Catfish Festival Memories

Now sit still and listen, or you’re NEVER getting out for recess.

Greetings, Fellow Catfish Enthusiasts,

During this most joyous time of year, I often take a moment to look back and reflect on the rustic, bygone days of the Catfish Festival.  Enjoy, and may all of the blessings of the season be upon you and yours.

Originally Posted 8/5/2010:

I remember back when I was just a young toe-headed pup, back in the early days, back when it was still the Shreveport Catfish Festival.  So much was different in those days, yet so many memories still mirror our modern, technologically-advanced Denver Catfish Festival.

Before first light on Catfish Festival Eve, Uncle Wap and his buddy Merle would strap their ancient, dilapidated johnboat to the trunk of Merle’s Delta 88 and make their way out to Caddo Lake.  They always had a good set of jumper cables, but each year on the way to the lake they would slowly creep up to a darkended corner of the noodle factory parking lot and steal a fresh battery from one of the graveyard shift worker’s cars.

They’d fish all morning, picking only the most dependable and fruitful spots to plunge the electrified cables into the water then collect their floating bounty of mid-sized channel catfish, all the while skillfully dodging the Wildlife and Fisheries Agents patrolling the lake.  More than once they had to hide the old boat behind a cluster of Cypress trees and duck down low to avoid attention, but they never did have any run-ins with The Law.  I reckon that’s just part of the magic of the Catfish Festival.

Merle’s Delta 88. The old girl lost some lustre in the later years.

Eagerly anticipated by the entire village, they’d return mid-afternoon, quite inebriated but in possession of three #4 washtubs running over with fresh-caught catfish.  Granpappy and the other men would welcome them with handshakes and back-pats while all of us kids screamed and shouted and jockeyed for a look at the precious bounty.

The menfolk would unload Uncle Wap and the washtubs and carry them to the back yard.  We’d always wonder how the toes of Wap’s shoes weren’t completely worn out, because they’d always drag the gravel whenever he was being carried.  Merle would shout at everyone and wildly swing his Ruger pistol (the one he’d gotten off a dead German in the war) in the air until his lady-friend-of-the-week would appear in the doorway to soothe him with a tomato-garnished Vodka and Tab.

After the men dumped the catfish out into the yard, little Cousin Hank would jump into one of the tubs and squirm about in the muddy slime, screaming, “I’m a catfish!  I’m a catfish!”  We’d laugh and throw sticks at him and try to get him with the jumper cables until he whimpered away quietly.

The men, Pall Malls dangling from their lips, would cut off the heads and throw them in a pile, then pull the skins from the prehistoric beasts and hang them from the clotheslines to dry.  After the skins had been in the sun a few hours, the ladies would take them down and sew them into 8″ diameter circles.  They’d stretch them across the tops of wooden salad bowls, stapling down the sides, creating little percussion instruments to be played in the family drum circle later that night.

We’d take a couple of the heads, grab our homemade wooden racquets, and head for the badminton net we’d set up out front.  We might not have had the white V-neck tennis sweaters and such like the Kennedys, but we had some lively and competitive catfish head badminton games that would last well into the evening!

Once all of the catfish were cleaned and the drums assembled, the whole  community would gather around the bug zapper and listen to stories of past Catfish Festivals from the Elders, punctuated by the loud SNAP!  of a large junebug, horsefly, or hummingbird slamming into the zapper (we’d removed the safety screens to attract larger prey.)   Later we’d start hitting those drums, prompting Uncle Wap to jerk and snore-choke out of his “nap” and threaten to kick everybodys’ asses.

Uncle Wap’s violent outburst was always the signal that it was time for the kids to go to bed.  We’d leave the warm glow of the zapper and go inside to lie down on the floor, visions of catfish and hush puppes frying in our heads.  Giggles would give way to long, deep breaths, then to silence.

At first light, we’d rub our eyes and look out the window at the bright, glorious summer morning dawning before us.  I’d always be the first one to see the cloud of flies hovering above the pile of catfish heads.

It’s Catfish Festival Day.

*************************

The cabin that held all twelve of us cousins as well as Momma, Pop, Uncle Wap, Aunt Carla, and Merle and his assorted dancer ladyfriends was just a tiny place, four rooms and a kitchen, in a little village nestled in the pines outside of Shreveport. 

