Peanut Butter or Fish? A smorgasbord of family tradition


Every family has their great unsolved mysteries, the answers to which will most likely go to the grave with their keepers. You know what I mean — did Uncle Carl accidentally run over Aunt Judy’s dog Cookie after it peed in his new shoes? Did cousin Amy run away to join the circus or was it actually that doomsday cult? And what really did happen the night great grandpa got drunk and drove into the lake…never mind, that one’s not really a mystery.

In my family there is the 37 year old unsolved case of Grandma B’s socks. I thought about it the other day, the first time in a long time. Grandma was talking about her will, asking us kids and grandkids what we wanted, hoping to avoid any family drama by clearly spelling it out. That’s thoughtful of her.

At first, I couldn’t think of an answer for her, there’s nothing I want, except maybe for her live forever (or at least until I die). But then a memory rushed back to me, a golden, childhood memory of…

The Great Wapsi Canoe Trip of 1980

This controversial trip, and subsequent mystery, happened on the beloved Wapsi River in Eastern Iowa. My Grandpa K and Grandma B decided that it was time for the grandkids (me, my sister, and my cousin) to have a real canoe trip.

By real they meant this would be no lazy, lily-dipping, float-down-the-river trip. When you camped, fished, went boating, or did anything with Grandpa K, you’d better be prepared to pull your weight. He was not a man to take lightly and he did not suffer fools or slackers. I adored him.

While my sister and cousin tested his resolve constantly (and paid for it) I was his best student, shining oh so bright (don’t hate me, slackers). After many years of trying, he gave up on my sister and cousin and put all his effort into me. I was in my glory. This man was my hero and I would have gone to the ends of the earth to please him, even if it meant being able to tie a bowline knot in my sleep (which it did, and I could).

Someone should have told her

My Uncle Shane and my Aunt Sara also came along on this epic trip, much to Sara’s disappointment. She argued that since they didn’t have kids yet, being newlyweds and all, they didn’t need to go. Wasn’t this for the grandkids? Indeed Sara, but you married my Uncle Shane.

Shane, a real life Leatherstocking, was not about to miss out on any type of canoe trip with his dad. Shane could live in the woods for a week with nothing but a bobby pin, while Sara preferred indoor pursuits, things that didn’t require getting dirty or wild animals, especially snakes, because, in her own words, they want to kill you. She was also a germaphobe beyond any I had ever, or would ever, meet. Her favorite word was eww! and she could find beastly dangers even in a suburban backyard -”Is that squirrel looking at me? I have to go inside.”

I’m not in any way disparaging Sara, she is truly a kind, genuine woman, someone you would be lucky to call a friend. Canoeing and camping, and being outside in general, just weren’t her thing. When someone tries to coerce me into a day of shopping, I totally understand how she felt.

But Shane was insistent, he just couldn’t miss out on this trip and I couldn’t blame him. I was always anxious to hang out with Grandpa K, to learn whatever he had to teach. Typical exchanges between us went something like this:

“Get the tent put up — and I’m timing you!”

“Ok, tie me a three way swivel rig. And not like Grandma does, do it the right way.”

“Start the fire. Here’s a magnifying glass.”

Are there any better memories a kid can have than learning survival skills with your Gramps while he downs beer like it’s water? I can’t think of one.

Camp Rules

Peanut butter and bread were the only foods Grandma B, the camp cook, packed on these trips and there was only one sanctioned way to eat them. Grandma would stuff them in her Pudgie Pie maker and burn them up over the fire. I have no idea why, but it was a hard and fast rule.

If you wanted to eat more than scalding, gooey peanut butter encased in poorly toasted generic brand white bread, you had to catch a fish. It helped if you knew how to clean the fish by yourself, too. Grandpa K would certainly catch you if you asked someone else to do it for you, and trust me, that was a bad scene.

“What’s wrong, afraid of a little blood and guts? Get in there. Come on, get in there!” he’d boom.

In the words of Sara, “Eww.”

Speaking of Sara, she wasn’t aware of the peanut butter or fish rule. Shane had grown up with this rule and it probably never crossed his mind to tell her about it. I mean, what’s the big deal? You eat a walleye or you eat peanut butter — they were both on his list of pretty good foods to eat.

It turned out Sara wasn’t a fan of either, especially not the fish. Someone really should have mentioned how we did things on camping trips. She hated the way fish tasted, smelled, and even looked.

She said she could eat peanut butter under duress, but would prefer not to actually chew it. I helpfully told her you don’t actually chew peanut butter, you just kind of move it around your mouth. She wrinkled up her nose, “Eww.”

