Through Mist Thrown Up by Breakers
There are times when a man’s life changes, and that hour and that minute will sneak right up on you.
by Roger Pinckney
From the November/December 2008 issue.

We were hanging just outside the surf line, trying to figure a way ashore, me and Hampy in a 14-foot skiff. The motor blubbered, the boat pitched, and the swells rolled gentle and greasy, the way they do when the bottom comes up slow. On the beach, though, the waves broke in a mighty roar. “Runnin’ six feet,” Hampy said, “this is gonna be tricky.”

“You the one wanted to come,” I said. “Now here we is.” That’s the way we talked back then. They tried to teach us better in school, but it didn’t stick.

A broad copper beach curved off to the southeast, littered with the driftwood bones of an-cient trees. Beyond the beach was a green blur of wax myrtle, yucca, and saw palmetto, and beyond that an ocean of hammered steel stretched to the edge of the world.

Busting out of an inlet you head for the deepest water, and you’ll see it by wherever the waves aren’t breaking. But when you’re coming in, the backsides of all the waves look the same. You’ll think you’re doing just fine till the prop chews sand, and you look back and see a six-foot curler hanging over your transom.

It was October and the redfish were running. We called them spot-tail bass. Their tails were spotted, but they were really a drum; not a bass at all. But none of that mattered with the swells stacked up and the surf roaring and us fixing to come ashore.

“Over there.” Hampy pointed through the mist thrown up by the breakers. “Head for that driftwood snag.”

I wrung the throttle on the 18, an Evinrude Fastwin. It was a twin, but not very fast. “Hang on, Bub. Here we go!”

Time slows down when you’re eyeballing the Death Angel. We’d been there enough times, me and Hampy. Swamped, cast ashore, marooned, oyster-cut, sunburnt, blistered, parched—even shot at, but Praise Jesus never hit. And then a swell caught the skiff and we were headed for shore, the power of the almighty sea behind us.

This was after we’d worn out our welcome at the Old Glory Hole, that fish camp on the northern side of Skull Creek. Or maybe Mr. Bo Bledsoe and Mr. Kick Cook had worn us out. The Old Glory Hole was a collection of tin-roof shacks along the riverbank: a bunkhouse, a wellhouse, a smokehouse made from a defunct Southern Bell phone booth. There were oysters, clams, shrimp, and fish in the river; deer and wild hogs in the thickets; and when you sat around the barrel stove on chilly nights, sides of bacon nailed to the kitchen rafters drip-dripped grease on your head.

Mr. Bo and Mr. Kick were the last of the river rats, or at least it seemed so—tough as hell, the kind of men who carried canned dog food for emergency rations. They had rowed and sailed all over the county way back before everybody had outboard motors, and it took a hurricane to keep them off the water.

I was working a spot-tail in heavy surf with my spinning rig. Mr. Bo was alongside me with his Penn Senator, loaded up with 90-pound braid. He had no fish, but I did, and it had found strength in the backwash. I slacked the drag, and it hummed and whined as a drag will do: a mighty satisfying sound. To me, anyway. “What the hell are you doing, boy?”

“I’m playing this fish,” I said.

”Play with him when you get him on the bank, boy! Reel his ass in!”

That’s how it started.

I got that fish onto the beach, and he was a good 20 pounds, 30 inches, all shimmery and wonderful in the midday sun. These days they got a slot limit, cleverly crafted to make three-quarters of the spot-tails illegal. But not back then. So Bo Bledsoe bellowed up Hampy and set him to butchering while I tried to snag another one. Bo Bledsoe tried, too, but outside of the usual run of catfish and stingerees, my spot-tail was the only eating fish we caught that day.

That was Sunday and they had work in the morning, but there was some kind of teacher’s powwow on Monday and we were out of school for another whole day. Mr. Bo and Mr. Kick always gave us everliving hell, like I said, but maybe them leaving to go back to work and us staying, off from school, made it worse. I was lugging coolers and bedrolls when Bo Bledsoe bellowed up Hampy again: “Boy, is your leg broke?”

Weren’t much for Hampy to do, but Bo Bledsoe just couldn’t stand him sitting in the old porch swing hung between an oak and a palmetto. He didn’t like the way I stowed the gear in his boat, either. I shuffled it around to suit him but never got it quite right. He cranked the motor, let it idle, and waved us back down to the riverbank. I should have known what was coming.

“Cost a lot of money to keep up this place,” he said.

Mr. Kick was already in the boat and had just popped a beer. They’d burn up more beer than gasoline getting back to the landing. “Your folks ever rent them a beach house?” he said. “I reckon it would cost twenty bucks a day.”

It’d likely cost more than that, I thought, but I let it slide. “I ain’t got twenty bucks,” I said, “but you can have my fish.”

“Whose fish?” Bo Bledsoe said. “Seems like you was standing right next to me when you caught it.”

This ain’t worth a damn,” Hampy said. “They took our supper and all our money, too.” That was after Mr. Kick and Mr. Bo cleared the first bend in the creek, out of earshot, out of sight, way out into the broad spartina flats, waving in the seawind, gold as grain for the harvest.

“Eight bucks,” I said. “We can always eat the bait.”

“Squid and two-day-old mullet?”

“We got grits. There’s some size to the mullet.”

“Looky here, why don’t we try Gale Break?”

“Gale Break?”

