You ever see a total stranger and have the words to a song pop in your head? Happened to me recently on the pier at Sunset Beach, N.C.
Mark and I were fishing in June of 2020 about half way out when I first noticed the old gray haired gentlemen twenty yards away. It was75 degrees with a constant warm breeze blowing off the Atlantic and with occasional blistering sun beating down baking us. In spite of the weather, the man wore long jeans, a long sleeve shirt, and one of those floppy hats that keeps the sun off your face, your neck, and everything south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Mark had a new reel and I got it set up with a rig and managed to get a couple of frozen shrimp dislodged from the ice to get him started. A couple of times out of the corner of my eye I saw the old guy catch a small fish. Each time he tossed it into a blue cooler, methodically threaded a worm carefully on his hooks, and re cast. Eventually, the old man wandered down and sat on the bench next to Mark’s wheelchair. We never made eye contact and didn’t speak and Mark continued to fish with no luck.
After about twenty minutes or so, the tip of Mark’s rod dipped and I jumped up to help him set the hook. When I glanced over, the old man’s eyes were beaming and he was nodding his head at us and smiling. The fish was a whiting, about eight inches long and was tangled up in another fisherman’s line. That guy helped me get the lines loose and he ended up with the fish.
After a bit I took off to the bathroom and, even though the old man and I still hadn’t spoken, I felt like he would help Mark if needed. I just got that vibe from him. There was a laid back, I’ve seen it all and it don’t bother me none kind of aura about him.
After I got back, several pelicans started diving for fish a few yards out. I had Mark stand up to watch them. Then I grabbed my camera and tried to take a few shots as they hit the water. The old man watched us, smiled some more, and then broke the silence.
“Wonder what their odds are?” he said.
The old gray haired gentleman had to repeat that sentence three times before I got it. Seems he was speaking with a very heavy accent that I assumed was Charleston area Gullah. He was talking about the pelicans and the odds of them catching a fish. I told him I was wondering the same thing...but that was a lie.
I was thinking about the song, the words, what it might mean today. In 1972 Tom T. Hall was sitting in a lounge in Miami:
...pouring blended whiskey down,
an old grey black gentlemen was cleaning up the lounge.
Uninvited, he sat down and opened up his mind,
about old dogs and children and watermelon wine.
That song has always stuck with me and I did some research. Hall did actually encounter the gentlemen and the conversation the song is based on really happened. He wrote the song the next morning on an air sickness bag flying to a recording session where he recorded it.
No such conversation happened with me and the guy on the pier at Sunset. We kept on fishing and eventually Mark caught another nice whiting. I asked the man if he wanted it. He grinned and accepted it without fanfare.
I wondered what he thought about George Floyd, systemic racism, tearing down monuments, firing Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, canceling Cops and Live PD. Instead of asking, I walked down to the bait shop to get Mark a Coke and me a coffee.
As I sat sipping the coffee, one verse played on a loop in my head:
Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes;
God bless little children while they’re still too young to hate.
There are people in this country who would not see the simple beauty, the bare honesty of this song. Given half a chance they would label it racist, ban it from radio, and like history, rewrite it and make every thing sugar and spice...or their version of it.
This is not a perfect country, some would say far from it, but it is the best this world has to offer. We have a troubled history, so does every single person in this country--that’s part of what makes us, us. I know I’ve done things, thought things, said things in the past that I shouldn’t have. But as I’ve aged I’ve learned that that history, those mistakes, have made me a better person and there are very few of them I’d change.
So do old dogs and children.