Novels by Phil Whitley

Stories of survival and adventure

Stolen Boats, Red Wasps and Potted Meat

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… no … that’s already taken …

But it sure does work for this one. Let’s see …What about, It was a really good weekend, until it turned really ugly?

My brother and I, along with three friends were finally going on that much-anticipated, planned-on-it-all-week-long camping trip to Lake Delano in the Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park.

 We had our sleeping bags (old itchy Army blankets), food and drinks and our fishing tackle. As usual, we brought an iron skillet, a pound of lard, and a bag of cornmeal to fry up all those fish we were going to catch. From previous experience of having nothing to eat but creekwater cornbread, we also had our usual emergency cuisine... Vienna sausages, sardines, Spam, Pork n’Beans, the ever-present Spanish Rice and that danged Potted Meat.

We fished all afternoon. Not a nibble. After all the worms had made the ultimate sacrifice-by-drowning, we tried every bait we could hunter-gather; grasshoppers, crickets and grubs all joined the worms in bait heaven. Not a nibble, and now it was getting dark, and boring, and we were getting hungry. On the way back to our campsite (which was the big shelter with the fireplace that now rents for a gazillion dollars), one of us said, “If we had a boat we could get out to the deep water where the fish are at.”

At that moment the devil seed was planted. Since we didn’t have a boat, it seemed moot to even respond, so no one said anything … but that thought burrowed in and began its evil plan.

With still a possibility of catching fish the next day, we decided to save the cornmeal for a real emergency. Out comes the various canned delicacies. The Spanish rice (with chopped up Vienna sausages), cooked in an iron skillet over an open fire was nearly enough to satisfy us all. But then I saw that can of potted meat. There were some crackers left so I stuck that little tab of metal into the key (remember those?) and began twisting. About three-quarters around the can, it broke off. Rather than try to re-attach the key, I figured since it was almost all the way around, I could just grab the lid and pull it off the rest of the way.

Big mistake.

The greasy juice had spilled onto my hands, and... I’m not sure what happened exactly, but somehow my fingers slipped and the top of the can cut the ends off of three fingers.

There must be something in potted meat juice akin to hornet venom. I had never experienced pain like that, and on top of that I was bleeding profusely. All the Bandaids we had brought finally got that under control; but I spent the rest of the night with my arm upraised and my fingers throbbing with every heartbeat.

The next morning, we walked around the lake to the little office and behold! There were the boats, but they were all chained up …except for one, and it had a paddle in it! The office was closed for the weekend, and no one else was on the lake… and that Devil Seed germinated.

We climbed in and paddled out to deeper water and fished. And fished some more. Not a nibble. Finally we just paddled around the lake, goofing off and looking and sounding like a boatload of teen-aged tourists.

At the far end of the lake, across from the dam and about twenty feet off-shore was a small island made up from maybe two small trees and various bushes. The boat drifted into the overhanging brush, so my brother took the paddle to push us away. Unbeknownst to us, Red Wasps had built one of the biggest nests I have ever seen beneath the very bush we were under, and they weren’t receiving company. They boiled off that nest in a cloud like Kamikazes. I think I was the first stung, but the others were soon to gain that experience—all except my brother. The rest of us abandoned ship and swam to shore.

My brother remained in the boat, paddle upraised and swatting. You could hear those wasps hitting the paddle, yet he remained unstung. I later heard that wasps will attack the highest point of its victim, and they were after that upraised paddle, or it may have been just blind luck.

I don’t remember if we stayed another night or not… to enjoy some of that good ol’ Lake Delano-water cornbread.

 

J.D. Moye and Mule-Speak

        Did I ever mention that J.D. was bi-lingual? He spoke mule, and I was impressed from the first time I ever heard him as he plowed a field with “Ol’ Buck”, his all-time favorite mule.

        “Saaa, Buck. Saa back”, he said with a kind of in-charge authority, as he backed ole Buck into position. When the plow lines were attached to the harness and trace lines to the collar, J.D. would holler, “Come up”, adding a clicking sound from his cheek that took years to master – and with a shake of the trace lines, Buck would move forward. J.D. would grab the plowshare, planting it deeply into the ground, and with expert skill he and Buck would plow a straight furrow through the Georgia red clay. Only an occasional, “Gee” or “Haw” command to Buck to keep him straight was all that was necessary.