We were poor; hell, the whole village was poor.  All of us contributed to the family kitty in any way we could.  Dad and Uncle Wap sold fried dragonflies on the side of I-20 as well as doing part-time promotions for local fencing tournaments over in Shreveport.  They’d also gone on the road a few years back with “Wap McCutcheon’s Catfish Rodeo.”  They’d found that towing a pool of live catfish behind Wap’s old Volvo wagon was harder than they’d figured when they’d thought the scheme up.  When they’d dodged that wayward cow on Highway 80 just outside of Marshall, TX and plunged into the ditch, the Catfish Rodeo had suddenly turned into the Flying Catfish Rodeo.      

Uncle Wap’s Volvo Wagon was great in the mud, but bovine avoidance was never easy.

To do our part, the other kids and I would sneak into the chicken farm the next village over and steal as many discarded chicken heads as we could from the barrel outside the slaughterhouse. We’d spend the days laughing and cleaning the heads, transforming them into finger clackers tuned to different keys based on the size of the beaks and skulls.  We’d then sell them for a nickel per set out by the old musician’s commune, about a two-mile walk down the dirt road from the village. 

The problem was that those bones were just so delicate.  Buyers were always coming back for refunds due to breakage.  We’d offer “in-store credit” for more clackers, but all people really wanted was their money back.  We tried to get the old witchdoctor woman at the ceramics shop to coat them in porcelain for us in order to increase durability, but she just didn’t see it as a money-making exercise.  You’d see bleached, broken chicken skulls all over the road outside that commune.  We’d tried to use catfish skulls for clackers, but they just didn’t have the same tonality as the chicken heads, and that was about the only way a chicken was better than a catfish.

So it was, during that one particular crazy-hot summer, that we found ourselves broke, confused and scared about the fate of the Late Summer Classic.  It was the night before Catfish Festival Eve, usually a jovial time of celebration and revelry, but our village sat silent and pensive. 

The catfish had left Caddo Lake.

The sun set over the village; ominous clouds crept in.  Uncle Wap paced back and forth, mud-encrusted Pony high tops bending and creaking the slats of our kitchen’s loose wood floor, one-inch Pall Mall smoldering in his lips.  His bloodshot eyes looked out into the darkness.  He knocked back a healthy shot of Kentucky Deluxe from the big bottle that was always by his side. 

Pop stood across from him, removing his hat and rubbing the top of his head.  He shot a glance at me, forlorn.

“Boy, there’s pressure, then there’s Catfish Festival pressure.  This one’s tough.”

“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked fearfully.

Merle popped his head up from where he’d earlier passed out face-down out on the floor, habitually searching his pocket to make sure his trusty pistol was still in its place.  “There just ain’t no fish in Caddo Lake this summer,” he said, now fumbling to straighten his ‘Co-op Seed’ cap.  “It’s like somebody else shocked every last one of ‘em.  And it’s been hell even finding car batteries to steal even if I wanted to get out there and catch enough for the Festival.”

“Couldn’t we, just this once, have a Garr Festival?  Or Possum?”

“Hush your mouth, boy.” Uncle Wap barked gruffly. “And don’t ever let anybody know that you even entertained the idea.  Garr.  Ha! That’s for Arkansans.  No, it’s lookin’ like Merle and your daddy and I are headin’ to Lake O’ The Pines.”

Even a young boy like me knew that going to Lake O’ The Pines was risky; it was enemy territory.  The farmers and fishermen in East Texas knew Pop, Wap and Merle from years of tense run-ins over everything from women to fishing grounds to Volvo/cow accidents; a mission to secure catfish for the Festival was going to be a long shot at best, violent and tragic at worst. 

And where would they find car batteries?  Was Merle considering the unthinkable?  I thought about that stash of dynamite in the shed that he’d stolen from the oil drillers a few years back.  I shuddered.  Maybe Momma, Aunt Carla, and Merle’s new dancer ladyfriend could talk some sense into them, but they’d headed to Natchitoches to replenish the cigarette, booze and Cane Syrup supplies with what little money we had, and hadn’t yet returned.

“Get to bed, boy,” Pop said as the three stoic men walked out to the front porch, sharing Wap’s bottle, hitting it hard and stumbling slightly as they made their way to the yard.  I could hear them talking and planning in hushed tones as they each sat down in the long grass, hitting the bottle again, and again.

