The Old Man at the River
[Adventures of a Woman in the Woods]
By: Brenda Presnell
The bream, usually, bite early in the day. It was about mid-morning; a little later than we had planned to be heading out. I didn’t account for the extra time needed to get an additional person up and moving.
“Come on, grandma,” urged Bryce, our 7-year-old grandson, who was the extra person visiting us for a week or so. “We gotta go get the fish.”
“I’m coming. Hold your crawdads,” I said.
My arms were full of lunch fixings and drinks to go into the cooler. And I had a dog biscuit for Max , our aging arthritic beagle, who would be staying at our camp in the woods. At this the point in Max’s life, we preferred he stay at camp and spend the day napping in the air-conditioning rather than sitting in the boat during Florida’s hot summer days.
“Now, where did I put my hat?” I asked.
“It’s on your head, silly grandma,” laughed Bryce.
“What an observant young man,” I smiled. “You’re just like your granddaddy. He notices everything.”
“Are y’all coming today or tomorrow,” hollered Kenny from outside as he stood by the boat holding a cage of crickets in one hand and a can of worms in the other.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, “we’re ready.”
By the time I made it down the steps, Bryce was already in the bed of the truck waving for me to get in. I was glad he wanted to ride in the back. If the truth be known, I love riding in the back of a pickup. It makes me feel like a kid again to be bouncing along with the wind blowing in my face and not a care in the world. That’s one of life’s little pleasures. And, occasionally, I even ride down to the boat ramp sitting in the truck bed even without being accompanied by a grandchild.
Sometimes we fish the New River in Tate’s Hell. But today, as is usually the case, we decided to stay closer to our camp in the woods and fish the Ochlockonee River. We made the short trek to the boat ramp and its camping area in no time. As we approached, I could see the legs of someone underneath a large blue tarp that appeared to be falling to the ground on one side. I saw ice coolers, a grill, and a fishing boat hooked to an older model Ford pickup truck. It looked like whoever was struggling to put up the tarp was planning to stay and camp for a while.
Kenny parked the truck and boat alongside the boat ramp and got out. The next thing I knew, he was walking straight towards the person who was struggling with putting up the large blue tarp. That’s typical Kenny, I thought, always friendly and curious. I knew from past experience that he would be a while visiting.
The story of the “Tortoise and the Hare” popped into my mind as Bryce hopped out of the truck quick as a jackrabbit. I’m not quite as agile as I used to be, so I played the role of the tortoise moving slow and steady when making my exit.
Bryce and I walked down the boat ramp to take a look at the river. Along the way I noticed that a beautiful ornate vase was sitting on the old fish-cleaning table. I wondered what it was doing there. It seemed very odd and out of place resting atop the broken-down, weather-worn table. It might belong to the campers who were just now setting up their site, I thought.
By the time we made it to the water, both the blistering sun and a multitude of yellow flies were competing for my attention. I hurried back to the truck to get the bug spray and sunglasses.
“We’re living dangerously today, Bryce,” I said. “If the yellow flies don’t eat us alive, the bug spray might finish us off.”
“Huh?” he said, not getting my joke.
“Never mind. Hold your arms out.”
I sprayed until he gagged and gasped for breath.
“That outta do it,” I said. Then I doused my arms and legs until I looked like a shiny-slimy catfish.
“Watch this grandma,” said Bryce. “Granddaddy showed me how to do it. Watch now.” He picked up a small stone and slung it like a Frisbee across the water. It sailed about five feet out, then it dropped straight into the water.
“Aw, let me try again,” he said. “Look for a rock. It’s gotta be flat.”
We both walked around stooped over like hunchbacks looking for the perfect stone.
“Try this one,” I said.
He took the stone, rubbed it between his hands, and then kissed it for good luck.
“Umph,” he grunted as he flung the stone with all his might. It flew inches above the water. This time, the stone skipped, not only one time but twice, before sinking.
“Ooh-rah,” he shouted, imitating his Marine cousin.
“Good job,” I said.
