CATFISH AND THE SNAPPER
It’s not so rare to see a catfish and a snapper in the same day on the same trip. Let me explain. I’d left Virginia Beach after four days of submarine reunion with about a hundred old guys like me. Many had their wives with them, some brought along their kids and grandchildren. What a crowd. If you talked to the submarine guy you had to include the whole damned family. Four days of meeting or dodging each other was about all I needed to satisfy my nostalgic needs for another few years. So after the good-bye breakfast on Sunday morning I headed out of town toward the south and west on U.S. 17. My intended destination was Cherry Point, North Carolina.
Highway 17 is the major coastal byway for most of the southeast United States. It has been used for many years until Interstate 95 was built. I’ve used 17 more than most since I was stationed in the Tidewater area of Virginia and commuting to Boston on long weekends. Route 17 connected with route 301 in rural parts and 301 made up with route 40 near Baltimore. From there to Wilmington and the Jersey Turnpike up to the George Washington Bridge. I recall a wild ride in my brand new 1960 SAAB from Hampton, Virginia to the George Washington Bridge after 9 o’clock one evening. It took me 6 hours point to point. I never got out of the car and never dropped below 84 miles per hour except for traffic lights or toll booths. Highway 17 has always been a part of my path. Yesterday I was on 17 fifty five years later and enjoying the scenery and the motion as much as ever.
From just south of Norfolk the highway passes through the Great Dismal Swamp and the territory is marked by thick growths of hardwoods and pines. There are lush stands of trees forming long lines along the road. They form a barrier between civilization and a dark world of deafening silence. Murky water covers the roots of the trees hiding treacherous creatures and root systems that block attempts to explore easily. In the drier spots kudzu grows tall to cover the lower halves of the tree forms. The vines fill the negative space with light green foliage in ways both inviting and forbidding. From a distance the scene is lovely but the closer one gets to the land the more sinister it becomes. The dark interior of the swampy area conceals creatures and grasping tree roots that await the recreational visitor. I have pushed a boat through this type of landscape and I know the beauty and terror that exist there. I encountered a four foot long cottonmouth when I was much younger and in the company of friends while we were exploring the northern reaches of the Dismal Swamp in Virginia. I am in no rush to go back into the swamp.
This is the scene as I drove the highway yesterday in North Carolina just south of Elizabeth City. This portion of 17 is a divided highway with four lanes. I was taking my time doing 55 in a 65. A small billboard caught my eye: “Home of Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter” and a picture of a ballplayer throwing a ball. It took me about 3 seconds to decide that I was in no rush and I had lots of time before checking into my destination. I may as well take a small detour and check out one of the best baseball pitchers I’ve ever seen. I could smell the dust of the diamond and the hear the crowd. Besides I needed a break and maybe I could pretend to drink an “RC” cola and eat a moon-pie.
The turn off is an acute right turn onto Church Street which runs immediately into Hertford, North Carolina. Hertford is where Jim “Catfish” Hunter was born and died. He lived for 53 years before succumbing to ALS in 1999. During his life he was a dominant pitcher in major league baseball. His best pitch was a fastball. He had pinpoint accuracy and batters had to outguess “Catfish” in order to catch up to the ball and hit it. He was such a phenom that he was signed to a major league contract at the age of 17. When he graduated high school at 19 years old he went directly to the “bigs”; no minor league pitching for him.
I enjoyed taking an hour or so break from the road to investigate Jim Hunter’s hometown. I stopped at his grave site and I went to where he played ball for Perquimans County High School. I walked onto the ball field and stepped out onto the diamond. I saw the field was kept immaculate and that there was a professional quality about it; all the indications of a monument to a great ballplayer and a town fully invested in baseball. I walked around the mound and stood behind it to get a feel of this hallowed place. I could feel it. This was an experience that touched home. I was a good pitcher during my high school years and this all felt so damned good. I wanted to stand on the mound and go into a windup or a stretch but the pristine condition of everything suggested I not put my feet on that hill of dirt that was so carefully groomed for someone greater than I.
A few hours down the road I was getting closer to the inner banks portion of the coast and thinking about whether I should be getting something to eat or driving another hour to Cherry Point. This part of 17 was two lane and still out of sight of many structures. A few houses lined the highway but still not more than one one or two in a mile stretch. The traffic was very light; I was the only car in sight. Up ahead I saw a lump in the middle of the opposite travel lane. It was a large snapping turtle crossing toward my lane so I slowed and carefully steered clear of it. I wasn’t sure if it was moving or just lying in the road. I checked the rear view mirror but it wasn’t obvious what it was up to. I saw traffic approaching from the opposite direction and now I began to worry about the turtle’s safety.
I found a driveway in which to make a U-turn and I reversed direction. I found the snapper still moving across the highway but by now it was on the center stripe. He was fully engaged in putting one foot in front of the other as turtles do, moving slowly but steadily in a direct line. The turtle was definitely heading across the road. I have a bit of experience helping snappers cross roads. They can be quite aggressive as well as fast a lightening when harassed. Plus their neck are very long and I believe they can reach their back legs with those powerful finger-removing jaws. My mind was formulating a method of rescue as I pulled up to the turtle and parked the SAAB on the shoulder. I put on the emergency flasher and left the car there. Another automobile was coming from the north and several more were approaching from the south. This was not going to be easy to watch. The turtle seemed to be lacking in concern. I had it all apparently.
The sudden upsurge in traffic was my fault it seemed and this tension was making me cringe. All I could do was stand on the shoulder next to my car and whistle “Dixie”. The cars passed harmlessly. I lost sight of the turtle in the long grass on the other side of the road. The turtle made it to safety and I stayed at my post for a few minutes longer than necessary. I let the scene replay a few more times before looking up and down the road wondering about the absence of cars now that the excitement was over. Oh, well. That turtle didn’t need me around at all. It did alright in spite of my endeavor to do a good deed.
I got back into my car and again reversed direction. As I rolled on down the road I reflected on a fastball pitcher and a slow walking denizen. A catfish and a snapper. Both esteemed in my world. Both had joined me on this trip. I felt my hunger rising up so I got back to the business of driving. The day was beginning to get away.
G. M. Goodwin
4 May 2015