My uncle Norten, older brother of my father, passed away last week. He lacked only a few months reaching 90 years of age. Over the years, many of my readers got to know him from book signings, radio programs, speaking engagements, interpretive float trips, and fishing trips. He was a magnetic personality, and a tremendously gifted fisherman, outdoorsman and guide. He was always happy, and you couldn’t be around him without being happy. He left everyone with a smile, feeling they had met someone special. He never had much money, but was constantly giving away produce from his garden, and giving away tons of fish over the years to those who had none. His highest fee ever, as a fishing guide, was 75 dollars per day for two fishermen on his last trip in 2010. Certainly, money was way down the list of things important to him.
He will be buried in a small country cemetery north of Houston, Mo., only a short distance from the Big Piney River where he was born and raised, interred near his mother and father. His funeral service will be held on Friday, February 22 at 11 a.m. at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church on D Highway north of Bolivar. A visitation service will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday evening at the Pitts Funeral Home chapel in Bolivar. I have wondered how to make this week’s column a final tribute to him, and decided to use his words to do it. The following therefore is a selection of paragraphs from his book, “Ridge-Runner, From the Big Piney to the Battle of the Bulge.”
Page 1... “I was born when the Big Piney River was at its prettiest, during the peak of the fall foliage in October of 1923. Folks said the colors were prime then, the river full and flowing and the air crisp just after a heavy frost. I don’t remember a thing about, but I remember everything that has happened since. Maybe not exactly, but pretty close. I couldn’t have picked a better place to have been born…nor a better time. When I was about four years old, Pop took me down to the river and baited a willow pole with a minnow and let me hold it. A bass darn near pulled me in. Pop helped me land it and right then and there I knew what was important in life and what wasn’t.
I don’t why I had such a penchant for getting in trouble but I was fascinated by everything, and wanted to do everything Pop did. Take for instance the time I saw him sharpen his axe with a file and make a little pile of shavings. He showed me and Zodie how you could burn those metal shavings with a match, and they’d burn in a bright, sparkling white flash. I was so fascinated with that I couldn’t wait to try it myself. So when Pop was away I found his file and filed away about a quarter-inch of his axe blade just to have shavings to light. I heard him out there the next morning trying to figure out what had happened to his axe. And as smart as Pop was, he never figured everything out, thank goodness.
Page 2 of 5 - Usually he did though. There was the time when he took a good butcher knife and turned it into a hacksaw by filing notches in the blade. He used it to cut nails off and it really worked. I couldn’t wait to try that for myself so I got a regular kitchen butter knife and filed notches in the blade just like Pop had done. But I didn’t have any nails to practice on. Then I found the one on the backside of the back door, which held on a large wooden spool as a door handle. Those big spools which held sewing thread, made good door handles, all you had to do was drive a spike nail through the hole and into the door.
My knife-turned-hacksaw worked well enough to cut that nail almost through, and then I had to quit ‘cause Pop came home. It didn’t break completely off until the middle of the night when Pop had to go to the outhouse real bad and the nail snapped. He couldn’t get the door open with the handle broke off and I heard him down there cussin’ and rantin’ and ravin’, and I heard my named mixed in with it. I knew he wouldn’t climb up there in the loft to whomp me in the middle of the night, but I was out of the house before it got daylight the next day and didn’t come in until dark!
Page iv... It was December of 1944. Our trip to Paris for rest and relaxation had been cut short for some reason and we had been hurried to a place known as Bastogne, Belgium. I had never heard of it. Probably just another place to sit and wait, like Holland had been in the few days I had been there. Most of us were green recruits just arriving and now they were sending us somewhere important for some reason. There were more than 11,000 of us…Screamin’ Eagles…the 101st Airborne.
The pine woods around us looked something like the woods back home. It was peaceful and quiet, and I thought about the flowing waters of the Big Piney River where I had spend my boyhood, hoping I’d see it again. Home seemed so far away. Somewhere along the banks of that beautiful Ozark river Pop was probably stretching furs and Mom was perhaps scolding my youngest brother for bringing chickens into the house. And there were most likely flocks of mallards peacefully dropping out of the skies into the old Mill Pond Eddy on cupped wings.
And suddenly there was the sound of incoming artillery shells, the first I had ever heard, a horrible sound I would soon hear way too much of. It hit not too far away and the forest began to tear apart as more explosions followed. I heard the screams of wounded and dying men, and officers yelling commands. We dug into the ground as we had never dug before and we were scared to death. None of us knew what was coming.