We both skipped stones over the water for a while. But I soon began to wonder what on earth had happened to Kenny. I looked back towards the campsite just as he was coming down the hill of the boat ramp.
“It’s an old man,” he said.
“Huh?” I said.
“The camper fellow. He’s here by himself,” he continued. “He couldn’t have done it by himself,” he said.
“Done what?” I asked.
“He was puttin’ up a huge tarp. He hammered two-by-fours into the ground to hold it up. I helped him with that.”
“Oh, that was so sweet,” I said.
“He even brought a generator,” he continued. “He didn’t have a ramp on the truck, so I helped him lift it out. He couldn’t have done it himself. That man must be 90-something years old.”
“Wow,” I said. “I can’t believe he came down here alone being that he is getting on in age and all.”
“He said he goes fishin’ and campin’ by himself all the time.”
“Wow,” I said, repeating myself. I wondered if he was married; and if so, what did his wife think about him being by himself out in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe, I thought, she might have died and there was no one to worry and fuss over him.
My attention turned to launching the boat. Kenny’s job was to back the trailer down the ramp and launch the boat. My job was to hold onto the rope that was attached to the boat and make sure the boat didn’t drift off down the river once it slid off the trailer. Bryce’s job was to stay out of the way.
When the boat was launched and Bryce and Kenny were seated, I pushed us away from the shore with my foot. Then I jumped not-so-gracefully into the moving boat, landing with a thud in my seat.
The swift current immediately began carrying us down stream. Kenny quickly took control of the boat and had us on our way speeding down the river. I held onto my hat and enjoyed the wind blasting across my whole, entire, hot-sweaty body.
“Faster. Faster. Granddaddy, go faster,” yelled Bryce.
“Hold on,” said Kenny, as he kicked the motor into high gear.
I didn’t think the grin on Bryce’s face could get much wider, but it did when a spray of water hit him smack across the head as we bounced over the waves.
“Ye-haw,” Bryce squealed as he raised his arms into the air.
When we got to Red Lake, Kenny cut the engine on the outboard motor and switched on the trolling motor. It was quiet enough now to talk.
“Did you see that purdy little urn sittin’ on the old fish-cleaning table?” asked Kenny.
“Yes, I did. Do you think it belonged to the old man? Why on earth would anybody bring a beautiful ornate vase to the raggedy ole boat ramp?”
“I don’t think it was a vase,” said Kenny. “I think it was an urn.”
“Oh.” I pondered this for a moment. “An urn? You mean with somebody’s ashes in it?”
“Could have been. People do it all the time. They sprinkle the ashes in the river.”
My thoughts returned to the old man. My imagination was running full speed ahead now.
“I bet it does belong to the old man. I bet his wife died and those are her ashes. I bet he came down here to spread them in the river. That explains why he’s all alone. What do you think? Do you think that could be his wife?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” said Kenny.
We trolled along the banks of Red Lake. Bryce dropped his cork in the water and caught a bream about the size of my hand. Kenny pulled in a nice-sized catfish. I drowned a couple of worms before snagging a cypress tree.
Then the vroom of a motor sounded in the distance. Shortly, a bass boat slowed, then stopped near us. It was an old man wearing a red-plaid shirt. Strands of white wispy hair peeked beneath his crumpled fishing hat. His whiskers appeared to be the consequence of going a few days without shaving, rather than an actual full-fledged beard. He threw his hand up to wave. We returned in kind.
“That’s the old man,” said Kenny.
“Y’all catching anything?” hollered the old man in a crusty tired voice as he drifted closer to us.
“Got a couple of little shell-crackers and a catfish or two. Having any luck?” Kenny hollered back.
“Nothin’ bitin’ but them darn yeller flies,” he said. “I’m gonna go on down the river a piece.”
“Talk at ya later,”said Kenny.
The old man cranked his motor and puttered away. We swayed back and forth as our boat gently rocked from the wake created by the old man’s boat leaving.
