A fishy 4-wheelin’ tale

James Newberry

Day was breaking through southwest Arkansas. Outside the front bedroom at Grandpa Clarence’s house, the sun was topping the pines when he came in to wake me up. Grandma’s biscuits hit me in the nose, along with the smell of sugar cured ham. “Your Uncle Bill will be here any minute,” Grandpa said. I knew then that if I wanted any breakfast that I had better get it before he got there. I also knew we were going fishing and it would be a long time until lunch.

Fortunately, I slept very well the previous night. Grandpa worked me like a rented mule the day before. We had dug worms, re-packed the bearings on the boat trailer, replaced the line on two or three reels, and most importantly, we fueled up the big, white, Dodge Power-wagon. You had to stand on a ladder to pour the fuel in the tank because the gas-cap sat about eye-level to a grown man. Grandpa referred to this beast of a truck as ” Big Boy.” It was the biggest, nastiest, 4×4 that I have ever laid eyes on. When the locals got stuck, Big Boy could pull them out, no matter how bad the inferior vehicle was buried. I can still see the blue strips on the passenger side. There was nothing pretty about Big Boy.

It was not long before that old brown Ford pulled into the drive with Uncle Bill behind the wheel. With a constant, almost goofy, smile on his face, Uncle Bill was the life of most family gatherings. He was deaf as a stone and reckless as a rabid Indian. Uncle Bill could turn simple things like building a fire into life threatening, dangerous situations. One Christmas Eve he spilled a little gas while building a fire to shoot fireworks.

The safest thing about this trip was knowing that Grandpa, and only Grandpa, would drive the boat. He was the captain of the 14-foot, olive-drab, flat-bottom vessel-no arguing. The father of four daughters, Grandpa was in his late 60’s. My mother swears that she had only heard her daddy say one bad word in her life. I always respond “You didn’t fish with the old man very much, did you?”

Riding into the river bottoms with Grandpa and Uncle Bill was like taking the grand tour of a national park. They each had endless tales of hunting and fishing with my dad, his dad, and countless other sportsmen in the tightly knit country community. It was almost a lesson in my family history, as Grandpa would tell me the names of a certain roads, what unknown-to-me family member it was named for, and where they went.

About a mile before we got there I asked “Are we were going to Steamboat Landing?” “Not today,” said Grandpa “We’ re going to the Blue Goose.”

My heart leapt in my chest-we were going mudding. I recalled the last time Daddy and I went to ” The Goose.” We literally winched our way in and winched our out of the bottomless mud holes and ruts that plagued the road. But I also knew that Big Boy would not fail, and the day was getting better.

Not one to spare the horses, Grandpa shifted the Dodge into four wheel high and plowed through oak and gum saplings as big as my 12-year-old arm. Busting through cane breaks and slinging mud as far as the eye could see, Grandpa would chuckle now and then as Big Boy performed up to his high standards.

Finally, we arrived at the Blue Goose. We backed the boat down the washed out natural, incline. It was the most perfect natural boat ramp ever. We launched the boat into the beautiful Little Missouri River. However, Grandpa just left the truck parked on the incline and said, ” Nobody else has a big enough truck to get in here, so I’ m just going to leave Big Boy right here.”

Uncle Bill agreed that it was a fine idea, “Yep I got to be at work by three, and when we get done you can just pull the boat right on the trailer, tie her down, and hit the road.” Well it made sense to me, but I did not think about it too long because it was fishing time.

We might have caught five bream all morning. That was OK, because neither Grandpa nor Uncle Bill were close to running out of entertaining stories. The weather was perfect. I don’ t even remember any one throwing a fit about getting hung up or breaking their line. Eventually the morning turned to noon, and around 1:30 Uncle Bill decided that he needed to get to work. Grandpa give the pull rope a yank on his old Mercury outboard. Up the river we went. We reached the boat ramp and there sat Big Boy like the Rock of Gibraltar.

We secured all of our gear, disconnected the outboard motor’s fuel line, and let the engine burn the gas in the carburetor. We then jumped in the truck to head home. Grandpa turned the key. The engine turned over, but that was all it did. He tapped the gas pedal three our four times and turned the engine over again. Over and over, Grandpa tried, but the truck would not start. You could see the steam coming out from around his collar while you could hear the cogs of Uncle Bill’s mind turning. Uncle Bill and I hopped out of the stalled beast with the tool box in hand, a pair of pliers, a flat and Phillips head screwdriver, and a five gallon bucket to stand on in order to see over the grill of the truck.

Uncle Bill stuck a screwdriver into the end of sparkplug wire and yelled for Grandpa to turn it over. This shocked the fire out him and led us to believe that the engine was firing.

He checked first one thing and then another from the upside down bucket while I assisted by handing him any combination of our assortment of tools. Then it hit me like a sixteen ton weight: Big Boy was getting fire, but the carburetor had lost prime. From the incline of the boat ramp, all of the fuel ran back down the line and back in the tank. Lack of gas was the problem.

I shared my theory with Grandpa and Uncle Bill and we all agreed on the diagnosis. Uncle Bill jumped in the boat and returned with the gas can for the outboard. He pulled knife out and began whittling a stick to jam in the valve at the end of the nozzle. When he did that, it caused gas to spray every where. By this time, Grandpa had the breather cap off the truck engine. Then Uncle Bill stepped on the bucket and sat on the radiator, and told me to move the bucket. Grandpa returned to driver’ s seat and once again turned the key as Uncle Bill shot boat gas into the carburetor of the truck.

Big Boy roared to life, with his dual exhaust throwing rooster-tails almost all the way across the river. Grandpa shifted into low gear and continued to race the engine. UncleBills still sat on the radiator with a gas can in his lap and shooting gas into the carbs. “Ok Clarence, ease it on up the bank!” Uncle Bill yelled over the engine.

Grandpa was still revving the engine as if he were in the first position at the Indy 500, waiting for the light to turn green. He popped the clutch and Big Boy screamed up the ramp with Uncle Bill sitting on the radiator and a foot stuck down by the sides of the engine. The front tires came off of ground close to two feet before the back tires finally reached level.

Grandpa finally stopped the truck and the front tires crashed down, the gas can flew out from under the hood, and the truck hood was coming down on Uncle Bill. The hood only lacked about ten inches form actually closing all the way. In my mind I feared the worst. What if he got caught in the fan or one of the belts and pulleys on the front of the engine? I ran to the front of the truck expecting a highly mangled man in the awesome jaws of Big Boy.

Grandpa and I reached the front of the truck simultaneously and threw open the hood. There sat Uncle Bill with that goofy grin on his face. His glasses were hanging off of one ear, and his Bill Dance fishing cap was hanging from the other. Little cuts and scratches ran up and down both arms, and a few more on his face. He looked at me as seriously as I ever seen him look and took a deep breath.

“James,” he said ” it just goes to show ya, when there’ s a Bill, there’ s a way.” He busted out laughing as crazily as the look on his face.

We went back to Grandpa’ s house with this story, five fish, and a scratched up yet laughing Uncle Bill at the end of a great day.