Lick Skillet

Billy sat in his favorite place in all the world – next to Mr. Cob Washington on the ancient wooden pier jutting out from the sandy beach of Lick Skillet into the majestic blue Atlantic. People in the small north Florida village on route A1A were so used to seeing the old colored man and the young freckle-faced white boy together no one paid any attention.

Though headlines shouted out racial upheaval in most of the country, Lick Skillet inhabitants lived peacefully together whatever their color. And different colors were very obvious in the tiny fishing town. The population included whites, Negroes, Seminole Indians, and Mexican migrant workers who made Lick Skillet home when not picking crops. The people strived for survival and didn’t have the time or energy left for other issues. Even last month’s assassination of President Kennedy didn’t cause much of a ripple in the waters around Lick Skillet.

Like most other small coastal towns in the area, Lick Skillet experienced a dramatic change when the wide ribbon of pavement called I-95 snaked down the east side of the Sunshine State. For decades state road A1A carried visitors to the Gold Coast of Florida and the tiny villages along the way reaped the benefits of the tourist trade. The new interstate eliminated all that revenue. The once colorful and busy motels, diners, and gift shops now stood faded and empty each year blending more into the landscape of Spanish moss-covered trees and wild tropical flora.

Just down the coast Saint Augustine claimed the first schoolhouse built in America. The one eleven-year-old Billy Becker attended wasn’t much of an improvement. The older kids were enrolled in a new combined county middle and high school, but the local elementary schools remained as they had for decades. Billy’s consisted of four rooms and an outhouse. Funds for a new building were in consideration, but that was true for the last nine years.

Billy hated school. It interrupted his time spent with Cob Washington. Billy knew he learned much more from the old man than he ever would at school. To the young boy, “Mr. Cob,” as he called him, represented an encyclopedia of knowledge and to miss a session with the graying man was like missing a month of school.

Cob Washington fondly remembered the day five-year-old Billy Becker ran off while his mother stood in line at the Shore Savings and Loan across from the downtown pier. As Cob sat on his cushioned orange crate baiting his barbed hook, he caught a glimpse of the little boy running recklessly across Main Street, up the concrete ramp and onto the pier. Sixty-five-year-old Cob Washington instantly recognized a lad on an unsupervised lark and expected to see a frantic parent materialize at any time. Cob called the little boy over.

“Hey, son, ya’ll wanna do some fishin’ with me?” Billy stopped short. As the bright hot sun reflected off the white-capped ocean, he weighed the warning from his mother about talking to strangers against the fantastic possibility of pulling a shark or sailfish or maybe even a whale from the beckoning blue waters. Master Becker cautiously neared the old man.

Cob removed a bait can, sandwich and tattered Thermos bottle from a second orange crate and motioned for the youngster to sit down. As Billy took his seat, Cob saw the lad’s mother desperately dash from the bank and heard her screaming Billy’s name.

“Let me see your hand, son.” Billy offered it and Cob, imitating the most professional palm reader, looked at it pretending to search for meaning. “Hmm, says here your name’s Billy. Is that right?”

The little boy stared in amazement into the brown eyes set in a dark weathered face. His young mind couldn’t comprehend how this old man could possibly learn his name by simply looking at his hand. From that moment on, Billy Becker considered Cob Washington a most special grown-up filled with more wisdom than his mother, teacher or even Reverend Anderson.

“Billy, it reads here your mommy is looking for ya. Let’s say we find her and you and I can fish later.”

Cob wrapped his big wrinkled black hand around Billy’s small white one and escorted the boy safely to his hysterical mother. Mrs. Becker grabbed her son and tightly hugged him to her. She sobbed a heartfelt thank you to Cob who said he was glad to help. Mrs. Becker opened her purse, but Cob quickly and gently laid his hand on hers.
 “No need for that, ma’am, I’m proud to be of service.” Cob tipped his battered fedora and ambled back to the pier.

The very next day, succumbing to her son’s constant pleading, Mrs. Becker brought Billy back to the pier to meet with the man who saved him from who knows what could happen to a five-year-old boy on a rickety old wharf. Mrs. Becker made introductions and asked his name. She again thanked him for yesterday’s actions and inquired if Billy could spend a few minutes with him while she ran errands. Billy sat on the second crate initiating a routine that lasted almost every day until eighteen-year-old Billy Becker left for college.

The second day, along with her son, Mrs. Becker brought a gift for Mr. Washington. She presented him with a new blue cap with a long bill to keep the sun off his face. Cob graciously accepted her gift and with great ceremony gave Billy his faded brown fedora. The boy thought this the best gift ever and plopped it on his blonde locks. Way too big, it fell over his ears but that didn’t bother Billy. He wore it with pride every day no matter what the occasion. Billy’s peers nicknamed him “brownhead” and the moniker stayed with him for the rest of his life, at least in Lick Skillet.

