This is redneckville. People are shot here; I know because a man is holding a gun, and it looks like he’s pointing it at me. A sillouette. He’s in the cab of his pickup truck; I am behind him. A long hunting rifle – a scope that can kill animals, that can kill me – the barrel points out the window. He has a hat on – a ballcap. I can’t see his face, but when I run up on him to ask him to help portage our boats, he points the gun out the window. No face, but to me, from this distance, with this vantage point, with this silouette of a man jamming a gun out the window, I am terrified. An angry face I see in my mind. Redneckville + gun + scope + he pointed it out the window right when I ran up on him = Fear = Oh my god, this guy is going to shoot me. = I need to get out of here.
“No need for that,” I say… scared. “I’m just… I just wanted to see if you could help me move my boats.”
He’s looking into the rearview mirror, it seems. He has seen me and deemed me a nuissance or a threat or something “he just don’ wanna deal with ‘roun’ these parts. We don’ take kindly to strangers.” He spits chaw on the ground without spitting. I can see, swear I can see him looking at me through the rearview mirror when I turn around and walk the other way. I’m angry now. Fucking rednecks, I think. I swear to god what is the deal with them. Small town bullshit. I mean, dude, I just wanted help. You pull out a FUCKING GUNNNN!!! For what? For asking questions! For not knowing me? “Duuuuuhhh, oohhhh, I’m just a dumbass redneck and dis here guy run up on me an’ I tink duh best ting id too pull duh gun out, duhhhhhhhhhhh.” I’m so mad, uncontrolably mad. Every beef I’ve ever had with small-town, isolationist mentality surfaces: clinging to guns, clinging to mistrust, clinging to stupidity. Someone, afterall, just pointed a gun at me. I didn’t deserve that; no one does. F-ing rednecks.
I walk to the west side of the portage point. It’s a no go. We can’t do it. Tons of brush, tons of rocks. Phillip would complain so much if we had to carry these boats over this mess, I think. I just got a goddamn gun pointed at me, I think. I don’t think I’ve ever been so mad in all my life. I feel sad at the experience now, sad at the mistrust. I feel angry and disappointed I’ll have to walk all the way back to Phillip and tell him we can’t portage. He will be right, you know. He wanted just to paddle on and not worry about the portage. Now he will say I’ve blown 30 minutes scouting when “You knew!” he will say “there was no way we were going to be able to transfer all this gear over that road!” I will feel stupid and have to admit he was right all because some redneck who had a pickup truck couldn’t be nice enough to move our boats .8 miles across a damn bottleneck and chose instead to point a goddamn gun at me for wanting to walk up to his window and ask a damn question.
I’m almost to Phillip now. Up this ramp, over the bank and “I’m sorry, you’re right, let’s get goin’, it was worth a shot though, wasn’t it?” He will nod yes with his head, but he will think no in his heart. We will load the boats in silence and launch and Phil will be smug and right, and I’ll feel bad for “wasting time.”
A car. A rumbling in the distance. Gravel. Dust. It’s the redneck. This mother f—-er stops and I’m giving him a piece of my mind, I think.
I eyeball him. I am right, I think. Gun or no, I am right and you can go to hell! “Howdy,” I say as smugly and rightly as I can.
“Hi,” he says not looking like he’s going to pull a gun out and try to intimidate me like he did the last time.
What the hell, I am thinking. This guy just threatened my life, now he’s gonna pull up on me as if nothing. Fuck that! He’s not getting away with that. I bring the issue right out into the open: “Sooooo, you gonna point that gun at me again?”
“I ran up on ya back there and you pointed the gun out the window like you were trying to scare me off. You don’t need to do that you know. Some people just want help. Not everyone is a nuisance or someone that’s tryin’ to kill ya.”
“No…” He looks genuinely hurt, and I feel the first rumblings of feeling like a complete and total dumbass. “No,” he continues, “I was cleanin’ that gun. I don’ think I ever sawya. I’m sorry. Did I scare you? No, that’s my new hunting rifle…” He turns to the story behind the gun – it’s the only safe ground for an awkward moment. “I got that rifle for my gran’son and I had it on the dash and was just cleanin’ it; I swear I didn’t see ya.”
I feel incredibly stupid. “I’m sorry myself,” I say. “From where I was standing, it looked like I ran up to your cab from the back and you pointed the gun out the window…”
“Naw, nawww, naw,” genuinely hurt.
We have an uneasy peace now. The misunderstanding has been sorted out, but the stone, that pit in your stomach that is left after all your rage and hurt and pain have subsided, is floating around under my solar plexus. He must feel it too, I think. He must know how pissed off I must have been and what I must have thought about him and his town. He must feel bad about my misjudgment. Now, he must just want to help.
“How can I help you?” he says.
“I’m just tryin’ to portage…”
“Portage your boats!” he affirms. Tony, his name, tells me that I’m only the eightieth kayaker to try and portage that bottleneck, that it’s practically world-famous for that, and that that’s the first thing he should have thought of when he saw me, and that he’s sorry. I say I’m sorry about fifty more times and accept his invitation to get in the cab, where the rifle sits ominously on the dashboard, and drive to Phillip.
Phillip looks semi-surprised to see me there in the passenger side of a pickup. He wished, secretly, for my insistence on finding a way to portage to be in vain. I was here now; I was right, sort of; and, it was time to find a way to drive one mile to save twenty miles.
Tony hops out of the truck and surveys the boats. “Ahhhh,” he says. “Inflatables. Ain’t never seen that.” He has an honest and quiet gait. I notice he has an inhaler instead of a phone in his cell phone holster.
