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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.
So my friend and colleague JP King returned from a fishing trip in northern Walton County recently and showed me some pictures of really nice bream and shellcracker he caught on some private property up there. I asked about bait, figuring he used crickets, but to my surprise he talked about “these yellow and black caterpillars” that were crawling all over some of the trees on the property.
This past weekend, I thought I might have broken my recent bad luck spell in Blountstown. The past few times I’ve made the trip to go fishing, something always got in the way. Either the river jumped up, or the boat wouldn’t start or the fish just weren’t biting.
It’s hard to overstate the entertainment value of growing up with Gary Wayne Purvis as one of your best friends and running buddies. For one thing, GW was spring-loaded to go fishing anytime, night or day, year-round. For another, he usually had a good idea where folks were catching fish and how.
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.
I don’t know what anyone else plans to be doing when they’re 100, but I expect to be fishing. Now, before you laugh, let me explain that there is historical precedent here. My Uncle Jim Hentz, for whom I was named, continued to hook up his boat trailer and drive to his favorite fishing holes until shortly before his death at 100 years old.
Among the many characters who shaped my early life was my father’s younger brother and polar opposite, Billy McClellan. In his life, Uncle Billy had many occupations, ranging from submarine sailor to school teacher to game warden. He was licensed to fly planes, pilot tug boats and drive semi-trucks. Before he passed away in 1999, he had raced boats and cars, and crossed both the equator and the arctic circle.
For many years, down at Iamonia Lake, there was a huge gator who had staked out a territory near a stand of cypress trees where the lake forked. One of my father’s friends, Gene Richards, was driving his boat a little too fast in that stretch one day and got distracted by the behemoth sunning on the bank. As a result, he hit a cypress knee and flipped his boat.
When I was 16 and had a newly minted driver’s license, my father let me take his boat down to Iamonia Lake to go hunting with my friend Curt Capps. I’d been driving since I was about 12, so that part was no problem. What I had never done before was back a boat trailer down a ramp.