        But there was a whole lot more to it than that. The communication between man and mule has many subtleties. Tone and volume of voice communicate how FAR to Gee or Haw. (Buck himself also became quite fluent in understanding cuss words, especially those that mention God or even Buck’s mother.)

        At the end of a furrow, timing between man, mule and response time became critical. The mule would have to continue forward until the plow reached the end. Then there was a rapid series of “Gee”s or “Haw”s (depending on which way the field was being worked), while J.D. completed his turn with the plow and lifted it out of the ground— turning it, re-planting it in the other direction, while simultaneously trying to keep Buck from walking through the just finished furrow.

        As a kid, I was in awe of this man-mule bond of communication that I was witnessing. It was poetry in motion —man and beast working in harmony against the reluctant soil and the ever-present rocks that would jolt the plow out of a man’s hands. This was usually followed by a series of “Whoa’s”, intersperced with the aforementioned cuss words. You see, the man has to hold the plow with both hands, while trying to maintain control of the trace lines that helped guide the mule. After a while, when the mule seemed to have gotten the idea of the pattern being worked, the man (J.D. in this case) would place the tracelines around his neck. If the mule continues in a forward direction after the man has been stopped by an obstruction, it can get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Some of the terms I still remember…

Gee – Right turn

Haw – Left turn

Saa – Back up in a straight line

Haw back – back up to the left

Gee back – back up to the right

Come up – move forward

Come up, chk chk – move forward faster

Whoa – stop

WHOA – stop NOW!

WHOA, you %#^@%ing sonova bitch – I really, really insist that you stop all forward motion this instant.

Good thing ole Buck had a sense of humor!

TRUCK STOP

(Autobiographical Fiction)

        PHONE-FOOD-GAS-LODGING, the sign read as Brew thankfully exited onto the off-ramp. He had been driving for almost eight hours straight, and the gas gauge was bouncing on empty. Good thing, too, because he  almost fell asleep about twenty miles back, when a semi passed him on the left, airhorns blaring. He had swerved into the emergency lane, then pulled cautiously back onto the highway—adrenalined back into full heart-pounding wakefulness.

        A heavy fog was setting in as he pulled into the Little America Truck Stop—Diner—Rooms for the Night. After filling his tank and swiping his VISA card through the slot, he went into the diner.
        The lone waitress, who looked an awful lot like the big-haired lady from the Longhorn Steakhouse commercial, waved him over to a table.
        "Whatcha having, cowboy?" she asked in a whiskey-toughened voice.
        "Steak and eggs with a pitcher of draft, Ma’am" Brew answered, still not quite over his near-death experience on the highway.
        "Fresh outta eggs, partner. How about some grits instead?"
        "Sure, that'll be fine," Brew said, looking over her shoulder at the picture on the wall behind the counter. It was a night scene of a section of highway that looked very familiar.
        Too familiar, thought Brew, but from where?
        On the right side of the road were skid marks going off the shoulder, and just the tail section of a semi leaving the top left-hand side of the picture.
        Odd, because when he first noticed the picture, he could have sworn that the cab of the truck was in the frame.

        Sitting there smoking a cigarette, he reflected over the many times he had almost "bought the farm" by driving too long, too drunk, or too distracted to not be a danger to himself or others on the road. It seemed that each time there was the feeling afterwards of having come through it, not by his superior driving skills, but by some other "Force" that had done the right thing at the right moment to save his hide.
        When the waitress sloshed his pitcher of beer down in front of him, it snapped him back to the present.
        "Law says I got leave two mugs for the brew. Tell `em your friend's in the john if anybody asks, okay?"
        "Sure," said Brew as he filled both mugs. Looking up at the picture again he almost spilled the rest of the pitcher. There was no truck rear end in it. The road was now empty and there was a cloud of dust over the skid marks that left the paved surface. He wanted to ask someone else about it, but he was the only customer in the diner.
        I must be more tired than I thought, he mused. Or it’s those 60's flashbacks kicking in, he almost said aloud.