Tip-toeing into the back room to take my spot on the floor with the other kids, I listened to the deep sleep of my siblings and cousins and allowed myself a few tears.  I worried about our happy festival and the fate of our family and our village.  I heard Merle cough, cuss, cough again.  Then I heard him snore. 

I popped up to see all three men on their backs, sound asleep.  A Pall Mall sat up straight in Uncle Wap’s mouth, destined to again burn his lip.  There would be no catfish adventure to East Texas this year. 

And there would be no Catfish Festival.

I sank back down and closed my eyes. 

The next morning I awoke to a brilliant North Louisiana summer sunrise.  Merle, Uncle Wap, and Pop snored loudly in the yard, covered with mosquito bites.  My heart sank.  I didn’t hear the sound of Momma’s slaughtering the pig or of Carla wrestling fresh eggs from the chickens, or of Merle’s new dancer ladyfriend making him his morning scotch and Tab; no, the women of the house were not making the traditional Catfish Festival Eve Breakfast.  All was surely lost.   

But then, as I walked out to the porch, I saw them:  Mom, Aunt Carla, and Merle’s new dancer ladyfriend.  Their faces held expressions of tired contentment.  Mom and Aunt Carla were carrying a #5 washtub; Merle’s new dancer ladyfriend was clumsily navigating the yard in those godawful see-through platform heels.   They were headed to the back yard, and the #5 washtub was full of something dark and wet, something fragrant and earthy…

Was it…Catfish? 

But where were the car batteries needed to catch the bounty?  What were those long sticks they carried in their other hands?

I focused.  Those sticks were cane poles, strings dangling from the ends, sewing needles twisted into the shapes of hooks.  Fishing with poles?  That’s how they’d caught all of those catfish?   

Mom and Aunt Carla and Merle’s new dancer ladyfriend hadn’t been to Natchitoches after all.  They’d gone to Lake O’ The Pines, risking everything, and fished silently with those bizarre poles under cover of darkness. 

They were saviors and heroines. 

And it was Catfish Festival Eve.

Originally Posted 7/21/2011:    

(Note: We’ve been testing the new Bayou Fryer 700-701 Death Star for about a week now, and are proud to report that it is a marvel of modern frying engineering; however, I must admit that this update might be brief, as it is quite difficult to type with my fingers as swollen as they are from ingesting all of the delightful fryable objects we’ve procured over these last few wonderful days.)

I lay awake on the wooden floor of our room, my cousins and siblings filling the damp air with light snores and long, deep breaths.  The still, pre-dawn humidity dangled the heavy scent of the back yard’s catfish entrails just above my nostrils; I tried to be still, to sleep, but only shuddered with excitement.  Today was the big day: I was going to drop the first catfish into the oil at 1:12 PM, as was tradition. 

 

This was my passage into manhood: two days earlier I’d been thrown shirtless into Aunt Harriet’s ’74 Citroen Wagon with two blind, rabid feral cats and had to fight my way out in order to earn the honor of starting the Festival.  The multiple abrasions were still fresh and tenderly painful, but nothing fixed up wounds like Momma’s nutria rat and turpentine gauze wraps.

Perfect for blind feral rabid cats, but impossible to get parts for.

Suddenly, a rustling from the backyard.  I popped my head up and squinted through the open window.  I knew what it was before I saw it: possums in the catfish bucket (it was tradition to let the catfish sit out on Catfish Festival Eve to bring good luck to the family.)  I jumped out of bed and limped to my trusty badminton racquet then out the door. 

Uncle Wap, who was supposed to have been on guard duty, had fallen out of his hammock and was face-down snoring, empty fifth of Dr. Tichenor’s by his side.  Two possums were tugging at his right pocket with their teeth; they instinctively knew that this was where he kept his Skoal Oreos.  Four more of the little thiefs were hunkered down in the catfish bucket eating the fine, delicious catch two at a time. 

I swung my trusty racquet downward time and time again on the possums, but I was far too late.  They’d eaten Uncle Wap’s complete haul of Caddo Lake catfish.  As the summer sun rose over the family plot, I sat despondent in a haze of flies as we salvaged what we could and, being the industrious folks we were, made lemons out of lemonade.  Or in this case, possum out of catfish. 

It was too late to change the shirts, cups, and beer coozies, but we didn’t care.  It was the first and last Shreveport Possum Festival ever.  

It was also the day that I became a man.

 

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