Sunday, January 2, 2011

An Island between Generations

An Island between Generations

Caddo Lake has always been a special place for me; its 26,000 acres of swamp, moss, and mystery. My family has frequented the lake for as long as I can remember. My grandparents bought land in the little forgotten town of Grey, Texas when I was about nine.

I would go fishing there with my parents and grandparents during spring and summer breaks from work and school. My father had been on the lake since he could cast a line. He and his brothers are part of the last generation of true outdoorsmen. They reside right on the edge of when television took over for nature as the main form of entertainment. Caddo was where my father taught me the finer points of fishing; I was taught how to tie knots, how to look for a brim-bed, and how to respect the outdoors. It would be years later that I would teach my fiancĂ©’ Natasha how to fish there, sharing the same lessons and appreciation my dad taught me.

A native of Russia, she had never seen cypress-knees poking up from under the surface water. Giant leathery spiders and alligators were creatures reserved for books and the Discovery Channel. Branches strung with moss as long and stringy as witches’ hair and a cork bouncing up and down with the waves were things that lost their wonder to me long ago. Seeing these sights through Natasha’s eyes allowed me to see them again for the first time and recapture a bit of that lost charm.

On one morning, we floated along in the early summer warmth hunting Goggle-Eye and Blue-Gill in my little flat-bottom boat. I shared with her all the legends centered on the lake. I told her of the old-momma alligator that had evicted a family of beaver from their dam and still lived there to this day, of catfish large enough to sink a boat and swallow a man; I told her just about everything I had heard and everything I had seen. The last story I told her this morning was my favorite and maybe the most difficult to believe.

A few years before, I had been out on the lake with my father fishing. We enjoyed the snacks and sports chat more than watching our corks do absolutely nothing. The sun was heading down on the horizon but, being summer in Texas, there was still plenty of heat in the air. My dad asked me if I wanted a beer. I said “sure,” but was certain that we hadn’t brought any along. Dad pulled in his line and I shrugged and followed suit. We trolled out of the kudzu grass and started up the outboard. Throwing our life-jackets on, we buzzed across the lake. We went past fishing spots I knew very well. I recognized places like Jap Island and Twin Island immediately. Then the sights began to become foreign to me. We left the open water boat-run of the lake and followed a path only my father knew. We turned down small little trails through the woods in water so shallow you could see the catfish laying on the bottom, and through Cypress-knees taller than most people I’ve seen. We travel on small lines of water where there were neither openings nor light. My dad formed trails with experience and we travel the rest of the way on them. Eventually we exited this tangle of old-world into a large river path. Up ahead I saw smoke coming from a little mass of land.

It was an island, but not one made of earth. This one was a man-made pirate cove cobbled together out of wood, moss, and forgotten generations. Smoke was coming from a building in the middle and a number of boats were tied up, their owners standing around nearby. I was momentary at a loss for words. Only when we came to a sudden stop did I realized we had docked.

We were at one of small docks for individuals to tie their boats to and board the floating structure. An old man who seemed to have been created at the same time and from the same materials as the island appeared beside the boats holding a long rubber hose and asking if anyone needed their gas tanks topped off. The planks that made up the majority of the little wooden atoll were grey from years spent in the elements. No kind of modern water-proof sealant or weather coating had ever been brushed over the wood; they dated back to a time when people built stuff tough, mean, and such things were not necessary. If the mass were to ever separate, the long grey planks would lay hidden in the clay bottom of Caddo in their same grey perfection for all time.

There was a small building in the center of the structure that served as a general store of sorts. The most diverse assortment of river-folk, bayou drifters, and grizzled fishermen were docked near the store. The boats ranged from new Bass-Tracker VIPs to old dinged and punctured flat-bottoms that were held together by necessity and a caulking gun. No one seemed to notice anyone else. People made their way to the store and back to the boat, only stopping to hand the gas-man a dirty wadded up five or ten dollar bill. The gas-man would then thank the boater in a voice consistently one octave louder than it should have been, and scuttle back to the store to give the proprietor the payment.

My father and I stepped onto the small tie-up he had decided upon and made our way to the general store after pausing only long enough to refuse any gas for our boat. We passed a couple of time-worn old men cleaning large, dark-blue catfish at a makeshift table who paid us no mind as we entered the store.
The contents of the old, crude structure did not hearken back to anything in the past. They were still in it. From the soda ads hanging on the wall to the actual cans themselves in the cooler, nothing looked as if it could have been from the last 30 years. Everything had shades of the lake on it: rust on the signs, mold pulling the shelves into the walls themselves, and trinkets and knickknacks strung up by cobwebs. However, it was not a stretch of the imagination to believe that none of these would every age, rust, or rot past the condition they were presently in. They had manifested on the island itself, just as the island had manifested out of nothingness. It would forever be in this one moment, only separated from the next by the outsider presence of my father and myself. These exact same exchanges, actions, and situations would play out in the exact same way tomorrow, as they had since the lake had first formed.

I glanced around the shop and found that it had pretty much everything that one would need to survive. There were little packets of fishhooks, though most of them were rusted almost through; in the corner there were whole rod and reel sets that would never turn or pull in line. Wafting out of the back was also the smell of a grill that had never cooked anything store-bought. The woman behind the counter could never have been younger than 60. I could picture her first memory; her opening her eyes to a sun darkened fisherman asked for a pack of peanuts. Her eyes were the only part of her not drooping or sagging. They held a determined shine of polish from a generation filled with difficulties.

Before I knew it I was sitting back on our boat with a beer in my hands. It was a Budweiser, though the design on the can was one I had only seen once in an antique store. My father used a paddle and pushed us away from island and turned us around. I was going over everything in my head to make sure I never forgot a detail when the tiny island finally disappeared from sight and maybe even the world.

When I finished telling all of this to Natasha I watched as she tried her best to grasp my descriptions of a place made up of materials and lives she had never seen or experienced. She asked if we could try and find the island. I said “sure,” and we pulled in our lines. I started the engine up and we set off across the lake.
It wasn’t long into our search that I realized that even if we looked 100 years, I would never set my eyes on the island again. My father had been running up and down this lake since he was far younger that I was. His connection with nature is something that I’ll never be able to posses. He comes from a different time. All the lessons he taught me, he learned from the source. When he looks at the lake, he does so with the same eyes as the woman behind the counter on the island. Maybe that is the key, the literal key, to finding the island. Maybe I’m just one generation too late.
Author: William D. Tripp

William D. Tripp doesn't have your fancy MFA degree...but he would sure like one. Tripp is an adjunct writing professor and professional tutor at SAU Tech. His recent publications include, Prick of the Spindle, The Rectangle, and Song of Singing. His nonfiction centers around life in Northeast Texas. Its a different place. He can reached at