Fishing With Pieces of my Grandfather's Heart
by William Elmore Gann
There's a long story about my grandfather getting caught cavorting with a farm girl in a pokadot dress. It seems he had talked her into doing "what ain't never been done before" up top of a West Texas windmill. Hence his nickname Pokey-Dot. I'll have to tell that story another time. Now, I'm talking fishing, and using pieces of his heart as bait.
Elmore Bolinger Gann was born in Maize Field, Texas circa 1890. The man made great stink bait, using god-knows what--dough, fish and chicken blood, liver, and naturally, heart. He allowed all this to cure, in some special way, with a variety of secret spices. Wham! It was some nasty stuff.
He'd say, "Billy!" (That's what he called me, Billy.) "Come take a woof a this. Jus made a fresh batch dough bait, we got ta go fishin..." He'd smile at me from under the Stetson cowboy hat he wore all his life. I can still see his cracked-up face and wrinkled neck that mapped out a life of cotton picking and fishing. He reminded me of cowboy turtle, with a face made of an old brown apple.
Elmo loved to fish in a hell-hole place out in the Mojave Desert called The All American Canal. We're talking an ugly, man-made ditch running through the lower desert near California's Mexican border.
Now there's a place. Hot, snake-scorpion-vermin infested cactus patch--brings to mind West Texas, only nicer. I must have taken him on his "Last Fishing Trip" out to that old canal a hundred times over a twenty-year period.
Seems my grandfather was an old man all my life. He must have been seventy when he first moved to California, and started showing me the fine art of dragging stinking carp, and crap-eating catfish out of muddy water. I was 16 and we made something of a cosmic connection. We fished out that desert ditch until he died at 91, but that's getting ahead of the story.
There was one railroad bridge out there in the Mojave he loved the most. It was the only shade for a thousand square miles. Trains and railroads, must have reminded him of his wandering honkey-tonk youth. We'd sit under the bridge with an ice chest full beer, throwing crap balls at channel cats. Elmo would eventually get drunk and sing: "All around the water tank, waiting for a train, thousand miles away from home, been sleeping in the rain...."
I Loved to hear his stories. They all started out, "One time me 'n old Charlie Pratt was a fishin down on the Lampasas River..." One story varied from another with the change of good old boys, or of the locations from one part of Texas to another. The activity he'd tell about might vary from hunting, to planting, or Saturday-night dancing, but the story would always wind on in wonderful images, and end with a joke, lesson, or salient point.
"Let that be a lesson to ya boy. If your gonna spoon with a gal in a pokadot dress, pick a place where you can sneak off quite-like come sunup. I swear, small-town folks never let you forget anything...."
Seems I remember on that last trip, I wanted him to die. I allowed as how it'd be a better way to go, than the way he eventually rattled out in an Anaheim hospital. It was a hot day, and I remember I was watching him from the other side of the bridge. He'd hooked a really big one, and he was calling me for help. I ignored him. I thought, if he were to go now, beer in one hand and a fish on the line...well that'd all right.
He fought that fish for nearly half an hour, calling for me all the while. Finally, I saw him keel over. I waited a while to make sure it was it was finished. He didn't move. That was it, I'd killed o' Pokey Dot. I went over to claim the body, and found him next a spilled beer and a two-foot channel cat.
He shot upright when he heard me coming. "Where n hell you been boy! Didn't
you hear me a calling? I'm plum give out..."
I could see he was really mad, but he softened when he noticed the giant fish still flopping in the sand. To him, this was what life was all about. It was as if he had suddenly forgotten he was old and tired.
"She's good'n ain't she?" He became more animated than I'd ever seen him. He sprung up, cleaned the fish, told stories, and sang old songs all the while we broke camp. Even though it was early, he insisted it was time to go home. It really was like seeing someone come to life. I was amazed. We packed our gear, went home, and he died for real a few months later.
End of story.
Now I'm supposed to have a moral, joke, or a point at this point, but nothing comes to mind. Back then, I did write a somewhat awful country song, I sometimes sing I still it to a cold beer at some favorite fishing spot:
Ol Elmo and I'd go
To the kay nal, my ol Pal
We'd go fishing
He'd say boy,
Got some stink bait
And it can't wait
We jus gotta go fishin
Go 'n be some hot sun
But what fun
Got yer cowboy hat
Don't worry bout that
And cold beer, so
No fear, we goin fishing
I'd say Pokey Dot
Won't ya look what I got
Big o cat fish
Don't ya know I wish
Once again we'd go fishing
If I ever have a grandson
I'll teach him life
Is for having fun
Teach him to sing
Dance in the sun
Take him fishing
Till I'm 91
It went something like that anyway...Yea I know, it's not great poetry or even bad enough to be good Country-Western. Sometimes that old song starts running through my mind though, and I hear myself humming it while I'm at work. Without thinking, I'll mix up a batch of Elmore's stink bait, and drive out to where the railroad bridge crosses the All American Canal. I always tie up a "grab hook" (as Elmo called trebles) on a sliding sinker set up. I form a little ball of that awful stuff just so, and send it drifting down river with a little piece of grandpa's heart