Every one of us has had at least one encounter with someone who's a little off-kilter. As my grandmother, Miz Lena, would say, "They's gone uncentered." I knew what she meant. When you're a kid, there's nothing scarier than scary people.
I was 10, living out in the country in a little Middle Tennessee farming town less than 15 miles south of Columbia. There really wasn't a hill, creek, pond, pasture or dirt road I hadn't explored. My dog, Prince, tagged along. When you get way on out there where the pavement ends, onto a hard dirt road, you run across some very different people. Scary people.
The country is like that. The ones living in town are country people, but they live a little more civilized. They might have a small vegetable garden in the backyard, but they buy most of their stuff from the grocery store. They eat at 6 p.m. and place napkins in their laps. There's polite talk around the supper table.
The second rung of country people live over a hill and back off the road — farmers. They grow crops, slaughter hogs, raise chickens and milk cows. They eat when the sun goes down. There's more than plenty for everyone.
A few miles past them, down those hard dirt roads, that's where the scary people live. They're not terribly sociable. They tend to stay put and live their lives off the grid. They eat whatever's available. Their few friends are mostly blood relatives.
The scary people don't like somebody just showing up in the middle of the day unannounced. You may or may not see a "No Trespassing" sign nailed to a fence post, but pretty much everybody knows to stay off their property.
On one of my off-the-paved-road expeditions looking for a new fishing spot, I ran across the Aikens family. They lived in a big house that sat back in there. It was about to fall down. There was a barn a ways from the house. It leaned to the right. There was another small house that kind of matched the barn to the back of the farm just above a creek.
There was a bushel of children and grown-ups all living under one roof at the big house. When you stepped through the front door, you could see the ground through the cracks and a spray of little holes in the creaky hardwood floor. It smelled bad in there.
Once in a while, a raccoon or possum or something else would crawl up under the house. One of the men would shoot it through the floor and send one of the kids to crawl under there and fetch it. That explained the holes in the floor. Supper was served.
A couple of the kids just didn't look right. Their squinty eyes were slanted and rolled back in their bigger-than-normal heads. And they had weird smiles, like the kid who played the banjo in the movie "Deliverance." They gave me the heebie-jeebies. It felt like they were staring at me trying to figure out if I could be eaten. They looked that way at Prince, too.
I made sure to never let them get behind me for fear they might jump me. Prince sensed something about them as well and stayed close by my side.
I had it planned out that if anything went down and if I could make it to the woods, with their weird eyes and those extra-heavy heads, they wouldn't stand a chance of catching me. I figured they'd probably run into a tree.
If it was to be a flat-ground escape, I'd outlast them. I was in better shape. By the time those kids turned 9, they were already smoking cigarettes.
Their parents were just as scary — rotund people on one side of the porch and skin-and-bones family members on the other side. Some of them had teeth. It was dog-eat-dog at supper time, all about who got to the table first and ate the fastest. Nobody said, "Pass the beans, please."
Fat or skinny, they all were country strong, laughed about nothing in particular and did a lot of staring. If they'd been in a photograph standing next to a flying saucer, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to mistake them for space aliens.
Some of the old codgers in town told fishing stories of their youth. You could kind of tell they exaggerated, especially after you heard their tales more than a few times.
It seemed nobody but the storyteller was at the secret fishing hole that day. No witnesses. Or they'd say that someone was there and saw it. It was just too bad that someone passed away several years back. Otherwise, he'd vouch for them.
Still, that got me to thinking. I already had a local reputation for being a pretty good fisherman. If I could just find a couple of those secret fishing spots, I'd land me a big one.
There was one fishing hole that was rumored to be the best in that part of the county. It wasn't a secret spot, but it was impossible to get to. It was right out back of Old Man Aikens' place.
He and his family owned the property on both sides of the creek. Visitors, much less fishermen, were not welcome. They'd say, "Ain't no fish big enough fer to go messin' around out there by the Aikens place." They had stories about the old man. The one story that went around was that he got run over when he was a boy and never came all the way back. They said his head injuries were so severe that he became "kinely petarded."
Allegedly, he caught some fellow sneaking around out back. Naked as a blue jay with just his boots on and a big hammer in his hand, Old Man Aikens ran the man down the road for trespassing on his property. Word got around. From then on, everybody knew better than to set foot on Aikens land.
The people in the big house told me that I'd need to get permission to fish out there from "Daddy." They told me to "go on back and ask him." Then they all started laughing. It wasn't happy laughter. It was more like "I dare you" laughter.
Prince and I started down the path. I got to thinking that maybe I should forget the whole thing. There were already plenty of fishing spots around.
Then I had visions of me pulling one big fish after another out of his creek. They'd probably thumb-tack a picture of me holding up my prize fish on the corkboard behind the cash register at Whiteside Drug Store. I could just hear Mr. Jenkins and all the other old-timers telling fabulous stories about my fishing prowess. I'd be legendary.
Prince and I kept walking.
I took a few more steps forward and looked up. There he was. He was too close for me to turn and run. I looked to see if he had a hammer in his hand. He didn't. I froze. Prince, too. I hollered out, "They told me to come ask you if I could fish your creek." He didn't say anything but waved me on down. I walked up to him.
I couldn't believe he was smiling. He was a little unshaven man and, to my relief, was fully clothed. He bent down and started petting Prince. Prince seemed apprehensive till I telepathically assured him that he was safe. We communicated that way. All 10-year-olds do that with their dogs. I was kind of holding my breath.
Old Man Aikens, still crouched and rubbing on Prince, said, "Shore yuh can fish out back, little buddy. All anybody's got tuh do is tuh just ask. That's all." There it was. All he had was his little piece of land and his pride and a simple request for good manners from others.
I fished out there a few times and caught a couple of big ones. I kept it to myself. Anytime I went out there, I made it a point to ask permission from Old Man Aikens. He always said yes. I don't know what it was, but I didn't want to appear to be taking advantage of the situation, and I stopped going out there.
No sense in wearing out my welcome. I was hoping that Old Man Aikens took notice of my good manners.
Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is now available in a limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcover. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.