Since learning about the passing of boyhood buddy Billy Grable, I have moped around in a sadness offset by slow smiles as I recall the way we used to be. I am thinking back on the Summer of ’66, when our intertwined lives were one damned crazy adventure after another. Whatever we did that summer almost inevitably involved me, Billy, brother Paulie, our other inseparable best friend Jim, and a revolving collection of girlfriends who went on to collectively become our ex-girlfriends, wives and ex-wives. (Sadly, only Linda and my relationship has survived the intervening half century).
Time, distance and changing life circumstances combined to drag us apart, in ways that seemed impossible in 1966. To my great regret, I haven’t seen Billy since a high school class reunion back in the ‘80s.
Aw man, now I really miss that kid. So does Paulie, who recalls he and I and Billy gigging for frogs in what was then known as the Hartford Canal. (Jim wasn’t along for some reason. It was likely Joyce. Or another Joyce. Or Sandy.) Anyway, the canal was an historic but sadly neglected, sewage-choked backwater that dumped into the Mississippi just across from the mouth of the Missouri River.
My brother and my memories of that adventure differ. He most recalls the three of us nearly getting swept to our doom in the Mississippi River current. My brain is flooded with images of three chubby boys crammed into a two-man inflatable rubber raft, with one paddle, one flashlight, a three-pronged frog gig and, eventually, a snake. With the hindsight of half a century, yes, we probably should have had three life jackets, a second flashlight and a spare paddle. But if we’d had common sense, we wouldn’t have been bobbing around in the dark in a life raft.
In Billy’s memory, I'll tell you what I think happened that hot summer night.
The raft was my first major purchase after beginning work at Poor Boy John’s discount house, plucked from the pages of the Herter’s Outfitters Catalog for the Professional Hunter and Fisherman, a 1960s precursor to Amazon. Herter’s generously described it as a two-man boat, but reality proved it would be perilous for just one of us at a time to fish from the thing. Anyway, at some point one of us, probably Billy, proposed the three of us use the raft as a platform for spearing bullfrogs, in the closest thing we had to wilderness in the St. Louis area. (The canal was pretty dicey. Historians of the era may recall that a septic tank service run by a family down the street from us on Warnock Avenue were later caught dumping raw human waste at the Hartford Canal boat ramp). It was, in short, not Walden Pond.
Anyway, I can’t even remember whether we actually captured any bullfrogs that moonless night, though it seems like we did. What I DO vividly recall is one of the Prater Brothers paddling, one holding the flashlight, and Billy hanging onto the frog gig, a short length of bamboo fishing pole attached to a small but really sharp three-pointed spear. It was way past dusk, a typical steamy mosquito-ridden Granite City evening. Street lights were either non-existent or long-ago shot out, so we drifted slowly along in scary darkness, looking for tell-tale signs of a bullfrog – two bright eyes hypnotized by the glare. As silently as we could, we approached our prey when Billy (did I mention his world-class stutter), screamed a single word that sums up the entire adventure: “S-S-S-Snake!”
The rest of that evening is an out-of-focus but otherwise vivid memory of a mindless scramble in the darkness, highlighted by a flailing paddle, flailing spear and flashlight pointed everywhere but the snake, as three over-sized friends in raft meant for two scrambled for the exit. Darned if I can tell you more about the snake. MIGHT have been a cottonmouth.
So Billy’s gone now. So is his sweet girlfriend Sue. Paulie is a retired Methodist minister, while I do my best fishing now out of a float tube. Even the Hartford Canal has amounted to something. It’s now all landscaped and renamed the “Lewis & Clark National Historic Park,” commemorating a time when the Lewis & Clark Expedition camped for the winter before launching this nation’s most memorable adventure. One of these days I’ll have to tell you why Billy named his hunting dog after his future wife, and the rest of us called her “Grable’s shit-eating dog named Sue.”