I get the blues, big time, in late July and all through August now because the hottest weeks of summers are when my dearly departed fishing buddy, Junior Helton, could relax for a spell after he’d laid by his tobacco crop and dug out all the weeds he figured might aggravate his garden before picking time earnestly set in.
Junior left the putting up of stuff — the hard work of making kraut and canning beans, beets, blackberries, tomatoes, jams, jellies and relish, mostly just to Molly, his wife, who served, with him, as surrogate parents and grandparents to Loretta and me and our own little brood throughout the nearly three decades we lived in Garrard County before they passed on over to the other side.
I’ll never figure out just why the Heltons adopted us when we first moved to Harmon’s Lick in Garrard County in the early ’80s.
Maybe it had something to do with ties to Harlan County and maybe it was just that magical, magnetic thing that enables mountain people to find one another here in the flatlands of Kentucky after we leave the high country in search of that elusive better life. Suffice to say that we met and we bonded. I simply can’t remember just how it happened. The kinship was, apparently, just one of those natural things that happen like the weather or perhaps it was simply meant to be.
But, by 1984, we were fast friends, Junior and me, and we had discovered that we had much in common. We both loved to fish and hunt and work in the garden. And Loretta and our kids, by then, actually thought that Molly Helton had hung the moon. Loretta was as bonded to Molly as I was to Junior and everybody, the entire Helton clan and us, was bonded to Molly’s chicken and dumplings — her pot roasts and cornbread and God-given talent to make anything, absolutely anything, taste just so that you knew that Molly Helton had prepared the dish.
Junior is the only person I’ve ever known who could make his eyes twinkle on the phone. His sense of humor was such that he was always pulling the legs of anybody around him, but the dead giveaway was that his eyes twinkled while he tried to hide his grin.
He’d call me at the offi ce, this time of year, and ask what I was doing. Then he’d tell me about someone who knew someone who’d caught a big mess of catfish out of the Kentucky River. Or he knew a man who knew a man who’d let us drive right down to the creek on a godforsaken place on Paint Lick that hadn’t been fished in 20 years. I could hear, if not see, his eyes twinkling, as he reeled me in, but he knew I was a sucker.
I’d sneak off right after lunch and we’d catch bait with a minnow seine on Fall Lick, Back Creek, or some other little watershed with a knee-deep hole full of chubs and crawdads and, invariably, we’d come home with heavy strings of smallmouth bass or catfish or white perch. It may have happened, but of the hundreds of times that Junior Helton and I fished together, I can’t remember ever coming home empty handed.
On weekends we’d tow my bass boat, sometimes over a hundred miles, way down the river, or to Laurel River, Woods Creek, Herrington, Green River, or Cumberland Lake or even into Tennessee to fish after whatever was biting. But more often we just sneaked off to someplace close to home on hot July and August evenings where the shade was deep and dark under the willows and the water was still and deep out there in the creek where we fished off the bank.
I would listen as Junior told me a “One time me and . . .“ tale and know that I would one day be telling “One time me and Junior . ..” tales to another younger generation. I just wish that generation would hurry along.
One time me and Junior were sitting right here and he tossed out a big hard crawdad. Last one in the bucket and so mean it could pinch you and bring the blood. He throwed it right over yonder under the roots of that old sycamore and it never slowed down. Something grabbed it and kept right on going and Junior set the hook!
It would take me all the space in this paper to tell you that whole story, but Junior caught that flathead catfish on that old hard shell and it weighed over 15 pounds.
Junior Helton has been on the other side for nearly five years now. And my summers just turn more and more into melancholy. I desperately need a fishing buddy.