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Writing this column and the associated blog has been on of the more interesting things I’ve ever done, even in the context of a life that has been pretty doggone interesting. Though I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words for publication during my career, most were under someone else’s byline. Outdoors Down South is different because it was my own creation, for better or worse, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing it for three years now.
I’ve known Charlie Cook Bridges for as long as I’ve known anyone or anything, so it’s a little hard to get my mind around the fact that he recently passed away.
More than just a friend of my father’s, Charlie Cook was an important influence on me from my early childhood, through my teen years and on into adulthood. In my life, he was a friend, a teacher, a boss and an occasional partner in crime. No matter the circumstances, Charlie Cook was someone I was always happy to see.
Some of my earliest memories are of Charlie Cook calling me over to a card table and sliding his winnings into my hands. He and Mrs. Mary Kathryn played cards with my parents pretty regularly, so I have no idea how much he gave me over the years, but it seemed like a fortune every time. I even remember my father coming in once from a game at Charlie Cook’s house and handing me a small paper sack full of change. He said, “Charlie Cook sent this to you.” On the outside of the bag was written, “For my shirttail buddy.”
For all the years he called me that, I never knew exactly what it meant. But there was never a question in my mind that he was someone I could count on to be on my side, pulling for me and wishing me the best. He never said any of those things to me outright, but I always knew they were true.
When I was 13, Charlie Cook hired me to work with him in the bees. I was never sure if he actually wanted my help or if Daddy just goaded him into giving me a job, but it didn’t make any difference. I learned a lot about life and work during those few weeks. Even at that age, I remember wondering how anyone could work all day at his job and then come home and work most of the night in the bees. But what impresses me still is that no matter how long or hard we worked, Charlie Cook managed to crack jokes, laugh and have fun the whole time.
Of course, he had to have a sense of humor and loads of patience to deal with my father all his life.
For one thing, Daddy had a four-wheel-drive and a winch, which meant he would try to drive all over the swamp. When he got hopelessly stuck, which was fairly often, he had only one reliable backup plan: Call Charlie Cook.
My brother Hentz remembered one occasion when Daddy buried his old truck on the old road to the camp. He sent Hentz out to the Capps’ house to call Charlie Cook. But when the two of them got back to Daddy’s truck, Daddy was nowhere to be found. After a lot of work, they finally freed the truck. When they found my father, he was back at the camp in front of the fire.
Charlie Cook was livid, but he got his revenge.
A couple of years later, it was my brother Bill who was with Daddy when they got stuck. Daddy said, “Charlie Cook was going fishing this morning at Iamonia Lake. He ought to be headed home in a little while. Walk up to the highway, flag him down and tell him to come down here and pull me out.”
Sure enough, Charlie Cook came driving by and pulled over. When Bill told him what was wrong, Charlie Cook told him to hop in the truck. But they didn’t go down to the camp. Instead, Bill said they went back to Charlie Cook’s house, watched television for a while and then had some lunch.
After a brief nap, Charlie Cook finally said, “Alright, now let’s go get your sorry Daddy out of the mud hole.”
It speaks volumes about Charlie Cook that these are just two of many, many stories and memories I have of him, all of which bring a smile to my face. And I’m just one of many, many people who have them.
But what’s more important is that he was the kind of man who inspires us to remember those stories and tell them now and for many, many years to come. Not everybody has a shirttail buddy, but I did and I won’t ever forget it.
As I write this, my butt is blistered, literally. That stinging punishment my parents and teachers always threatened has now been delivered some 40 years later. Only it wasn’t misbehavior that brought on the pain, — it was my own choice. In fact, I paid for the privilege.
Anyone who has seen or ridden in my truck knows that I’m not overly concerned with aesthetics. No one would describe me as “meticulous” about the condition of my vehicle. Ambivalent and neglectful would be much more accurate, although I do try to stay on top of the go/no-go items.
I have no idea whether or not it’s genuine, but there’s an ad that made the Best of Craig’s List with the headline, “Found! Cat Snake?” Accompanying the ad is a picture of a ferret and a plea that is as funny as it is desperate: “Found (assuming) pet. Some sort of cat snake? Long and nimble but with dryish fur and cat teeth. Seems to like cat food, but isn’t a cat. Please come take this off my hands it smells weird.”
In the years since I served as his aide-de-camp, all my phone conversations with retired Brigadier General Spessard Boatright have begun the same way: “Jim, this is your friend, Spessard. How are you?” Of course, he’ll always be General Boatright to me, but that alone should tell you that he is a humble man from a humble background who rose to the loftiest heights of military and public service.
This past weekend, I strayed far from my typical Northwest Florida hunting and fishing grounds and traveled to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades in search of ducks. It was a great trip and we got a good pile of birds to show for it. On the other hand, there were some things that could have been better. So, for what it’s worth, I want to offer the following comments and suggestions.
I’ve written before about my tenuous relationship with duck. I’ve always enjoyed hunting them and never really minded cleaning them, but no matter how I cook them, they always ended up tasting like liver. PS – I don’t like liver. I tried dozens of different recipes over the years, but nothing could get me past that obnoxious taste.