Mr. Sweeney worked with my dad at the Post Office, but I couldn’t tell you what he did there. All I knew was that he had invited my brothers and me to go fishing with him on Saturday. On a real boat! When you’re 8 or 9 years old and get invited to do that, you feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven. Oh, the anticipation! The days of that long week before the fishing excursion just dragged by. Could it only be Wednesday today? I know it must be Friday already. Will this week never end?
But Saturday finally arrived and we were up well before dawn. The trip across town to Mr. Sweeney’s house was quick, and we loaded our little Zebco rods and reels into the trunk and headed over to the Arroyo Colorado, some 35 or 40 miles away. This waterway, which in some places follows the ancient riverbed of the Rio Grande and joins the Gulf of Mexico a few more miles to the east, is a deep, saltwater channel. It contained an amazing array of fish species, from flounder, to trout, to redfish, and even a few lesser known species thrown in. I know…I caught a couple of the lesser known ones myself. The 7 pound sheepshead fish I caught that day is one of the strangest I have had on a hook in my limited fishing experience. And, up to that time, it was also the largest fish I had caught. Never mind that it had teeth in it’s mouth fully as big as mine. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…
We pulled into Rio Hondo (in English, the town’s name means “Deep River”) about daybreak and stopped by Mr. Sweeney’s parent’s home. They had a house on the Arroyo and therefore also had a dock for his boat to be tied up at. After quick introductions, we were out on the water in the wonderful boat. I’m guessing it was just a normal bass-boat, but that day, it was a ship for us! We had never been on the water before, having had to be content with sitting on the bank of rivers and channels to fish. What a memorable event! And what fishing! We caught trout, my oldest brother caught a flounder and almost reeled in one of the strange sheepsheads before the monster bit through his line with those atrocious teeth. A few moments later, I was able to get mine in the boat!
Throughout the day, however, we kept catching a breed of catfish which Mr. Sweeney referred to as a “hardhead”. That was actually the name of the species, but he used it in a pejorative manner. “Oh, those old hardheads,” he would sneer through his gritted teeth. “Throw him back in.” It didn’t make sense to us. We knew catfish were good to eat. We always tried to catch them when fishing on our own. So, when I caught a particularly nice one, probably about two pounds, I waited until our benefactor was helping one of my brothers with an equipment problem and sneaked the catfish onto the stringer to take home. I was to regret this action very soon.
Toward mid-afternoon, we decided we had had enough fishing and headed back for the house. When we pulled up to the dock, the elder Mr. Sweeney took our stringer and started pulling the fish off to dress and fillet them. I thought nothing of it, until all of the sudden, he let out a yell and had his fingers to his mouth in a second, sucking on the bleeding puncture wound in one of them. Turns out, the hardhead has a particularly bad habit of spiking his attackers with his long, sharp dorsal fin. Not only that, but the species has a mild poison which makes the wound redden and swell up. It’s not anything close to fatal, but is very painful. He looked at us boys with an accusatory stare and demanded, “Which one of you put that worthless old hardhead on there?” Well, I had to face the music, which was thankfully not severe for his part, just a very terse comment about doing what you’re told to do. I have to admit, I berated myself a whole lot more internally than he did aloud. I knew what I had done was stupid. It was also selfish and even a little dishonest. Actually, to this day, I feel bad about hurting that kind old man, now long dead. As I’ve said here before, some stupid actions stay with us a lifetime. I guess, you could say that the catfish wasn’t the only “hard head” in the boat that day!
Why is it that we can’t be content to accept that some things need to be done differently than we think best? When we’ve got the expert in the boat with us, doesn’t it make sense to follow his lead? My first time out on the boat, and I thought I had the savvy to know better than a life-long fisherman what fish would be good to keep. I sincerely wish that this were the only time I made a stupid decision in the same way, but that certainly isn’t the case. I am a lifelong slow learner, needing to find out the hard way about most of life’s pitfalls. I’m pretty sure that it’s only by the grace of God, that I wasn’t maimed or killed as a child, with some of the stupid stunts I pulled. The “hard head” description still fits today.
Thank God, that His patience with us outlasts our foolishness! He keeps taking us out in His boat, instructing us, knowing that we’ll be disobedient and selfish, but regardless, He keeps teaching and encouraging. Even at my age, I’m cognizant of my need for His patience day after day, through mistake after senseless mistake. I’m hoping that one day, I’ll look up and realize that I’ve finally learned my last hard lesson, but I’m pretty sure that’s the day I’ll be in heaven. I guess in a way, that’s what we mean when we say, “Live and Learn”!
“You’re born, you die, and in between, you make a lot of mistakes.“