Suddenly, I felt sad for the old man. He looked frail and spoke in a deep, raspy voice that trembled with labored breaths. I thought about the beautiful ornate urn at the fish-cleaning table. In that urn was, probably, the remains of his loving wife of many long years; and he had brought her to the river to release her ashes back to God. Doesn’t the Good Book say something about “ashes to ashes, dust to dust?” This is a nice and peaceful place to be laid to rest, I thought.
We fished throughout the day. And as the sun began to slowly sink into the horizon, we figured it was about time for us to head back. We had caught a mess of bream and a few catfish. Enough for a good meal or two.
When we got back to the boat ramp and loaded the boat on the trailer, I noticed the beautiful ornate urn was no longer on the fish-cleaning table.
On the way out, we saw a cloud of smoke surrounding the old man’s camp site. We didn’t see any flames, though. Kenny stopped to check on the old man before we left. Bryce and I stayed in the truck and had retreated this time to the safety of the inside cab. The bug repellant applied earlier had been sweated or wiped off and the yellow flies were feasting on us. I was glad that Kenny stopped to see about the old man. The smoke could be coming from a cooking grill gotten out of hand and the old man may need some help.
As we sat a while and I looked closer at the old man’s camp I could see, and finally smell, that the smoke wasn’t from a fire after all. But rather it was from a mosquito fogger. I was glad that the old man had something to repel the insects during the night.
Kenny soon returned to the truck and confirmed that the smoke was a mosquito fogger. We drove down the bumpy boat ramp road and headed back to camp.
“You wouldn’t believe all the stuff he brought with him,” said Kenny.
“Oh, yeah? Like what?” I asked.
“He doesn’t have a tent, but he brought a little mini refrigerator, tables and chairs, a generator,” he answered.
“Where is he sleeping?” I asked.
“He backed his pickup truck under the huge tarp and he has a mattress on the bed of the truck. He just sleeps right out there in the open.”
“Wow,” I said. “I hope he’s going to be all right tonight.”
“He said he camps and fishes like that all over these woods, but this is the first time he’d been to this campsite here. He’ll be okay. He’s used to it,” he said reassuringly.
Along the way to our camp, I thought about the lonesome and wifeless old man. I hoped that he would survive the hot night and harsh bites from the hungry hordes of insects that were surely stalking him as he slept on his mattress out in the open air.
The next day, I stayed at our camp; and Bryce and Kenny went fishing by themselves. I had woman’s work to do. I washed up some clothes, and then I hung them on the close line outside to dry. I loved doing things the old-timey way whenever I could. The fresh outdoorsy smell of the laundry was very pleasing, and the sun dried them in no time at all. I knew with rain expected to be rolling in later in the week that I was working under Mother Nature’s time clock and not my own.
By mid-afternoon, Kenny and Bryce returned with a cooler of fish. But that’s not all. Kenny had in his possession a name and phone number of a woman.
“I gotta call this lady,” Kenny said.
He was on the phone dialing, before I could begin my inquisition. All I could hear was his side of the conversation, which only tantalized my inquisitive mind to ask more questions.
Kenny hung up the phone and looked at me. “He wanted her to bring more ice,” he said. Then he headed for the kitchen to see what was for supper, as if he had explained all there was to explain.
“Who? Who? He who? Her who?” I was beginning to sound like one of the big barred owls we’ve heard around the camp from time to time. Why do men do that, I wondered? You just have to drag information out of them sometimes.
I followed Kenny to the kitchen, who – hooting all the way.
“Laura,” said Kenny. “The old man wanted me to call Laura. He needed more ice to put on the fish he caught. He wanted something for yellow flies – to keep ‘em away. And some orange Sun Kist sodas. He wants her to bring ‘em down to his campground. He didn’t wanna just pack up all his camping stuff and run to town.”
“Oh. Who’s Laura? His daughter?”
“No, Laura is his wife.”
Oh, well, now. I need to re-evaluate this whole old-widower-man-at-the-river scenario.
“So I guess that wasn’t the old man’s wife in the urn – huh?”
“No, she ain’t dead yet,” he replied.
“We’ll never know what the beautiful ornate urn was all about, will we?” I asked.
