BEARSKIN BAYOU, SCOTT, Ark. — Pretty much whenever a boss talks to me I point my eyes their way, bite my lip, and pull at various clothes and appendages.
I squirm too. The more boss degrees they have on the wall, the more I squirm. If you've got an MBA I'm almost twitching out of the chair.
It makes them feel better.
In truth, whatever they are saying, doesn't matter. This is what I'm hearing.
I've been in some boss talks where a whole ZZ Top album plays in my head, a "Live" version at that.
So here I was, face to face with The Bowman, my 16-foot-tall, whiskey-voiced, tobacco-spitting bayou boss. As I walk down the hall to his office at ESPNOutdoors.com I'm loading "La Grange" in my brain.
Bowman is a one song kind of boss talker, and most of our talks consists of him saying either, "Uh-hum," or "Bah-rohne ... Bah-rohne ... Bah-rohne ... spit."
Bowman's boss door is made of beads, strung together shotgun shells I would have expected, but beads? Oh, when you stand back and look at the bosses beads, it turns out they form a cartoon version of the face of Marilyn Monroe.
On his desk he has bobbleheads of guys who cut down trees, a carved-wood fish sits on a shelf, he's leaning back in his chair, his hiking boots up on his desk, his baggy shorts offering a glimpse into management I didn't need to see.
He's talking, chewing, spitting ... I'm starting to load "Tush," when he says something no boss in over 40 years of being bossed has ever said to me, "Bah-rohne," (say that into the bottom of a spitting cup to hear how it really sounded) "You know Bah-rohne I used to raise catfish."
Bowman: "To eat."
No more ZZ Top.
Up North we live life. Down here in the South they SAVOR life.
Every story I have ever been told down here begins with, "My Daddy (or Momma)," and always ends with, "... that's good eatin'."
Bowman uses short words to tell long stories. His pauses have three syllables. "Bah-rohne ... I didn't have indoor plumbing until I was five years old."
Bowman was 5 years old 40 years ago ... 40 years ago the Buffalo Pizza joint I worked in had FOUR bathrooms, no waiting.
I'm in a small car with three big guys and we are rocketing down an Arkansas freeway, Mike Suchan (an editor of mine who keeps trying to tell me about AP style while ZZ Top plays in my head) is sort of driving, sort of turning in his seat to talk to me in the back.
Kyle, another editor of mine who 40 years ago wasn't on earth yet, is sitting in the back seat with me, Bowman is riding shotgun and giving a running commentary on where he used to shoot what when we drive by.
By my calculations, Bowman has shot up about 88 percent of the Arkansas out my window.
Suchan suddenly makes a hard left, his eyes on most of the turn, and when I look up from my BASS notebook, this is what I see: 1941.
I pass a brick building with 1941 etched in the cornerstone. A house flashes by, a red-and-rust 1963 Chevy Impala in the driveway. Behind the buildings a bayou ... green water with Cyprus trees sticking out of it.
Next to me, Kyle is quiet. Being fairly new to the world like he is, there is no Nintendo game that prepares you for this. Out his side of the car window, a cotton farm and gin mill, a long red building sits up on bricks, history and darkness the only thing inside.
We stop in front of a building that even a historical society would look the other way on. It's perched on several footers made of brick, the slope of the ground lets you look clear underneath it.
Next door a goat is asleep. On the front porch, a soda machine with no machine ƒ it's a old coke chest that you dumped ice in over the glass bottles, when you wanted one, you got a frozen hand searching around until you felt the bottle cap's pointed edges between your fingers.
The porch creaked, the screen door creaked, the wooden floor creaked, the green wooden slat back chairs creaked, the symphony of the Cothams Mercantile ƒ part hardware store ... part restaurant ... all-time capsule.
On a wall, and old rusty pogo stick, three feet down the wall, an old map showing the area's plantations. History for some, heartbreak for others. Glass display cases held the stuff of yesterday; American flags, photo's of children who became teens, men, old men, memories. An old Admiral TV stood silent, its black-and-white view loser to a colorful world.
On the tables, paper towel holders served napkins in the round, knives and forks handed out in wax paper sheaths.
Two waitresses, one young, one experienced, dressed in cotton t-shirts and jeans, customers in ties and medical scrubs, shorts and LL Bean shoes.
Everybody talking, gesturing, eating, remembering.
This was Bowman's world, and he was doing the ordering, "Let's start off with fried green tomatoes, " he told the experienced one. I'm thinking, "We're here to READ."
I didn't read the book, see the movie, or listen about it on Oprah so I had no idea there was such a thing. In Buffalo whenever we came across a green tomato we would just put it up on the kitchen window ledge until it turned into food: a RED tomato.
No one ever ate the green tomatoes. Green pasta sauce, whatta-ya nuts.
Suddenly we had a couple plates filled with little round things. I'm thinking, OK, I can deal with this since most of my favorite things to eat are round; Pizza, Dilly Bars and Donuts.
Pick up one, dip it in the ranch dressing, chew — and it wasn't too bad. Mostly bread crumbs fried and stuck to Vitamin C. Didn't taste a tomato, red or green, more like if you had a house salad fried.
Then came the catfish.
I'm not a seafood kind of guy. I mainly eat fish fries for the fries. The bigger the fried stuff around the fish the better. I don't eat fish to TASTE fish. I eat fish to taste tartar sauce with lemon.
Bowman is on the other side of the table diagonally across from me and he is holding his plate of catfish up in the universal sign saying, "Eat This."
On my face is the universal sign for "No Way," nose squished up, brow scrunched into trenches, involuntary gag reflex about happening. Bowman's plate is moving forward, my butt in the chair is backing up.
Mike Suchan is in mid bite eating a burger called a "Hubcap," 17 ounces of juicy meat that could probably BE a hubcap on one of those Austin Mini's. Kyle's got a hubcap too, but is eating it with a fork, Bowman's plate is getting closer ƒ if this guy hunts like he shares I'm surprised there is a duck left in Arkansas.
Bowman doesn't know it but I once too raised catfish. Barney. My catfish. I paid $1.25 at Woolworth's for Barney and brought him home for my aquarium so Barney WOULD EAT ALL THE NASTY STUFF INSIDE THE AQUARIUM THAT I DIDN'T WANT TO GET ON MY HANDS.
And I was looking at a plate of Barneys.
So I take about 3 ounces of the catfish, add 10 ounces of tartar sauce, and bite.
Bowman is looking at me, Suchan is looking at me, not sure what Kyle is doing since my head is frozen straight ahead. In my mouth is fish that TASTES LIKE FISH.
I pretty much try and stay away from food that taste like what it is. I was raised on mystery food; could have been pork chops, could have been chicken.
I ate one bite of the catfish. Done. As I'm trying to swallow the fish that tastes like fish, Bowman starts telling me he loves to eat AMPHIBIANS. Frogs. I'm thinking, this guy eats what I go to zoos to look at.
And as "Sharp Dressed Man" begins playing in my brain this is the last thing I hear Bowman say, "Ummm, frogs ... nothing wrong with that there, that's good eatin'."
Don Barone is a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. Other stories of his can be found on Amazon.com. For questions, comments or story ideas you can reach him at: [email protected]