Big Willie The Catfish, Louella and Liz

catfishThe true story about the day my cousins and I caught Big Willie and I got my butt beat.

We grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas and my family had a lovely 1960s condo on Lake Hamilton.

At seven, Liz was our beautiful, blond brutal dictator, I was the goofy looking six year old and Mikey was a scrawny tough ass five year old who would bow up on a bus or throw down with a bear. He was too stupid or stubborn to realize he only weighed fifty pounds. Mike thought he was Tarzan and Cold Stone Steve Austin rolled up in a taco with hot sauce.  At five he was a hard core bad ass.

We  were young but together we were formidable and frightening, full of really bad ideas and virtually unsupervised for weeks at a time. At my house the only adult who ever attempted to keep an eye on us was Louella, our friend and maid for more than thirty years.

There was a lady who lived at the end of our boardwalk named Mrs. Williams. Every day at four she would lovingly feed all her “pet” fish in Lake Hamilton. She tossed out hand fulls of corn and bread then watched as schools of fish appeared. There was one massive, elephant sized catfish who showed up every afternoon, named Big Willie.  He was nearly as long as a baseball bat and as fat as a foot ball. This guy was beautiful. And Mrs. Williams loved him.

Liz, Mike and I were not allowed to fish anywhere near her end of the boardwalk but one day…Mrs Williams went on vacation.

Brown and barefooted, wearing nothing but groovy swimsuits, we hauled our fishing gear to the end of the boardwalk ten minutes after Mrs. Williams backed out of her parking spot.

Mikey bounced up and down on his skinny little legs as we watched the fish circling under the dark water.  We threw in a hand full of corn and the fish went crazy. Lake Hamilton boiled with fishy action.

Liz packed a piece of hot dog and a bread ball onto a hook and dropped  the line in. Mikey and I  were lying on our bellies, staring at the fish. Then it happened. The line went taunt and Liz sarted saying, “Holy crap, holy crap.”  Reeling hard, Liz leaned back and Mike and I jumped to our feet.  Instantly,we realized she had hooked Big Willie on the first try.  It was unbelievable  She cranked on the reel and we saw the massive gray fish rise to the surface then pull back on the line. The reel screamed. We were no match with out K-Mart Rod and Reel. Big Willie pulled line like a yo-yo. Liz screamed at Mike, “get the net, Michael Clark get the damn net!”

The net was taller than Mike, but he snatched it up then stared into the water, waiting for his chance to scoop up Big Willie. Liz made an executive decision, we couldn’t wait any longer. She shoved five year old Mikey into the lake and started screaming at him.  “Scoop him up,  Mike. Catch him.”

I helped her hold the rod as the fish tried to get away from Mike, his net and kicking legs.  There was fishing line, splashing, screaming and then suddenly Mike yelled, “He’s in!”

Tiny Mike tried to hold the net up as he treaded water but the fish weighed too much.  Liz dropped the pole and stretched out on the boardwalk to grab the net.  She pulled the net and the gigantic fish onto the hot wooden planks while I helped 50 pound Mike out of the water.

Liz had Big Willie, flopping furiously in the net. His catfish mouth gaped open, he looked so angry and slimy.  His whiskers were at least three inches long and we had no idea what to do with the monster.  The hook poked though his cheek and the bread ball was still on the hook in his mouth. His eyes rolled in our direction and we all stepped back.

Liz pushed Mike. “Get the hook out.”

“Hell no. He’ll get me .”

“You get the hook out,” I said to Liz.  She looked at me as thought I was made of cat poop and stupid. Then she picked up the net, we had to help her. And we walked toward my condo as Big Willie flopped.

Finally, we got Willie back to the condo.  Liz looked at me. “We can put him in the bathtub right? He’ll be ok.”

I nodded stupidly.

Then we smuggled Big Willie into the condo, we made it upstairs to the bathroom.  I filled the bathtub with cold water and Mike leaned against the door so Louella couldnt’ push it open  Finally, it was full. Mikey held the net as Liz and I raised the fishing pole Big Willie was still attached to.

We got him out of the net into the gleaming white tub. And for a little while, we all held the pole and watched him swim slowly around the tub. The hook was poking out of his face and he was tethered to our pole but he didnt seem to mind

Ginally Mike stepped into the bathtub and started laughing as the big fish swam past his leg.  Liz and I got in too and we giggled like maniacs as Big Willie swam between and past our legs.  Liz had the reel, then let line out, we picked up our feet so the line wouldn’t get tangled. We laughed so hard Mike started peeing in the tub.  The we laughed even harder…until Louella walked in.

It was terrible. She screamed until my Mom arrived. We had to take Willie to the lake, cut the line and let him go. Then I got a spanking and I’m pretty sure I could hear Liz and Mike laughing in the next room.