About midday the first day, as we took a break on a sandbar, she got to the point of duress. She decided she could eat a glob of it off a spoon, swallow it whole (the glob), then wash it down with a cool, refreshing drink.

Someone should have also mentioned that while we did have a cooler in one of the canoes, it was full of Hamm’s beer and nothing else. If you wanted water, you needed to fill your container with water Grandma boiled over the fire, then put your iodine tablet in it, wait for the tablet to dissolve, shake it up, then drink fast because iodine tastes horrible.

Sara, sadly had not planned for the water situation, and chased her peanut butter with Hamm’s. I really did pity her. She learned quickly though — chasing peanut butter with iodine juice was a lot worse.

After two days of gulping down peanut butter like a great white shark, Sara decided to try Grandma’s famous Pudgie Pie. Slyly, Sara told grandma she didn’t want much (if any) peanut butter, just a very thin coat, more of a sheen, really.

Oh, Sara, that was a good effort, but Grandma knew better. She troweled it on and said, “You need your energy dear.”

Having lost her will to live at this point, Sara disagreed, but Grandma B was the camp cook, and there were no special orders. No one was going to eat bread without peanut butter on it or without the dark magic of the Pudgie Pie maker.

Sara took the pie, molten peanut butter slagging out the sides, and was about to take a bite when she noticed something not quite right. Grandma was drying the tin spoons, forks, and knives with a sock. Once dried, Grandma then put them all back in the baggie clearly marked with a Sharpie as CLEAN.

From here, the story varies depending on who you ask. If you ask me, I will confidently tell you grandma was wearing flip flops. No I did not actually see where the sock came from, but I’m positive it wasn’t pulled off of her foot.

Sara’s version is quite different. She alleges Grandma B was wearing her blue Keds. If asked what kind of sock Grandma wore that day, Sara will tell you they were just a plain white socks. This is where her story falls apart because that’s impossible! Grandma B always wore pom-pom socks. I grew up crawling around this woman’s feet, and I used to try to rip those colorful little yellow and pink pom-poms off. They’re the only kind she wore.

We both agreed that the sock she was drying the cutlery with was a plain white sock, therefore the logical conclusion is that it didn’t come from her feet.

Sara did her best to be diplomatic about the whole incident. “Is that sock…clean?”

Grandma poo-pooed Sara and said this is what she always did (meaning for the entirety of the trip Sara had been eating off of sock dried spoons). “Everyone needs to eat a little dirt now and then,” Grandma reassured her, “it keeps you healthy.” Touché, Grandma B.

For Sara, that sage advice was an admission of guilt. To me it was just plain good advice. Eating dropped fish off the ground was a great source of dirt. Heck, I probably got my entire year’s worth of essential dirt intake from these camping trips. Not that Sara would know, refusing to eat fish and all.

Hope at the end of a county road

Poor, poor Sara. I watched her as she sat around the campfire that night. She stared into the flames blankly, as though considering jumping in as a way out of this nightmare. I felt bad for her. I liked her and didn’t want her to leave the family, even though she had plenty of justification. We were pretty hardcore for the uninitiated. Fortunately, I had something that would make her feel better.

I snuck up behind her and tapped her shoulder, beckoning with my hand for her to follow me. Away from the fire ring I told her, I’d seen a Pepsi machine on a side road at a gas station. I could make it out from the river behind some trees, just before we made camp.

“Do you think we could walk to it? Could you find it?” she sounded one part desperate, one part hopeful.

“Yes, but I don’t have any money.” Ok, there was a bit of selfishness here, as I was almost never allowed to have soda (we called it pop).

She went to her tent and got quarters and dimes and nickels, whatever she could scavenge from the bottom of her purse. We stealthily trekked through a farmer’s cow pasture until we found the county road, the light of the gas station a holy beacon, guiding us in.

She had enough change for five bottles. She got four Pepsis and she let me have a Mountain Dew. I chugged it down right there in the glowing orange and blue light of the 76 sign. She followed suit with two Pepsis and snuck the other two back into camp. We belched and shared hushed giggles the whole way back to camp.

Sara got through the trip, and even survived a snake dropping into their canoe as we took the scenic route under some low hanging branches. After years of enduring these trips, equipped with her own stash of essentials, she admits, it’s a great story, especially for her three boys who are all carrying on the tradition of backwoods camping and fishing.

So when Grandma B asked all of us kids and grandkids, “Hey, when I croak (her words) is there anything you want? Should I spell it out in the will?”

Yes, there used to be things I wanted, like the heavy black telephone from the 1930s that I was convinced had been a hotline to the local bootleggers, but really, I just want an answer. Write it down for me Grandma, and put it in the safe deposit box.

Were the socks clean or not?

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