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Darkness flowed like lava in the bayou, and the strangest sounds rose out of it. Swamp and shadows passed through each other. Black shapes stretched and seeped in every sliver of light as night crept into singular, sinister thickness. It was heavy and humid, laying over us. Still, everything moved in the sounds that encircled us.
Twenty years old and 1,000 miles south of home, I tracked a sense of adventure that made no room for sense in my head. I grinned my cocky, Cheshire cat best through the sweat beading over my lip. And I did my Yankee-Doodle damnedest to bury any fear beneath the most confident exterior I could muster, so far south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Then I heard it again.
It was closer — a low, grumbling clatter as if rising from deep within a dark, cavernous throat. It lasted five, no more than eight seconds, then ended with a clap, sounding like rocks snapping together. I heard it the first time just after we shoved off shore, when in the same moment I considered this place my two new friends brought me. My mind flashed to a scene from Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures — the head of a Holstein buried in the jaws of a Louisiana gator.
I wondered if Wayne Waggenspack or his buddy Roy Robechure had ever wrestled one. I asked, but I couldn't understand their answer. They were Cajun. They spoke a deep, Southern something, ladled through a heavy French accent. Every time one spoke, the other laughed, which reminded me of pigs squealing. So I got quiet, imagining pigs as the favorite food of gators.
Wayne steered our duck boat through the liquid black, the cold metal making a wake of steam through water that seemed to boil. Roy sat in the flat of the bow. I was in the middle, on the floor, where I could feel something tapping the other side of the aluminum hull. Roy whispered something, Wayne oinked, the boat shook, and I heard it again. In spite of myself, my head jerked in its direction — a muffled growl this time.
"Tat'l be da frowg," Wayne whispered.
Roy coughed a wicked laugh that echoed under the mangrove canopy. We ducked beneath the branches while Roy dug his knees into the bow and extended his belly over the water. He held an oar, high over his head, and whispered, "Na ya sees why we's ware'n dees heed-lats."
I followed the beam of his headlight with my own until both locked on a pair of green eyes shining back at us from the shoreline. Wayne explained this earlier as we drove to the swamp.
When a light is shined into the eyes of a frog, it acts like a frog-freeze ray. As long as the light is held to their eyes, they won't move. The frog becomes a deer in the headlights, stiff and stuck like prey on the end of an alien tractor beam, a prisoner of the force that wields the power of the light. Wayne and Roy had redesigned the hardhats we were wearing — a heavy flashlight welded to the top, connected to a sixteen-volt battery strapped to the back, with a reinforced chin harness for holding it to your head.
Need I say that Wayne Waggenspack and Roy Robechure were seasoned frog giggers? That night — the only night I ever spent with them — I was their eager student, a rookie on his first ever amphibious, amphibian safari. Roy was locked and loaded. Wayne rolled his paddle in the water behind us until the boat fell into the line of the beam, then made one deep, sweeping stroke as a final push toward Roy's panicked but paralyzed prey. At that point, Roy's wide body blocked the view ahead. I imagined the glowing green eyes growing in our approach, which we made at a duck-boat version of ramming speed. I wondered if gator eyes glowed green in the light, too.
WHACK! Then WHUMP! Roy slammed the shore with his paddle in front of the flat of the bow, and he lunged in the direction of his strike, or he was thrown there. The mud caught him and most of his cursing, but Roy caught nothing except the full weight of Wayne's squealing and scorn as the first of our frogs hopped safely into the swamp. I tried to complement the ferocity of his paddle swing. That was received as the condescending pity of a Yankee, giving Wayne cause for another round of roasting.
Two minutes later, Roy was hung farther off the bow with paddle higher overhead. Wayne maneuvered the boat in the direction of another set of glowing green eyes, and I braced for impact with the shore. There was another whack and whump, with more muddy cursing and merciless scorning, as a second frog hopped to safety.
But before Roy could reposition himself for a third run, Wayne made him switch places with me. "Ya schkoold da Yankee wid yer gigg'n expertise." Wayne was clearly condescending. "Giv'm hiz try, Roy!"
Roy was smiling his version of that Cheshire cat grin as we switched places in the boat. I got the feeling he was expecting to swap stories of failed attempts. That and a Yankee's honor for the Union incentivized my energies as I took my place in the bow. I hooked my heels under the front seat and pried my toes against the bottom of the boat to secure me. Then I leveraged my thighs against the front flat edge of the boat and laid my torso out over the water, holding the paddle with both hands, high above and behind me. There were a hundred pairs of those luminous emerald eyes flickering in the beam from my helmet as I swept the shore with the light. I chose a set and locked in on them. Wayne caught my signal and began to quietly paddle me in the direction of my line of sight.
