Of Sassafras and Mayhaws
John Ragsdale Jr.
“We used to drive the station wagon down here, with all five of the kids,” my father-in-law spoke as he eased his Bronco through a mud hole in the old country farm lane. He looked through his dirty windshield into the pre-dawn morning at the deep ruts and continued, “These off-road trucks come in here now and tear the road up . . . slinging mud every which way.”
I grunted an agreement with him and sat quietly. Teresa and I had been married for two months, and he had been promising this fishing trip since last spring when he had retired from the Taylor Post Office on his 62nd birthday.
Our headlights lit up a campsite next to Dorcheat Creek, where several of the aforementioned offending off-road trucks were parked, caked in mud from top to bottom. A woman’s head shot up out of a sleeping bag. She stared at us through bleary eyes as we skirted the campsite. Smoke slowly drifted from a dying fire.
Just past the campsite, my father-in-law backed the boat trailer into the creek. Excited, he accidently hit the horn as we climbed out of the Ford. At 280 pounds, I stepped carefully into the boat making the effort to not step on his seat at the front, while not losing my balance. My seat was at the rear of the boat, and I had to navigate over a few empty ice chests, the middle seat, and avoid several tackle boxes and jig poles to reach it. I managed to make it to the rear as he released the rope securing the boat to the trailer. I began floating down the creek and picked up my paddle and maneuvered the front end of the boat to the shore while he parked the truck.
It was still dark as he rummaged through his flies once he took his seat in the boat, looking for the right color. He picked up his short paddle and slipped it into the water. He then maneuvered the boat downstream without any noise or lifting the paddle from the creek. The only evidence of his paddling was the silent impression in the creek created with the movements of his right arm and hand.
We rounded a bend and he flipped his fly into the water while I watched his every move. I followed suit and managed to avoid snagging him, as well as myself – while at the same time avoiding the overhead limbs. We began dipping the flies up and down in the water in an effort to find the beds of fish hidden beneath the surface. The sun was rising and I could feel the chill leaving the back of my neck when suddenly, my line snapped taut.
My first reaction was to think I had snagged a log, but the line began to sing as a fish took the fly and made a feeble effort to get away. We were able to catch three or four more in the same area, before moving on to the next hole. I was with the perfect guide, who had 50 years of experience fishing the same creek and knew where the fish were likely to be found. As we snaked down the creek, we fished, first at one reliable spot before moving to another, always with positive results. By 8:00 we had almost filled one of the ice chests with a mixture of bream and crappie.
“Ricky,” he spoke for the first time since we had launched the boat, “we have a couple of more bends to make in the creek, before coming to a log under the water . . . .”
“Yes, sir,” I said, assuming that once we reached the log, we would turn around and fish our way up the creek.
When we rounded the second bend I noticed the creek widened considerably. We began tossing the fish in a second ice chest in the hundred-yard long section of the creek. I was too busy fishing to think about the log anymore, when suddenly: bump. The boat stopped moving as the nose rested on the unseen log. He used his paddle to hold the boat still, while water lapped at the back of the boat.
“I told Merlene we would bring her some sassafras roots and mayhaws back. To do that, we have to go another half-mile or so downstream where there is a thicket of mayhaw trees. I think there are some sassafras trees close by as well,” he explained to me.
“How are we going to move the boat over the log?” I asked him, “And what are mayhaws?”
“Simple. I’m going to climb out and stand on the log and hold the boat still. You’re going to walk to the front of the boat and climb out on the other side,” he explained. “We’ll stand on the log and slide the boat across. Then I’ll climb in. When I do, you let go of the boat, and I’ll walk to the front end, sit down and paddle back to you, so you can climb in.”
“What?” I asked him suddenly, shaking my head side-to-side.
He started over. “I’ll climb out . . . .”
“I got that. But, we’re going to stand on the log, which is underwater, and slide the boat across?” I asked him incredulously.
“Yep. It’s the only way to get the boat further down the stream. It’s been a long time since anyone fell in the creek, and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing big enough in it to eat you. You’re not afraid of the water are you?” he asked.
“No, sir, but there is a good chance I am going to get wet. How deep is the water?” I responded.
“Not sure, but it’s been years since I’ve seen an alligator in here,” he finished, chuckling.
He got out of the boat on the left side, and stood in water just over his boot tops. He bent over, and held the boat steady as I began to crawl forward. I slithered to the front and stuck my hand into the water, to be sure there was going to be a log on my side of the boat as well. There was.
I got to my knees and planted a foot through three inches of silt and slime, settling it firmly onto the log. I steadied it and placed my other foot beside it. Together, we scooted the boat across, and I held it steady by the corner as he placed a wet foot onto my seat in the boat.
“Once I have my feet in the boat, you can let go. I can walk from one end of the boat to the other, whether it’s moving, or not, without falling down,” he stated matter-of-factly.
He put his other wet foot onto my seat. I knew he was a man of his words, so I let go of the boat, but remained bent over - afraid to stand erect in case I slipped, and fell head first into the murkiness, where an alligator might, or might not still be making its home. He took five careful steps standing upright with his hands to his side, while the boat was gently carried downstream by the current. He reached the front and sat down gracefully on the seat. He picked up his paddle while I remained hunched over on the log and watched him. I looked down at my ruined Nikes, and felt myself teetering slightly. I adjusted my glance back to him, in an effort to overcome the dizziness I felt, knowing I was standing on a slime covered log barely under the surface of the water.
