By Otha Barham
The Meridian Star
When you are eleven years old and you are a boy and you live in Mississippi, summer time can be a semblance of heaven. You don’t worry about foreign conflicts or the stock market or home work or retirement income or cholesterol. You concern yourself with having a good time, and the rest of us envy you.
A substantial number of eleven-year-olds are drawn to the outdoors like filings to a magnet. Yes, the percentage may be less these days than in the days when the writer was eleven because youngsters have more money today and the land far removed from the outdoors is full of those who want to get it from them. But the lucky ones are discovering the blessings of the outdoors.
I recall no mental trauma during the summer of my eleventh year. What I do recall is how beautiful were the punkinseed sunfish I caught from the tiny creek near my grandmother’s house. I had read in an outdoor magazine or heard some fishing sage divulge that the larvae from a wasp’s nest made irresistible bait for bluegills and related panfish.
By good fortune, I found a large nest, fiercely defended by a dozen or so mean-looking red wasps, a suitable risky situation that challenged my spirit of adventure. A page from the newspaper tied to the end of a long stick provided a torch. I lit the paper with a kitchen match (remember those?) and passed the flames across the wasp nest, which scattered the vicious insects; some falling dead to the ground, some sailing about singed but largely unharmed and looking for their attacker who was standing much too close to the scene of the crime.
Luckily I emerged from the episode unstung and after things settled down I retrieved the nest and found it quite full of sealed cells that told me juicy larvae were inside. I confirmed this fact by pricking one of the cell covers and looking in.
I grabbed my fish pole, probably a recently harvested, short, uncured cane pole still showing its green color and fitted with black braided line salvaged from a tangle of my dad’s worn line when he replaced it with a new one on his Pflueger Akon casting reel. My hook represented the only item that had cost me money, a small tin box of a dozen costing ten or fifteen cents. My float was likely a hollow goldenrod weed or a cork from a medicine bottle.
Off I went across the highway to a creek that I had never seen but had heard existed somewhere over beyond the woods line. I found a small but swift-running stream that was as clear as most Mississippi streams get. And it looked fishy.
I pushed through the brush along the stream until I came to a sharp bend in the creek that resulted in a cut in the bank and a three-foot deep hole with slow water. Tearing open one of the wasp nest cells, I pulled out a slimy larvae and impaled it onto my hook. No sooner had the bait settled beneath the float than the line tightened and I pulled out a fish.
A more beautiful fish I had never seen. It was a stunning mixture of aqua, orange, yellow and red. Colored dots decorated its forward underbelly and even its eyes were colorful. Squiggly lines marked its lower jaw and gill covers. I baited with another immature wasp and repeated the episode. Over and over again I caught the little fish, all the same size and barely large enough to eat.
My memory fades here, but I am sure I took them back to Grandma’s where I must have scraped them free of scales and insisted that they be pan fried. My certainty stems from the fact that it was a rare fish that I threw back to the water in those days. A caught fish was bound for the table.
Maybe there was some disaster in my town or the nation or the world that day, but I don’t remember one. Maybe there was distress in the family, like a sick aunt or someone facing surgery, but I don’t recall any. Eleven-year-olds didn’t dwell much on the implications of trouble back then, and I suspect even now most worrying is the duty of those whose years number more than eleven.