It was a great day

PS

Recently my cousin had surgery and the tough ass woman is back! I love you cuz and Bubba too.

The Strange Truth About Burly Webb

grizzlyWeird things have always happened in my life, crazy coincidences that defy explanation.  But one of the all time greats is a Hot Springs story.

Thirteen or fourteen years ago I wrote a novel, Invisible Branches.  It’s the story of a pregnant bookie in Hot Springs who decides to break away from her horrific boss.  He’s a pretty nasty dude who owns a bunch of strip joints and runs numbers.

I based this dangerous villain on a local man named Burly Webb. Burly owned or ran a lot of local late night clubs in the 80s and 90s.   Because so many folks were, ripped off, cheated, robbed and  savagely beaten in his parking lots, Burly had a pretty terrible reputation.

But for some strange reason, Burly and I became friends. He helped me out a couple of times and never asked anything in return. People under estimated him, and thought he was just a stupid violent guy. It’s true, he was uneducated but he was anything but stupid. He was however a very dangerous and violent man. Even my own brother, who was a professional smuggler, didn’t like the fact that I was friends with Burly Webb.

In the novel, the character Hurley, only had one leg.  He lost his foot and half a leg when he stepped in a bear trap in the woods. It was a pretty gruesome scene.

Before the book came out, I told Burly I’d written a story and he was the bad guy.  He thought that was just great and bought ten or twenty copies to keep at the bar. I doubt he ever read Invisible Branches but he loved knowing he’d been immortalized. People told him how horrible and monstrous his character was in the book and that just made him laugh.

Then something freaky happened. Six months after the book was published Burly was out in the woods cutting down a tree.  The chain saw slipped and he cut off his own leg, exactly where his character lost his.

The real Burly recovered, he got around on crutches after that. he still thought it was funny as Hell that he’d done virtually the same thing in the book. He never got mad at me but our friendship wasn’t quite the same.  I think made him a little nervous. and who can blame him?

Burly died a few years ago.  The character Hurley died too in a pretty nasty way.  I think about this strange coincidence sometimes and it reminds me how much power the written word holds. Humans are the only animals on the planet who have the ability to write things down, so when we do, we need to be careful and get it right.

 

The Madam in the Whore House Saves Dad’s Day

dad-4-with-pistol-3I’m rereading Slaughter House 5 by Kurt Vonnegut and stumbled across a line I didn’t understand before.  Vonnegut wrote about being free after the war. He is sent to France where they feed the soldiers “malted milkshakes and other rich foods until we were all covered with baby fat.”

My dad, I Granger McDaniel, told a funny/sad story about returning from the War. I was little when he would tell this story so I’ll probably have great big mistakes in this tale. Good news…you won’t know about them.

Once again, I’ve realized I’m the last one who is still alive in my family so I need to write down as many stories as possible for my kids. Once I’m gone….so are the stories.

Dad had been in the German POW camps for four years when he was suddenly freed.  Obviously, he was frighteningly skinny because he’d been  deprived of food for so long. And as the war progressed the rations became more and more meager.

Once a Red Cross package was delivered and a crazed young man in the barracks grabbed a whole pound of butter.  He ate it all at once before the other prisoners could get it away from him. The boy died a few hours latter and Dad was never sure why.

Once he was freed, Dad was delivered to London. In just a few weeks the British fattened him up so much he couldn’t button his pants.  His body was too happy to have food and held on to every calorie. As a result, after four years in a POW camp, he was a roly poly fat boy when he got home to Hot Springs, Arkansas. He said he could tell folks were a little disappointed by his appearance. They were expected a lean, prison hardened war hero.

After a few days at home Dad flew up to New York to see mom. Remember, they had been in love since third grade.  Mom had graduated from Vassar and was working as an actress and model in NYC. But they had written to each other throughout his four year prison stay and were already planning on getting married.

Typical of my parents, after a few days they got into a HUGE fight! Dad was so mad he actually flew back to England, thinking he still had a job with the RAF. But the war was over so dad found out they really didn’t need him. Everyone he had known in London was gone and he had no place to stay.

Depressed and lonesome he wandered through the streets of London in uniform. He’d been through so much but was still just a boy of 21 or 22.  It started raining as he walked on the cobblestone streets then suddenly he heard a shriek. Someone, a woman, was screaming to him, “Irvo! Irvo is that you? Irvo…up here!!!”  He spun around, looked up and saw an old fat woman with a great deal of make up, leaning out a third floor window, waving and flapping at him furiously. Walking back he realized it was the aging madam of a whore house he’d frequented. She took him in for a few nights until he found a way to get back to the States.

For years my mom and the madam kept in touch. As a child I loved the elaborate Christmas cards she sent  every year. In the seventies, my Mom toured Europe and tried to find the whore house and madam who took Dad in. But they were all gone. Nothing was left but the dark cobblestone streets of London.