Catching Shrimp and Trout

A GOOD DAY TO LIVE  |  CHAPTER 2 

It’s hard but it’s fair.

—Mr. Walter Thornton, 1960

The boys were practicing flips off the pier when they noticed Danny’s daddy inspecting the shrimp net and chewing harder than normal on his cigar.

“Damn it to hell,” Mr. Walt snapped. “Somebody cut up my shrimp net.”

He removed the stub and took a deep breath. Danny knew what was coming. With his head cocked slightly and his lips stretched across his teeth, Mr. Walt ripped his patented piercing whistle. It had singular meaning to all kids within range: Drop everything and come running, now! No bird dog had ever been better trained.

The three boys sprinted down the pier and arrived with several of Danny’s breathless brothers, all awaiting instructions.

Mr. Walt held up the net. “Anyone know what happened to this?”

No one moved a muscle.

“I suppose a wild animal got into it last night. You boys think that’s what happened?”

“I guess so,” Will said. “Probably a possum or a coon.”

“But how’d all that sand and those sticks get there?” Mr. Walt asked, never really expecting an answer.

The boys stood silently, hoping to avoid hard labor or a belt strap across their butts.

Mr. Walt finally dropped the net. “Okay. Danny, you go to my workshop and get some nylon string so we can patch this. Will, you and Trout stretch this net out on the grass, and let’s get a good look at it. See how many holes you can find.”

He looked at the older siblings.

“What were you boys doing?”

“Just playing cards,” one said.

“Okay,” he said. “Hunter, you get the ladder and clean the leaves from the gutter. Gar, you get the lawnmower going and cut the backyard. Davis and Willis, get some hammers; we need to pull the nails out of those old boards that washed up on the beach.”

Within minutes, the place transformed from quiet summer retreat to work camp. It didn’t matter who was responsible for the net. Everyone paid the price. They were used to it. Working earned them playtime, not to mention gas for the boat. That was Mr. Walt’s way. It didn’t matter if you were a blood relative, a friend visiting for a few days, or a couple of kids strolling innocently down the beach. If some wood needed moving or a hole needed digging and you were nearby, he’d put you to work. In fairness, when the boat set out for fishing or if the water smoothed out for skiing, you were invited on that joyride too, as long as you’d put in your time. Mr. Walt was one of the first equal-opportunists.

They were just happy he hadn’t summoned the mother of all jobs, the task that filled them all with stinky fear—cleaning out the wretched septic tank. That was the beast they dreaded more than death itself: being up to their waist in waste. Whoever got that sentence handed to them was, literally, in deep doo-doo.

As Danny fetched the string, he thought about that poor armadillo. He wished they had just let it go. Instead, they’d ripped the shrimp net and riled up Mr. Walt. Plus, they’d killed a perfectly innocent critter, even though it was mighty ugly. Danny rarely questioned Will, even when he knew they’d get in trouble. He’d follow Will into a burning house, and he figured Will would do the same for him.

Danny handed the string to his daddy.

“Thanks, son. Looks like there are only a couple holes. You help Will and Trout, and make sure you boys tie double knots. We don’t want any shrimp slipping out of the net.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sewing up armadillo holes was tedious work. And the summer heat, even under the shade of an oak tree, made them long for a cool swim. But the boys worked without complaining. For one thing, they were as guilty as Al Capone. Mr. Walt knew it but didn’t accuse them directly. Repairing the net was getting off easy as far as Danny was concerned. The icing on the cake was the possibility of an evening shrimping with Mr. Walt in the big boat.

When he worked them too hard, they had a lot of names for him—names whispered under their breath: Hitler, General Patton, or even Lucifer, when the Alabama heat seared them mercilessly. Affectionately, he was Daddy, Uncle Walter, Mr. Thornton, and a host of endearing terms from his wife, Miss Kitty. At some point, everyone, even his own kids, just took to calling him Mr. Walt.

“Boys, how’s that net coming?” he asked.

“It’s pretty much done,” Danny said. “We even cleaned out the sticks that got into it when we … um, I mean, when whatever happened to get those sticks in it happened.”

“Yeah, however that happened,” Will chimed in. He and Trout both shot a glare at Danny. What was he thinking? He almost blurted it out. Mr. Walt smiled and let it slide. If the boys didn’t know it then, one day they’d realize that he knew their every move, no matter how slick they thought they were.

“Then, by golly, let’s go shrimping. Who’s in?”

