Every successfully recovering alcoholic knows that we should never revel in the ‘glory days’ of our addiction, and I won’t. But we do get homesick for what was real and good. Just because we are not our best selves and living up to our potential does not mean that there weren’t genuine good times and love amid the chaos.
This is about one of those times.
It’s a cool, spring morning. I feed our horses and then steal a moment of serenity for myself. As I look across the valley below our high desert home, I whisper the abbreviated prayer that I say when it’s getting late and I should be off to work. “Thank you,” I say, “It’s a paradise that I can’t deserve.”
Maybe it’s my inner redneck. I look at the still heavy snow on the Colorado and Utah mountains and think how warm it must be in Savannah. Warm enough I’ll bet, to put the boat in and spend the night fishing without getting too cold.
One thought leads to another and I soon find myself 30 years back in time.
My brother-in-law Darryl was an avid fisherman. Up until we started fishing together, the only things we really had in common was, I was married to his sister, and we both liked to get drunk.
It was a little past noon on a Friday when Darryl showed up at my job. We had planned to go fishing for the weekend, but I hadn’t expected him to show up that early. “Let’s go,” he said, “I told ‘em you had a family emergency and need to get off early.”
We walked back through the big warehouse and into the office area, making our way to the front door. My boss stepped out of her office and wished me well, “I hope everything turns out okay,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, trying to look sorrowful…or disturbed. I wasn’t quite sure how to look since my ticket out had not yet been revealed to me.
I don’t know what concerned me more; that Darryl had told my boss that my mother was at the hospital, about to have emergency surgery, or that he had parked the truck directly in front of the building with a boat full of coolers and fishing gear.
“You worry too much,” he said, “They’ll forget all about this by Monday.”
It wasn’t true, of course. People asked me how my mother was doing for six months after that. I had to lie my way through her follow-up visits and physical therapy. I really was a bit of a worrier, but still managed to turn her fake medical condition into at least half a dozen more fishing trips. Darryl didn’t have such inhibitions. Rumor had it that he hadn’t been to work on a Friday in several years.
When he put that truck in gear he started talking about fishing. Darryl was selling and I was buying, and any concern that I had about my job was soon a faded memory. I had the attention span of a gnat.
But his passion!
Darryl could’ve been driving me to my doom and I would willing go. It was his way. It didn’t have to be about fishing. No matter what we were about to do, he could convince me that I was about to have the time of my life doing it. Lucky for me his idea of good times was not anything too illegal. Hunting, fishing, and sleeping under the stars was all he ever really wanted out of life and everything else was just the necessary drudgery that got you to the next trip.
Darryl was a terrible driver. That’s not an insult; he knew he was a terrible driver. He turned and looked at me and with a mischievous grin and said, “You know what…?”
Before he finished what he was about to say the truck went off the pavement and slid in the gravel. He had a bad habit of driving in the direction he was looking. He got us back up on the pavement and swerved a nice serpentine pattern along both sides of the two-lane until he could regain control. Lucky for us there was no other traffic.
“Dude! Dang it!” I said as I arched my body off the seat. I had spilled half a beer and it made a nice puddle beneath me.
Darryl laughed but hadn’t really changed expressions. He continued talking as if nothing had happened. “You know how you drive along one of these old rural highways and you see a locked gate? And you know that the road that leads off into the woods on the other side of that gate—how you know it goes somewhere good but you ain’t got the key?”
“Yeah, ” I said as I sat back down in the cool puddle of beer.
“Well, today we got the key! Braswell’s gonna take us to a black water lake up here that hasn’t been fished since 1949 and it’s just full of lunker bass!”
Mike Braswell was a guy that Darryl worked with and I had never met him.
“Hey! You know what would be funny?” Darryl asked.
“Let’s pretend like you’re new to the country and don’t speak very good English. See how long it takes Braswell to figure it out” he laughed.
I can be just as immature as the next guy and thought it to be an excellent prank. We played around with a few voices, and although my fake Japanese was far superior to any of my other voices, we settled on fake Russian. I could do the voice, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t fake looking like I was Japanese.
We met up with Braswell and followed him out to the lake. It was so beautiful there. It ‘looked’ fishy. Big, moss-covered cypress trees growing throughout the lake; gators, snakes, frogs, and mosquitos. It was paradise.
We put the boat in the water right away. Braswell and brother Darryl were giving me pointers as we fished. Darryl was giving me pointers because I’m a city boy; Braswell because I was Russian.
I played the part well and I totally had him on the hook, but every now and then Darryl would get tickled. He would burst out laughing, and just when I thought he had ruined the joke, he’d turn to Braswell and chastise him, “Don’t make fun of him, man! He’s not from around here!”
Braswell, the good-natured guy that he was, would apologize—leaving me to keep my composure. And so it went, into the evening. Fishing, drinking and being Russian. Oddly enough, the more beer we drank, the more convincing my character became.
