Like Jesus, I once walked on water. His reason was much more noble than mine since it was all about faith. Mine was based on pure, unadulterated terror; it was all about fear.
I never understood why monsters only come out at night. I could reach under my bed anytime during the day to retrieve toys, the cat, or the lizard the cat was after, but let the nightfall and not even Jesus could get my leg over the side of the bed.
My older siblings routinely ignored the warnings not to tease me about monsters hiding under my bed. Hey Rick, if your leg touches the floor at night the monster will drag you under and we’ll never see you again. This, apparently, is hereditary because, once I had sons, I heard them do the same thing to each other.
The scariest movie I ever saw was the Wizard of Oz until I went to New York to visit Jeff and his family. If you live in Kansas, then Oz is part of your DNA. Along with learning how to write in cursive, we were taught all the lines and to cackle wicked-witch-of-the-east-like, I’ll get you my pretty.
There is a striking parallel between the movie and my real life. Mine, too, is the story of an innocent young child in Kansas being tormented by a wicked witch from the east. And where did my niece Colleen live? East of Kansas in New York.
The Wizard of Oz helped me much later in life to converse with people when they discover I’m from Kansas.
Stranger at a party: “You’re from Kansas? Do you have a pair of red slippers?”
Me: “Nope. I gave up cross dressing when I broke my ankle.”
Stranger: “How’s Dorothy and Toto?”
Me: “Dorothy’s in a nursing home and they stuffed Toto and put him in the Smithsonian.”
Stranger: “How’s the lion, the tin man, and the guy made of straw?”
Me: “Fine. They’re all in Congress now.”
My first mistake was letting Jeff keep me up one night to watch a horror flick, The Skull. I sat with my ten-year-old feet drawn up in a fetal position for two hours of pure black and white panic. Jeff was accustomed to this kind of terror since he lived with Colleen and they giggled through it like it was Gilligan’s Island.
The worst part was when it ended and I had to go sleep with Jeff in his big bed in the basement where monsters hid under the stairs and ate little children. Jeff said there were numerous stories in the Red Hook Gazette about them.
After my heart slowed to the rhythm of a rabbit thumping on three shots of espresso, I finally drifted off to sleep. That was my second mistake. Jeff decided to crawl down to the end of the bed and clamp both hands on to the calf of my leg.
After my tent almost killed me in the middle of the night, you would have thought my parents were accustomed to the sound of a dying rabbit. That was not the case; Mom stood at the head of the stairs and growled out something about “who in their right might thought it was a good idea to let that little idiot watch a scary movie and you’d think by now I could tell the sound between a dying rabbit and Rick squealing like a stuck-hog. She didn’t want to go down the stairs either.
Although most of the monsters I encountered were imaginary, I did, however, meet a real, live, I’m-going-to-eat-you-and-all-your-babies monster the next summer when Jeff came back to Kansas.
Jeff had a crusty old bald-headed uncle that was a legendary fisherman in our parts, Max Graves. Any bait shop within a hundred miles had a Polaroid of Max holding a behemoth flathead catfish that was large enough to eat three small children at a time.
Jeff asked me one night if I wanted to run bank lines with Max on the Walnut River. That was like being invited to climb Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
Max was no nonsense and let me know it was a rarity for him to take little kids fishing.
“I’ve heard tell that you scream like a rabbit dying.” Max said.
“Maybe.” I replied.
“Okay, well, if you do I’ll just have to use you as bait. Catfish like little kids that scream like dying rabbits and thrash around in the water.”
Many of the catfish Max caught could easily eat an ten-year-old boy. I wondered if he’d hang me from a bank line or just throw in the deep part of the river on the trotline.
During the spring, the Walnut River screamed through the fields of Kansas like me running from Jeff after he clamped his hands on my leg. However, in the summer it was a lazy, muddy river that snaked through Kansas during the humid nights of July like a 500-pound person motoring around Wally World on a scooter.
We spent the late evening baiting the bank lines and trotlines with live perch. We went back to sleep for a bit, then woke up in the middle of the night to run the lines. You’d be surprised how noisy a summer night can be on the banks of a Kansas river when all the critters come out to play. It is a veritable chorus with the crickets carrying the rhythm, the bullfrogs thumping out the base like a car-full of teenagers at a stoplight, and the coyotes howling in harmony. I occasionally sang along in high soprano when a spider dropped off a branch on to my lap.
Max climbed in the middle of the old johnboat to be the oarsman and I got on one end, Jeff in the other. A dark river without any moonlight and only a wienie flashlight with dying batteries is downright creepy. But Max had built in night vision so he navigated us from bank line to bank line and around the logjams.
After a bit, he decided to park the boat and fish. We threw our lines in and did what all catfishermen do; waited. And waited. Then we waited some more. Max finally grunted about having something on his line and it was big and he hoped it didn’t break his line and you boys be ready it might be a snapping turtle.
Snapping turtles are mistakenly named; they should be clamping turtles. They have ferocious prehistoric jaws that are meant to lock on and not let go. They hiss, call you names, and dare you to stick some body part in their mouth. Ten-year-old boys are known to take them up on this dare and live to regret it. It seems the only thing that makes the turtle let go is the high-pitched sound of a dying rabbit.
Max bent his rod and lifted the snapping turtle up to the edge of the boat for us to see. That thing was the size of a truck tire and had already formed some pretty negative opinions about us. In fact, he came to the surface shouting out all kinds of turtle cusswords at us and threatened to consume the whole lot of us before the battle was over.
Max grunted a heave-ho and the growling monster landed at my feet; the snapping turtle, I mean, not Max. Mr. Snapper looked at me and assumed the hook in his mouth was my fault. He started thrashing around amidst the tackle boxes, fishing poles, and my tender little bare feet. Ten little toes wiggling in the night looked a whole lot like earthworms drowning in the river so he tried to take a few bites. My toes had finally gotten over the trauma of the this-little-piggy-went-wee-wee-wee-all-the-way-home game only to be traumatized by a prehistoric carnivore that thought they were hors d’oeuvres.
I knew I couldn’t scream or I would become bank-line bait, but that end of the johnboat was not big enough for me and Mr. Snapper. One of us had to get out of town before sunup.
And that’s when I walked on water. Or at least tried; I made it a few steps, then sunk, just like Peter.
I never did get to go run lines with Max again. My next encounter with him at a river in the middle of the night was when he dove eighteen feet off the old stone bridge at our favorite swimming hole to show us punks how to dive. He came up bleeding.
From then, on we reverently, and affectionately, called him Misguide Missile Max.
Not to his face, of course; none of us wanted to be catfish bait.
PHOTO: Drinkwater & Shriver Flour Mill, Cedar Point, Kansas – I took this on the Cottonwood River- one of Max’s favorite place to fish
If you would like these writings delivered once or twice a week into your inbox, sign up here. I promise not to spam you or give/sell your info to anyone.
Snapping turtle playing this little piggy went to the market wee wee wee all the way home.