That was on the far side of Trenchard’s Inlet, six or seven miles away. Gale Break was where the Great Storm of 1893 busted through the beach on its way to drowning 2,000 people on the islands hereabouts. When the water went down they had to untangle the bodies from the tops of trees and lay them in mass graves, 50 or 60 at a time. It was a mean place then and a mean place still.

Now I was right handy in a boat, I don’t mind telling you. I made and kept my reputation by going slow, reading my water, and keeping out of tight spots. But Mr. Bo and Mr. Kick had run us off from the Old Glory Hole, leaving us with no money and no supper, neither. And that’s how we came to be riding those ocean swells ashore.

The channel ran straight for the beach for the first hundred yards and then hooked hard to the northwest. I made the straight part just fine but cut the turn short. We were kicking sand, and by the time we got through we took on enough water to float the cooler and bailing can in the bilges. We motored up a little creek, bailed the boat, walked the anchor ashore, and stomped it into the loose sand.

The moon was well into the third quarter, and the evening tide rushed inland at full flood. The wind was out of the northeast, and it doesn’t take much of that to rile things down here: 8 or 10 knots churning the sea, whistling through the sea oats, moving loose sand between the dunes. The biggest ocean rollers threw spray high into the air when they fell upon an offshore bar; then there was the confused stretch of channel, then smaller waves on the beach. The water between looked fishy, so we laid out the mullet we might have had for supper, slicing them across the backbone.

Hampy’s daddy was raised Baptist but backslid hard, drinking good licker and smoking big cigars the way lawyers do. But he come to Jesus pretty quick after he loaded his pants pockets with cut mullet and a sand shark made a snatch at his britches. It was a long wade out there, 200 yards before we were waist deep; no place to be tangling with a shark. I carried my bait in my shirt pockets. Hampy’s was in a bread bag under his hat.

The surf beat us up, and we stumbled whenever the current sucked the sand from beneath our heels. It beat up the bait, too. Two-day-old mullet is about like fish Jell-O, hard to keep on a hook. We didn’t even get the ghost of a strike, but it wasn’t long before we were running short of bait. Hampy struck out for more, and he took his own damn time getting back.

Hampy was like that, a master at finding the easiest way to do anything. He wouldn’t walk anyplace he could drive, wouldn’t carry anything he could drag, and he was the only man I ever knew whose self-winding watch would run down.

Instead of bringing bait, Hampy was fishing by the boat. He was fishing and he was catching. I saw the bow in his rod when it caught the sun, shining like beer-sign neon in the late afternoon light. “Whiting,” I reckoned, but no: a spot-tail come flippering up onto the sand. Three fish, four. I reeled in and headed up the beach.

There must have been a freeway of spot-tails swimming up that inlet. We flat wore them out. Or maybe they wore us out. We were using double-drop bottom rigs. Bam, there’d be a strike on one hook. Halfway to the bank, bam, there’d be a strike on the other, and our rod tips were jittering like well-witchers’ willow sticks. Finally Hampy said, “Great God a’mighty. How many of these things you want to clean?”

I checked the cooler. Six-pound fish were ranked like stovewood. Two dozen, three. I couldn’t count. “I don’t mind the butchering,” I said, “but we can’t keep ’em cool.”

Hampy laid a final fish in the box, snapped the lid. “If we had enough ice, we could fish till dark.”

I peeled my bait, threw it in the creek. Two quick swirls and it was gone. They were that thick and still running. “If I had enough ice, I’d fish forever.”

Maybe so, I thought, but I didn’t care to run that surf again. “Looky here,” I said. “Don’t you reckon this creek comes out somewhere?”

Hampy stepped onto the boat seat and squinted off across the spartina. You could follow the creek by the taller, darker canes along the bank. It swung off toward a low line of hummocks, almost got there, then took off in another direction. “This country’s full of snarly dead-ends,” he said. “But we got tide enough to try it.”

So we loaded up, cast off, and swung downtide, idling along with the current. It was good to be off the beach, running downwind into the cool green of the spartina flats.

There are times when a man’s life changes, and that hour and that minute will sneak right up on you. Most folks won’t even know what hit ’em till long years after, when they get to thinking how things might have turned out otherwise. Maybe you know what I mean.

Because along that creek was an island, an island not on any map: rattlesnake heaven, an acre and maybe two, low and windblown, an impossible tousle of sea grass and saw palmetto with one lonesome cedar for shade. But that didn’t matter. Because it would be our island, not forever but at least for a while. And we would build a shack on it.

It would never be the Old Glory Hole, but there would be a tin roof, a broad sleeping porch, an icebox, a Dixie No Smoke range, and a toilet that flushed every time the tide changed. And there I would come to learn that Mr. Bo and Mr. Kick hadn’t run us off the Glory Hole at all. What they had done was teach us what they figured we needed to know. And then they cut us loose to learn the rest of it ourselves.

But the start of all that was still 10 minutes away, just around the next bend in that creek, as we eased along with the floodtide, the old Evinrude humming, little waves drumming, and the last of the fish still flopping in the cooler. ■

Roger Pinckney spent the better part of his childhood at a fish camp on a marsh hammock in South Carolina, before being burned out by Prince Faisal ibn Abdelaziz Al Saud, who was looking for an anchorage for his seagoing yacht. Faisal later got to be king of Saudi Arabia, but then somebody shot him, saving Pinckney a whole lot of trouble.

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