The timing couldn’t have been better. It had been a long first semester. The third grade was a lot harder than Billy Conn Stokes had told me. Now both of my regular readers know my friend Billy Conn was one grade ahead of me in school and he kept me informed about what I could expect the next year. Actually, he was two years older, but only one grade ahead. It seems like the first grade caught him by surprise. It occurred to me that if he didn’t start giving me better information, we’d finish the 5th grade together.
Anyway, he had told me that the third grade was a piece of cake and as it turned out, math was not going to be my strong suit. At least it wasn’t if reciting the times tables was an indicator of anything important.
“Yes sir,” I told Rat Gibson, my school bus driver as I got off the bus for the last time until after New Year’s. “School is out and just in the nick of time. I’m sick and tired of times tables and Miss Nettles is sick and tired of me missing 6 times 9.” He just smiled a big old smile and said to tell my uncle and auntie he’d see them Sunday. I nodded and jumped off that prison wagon and headed across the road to freedom.
Old Skippy saw me running and jumped up and started barking to let everybody know things were about to ramp up. “School’s out, no more times tables ‘til next year!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. Auntie came to the screen door to greet me. “Are you hungry?” she asked as she hugged me close.
“Kinda am,” I said hurriedly. “Can I eat a molasses biscuit on the way to Dillard’s? He said we might could go fishing for a little bit, if he got through with the new fence he had to build.” “Alright but be back by dark and don’t make a pest of yourself.”
I grabbed the biscuit and heard the back-door slam shut as I ran across the pasture toward Dillard’s. I stopped next to the hickory nut tree and started licking my arm. The molasses had started running out of the biscuit and was getting all over me. I thought I’d better take a minute to eat my snack before I started wearing it. If you have never had molasses all over your play clothes, count yourself lucky. It was not just sticky, it is ssstttiiiccckkkyyy.
As I broke out in Dillard’s backyard, I saw him finishing up with the fence. “Hey,” I said with a grin, “do you think we’ll have time to go fishing for a little bit?”
“I expect so,” he said with that deep and quiet way he always had of talking. “Help me put up the tools and we’ll have some time to fish before dark,” he said. We were soon headed to our favorite fishing hole. We were almost there when he said, “Now they might not be biting today.” “I don’t care, I just want to fish,” I replied. To me catching fish was a plus. Fishing was the important thing.
We threw our lines in the water and I started dreaming about all the time we were going to have to fish before I had to go back to school and it made me smile on the inside.
“What’s the best thing about school being out?” Dillard asked me. “No more times tables,” I said quickly. “What’s wrong with times tables?” he questioned me. “What’s wrong? What in the world do I need to know what 6 times 9 is? I’m not going to be a teacher or a scientist,” I said disgustedly.
He just sat there motionless as if he were trying to understand everything I had just said. Years later I learned that was not why he sat so quietly. He was just giving me time to sweat. He then said, “You’re getting a bite.” I jerked the line and had a nice sized perch on my stringer before you could say scat. I baited my hook with a big old juicy milk worm and threw the line back in the water. We just sat there watching the corks again when he said, “You know I’m not sure we can even be good fishermen unless we learn our times tables.”
I didn’t like where this was going. “Are you tricking me?” I asked. “No,” he said. “How many days a week can you fish?” he asked. “Six,” I said because Auntie wouldn’t let me fish on Sunday. “Right,” he answered. “And let’s suppose you fish six days next week and the fish aren’t biting all that good and all you can catch is two fish every day. So how many fish did you catch?” “Twelve,” I answered. After all I was halfway through the 3rd grade.
“Suppose the fish were really biting and you caught nine fish every day. How many fish would you catch then?” Becoming very disinterested in this game I said, “A lot.” He continued, “Suppose you ran into your friend Billy Conn Stokes and you wanted to tell him how many fish you caught, and you say I caught a lot of fish last week. Suppose he went fishing last week too and he only caught ten fish all week long, and since he is not as good a fisherman as you are, he thought ten fish was a lot. You want him to think he caught as many fish as you did because you don’t know how much 6 times 9 is?”
Dad gum that Billy Conn Stokes! The very idea that he thinks he’s as good a fisher as I am. 6 times 9 is either 54 or 56. I can’t remember yet, but I hope to kiss a mule if I’m going to let him get away thinking he is as good as I am.
“I’m going to need some serious help with them. You know your times tables?” I asked Dillard. “Sure son, I think I can muddle through them, and we’ll be sure to make time to count our fish,” he replied.
“I’ll be sitting across from you in the 5th grade Billy Conn! And then we’ll see who the best fisherman is… The very idea that you think ten measly fish is a lot. You ain’t much, Billy Conn Stokes!