I’ve seen a lot of evenings pass away, but none like the reflection of a Georgia sunset on that pretty black water. We caught several bass and even got a glimpse of some wild pigs running through the swamp. A couple hours after dark we sat around a campfire on the bank and roasted some hot dogs and told lies.
We all told lies, but in fairness, I had to tell lies—I was a fake Russian.
The night might have been quiet, but for a Lynyrd Skynyrd cassette playing over and over again in the truck. I think Braswell went out in the night to cast a few times, but we were all mostly asleep after midnight.
The other guys were stretched out across the front seats of the trucks, but I awoke with a cold dew on my face right at sunrise, laying in the bed of one of the trucks. The hangovers don’t last long when you drink beer for breakfast, and with no one around to tell us not to, that’s just what we did.
It was hard to keep being Russian while all that nature was making life so sweet and real, but I maintained character. It was around lunchtime when Braswell suggested that we take our stringer of fish and cash them in at a market in town. This began our longstanding tradition of cashing in our Saturday afternoon catch. We called them ‘Liquor Fish’.
I elected to stay back and let them go to town without me. “Go comrades. I am to fish, and possibly take nap,” I said in excellent broken English.
We pulled the aluminum jon boat up to the spillway and we all got out. When they got into the truck and pulled away, I decided to go back to the boat and resume fishing. It may have been the hot sun, or it might’ve been the beer, but somehow I misjudged my step into the boat.
The boat tipped, and when it did, it immediately gulped up about 30 gallons of water. I don’t know what happened next—the whole thing is a bit of a blur, but in my panic I…well, I sunk the boat.
It might not have been so bad if I hadn’t, in my own efficient way, taken the time to untie the boat before trying to get in. As it was, I had no idea how deep the water was at the spillway. I could only guess that it was much deeper than we would be able to salvage if I let it go.
So there I hung. One arm gripping an iron rod on the spillway; the other arm trying to gather all the gear that was floating away. And down below the water’s surface, between my legs, was our boat. I wasn’t entirely sober, but I was doing some serious cipherin’. Those guys had just pulled away from our camp and would be going to Adrian, several miles away; selling fish; buying liquor; driving back.
‘I will probably drown way before they get back,’ I thought.
It was hot, but I wasn’t in direct sunlight. I was holding on to the most important stuff. A couple of coolers and a big tackle box were floating nearby. If I could just hold on until they got back, this whole situation could easily be rectified.
My face was all sweaty and I was feeling kind of sleepy. I dipped my face down in the cool water in an attempt to get my bearings. I had no sense of time. I tried singing songs to distract myself, but the stress of holding on was apparent in my voice and made me feel even weaker. My legs were really cramping from holding the boat.
Just when I thought that I could hold on no longer, I saw the truck! I started screaming for help! They heard me right away and came running.
“The boat! It’s down here!” I said, as they were grabbing the gear. I got a bit of an adrenaline rush and between the three of us we managed to save most everything, even the boat. When the danger had passed and relief set in, we were on the ground laughing.
“So…were there pirates?” Darryl asked.
“No. No pirates…”
“Were you trying to hide the boat from us?
I expected that I would probably never live down the day that I sunk the boat, but I was too relieved to care. They continued to give me a hard time about it for a few minutes when Braswell got a real serious look on his face.
“You know what I noticed?” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I noticed that you speak perfect English when you’re about to drown. That’s what I noticed.”
Darryl and I had forgotten about our little prank and we all had a good laugh.
I hate that I can’t remember the details of all the adventures I had with Darryl and my good friend Michael Braswell. We parted ways long ago. I left Georgia in ’88 and never went back. I quit getting high and drinking in 1990 and my life changed so much for the better. If it were possible to separate out the bad from what was good, I would sure love the chance to go back.
But in a way, this week I did go back. Thanks to modern technology and Facebook, I reconnected with Braswell. He’s had some medical issues recently, and maybe he’s feeling his mortality. I woke up to a message from him that said, “If you ever come to Georgia, the place on the Ohoopee would really like to see you again.”
I told him, “Dude, you’re gonna make me cry. I tell my wife and my little boy about the black water and the cypress trees, the alligators and the HUGE crappie, and what I can remember of my adventures with Darryl and Michael in the south Georgia wilderness. It seems like a million years ago and my life is so different now. I only wish I could be there with you guys again…sober.”
Braswell told me that 12 years ago he got sober, and he’d love to have me come down.
“Darryl finally got sober, too. October before last,” he said.
I guess that’s why this story has been on my mind all week. Our dear friend Darryl passed away in October of 2014.
It’s not smart to have regrets.
We all need our struggles to be who God wants us to be. And I do love my life as it is today. But what a sweet thought it is to me, to think of what it might be like to spend a day at that beautiful lake in Georgia.
With my good friends.
~Duane Pannell, co-author of 3,000 Miles To Eternity: A True Internet Love Story