“Probably not,” he answered. “But we do know it wasn’t his wife. We outta ask him about it if we see him again.”
The odd appearance and then disappearance of the beautiful and ornate urn is going to be one of life’s many unsolved mysteries, I thought to myself. I pondered this matter into the evening and up until falling asleep that night.
It rained the next day and everyone decided to take a break from fishing. It was a perfect day for being inside. I spent most of the day in the kitchen catching up on my canning. And of course I made some sugar cookies for my little sweetie-pie Bryce, who was busy with his own project. He gathered up all his super-hero action figures and brought them into the kitchen.
“You got any string, Grandma?” he asked.
“I think I can round something up for you.” I retrieved a hand full of strings from a hook on the wall. Being the frugal person that he is, Kenny always saves the strings from the large dog food bags he buys for his hunting dogs. He always said that you’ll never know when you might need a piece of string for something. I was delighted to finally find that need.
“Here you go, sweetie-pie, try these,” I said.
“I don’t think they’re long enough,” Bryce said.
“Then tie ‘em together,” I suggested.
“Oh, yeah. Okay.”
I immersed myself with cooking. Then Bryce stopped me abruptly in my tracks when I turned to open the refrigerator door.
“Wait, grandma,” cautioned Bryce. “He might fall.”
I looked all around me and saw that the little fellow had turned my kitchen into a series of zip-lines running from the refrigerator to a chair and then back around to a door knob. I ducked under Spider Man, who was in mid-zip, to get to the butter in the refrigerator. The Wolverine had already made it safely to the kitchen table as did Superman. However, Thor wasn’t quite as lucky. His zip-line snapped into, and he lay in a heap on the floor.
“Look, Spidy made it,” said Bryce, after nudging the Spider Man figurine along the zip-line to the table.
I got the butter from the refrigerator and finished making the cookies. By the time they were done baking, all the super heroes had finished saving our little neck of the woods from all the bad guys. Then Bryce and I sat down to eat the sugar cookies.
By the next morning the rain had subsided, and we still had plenty of crickets and worms. Those were good enough reasons for anybody to go fishing again. The decision was unanimous. Fishing it would be.
When we arrived at the boat ramp, the old man was enjoying a cup of coffee. We stopped to chat a spell.
“I see you made it through the rain yesterday and last night,” said Kenny.
“It was a good ‘un,” he said. “The rain don’t bother me much, though.” He sipped his coffee.
“Did your wife make it down here with your needed provisions?” asked Kenny.
“She did,” he said. He took a few short, labored breaths. “She told me I shouldn’t be making a habit of calling her for these supply trips.” He laughed. The laughing caused him to cough a little. “That’s a good woman, I got. We been married comin’ on 55 years. I married a young bride. You know I’m 15 years her senior.”
“Fifty-five years. Goodness, that’s a long time to be married,” I said. “Y’all must be doing it right.”
He sipped his coffee, then after a short reflection, continued. “Yeah, me and the wife must be living right. You know I shouldn’t even be living at all right now.”
“How’s that,” I asked.
“I had cancer about ten years ago. The doc opened me up and didn’t like what he saw. He said he couldn’t help me. I was too far gone. There wasn’t no treatment for me. He told me to go huntin’, go fishin’. He said you outta just do whatcha want for the next few months. That’s all the time ya got.”
I stared in amazement at this crusty old man. Apparently, he wasn’t near as frail as I thought he was. He reached into the pocket of his red-plaid shirt, which was a little ragged with a few stains. He pulled out an electronic cigarette and took a few shallow puffs.
“You’re alive now. What happened to ya?” asked Kenny.
He continued with his story. “I thought I wasn’t gonna make it myself for a while there. It got so bad where I puked every day. Couldn’t keep nothin’ down.” He paused, took a sip of coffee, and then another puff of cigarette. “Y’all want some coffee?” he asked.
“Naw, I’m good,” said Kenny.
“Me, too,” I said. “Thank you, though.”