“You got athsma?” I ask, trying to slather on some sense of common ground over this still uneasy peace.
“I do too.”
“It bother ya much?”
“Not much. I was up aroun’ (I’m talking southern again.) the Iowa border, an’ it got real bad there, not so much here.”
“Yeah, I gotta whole host of ailments. Pulmonary Fibrosis id one of ‘em.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Phil and I say simultaneously.
Tony decides he’s going to drive back and get his boat trailer because he “think [he] gotta empty wun, an’ I also gotta few watermelons I wanna giv’ yuh.”
What a cool guy, I think. And what a moron I feel.
Tony makes good on his watermelon promise. “You just cut duh hart out uvit,” he says. “Don’ even worrih ‘bout dem seeds.” The heart of the watermelon is pink and juicy and just about the most delicious damn think I’ve ever had in my life (Yes, I know I’ve said that before J.). Tony says it’s okay to leave the rest for the flies, helps us load our boats on his trailer, and says he’s going to drive us around town because “you cant leave Tiptonville, KY without learning a lil bit ‘bout duh history of dese parts.”
During the ride into town (where he’ll not only help us cut off those pesky 20 miles around what is known as Kentucky Bend but also 8 more by taking us to the Tiptonville boat launch – there indeed was no viable put-in point directly across the bottleneck – Phillip was right about that), Tony continually asks if we “need anything?” “Cigarettes, supplies, anything?”
“No,” I say watching him smoke his Pall Malls one after the other secretly wishing he would stop because though we are new friends, we’re still friends, and I really don’t want to watch Pulmonary Fibrosis consume his lungs.
Tony takes us to Reelfoot Lake, formed by the Great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. He says there was an old Chickasaw Indian chief with a clubfoot who fell in love with a Choctaw princess down south. When her love was denied to him, he stomped his foot causing the great earthquake. He smiles because the legend is good and can tell I like the story. He points out the Cyprus trees in the lake and I think they’re beautiful. Phil snaps some photos, and we’re off to the boat launch.
The boat launch is at Mile Marker 873. Tony helped us cut 27 miles and stoked my mental fires about the history of the area with his stories of the clubfooted chief, the greatest earthquake in U.S. history, and the Battle of Island Number Ten where 700 Confederate soldiers held off 15,000 Union soldiers. 300, anyone?
An old farmer with no teeth has parked in front of the boat launch. I think he sees that we want to get down there but chooses to walk down to the riverfront to watch the current. Fucking red…, I start thinking and stop myself. I’ve already done this, I think. I’ve already misperceived today; I don’t want to do it again. Maybe he’s just old and doesn’t realize we’re there, I think. Tony isn’t having any of it. He rips the boat trailer around the guy in reverse and deftly steers the trailer over young saplings parking it not 12 inches from the water. Damn, I think.
The old farmer walks up the hill not giving us a second glance. He has been bested, I think. Tony didn’t get mad at him, challenge him, and tell him to move out of the way. He just went around him. Maybe that’s what I need to do – not get mad at people. Go around them. Not take them personally. Because, as with the case of Tony, I am wrong many times. I don’t see things as they really are. I said a small blessing for the skinny, old farmer with no teeth and wished him well. Tony had taught me to do that without saying a word.
Phillip and I are good at offloading things now, and have the boats packed and ready to go at the water’s edge before Tony can finish half of his new cigarette. All we can do now is talk. Tony tells us that he left home when he was 18. He worked in the barge trade on the Ohio River working his way up to Steersman. When we tell him about The Hitchhiking Movie, he says he hitched out to California and got stuck in Arizona. He noticed a man walking through the middle of the desert and decided to follow him. The man was a Native American going to see his tribe. Tony stayed with the tribe drinking his fill of peyote and spending his days in sweat lodges until he wore out his welcome. He hitched on to California where he stayed in Timothy Leary’s compound and had “all the windowpane [he] could handle.”
I ask him what windowpane is and Phillip (Mr. I Grew Up Seventh Day Adventist) knows that it’s LSD. Misperceptions; things are not what they seem: Phil knows LSD, I know portages and saving time, Tony is not a redneck. He is a world traveler who tells us that the Mississippi River is life, “a source of life” he says. “I don’t just fish for fishing,” he says. “I fish for meat; it feeds my family. You’ve got to respect life; you’ve got to know that the Mississippi can take your life. I seen people live on this river for 20 years and die because they get too cocky. You don’ want that; you gotta respect life.”
I feel extremely stupid now. This “redneck” has outschooled me and outclassed me. I thought he was going to kill me and now he teaches me about decency having given me 3 new watermelons out of his garden as well as sacks of apples and pears from his orchards.
Boy do I feel dumb, I think again and then stop myself. Misunderstandings are blessings, I think. We might never have had this special moment had I not got so angry. Without these levels of embarrassment and humiliation, I would never have got the lesson that the world needs so dearly: Things are not what they seem.
Tony ends the conversation and gives me his phone number. “I’m takin’ care of my grandson,” he says, and I wonder where the father is but then thank god that Tony’s raising the boy instead of his deadbeat dad. I wish Tony could be my father, I think.
Tony invites me to go catfishing next year, and I all but take him up on it. There is much more I need to learn about respecting the Mississippi River as a source of life. There is much I have learned today about respecting people. “You’re not always right about everybody,” Tony says without saying it as he gets into the truck. “You have much to learn,” he says after he is gone.
And I do have much to learn, for today I have misperceived. And in the future I hope I can forever be pleasantly wrong.
Thank you, Tony, for teaching me today. I hope one day, I can perceive things as you do where one can find the respect first, and the answers to his questions later.