Another unnumbered chapter in my autobiography:

Time to Fess Up…I am a liar!

There comes a time in life when a man just has to fess up and tell the truth. I admit it…I lied to my children, and I did so for several years. What’s worse is the lack of any regret!

It all started when my son Nathaniel was a small child. He loved hearing me tell stories about a boy named John Thomas who lived in Vicksburg. I spent many hours tickling his young ears with adventures of hunting, fishing, hiking and other really cool endeavors. I told my son I was named after this exciting young man. He ultimately became a real life hero to Nathaniel and they began to exchange letters. The youngster would talk about his hero everywhere he went. In life, he wanted to be just like John Thomas.

Now for the moment of truth…I am a liar. I was not named after that John Thomas…I am that John Thomas. Not even Luke Skywalker could be more surprised, right? Well, at least the stories were true.

Many of the adventures involved my paternal grandfather, Kenneth Henry Cripps, Sr. He was born in the Copperhead area of Southern Illinois, and would surely take offense if I was to refer to him as a transplanted Yankee. In fact, you would never have guessed he wasn’t an indigenous Mississippian. Papaw, as we called him, loved the outdoors. He was a very skilled hunter and angler. He only had a six grade education but was incredibly intelligent, articulate and well read. He was the only childhood hero I ever had, or ever needed.

Like me, he was a bit of an enigma. He was considered a gruff man, but I never knew a kinder one. He never went to church or read the Bible, but I believe the strict moral code that resides in my bosom was formulated during those early years spent with him.

Kenneth was a strict man, some would say “too strict.” I’ve heard the stories and I dare say it is preferable to the modern lackadaisical approach. We wouldn’t have an entire generation of lazy, undisciplined, indifferent, spoiled brats if my grandfather had been at the helm.

I spent a lot of weekends with my grandparents as a youngster and a lot of that time was occupied with my grandfather. Of his fourteen grand-kids, two were especially close to him. The first was Lloyd, the eldest. The other was the son of his only son…me. As I grew older, I learned more and more that I held a special place in his heart. Of course, the reciprocal was true.

Long Lake Mississippi Early 60s

Only photo I can find (60s) – I always remember the lakes in the Summertime

Papaw loved to fish in the lakes around Vicksburg. There were many oxbow lakes, remnants of the meandering Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Two of his favorites were Long Lake and Thompson Lake, just North of Vicksburg off of the infamous Highway 61.

Some of my earliest memories are fishing trips with my grandfather on these two lakes. He had an aluminum flat-bottom boat, affectionately called “Paddy-cake,”  that he kept at either of the lakes. Long Lake, his main choice, was a members-only hunting and fishing club. I remember having to go through a locked gate to access the floating boat dock. As the name implies, the lake was long and not wide, typical of oxbow lakes. It was lined on both sides with ancient bald cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. I was deeply saddened when I revisited Long Lake in December, 2000. The entire area had been clear cut, including all of the stately cypress trees. Nothing at all remained of the beauty, save my memory.

Before my memory becomes as extinct as ancient trees, let’s hear a John Thomas story.

Genuine John Thomas Stories

Papaw used to rise at 3:00 a.m. so he could get ready, make the drive and be in the boat no later than sunrise. He always said that was the best overall time for fishing. Traveling light by today’s standard, we would carry only three rod and reels, a tackle box, a paddle and a thermos. Papaw would normally paddle quickly up or down the lake until he settled on a starting point, which was always different. From there, he would slowly work his way back to the boat dock.

On most mornings, Papaw was casting for bass with his green rod and Ambassadeur 5000C De Luxe reel. Other mornings, he got a hankering to do a little fly fishing for bream, trout and perch. I was always given a casting rod and reel. He would position us far enough from the bank and would navigate the boat by paddling with just one arm. This way he could still hold his gear, and not have to set it down to paddle.

Paddy-cake Cripps boat

This is not Paddy-cake but the closest replica I could find.

On one fine mosquito-infested morning, we were slowly drifting and fishing, when the boat unintentionally bumped into a low hanging branch extended out over the water. Immediately a large snake fell out and landed right by my grandfather’s feet. He calmly grabbed the paddle at his side, scooped up the snake, and tossed him into water…as if it were a harmless frog or lizard. He put the paddle back down by his side and continued casting as if nothing had happened. I asked him, “Papaw, was that a poisonous snake?” His simple reply was, “Yes.” I was dumbfounded and learned a very important lesson that I have thought about often, and carried throughout my entire life: you must remain calm in the face of danger.

