Grandpa’s Fishcamp: Part 2

Source: Ma Fisk [Lola Jordan], ‘”Grandpa’s Fishcamp: Part 2,’” Illinois Sports Outdoors (March 1997), page 16.

[page 16]

It’s hard to believe that 70 years have past since those sweet days of summer-long vacations spent with Grandpa and Grandma along the Kankakee River. I close my eyes and we are all there together, Grandpa and Grandma Mattocks and us four granddaughters. The Kankakee blesses two states with clean, cool waters and emerald hardwood bottomlands. In Indiana, the main channel of the river was dredged and straightened, stirring the mud and tempers of those of those downstream in Illinois for years. Indiana’s monumental task resulted in deep sloughs and drainage canals for fish and waterfowl and a river with a unique character. In the 1920’s, it all seemed like a paradise to us.

Grandpa always picked a new campsite for us each summer. One particular time we had a small one-room cottage located on a narrow strip of land between the river and the fenced-in farmland beyond. There was no real road to the cabin, neither was there a gate for the fence. The farm field beyond the fence was off-limits, forbidden territory, despite the fact that the farmer had built a stile across the fence directly in front of our cabin. The bright galvanized wire and rugged steps of the stiles were always tempting us to cross them.

“‘You must not go over the stile or beyond the fence!’” Grandma told us. She didn’t really tell us why, but we could feel that somehow this area concealed dangers just as real as the swift waters of the river. Grandma would let us play on the steps, but to cross them into the cornfield beyond was forbidden. To four adventurous girls, this was hard to understand. Before the summer was over, we would see things more clearly. But as far as we could see right then, our little corner of the world was a safe and perfect place.

Although our cabin was plain and unpainted, not fancy, it served our needs. I’ve often wondered about the origin of these cottages that sometimes became our summer home. I suspect these simple shelters were built to accommodate workers dredging and cleaning the river.

Outside we always had awnings of canvas to shelter our table and benches, as well as a covered workplace and other necessary conveniences. No indoor plumbing, of course, but if there was no well, Grandpa would simply drive a shallow well for an outdoor pump.

Once our garden was planted, Grandpa’s main job was fishing, but he also was quite a cook! At least the fish thought he was! Grandpa had a big iron kettle hanging over the cooking fire grates. Grandma always did the real cooking, so we girls thought it was pretty amusing when Grandpa would mix and cook the doughballs he used as bait for his trotlines. He told us he had a secret recipe, “‘tough and tasty!’” He must have been right, because it seemed we always had plenty of fish. Too bad he didn’t give us the secret to pass along!

As the oldest, I had to help Grandpa run the lines. The river was swift so handling the boat was difficult. This was the most exciting part of my day. It was nice to feel that my little help with a paddle was needed. And I really liked working with the fishing lines, grasping them and feeling then [sic] shake. You knew right away you had at least one fish.

Our catch was tossed in a tub of water in the boat — no live wells back then. When we returned to camp, all the live fish went into a live-box. The one’s that were not so lively were quickly cleaned and became our next big meal.

We didn’t need newspapers or radio weather reports to tell what was going on in our little world. Living under the sky each day kept us in touch with all we needed to know. But there was one frightening afternoon when a fast-moving thunderstorm came bursting in to shake up our peaceful existence. And the danger touched us in an unexpected way!

“‘Hurry! Hurry, get inside! Inside, everyone!’‘” Grandpa called! As we all scrambled into the tiny cabin, Grandma remembered she had left dishtowels hanging to dry on the wire fence by the stile. Out the door she rushed to gather then [sic] up before they were blown far out into the cornfield beyond. Just as she grabbed them, a huge bolt of lightning struck, knocking her to the ground! It felt as if the lightning bolt had pierced all our hearts and souls as we watched through the open cabin door.

But even before Grandpa could fly to her side, magically Grandma scrambled to her feet, clutching the dishtowels. Grandpa gathered her in his arms and helped her inside, with all of us girls still screaming and crying, but now bursting with joy. All that our dear Grandmother had to show for her close encounter was singed hair on the front of her head. We were lucky that day and thankful that Grandma survived to supervise many more years of camping. And when Grandma warned us of danger, we never again questioned her judgement [sic].

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