Page 3 of 5 - We were about to confront a massive German offensive in a bloody conflict, which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest and costliest battle of World War II. They would soon call us the Battered Bastards of Bastogne.
Page 254… We were a spiffy looking bunch, the last of what was once the 101st Airborne, marching in the victory parade in New York City. I was marching for so many who had not survived, and so many others marred and crippled for life, marching with pride to let the world know that neither the Germans nor the Japanese could take our freedom. They couldn’t break us, couldn’t defeat us.
I was one of the lucky ones… I came back. I know my mother’s prayers helped, but I also know that there were mothers praying whose sons didn’t come back. I’ll never understand why there were so many men better than me who were amongst them. I have no answers, I only know they cannot be forgotten. They were all heroes, just ordinary, common men who walked the death march at Bataan, who landed at Iwo Jima, who walked from North Africa through Italy, who landed on the beaches at Normandy.
There were heroes in those planes who bombed and strafed the enemy, heroes on ships sunk at sea and at Pearl Harbor. There were heroes left behind on foreign soil who marched with me that day. No, come to think of it, they weren’t ordinary and common, they were America’s very best. I felt them beside me, and I have never forgotten. I pray to God no one ever will.
Page 281… When I first met him I didn’t like him that much because he was a little like an old woman and so particular about everything. But I became his full-time fishing guide for more than 20 years. For someone like me who was trying to turn his life around, Carl Emmick was the perfect fishing partner, a man of high morals and convictions who took it upon himself to teach me the things I didn’t know about getting along in the world. Over the years I learned more from him than anyone I ever knew, about personal hygiene and ordinary etiquette, how to dress, how to deal with people and how to speak properly. I used awful language back then, something I had come by in the service. Mr. Emmick let me know that when I was guiding for him I would refrain from vulgarity, and he let me know when I didn’t use proper English.
Over the years I guided hundreds and hundreds of fishermen, but none like Mr. Emmick. He never called me by my name, he would address me as ‘my boy’.
Page 4 of 5 - “Paddle me over a little closer, my boy,” he would say, or “What lure should I use today my boy?” In time I began to look at Mr. Emmick as a second father.
On our first trip on the Big Piney, he caught a three and a half pound smallmouth on his first half dozen casts, an omen of things to come. On Arkansas’ Crooked Creek, Mr. Emmick and I made our last fishing trip in the early 1970’s. “You know my boy,” he said to me, “I’ve caught some nice bass in my life fishing with you, but I fell short of one goal. I always wanted to catch a five-pound smallmouth and I never did.”
I told him we were still going to have opportunities to get a lot more fish in years to come, but he and I both knew better. And I would have just about given anything to have seen him catch one that size, but five-pound smallmouths are hard to come by. In all my years of guiding on rivers of the Ozarks, I had seen less than ten caught, and half of them came from Norfork and Bull Shoals Lakes rather than the rivers.
But I think maybe God intervenes from time to time when good people get His attention. Mr. Emmick was one of those good people and God was watching and listening that day on Crooked Creek. An hour later, in a swirling, bubbling pothole beneath a shoal, Mr. Emmick made a short cast and watched the line leave his reel against the drag. The water was swift and high and there was no stopping to fight that smallmouth in a gentle spot. We just rode the river and my old friend fought the fish for all he was worth. A quarter-mile or so downstream I got us out of the current and into some slack water and I netted a true five-pound smallmouth if I ever saw one.
The smile on Mr. Emmick’s face was one of the greatest rewards I’ve ever experienced as a guide, but he was done in. I helped him out of the boat in a nice grassy place and he lay back against the bank and admired that big brownie. He asked if I thought it was really a five-pound fish.
“You don’t have to ask me that,” I told him. “You’ve seen enough fish to know a five-pounder…and this one will beat that by several ounces.” The fight made him so weak we stopped to rest awhile, and I could see he was very sick.
“I think that may be my last fish my boy,” he said to me. I carried him to the boat and quickly ran the rest of the river. He slept most of the way back to St. Louis and they admitted him to the hospital, struggling with heart disease. He passed away the next day in his sleep, and I was left with the greatest loss I had ever felt.
Page 5 of 5 - But I figured that he was in heaven, telling his family and old friends about that last smallmouth and all the great fishing trips we had made together. Even today, I can hear him saying…”We had some great times, my boy… we had some great, great times.”
My website is www.larrydablemontoutdoors, and you can e-mail me at email@example.com. Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, mo. 65613. Listen to our outdoorsman’s radio program Sunday at 8:06 a.m on 560 AM, KWTO, or at radiospringfield.com.