Bob War by Don Stewart
Hung like a frozen bug on a spider web, my tiny body bobbed rhythmically a foot above the ground, front-back, up-down, front-back, in a slowly dying circular motion. I tried to cry out, but the fear was overwhelming, wider than my open mouth, colder and deeper even than the pain. I was afraid even to breathe. Spit pooled beneath my tongue, spilled down my chin with a silent runnel of tears, spattering into the dust where it mingled with fresh crimson pearls of blood that dripped from tiny cuts in the tented skin of my arms, legs and forehead.
We were out together on a fishing trip, not long after mother’s funeral, Dad, Grandpa, brother, and me. Just off for the afternoon; it would do everyone good, Grandma said.
Grandpa hauled a borrowed aluminum boat into the back of his rusted red pickup and drove us all to a neighbor’s farm, bouncing along the way to the pond at the far end of the middle forty. We followed a parallel track of bare dirt cut through acres of cattle pasture, bordered on all sides by ancient brown barbed wire strung between ranks of weathered grey railroad ties and chest-high cedar stumps. Grandpa stopped the truck at the corner of the field and got out, lifting the loop of wire that held the hand-made gate, nothing but three or four rows of “bob-war” stapled to a few sturdy branches and strung across the gap. Lift the loop, drive through, stop, get out, stretch the gate back across the road, loop it shut again.
The dusty dirt track followed the fence line for a couple dozen yards before it split to circumnavigate an oasis of willow and cottonwood trees, ringed around a small body of water. This was a naturally occurring pond (differentiated in these parts from a tank, a pool of artificial construction, created by a bulldozer operator over the course of a weekend) an acre or two in size, with an irregular border of grass and weeds, and a scattering of lily pads and cattails that promised a bounty of fish. We were told that this spot had not been exploited by anglers for a while, not since the owner’s kids had grown and gone off to college, and since it was likely to be a while longer before they brought any grandkids of their own to bother the fish, we might as well avail ourselves of the opportunity.
The track that bent back around the pond and into itself was joined in one place by a side trail, more a path for the cattle than an actual road, but wide enough to accommodate a pickup truck or tractor when needed. A new set of corner posts had recently been sunk on the spot, and a new suspension gate constructed using heavy galvanized wire that still retained its dull silver hue.
My brother and I took turns pairing off with the grown-ups, one group at a time in the boat, the other taking positions around the pond, wherever the weeds gave access to the water, and the ground was flat enough to set up a folding chair. According to the habits and disposition of a physically healthy five-year-old, I danced freely about the perimeter of the pond, plopping hook and bobber into the water here and there, whenever there wasn’t anything more interesting to occupy my fancy, like chasing dragonflies or pointing a finger too closely at the green, greasy, irregular layers of a fresh cow patty, squealing “EEEeewwww!” loud enough to chase away the green bottle flies, and distract everyone else from the lazy business at hand. Not surprisingly, my approach to angling yielded little in the way of positive results.
After some while my grandfather invited me to come with him into the boat, and for an hour or so we tossed worms, crickets, and minnows over the side in a generous ritual, attracting and feeding fish hardly larger than our bait. Now and again the bobber would dip, and we might pull up a hand-sized bluegill (my hand, not granddad’s), but the promise of the farmer’s aquatic bounty was never fully realized.
Only once did my big, round, red and white float plunge below the surface of the water, and that happened while I was busy investigating the contents of the tackle box, asking grandpa if he didn’t have some cookies or crackers or something else I could eat to take my mind off the fact that we weren’t catching anything. “Ho!” he cried, and grabbed for my fishing rod, just before it lurched over the side of the boat. “That’s gotta be a big one!” he said, but before he could reach the reel and set the hook, the bobber popped up a good ten feet from where it went under, and quietly resumed the passive activity for which it was named.
Disappointed when the line came back empty, and with a clean hook besides, I fussed and whined as indulged children can, until Grandpa decided that it was as good a time as any to beach the boat and allow it to take on a new crew.
For me, it was a good time to stretch my legs. I remember running around in circles in the pasture, catching yellow sulfur butterflies and chasing winged grasshoppers until the sun began to set. The meadowlarks chirred and whistled from the fence posts, the blackbirds flocked to the pond with their chattering racket, and I ran around and around with arms outstretched, buzzing like an airplane motor. I heard the truck start up as Daddy and Grandpa pulled the boat from the water, and prepared to head back home. They called my name, and I ran toward their voices, rounding the long curve of the dusty road with a smile on my face and the warmth of baby fat burning through my tiny legs, oscillating pistons that carried me swiftly down the path. “Hurry up!” they called. “Hurry up! It’s time to go!”
And I did hurry, afraid in the way of five-year-olds that I might be forgotten and left behind. Hurry was the word that filled my mind as I strove to lengthen my stride, pointing my legs and feet forward in a straight line, propelling myself into the air between bouncing steps.
It’s not as though I never knew what hit me. I knew exactly, precisely what had happened the moment it occurred, which unfortunately turned out to be one moment too late. The leaden strands of new, off-the-coil barbed wire that stretched across the shadowed path had caught me mid-stride, and held me there like Velcro, just high enough so that my sneakered toes were unable to make contact with the ground. The recoil of the wire juddered me to the bones, but instead of slinging me backward onto the ground, the wire’s vibrations served only to wedge its twisted metal barbs deeper into my tender skin as I trembled in vertical orbit, too stunned to move on my own.
Daddy was the first on the scene. It took only seconds for him to realize that his noisy son had gone suddenly mute, and that only something serious could account for that. He carefully lifted me from the sharpened points, one prong, one limb at a time, allowing the taught wire to hum back into line, the deepest string on a bass guitar.
He carried me back to the tailgate of the pick up truck, to be consoled and evaluated. From somewhere, Grandma’s cookies appeared, and soon the world became a warmer, softer place.
The marks on my forehead, arm and hands have long since faded away, but I still have scars on my leg: three small white ovals, perfectly arranged in the middle of my thigh, another on the ridge of my shin. People seldom got stitches in those days, even for full-thickness penetration wounds that gaped white-rimmed and open-mouthed beneath the sick, pinky-brown cover of self-stick bandages. Paint on the Mercurochrome, put on a Band-Aid. Stop complaining. Sure it hurts, but you’ll live, won’t you? You should have watched where you were going, anyway.
Had I known, I would have. After that day, you bet I did.
Later on I would be reminded of that afternoon, as I pushed the curved points of fishing hooks through the soft pads of patients’ fingertips, clipping the barbs with wire cutters before slipping the headless hooks backwards, and down, and out. This was a trick I learned not from the lecture hall or any medical text, but from books on camping and woodcraft, read on hot summer days beside grass-rimmed ponds in the middle of cattle fields, watching a bobber do what it does best.