The boys sprang up and danced around the net like monkeys. Shrimping was a treat, even though pulling in the net was Trojan’s work. But the rewards far outweighed their blistered hands and sore backs. They’d get big fat blue crabs and more shrimp than they could eat, sometimes thirty or forty pounds. And sifting through all the weird critters they dragged up was like delving into a world of aliens. They had figured out how to make squid shoot ink at each other and the best way to inflate tiny puffer fish (by blowing into their mouths). That trick always made the boys giggle uncontrollably. And just the sight of a flounder with those bizarre eyes was worth the trip.

Maybe the best of all was what happened to all the leftovers. Inevitably, they were the makings of a massive pot of steaming gumbo they’d eat for days. So they donned their work gloves and dragged in the net time and again. As always, there were a multitude of brothers, sisters, and cousins to feed, and Mr. Walt’s job, beyond slave driver, father, and friend, was provider.

Contrary to what white-collar snobs might expect, dragging a shrimp net behind a boat involves plenty of artistry. When the Styrofoam float tied to the back end of the net starts to submerge, the boat is traveling at the proper speed. An experienced driver also keeps an eye on the draglines to make sure the wooden doors are gliding through the water at the correct angle, keeping the mouth of the net open wide. Even if the speed is right, the net is spread symmetrically, and the tickler chain is gently bouncing along the bottom with absolute perfection, there’s still one vital detail: You have to find the shrimp. And shrimp don’t advertise.

Mr. Walt eased back on the throttle. “Okay boys, pull ’er in. Let’s see what we’ve got.”

The sun was low on the horizon, and nightfall was coming fast, a welcomed event for shrimping because the temperature became more bearable. Plus, they never knew what mysteries might be revealed under a dark, starry sky.

“You take the right side,” Will said to Danny. “My arm hurts from all the net sewing.”

“Okay,” Danny said, always agreeable with his older cousin. He knew Will’s arm was fine, but he didn’t mind pulling the load, as long as it won him favor with Will.

Some said they were like brothers, but they were closer than that. Brothers, at least in the Thornton family, fought like wild dogs and tormented one another with fists, ropes, sharp-toed boots, and death stares. Danny and Will had their differences, but deep down they loved each other as much as a mother loved her child.

Trout wasn’t a blood relative, but his family had an old cottage down the beach. As long as Danny could remember, Trout had been his best friend. Whenever Will was back home in Montgomery, Trout and Danny bonded even more. Friendship got more complicated in triplicate, but Danny made sure it worked out.

“Pull harder. You’re getting behind,” Will scolded. “We need to bring the doors in at the same time.”

Danny tightened his grip but the rope slipped, burning across his palms. “I can’t. I’m trying as hard as I can.”

“Don’t be a crybaby. Just pull.”

A half a foot taller and considerably stronger, Will was barely breaking a sweat, while Danny gritted his teeth and tugged hand over hand. Mr. Walt eased off the throttle just enough for Danny to build his back muscles and some character.

“Come on, Danny,” Mr. Walt said. “It’s hard but it’s fair.”

Danny already knew pulling in the net was hard, but he kept his thoughts inside.

Mr. Walt cranked the wheel hard to starboard. “I see the doors. You boys bring the net around the motor. Watch that propeller! Don’t drop it. Be careful. Will, help Danny with those doors. Okay, pull it in. Pull it in!”

Every muscle in Danny’s back strained under the weight of the net and the tickler chain. With a grunt, he finally dragged the net over the railing, leaving the prize—the ball of shrimp and fish at the end of the net—for Will. So much for fairness,Danny thought.

Will caught sight of the net and slumped in disappointment. “Not much, Mr. Walt.”

“Dump it in the bucket anyway, and let’s see.”

Will poured the meager catch into the twenty-gallon steel bucket. A few muddy sticks, a dozen or so shrimp, and a pile of jellyfish filled it up.

“Damn,” Mr. Walt said. “Let’s run down the bay a ways to that deep trough by Tarkiln Bayou. You boys get those shrimp and pull a few of those pinfish and croakers out. We might use ’em later.”

They wanted to dump it all overboard, lose the shrimp, and save themselves from certain jellyfish torture, but Mr. Walt had put out an order, so they followed without question. As Trout reached for a shrimp, it jumped away, splattering tiny droplets of jellyfish venom into his face.

“Ouch,” he yelled and fell backward. “It went in my eye.”

Will chuckled. “Hey, goofball, once you grab it, you gotta close your eyes and pull it out quick.”

“If you’re so smart, you do it,” Trout said. “My eye burns.”

“I think you need the practice,” Will said. “I’ll just watch and give you advice.”

