My grandfather was born and raised in the tiny town of Nauvoo, near Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.
Like many southern families of the 1920s, the Hendren clan was large and close-knit. So large, in fact, that Grandpa was actually six years older than his mother’s younger brother, my Uncle Chester Hendren (or Chet for short).
The whole mix of boys, consisting of cousins, uncles, nephews and other relations, lived like brothers.
As years passed, the numbers slowly faded. Bobby, J.W., Willie, Harold, Jackie, Ed, and even Grandpa passed away. Today, only Uncle Chet remains.
Chet is my great-great uncle, but we’ve been much closer than that sounds. He worked for the family business, so I often saw him in the summers through high school. He always was eager to take advantage of my services as a laborer and wouldn’t even pretend to hide his smile while doling out my orders, which certainly included carrying his tools and materials.
Even though he was demanding, I loved being around him. Chet is good-natured and always was willing to tell me a tale of Grandpa as a boy, or even stunts my own father pulled as an adolescent.
Every year, a good number of the men would return home to fish Reelfoot Lake. For most, it was nothing more than an excuse to unwind on the water, play some cards and drink a lot of beer. But some took the fishing seriously — none more so than Chet.
He is the lily pad master.
Last year, Chet returned to Reelfoot. He sat in the front of his boat and dipped crickets between lily pads under slip bobbers and fought bigger-than-the-palm-of-your-hand bull bluegills out of the murky Reelfoot water with a simple stretch of line attached to a modern day cane pole. He moved with stealth in search of the next bed.
Surely, his thoughts drifted back to those early trips. To when the boys became middle-aged men, and then how in the blink of an eye, they all disappeared. Chet has no one left to ask remember when?
For years, I begged to join the annual Reelfoot Lake pilgrimage. And for years, I received the same answer: “No. You’re not old enough.” Of course, it wasn’t fishing I wasn’t old enough for. This was a man’s trip, and some things boys simply must wait for.
By the time I was finally old enough to join the group, the numbers already were dismal.
Most of the names above already were gone. I had missed the party. About the rowdiest Grandpa got during the trips I took was making a few extra country ham and mustard biscuits from the all-you-can-eat breakfast bar and stuffing them in his pockets for a late-morning snack. He encouraged me to do the same, because sharing one of his was out of the question.
The legendary stories of howling at the moon had been diminished to a few old-timers drinking sweet tea.
I wish my generation would revisit this event. Create our own tradition. But the truth is, we don’t even really know each other well. Not like our grandpas. We aren’t bonded as a family the way families used to bond. In this, I realize we are no different than most Americans, further disconnected in the age of connectivity.
Uncle Chet represents an entire generation. As long as Chet is making his trips to Reelfoot, the tradition is alive, along with memories of so many others Chet carries on the water, into the lily pads and through the cypress trees.
Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.