Old Sly was a son of a bitch. That’s what Dan’s father said, anyway. Dr. Johnson had a way with words around us kids — he was the only grownup in our uptight little East Texas neighborhood who’d dare curse in our presence. He wasn’t a doctor. He was a dentist, and after a glass of Glenlivet, he’d proffer up nuggets of wisdom that, as the son of an oil-field traffic manager and a “damn Yankee,” I couldn’t get enough of.
“Dentists are better bullshit detectors than doctors,” he’d say to a gathering of kids outside his sweet little shoreline house on Lake Cherokee. “When someone’s full of shit, it usually comes out of their mouth. I don’t have to put my fingers in someone’s ass to know they’re full of shit.”
And Dr. Johnson didn’t mince words when he talked about Old Sly. This particular character topped Dr. Johnson’s “shit list” — an active list of personalities who’d managed to step afoul of the dentist’s sensibilities — for as long as I knew him. And he kept that list, in full view, written in chalk on a board that he hung with great care on the screened-in porch of the lake house. The list changed over time, and it was long and distinguished, but Old Sly never lost his perch.
For instance, when Dan first invited me to come and stay with his family at the lake house in the summer 1980, Old Sly’s name was tops on the list. Second, was Jimmy Carter, followed oh-so-closely by President Carter’s wayward brother Billy. The rest of the list was constantly evolving. Dr. Johnson would walk out on the screened-in porch each morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other, and eye the list critically. Occasionally, he’d use a sleeve to remove a name, or just as often, cross a name out with a mighty strike of chalk on slate. I remember one of the first mornings I visited the lake house, he crossed a line through “that jackass mailman,” and wrote a new name underneath it.
“The bastard clerk at the liquor store,” he scrawled, delighting us kids who sniggered under our breaths at seeing the word “bastard” in writing.
“Of course there’s more 12-year-old Glenlivet in the back,” he muttered. “You just have to get off your ass and go look.”
I remember taking the list in, clueless as to why the mailman had been on the list to begin with, and taking note that most of the folks on the list were nameless people who committed some slight against the good dentist … and probably never knew they made his dubious honor roll. “Grocery store manager” was scrawled on the list, followed by “the idiot at the tire store,” and “Roger Staubach, 13-28.” I later learned that Staubauch led Dr. Johnson’s beloved Cowboys to the NFC West title in 1979, only to lose in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Super Bowl-bound L.A. Rams, thanks in large part to Staubach’s lackluster performance (“Who the hell can’t complete half of his damn passes?”).
But one name confused me.
“Who’s Old Sly?” I asked.
Dr. Johnson turned and faced me. The host of other 11-year-olds looked on carefully as he eyed me up and down with a critical eye.
“You’re that new boy, huh?” he asked. “Your dad’s that damn Yankee from Colorado, right?”
“Uh, yes sir,” I replied. It didn’t take me long upon moving to East Texas to come to understand that all adults were addressed as “sir” or “ma’am,” and that words like, “yeah,” or “uh-huh,” were greeted with disdain. And Yankees weren’t just from New York, but rather from any point north of Wichita Falls.
Dr. Johnson’s eyes moved from me and he gazed out over Lake Cherokee. The shallows were blossoming with bright yellow lily pad blooms and the dark water was calm and serene that early summer morning. A thin layer of mist was slowly burning off as the June sun was starting to have its way on another sultry Big Thicket day.
“Who’s Old Sly?” the good dentist responded rhetorically. “Let me tell you about Old Sly.”
The boys on the porch gathered close as Dr. Johnson raised his mug of coffee to his lips. His bushy eyebrows were all we could see behind the mug of java as he took a deep draw. And here’s how it went.
It was a few years back, and Dr. Johnson and his portly wife, the kind and ever-in-the-kitchen-making-something-delicous Mrs. Johnson, had come up to the lake house in the spring to get it ready for the season. The couple was walking along the trail that circles the lake with their adorable little Pomeranian named Princess, when Princess stopped to grab a quick drink from the lake.
Dr. Johnson slowed in his tale, and he looked down at us kids out from beneath those eyebrows, and then lifted his coffee cup to the lake.
“That’s when Old Sly jumped out of the lake and grabbed Princess,” he said. “That son of a bitch pulled her right into the water, rolled over twice and disappeared. Princess didn’t even have time to cry.”
He looked back at us kids. We were deathly quiet, eyes wide open.
“Old Sly is a gator,” Dr. Johnson said. “A big one. Ten feet. Maybe more, now.”
There were several of us kids that Dan had invited up to the lake, and every one of us had spent the afternoon the day before swimming in a roped off section of lake right next to the Johnson’s boat dock. We swam for hours under the hot Texas sun, occasionally stopping to catch bluegills out from under the dock using live crickets for bait. To think that Old Sly might have been eyeballing a host of 5-foot-tall hors' d'oeuvres while we swam and splashed all day was a bit unnerving.
“Anyway,” Dr. Johnson said, as we all wondered about the wisdom of venturing into the lake again later that day, “I ran up to the house and got my 30.06 as quick as I could, and made it back out to the lake to see Old Sly gliding off into the water about 100 yards off the dock. I took a shot that sailed just over his eyes and splashed into the water. I swear, when I missed that shot, that son of a bitch winked at me.”
And then, the story goes, Old Sly submerged and poor little Princess was gone forever.
“Then that crotchety old Mrs. Muldoon came out on her back porch in her curlers and house coat and gave me hell for shooting out over the lake,” Dr. Johnson said, lifting his coffee mug toward the neighbor’s lake house a few hundred feet from his own back porch. He switched his mug from his right hand to his left, grabbed a piece of chalk, and struck a line through Staubach’s name. Directly under it, he wrote, “Mrs. Muldoon.”