“I need your advice like I need a poke in the eye,” Trout snapped.

“Then you’d be blind in both eyes.”

“I’ll try,” Danny volunteered as he pulled on his work gloves. “Will, can you shine the flashlight so I can see their eyes glow?”

“Got it,” Will said. “I can handle this.”

“Yeah, holding a flashlight is your kind of job,” Trout said.

“Yep,” Will said, unfazed. “And I’m good at it, too.”

Mr. Walt already had the boat planed out and was focused on finding the elusive crustaceans while the boys tried to avoid too much jelly carnage. The fish and shrimp splashed around wildly, trying to figure out how they’d ended up in a galvanized bucket. Unfortunately for the boys, the brimming jellyfish soup sloshed on them, too.

Trout helped Danny dig into the slimy goop. The paltry total came to nine shrimp, hardly enough for a decent seafood platter. Their forearms burned, and they dared not rub their eyes or touch any part of their bodies. Even though they’d worn gloves, they’d learned to keep their hands off any exposed flesh or pay the price.

“I hope we get some shrimp on the next pull,” Trout said. “I’ve had enough jellyfish stings for one day.”

Danny leaned against the hull and stretched his back. “We will. I can feel it. Mr. Walt always finds ’em.”

“Yeah, he does,” Will agreed with a smile.

The motor throttled back quickly.

“Put her in, boys,” Mr. Walt said. “Let’s catch some shrimp.”

Like seasoned commercial shrimpers, they moved in silent synchronicity, tying off the net, tossing the buoy, dropping the doors, and making sure the tickler chain was in place. For the next thirty minutes, they waited and hoped.

“Dump the bucket overboard when I turn,” Mr. Walt said. “We don’t want to pick those jellyfish back up.”

Danny saw movement on the water as he dumped the bucket. “Dolphins!”

Trout rushed to the side. “I see four, no five. Wait! There are six, at least.”

“Let’s feed ’em,” Will shouted while he collected a few stray fish that had fallen out of the bucket.

“Use those pinfish and croakers,” Mr. Walt said. “That’s why we saved ’em.”

Pink light rimmed the horizon as the bay’s surface faded into deep purple. Stars popped out in the eastern sky, and a fingernail moon hung overhead. Half a dozen dolphins cut a lazy path across the surface, nibbling on the fish the boys tossed out. They watched the show in awe, listening to a symphony of seagull squawks and the regular puff of air from the dolphins’ blowholes.

“Whoa, look at that,” Danny said. “They’re glowing.”

“Where?” Will and Trout yelled in unison as they sprang next to Danny.

“Look there.” Danny pointed. “Under the boat. There goes one.”

“Unreal!” Trout said. “It’s like a comet.”

Will tugged on Mr. Walt’s shirttail. “Look, Mr. Walt, the phosphorus is out.”

“It’s so bright,” Danny said. “Why is it so much brighter sometimes?”

“Well, boys, on a dark night like this,” Mr. Walt explained, “the phosphorus seems to get really active. But you never know. It’s one of God’s mysteries. Sometimes the phosphorus glows, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Growing up on the bay, they’d seen phosphorus many times before, but never as intense as it was that night.

“It’s like a million lightning bugs,” Danny said.

“Yep, same idea,” Mr. Walt agreed. “Put your hand in the water and shake it around.”

In a flash, the boys’ hands were incandescent. They began drawing lines across the surface as if their fingers were sparklers.

“Try putting a fish in your hand and see what happens,” Mr. Walt said.

All three boys scrambled around in the stern to find another fish. They’d already tossed out the ones they saved from the first haul. Trout spotted a tiny flounder stuck to the side of the hull. Holding it by the tail, he swished it in the water. In a few seconds, a white bottlenose bobbed up an inch from his hand. Wet, dark eyes looked directly at him. With that signature smile, the dolphin floated motionlessly, waiting for Trout to drop the fish.

“He probably won’t take it from your hand, Trout,” Mr. Walt said. “Just drop it.”

The flounder was snatched from midair so fast it startled the boys. Then in a flash of phosphorescence, the dolphin disappeared.

“Whoa!” they all shouted.

For the next fifteen minutes, they found anything they could, even braved a couple of jellyfish tentacles, to attract the dolphins. Mr. Walt watched with admiration, knowing this was one of those experiences that would fertilize their Alabama roots—something he hoped they’d be able to share with their kids, too.

“Okay, enough playtime, boys. Let’s pull in the net.”

Trout stepped forward. He was due.