For a single, fearful moment, I thought about my situation from another angle. I was in the middle of a swamp with complete strangers who gave the impression that they could sell swamp to strangers. They claimed we were going to feed on frogs that we'd yet to catch. Now I was like a huge, live hood mount hanging off the front of Wayne's duck boat. As my body dangled over that bayou, I felt like bait. I wondered how many other Yankees had posed as gator chum off the front of a boat by Waggenspack and Robechure. Then I saw him.
His eyes were frozen in my head beam, and the shoreline was fast approaching. He was huge; his body was a full four to five inches, not counting his legs, which would have been twice that. I wondered if the wooden boat paddle would be enough, but there wasn't time to ask. It was time for the Yankee to swing, and I wasn't about to miss. I slammed down on him with everything I had. WHACK! went the wood, and WHUMP! went the hull. In that split second the frog flopped over on its back as we slammed into the shore.
I don't remember how I stayed in the boat because I was completely focused on finishing my frog's gig. Roy had warned me that many a resilient frog had taken a beating, only to quickly revive, hopping off to freedom. In the next split second, I lashed out with my left hand, took hold of his legs as tightly as possible, then raised that fat frog over my head. When I knew I had him, I rolled over and back into the boat to proudly show off my prize. The boys were already howling.
But I couldn't. Another sensation quickly came over me. There was something in my pants, crawling up my right leg.
Instinctively I kicked and shook, trying to get it out, which the boys must have thought was some sort of crazy Yankee victory dance 'cause they whooped and hollered like I'd just scored a touchdown. But my little dance only caused whatever it was to crawl even higher inside my thigh and above my knee. I started to fear where this was headed. So with left hand still tightly wrapped around my frog flapp'n over my head, I unbuckled my belt and unzipped my pants with my right. Then I reached down and grabbed hold of the legs of what turned out to be ... another frog!
I hoisted up my right hand to my left so that two frogs flapped over my head. Waggenspack and Robechure went silent with wonder for one brief second as they tilted their headlamps to my hands and let their eyes adjust to what I was holding. When those boys saw those two frogs, they lit into an explosion of hilarity that nearly upended us. Wayne kept slapping Roy on the back with one hand and the side of the boat with the other, as Roy repeatedly kicked at the bottom while wrapping his belly in his arms. Both were heaving in laughter, trying to catch their breath. I was sure someone might throw an aneurism.
Wayne, tears squeezing through his eyes, pulled at Roy's shoulder to turn his attention so they were face-to-face, and squealed, "Roy, ya'll was oh fer two ..." He could hardly get the words out, but managed to add, "The Yankee was two fer one un he's first try!"
With that, all of us slipped from our seats and bounced heavily on the boat bottom as the cacophony of holler'n hilarity went to a whole new level.
It was some time and effort to gather ourselves before we could do any more frog gigging. But gigging we did. After I had my time hanging off the front of the boat, hauling in frog after frog, Roy finally got back into the swing. Then he and Wayne switched manning the helm so Wayne could have his way with a bunch of those poor frogs. An hour or so later, our sack was lumped full of Louisiana's finest frog legs, not a leg shorter than six inches, and some as long as ten.
When we made it back to Wayne's place, his father had the fryer stoked and ready for cooking. They call them "Louisiana swamp chicken," and for good reason. By the time the evening was over, our bellies were full of what tasted like the finest Chicken wings a northerner could imagine. Plus our sides split several times over for the story Wayne couldn't help but repeat about my two-fer-one frog gig, each time more embellished, especially for the size of the monster frog that came out of my pants!
It was all I could do to contain my pride for the thought of a Yankee becoming a part of what would undoubtedly be one more story in Waggenspack and Robechure's repertory of Louisiana lore.CHAPTER 2
Thought of those frogs still had me laughing the next day as I boarded the plane to head home, north of the Mason- Dixon. Wayne and Roy kept me up much too late for such an early flight. So I was glad to see that only a handful of passengers joined me for the two-hour direct flight.
I found a seat as far from the others as possible, and told the attendants I would be sleeping so they wouldn't need to bother me for drinks or snacks. After takeoff, as soon as the captain announced we had reached cruising altitude, I flipped up the armrests and sprawled across three seats. I used my carry-on knapsack for a pillow. Another five minutes and I was R.E.M. 5, drooling and dreaming of a strange little man inside my pillow. I snored so loud, I woke myself.
I thought about what I'd just been dreaming: A man in my pillow, how odd! Yet I could still hear him. Either I was sleeping and dreaming, or a voice was coming from inside my knapsack. It seemed that laying my head there was causing someone quite a bit of discomfort because the voice was complaining from within it. And the moment I picked up my head, the voice was quick to thank me. Slowly I sat up. And gradually I opened my sack to examine its contents. To my surprise, I found a frog. To my superlative surprise, the frog spoke. As clearly and as surely as one person speaks to another, the frog said, "How do you do?" Those were the first words he spoke to me, as pleasant and polite as can be — How do you do? — as if it were every day I might come across so friendly a fellow as a frog.
