The Observer spent a good part of last week in Mayflower, that sleepy little burg to our north that we knew mostly as the place where we turn to get to our favorite Halloweentime pumpkin patch until an ExxonMobil pipeline burst there and made a hell of a mess on the Friday before Easter.
Mayflower, we only knew a bit. When it comes to Lake Conway, though — the lake threatened by the spill — The Observer's memory hole is a little deeper. When Yours Truly was a lad, Ma and Pa owned a fishing cabin on that lake, up on the north end.
Pa was a consummate stalker of anything with fins. And Ma no slouch. Ma and Pa, when they were quite a bit younger than their boy is now, bought a pie-shaped lot on the water — a lot so vine-choked that you couldn't actually see the water until we cleared the place over the course of several very long weekends with the help of chainsaws, heavy gloves, anyone The Observer's father could shanghai into helping us with an IOU. of heaping plates of fried fish and several Army-surplus machetes.
All through The Observer's childhood, the place took shape: first the ramshackle fishing cabin with the long, screened porch, then the boat dock that stretched 100 feet through the trees, over the mucky shoreline and out into the lake, with lights on poles and chicken wire all along the rail, lest one of us step on one of Lake Conway's storied, jumbo-sized cottonmouths while night fishing. At least a few weekends a month until they sold the place just before The Observer turned 12, we would load up and go there, spending the weekend staring at bobbers and waiting for the tug of a rainbow-colored, palm-sized bream. No TV, no air conditioner, just the radio and each other.
Then, as now, Lake Conway was too muddy for swimming or skiing, jammed with logs and slick black stumps left over from the vast lowland the water swallowed when the lake was built. In those days, there was a restriction on the size of boat motors, 10-horse or less, which meant it was the domain of flatbottoms and chugging outboards. Those restrictions have since been lifted, we heard from one resident, so now you'll see the high-dollar bass rigs zooming over the water, barely seeming to touch. As someone who has been aboard when our boat ran afoul of a submerged stump, The Observer told that resident: the speed demons can go right the hell on with their bad selves. We'd be fine with the 10-horse, thank you very much. Best not to get in too big of a hurry when fishing, anyway. You're at the mercy of the fish, and they seem to love taunting the impatient.
Some of The Observer's best memories orbit around the shore of that no-good-for-swimming lake: Hearing our first screech owl. Holding the flashlight so our dear, departed Dad could run trotlines in the dark, pulling up monstrous blue channel cats and dropping them flopping on the floor of the boat. The plowed field a half-mile from our cabin where we used to hunt arrowheads. Sleeping on the porch in the hot summer dark, listening to cicadas and geese on the lake. The time they drained Lake Conway and we managed to fall into mud so deep that The Observer sank to his waist, with much pulling and laughing required to free us, but — sadly — not our shoes or pants. The time the lake froze. The time The Observer's baby brother almost drowned. The time we went to the far shore to run a trotline, leaving our beloved white shepherd, Silver, on the dock, only to have him swim after us, The Boy Observer nervously waiting for him to turn back and him refusing, keeping on, swimming further and further into the channel until Dad turned back for him, hauling the dog, soaked and exhausted, over the side of the boat. The time we lived in the cabin, driving back and forth to Little Rock for work and school, after our house burned when we were in the fourth grade.
A thousand memories in that muddy water. Which is what makes the spill over near Mayflower so distressing. They say they have it contained. They say the oil has not made it to the main body of the lake. They say they will clean it up. The Observer can only hope.