        The fog was getting worse outside. He could see it out the window, past his own reflection in the glass. Then he noticed that he could also see the picture on the wall behind him reflected there as well. Now a car seemed to be in the center of the frame just where the skid marks had been.
        That looks like MY car, he almost vocalized again.
        Turning around and looking at the picture again, he was interrupted by the waitress bringing his food.
        "Is that one of those trick photography pictures there, Miss?"
        "What, that old thing? she laughed. "It's just an old thing I picked up at a yard sale. I liked it because it was so plain. Just a section of road with half a truck a’showin'. It's just like the highway out front—for twenty miles in either direction."

        When he looked back at the table in front of him, it was empty. No beer, no food… nothing! He turned again to stop the waitress.
        She must be crazy!  I haven't even finished the first mug—and the steak… it smelled so good...
       
        When he stood to try to find her, he was suddenly back outside in his car. That quick.
        "How in the hell did I get out here?" he asked the empty parking lot, his voice sounding hollow and spooky—like something you would hear in a nightmare.
        He closed his eyes and rubbed them. When he opened them again, the truck stop was gone.
        Even through this fog I should be able to see the lights…

        He opened the door and got out. A truck passed by going at least seventy, its headlights briefly illuminating the area around him. His car was off the shoulder of the road, and at least twenty feet from the road itself. Skid marks connected his rear wheels back to the emergency lane.
        "God, what a dream," he said, not quite sure of THAT reality either. I don’t even remember pulling off the road.
        He could still smell that steak, and he really did want a beer.

        Getting back into his car, he was almost surprised when it cranked immediately. He pulled out onto the freeway and continued on towards the next exit.
        "Gotta get gas and food and beer, doo-dah, doo-dah," he sang out the open window to the tune of "Camptown Races".
       
        "Well, THAT looks familiar," he said when he saw the sign up ahead.

PHONE-FOOD-GAS-LODGING

        After filling his tank and swiping his VISA card through the slot, he went into the diner. The waitress, who looked an awful lot like the big-haired lady from the Longhorn Steakhouse commercial, waved him over to a table.
        "Whatcha having, cowboy?" she asked in a whiskey-toughened voice.

        With a feeling of dread, Brew, holding his breath, looked up slowly at the picture behind the counter...



By Phil Whitley - ©  2003

LARGE-LEAF IVY

(A true story)

        "There's a new guy moving in at the old Sikes place," my friend Bobby Lee told me as we free-wheeled down Cabbage Patch Hill on our mostly homemade bikes. "He's got one o' those new trailer homes. Wanna go watch `im?"
        "Sure," I said as we rounded the curve that led to the main crossroads and heart of Pine Mountain Valley, Georgia, home of both our families for at least three generations of very southern folk. "Are there any kids with `im?" New kids were always objects of interest to us.
        "Nah, didn't see any kids. Not even a wife, I don't think," Bobby Lee said as we neared the scene of an elderly bald-headed man working on the awning of a really neat Airstream travel trailer. He was putting the wrought-iron looking supports up that would hold up the eight foot awning.
        "Need any help, mister?' I asked him, really just wanting to find out more about him so we could tell our parents about "the new guy". Parents used their kids as spies in all circumstances like this, so they wouldn't be considered nosey. It was okay for kids to ask the really good questions like, "Where ya from? What's yer name? How long are you plannin' on stayin’?"—things like that.
        "Well, my name is Howard, and I have recently retired. I am from New Jersey and I plan to live here a long, long time." Only he said, "New Joisey," and he talked really fast. Our "YANKEE" flags went up! Now our job was to get him talking so we could hear more of this strange new language.
        We helped him for the rest of the afternoon, said goodbye at sundown and went home to submit our reports.
        The following weekend I was headin' over to Bobby Lee's house and saw Mr. Howard working around his porch again. This time he was down on his knees planting something at the base of the porch supports.
        "Whatcha doin' Mr. Howard?" I asked as I leaned my bike against his mailbox.
        "Planting Large Leaf Ivy." He said as he wiped the sweat from his face.
        "Where'd you get it?" I inquired as I helped him push the dirt around the bulb of an all-too-familiar vine.
        "Back there at the edge of the forest," he replied. "There’s lots of it back there. Want some to take home?" The word "forest" was another clue to his yankeeness. We would have said "woods".
        I carefully suppressed my grin and replied, "No thanks. We've already got lots of it." I watched him as he watered, then fertilized both plants at the two corners of his porch. I couldn't wait to tell my parents what I had seen and I had to leave before he asked me what the heck I was grinnin' about.
        I felt kinda bad about two months later for not tellin' him what it was he had planted, because by then you could barely make out the outline of his trailer beneath the canopy of Kudzu, the Large Leaf Ivy of the South!




