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10 days at Uncle Jim’s



In mid July of 1956, I was ready to enter third grade and my brother, Keith “Keeter”, was all set to become a first grader when we were ready to enter the hallowed halls of Blair Branch Grade School, a few short weeks later.

In the meantime, we had 10 days of vacation to enjoy at our Uncle Jim and Aunt Alpha’s home at UZ (pronounced You-zee) situated there in Letcher County on the bank of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.

You may find it difficult to believe that an 8-1/2 year-old boy can retain a lot of memory into his 70-year-old self, but I assure you, the memories of that vacation are more firmly etched in my mental being than a lot of stuff I did last week.

For example, I have no idea where I put my leather pipe tobacco pouch last Friday. I’ve been looking for it ever since. Ask me where Uncle Jim’s shiny Shakespeare, fiberglass, bait casting rod and reel was placed in July of 1956, 63 years ago, and I can spend a paragraph telling you the exact spot where it was located in his thick-walled, cut-stone utility building. I can also tell you that he had three other rods with black Bakelite and metal reels, mounted on short spring-steel rods, stacked beside the high-end Shakespeare and that one of them was made by Ithaca. Half a dozen bamboo river cane fishing poles were propped up outside the building because they were far too long, 10 or 12 feet, to fit inside.

There may have been such things as spinning reels and plastic, monofilament fishing line on the market in 1956, but they had yet to have any appeal to Uncle Jim. By the early ‘60s he had Zebco 33s and Johnson Century spinning reels with matching rods, but on that magical vacation of 1956 the line was braided “cat gut” line on bait casting reels that had scant utility for two little boys.

We were allowed to use the rods and reels, but only if we got the tangles out of the line every time it backlashed and made “crow’s nest” inside the reels. That happened every time we tried to make a cast. The untangling could take up to an hour, unless we sneaked around and enlisted help from Aunt Alpha.

She would say, “Now don’t tell your Uncle Jim, ‘cause I’m not supposed to be doing this. You have to learn yourself.” Then she would untangle, in less than a minute, the mess we’d made. She also showed us how to lay the rods down, gently pull out 20 feet or so of line and coil it up on the riverbank. Then we’d take the baited hook and sinker and heave it out into a fishing hole. I caught a few red eyes (rock bass) using that technique but it seemed more trouble than it was worth.

Keeter and I spent most of our time wading a long, shallow, gravel covered shoal that was probably 400 feet long and stretched from the back of their house to a place where automobiles and horses could drive or wade across the river. If we ventured upstream of the house or below the crossing, wading and/or fishing would be over for that day. I don’t recall ever getting caught on such a trespass but I’m sure I must have tried because that’s just the way I was and still am.

We would spend mornings, then the hot hours of the day, Keeter on one side of the seine and yours truly on the other, searching for soft crawdads and grampus (hellgrammites) as we kicked up small rocks and gravels where the bait might be hiding. Ten hours of bait catching netted us two hours fishing in “the big hole” with Uncle Jim and/or Aunt Alpha from after supper until dark.

Uncle Jim would tell as that a grampus was as good as having a bass on the stringer if we could get it on a fishhook. He was deathly scared of them because they would pinch and bring blood. I can recall grabbing them by the head with pliers while he quickly got the hook baited.

By the end of that vacation, I had given up on the fishing rods and decided the long cane poles had far more utility if I really wanted to catch fish. I caught my first smallmouth bass on one and broke the pole trying to land another one. Those heart-pumping, adrenalin rushes from the summer of ‘56 left me forever addicted to the fishing habit.

If Mr. Parkinson would cooperate, I would be on a creek bank right now.

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Our landline telephone has a feature that allows it to keep a record of the last 50 calls that were made to it. Between just-past noon last Tuesday and this past Friday evening — call it three days and six hours — we received exactly 50 calls.

A quick review of those calls revealed that 19 of them were from people we either wanted to talk to, or would have, had we been able to get to the phone. Thirteen of the calls went to the answering machine, where one caller actually left a message, while the remaining dozen simply hung up.

I’m not sure how many of the 19 legitimate callers we actually engaged in conversation, but I think it’s probably safe to say that we never spoke a word to the other 31.

Some of the 31 dud calls came from Denton, Texas; Phoenix Arizona; Dover and Wilmington, Delaware; Hollywood and Pensacola, Florida; Trenton, New Jersey; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Spokane, Washington: Cleveland, Tennessee and Akron, Ohio.

Some even identified themselves. Taxation Today, Humana, Strauss 6, Chiropractic Plus and Medicare Pros were among last Thursday’s callers. Social Security Solutions may have gone out of business. I didn’t see them on the list all week and they usually call twice a day. With the exception of Humana, which occasionally will leave a message that may or may not be relevant, we have explicitly told all the identified callers to cease and desist.

So, what I want to know is what happened to all those promises to stop this aggravation? We signed up at least half a dozen times to have our names and numbers put on “no call” lists. Most of the big national charities and fraternal orders of law enforcement scams actually stopped interrupting our suppers for a few months, but it’s not unusual for one of them to chime in from time to time.

Remember that TV lawyer firm (Morgan & Morgan) that promised to get you up to $1,500 for every unwanted call? I never took them up on the offer, even though I could really use the $46,500 that I might deserve for last week’s calls.

Shoot, if I’d signed on way back when, I might be a billionaire by now!

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