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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.
Of all the family members I write about, my two oldest brothers, Mack and Hentz, are the ones who appear least frequently. For his part, Hentz has been noticeably tight-lipped since I started committing these stories to print. Which makes sense because his advice when I started my blog was, “Be careful that you don’t write anything now that could be admitted as evidence later.”
It was my Aunt Ann who first stirred my interest in wooden catfish baskets. Her father was a commercial fisherman on the Apalachicola River and his livelihood depended on them. When I was younger, she actually had one in her living room.
Near the English village of Wiltshire sits the ruins of Stonehenge, an ancient ritual site featuring giant stone pillars that rise up out of the ground, obviously built by humans, but with a purpose that still isn’t entirely clear. There are lots of theories, of course. Some claim it was a burial site, while others say it was a pagan temple.
I don’t buy any of that. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was a hunting camp that never quite got finished.
Here in Northwest Florida, we haven’t forgotten the true significance of Thanksgiving. Even as we gorge ourselves on fried turkey, barbecue and assorted veggie-and-cheese casseroles, we always remember that the last Thursday in November also marks the first day of general gun season in Zone D. We can look forward to four days of hunting – interrupted only by food and football – followed by a two-week hiatus before it starts up again in December.
Mexico Beach is one of those places where I’ll always be about eight or nine years old. This past weekend, I noticed that it has the same effect on my brothers, as I watched one body surf in the pouring rain and joined another furiously digging for sand fleas to use as fish bait. And all of us spent at least some time splashing in the water and fishing in the surf. In fact, if you looked past the grandchildren, added some hair and replaced the Penn reels with Zebcos, it could just as well have been 1972.
I have nothing against crappie, really. They do have the second-worst food name ever, ranking just below turducken and ahead of shiitake mushrooms, but there’s little else about them to not like. For a pan fish, they grow pretty big, fight pretty hard and live pretty much everywhere I fish.
That’s why you may be surprised when I tell you that most of the family members and friends I fish with won’t keep a crappie. Why not? Because in terms of taste, speckled perch, as we call them, just don’t match up to bream, shellcracker and channel catfish – their more popular neighbors. For discriminating fish eaters, it’s like real Coke vs. that cola drink from Walmart.
People will go to insane lengths for gourmet foods. Like training pigs to sniff out white truffles, massaging cattle for Kobe beef and sifting through civet poop to get kopi luwak coffee beans.
I tried to keep that in mind this past weekend as I found myself paddling down a slough in the middle of a swamp on a foggy, moonless night. And again, just a few hours later, as I leaned against a hickory tree well before dawn with mosquitoes draining my blood.