The Branch

Posted by Terry Beeson on May 11th, 2008
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We just called it “The Branch” but years later I learned that it did have a name – Barnes Branch. I suppose looking at it now, maybe the little stream behind our house really did not deserve a name, but in my youth, it was a prime source of entertainment for an adventurous little boy.

The source of the branch was a spring somewhere in the mountain north of my little home town. It ran almost due south with only one sharp turn at the southeast corner of our property, to the east for a couple hundred yards, then south again until it ran into a confluence with another branch which ended up spilling into Point Remove Creek and eventually the Arkansas River.

My stretch of the branch was from the place where it crossed highway 213 just west of my parents’ store and along the west and south borders of our property there, crossing the dirt road that ran in front of our house just a stone’s throw south, and into our neighbor’s property. Beyond the south border of that property was off limits to me.

A good percentage of my youth was spent along that section of the branch.

My first memories of the branch are of my mom, sister, and me along with a neighbor kid or two at times, walking the dirt road across the wooden bridge, then crossing the fence for a walk upstream to the point where the branch made its only turn to the east. At that point, there was a pool of water just big and deep enough for a few kids to get some relief from the summer temperatures in the cool waters under the shade of a huge pin oak tree.

My mom would bring a lounge chair and sit in the lower end of the pool keeping an eye on us while reading a book and catching some sun. The rest of us would spend our time churning and splashing the water which proved to be an excellent snake repellant.

Jumping off the south bank into the water below was a favorite. I had watched the cliff divers in Acapulco on TV and this seemed to be very similar. We were only allowed to go in feet first, though since the water we dove into was only chest high, our plunge cushioned by a soft sandy bottom. This was usually followed by a lap to the deep end and then back to the shallow point by my mom who would encourage us with observations of our diving and swimming talents.

After what seemed to be too brief a time of diving, cooling off, and feeling the nibbles of sunfish on our legs, we would dry off and head back to the house for snacks and drinks. Looking at that pool now, I wonder how we all fit into the pool that seems not much bigger than a large bathtub. But back then, it seemed wide, long, and deep enough to qualify for an Olympic sized event.

Later, I found the area to be the perfect spot for a soldier to institute battle plans, lie in wait for the enemy, and very much in need of protection from any invading forces that might want to take over the branch. I discovered that I was very adept at fending off imaginary fire from an imaginary enemy trying to capture my imaginary bunker. My Daisy lever action BB gun would transform itself into a Henry or Winchester just like John Wayne’s if the enemy was a group of Indians or outlaws. If the Germans or Japanese were attacking, it became an automatic rifle, spraying the enemy with bullets while rocks and sticks from the stream and banks became grenades.

I survived seemingly never-ending days (minutes) of brutal fighting by any means possible. In the summer, this meant gathering the luscious blackberries that grew along the fence and eating them out of my army helmet. If no blackberries were available, a package of Tom’s cheese crackers was sure to be in my survival pack. The water in my canteen and one of these food items made for fine dining in such adverse conditions.

The fighting was fierce and many died or were wounded in battle. But I always managed to win every skirmish and come out unscathed just as my mom would yell out the back door to come home for supper. Amazing how the knowledge of a hot meal waiting just a few yards away will bring out the hero in a fellow.

If the battle ended before supper, I might spend time honing my hunting and shooting skills. While several species of birds were considered protected by my parents, my dad had taught me how to identify those invasive and nuisance species that were allowed to be eradicated by me and my Daisy rifle.

Finding such species was not very hard, since there was a large population in the area, but taking aim and pulling the trigger before they flew away was a difficult task. I managed to lower the population by a meager percentage, but I felt proud that I had helped my father in some small fashion.

My hunting was not limited to aerial species, however. There were always snakes living along the branch, the most feared and hated being the cottonmouth and the copperhead. During warm weather, I was quite cautious in my adventures up and down the branch. At any moment, I knew there could be an encounter with a slithering coiled venomous reptile. I became a skilled snake hunter finding a fatal head shot from a BB gun was possible after all. I would carefully watch my step along the branch and turn suspicious rocks and logs over with the end of my gun or a stick. King snakes and other non-venomous species were safe from my sharp shooting prowess, but copperheads and water moccasins were in imminent danger once discovered so close to my living quarters.

The short wooden bridge just south of our house was a feared area due to the nature of these two reviled reptiles to make their homes there. Each time I crossed the bridge, I was careful to check for any sign of them on and alongside the viaduct. Standing on the edge provided several opportunities for shots at one or more of them. However, they seemed to never disappear completely.

Hunting along the branch was not limited to birds and snakes. While the few cottontails that managed to make the branch their home were safe from gunfire, I would hunt them and take aim, making an imaginary shot with the sound of a shot and a reaction from imaginary recoil. While I enjoyed an occasional rabbit stew or fried rabbit meal, these bunnies were left alone as they seemed to be more pets than pests.

One of my favorite pastimes was the pursuit of crawdads that lived under the rocks of the streambed. All along my section of the branch, from a point just north of the highway bridge to the fence at the south side of our neighbor’s place, was seemingly littered with the crustaceans. I would walk along looking for rocks that might hold one or two, turn it over, and then thrust my hand under the water, grabbing one and pulling him out of the stream.

