Coleman Lantern Hisses and Hedge Fire Pops
By Steve Harrison
To tell a really good whopper, it almost takes the confirming atmosphere of a river camp, with the background soundtrack of the hiss of a Coleman lantern and a good campfire that is willing to pop some sparks up into the night sky every once in awhile. Fowler's toads, bullfrogs and katydids all help, too. But, the lantern and campfire just seem to be required to embellish a tall tale or two.
Most of my pup summers were blessed with those amenities. Those sunny days were a joyous routine of exploring the "Amazon basin" of the Embarras River in east-central Illinois, fishing and hunting and swimming. Sometime later in the day I would get to go seine bait with the grownups, and they were usually generous enough to let me blaze the path through the briars and bull nettle, carrying the two five-gallon buckets of water for the baits. Then it was back to the river camp to get the minnow cores into the river until it was time to bait up all the trotlines and bank sets just before sundown.
But the fun didn't slow down just because day was done. Not by a long shot. There was music to be made and campfire jawing to do. Dad was a pretty fair old-time fiddler. Played left handed over the bass. And there was always a guitar and usually a five-string "banjer" to crochet doilies around the old tunes Dad sawed out on Ol' Hick'ry. Long medleys without break between Soldier's Joy, Bully of the Town, Turkey in the Straw and Old Joe Clark.
It was easy for a kid to gaze into the campfire and imagine all the adventures of Lewis & Clark, given those primitive background sounds all around. The acoustics were perfect in the summertime for that sort of thing, too. The big old maples and sycamores drooped high over the river and formed a near perfect tunnel for the river, lending a natural reverberation to the music that the fanciest of concert halls can only try to duplicate.
In between tunes, or after they had played to their satisfaction for the night, there was campfire jawing. Most of my memories of that sport relate to when I was apparently the intended recipient for some of the tall tales. I must have been like a sparring partner for all of them, as I look back now and realize that all the grownups had probably heard each others whoppers before. Yeah, it's best to have a kid to test your whoppers on around a campfire. Dad was usually obvious, going into a storyteller's voice whenever he was setting me up. Uncle Louie and Uncle Gundy were a different matter. I never knew if they were talking serious current events, doing some earnest theorizing about mushrooms or fishing, or filling my head with their river rat mischief.
"Well, I reckon I prolly caught the biggest flathead out of this river, back in ‘20," says Louie. (All whoppers always started out well before my time to insure no chance of any serious challenge from me). "Yep," he continued. "Knew he was in that deep hole down near McCann's Ford, so I baited up real heavy. Used a whole hog's head. Wellsir, next morning I runs the lines and there's that big-as-yer-leg hedge pole bent double. I knowed I had ‘im. Well, he fit real hard, but I finally got him pulled into the boat. But you know, it was July and the river was so low that when I pulled that big monster out of the water and into the boat, just taking him out of the water lowered the river so much it sat my boat smack down on a gravel bar. I thought about pulling the boat back to camp, but knew I'd just drag the bottom out of it, so I had to roll that big flathead back into the water so's it would raise the river back enough I could row back t'home. Figger I'll wait and catch him again in the spring, when the water's up a bit."
Gundy would usually take over from there with something like: "Naawww. Hain't no use. I done caught him. He'd growed a bit since you caught him, too. Matter of fact, there wasn't no getting that big feller in no boat. Soon as I saw what a fish he was I headed up to Everette Cassiday's and borrowed a team of his big Percherons. Hooked the bank line to their hitch and you know that river bank got so slick with them kickin' water up on it and all, I thought I might be gonna lose ol' Ev's team for a minute there. But, they finally got him dragged up on bank and clear out into the cornfield. I took the horses back and told Ev about that big fish and he allowed we ought to winch the thing up on his flatbed truck. Wellsir, that's just what we did, and we was going to drive it across the grain elevator scales, but they was closed on a Sunday. So, best I could do to make sure everybody would believe me about that big flathead was to take a pitcher of it with my wife's Brownie camera."
Now came the professional whopper-teller's pause. Listen to the hiss of the lantern. Fire pops. "Okay," I says, finally. "I'll bite. How big was it?"
"Wellsir, young'en, that's the sad part. I had to clean it before it spoiled on me, so I never did get a for sure weight on the thing. I'll tell ya this, though. It was plenty big. Wye, that snapshot I took of it weighed 8 ½ pounds."
Around those two old river rats, Dad was a piker when it came to selling a whopper. His best effort was the time around the campfire when the talk was about how dry a summer we were having that year. "I'll tell ya, boys. This h'year river is gettin' really low. You know that set of trots I'm workin' up by Walker's Ford? Well, I landed a pretty good channel cat up there just yesterday, and you know I had to pick three ticks off his back before I could stand to get 'im in the boat with me."
And so went those sunny summers. I think I'll do that this summer. Make my own version of one of those relaxation cassette tapes like they have of the surf breaking on the beach, gentle rain and such. Nothing but Coleman lantern hiss, hedge fire pops, Fowler's toads, bullfrogs and katydids. Either use it for relaxation or for a background soundtrack while I fill a youngster's head with wild river adventures.
Now, let's see. "I love peach pie, and huckelberry puddin', give it all away just to see Sally Goodin." Yep. Ready.
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