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Something Heavy on the Line! A Fish Tale — Maybe?

When I was growing up our family vacations were spent in the Sabine River Bottom in Panola County near Beckville, Texas. Daddy did a lot of hunting and fishing primarily to put food on the table; however, undoubtedly, he enjoyed the sport as he continued to fish and hunt long after the catch or the kill was needed to feed the family. 

Fishing trips were large extended family affairs with Daddy, Papa Sammie (his dad, my grandfather), and uncles fishing, Mama and the other women mostly cooking, and us kids playing. We built forts with pine straw walls in the woods, ran our cars and trucks over roads bulldozed in the sand with sturdy sticks, and built sandcastles and dug wells in white sandbars just feet from the river’s edge. It was a race to see who would hit water first.

Dad’s trotline hooks

Daddy took his fishing seriously. For something that was supposed to be fun, it appeared to me he was working awfully hard at it. He kept his fishing gear in meticulous order with neat balls of twine filling several five-gallon buckets. Hundreds of hooks of various sizes, some as large as three inches, with their tails of fishing line dangling were arranged by size and hooked over the lip of the buckets. As a kid, I did not actually go fishing with Daddy. My adventures in the boat were limited to the obligatory boat ride which usually came after Mama’s admonishment, “Bubba, you take those kids for a ride before you take the boat out of the water!” It was the rare occasion, and usually after much pleading and whining, that Daddy let me go in the boat with them to “run the lines.” 

When that happened, I was positioned on the middle seat of the fourteen-foot Jon boat. Papa Sammie was in the back running the motor, and Daddy in the front handling the trotlines. My orders, “Be still, be quiet, and don’t touch anything.” Which I did, only occasionally succumbing to the temptation to extend my hand and let the water ripple over my fingers as the boat sped down the river. Well, at least as fast as the little three-horsepower Johnson outboard motor could manage.

I continued to “whine” my way into the boat.  I learned to run the motor literally under Papa Sammie’s hand. He moved me to the back seat with him, put my hand on the throttle, and covered it with his hand. My hand made every twist and turn of the throttle as we maneuvered the curves and bends of the river and made sure Daddy was in the correct position to run the trotlines. I learned to watch Daddy’s head and hands as he nodded or pointed to indicate the location of a trotline, a turn in the river, or a hazard – sunken tree trunk or submerged rock – to avoid. I had to watch him closely as I could not see the front of the boat around him. 

Sometimes when Daddy picked up the trotline to check it, he might say, “Something heavy on the line.”  This was a signal that we might have a big fish somewhere on one of the deeper hooks.  These words were often echoed by the line itself. I could see the line trembling in Daddy’s hand and flickering in the water from the pull and weight of whatever might be on it. “Something heavy on the line,” was spoken with a broad grin. Daddy’s playful bantering would continue as he pulled the line across the bow of the boat checking and rebaiting every hook. “Something heavy on the line! What do you think we’ve got? Bet it’s an old turtle.” Or “This might be the big one! May just be that old blind eel” Blind eel, aka a big stick snagged on the hook. Daddy took his fishing seriously, and he was having fun. I was having fun, and we were enjoying it together.

 Over the years, the “something heavy on the line” varied from an old, water-logged boot, turtles not nearly as big or fierce as the fight they gave the line, and blind eels too numerous to count. And, yes, there were the big fish as well. Mostly Blue and Channel Catfish with the occasional flathead –Appaloosa Catfish – one weighing in at 48 pounds and as long as I was tall. 

Big Cypress Bayou at Dad’s property

I will always remember the last time I went fishing with Dad.  I was visiting him at the River House in the Spring of 2010, his 79th year, and the first anniversary of Mom’s death. Dad had taken an early medical retirement, and in 1986 they acquired property on Big Cypress Bayou just outside of Jefferson, Texas. In 1991 it became their permanent home. Dad had put some trotlines in the Bayou during the spring rains, an annual ritual as he always claimed, and often proved, the fish were biting when the water was rising or falling. The water was now falling. He asked, “You want to go with me? I need to take up some lines before the water gets too low.” My quick response,”Sure!” Even as an adult, I never missed a chance for a boat ride with Dad.”

