The Houston Kid

I have an old Navy buddy who recently nicknamed me “Nuke”.  Both of us worked in the engine room of a nuclear powered submarine. He made sure we were all safe from radiation and I ran the reactor.  Everyone in the Navy called sailors who did what we did “nukes.” So when I first saw it, I didn’t get it. But apparently that’s not where the nickname originates. He nicknamed me after Nuke LaLoosh from the movie Bull Durham, referencing when Annie describes Nuke’s bedroom skills thus; “well, he f@#$s like he pitches, sorta all over the place.” Obviously this is a comment on my writing style. Or lack of style. Or using lack of style as a style (see, already Nuking it). I didn’t initially see it as a compliment as I do get some critique from friends and my oldest son about how I should stick to the point, and recently I’ve been trying to do just that. When I told my buddy that he said “you are doing this because you like it, so who cares?”  I then reminded him that Nuke made the show at the end of the movie. So I got that going for me.

In that vein, prepare for Madly Off in All Directions. I have a general theme in mind for this, but nothing really structured. I go off on tangents when I’m structured, so I shudder to think how many threads I’m going to pull on here. Like George RR Martin in Game of Thrones, when all else fails I’ll just make up another story line. He doesn’t really stick to the point either, seems to work ok for him. He has dragons though…..

Last night Jackie and I went to see Rodney Crowell with a couple of friends. We have followed Rodney Crowell for about 15 years now and both really love his music. He is a phenomenal songwriter, on a playing field with his long time friend Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Many of you won’t know those names-trust me I just put him in elite company. I’m going to use a few of his songs as jumping off point for a some short(ish) stories.

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Last nights crew, Loree, Anne, Jackie and I (I was going to say “and me” just to make my mom mad, she thinks I should use proper english. Pffft.)

We first saw Rodney Crowell back in the early 2000s in Conroe, Texas when he was promoting his “The Houston Kid” album. Jackie won tickets in a radio contest I think. Neither of us knew very much about him other than he had a couple of country hits some time before that and was married to Rosanne Cash. As with many things Jackie wants me to do, I didn’t want to do it. He was a country guy and I wasn’t. And as with many things, I compromised and did exactly what I was told. The concert was nothing short of revelatory for me. I expected this twangy country dude and I got a twangy story teller singing songs describing a youth much like mine. The first song he played was called “Telephone Road” talking about growing up in a pretty rough part of Houston:

Telephone Road

He told a bit of a story about the song. Every night, the mosquito truck would spray DDT in their neighbourhood. The driver would rev the engine and the top of the street and every kid would run out of their house and chase the truck. Turns out DDT was a minor hallucinogen and Rodney explained “I don’t know if DDT actually killed any skeeters or if at 8PM every evening we just called ourselves a little truce.” We all chased the DDT trucks, in both Louisiana and Texas. I also talked to a neighbor from the east coast of Canada and they chased the DDT trucks also. Sounds like a lot of us were calling truces every night!

The first and second verses really spoke to my childhood.”Barefoot heathens running wild and free” totally describes my growing up in Southeast Texas and Southern Louisiana. Running, biking and swimming in flooded streets and ditches. Playing football in my friends flooded front yard while Hurricane Camille pounded Mississippi.   Grass clippings floating on top of the water and all inside our cutoff shorts. Climbing Chinaberry trees, using their “berries” as sling shot projectiles. Ice cream trucks! I wish I had thought of skiing in a bar ditch behind a moped, that would have been awesome. (Bar ditches are big, straight drainage ditches that are all over Houston. It rains a LOT in Houston and these ditches get really full.)

Toward the end of the song he sings “A drive in movie in the trunk of my car, a one eyed sailor in an icehouse bar.” I always thought it would be great if those lines were mixed up. “A one eyed sailor in the trunk of my car” sounds like the opening line to a B detective movie and I would buy stock in a company that had “A drive in movie in an icehouse bar.” For those of you not from Texas, Ice Houses are like open quonset huts that serve cold beer. They used to be all over Southeast Texas.

