OFF THE PORCH: Front porch reunions
This week, my cousin Darrel, from Indiana, dropped by for a visit. I was just beginning a shooting lesson with a client when his van pulled up the driveway. He and his daughters, Roxie and Harriet, were on a trip back to his North Carolina home and just dropped by to reconnect. The girls were a little embarrassed that Darrel had just dropped in without calling but I understood. It runs in the family. Darrel, 14 years older than I am, is the son of my favorite uncle on the Jones side, Uncle Tal. Uncle Tal’s whole name was Tallmadge Lafayette Jones, a moniker that would surely make him easy to find on one of the modern internet people searches.
Uncle Tal used to be my bunking partner on the full moon of October fishing trips my family made every year in my youth. Until I was in high school, I was pulled out of school for a full week for these trips and I can assure you, I learned more usable information on those trips than I would have learned in a solid month of sitting in a steel school desk on the creaking and aged wooden floors of Hasty School.
I learned a lot from Uncle Tal and I suspect, his ability to pull a good prank encouraged me in my pursuits in life at getting a good prank over on my friends. The best trick I learned from him was how to test house paint to see if it was properly thinned.
As a house painter, Uncle Tal traveled a lot and he traveled in an early 50s Chevrolet panel truck. It was painted blue, faded to purple, and was known as the Purple People Eater, after a popular song in 1958. The Purple People Eater was a work truck/camper for Uncle Tal and, from time to time, it would roll down our driveway. I would always be delighted to see it because I knew I was in for at least one evening of fun while he was with us for a visit.
One summer, Uncle Tal painted our house. He stayed with us for a week or so while he painted the cinder block family abode with the only color respectable folks painted their houses in, white. This might not have been the sentiment of everyone else but it made sense in the minds of the Jones family who only owned subdued color cars.
As an eight year old boy, I was fascinated with the painting process and stayed on Uncle Tal’s heels constantly. Lesser men would have run me off, but Tal had the patience of Job and constantly entertained me. In those days, there was only oil based paint and it had to be properly thinned to work well. As he was thinning the paint one afternoon behind the house, I asked how you could tell if the paint was properly thinned.
“You taste it,” came the instant reply, and he dipped his fingers into the paint, swirled it a bit, and licked his finger. I was shocked.
“Won’t that make you sick?” I asked, my mind reeling. I knew you couldn’t drink gas or paint or all sorts of things and the thought of tasting paint was shocking.
Uncle Tal laughed a quiet chuckle that I can still remember in my mind. “No, Dick,” I didn’t really taste the paint.” He chuckled some more and then he showed me the trick. The trick was to use two fingers. The middle finger stirred the paint and created a ripple on the surface. The index finger was kept out of the paint and therefore, it could be licked without getting paint in your mouth. I have used that trick all my life, to the amazement of friends, on grease, oil, gasoline, kerosene, paint, and every other imaginable non consumable liquid since that time and it works every time. I think it was my first trick of the sort and I never do it without thinking of this wonderful, fun, patient, uncle and how much he meant to me as a boy.
On the occasion of our October beach trips, it was only reasonable for Uncle Tal and I to be roommates since he was a bachelor and I was the only boy. My sisters took one room in the little beach cabin owned by Harvey Binswanger; Mama and Daddy took another, and Uncle Tal and me took the room with bunk beds. He was tall and slim, with little hair, a soft, smooth, and very slow, Southern voice and a great sense of humor. When I think of him, I think of the funny songs he used to sing and the stories he used to tell.
It was only natural that we would fish together, both on the pier and in the surf. Uncle Tal used a Penn 9 fishing reel on a long stiff rod. He had what was then called a Calcutta rod. Uncle Tal was a great caster. He used 27 pound braided line on his Penn 9 and I suspect he could cast 70 or so yards with it. The Calcutta rod was a nine or ten foot section of stout bamboo, with a cord wrapped handle. The reel was clamped on and there were only two guides on the rod, a tip and center guide. The top guide was shaped like a figure eight so, if the rod took a “set”, the angler could rewrap the center guide to the other side of the rod, remount the reel on the other side and the curve of the “set” wouldn’t be a hindrance. I remember Tal and I leaning on the carved and notched rails of the Kure Pier, the same Kure Pier that Robert Ruark wrote about, and Uncle Tal explaining the figure eight top guide. He also warned me this was only a marketing ploy and that switching the rod over would cause it to break soon after, since the rod was being loaded in another direction during a cast and the bamboo wouldn’t take the strain.
I don’t remember any spectacular fish we caught. I’m sure we had some good days of fishing but what I remember is the warm grey eyes, the peaceful smile, and the soothing, patient voice of a man teaching a boy about fishing.
When Darrel showed up, this week, his daughters were worried that his presence was interfering with Cherie’s and my schedules and I suppose it was, but, sometimes, there are more important things than schedules. As Darrel and I sat on the front porch and talked, I could hear Uncle Tal’s voice in his. It took me back to those days and made me think about a favorite uncle, who tended to just drop by, who shaped my life with his kindness, humor, and wisdom. Uncle Tal meant a lot to me and I was grateful for the remembrance. Sometimes, you just have to stop for a minute and remember.
Thanks for dropping by, Darrel, see you next time.
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. He writes about hunting, fishing, dogs, and shooting for several NC newspapers as well as national magazines and websites. If you’d like to have him speak to your group, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or offtheporchmedia.com.