“I couldn’t eat nothing but chicken noodle soup for a whole year. So I ate chicken noodle soup and went huntin’ and fishin’. My darlin’ wife’s been so good to me ever since I got sick. She told me to hunt and fish. And she don’t even complain about it no more.” He laughed. “She didn’t use to be that way, though.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “I guess God just decided it wasn’t your time yet.”
“You’re a tough ‘un, that’s for sure,” said Kenny.
The old man chuckled. Then almost as if he found it difficult to believe himself, he said, “I asked God to heal me, and he did. I don’t know why. But I’m still here and glad about it. I’ve had a good life. A real good life.”
All this life-and-death talk made me think again of the beautiful ornate urn.
“There was a pretty urn-like thing - ” I began.
“Yeah, did you ever notice a colorful urn-like thing sitting on the old fish-cleaning table a couple of days ago?” asked Kenny.
“A what, son?”
“An urn-like thing,” Kenny said. “There was a real purdy jar sittin’ on the –
“Oh, that – that thing. Yeah. I saw it,” said the old man.
“We just thought it was so odd that a beautiful urn would be sitting out there on the fish-cleaning table,” I said. “And then it disappeared.”
“Do ya know anything about it?” asked Kenny.
“Naw. I did see it, though, when I was leaving the boat ramp to go fish. That evening when I came back to the camp, it was gone.”
The old man removed his fishing hat and scratched his head. “Ya know,” he said. Then he took a labored breath before continuing. “That thing looked like an urn to me. You know what an urn is don’t cha?”
“Yeah, something to put a person’s ashes in, isn’t it?” I said.
“That thing looked like that to me. An urn. I didn’t even wanna touch it just in case it was,” said the old man. “Ya know respect for the deceased and all that.”
“Yeah, I understand,” said Kenny as he stood up to leave. “We better get these worms in the water before they dry out.
“They’ll sure do that in this heat,” agreed the old man.
“Are you gonna be around much longer or heading for home soon?” asked Kenny.
“I plan on packin’ up and leaving tomorrow around noon. Would ya mind stopping by and help me get that generator back on the truck?” asked the old man.
“Will do,” said Kenny. “See ya tomorrow.”
We launched the boat and headed down river to our favorite fishing hole. The sun was scorching hot and there wasn’t a breeze to be felt. But we did feel the familiar yellow fly stings. After we had just about all we could take of the heat and the flies, we decided the fishing trip should be turned into a cool and refreshing boat ride up the river. It wasn’t long, though, before several dark and ominous thunder clouds hid the sun and cooled the air. But the threat of another afternoon rain and lightning storm sent us scurrying back to shore then on to our camp.
The next day as planned, Kenny and Bryce met the old man around noontime to help him break down his camp and load his generator onto the back of his pickup. After getting the heavy things packed and loaded, Kenny and Bryce fished for a few hours. Then when they returned to the boat ramp, they found that the old man had already gone. Unlike many other campers, the considerate old man had left the camping area clean as a whistle.
We did not solve the mystery of why the beautiful ornate urn was sitting on the old worn out fish-cleaning table at the boat ramp and then disappeared. I will just have to chalk it up as something I will, probably, never know.
But being the reflective person that I am, I couldn’t get out of my mind the happenings over the past few days concerning the matter of the urn and the old man. I reflected on the notion that the urn and the old man are both containers. When I considered the beautiful urn and the old man as being containers, I noticed a couple of things. What stood out to me was that the beautiful ornate urn held the ashes of death rather than life. Whereas, the crusty worn-out old man, who due to cancer should have been dead by now, was actually full of life.
I had experienced a life lesson which played out right there in front of me. And that lesson is you cannot judge a book by its cover. In this case, something new and beautiful held death. Whereas something old and worn out held life. In other words, things are not always what they appear to be on the outside.
My adventures in these woods, that I love so dearly, always seem to lead to a revelation of some sort. This experience was no exception. I’m learning to watch and to listen. God speaks to us through his creations, through the things and situations surrounding us every day. He uses them to teach us and to reveal things to us that are good to know.
I cannot help but wonder who or what I will meet next and what marvelous revelation will be revealed to me through my adventures in these wonderful woods.