my brows thinking that although this fish was big, it could not be the leviathan we saw roll on top of the water. When he pulled the fish head into the boat, I realized what had happened.
The leviathan had been in pursuit of the catfish as Hogun was reeling him in and bit off the body leaving us with only the head. It was cleanly severed and the whiskers were still twitching.
Hogun looked up, crestfallen, and spoke in a small voice, “He got the best part.”
I tried to perk him up. “At least it’s not a boot!”