In 1967, we lived in the Palmer house on Beach Loop Road, home of the infamous Billy Barker Cedar Tree incident, and among the many mischief’s that my brother, Howard and our cousin, Wade found to get into, one was the small stream that ran into the park of Devil’s Kitchen.
The park was located back in the trees and brush, just off the road beyond a hard blind corner. Two Mile Creek twisted through the lower half of our rented property, curled through a culvert beneath the winding two-lane asphalt and through the small dark and shaded, fern festooned picnic area of Devil’s Kitchen Park, before spilling out and across the sandy driftwood strewn beach and into the brawling sea. It was the kind of park where myths and fairy tales came alive in a shallow brook- that and speckled native rainbow trout.
We only ever caught five and six-inch fingerlings from the stream, but my brother pulled a monster out of it one day, with nothing more than a short stout stick, a length of heavy cotton kite string and a simple safety pin with no bait. One day, after a rainstorm had swelled the creek to a quick moving flood, Howard decided to go fishing. He had no proper pole, no hooks and no bait. I laughed at him. I knew he would catch nothing, but undeterred, he cut a short Salmon Berry switch, tied the length of kite line to it; tied an open safety pin on the string for a hook from his shirt, where he was missing a button, and cast it just beyond the roiling rain swamped bank.
“You’re never going to catch anything!” I laughed.
But Howard, ever the pragmatic optimist, was never one to worry over details or someone else’s opinion.
Suddenly, his stick dipped, his eyes widened and he cried out.
“I got a fish!” He yelled.
“You do not!” I chided him.
He yanked hard on his improvised pole, and from the churning and muddy tea stained brew, pulled a wriggling, writhing, flashing, speckled rainbow trout from the turgid water. It measured just over twelve inches by Dad’s tape measure. It was the largest fish we ever pulled out of the creek. I still hate him, some forty years later for that! How he managed to catch a Jonah sized trout out of that engorged creek with nothing more than a stick, some string and a bait-less safety pin, I’ll never know, but then, he always did have the luck of Riley!
The Devil’s Kitchen was actually two small parks. You had to be a local to know about the main park in the first place, because it was unmarked and set back off the road amongst the purple shadows of sappy and scrubby pine trees. Oh, a few tourists occasionally found it by accident but their intrusions where spare and largely short-lived. You had to be from the Loop to know about the lower park. Only the Loop’ers knew about the two small picnic tables and the one open barbeque-grill stand tucked back in a minor but sunny clearing in the small hidden hollow. Maybe some of the other local kids knew about it too, but we held it as a closely guarded state secret and considered it our own private playground and fishing hole.
Howard and I didn’t have fishing poles. Dad had a big surf and jetty pole that he used to catch perch and rockfish with but it was fouled with brine and saltwater and since it was bigger than the both of us were stacked tall and twice as rigid as a broomstick, we never used it. Our cousin, Wade had several little trout poles and an odd assortment of line and clamp-on shot sinkers, which he gladly shared with us.
Now then, the best bait for speckled native rainbow trout in Two Mile Creek, at least in 1967, was grasshoppers or bumblebees. I am afraid of bees. I am deathly afraid of bees and my cousin Wade ought to be but isn’t. When he was just about five years old he was swarmed and nearly stung to death after stumbling in the brush over a Hornet’s nest in an old Folgers coffee can. He was stung everywhere. They crawled into his clothing; his hair, ears, nose and he managed to swallow several as he screamed in horror and pain. Those that he swallowed continued to sting his esophagus and stomach until they died. He is since, understandably a bit nervous of bees but that’s about all, just nervous. It seems to me he should be mortified of them but miraculously, he isn’t. I know, that sounds like an interesting, if frightening story and it is, but I’m not going to tell it here. That’ll be a tale for another “Snapshot” short. Suffice it to say that since I was terrified of bees and Wade was only just nervous of them, that left my brother, Howard to catch the damn things. You may recall how I have written that my little brother could talk me into just about anything? Well, Wade could talk Howard into just about anything. Wade told him it was easy to catch bees. That’s all it took. I know, as persuasive arguments go, it doesn’t sound like much now. I guess you had to be there. Anyway, Howard turned bee catching into a fine art. He would pull his sweater sleeves down over his hands like mittens, cup his hands and then slap them together like woolen thunder over a lazing bumblebee wallowing in a field blossom. After the insect was sufficiently stunned, he would pick them up, pinch their heads and toss them into a coffee can with the grasshoppers we had caught in the meadow. That’s how he became our ‘A’ number one bee catcher. He figured out the sleeve mitten method for himself and to the best of my recollection, he never got stung. Sometimes we used worms for bait but why go through the work of digging for them when grasshoppers and bees were easier to get? Well, as long as Howard was getting them, anyway. If the fish didn’t bite on one, they were sure to bite on the other. Cool.
We pulled a lot of trout out of that creek in the two years we lived there and we ate them with relish. High cholesterol and fatty diets weren’t big on the list of worries for little boys in 1967, so we rolled them in flour or cornmeal and pan deep-fried them in a cast iron skillet with melted butter or bacon drippings. It makes my mouth water just to think of it. I can almost smell the bacon and caramelized butter in the pan and taste the tender white flesh of floured or cornmeal creek trout fried to a crunchy golden crust. My heart and arteries shudder at the thought of all that dairy and pork fat but then I’m an old man now, whose arteries harden at the thought of anything more robust than anemic carrot sticks and wilted celery stalks!
I went back to the Beach Loop in 1999, after my youngest sister died of colon cancer. My sister’s husband, her children, her brothers, sisters and parents returned to spread her ashes in the sea near to the Face Rock look out. My mother and my brother-in-law couldn’t quite bring themselves to part with her ashes but we gathered on the beach anyway, near to where Two Mile Creek spills into the ocean to say our last goodbyes.
Later that afternoon, I took a moment alone and walked back up the road toward to where the old weathered house had stood. All that was left that day was the empty hull of the basement, lying in the ground like an open grave. The house was long since gone. But up the way, back in the trees and brush, just off the road beyond a hard blind corner where Two Mile Creek curled through a culvert beneath the winding two-lane asphalt, I found a parting in the scrub where the entrance to the little park had lain and pushed my way into the undergrowth to see if any of it was still there. Nothing remained of it but my memory. It was sad and yet I rejoiced all the same. The secret shaded, fern festooned park where the myths and fairy tales of my childhood had come alive in a brook of speckled native rainbow trout remained jealously guarded from the prying eyes of the world, from the tourists and the curious locals for, like the sleeping village of Brigadoon, I could no longer find it. It would be forever safe, even from me.