Things weren't going awfully well for me. I was a college dropout, and my worldly possessions consisted of $12 and change, an Army surplus sleeping bag and an old suitcase stuffed with dirty clothes and fishing tackle. I was somewhere in northern Florida on a cool, rainy Christmas Eve in 1959, hitchhiking south. The only car that had stopped in more than two hours was full of teenagers, and when I ran toward them they rolled down a window and tossed a firecracker at me. It exploded at my feet. Through the ringing in my ears, I heard them laughing as they sped away.
It was nearly dark when a dilapidated Ford sedan pulled onto the shoulder of the road ahead of me. I approached it warily, until a friendly voice called out, "C'mon, get in, it's wetter'n hell out there!"
"Thanks a lot for stopping," I said as I slammed the door.
"Dump your stuff in back."
December 23, 1985
I did, and then looked at the driver more closely. He was about my age, tall, slender with thick red hair and freckles. He was wearing soiled work clothes.
"You're shiverin'!" he said, smiling at me.
"I thought it would be hot in Florida."
"Not up here, not in December. Where you from?"
"Hawaii. But I've been working up in New York for a while."
"Where you headin'?"
"The fishing. And maybe I can get some kind of job down there."
"Maybe," he said. "Never been that far south myself. But I do like to fish."
He pulled back onto the road, and I sat there watching the country out beyond the windshield wipers. Everything was gray, wet and depressingly flat. The vegetation was unfamiliar. I felt a very long way from home.
"My name's Mel." He held his hand across the seat and I shook it.
"Mike," I said. "Glad to meet you."
"I'm not goin' far," Mel said, words that depressed me so much that my hollow stomach turned over and my head began to ache. "Just on up the road a ways," he continued. "But you're stayin' with us tonight."
"You want to stand out here all night? Hey, don't you know what day this is?"
"Sure is! And I been shoppin'!"
Mel patted a brown paper bag on the seat, then turned on his headlights.
It wasn't more than half an hour to his place, and we talked along the way. He was a repairman, he told me, and he specialized in sporting equipment. He scouted the rural area in which he lived for people with broken guns, fishing reels and outboard motors. He fixed them and took what they could afford to pay. He hunted and fished himself, and his wife grew vegetables and canned them. They had two children.
"I been married three years now," he said, smiling again. "Susan and me are doin' pretty damn good!"
After we left the two-lane, we bounced and skidded a mile or more over a narrow tree-lined dirt road. Mel's house was really just a shack—the sort of place I'd seen in movies like Tobacco Road.
"C'mon in, Mike! Get warm! Eat!"
The place was sparsely furnished but clean. In the living room were a large overstuffed couch, a few wooden chairs, a table for meals and a wood stove. A small Christmas tree with homemade decorations stood against one wall, and a door near the tree led to a bedroom. There was a small kitchen, an even smaller bathroom, and that was it.
Susan, a tall, strong blonde with green eyes, was six or seven months pregnant. I didn't hear her say more than 50 words the whole time I was there, but she seemed pleased that a wet stranger had showed up to spend Christmas Eve. The children, a chubby blonde girl of two and a year-old red-haired boy, were as lovely as any I have ever seen.
I changed clothes in the bathroom and stood by the wood stove to get warm. For dinner we had vegetable soup and lunchmeat sandwiches. "It'll be better tomorrow," Mel said. "You stay and eat with us tomorrow noon, and then I'll drive you on out to the main road. Or you can stay another night if you want to."
"No thanks," I said. "Somebody'll pick me up for sure on Christmas."
After dinner Susan took the kids to the bedroom. "They sleep here on the couch after we go to bed," Mel explained.
Susan sat on the couch and sewed while Mel and I talked about fishing. We had a couple of drinks of straight moonshine that must have been 180 proof, and then I excused myself and took my sleeping bag out to the car. I curled up on the backseat and spent the night pleasantly, rain drumming steadily against the roof. The liquor had completely eliminated my headache.
Mel awakened me early Christmas morning. He was going squirrel hunting with a double-barreled 12-gauge, and he asked me along.
The rain had stopped. The sky was partly cloudy, and it was warmer than it had been the day before. The woods were wet and as green as Hawaii, with many of the trees—cypresses, I thought—draped thickly with Spanish moss.
"Gray squirrels," Mel whispered as we walked quietly along. "There's no better stew!"
Mel was like many people who are more alive while hunting or fishing than they are doing anything else. In an hour and a half he killed five squirrels, and I never saw one of them before he shot. Bent slightly at the waist, eyes searching the woods to either side, he moved silently ahead, with me a few feet behind. Every 10 or 15 minutes he stopped abruptly, his body tensing, and, with a motion too fast to really see, fired his gun. After each shot he ran 30 or 40 yards and picked up a squirrel. He kept them in a game pouch at the back of the old hunting coat he wore. They were fat, well-furred animals, and after the fifth one he asked me if I wanted to try it.
"No thanks," I said.
"Well, then, that'll do. They'll be one fine dinner!"
They did make an excellent stew, served along with homemade bread and vegetables Susan had canned. Presents were opened after the meal. Mel gave Susan a cotton blouse, and she gave him a box of shotgun shells. The little girl got a doll, the boy a set of wooden blocks.
After they had opened their gifts, the girl walked slowly up to me with her hands behind her back, then shyly thrust a small package wrapped in Christmas paper at me. As soon as I took it she ran back to her mother, who patted her head.
My present was a box of a dozen fishhooks.
"You use those down there on the Keys!" Mel said.
When he drove me back out to the paved road, I told him I had never had a better Christmas, and I meant it. When I took my suitcase and sleeping bag out of the car, I left a $10 bill on the seat. Then I headed south with $2 and change, my dirty clothes and the fishing tackle.