He fired up the motor — a 25 horsepower Evinrude – and we headed east down the bayou.  The river raced under us. We rounded a couple of natural bends in the river before Dad turned the boat slightly to the right and entered the “government ditch.” To the left I could see the narrow, less navigated path of the old bayou. The “ditch” was dredged in the late 1800’s. It allowed quicker and easier passage for steamboats paddling from Shreveport to Jefferson and back on their trek to and from New Orleans. Just before the ditch merged back into the river, Dad cut the throttle to a near stop and made a sharp right turn into what most folks would think was a brush thicket. We maneuvered our way through a bit of narrow shallows and came out in a small lake area filled with ancient bald cypress trees some with aprons six to eight feet across and moss hanging from branch to water. We were now on the Little Cypress Bayou.

Dad knew the rivers like the back of his hand. He motored through the cypress trees and into the much narrower channel of the bayou. He could find the most remote locations, often far into the flood waters of the river, for his trotlines.  The only problem being that when the water level began to fall those locations were more difficult to reach.  Such was the case today as our passage was hampered by submerged tree trunks and branches. Numerous times Dad shouted above the motor’s roar, “Hang on!” as he throttled up the motor and jumped the obstacle, each time pulling the motor shaft up enough for the propeller to clear. Afterwards grinning and chuckling, “Now wasn’t that fun!” I was again having fun fishing with Daddy.

At the first line I moved to the back of the boat, and Daddy took his seat in the bow.  As he ran and took up the line, I watched him carefully remove any catch (we got a few), pull the slip knot on the hook line removing it from the main line, sling any trash off the line and hook, and then carefully place the hook over the lip of the white plastic five-gallon bucket. Once he reached the far end of the line, he pulled the slip knot that secured it and began rolling it up into a perfectly round ball of twine. This process slowly pulled the boat back to the other end of the line where Dad tugged the slip knot then wrapped and secured the end of the line before placing the ball in the bucket. His ability and agility with the slip knots always amazed me. He never had to struggle with unwanted tangles and knots in the line.  Lots of practice makes perfect!

I was a bit surprised when Dad asked, “Can you take me to the next lines?” I said, “Sure,” started the motor, and with a bit of trepidation, as I had not done this for several years, began to watch his nodding head and hand gestures for directions. All went well! I banked or bumped him only a couple of times as we checked and took up several more lines.

As he grabbed the last line, he cocked his head back at me and grinned. I heard the familiar words, “Something heavy on the line!” I perked up, “Really!” Then there was no doubt. I could see the line go slack and then taut, buzzing at the water’s surface. There was indeed something heavy on the line! We speculated back and forth about what it might be – a big Appaloosa, maybe a pesky turtle, the blind eel was eliminated quickly as there was too much fight in the line. Dad continued his task removing a couple of small catfish and the hooks as he went, often repeating, “Something heavy on the line,” as his efforts to hold the line became more obvious.

I was watching the show with growing anticipation and had gotten my little flip phone out in preparation to get a photo of whatever we had caught. Suddenly the water to my left rolled and boiled as a large gaping, hissing open mouth came up and hit the side of the boat at my elbow. Scared the B’Jesus out of me! I stood up as I jumped to the other side of the boat – by the way, something you should never do in a boat. 

“What was that?” I gasped.

Dad was wide-eyed as he said, “I don’t know, I never saw it coming. Are you okay? Did it get you?”

“I’m okay,” I said, clearly rattled — shaking like a leaf.

It came to the surface again. A huge, no doubt ancient, Alligator Snapping Turtle — It’s pink, fleshy open mouth big enough to fit two large grapefruits. As it went back beneath the churning waters, I caught a glimpse of its black shiny, spiked shell bigger than a hubcap.

Dad speculated that it was still at least two to three hooks down the line from the boat. In my fright I had not gotten a picture. I asked him to try to pull it up again. I took a couple of shots as Dad strained to bring it to the surface. It was heavy — over 100 pounds according to Dad as measured by his efforts to pull it up.

Now what? We quickly decided we did not want the monster in the boat. How was it hooked? Could we get it unhooked without risking life or limb? Was it injured to the point that it would die? That last question was more mine than Dad’s. He hated turtles and often fussed about them “stealing” the bait off his trotlines. He said, “If I had my pistol, I would shoot it.” He would have regardless of their endangered species recognition. Well, maybe not, if I asked him not to. I was glad he did not have his pistol. 