My goal was to merely catch them and then let them go after a couple of minutes of examination. At the time, I was unaware of their bass catching abilities. They were just fun to catch and watch as they made, for the most part, futile attempts to clasp one of both of their pinchers around one of my fingers.

Once while showing one of the neighbor’s grandsons how to catch crawdads, we discovered a small area bubbling in the branch alongside the highway. Once we got close enough to inspect it, we smelled the familiar smell of natural gas. I knew there was a gas line that ran along there since I. at a mere four years of age, “supervised” the crew that installed the line. I would sit along the highway and oversee the work, amazed at how the backhoe dug into the ground and how the men connected the pipes together, followed by lunch with the crew at my parent’s store. I guess I became something of a “mascot” for the small crew of men who later in life still recalled the little boy that helped them lay the pipeline.

But finding the leak happened at a time in my life where I was a bit more mischievous. Eddie and I discussed the potential entertainment we might be afforded by this situation and decided to have a contest with firecrackers left over from the Fourth of July celebration to see who could initialize a flame. We each went home and gathered up a few packs of Black Cats and returned for the competition. Standing on the bridge a safe distance from the bubbling pool, we took turns lighting firecrackers and tossing them, trying to time and aim at the target to cause the gas to flame.

Finally, after several attempts, we were successful. I don’t recall the winner, but I do know we went down, watched the six-inch high flame for a bit, and came to the conclusion we could put it out and try again.

After several ignitions, we put the last flame out and went to the store to report our discovery to my dad. He called the gas company and they came out and repaired the line. Nobody ever knew of our competition.

One day I was, for whatever unfair reason, not allowed to take a bike ride to my favorite fishing hole. I must have done something that did not set well with my mother and/or father as I was banned from traveling any farther from the house than the branch. Maybe it had something to do with a prediction of storms later that day that made my parents fearful of me being caught in a thunderstorm.

I remember it was a hot summer day and I had decided to spend time at the fringe of the boundaries set by them. As I walked along the edge of the branch feeling sorry for myself and trying to determine if catching crawdads or fending off an Indian attack would make me feel better, my shuffling feet were kicking up grasshoppers from the grass. One of them landed in a pool under an oak tree. My depressed thoughts were interrupted with the “plop” of a sunfish making a snack of one of the grasshoppers that had fallen into the stream.

I tried to repeat the scene by catching a grasshopper and throwing him into the pool. As he landed on the surface, he began to struggle to get to the edge and free himself from certain doom. As he did, I noticed a shadowy figure emerging from the root base of the oak tree at the edge of the pool.

Soon the familiar “plop” followed and the fish scurried back to the root wad. But this was not one of the small sunfish that populated the stream. This was a bass!

While not an impressive trophy, the mere knowledge that there were bass of some size in the branch caused my mouth to gape and my eyes to widen. Immediately I turned toward the house, trying to remember where my fishing pole stood at the ready. I ran back to the house and found it in its familiar spot. Grabbing it and my tackle box, I headed back to the pool where the grasshopper feast had taken place.

Just before reaching the spot, I kicked up a few grasshoppers and chose one (the one I could catch) as my bait. Threading it on my hook, I soon had him on the surface squirming and swimming. Then the shadowy figure came out of the root wad. This time he was not alone. The first one there sipped the grasshopper from the surface. I tightened the line and set the hook. Reeling the Zebco 33, soon I had a half-pound bass in my clutches.

I unhooked him and bent down to set him free in the water. He swam away, splashing me a bit with a fan of his tail before darting back under the tree. Another grasshopper caught and baited and I had another bass; then a large sunfish. It seemed I caught something on every cast. After fishing that hole for a while, I moved to another likely spot just upstream. Soon I found myself at the uppermost deep pool of my section of the branch with a high count of fish caught and released for the day. At that point, I heard my dad’s voice calling me for a chore he needed me to help with. I called back and found my “secret” point of entry and exit – a washed out spot at a rather steep point of the bank just large enough for me to crawl through but small enough and steep enough to keep the horses that occupied this pasture in.

When I reached my dad, he noticed the fishing rod and tackle box in my hands and asked where I had been, thinking I may have violated my prohibition. I explained my new found “honey holes” that would allow me to fish so close to home when I was not allowed to go too far. He just patted me on the back and asked where the fish were that I caught. I explained my catch and release strategy, knowing that the fish population of that stretch was not that high. He said that was great, but wondered if four or five larger sunfish for supper would be that harmful. I agreed and the next time I fished the branch, we dined on my catch that evening.

Over forty years later, on visits with my mom, I look out her window at the place where I spent so many hours of my youth. It remains much the same as it was when I was that little soldier, hunter, and fisherman. But there are changes as well. One is that there is a family of groundhogs that live along the branch now. The mother comes in my mom’s back yard on occasion for a visit, searching for a meal I suppose.

Another change is that some of the section is being cleaned up by new owners of the neighboring farm. There will be another house on the dirt road just south of my mom and on the other side of the branch. This may mean a move for the groundhogs as well.

But the sadist change of all is that there are no six-year-old boys catching crawdads, performing high dives, or fending off the Nazis along the branch. It makes me wonder how in the world Playstations, X-boxes, iPods, cell phones, and other gadgets could have ever replaced a lever action Daisy BB gun, a Zebco 33, and the branch.

I guess Bob Dylan was right. The times they are a-changin’ for sure.

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