Years ago, there was a time when I wanted little to do with Thanksgiving Thursdays. (You should know, this was when I was eleven and twelve and thirteen, the idiot years for most boys.) Back then, Thanksgiving Thursdays meant strange food I had no interest in eating—gummy yams coated with toasted marshmallows, Jello molds encasing hunks of fruit in suspended animation, the kinds of dishes that appeared only once a year. There were odd Thursday football games I had no interest in watching. (Lions and Bengals and Bears, oh my.) Relatives I had no interest in talking to, semi-strangers who asked me probing, uncomfortable questions, like when was my voice going to change or why was I not nicer to my little sister. During those years, Thanksgiving Thursday was a time to suffer through. However, the day after was the day to live for.
Those years, the Friday after Thanksgiving belonged to me and the Old Man. Early on Friday morning, he would crack open the tailgate of the white Ford Fairlane wagon and lower the back seats and make room for the jon boat. The Ford was just wide enough to accommodate the aluminum boat, an out-of-character splurge from Sears that the Old Man bought one summer. The boat already had an impressive collection of scratches and dents, battle scars from trips up and down Black River. The river’s cola-colored water hid most things that could ding a Sears Roebuck jon boat, but that boat was, to me, damn near indestructible. It could take anything the river dished out. When he bought the boat, the Old Man also purchased a little three-and-a-half-horse Sears outboard, just enough power to motor upstream against the syrup-slow current of the river.
The Old Man took care of everything on the Friday after Thanksgiving. He packed a Styrofoam cooler with drinks, pulled a wooden paddle from a nail in the shed, tucked the small motor among some life jackets in the floor of the jon boat. The last thing he always grabbed was a plastic sandwich bag full of spare shear pins to repair the prop on the motor. Heading onto Black River without a way to fix a busted prop was stupidity of Biblical proportions. The odds of shearing a propeller pin were about the same as the sun rising every morning.
Back then, I liked to think it was all about me, that the Old Man took us on the river because he wanted to treat me. Looking back, I know I was dead wrong. Setting out for the river was his way of giving my mother a break. She’d spent the previous day single-handedly cooking for all of us—the family and the band of those semi-strangers with all their questions. She had coaxed a turkey into perfection in an oven with a seventy-five-degree margin of error. She had uncapped the Mason jars of summer vegetables and created casseroles that tasted like July. She had earned a break. She probably liked the Friday after Thanksgiving as much as I did.
On the water, sliding around the bends I had counted heading upstream, there was nothing in the known world to worry about. The only thing the Old Man and I had on our minds was how quiet moving water could actually be, how warm a November Friday could feel on your shoulders, how full you could get on a pound of bacon. —Scott Gould
We always put in at Scout Cabin and motored upstream. (You never motored downstream. You wanted to be able to drift home in case of trouble, in case you had forgotten your baggie of shear pins.) That time of November, the water was usually low in its banks, so low that in some places, we might have to jump out and tug the jon boat over a downed tree or strainer of branches. The Old Man told me to count the number of bends we puttered around. Every trip, he made sure to remind me that was how folks on the river plotted their location—by the number of turns. You might meet a fishing buddy on the seventh bend upstream from Scout Cabin. You might camp a dozen bends downstream from Baker’s Bridge. Distance became something different on the river. Distance became a shape.
Three bends, and I usually had my shirt off. Thanksgivings in the Lowcountry of South Carolina were always warm and muggy with thick fall air. I don’t remember ever shivering on Thanksgiving. What I do recall is the sun breaking warm through the cypress and leafless hardwoods while we motored upriver, looking for a place to cook the bacon.
Because those were the provisions for the Friday after Thanksgiving. We ate bacon. Lots of bacon. Once we found a ribbon of white sand wide enough to slide the boat, we built a fire. The Old Man pulled an unopened package from the cooler, and for the next hour we ate bacon straight out of the cast-iron frying pan. Every so often, we might put a few strips between a couple of pieces of white bread, but what I remember most is plain bacon, right out of the grease. Those meals on the sandbars will probably shave years off my life in the final tally. I’m okay with that.
Once the fire was out and the bacon grease buried in the swamp, we pointed the jon boat downstream, toward Scout Cabin. The motor was up, safe from the drowned stumps under the brown water. The only thing we had to depend on was the steady current urging us toward the coast.
I wish I had the literary skills to describe what it was like to lie back in an aluminum jon boat and let the silky movement of water take over your life for a couple of hours. When I recall those times now, the feeling that washes over me is nostalgia. I know that. But back then, when I was in those idiot years, it was something different. I think it was something akin to freedom. On the water, sliding around the bends I had counted heading upstream, there was nothing in the known world to worry about. The only thing the Old Man and I had on our minds was how quiet moving water could actually be, how warm a November Friday could feel on your shoulders, how full you could get on a pound of bacon.
The boat always brought us home. Now, the Old Man is closer to ninety than he is to eighty. The jon boat has some years on it, too. It sits in his backyard, still. Over the years, it’s been bent by falling trees and straightened by hand. It’s been patched and caulked. Dented and gouged. But boat is still around. These days, during Thanksgiving dinners at the Old Man’s house, while I’m picking around the fruit in the Jello mold, I look out the window and see it there, propped among the trees, waiting for another Friday after.
For more from local author and writer Scott Gould, visit scottgouldwriter.com