And just like the habit of such a courteous greeting, in spite of myself, I followed in kind. "Fine, I suppose," I said. "How are you?"
As I recall he said something about the weight of an average human head being ten pounds, which he estimated to be half a ton by comparison if it were laid on me.
"I'm sorry!" I heard myself say, and I knew I wasn't dreaming. But I had no idea what I was doing, because it seemed I was talking to a frog. And that wouldn't be so strange, if the frog hadn't talked to me first.
"A talking frog!?" that's what I said next.
"You're very observant," he said condescendingly.
Still put back, and now feeling somehow insulted, I responded as if it should be as obvious to him as it was to me. "Well, it is a bit strange, isn't it — a talking frog!?"
Then he started into the most rational line of reasoning. From that point on, he was always logically consistent. "Frog-talking is only strange when you first hear it. Have you forgotten how strange it was the first time you heard human-talking?"
I thought about children, what a difficult time they have talking at the start, and how a mother or father works to get that first syllable out of them: "Ma ma ma," "Da da da." Yes, as I thought about it, what had become second nature to me, must have been very strange at the start. But then I caught myself. "You are a frog talking as a human, that's what's strange!"
The frog continued. "Where I come from, frog-talking is as common as the banter of Waggenspack and Robechure. It is more intelligible, and even more intelligent, especially when you consider how a frog would never think to make sport of man gigging! Perhaps if you knew the names of each of those frogs as I do, beating them with paddles wouldn't come so easily. If you gave them a moment to express a word or two, in the next moment do you think you could throw them in the fryer?"
For a brief second, I thought about the gutting and cutting and frying of the night before, then attempted to redirect the undercurrent of sentiment. "Frogs have names?" It hadn't occurred to me until the frog introduced the idea.
"Each of us is different, much as the subtleties that distinguish your friends and you. Why shouldn't frogs afford each other the respect of the identity that comes with a name?"
His words and meaning still seemed to be headed for a boiling point. Then I remembered what I heard about frogs, water pots, and boiling points. So I attempted to reset the dialogue. "Hey, I feel like our conversation is set to slow boil, perhaps we could find something else to talk about while I get accustomed to a frog talking to a human."
"Very clever, young man, but I think in time you will find that it is you — your self — who needs to be saved from his slow boil, not me! In fact, that is the very reason you find me here in your knapsack."
I should have known. It's not every day a guy finds a frog in his bag, especially one that talks. It should have occurred to me that the frog had a reason for being there. But to save me? I had no idea what he meant. I could think of nothing from which I needed saving. Yet he was a frog. And he was talking to me.CHAPTER 3
I know my story is moving along before most are ready to believe me. It takes time for the mind to adjust to the thought of something so absurd as a talking frog. By this point in my account, most of you have already made a decision regarding the value of continuing. If you're still reading, then you're the kind of soul who is committed to doing so while suspending your judgments, at least to the point when I've made my point for telling the story. And if I'm willing to take the risk of being judged a nutcase for telling it, maybe you'll risk the chance to keep reading until you realize the value of the sense my new friend was making, regardless of his size, weight, and color.
* * *
"So you have a reason for being in my bag?" I asked.
"Of course I have a reason, and it was the same that sent me into that boat and up your pant leg last night. And if you should consider what risks I've taken to find my way into your knapsack, you might decide that there is value to hearing me out. You might conclude that my reason is a very good one."
I thought about what he was saying. Then I thought about who was saying it. "Well, I'm already talking to a frog. And hard as it is to believe, I'm also hearing the frog talk to me. If it's possible that we're actually having a conversation, then I probably should understand why. But you need to know, this all seems crazy to me already, so why should I think your reason any less crazy?"
"Ah, yes," the frog agreed, "but wouldn't you be even crazier if you chose not to hear my reason?"
What could I say? He wasn't just a talking frog. He was a frog talking sense in a way that I couldn't deny hearing.
"Perhaps," he continued, "you would be less prone to feel crazy if we had a more proper introduction. I gathered from your 'sporting' friends last night that your name is Yankee?"
I figured the informality of a nickname might protect me from any obligations to which this conversation might be leading. "Sure, Mr. Frog, you may call me Yankee. Please forgive me for not asking sooner — surely you understand my surprise. And with whom do I have the pleasure of ... talking?" I extended my index finger to him, hoping that the formality of a handshake might indicate my willingness to take our conversation to a higher level.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Amphibian Diaries"
Copyright © 2018 John Hansel, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Bayou 1
A Wager 28
A Cream Puff 35
The Box 52
The Code 58
A Point-Intrapersonal Humility 85
A Line-Interpersonal Humility 89
A Cube-Inspirational Humility 93
The Invitation 102
The Hop 109
The Intersection 115