My mama always said, "If you’re not breaking the law, you don’t need to be afraid of the police."
If we lived in Mayberry, where Barney and Andy were the law, that would be true. But sometimes the line between law enforcement and criminals gets blurred. I try to believe the best about people, though. And most of the time, officers are decent people doing their job the best they can.
My grandfather was a circumspect, law-abiding minister, but he disliked and distrusted game wardens. When he wasn’t riding from town-to-town on horseback preaching at country churches during the early 1900s, he enjoyed hunting and fishing with his sons.
One evening he was out trying to shoot some rabbits or ducks for supper. Right before sunset he ran into an old black man who’d been fishing on the river. They struck up a conversation, and pretty soon, the man had to brag about his "catch of the day" — a huge yellow catfish he’d just taken off his trot line. While they were visiting, another man walked up. He’d overheard their conversation and wanted to see that monstrous fish.
"Wow! That’s a real beauty. I’d love to bring that fish home and give it to my wife. What would you take for it?"
The fisherman gulped, "Oh, Boss, I can’t sell this fish.
"It’s the biggest one I ever caught. I wanna shows it to my wife; else she’ll never believe that I caught one this big."
But the man was undeterred.
"I’ll give you 20 bucks for it."
Nowadays, 20 dollars is chump change; it costs more than that to buy burgers and fries for my kids.
But back in those days, it was lots of money. Again, the fisherman hesitated; and again the guy upped his ante. My grandfather watched this whole exchange without comment, amazed at the lengths some people would go for bragging rights to a fish. This time the offer was 50 dollars.
"No suh, Boss, I just can’t sell this here fish," he said after some thoughtful deliberation.
The three men stood around for a moment, admiring the big fish before they began making small talk.
Right as the bidder turned to walk away, he made one final plea. He reached into his wallet and pulled a crisp 100 dollar bill and proffered it to the old gentleman.
"Sir, I will give you 100 dollars for that fish!"
That was an outrageous amount of money in 1930, more than some folks made in a month.
"I’ll take it!" the black man said at once.
Instantly, the other man’s facial expression turned stern.
"You’re under arrest for the unlawful sale of game. I’m a game warden, and I’ll have to take you into custody."
The situation had suddenly taken a bizarre turn, and my grandfather could no longer hold his tongue. He argued with the game warden accusing him of entrapping the naïve fisherman. But the game warden was adamant. It was against the law to sell fish without a commercial license he said.
A sly grin broke out on the fisherman’s face as he started rummaging through the pockets of his rumpled shirt and pants. In a moment, he pulled out a wrinkled, but current, commercial license. Now it was the officer’s turn to be shocked. He’d never imagined the old black man dressed in shabby clothes was a commercial fisherman.
He then started doing what my husband calls "crawfishing."
He chuckled sheepishly as he started to put the money back in his wallet, saying he wasn’t serious about the money. My grandfather’s sense of justice and righteous indignation was riled.
"You made the offer, fair and square, Sir," he said. "A deal’s a deal."
There were a few tense moments of discussion during which the black man stood back and waited quietly. Finally, my granddad drew himself up to his full height of 5’2" and threatened to contact the warden’s superior if he didn’t pay up.
Reluctantly, he handed over the money, took the big fish and went his way.
My grandfather’s prejudice had been reinforced. The fisherman had earned an unexpected windfall and a story he could tell his grandkids; both of which were worth more than any fish.