Phil Whitley
© 2003

THE HEADLESS TURTLE HORROR

(A true story)

        Water dripping from our oars was the only sound on the night-blackened waters of Phantom Lake as my uncle and I worked our trotline we had set up earlier that afternoon. The yellow circle of light from the kerosene lantern made it feel like we were in a balloon drifting through black space.
        I rode in the bow of the little jonboat and lifted the line from the water as my uncle in the stern removed the catfish and re-baited the hooks. I was a little leery of what we would find because we had seen the head of a huge catfish someone had caught and left on the bank near our campsite. It was larger than my 12-year-old head, and Uncle Bob said it must have been at least a seventy-five pounder.
        Suddenly the line started jerking and I was a'hollerin’ "HELP", and Uncle Bob was a'hollerin’, “DON'T LET GO!” and rocking the boat violently as he tried to make his way up front with me.
        Together we lifted this huge turtle out of the water and got it into the boat.  It probably weighed ten or fifteen pounds and was being very ornery. “He’s swallowed the hook,” Uncle Bob said. “Good thing we’re almost done so we can take him back to camp.”
        I was feeling sorry for the turtle because we couldn’t get the hook out, so Uncle Bob had me pull real hard on the line, pulling the turtle’s head way out of his shell. Then my uncle chopped his head off. Gross as that was, it was kind of a relief knowing the turtle wasn’t suffering any longer.
        We soon had all the catfish dressed and iced down, except for the two we fried and ate right there on the bank of the lake. We soon got into the tent and zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags for the night.
        All night long I kept hearing something moving around in the dark outside, but my uncle didn’t seem worried so I went back to sleep.
       
        When we got up the next morning, I was horrified to see that headless turtle still slowly stumbling around, bumping into things, turning the coffee pot over, walking through the hot coals of the fire and becoming the object of nightmares for many years to come.
        “He’s just looking for his head,” my uncle said with a grin.

        That didn’t help a bit.




Phil Whitley
©  2002

THE OLD ROCK

(Pure fiction - or is it?)


        The old rock had stood since the beginning of time. Its surface smoothed by wind, rain and ice, it had survived flood, fire and the ravages of time. It lay on the convergence of ley lines of the ancient plan, but had no plan of its own. It just was—a rock—and it was perfect in its existence.
        A man had died lying against it once. The rock absorbed the blood and fear and pain, but the man was unaware.  He had felt the warmth of the rock and had appreciated its shelter, but still had died feeling alone.
        The rock too was unaware of the change, for its purpose was to be a rock. The subtle change in its power was still too insignificant.
        Many years passed with no human ever seeing the rock, or passing within its realm. But it still remained. It was a rock. It was doing its job.  A tree took root near its base, grew to a hundred feet tall and died, falling across it. The tree returned to dust and the rock remained. The vital force of the tree joined that of the man who had died there, but still the change went unnoticed.
        Once, some men cleared the trees from its surroundings and made it the center of their holy ground. It was still a rock. Then the men began to use it as their altar. Blood was spilled upon it. Men, women and children gave up their lives lying upon it, their blood and life forces drained into it, but it still remained a rock.

        Then men began to worship it and offered sacrifices to it. They carved its surface into an evil face, and offered even more blood to it. But it was still a rock, but now the changes were beginning to take effect. It slowly became aware of its existence, but it was not really the rock that became aware, it was the collective awareness of the events surrounding it.
        The blood and the spirits of those who had died upon it began to cry out from the other realm. The rock felt the change and began feeling. It was no longer unaware, but the awareness it felt was not that of a rock.

        And then it began to crumble. It returned to dust and unawareness, for that was the only chance in its existence to do anything—and it chose the path of rightness.



Phil Whitley
© 2003