“Is he still out there?” one of the other kids asked Dr. Johnson, uttering the question every single one of us was dying to ask. “Old Sly … is he still out there?”
Dr. Johnson smiled wryly and took a sip of coffee. He looked again out at the quiet lake, lined by tall sugar pines and few opportunistic cypress trees.
“I see him once in a while,” the dentist said. “I don’t shoot at him anymore, though.” Then he glanced back into the lake house where Mrs. Johnson had bacon sizzling on the griddle. “Tell you the truth,” he whispered, “I didn’t like Princess that much.”
Also, he said, “The Muldoons called the sheriff the last time I tried to take that son of a bitch out. Thankfully, I knew the deputy — I filled a cavity for him at his last visit.”
Dr. Johnson was quick to point out Old Sly didn’t bother to come around the dock much, at least not during the heat of the day.
“But he’s out there,” he said. “Somewhere.”
Later that afternoon, Dan pulled his sailboard out from the storage shed next to the house and, together, we walked it down the lake. Think of it as the wooden predecessor to the stand-up paddleboard, only with an actual sail. He and I pushed the little craft into the shallows and off we went into the sunny chop of Lake Cherokee. Dan knew the ropes when it came to sailing the board around the bay in front of the house, and we cruised across the water, the sail popping with fresh wind whenever Dan would tell me to “come about.”
It was exhilarating, gliding across the lake. We gleefully bounced the little crafter over boat wakes and leaned over the side as we dug the rudder into the water as deeply as two pre-teen boys could.
We had so much fun that we eventually lost track of time, and, frankly, where we were on the spacious lake in the heart of the East Texas piney woods country. Only when we bothered to take a look at the horizon did we notice how the low the sun had dropped. More importantly, as Dan pointed out, the dark clouds moving from east to west were starting to get a little too close for comfort.
Dan pointed the nose of the little craft back toward the familiar bay where the lake house awaited us, and we sailed with a tailwind generally pushing the little craft in the right direction. But we’d gone farther than we should have — as far as Dan had ever gone, he later told me — and the water that once reflected the bright, blue Texas sky was now a greenish gray, the color of the slate clouds, and pocked with white caps that pushed over the top of the board, soaking us both pretty regularly.
And then we nosed under a big wave created by a boat wake, and Dan lost his grip on the rudder. The boat spun and tipped, dumping both of us into the lake. We were both good swimmers, so neither of us really panicked. But we both noticed that we were still well out from the mouth of the bay. Try as we might, we couldn’t right the little craft — the single sail became a water-soaked stretch of canvas and two 11-year-old boys couldn’t muster the weight or the strength to pull it out the water.
So we each grabbed a rope and swam.
And then Dan said it.
“I hope Old Sly doesn’t find us before we get to shore,” he said, half smiling and half not, laughing nervously. Rain started to fall from the dark clouds, and before we knew it, we were pulling a heavy slab of drowned wood and canvas through a classic southern gullywasher. I remember pulling my legs up as close to the water’s choppy surface as I could, assuming that Old Sly would be more likely to grab the ankles of the careless swimmer with the nerve to dig his legs deep to get more pull in the water.
We both bobbed over big, storm-pushed waves, neither of us letting go of the ropes connected to the little sailboard. It didn’t take long before fatigue set it, and it seemed that, with every breath, we’d get a mouthful of Lake Cherokee. Eventually, we gave up on pulling the boat and instead clung desperately to it, riding waves and looking fruitlessly across the horizon in hopes of spotting the lake shore. The gray skies and the constant rain made it impossible to see over the angry waters of the lake.
And there we floated, two soaked to the bone boys, kept afloat by a flimsy stretch of wood, bobbing helplessly in gator-infested waters.
“This is bad,” Dan said through the raging storm. Lightning flashed off to the east, and thunder clapped almost immediately. “This is really bad.”
I’m pretty sure we were both crying, as little boys do when everything goes sideways, but the rain and the waves hid our tears. We clung to the boat for our dear lives, certain that, if we let go, we’d die for sure, either by drowning or by becoming Old Sly’s next victim.
That’s when the little life preserver plopped down in the water next to me. I looked up and there was Mr. Johnson, soaked to the bone, but holding the rope connected to the little floating ring from the bow of the family boat. In minutes flat, he’d hauled both Dan and me aboard, and he’d managed to attach a waterski rope to Dan’s sailboard. Behind the 240-horsepower outboard, the board pushed through the waves of the stormy lake as Mr. Johnson slowly motored us home.
For a guy with a colorful vocabulary, he was remarkably reserved, perhaps just grateful that his son and his friend were alive amid the sudden storm. There were no delving questions about the idiocy of sailing too far, or the “What on earth were you thinking?” queries that both Dan and I were openly asking ourselves.
Not long after plucking us from the lake, we arrived at the dock, and Dan and I both hopped into the lake and grabbed the rope pulling the sailboard. Able to stand up in the shallows, we got the sail upright and eventually pushed the boat to the bank. The rains slowed, and the choppy water regained its temper. The sun even pushed through the clouds of the fast-moving squall, and by the time we had the sailboard back in the storage shed, the humidity and the sunshine combined to craft a perfectly suffocating southern afternoon.
And as we walked toward the house, and the screened-in porch where the other boys awaited the two careless kids who had just endured a minor shipwreck, I looked out beyond the dock at the suddenly docile water. There, staring back at me, were two reptilian eyeballs gliding past the swimming area.
I swear Old Sly winked at me just before he disappeared into the dark water of Lake Cherokee.
“Son of a bitch,” I whispered under my breath.