He did not play the song last night as it really is a bit specific to growing up in the south (and it is 15 years and several albums old), but I thought about it all night and it and just had this feeling of nostalgia and contentment.  I have nothing but fond memories of being a kid, and every time I see Rodney I think of this song and remember.

The album was not all roses and sunshine however. He did have a tough childhood and sings songs that reflect that. The most powerful songs to me are two songs in succession that tell about a pair of twins. The first song is about the younger who is dying of aids and told from his viewpoint. The second is the viewpoint of the older twin as his brother comes home to die.

I Wish it Would Rain

Wandering Boy

Probably the most powerful line from probably my favorite song writer, is from the older brother’s viewpoint:

I used to cast my judgement like a net

Those California gay boys deserve just what they get

Little did I know there’d come a day

When my words would come back screaming like a debt I had to pay

I had a buddy named Lynn I hung out with a lot in my last couple of years of high school, up to the time I moved away from home. After I had been gone for many years my friend Jeff called to tell me Lynn had died of AIDS. I was utterly shocked, devastated and confused. AIDS? That was a gay disease.  I asked “did he have a blood transfusion or something?” Jeff replied “No man, he was gay.” It was like a light went off in my head. Of course he was, how did I never see that? I realized pretty much in that moment that  I not care one ounce whether he was gay or not.  It’s not like I was actively homophobic before then, but I think like most boys who grew up in the 60s and 70s, our views on homosexuality were problematic.  Lynn was one of the best guys I ever met. What difference could it possibly make to me who he chose to sleep with? Or who anyone else sleeps with for that matter. It’s really sad that it took the death of a good friend to make me realize that, but I do realize it now. Any time I hear those songs I think of Lynn, and while I certainly still have sadness, mostly I smile remembering Lynn, Jeff and I cruising around in Lynn’s mustang and Jeff tapping the console shifter into neutral a couple of times per night at stop lights and Lynn never catching him and revving the engine when the light turned. I never tired of that! I also remember any time we stopped at McD’s for burgers and fries and Lynn eating his french fries one at a time, 3 bites or so each while Jeff and I, who polished off fries 4 at a time, yelled at him to “hurry up!” He was a good friend and I miss him.

During his set last night, Rodney talked about driving to Beaumont (like 1.5 hours from Houston) and commented how there is nothing between Beaumont and Houston but “black swamp,” which is fairly correct if you drive down I-10. But if you veer south, you hit the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, home to many ducks, geese, herons, cranes, and alligators. Lots and lots of alligators. It’s southern edge is the shoreline of East Galveston Bay. That shoreline is the scene of the best single fishing day of my life (and I dare say one of the biggest days anyone has had in Galveston Bay in a very, very long time).

After I got out of the Navy, I went back to University. I was afraid of going right back to a big school as I had been out for 8 years, so went to a junior college in Baytown, Texas. Turned out my fears were unfounded as learning about nuclear power in the Navy had taught me a ton about how to study. During my first semester finals the weather had been great for December and I was itching to go fishing, but my exam schedule had not allowed it. However, one of my last finals was at 2 PM and I knew the night before I had the subject matter down cold.  I decided to get up really early and if the weather was fine (a front was supposed to blow through, so I expected the worst) I’d drive the hour or so to Anahuac and see if I could find any big trout in East Bay.

The morning was dead calm, so I grabbed my gear and headed out. When I hit the bay an hour later, it was completely socked in with fog. Not this Canada river fog, this is pea soup fog. You literally cannot see much more than 20 yards or so. Since I had been lost in the fog on this very flat once before for a couple of hours, I decided I would stay within sight of the shoreline until if lifted as I couldn’t risk getting lost again. My dad had given me these new topwater lures to try, so I decided maybe I would get lucky and a big girl would be cruising the shoreline and would take a swipe at it.

