I don’t know how old grandpa was then… but I was 13. We were camped on a Big Piney gravel bar below the mouth of Hog Creek. Grandpa Dablemont taught me so much on those river trips. He was the best outdoorsman I ever knew, descended from a Frenchman who stowed away on a ship when he was about 15 years old and came to Canada because his mother insisted he become a Catholic priest. He thought it was a good reason to leave his home in the French Alps.
That was a fitting place for him to originate. The name Dableaumonte’ meant “dweller of the mountains” in French. In Canada he married a woman who was half Cree Indian and began trapping. Grandpa said his father killed two men who were trying to kill him and steal his furs. So he fled the country and brought his wife to Randolph County, near Macon where he bought a farm.
When my grandfather was about six years old, in 1901, the family abruptly left for the Ozarks, a farm on the Big Piney River to the west of Edgar Springs. He came on a train ahead of his parents, and saw that beautiful Ozark River then for the first time. He never left it.
I never knew a man like him. Most people said that. Grandpa loved that river, and he made his living from the Big Piney’s flowing waters, as a trapper, fisherman, boat builder, tie hacker… hunting and fishing guide, you name it.
That night on the gravel bar, in early July, we sat by a glowing campfire with trotlines set and baited, hoping for a big flathead catfish at dawn. We had a trotline set in the Catfish Rock eddy, above our campsite, and in the Fisher Eddy below us about four or five hundred yards. Grandpa said he just knew the Fisher Eddy would have some big flatheads because he hadn’t trotlined it for a while. He was right.
When it came to the outdoors, and the river, he usually was right. Somehow he just knew things – when the storms would be coming, days ahead, where to find ginseng, when the first frost would be. He knew where there were dozens of caves, some of them so remote and hidden that no one could have found them. We went into some caves where arrowheads were found on the dirt floors. One cave that was hard to squeeze into became a magnificent chamber with a high waterfall and beautiful unbroken formations like nothing I have ever seen. It was so hidden I don’t know if I can find it again, but soon I am going back to try.
Often, when we were trotlining, we slept in caves, always wrapped up in old musty-smelling quilts laid on top of a big canvas. Grandpa gained those quilts, which would be worth a great deal today, by trading catfish to some of the ladies in town who made them. He loved to trotline, or to fish from some big river rock with willow poles and night-crawlers and minnows.
But Dad and I had some Shakespeare reels and fiberglass rods we would use to catch goggle-eye and bass and green sunfish, casting some little spinner baits called shimmy flies, or lures like Flatfish and Lazy Ikes and Lucky 13’s. Grandpa never cast a lure in his whole life I don’t suppose, but he would often paddle for us, and I have never ever seen a man who could handle a johnboat like he could.
I was learning. I had been making money paddling for fishermen. For the second year in a row, I had bought my own guides license and I would make 50¢ an hour guiding fishermen from daylight to dark on the Big Piney, Little Piney, Roubidoux and Gasconade. Quite often I’d get a couple dollars added on as a tip. At 13, I knew just what I was going to do for the rest of my life, I was gonna be a fishing guide right there on the river I loved.
That night on the gravel bar below “Hog Crick”, Grandpa was very reserved, almost morose. He was often like that, the happiest man I ever knew one day, and then so down in the dumps you’d think he had broke his best sassafras paddle.
“You don’t know what an awful place this here world is gonna be someday,” he told me. “The freedoms men once had is disappearin’ an’ there’ll come a time when you’ll wanna leave and get far off from it.”
For some reason, he was bothered by something happening in Africa, where there was a big effort to take food and supplies to native tribes where starvation was resulting from drought and famine.
“You can’t make it right,” he said. “They live like all creatures in a natural world and it’s like this… if you save all of the people there from starvin’ this time around they’ll reproduce like crazy and starvin’ times come back. There’ll be twice as many of ‘em to die or to save, and a time comes you just can’t do it. Folks nowadays can’t understand how the world is. We want it to be like we think it ought and it ain’t.”
I heard him slurp a drink of that awful tasting hot coffee, and while I was gazing up at a sky bright with a million stars, he said something I will never forget. “See that johnboat of our’n, sittin’ there, boy. It’ll hold four, maybe five if I absolutely got to paddle it down the river in a flood.”
“Put eight or 10 people in it and it’ll sink and we’ll all drown. What you got to know is… when that flood comes, some can get in the boat and float away and some got to stay an’drown. It’s what nature is for all wild critters and mankind is the same way. You can build more boats and save more people from the flood that’s comin’ but you can’t build enough to save everybody forever.”
I don’t know that I thought about it much that night, but I do now. We want to make this once-great nation into a packed gravel bar and there’s a big flood coming that is going to show how, eventually, nature’s laws are in charge of all populations, whether it is mice, rabbits or men. There were 180 million people in the nation then. Someday, if it continues like this there will be a billion people here. Our forests will fall, our water table will sink, our rivers will be dirty and lifeless. There will be no place to retreat.
Grandpa retreated to heaven in 1970, the week my first daughter was born. She became a doctor, and my two grandsons are as far from what I am as those stars are from the fire on the gravel bar that night. I was much like my grandfather and his father. Men were like that for centuries. No longer. The best of what our ancestors were is going fast, what they knew is gone. Common sense has vanished.
I recall something my father told me often. He said that in the Bible it said that someday men would not abide sound reason. That day has come, I believe. It is a good thing you are not here Grandpa. Today, just as you said, television has become ol’ Satan’s great tool, and I don’t even want to tell you about something called the Internet and computers.
The Big Piney is a shell of what it was. It has far less water today and is choked with slime. The shoal below the mouth of Hog Creek is too shallow to float in a johnboat. And you aren’t going to believe this but I swear it is true… women singers all sing and dance in their underwear.
It was a great time back then, when you and I had that river and such a simple life. I wouldn’t trade those times for all the gold and all the money in the world. But today… most everyone else would.