Once upon a time, I used to go fishing with my dad. We never caught anything, except the occasional weed or tall tale about the "one that got away" (that was usually just a really big weed), but I guess we enjoyed it. We lived in Arkansas at the time and fished in a small, muddy, and apparently weed-filled lake called Milwood. It was way out in the middle of nowhere, and to get there, we had to drive down a long, narrow road through even more nowhere. Truckers used to speed down that road and every day, there was almost a head-on collision with a mac truck on that road, but I never really saw that many.
My dad always listened to '80's music, songs like "Sarah" and the one Red Hot Chili Peppers song about Los Angeles. . . He used to drum his hands on the steering wheel and press and release the brake to jerk the truck back and forth. He did it to make me smile, usually did it at stop lights, and almost always did it when we were stopped by the dreaded trains, particularly at the tracks that separated one half of the little town from the other. The trains would stop, sit for a while, and about the time people would start trying to find a way around them, the trains would back up enough to give them hope, pull forward and then sit some more (conveniently over the way around them). I hate trains - my school was on that side of town. By the time anybody actually found a way around them, the trains were on their way for real. Some days, the trains just never moved. There was another set of tracks across the street from my house, too. Practically in my friend's backyard. The trains came every night at about 10:30, an hour or so past my bedtime, but they never stopped. They'd rumble and rattle past, scare me half to death, and leave me to listen to the boys next door playing basketball until they realized it was midnight or later. Once or twice, it was two.
On the way to Milwood Lake (Milwood Puddle, really), there were fortunately no trains. Just a lot of trees, the occasional field, and this one dead tree. It was in the middle of an open field near a slight bend in the road. A lot of the time, vultures used that tree as their meeting place. They would huddle on any of the tree's few, thick, bare branches, hunch their shoulders, and sit. They always reminded me of The Jungle Book: "What'd you wanna do today?" "I dunno, what'd you wanna do today?" And so on. My dad sometimes brought me vulture feathers home; he'd find them on the ground at work. I think I still have one.
For some reason, that tree always intrigued me. One day, my dad came home from work all excited about something. There had been a storm that day, but it was long past, and he had to drive home from work on that narrow road through nowhere. We all got piled into his truck - mom and I had to double-belt because there wasn't enough room for all four of us (my sister was 3 or so and had to sit in the middle) - and he took us halfway to his work, where that tree was. The tree had been struck by lightening, was split in half, and still on fire. The next time dad and I went fishing, I looked for that tree - over half of it was burnt black. I still think it's neat. One of natures miracles, that poor dead tree. I never saw those vultures back there, anyway.
My dad used to tell me stories about his work. He worked for the Corp of Engineers, and sometimes, he would have to go out to the woods or to lakes and places. There was always a "no swimming sign" by all of the lakes in Arkansas. One day, he told me why. There had been an emergency at one of the lakes - I can't remember which, but it might have been Milwood (there were only so many lakes) - and he had to go there. Some guy, a surveyor probably, had his finger bitten off by a small crocodile. They pried the crocodile's mouth open, got the finger back, and rushed the guy to the hospital. They left my dad alone. To babysit. He said he sat there for over two hours staring at the little crocodile with his truck door open. It didn't do much but stare back. He was complaining about a headache because it was hot, and all he did was sit there. Staring. At a little crocodile. I loved the story. Best of all, it was true.
We didn't go fishing very often, mostly because we never caught anything. But I remember one time (one of the only few I remember) that we were there, sitting on the dock, not far from the annoying "no swimming" sign, and getting annoyed because we'd been there for two or three hours and lost several worms, caught a leaf, and in general, weren't having a good time of it. That was the year I decided that worms were icky and that it was cruel to shove them onto a hook, although tying them around it was much more civil. Either way, they'd drown or be eaten, but it was the principal of the matter. I was eight.
We were getting our lunches, I remember. The tackle boxes were open - mine was small and blue - and my dad was grumbling about just going home and about how I needed him to put the worm on the hook. There was a fish that had been nibbling on my worms all day - we'd lost two to him but just couldn't reel him in. I didn't really feel like going home, but I didn't really feel like staying, either. The sun was really bright, and I was scared I'd get a splinter in my thigh from sitting on the dock. I was also convinced that we'd catch a boot. No lake is complete without a boot in it. Bored, I wondered if we should cast into a shaded area by a log. Dad said it wouldn't do any good. "See that log floating over there? That's a crocodile," he told me. I squinted, and with his help, eventually spotted the log. I had been talking about a different log, but this one was interesting. It looked like a regular, dull brown log until it moved. I was satisfied and immediately convinced that the crocodile was the reason there weren't any fish.
Around that time, a man and his teenage son arrived at the lake, which went from peaceful to obnoxious in three easy steps. They paid no mind to us, so we started packing up our things. I had to move, so I wouldn't be hit when they were casting their lines. They cast them right over by that crocodile, which apparently took offense. It started moving, slowly, so slowly I couldn't tell at first. The man and his son saw sport in the crocodile and continued taunting it, casting their lines at it, reeling them back, and casting them again. My dad and I stood around to watch as the crocodile, with a rather vicious, but closed, smile also continued toward his tormentors. They laughed as he got close enough for them to hit him with the bait.
My dad shook his head, and I followed him back to the truck. This was the best thing I had seen all week. I stood outside the truck for a moment to watch. Ever closer to the dock went the crocodile. I hopped from foot to foot excitedly. "Can we stay to watch the crocodile eat them?" I asked. Those two would deserve it, tormenting a crocodile like that. My dad said no, and we got into the truck after he finished his cigarette. I watched with wicked anticipation as the crocodile continued its slow path to the dock while the man and his son still tormented it.
Unfortunately, all my dreams were shattered when we pulled out of the parking lot. I looked out the window as we drove away and saw happily that the crocodile was only a few feet away from that idiot and his son. I hoped they learned something, and I hope it scared them. I never did find out if they got eaten, but if they did, the story probably would have read, "Teenager is Eaten by Crocodile," and all the blame would have gone to that poor, tormented creature who did nothing but sit there until he couldn't take it any more. I wouldn't want to be a crocodile. And I certainly wouldn't want to fish for one.