Perhaps this lesson has even saved my life. I have been in several stressful, even dangerous situations throughout the course of my existence. When confronted with any danger, human nature typically triggers panic. The mind either becomes paralyzed or is filled with negatives thoughts. If you do not have a pre-disposition to immediately strangle those initial thoughts and embrace a calm, level-headed approach…you could be in big trouble.

I was scuba diving once in the Bahamas at a depth of around 100 feet when suddenly my tank came loose from the back pack, and nearly yanked the regulator out of my mouth. At that depth, panicking could easily mean death. I immediately got hold of my thoughts, calmed my mind, and motioned to another diver for assistance. Another time I was motoring my sailboat into a Florida harbor when the engine went out and would not restart. The wind was strong and immediately starting blowing my boat towards the large stone rip rap. If I panicked I could have lost my boat and possibly been injured. I paused to consider my options: I could continue to try starting the engine, or I could quickly raise my mainsail and use the winds to my advantage. I chose the latter and safely sailed my boat right into the slip without any damage.

In 2011, our house was hit by lightning and caught fire. My immediate thought was how quickly the fire would spread through the old wood frame house. I knew we would lose everything and thoughts of panic began to grip me. I quickly got hold of the thoughts, had my wife phone the fire department and started pointing out the important things to get moved. After that, I grabbed a hose and a ladder and went on the roof. I had the fire put out just as the fire department arrived. My wife later stated that she couldn’t believe how calm I was. So remember this lesson – it could save your life, especially if a water moccasin ever falls at your feet.

Another Long Lake story taught me an important life lesson, though it took me a couple of decades to learn it. Papaw began taking me fishing when I was probably in the first grade. The rules were simple: you didn’t talk and you didn’t rock the boat. He also believed that I should learn to fish so he put a rod and reel in my hands at a very tender age. Most anglers will start a youngster off on a closed-face spincast reel. Papaw didn’t own one so he put an open-faced reel in my hands, and instructed me to pay attention to his technique.

I was awful at it. I would cast out a lure, reel it in, cast again, and get the line all tangled. Sometimes I would do it twice in a row. All too often it would be as tangled as severely matted hair, and I would have to hand it over to my Papaw to fix. Oh how he would cuss and fuss, but then he would put it right back into my hands. I was so scared I would reel it in really slow so I wouldn’t have to cast it as often. But I would mess up again, he would cuss, and then put it back into my hands once more.

The Story has a Moral

Yes, it took me years to realize the lesson here. All I ever thought about was how bad my grandfather cussed. I never pondered the fact that he kept putting the gear back in my hands. One day it finally hit me, and I realized the amount of love and patience he exhibited. How many parents will attempt to teach something, and when the child has difficulty they shout, “It’s time to stop, Johnny’s not ready yet!” Then they move on. Papaw didn’t do that. Yep, he cussed and pitched a fit. After all, I was taking away from his beloved fishing time. But he kept detangling the line and he kept putting that rod and reel back in my hands, until I became proficient. What I initially saw as anger and frustration, I later saw as love and patience.

Before we leave Long Lake I have one more story to tell. There were solid yellow birds that would fly around the lake that I never saw anywhere else. Papaw referred to them as wild canaries. I have no idea what type of bird they were. I have since searched in books and on the Internet but I’ve never found a photo of them. One day we were paddling past a fallen tree when I spotted a nest in a rotting branch. The eggs were really pretty, and I reached out to grab them when Papaw told me to leave them be. He proceeded to tell me something that I heard several times from him, “Don’t ever kill anything that you don’t eat.” To him, it not only applied to hunting but also to fishing and to nicking bird eggs. Although he did have a rattlesnake rattle in his tackle box, I suppose I could excuse him for killing a poisonous snake. I never once believed he ate that rattler.

Papaw did have one odd objection to his killing rule: blue jays. He hated blue jays and would kill them if he had the opportunity. I thought they were beautiful birds and I once asked him why he killed them. He stated it was because they steal eggs from the nests of other birds. Then it made perfect sense. He loved cardinals and a blue jay might possibly steal a cardinal egg.

DEATH TO BLUE JAYS!

Credits:
Featured photo by Nathaniel Cripps in 2001, with nose-editing in Photoshop
Long Lake photos by unknown from my parents photo albums
Paddy Cake replica by unknown – google images
Thompson Lake photo by ©camiphoto.com
Katrina photo by Nathaniel Cripps in 2005
Dive photo by Rusty Bang – Bahamas 1999
Sailing photos by John Cripps – September 1982
Fire trucks photo by John Cripps – September 2011