Dad pulled the line in closer and saw that the hook was in the webbing of the turtle’s hind foot thus explaining how it was able to thrash the water and surface so far from the trotline. Given the length of the hook line and the length of the turtle with extended neck and hind leg, the possibility was six to seven feet. Dad made a couple of attempts to remove the hook from the turtle’s foot; however, with the nearer proximity the snapping and thrashing of jaws and razor-sharp claws was daunting and dangerous. As Dad pulled the slip knot on the hook line he said, “We’re letting you go, hook and all, old man.” Watching Dad methodically ball the trotline twine was calming as my heart rate and breathing returned to normal. He took the motor seat, fired up the engine, and said, “We’ve had our thrill for the day. Let’s go to the house.”

Dad with one of his “heavy” catches!

Dad and I reminisced the fun, excitement, and fright of that afternoon many times over the next couple of years. In the years since Dad’s death the expression “Something heavy on the line,” continues to bring fond memories and has taken on new meaning as Dad’s death was surely, “something heavy on the line.” How often in life do we experience “something heavy on the line” – something heavy and hard in our lives. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere, unexpected and disturbs our peace. Sometimes we anticipate it, yet still surprised or frightened when it appears. What do we do with it? Where and how has it hooked us? How long do we struggle and wrestle with it? When is it in our best interest to let it go? All questions we must ask and answer when there’s “something heavy on the line.”

Paying Attention with Rachel Held Evans

There has been a great deal already said and written to memorialize and honor the life of Rachel Held Evens, yet, for some reason, I feel compelled to add my voice. When word of her death came across my newsfeed, I was shocked. Such an untimely death at 37-years old and seemingly unexplainable causes even in the midst of such modern medical technology and treatment. Though I only knew RHE through her writing, I immediately felt a void, a loss, and a profound sense of grief in my soul even as I tried to wrap my brain around the fact of her death. My heart ached for her family, her husband, Dan, and their two small children who might not ever remember their mother.

Upon hearing of her death I immediately went to my bookshelf and pulled out Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, published in April 2015. I find it interesting that April 2015 also marked my leaving the church I loved. I have been a Christian and a member of an evangelical church since I was 13; however, on April 26, 2015, at age 64 I left the church. I had been a member of this particular church for almost 15 years. I was feeling unmoored. Full of questions and doubting the dogma and doctrine I had proclaimed for decades. I discovered Searching for Sunday and read it in December 2015. As I read I felt a kindred spirit with RHE. I was not alone in my questions, doubts, and leaving.

My Searching for Sunday is dog-eared, underlined and heavy with sticky notes. In rereading passages since RHE’s death I am, again, awed by the biblical knowledge, spiritual depth, and courageous, prophetic voice of this young woman. In my reading I was struck with her frequent exhortation—Pay attention!

With all the words that have already been said/written in the last week about Rachel Held Evans, I can think of no better way to honor her life and work than to share her own words: 

Rachel Held Evans
June 8, 1981 – May 4, 2019

The kingdom (of God) knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture. It advances not through power and might, but through acts of love and joy and peace, missions of mercy and kindness and humility.

“So, too the Spirit, inhaled and exhaled in a million quotidian ways, animates, revives, nourishes, sustains, speaks.  It is as near as the nose and as everywhere as the air, so pay attention.”   —page161

“ . . .the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s as invisible as your breath but as certain as your skin, so pay attention and don’t forget who you are.”         –page 163

“The Spirit is like a bird, . . . The Spirit is as common as a cooing pigeon and transcendent as a high-flying eagle.  So look up and sing back, catch the light of God in a diaphanous scrim of wing. Pay attention.”          –page 163

“The spirit is like a womb, from which the living are born again. We emerge—lashes still wet from the water, eyes unadjusted to the light—into a reanimated and freshly charged world. There are so many new things to see, so many gifts to give and receive, so many miracles to baffle and amaze, if only we pay attention, if only we let the Spirit surprise and God catch our breath.”       –page 164