Will grabbed the bucket. “Let me move this out of your way,” he said, leaving Danny to pull with Trout. “I’ll pull in the next one.” He hoped this haul would be big enough to take them in for the night. “Oh! And I’ll hold the flashlight.”

“Yeah, you’re getting to be an expert at that,” Trout said sarcastically.

“Watch it, butt face,” Will said. “Somebody has to do it.”

“You’re the butt face, making us do all the work.”

“I pulled it in last time so kiss my—”

“Okay, that’s enough boys,” Mr. Walt said. “Focus on getting the net in. You can fight like wild boars if you want when we get home, as long as I’m not around.”

“Yes, sir!”

When Will’s flashlight beam hit the net, they saw sweet success. As big around as a fifty-five-gallon drum, the ball of seafood they’d scraped off the bottom of the bay took all three of them to drag over the side. Hundreds of the tiny red eyes shined at them.

“Oh man, look at all those shrimp,” Will said as they filled the bucket. “We hit the mother lode!”

“How much do you think we got, Mr. Walt?” Danny asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Looks like at least twenty-five, maybe thirty pounds. That ought to do it.”

Yeeeeee-ha!” Trout yelled. “We’re gonna eat like kings!”

Mr. Walt cut the engine and tossed out the anchor. “Y’all put the net back out and let the current clean out the trash,” he said.

A steady tide sucked the net behind the boat, washing away the pinfish, croakers, and baby crabs that hung in the webbing.

“I have an idea,” Mr. Walt said. “How about a quick swim?”

The boys stared silently down at the dark water.

“Come on, boys. The water’s warm, and if you open your eyes, the phosphorous will zoom by like you’re flying through the stars.”

“I’ll go if you go, Daddy,” Danny said, his voice shaking.

“All right. How about it, Will? Trout? Y’all in?”

“Okay.”

As they dived in, hundreds of tiny lights swept over their corneas. Just like Mr. Walt said, they were flying through outer space passing stars at warp speed.

“Will, look at this,” Danny said as he stirred the water with his hands and feet until they glowed.

“Unreal!” Will said.

In a flash of light, a dolphin streaked under them and shot out of the water like a Roman candle. They cheered wildly as he splashed down in a spray of luminescence. Even Mr. Walt let out a hoot. Their bodies tingled with sheer joy and wonder.

Will floated on his back and looked up at the stars. The Milky Way arched over them in a blaze of light. Folks who don’t believe in God have never seen anything like this, he thought.

Mr. Walt shook Will out of his dreaminess. “Where’s Trout?”

“He was picking fish out of the net,” Danny said.

“I told you boys to stay away from that net!”

Danny and Will swam to the back of the boat but couldn’t find him.

“Trout!” they all screamed.

Then Danny noticed the net jerking violently.

“Daddy, he’s in the net!”

“Get in the boat, and pull the net in,” Mr. Walt yelled as he dived under the net.

When he got to him, Trout wasn’t moving. The last few bubbles of air had spilled from his lungs. Mr. Walt grabbed a wad of Trout’s pants and, in one motion, tossed the boy into the boat. Danny and Will pulled in the rest of the net and saw the tickler chain wrapped around Trout’s cutoffs. He’d fought hard enough to almost rip his pants off. But almost didn’t count underwater.

Even in the darkness, he looked ashen. Mr. Walt knew how quickly the sea could take someone. He’d seen it happen. With calculated swiftness, he turned Trout on his side and pounded on his back. Then he shoved his fist into Trout’s stomach. The seconds ticked off agonizingly slow as Trout’s body lay limp at the bottom of the boat. Three more whacks on the back, and another solid punch in the gut. Like a fire hose, Trout threw up what seemed like twenty gallons of water. Then he gasped and threw up again.

“Danny, keep Trout on his side,” Mr. Walt said. “We have to get him to Doc Jordon.”

Mr. Walt jerked the anchor off the bottom and into the boat with two yanks. Mud from the flukes splattered all over the bow, but no one noticed. They were headed home at full throttle. At least Trout was semiconscious and breathing, but Mr. Walt had seen people lapse back into darkness. He was determined this was not going to be one of those times.

Will sat next to Trout and rubbed the hair out of his face. His forehead was clammy, and he could only force shallow breaths.

“It’s okay, Trout,” Will said. “You’re gonna be fine. I know it for certain. Anyway, you’re the toughest kid I know. Tougher than galvanized nails. And I’m really sorry I called you a butt face.”

Trout’s eyes twitched toward Will. There was a blackness Will had never seen in his young life.

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