Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Degrees of Death

Degrees of Death

For about two months Daddy and I had been waiting for the trip to the Coosawhatchee River with Johnny Mixon and some of the guys from the plant.

Now Johnny Mixon, a friend of my Dads from out at the plant, who also was the Magistrate in the Talatha District of Aiken County had put together a fishing trip back to his home waters in the Coosawhatchee River down in Hampton County about fifty miles south of the plant where Johnny had been raised before moving to Aiken County to have one of the jobs out at the plant.

Now it takes a lot of effort to plan and pull off a trip like Johnny had in mind. Part the magnitude of it was because of the remoteness of the area where we planned to camp and fish while the rest of the complexity was due to the size of the party and the length of the stay. There would be about six or seven people, all from the plant except me and Johnny’s Uncle Kenny, and the fact that we would stay five or six nights in the swamp made the logistics sort of challenging. Think about the trucks, boats, bait, beer, ice and food, not to mention the tackle, camping and cooking gear. I was serving in the Army Reserves in Aiken and for a week end drill in an armory designed for the purpose for three hundred men there was nothing logistically to compare with our preparations for a half dozen of us going in that uninhabited swamp for a few days. It was clear to me that Johnny Mixon was in charge even though there was nothing official about his leadership; the guys from the plant just followed his lead since he was a natural born leader.

It seemed like forever, those weeks and days after the plan was laid and the date set, before the actual departure date arrived, time was just creeping by, slow as molasses dripping on a hot biscuit. I was in a situation where I had only been married about six months and this would be the longest time of separation from my beautiful wife since we had tied the knot.

Finally the departure day came. I couldn’t sleep well the night before due to the excitement, and so even though I was not supposed to be at Daddy’s till about five AM, I showed up there about four AM. He was frying eggs and had a pot of grits on the stove so I made toast and we had a whopper of a breakfast then went out to his garage to get the truck out. I think he had the truck pretty well loaded already and parked inside with the roll-up door down to keep the neighborhood kids out of his stuff. He went in the walk-through door while I pulled my vehicle over so I could move my stuff into the truck when he got it out of the garage. Just when I got out of my car, I heard ripping, banging, crashing noises and saw the back end of that Ford pickup come through the roll-up door. As daddy got the truck stopped with pieces of that door hanging all over it, hinges, springs, panels and such, he rolled down the window and grinned sheepishly at me, saying “I’m not excited”. I guess the excitement had caused him to forget to forget the tightly secured roll-up door before he backed the truck out. Not phased one bit, he got out and we removed all the debris and piled it off to the side then got my stuff loaded. We had bought five hundred crickets for that trip and cases of beverages, boxes of food and had several chests of ice. We had both of our boats stacked up on my trailer. We were supposed to meet Johnny Mixon at six AM and were ready by five fifteen or so for the ten minute drive over to Johnny’s house.

So there were about five overgrown boys in their mid-life and me in my early twenties starting off from New Ellenton, Orangeburg, Bamberg and who knows where else to meet up at the store at Early Branch which proved to be about five miles from the boat ramp on the east side of the swamp. There was one older man with us named Johnson, never heard him called by any name but Johnson. We all got to the Early Branch store ahead of time so I guessed everyone had had trouble sleeping the night before, kind of like a kid on Christmas Eve expecting Santa Claus to come down the chimney. Johnny said, “Let’s eat lunch before we get started because it will be a heck of trip once we commence”. I had never seen a man prepared with hot food on the side the road, but Johnny lifted the hood of his Chevrolet C-10 truck and there it was. He had a line of canned goods resting in the crack between the exhaust manifold and the engine. “Vienna sausages anybody?” he asked, “How about some oil sausage? Potted meat?” He got a sleeve of soda crackers and opened some of those hot cans and we had a decent hot meal right there by the highway, mostly served with pocket knives. Well filled with meat and crackers, all seven of us unloaded the trucks, then loaded the boats, and went into the Coosawhatchee Swamp area known as Highhill Pond to camp & fish. There was Spring Lake in there also which was a finger off of Highhill Pond filled with crystal clear spring water. The Coosawhatchee itself was blackwater stained dark by tannic acid from the Cypress trees and centuries of rotting vegetation, leaves and such. Johnny Mixon led the way for several miles where the river split into channels and sometimes was completely obscured by overhanging bushes. I had no idea how he navigated through the jungle like he did but it was even more impressive that he could do it at night when it was dark as the devil’s hip pocket and the runs of the river were crooked as a snake crawling. After a couple of hours of swamp running, we emerged into about a fifty acres swamp lake that was long and skinny. Johnny led us to set up camp in a place where his daddy and granddaddy had camped when Johnny was a boy and probably a generation or two before that had used this same place and Indians before they were run out of the swamp. We got a fine camp set up and prepared to set out bush hooks and do a little night fishing.

Early on the morning of the second day, Daddy and I were up near the mouth of Highhill Pond where the river came into the lake when we heard an outboard motor coming down the run. The motor shut down about a 1/2 mile or so, maybe, up the run. It was far enough up the river to be suspicious as to why someone would cut their motor off and start running silent. I looked at Daddy with a knowing eye. I was thinking game warden and so was Daddy. It would be unusual for them to see that many pickups at the put in and not be curious about what was going on down in that swamp. This was before the days of computers and tag checks used routinely these days. Law enforcement had to figure things out for themselves in those days.

Daddy and I had fished from the mouth down the east side of Highhill Pond all the way to Spring Lake then fished a round in Spring Lake and came out about dark right at the camp. Probably the only illegal activity I know of on that whole trip was what daddy and I did up in Spring Lake. The water was so clear that the big fish that were in there would get way back up under the willows whenever there was the slightest disturbance to the water so that those fish were not just difficult to catch. they were just about impossible to catch. That is, impossible using legal means.

