As I said, I was around seven or eight years old, sitting at the supper table along with my grandmother, Uncle Mace, Aunt Louse, cousin Roger, and my granddaddy. He was a modest man, well-liked in the farming community where he would have been recognized as reliable, using common-sense, competent, generous, and soft-spoken. He was the kind of fellow who could slip into the annual turkey shoot with his age-old shotgun and bring home the turkey, out-shooting all the competition with their latest Browning, Winchester, Remington double-barrel pump action weapons.
And for the sake of this fishing tale, I should also say a little something about his religion. I say "little" because he said little about his faith. A Christian, if you had to hang a label on him, one who attended church on most Sundays, he may have been "devout" but you would not have known it from any outward demonstration of piety -- except perhaps for one thing. It had to do with his work.
He farmed, growing tobacco and corn which were the source of livelihood for many in the rural eastern county of Horry, South Carolina. The entire economy of that region leaned heavily on the hard labor of its farmers, the weather, and "luck," although my granddaddy would likely have said that we create our luck for the most part with our hands -- working the black dirt of that very fertile land.
So he grew tobacco, tending the seeds in their pristinely crafted "beds," pulling the plants up when they grew to six inches or so, transplanting them in long rows with a hand-operated funnel-like planter, and cultivating the growing stalks until the five weeks of harvest arrived, mid-to-late June. Then the leaves would be strung on tobacco sticks and hung up on tiers in a barn where the leaves would be dried with heat-filled flues spanning the barns until the green, gummy leaves became golden brown, making them the highest grade for buyers of big large tobacco companies who would come to town in August, filling the warehouses with lots of merriment, chatter, auctioneering, and maybe the reward of paying the exhausted farmers the tobacco companies' highest dollar.
But that depended upon the shade, texture, and general quality of the tobacco leaves my granddaddy brought to market. In other words, all the hard work in growing tobacco filtered down through the long weeks of spring and then summer when the tobacco stick laced with green leaves would be hung in the barns for a week at a time to be "cured." Everything depended upon the curing -- establishing the right temperature for the leaves to undergo an alchemical transformation to the golden color that would then be processed by the makers of Lucky Strike, Camel, Phillip Morris, Cool, Chesterfield, Winston cigarettes, and other "fine tobaccos."
You can imagine how tedious this process was. It would take five or six days of curing time during which the farmers kept close watch on the tobacco leaves inside the barns of some 40X40 feet and 50 feet high, heated by "burners" fueled by large tanks of petroleum. A matter of changing temperature in the barn within an hour or so could make the difference in the quality of one barn of tobacco, which could account for a fifth of the farmer's income for a year. So intense was this process that some farmers would spend their nights at the barns waking up hourly to monitor the curing process.
Over the course of five to six days, many farmers monitored the curing process from beginning to end. But my granddaddy would not. If the span of days should include a Sunday, he would turn off the burners on Saturday night at 12:00, and fire them up again Sunday night at 12:00, regardless of where the tobacco was in the process of curing. No one knew this except for the family, and he never talked about it. I mention this only to give an example of his religious practice, or as he might have said, "to honor the sabbath." For him, it was a matter of living what he quietly believed. Looking back now some fifty years, we cannot fail to see the irony that this well-intended, good man would excel in producing a product which would bring disease and death to thousands of people. That consciousness never entered his awareness, nor that of his friends who shared his vocation and his amicable life-style.
Which brings me at last to the tale of "the fish that did not stay for supper but made my granddaddy laugh." It begins with a Saturday fishing trip for two old friends, my granddaddy and Archie Allen. Archie was a good fishing buddy for my granddaddy but it was a relationship whose chemistry was composed of contrasting qualities. Archie was a talker, not hesitant to talk about himself and to extol his relationship with the Almighty. In other words, he seemed to feel it a duty to share his piety with others.
How my granddaddy put up with Archie's freely sharing can only be accounted for by the fact that Archie also believed you had to maintain silence while fishing in order to not scare the big ones away. So they fished together. And on this particular day of the fishing tale, Archie did indeed hook a large Bream. Then, looking over at my granddaddy who had not even had a bite all day, Archie convincingly said, "And thank you, Lord, for this meal of which we will partake." At which time, the Bream turned loose Archie's hook and returned to its nest.
But the tale does not end there. That night as we gathered for supper, during a lull in our table chatter, my granddaddy obviously wanted to say something he had been sitting on. And out came the story of Archie's hooking a big fish, proclaiming his deep piety by giving thanks to the Lord, only to have the fish drop off Archie's line.
I remember that moment vividly. We all sat quietly until he finished bringing us up to that point on the fishing trip. Then he got very still as if there might be something more to say. We waited. Suddenly, he started to laugh, and we all joined in, imagining Archie's face when he lost that Bream for which he had already said grace.
After we all settled down, having enjoyed a great laugh together, not much more was said that night about the fishing trip. But I will not forget the way my granddaddy laughed. It was not just at Archie but at an immodest display of piety receiving its just due, maybe even at the ways of God's mysterious workings of the universe, and a sign that things are not always what they appear to be on the surface.
Who knows all that was going on in my young mind. I think in some way not yet conscious at the time, I must have experienced some comfort in sensing that there is a purposive unfolding of life, leaning toward justice and right-ness -- a way of life's deep Mystery that sometimes appears with humor.
In any case, when I consider the unfolding of our life in this present moment, filled with conflicts, wars and threats of wars, the collapse of our institutions, the jingoism and narcissistic preening spilling out of the highest office of our land -- at such a time when it might be easy to give in to our fears -- I continue to hold faith in a purposive unfolding of our universe. With patience, if we hold steady, we will laugh together on that day when the other shoe, like Archie's fish, will drop.