At first Cob gave Billy a bamboo pole and taught him the wonders of fishing. This kept the boy busy but soon Billy began pelting the old man with questions about everything that came to a five-year-old mind. Cob easily handled most queries with the insight of experience, but as Billy grew, his questions deserved more defined answers. Throughout his life, Cob, always a voracious reader, astounded others with his vast knowledge about places, people and events. As his eyesight failed, his visits to the small local library became less frequent.

Thanks to the old man, by the time Billy reached fifth grade, his understanding about many subjects exceeded all his teachers. When Billy’s questions to Cob began relating to intimate topics, the old man told him he’d divulge the answers when Billy grew into his fedora. Cob would fold a newspaper and stick it between Billy’s head and the inside of the hat. Growing into his fedora became Billy Becker’s top priority. Most young boys of Lick Skillet dreamed of obtaining their drivers licenses or being old enough to legally drink, but not Billy. He yearned for the day his old brown fedora would fit his head properly. That’s the day “Mr. Cob,” his sagacious mentor and best friend would reveal the answers to all the important questions Billy harbored.

As years passed Cob Washington treasured his time with young Mr. Becker. Billy sparked a renewed interest in life for the old man who, with new reading glasses, again regularly sought books from the library. Alone in his cabin, Cob eagerly read new material broadening his comprehension to meet Billy’s challenging inquiries.

The years seemed to melt away like icicles in the sun. Cob sat on the pier every day waiting for Billy and the boy never failed him. The aging angler’s friendship turned to fatherly love that secured a place in Cob’s heart. As Billy matured and naturally delved into other interests, their sessions became shorter, but at least one hour – six days a week – the two sat side by side on dilapidated orange crates on the pier…Billy wearing his prized brown fedora and Cob donning his blue cap with the long bill. The town folk called them “mad hatters.” The odd twosome became a respected fixture of daily living in the village.

Always together on the shabby wooden wharf, they discussed and disputed. They shared intimate feelings comforting one another through a loss of a loved one or celebrating joys, small and grand. While spurring Billy to bigger accomplishments, Cob became fulfilled. Billy learned life lessons that forged his principles and behavior. Since his dad died fighting in North Korea, Cob became his father figure and Billy loved him as such. Billy insisted Cob attend all his important functions and the old man always showed. The special bond between the two grew stronger each year. For thirteen years Billy blossomed and matured under Cob’s tutelage and everyone agreed that the old man’s protégée exemplified the good in America’s young men.

Then the day Cob dreaded arrived – the day Billy took the train to college. With his faded brown fedora atop his curly blond hair and shedding tears, a sad Billy Becker said goodbye to his beloved friend with a long, strong hug. Billy’s emotions rebounded back and forth like a clapper in a bell. He detested leaving his companion, but also looked forward, with great anticipation, to a new beginning. Because of “Mr. Cob,” he felt confidently prepared to meet life’s new challenges.

But for seventy eight-year-old Cob Washington, just one sentiment lingered – complete despair. Cob was losing his reason for living. Even though Billy promised to write and call him, Cob knew the days on the pier were gone. Those were the times he cherished…just the two of them sitting on old orange crates in the sun, listening to the rhythm of the surf, sharing their love.

As Billy started to board, Cob stopped him. Unfolding a newspaper, Cob tore off a small piece and tried to wedge it between Billy’s head and the old frayed and discolored hat. The single slip of paper wouldn’t go in. The fedora fit perfectly.

During Billy’s second semester while finishing a letter to Cob, the dorm room phone rang. He answered it to his mother’s sobbing. “Son, I’m so sorry, Cob passed away this morning.”

The college freshman stopped breathing. He doubled over like punched in the stomach with a battering ram He physically had to force air back into his lungs. Billy knew this day would come and prepared for it. But he wasn’t ready, no way near ready, not even close to ready.

“No, dear God, no. Not “Mr. Cob,” my “Mr. Cob.”

He cradled the phone, turned off the lights and with tears cascading down his cheeks, sat silently alone in the dark.

Three days later Billy stood at “Mr. Cob’s” gravesite. The short service had almost concluded but people kept coming. The stunned college student stood next to his mother disbelieving what he saw. It looked like the whole population of Lick Skillet came to honor the old black man.

When Reverend Anderson ended the service, Billy put on his old worn fedora to escort his mother to the car. Villagers continued to approach him offering condolences and amplifying how much they held Cob in high esteem. Almost to a person they told Billy what a fine job Cob did with him and wished him the best of everything. Usually they finished with something like “Carry on like Cob would have wanted.”

Finally, with everyone gone and the sun slipping over the horizon, Billy opened the car door for his mother. Then Billy walked slowly back to the grave. Saying goodbye for the last time, William Becker took his faded brown fedora from his head, bent over and gently laid it on Cob’s casket.