The Edge of Innocence

Growing up in the south during the late 60s, I was raised on the edge of innocence. The simple joys I learned from my grandparents would become a strong foundation for dealing with life as it unfolded around me. The years ahead would bring the sexual revolution, an unprecedented number of divorces, and crime rates that would alter the open society thatAmericaonce held dear. Brass locks that decorated my grandparent’s doors served no real function. I never once heard a knock at the door. All of their friends just waltzed in as if they were part of the family—and indeed, they were.

In most modern day neighborhoods, strangers live next door, but in the era of my grandparents, it was hard to find anyone you did not know. I can remember fidgeting impatiently when a five-minute trip to buy fishing bait turned into a thirty-minute conversation with someone my grandfather had not seen in a whole month. He never made it out of any business without a lengthy conversation.

As a young boy, my greatest cares were getting out of school without homework and hoping it wouldn’t rain when I wanted to fish. I heard my mother talking to Grandma about my uncle being sent toVietnam, but in my mind, that was a military base somewhere nearMarietta,Georgia, where they visited him as he prepared for his deployment.

My grandfather was known to everyone as “Pappy.” He loved to tell corny jokes. They were the kind of jokes that made you want to roll your eyes. He took great pleasure in drawing that reaction from people, and he would tell the same jokes at every opportunity. If someone laughed, he enjoyed a good laugh with them. If they didn’t laugh, he enjoyed a good laugh at their pained expression.

Few things were more thrilling than Pappy saying to me, “Come on. I’m gonna learn you how to fish.” Sometimes those lessons were painful. One time I hooked a large fish and he rushed over to give me step-by-step instructions. “Hold your rod up,” he kept ordering. I was standing on a large flat rock that the fish had rushed under for refuge. I reached out with my rod to keep the line from rubbing against the jagged surface. “Hold your rod up, hold your rod up.”

I tried to explain that I had to keep the line away from the sharp rock. Unfazed, he continued to issue the same order, “Hold your rod up!” Pappy had a stubborn streak and I don’t think I ever heard him change his mind, even when facing a mountain of contradicting evidence. On this occasion, I grew irritated and decided to follow his orders even though I knew it would break my line. I held my rod up, and my line sliced across the rock as the fish sought for a path of escape. The rod sprang up as an empty line floated lazily in the breeze. Pappy said that it wouldn’t have snapped if I had followed his instructions.

As far as I can remember, that is the only time I let his orders get the best of me. Everyone loved Pappy, but no one could work with him—no one except me. Whether it was fishing or working, Pappy felt the need to instruct whomever he was working with. Because of the great love he always expressed for me, I learned how to say, “Okay” when he barked instructions, even when it was something already being done. I soon found that I enjoyed working with him, in spite of this quirk.

Each school year, I longed for summer vacation when I could go spend a week or two with my grandparents. Pappy showed me every good fishing spot on the Yellow River that flowed near his house inPorterdale,Georgia. It was a delight to come back with a mess of fish. Pappy would say, “You can’t go inside until we get these fish cleaned.”

One day, we were just finishing up with this chore and I had been watching a catfish head with his mouth wide open. For reasons unknown, I decided to put my finger in the mouth of that fish. When I touched its tongue, the jaws clamped down hard on my finger and its strength caught me off guard. I screamed as the vice-like mouth crushed my finger. Pappy walked over with two screwdrivers and pried the jaws apart, freeing my finger.

With a sly look, Pappy asked, “What did you go and do that fer? What did you think was going to happen?” I shrugged, but I wanted to tell him that I thought fish heads wouldn’t have the strength to fight back.

My grandfather fished all year long and stored all our catches in a large chest freezer. In the early fall, he would have a big fish fry that was more of a celebration of life than a meal. My Uncle Henry would hook up his propane fryer and it seemed like the entire town ofPorterdalewould come out. We would all sit under the large pecan trees at my uncle’s house and enjoy hot fish in the cool shade.

Uncle Henry was a big man who loved to show off his strength. After the feeding frenzy subsided, he would go to his barn and bring out his relics of brawn. He had two large semicircle magnets that clamped tightly together. He would pass them around and challenge all the men to try pulling them apart. Every man there would strain, twist, and pull against the magnets until someone would utter the words Henry longed to hear, “I don’t think those things can come apart.”

That was always Uncle Henry’s cue. He would take the magnets and say, “Watch this.” Each of his large hands would wrap around one of the magnets and then this big man would try his best to keep his face from showing any strain as he pulled the magnets apart. He would smile and hold up the separated halves for all to see, and then put them back together with a loud snap. He would hand the magnets over to a challenger for another vain effort, amplifying the magnitude of his feat.

The men’s conversation centered on church life, their hunting dogs, and where the fish were jumping. The women folk took turns cranking the hand-turned ice cream maker while they talked about men, their kids, and where they found the best bargains. We tried to avoid this area, but when the ladies tired of cranking, they would fetch the kids to help with this task. I’m not sure which was worse, the pain in my arm as I cranked the handle, or the disappointment of missing the conversations among the men. The joy of finding a ten-dollar sweater for three dollars was not my idea of exciting talk.

Rarely did one of these gatherings end without Pappy getting out his guitar to play hymns. The families would reunite into a large circle as we ate homemade banana ice cream and sang about the “Sweet Bye and Bye.” While the strumming of the guitar followed the tune of the old hymns, Pappy sang in a key that never quite matched. As everyone joined in for this country cantata, voices rang out like clanking keys, but everyone smiled in harmony, unaware of their voices clashing in the air.

As my grandparent’s generation receded into the past, my generation emerged to witness many changes in our American culture. When I was a child, there was no fear of walking down the street at night and violent acts shocked the nation. But asAtlantabecame a city with one of the nation’s highest crime rates, doors became locked in the daytime, and children played under the watchful eyes of parents.

I am thankful I was born on the edge of innocence, and see it as my duty to carry part of it into the next generation. In childhood, I had one foot in the generation of innocence, and in adulthood, the other foot in the receding morality of a post-Christian culture. With gratitude, I remember this era my generation almost missed.

That era in American history may have been forgotten by our modern culture, but I remember and cherish those days. Days when simple pleasures gave me a sweet taste of life. The work was hard, luxuries were few, but people and communities were close. I’m grateful that I lived during a time when I could glimpse the innocence of life my grandparents enjoyed. It continues to live in my heart, and I seek to teach my children how they can carry their part ofAmerica’s innocence into the next generation.

  • Eddie Snipes – 2010






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