One of life's truths is that you can't choose your relatives. I think that's a good thing as long as they are not abusive or dangerously criminal. If they are just normally crazy the way most of our relatives are, then they are a great source of reference for building stories and for learning life lessons. I have wondered why someone can be so dumb as to do some of the things I saw adults do when I was a child. Don't get me wrong. I was glad they goofed up. It was entertaining, and it took some of the heat off of me when I goofed up. After all, if Uncle Charles did stupid stuff, couldn't I be cut some slack for what I did. Believe me, I needed all the excuses I could find.
My Uncle Charles was a volatile, unimaginative man. For that reason, he was much funnier than he intended to be. He had one supreme talent, horsemanship. The rest of his life would have been dull to us was it not for his childlike urge to tease us unrelentingly. There are certain advantages to being half-orphaned, and having overly indulgent relatives was one of them. We children loved Uncle Charles because he caused delightful chaos in my grandmother’s otherwise quiet and organized house. He brought in candy bars or treats and tease us to try to get them. The house rocked with the noise. He would stand around chatting with Daddy and Grandmother quite a while before even acknowledging us. We knew better than to breach good manners and ask. When he did bring out the treats, we would jump up and down to get them as he laughingly held them higher and higher. My grandmother, in her measured tone, would say something like, “Please, don’t excite the children that way.”
When one of us did managed to get a hold on a sleeve or arm, he’d take off running, dragging that child through the house with the rest of us in hot pursuit followed by my grandmother calling as firmly as she could bring herself to, “Stop the running or someone is going to get hurt.”
We never actually wrested any of the gifts from him as he always gave in just about the same time as my grandmother’s refined English manners had taken her as far as they could, and she was telling him he would have to leave if he could not stop. The other thing that we loved about Uncle Charles was that he did dumb things --- the very types of things we children were capable of doing. The difference lay in the fact that he did things accidentally while we had to plan and scheme for the same effect.
My favorite tale of such an exploit was the time he and my father went frog gigging. Uncle Charles loved the out of doors; and he loved frog legs, preferably lightly dredged in seasoned flour and sautéed in butter. In the Central Arkansas delta where I grew up, there are numerous rivers, small lakes and bayous; and in spring and summer the night air is a symphony sung in four part frog harmony. Uncle Charles and Daddy took advantage of the docile nature of the large bullfrogs that provided the bass section.
In order to catch these frogs, they used spring style gigs attached to long poles. The gigs would be stretched open like the claws of a lobster until the gig was brought down onto a frog’s back tripping the spring and snatching the frog from his perch on a log or grassy bank. This didn’t usually kill the frog so they had to be released into a burlap bag with a drawstring closure to keep them from escaping. The other bit of necessary equipment for these adventures was a strong light. Daddy and Uncle Charles had acquired old miner’s helmets with attached lamps. These were battery operated so that each man carried a 9-volt battery in his hip pocket with a wire running up to the miner’s helmet perched on top of his heads. When this beam of light hit the frog in the eyes, he would be temporarily blinded giving the gigg-er time to attack the gigg-ee.
While no other weapon was needed, Uncle Charles always took a six-shooter with him on these outings, just in case. Daddy never armed himself saying that if Uncle Charles ever did shoot him he wanted it to be perfectly clear to everyone that his death was accidental homicide not the result of Daddy loosing control and challenging his brother to a duel over some stupid remark only Uncle Charles could make. Thus equipped, they would go out to Grassy Lake so named because of the grassy rushes that covered the banks and grew well out into the shallow edges. There were a few widely spaced willows along the bank as well.
Daddy liked to do his gigging from the lake bank, as he believed there were more frogs there. Uncle Charles preferred to quietly pole a flat bottomed boat along the shore line. He had built this boat himself out of
corrugated tin stretched over a wooden frame. The boat was purely functional and had no redeeming aesthetic qualities. It was, in fact, a joke among the locals who, non-the-less, borrowed it for their own excursions into night fishing or frog gigging.
The brothers were keeping to their usual pattern one moonlit May night when Uncle Charles paddled his boat under an overhanging willow tree. Standing in the front of his craft, poling it quietly forward, he was startled to hear a soft thud behind him in the floor of the boat. Turning to see what it was, he came face to face with a water moccasin that had apparently been resting in the tree and had chosen that moment to drop back into the water for a swim.
As I said in the beginning, Uncle Charles was fairly unimaginative. He cussed frequently, a thing that made my grandmother unhappy. He only had one phrase that he used, and I don’t think it harmed us particularly as I was fully grown before I heard any cussing other than Uncle Charles’, “God-damn, Son of A Bitch.” Grandmother usually addressed this behavior with something like, “Please, not in front of the children.” We found that wholly amusing since it was already said in front of the children loudly and clearly.
You would think that staring down a water moccasin would be one of those times when Uncle Charles’ cussing would have come in handy. Instead, he started to scream incoherently flailing his arms wildly. His gyrations knocked his hat and light into the water. He was now in the dark, in a boat with a water moccasin.
When he heard Uncle Charles let out his frantic yell, Daddy turned towards his brother, flooding the scene with the light from his miner’s hat. He stood transfixed as Uncle Charles pulled the six-shooter from his belt and fired Blam! Blam, blam! Blam, blam, blam! All six bullets fired at the snake. Daddy said later that he was even more amazed as he watched six fountains form in the bottom of the boat and then become bubbling waves as the boat slowly sank into the lake leaving Uncle Charles standing in a tin-roofing and wooden boat submerged under two feet of water.
The frogs inside the burlap bag were trying desperately to get away from all of the commotion, so they were thrashing around in a soggy lump of burlap as Uncle Charles frantically searched the surrounding area for the snake. Ripples from the gyrating frog bag spread out over the water in ever widening circles. Uncle Charles and Daddy saw the snake at the same time. It was calmly slithering and bobbing away along the surface of the water right in a path of pearly light from Daddy's miner's lamp. For years, Daddy swore that the snake stopped at one point and looked back over whatever shoulder it had with a grin on its face. Uncle Charles raised the gun and clicked off several empty rounds. Finally, in frustration, he threw the pistol at the departing snake. As the gun sank into the water without touching the snake, Uncle Charles stomped out of his sunken craft, took two steps forward as if he was going to chase down his fleeing nemesis, then raised his fist to heaven and finally said, “God-damn Son of a bitch.”