Mama said, "Don't go near that river,
Don't be hanging 'round old Catfish John."
Come the morning I'd always be there,
Walking in his footsteps in the sweet Delta dawn. *
Nobody knew where the gas came from. It just bubbled up at the edge of the creek. The were no utilities there, underground or otherwise. From Main street in town, behind the old theater, the creek wound for about a mile before coming to any other development. That mile long strip was probably a half mile wide. No utilities, no houses, no development .. just that one little magical spot where the gas bubbled up.
The creek had gone over a small waterfall up in town and then narrowed down to a babbling brook as it made it's way to the Great Lakes. All of this water was destined to cascade over a much bigger falls in days or weeks to come. From the creek to Gahnawehta to Lake Ontario where each molecule could pick and choose. A visit to Canada? Stay in the states? No passport or documentation required either way. Go where you will. And eventually on down the St Lawrence to nourish the stripers, the giant bluefin, the lobsters and the tremendous diversity of one of the largest estuaries known to man.
But that's a thousand miles away.
We discovered Jerry and for all we knew, Jerry had discovered the gas pot. He scared the bejeebers out of us. There we were, walking down the left side of the creek on a well worn path with Zebcos in hand expecting nothing more than finding a small pool that held some chubs or some bluegills. And here was this man - hunched over a shallow pool at the edge of the creek - and the water was ON FIRE! Despite needing a shave, a haircut and some clean clothes, this was obviously a man of major mojo. Serious magic was at work. Who could possibly coax fire from a freshwater stream? At that tender age when you had just begun to realize that wizards were not real, here we were face to face with one. We froze. He was unfazed. We just stood there with our feet nailed to the path and our tongues glued to the rooves of our mouths. He just went about his business, odd though his business was.
After what seemed about an hour of deafening silence and terrifying uncertainty, he spoke. "I hope you gentlemen will not gather up all the crawfish around here. They are too precious to use for bait." Gentlemen, he called us. Not boys or brats, and no demand to get off his turf. No bark and no bite. And then we saw. As we stood there transfixed he pulled a couple of bright red mini lobsters out of his pot, broke the tails off, pulled the meat out of the shell and went about his meal.
We still could not speak. Not me anyway. I wanted to run for my life. But Bill was always the bravest - he still is - and he found his tongue at least to mutter, "We use nightcrawlers mister." And with that the ice was broken. Our fear subsided as Jerry told us how he found crawfish in the creek, and how this was a place of great adundance for them. He also showed us the simple mystery of the gas pot. The gas came up from underground about six inches from the edge of the creek in a hole about eight inches across. Wash from the creek would fill the little gas well and the gas itself would gently bubble up through the water. I never saw it burn for more than ten minutes without going out, but ten minutes will turn four or five crawfish from gray to red - and you can go find five more and relight the fire. Jerry also showed us how to light the fire without dropping a match in - just touch a match to one of those little bubbles and pull your hand back as it lights the pool. And he showed us how he covered the gas pool with a flat rock when he wasn't there.
In the hundreds of times since that day that we trod the same path, we never saw anyone but Jerry boiling water in the gas well and we ourselves never saw it uncovered nor left it uncovered. We also never saw spent matches floating in the pool. For bait, we stuck with nightcrawlers - crawfish are too precious to use for bait. We went in search of Jerry often. Most times we did not find him. When we did he always called us gentlemen. Bill took to calling him Sir, as I guess any powerful wizard should be addressed. Rude brats like me just called him Jerry. It was probably twelve years later that Steve and I heard Jerry Garcia sing Catfish John - we looked ateach other and roared with a combination of joy and laughter. JERRY - wasn't singing about Catfish John, he was singing about Crawfish Jerry. It was probably fifteen or twenty years later that I found out how Cajuns eat crawfish routinely. I thought only wizards ate crawfish. But what do I know?
* Catfish John by Bob McDill and Allen Reynolds
.. recorded by Johnny Russell, Jerry Garcia, Alison Krauss and others