When he got my end of the boat back to me, I tentatively stepped into the boat and felt my other foot slip on the log. I moved quickly and managed to sit in the wet seat, but found myself facing the back of the boat. I looked around to see if he had noticed. He was again paddling gently, this time with his left hand while fishing with his right.
We floated down the stream as I soaked up the water he had left in my seat. I started to turn around in my seat and the boat tottered dangerously, sloshing water into my end of the boat. I straightened back up and turned the other way, but again the boat rocked severely, and more water entered the back of the boat. I was still facing out the rear, and my feet were almost up under my seat with my knees hanging over the rear of the boat.
Maybe he didn’t notice my predicament. I decided to remain facing the rear, and picked up my jig pole, when he spoke up. I jumped, ashamed at my clumsiness, but listened as calmly said, “You’re not going to fall out.”
“Good chance I will,” I uttered to him over my shoulder.
“No, no, I’ll keep the boat from tipping over. Trust me, you’re not going to fall out,” he reassured me in a fatherly manner.
Trust him. I thought about this for a few seconds. I had married his youngest daughter, after only dating for six months. He had performed the wedding ceremony himself, as he had for the three older children. He had his doubts about the marriage, but I trusted him as surely as my wife did.
Gently, I placed my pole back in the boat and reached down the length of my soaking pants legs, and grabbed my right foot with both hands. Sitting straight up, I pulled my foot behind the seat, doing my best to keep it from swinging outside the boat. I was now contorted in a form of the front-to-back splits. I could feel a spasm moving up from the back of my knee into my butt cheek, so I placed my hands on each side of the boat and rose up on my right knee while dragging my other leg across the seat.
I was on both knees, bowing in a prayerful manner across the seat, wet all the way to my knees with the water which had sloshed into the rear of the boat. My seat was now shining with the slime of moss which had scraped off my shoes when I dragged them across it. Slowly, I pushed myself up and turned gently, settling my backside once again on a cold, wet, and now slimy seat. I pretended nothing strange had gone on and from his lack of reaction, nothing had. In fact, he had managed to catch three or four more fish since he had encouraged me to turn the right direction.
We were now in a part of the creek with steep six- and eight-foot tall mud banks, with little vegetation growing on them. He looked back at me and pointed to a tree whose roots shot out from a bank. He paddled benignly to the opposite side, still fishing as we went along. I looked at the three inches of water in my end of the boat, and wondered where the warm sun had disappeared.
“Ricky, get your paddle. We’re going to paddle this thing like a canoe – quick and fast into the far bank,” he said “We’ve got to get the front end of the boat up on that bank, so I can step out at the water’s edge before walking to the top and tie the boat to a tree.”
“Yes, sir,” I managed through a shiver.
Grasping my paddle firmly, we made three hard strokes in unison, before striking the bank square. In a flash, he was on his knees in his seat. He jumped out like a cat and calmly planted both of his feet at the water’s edge. He stood still for a moment, before taking three huge steps on his way to the top. I sat watching him, until the boat was securely tied off. Slowly, I again crawled to the front.
Turning to look down at me, he said, “You can stay in the boat and wait or climb on up and help.”
I determinedly stood up, and placed one foot on the bank next to his footprints. Carefully, I placed the other one next to it. I looked up the bank to pick out the three or four places I would need to put my feet in order to climb it.
I lunged to the first spot and grabbed hold of a root from the tree to the right of my head in order to get balanced. I was preparing to take my second lunging step when suddenly the root broke and both of my feet slipped out from under me. I landed face down and began sliding into the creek.
My left hand clawed at the bank, while the other firmly held onto the broken root. When I stopped sliding, I was in water up to my armpits, and had mud clinging to my hair, and dripping off my nose and chin. I still had one hand firmly on the bank, and I looked up at the trail my fingers had made in the bank during my descent.
With alligators on my mind, I exploded out of the water and climbed the bank in two gigantic steps. I fell down in the leaves at the top, trembling, and ready to cry. Crap! I had made a fool of myself with my bride’s dad, on our very first fishing trip together.
“I should have brought a camera,” he laughed out loud, “Nobody is going to believe what just happened.” He continued laughing, and piped up, “I knew Jesus could walk on water. You came awful close yourself, son!”
Rolling over, I stood up. I was soaked in creek water, had mud and leaves all over the front of me, from my hair down to my socks. My Nikes were somewhere in the bottom of the creek. I looked over my shoulder at the creek and both feet shot out from under me again. I landed with a jolt and felt myself start the face down descent over the creek bank once again.
Thrashing around, I managed to grab a root, firmly entrenched in the soil at the top of the bank. I hung over the bank from the waist down, and felt my pants turn loose, and begin their own descent. My father-in-law grabbed me by the back of the shirt and pulled me away from the creek, as I clawed in an effort to help myself, while trying to keep from losing my pants in the creek. Finally, I was over the lip of the bank, sitting up, with the waist of my pants around my knees, and barefoot.
I saw my socks floating down the stream as effortlessly as the boat had earlier when my father-in-law walked on water himself.
Looking up at him, I waved a hand at the socks meandering along with one hand while gesturing wildly at my half-clothed body. Fighting the urge to holler, my voice cracked flatly, “I still don’t know what mayhaws are. But, after all this . . . they had better be good with sassafras tea.”
John Ragsdale, Jr. lives in McGehee, Arkansas, with his wife, Teresa. He is currently a student at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. They have one son, RC, who attends college in Russellville, Arkansas.
John Ragsdale, Jr.