“When the Spirit lives within you, any place can become a sanctuary. You just have to listen. You just have to pay attention.      –page 180

“And when we check our pride long enough to pay attention to the presence of the Spirit gusting across the globe, we catch glimpses of a God who defies our categories and expectations, a God who both inhabits and transcends our worship, art, theology, culture, experiences, and ideas.”              –page 184

“This is what’s most annoying and beautiful about the windy Spirit and why we so often miss it. It has this habit of showing up in all the wrong places and among all the wrong people, defying our categories and refusing to take direction . . . .God is present both inside and outside the traditional church, working all sorts of everyday miracles to inspire and change us if only we pay attention.”         —page197

“ . . . it’s the way God shows up in those everyday moments—loading the dishwasher, sharing a joke, hosting a meal, enduring an illness, working through a disagreement—and gives us the chance to notice, to pay attention to the divine. It’s the way the God of resurrection makes all things new.               –page 247

“The kingdom isn’t some far-off place you go when you die; the kingdom is at hand—among us and beyond us, now and not-yet. It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in a sepulchral shell. It can come and go in the twinkling of an eye. Jesus said. So pay attention; don’t miss it.                  –page 252

“Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”*                 –page 258

Rachel Held Evans will be greatly missed by her family, friends, and a multitude of others like me. May we remember her spirit, her life, and her message. May we pay attention and be moved by the Spirit as it breezes and blows through our lives and world in all sorts of ways. May we not miss it—the kingdom, God is here!  

*All quotations are taken from Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church,Nelson Books, 2015.

Turn This World Around

I tugged several of my old college literature anthologies from the bottom bookshelf yesterday. No, not to do any serious study, but to use as weight for a gluing project! A paper filled with my handwriting fell from one of the books. The writing was in verse form, so I thought perhaps an old poem I had written and tucked away.  I have a tendency to do that – start a writing project and put it away not to be found until years later, if at all. But this was not my “writing.” It was the lyrics to an old Amy Grant song, “Turn This World Around.” Apparently the song had some special meaning for me in 1997 since I had taken the time and effort to record the lyrics. The song was included in her Behind The Eyes album released in September 1997 and written by Amy Grant, Beverly Darnall, and Keith Thomas.

Reflecting back on my 1997, in and of itself, it was not a good year, and September was particularly difficult. It was a year of losses and reversals in every area of life – professional, relationship, financial, and health. I could certainly relate to the melancholic melody and many passages in the lyrics of “Turn This World Around.” I was living in the midst of “broken promises and dreams” even as I struggled to carry on “in good disguise.” I needed “somewhere safe and warm” and was thankful for the shelter of friends during this stormy time in my life. I had to “turn and face (my) fears”– the fear of more losses and rejection from family, friends, and the church as I began to acknowledge my same-sex orientation after decades of living in hiding and pretense. I learned to “reach out through (my) tears” and discovered “it’s really not that far to where Hope can be found.”

After finding the paper I dug through my old CD’s. I found it! I had bought it which was something I rarely did. As I listened I recalled the solace and encouragement I had found in other songs in the album such as “I Will Be Your Friend,” “It Takes a Little Time,” Missing You,” and “Somewhere Down the Road.” Today I look at this decades old piece of paper, read these words, and am thankful for how my world was turned around in 1997, albeit after it was turned upside down. Today I hear a more universal and much needed message for our world. The message that behind our eyes “we are all the same it seems.” We all want to be safe and warm and find shelter with others through the storms of our lives. We all need to face our fears and reach out to the other in the midst of suffering—ours and theirs. It is the reaching out and acknowledging the “hunger and longing” that we all know inside that “could be the bridge between us if we tried.”

We all know our world needs to turn around. We are headed in the wrong direction. Look no further than the death and destruction resulting from the numerous and lengthy armed conflicts throughout the world. Grasp the magnitude  of gun violence, the global refugee crisis, increased human trafficking, and world hunger levels rising. We are the world! Only we, working individually and corporately with one another throughout our communities, cities, states, provinces, districts and countries, can turn this world around. Maybe one day we will turn and see behind the eyes of all our brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity and see our sameness, reach out to one another, and experience the will and kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yes, maybe one day – maybe in this New Year!

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