When I was growing up in the Panhandle, just about everyone fished or hunted or both. There was not a great deal of entertainment in our little town.
Sometimes, we’d slip in a neighbor’s pasture and ride the calves, or sneak a bareback ride on a plow horse, or skulk through melon patches. Hey, there were times we even scratched for crickets.
Most often, the highlight of our day was hitching a ride on the back of a cotton wagon hauling a load to the gin. Don’t laugh. Back then, that was a thrill.
So, it’s easy to see why fishing and hunting were a couple of our more popular endeavors.
We had a small creek about two hundred yards from our house. It emptied into Chapman’s Lake, built by the dairyman for his cows. The lake was about six or seven acres in size, perfect for fishing and swimming and the occasional attempt at sailing (which always ended in disaster).
Mister Chapman was an easy-to-get-along-with gent. As long as we didn’t spook his cows, he gave Jerry and me free rein of his lake.
One day, Jerry hurried over, all excited about a fishing secret one of the old timers had passed on to him. Now, this old man always caught fish. We could sit right next to him, and he’d pull them in one after another while we just sat there like lumps of clay drowning worms.
Chewing tobacco. That was the secret. Before you dropped the bait in the water, you had to squirt chewing tobacco on it. When I commented we had no tobacco, Jerry grinned slyly and slipped a plug of tobacco from his pocket.
We were at that stage in life when youngsters embraced idiotic impulses and ignored common sense as if the latter were a bad case of poison ivy.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been around tobacco chewers, but I tell you truly, the sight of expectorated tobacco is enough to gag a gut wagon dog. Papa Conwell chewed. He kept a can beside his chair. I can still see him pause while reading his magazine, pick up the can, and turn loose with a long arc of thick, brown juice.
Just before we reached the lake, Jerry bit off a chunk tobacco and handed it to me. I have to admit it didn’t taste as bad as it looked in Papa’s can. We perched on the bank, unrolled our lines from our cane poles, and impaled a grasshopper on the hook. I tried to squirt tobacco on the poor grasshopper, but the juice just ran down my chin. Obviously, the expertise of squirting tobacco was an acquired accomplishment. So, I did the next thing, I spat and successfully soaked the grasshopper as well as my entire hand.
We tossed the lines in the water and waited expectantly. Time dragged. Nothing. We kept chewing. Jerry suggested that perhaps we had not chewed the tobacco long enough at first, so we tried again. This time I didn’t try to squirt. I just leaned over the dead grasshopper and let the juice dribble from my lips.
By now, I was feeling sort of queasy.
I glanced around at Jerry, and he’d grown a shade of green that my aunt called pea-soup green.
I don’t think I would have thrown up if Jerry hadn’t gotten sick first, but when I saw his breakfast greet the light of day, my stomach counterpunched, tossing out its own contents into the sunlight.
We didn’t catch a thing that day. It took as twice as long to get home because we were constantly having to stop and throw up.
Mom knew exactly what had happened. I begged her not to tell Dad. He had a curious way of curing a body of bad habits. He tripled the behavior. He’d of made me chew half-a-dozen plugs of tobacco. To my relief, Mom kept quiet, and I never touched plug tobacco again.
The old timers down on the streets outside the pool hall had a good laugh and never let me and Jerry forget that day we tried their age old secret of catching fish.