After an hour or so nothing much was happening, but the fog had started to clear some and I decided to risk venturing a little further out when I saw a big raft of mullet. Rafting is when mullet congregate near the surface very close together. You can actually see their mouths out of the water. I had heard that sometimes big trout will hang underneath using the mullet as protection to ambush smaller bait fish. So I cast to the edge of the raft, twitched the bait and BOOM!

I had never fished topwaters before. For you fly fishermen, think “I had never fished dry flies before.” The differences in the takes between surface and subsurface are even more dramatic with the lures! The fish absolutely explode on them. And like dry flies, it’s best to wait a bit before setting. I had no idea I was supposed to wait, set and the lure comes flying back at me. Cast again, same thing (we call these “blowups”). And again. And again. And I’m starting to panic a bit. I decide to switch lures to another type of topwater, cast again, and this time hook up!  On one of the biggest trout I had ever caught. After she puts on a good account of herself, I slip her into my do-net (we didn’t know any better back then). A do-net was basically a Styrofoam life ring with a mesh net to hold your fish. In those days you could keep 10 (crazy, I know). In truth, I was pretty freaking pleased with myself for sticking with the topwater after all the misses.

Big trout are generally solitary creatures, I’m figuring I need to start moving as there wouldn’t be another very close by. But the fog had actually worsened and I still had at least 3 hours to fish. I take another cast at the pod of mullet just to pass the time, and immediately hook up again on a fish about the same size as the first one. In Bow River terms, I had just went back to back 26″ fish!  I could barely believe it. Until the next cast lands another big fish.

I stood within 50 yards of that spot for the next 3 hours. I had to move a little to stay around the mullet, who were pretty unconcerned with all the commotion. In all, I caught 25 trout. Yes, I counted. All except 1 over 5 lbs. Many of them over 7. To put that in perspective, after fishing Texas and Louisiana most of my life I had probably caught a dozen fish over 6 lbs in total. Maybe. In one 3 hour of so session I had probably doubled that. The 10 I kept weighed 56 lbs, and the only reason it wasn’t 60 was the only little fish I had caught (a mere 3 lber) had swallowed the lure and would never had made it had I released it.  It was truly a day of a lifetime.  Just before I had to leave for my test, a boat starts to pull in a few hundred yards from me. They get out to wade and I was going to yell to them to come over as I was still catching (and I can’t tell you how hard it was to leave). Before I yell I see both of their rods doubled over and thought, my lord, how many fish are on this flat? When I got to the shore near my car, I picked up my do-net on either side of it, picked up the fish, and the styrofoam breaks in half! I’ve never seen anything like that day, or really heard anything like it, before or since.

I’ve told that story many times over the years. When I tell it in Texas, unless the person knows me they probably don’t believe it. As I said above, I sincerely doubt there have been a dozen days like that for anyone in Galveston Bay in the past 40 years. And if someone tells me there has, unless I really know them I won’t believe it!  Hell, I barely believe it myself.  I used to have a picture of the fish I kept, probably the first fish picture I ever took. I sure wish I knew what happened to it.

I actually was telling it to a cousin once, many years after the event, at my parents house. Like many of my stories, I had the gist down but the details were a little fuzzy. I said “I think it was late November.” My dad says “nope, it was just before Christmas.” I say “how the hell would you know, you weren’t even there!” “Son, I never forget any big fish I catch, or any big fish anyone tells me about. You were taking exams. After your exam you called me to tell me about it. Gene Boyd and I and took his boat to that same shoreline the next day. But by then that front had blown in and we didn’t catch a thing.” “You guys went the next day? You never even asked me!” “You were in exams, remember.” “Oh, you’re right.” That was the difference between his memory and mine, I remember the event, but rarely all the details and just fill in. He remembered the event.

That concludes my Rodney Crowell inspired stories.  Hopefully, it lived up to my new nickname. Nuke. I like it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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