On the second day, we went to the mouth of Highhill Pond where the run came into the lake and started fishing down the west side and hadn't gone far when we heard that motor coming and then it shut down. I eased back upstream fishing, catching jackfish and wanting to be near the mouth when that boat drifted out from the run into Highhill Pond. We weren't violating any laws, but we didn't want to be harassed in any way down in that swamp. We just naturally didn’t take to game wardens. We learned fishing and hunting in an era when you got your gear and went afield taking game and fish whatever way was most productive and wherever you found it. I guess game wardens weren’t as numerous as they are now and we pretty much fished and hunted whatever way worked. There was little if any posted land and a man could stop and turn his bird dog loose most anywhere, put his boat in whatever water he came across and gather the bounty of the land as he chose. Game wardens were few and far between and as far as we knew they were all white men in South Carolina. Sure enough, after a bit, a boat drifted out the mouth and in it sat two game wardens. I stood up on the seat in my boat and yelled loud enough to be heard from one end of Highhill Pond to the other, Game Warden!!! GAME WARDEN!!! GAME!!!!! WARRRDEN!!!!!!, then I sat down and waited on them cause they were now motoring straight at us. As they pulled up they asked why I made the announcement of their presence like I did. I told them we were law abiding sportsmen but there were some down the river we didn't know much about so I wanted to give them a heads up. I asked them why they felt it necessary to come sneaking into a place like they had snuck into Highhill Pond. One thing that was really disconcerting was that one of them was a black man. Now I knew I could deal with that but I was afraid daddy would cause trouble because him being subject to a black law enforcement officer was a brand new experience that could cause him to show himself for what he was, a racist that had no use for blacks being in authority over him. They gave us a good going over and finally left without wishing us well and we didn't have any pleasantries or well wishing for them either. I knew it had taken a major effort for my daddy to not say something offensive to the black guy so I said, “Well I am glad that’s over”, and daddy replied, ”Well, I can tell my grandchildren something I never thought I would have to tell in my lifetime, that I was checked by a black Game Warden in a South Carolina swamp”. The game wardens worked all morning checking everybody they could get to, finally coming up to the camp just about lunch time.

We had predetermined to have a fish fry that day at one PM and Johnny Mixon who was a lawman himself was getting it together warming the peanut oil for frying, starting a pot of grits and mixing up the hush puppies using corn meal, flour, onions, bell pepper and seasonings. The game wardens came around and dipped fish out of our hoop for fifteen or twenty minutes checking their mouths for hook holes and never found one that was not caught with a hook, even the ones daddy and I had caught in Spring Lake on live crickets on the set hooks had hook holes in their lips. Then they got a long stick and poked under the bank from our camp for two or three hundred yards in both directions looking for fish traps which were illegal and the went through to Spring Lake looking for limb lines with crickets on them. Meanwhile Johnny Mixon got a huge pot hot on the fire and started frying hush puppies while some of us got the fish cleaned and ready to fry with salt & pepper and corn meal mix.

Now Johnny Mixon could cook and while he was a man of few words, the ones he spoke were chocked with wisdom and listened to well by all who knew him. The game wardens asked him some questions about who he was and where we were from and so forth while hinting around that they might like a plate of fish, hushpuppies and grits. Every time they would ask Johnny if he knew someone they knew he would say “yes, I know him and he is a SOB”; only Johnny said the words and they didn't sound sweet. On about the fourth one the Game Wardens asked him if he knew and he still was saying yes he knew the SOB, they figured out he was not warming up to them so they asked whose truck had the law tag on it at the put in. Nobody replied till Johnny said, “it's mine and I have a badge with more authority than yours. I try the people that you catch. I am the judge in Talatha District appointed by the Governor. Now we would like some privacy to finish our meal”, and they left without further comment. They went down the drain drifting hoping to bag a couple of swamp rats, or maybe those Marines. Finally about two hours before dark they came up out of the drain with the motor running and ran all the way up into the mouth and on out of hearing. I told Daddy that we would be lucky if any of the truck tires had air in them when we got back to the hill.

Late that night we were back in from running bush hooks and heard another motor coming down the run in the dark, hitting a stump every now & then and sometimes revving up to sling grass off the prop. I asked if that would be the game wardens coming back. Johnny said no, that’s Uncle Kenny he's coming in to camp with us for a night or two. Now Johnny was about fifty so I would say that Kenny was at least seventy or seventy five years old, and he ran his boat in the dark all the way into that camp without ever shutting his motor down having nothing but a two D cell flashlight for guidance through a jungle that we could barely navigate in daylight. Kenny’s propeller blades were broken down to a nub and he jumped out in ankle deep water and lifted up the motor to show it to us. He installed a new propeller right there by the firelight and he & Johnny went back up the run to check the bush hooks again. They woke us up coming back into camp and putting monstrous big catfish in the hoop. I asked Kenny where he had caught a particularly big one and he looked thoughtfully at me and said, “Right where Leonidas shot the deer in the face”, as if I knew where that location was and who Leonidas was and maybe had been there when it happened. I didn't ask for more location or event details but I did ask if Leonidas killed the deer. Kenny paused for a moment and looked me in the eye and said sternly with emphasis, graveyard dead! I had never considered degrees of death before but after that lesson Kenny gave me with his stare and sternness, I have to believe that graveyard dead must be as dead as something can get.

After about 5 or 6 nights we loaded all those fish into our then seven boats and could barely haul them all out. When we got to the hill everything was ok. Johnny said when people saw the trucks and looked them over they weren't sure who they would be messing with if they tampered with anything so they left them alone. We divvied up the fish and headed home. I have recorded this as close to how it happened as I can remember. It was forty two years ago this spring.

© Blackwater Bill Prince, November 28, 2010