Precious memories linger and flood our soul — even before that final hour comes. Some of the most uplifting and gratifying moments on this complex earth come when we remember the time and place where good things happened and memories were collected generously. Those memories that elevate spirits when we look back.
Those are the moments of signature professional accomplishment, the birth of children and grandchildren, a trip that exposes one to the ancient world, a concert showcasing a virtuoso performer, the World Series, the Masters or a Super Bowl.
Jesup’s John Donaldson would have enjoyed all that, but he could not get enough of what was at his fingertips: fishing the Altamaha (“Altamahaul” to the locals in Wayne County), Blackbeard Island on the Georgia coast and Christmas Creek at St. Simons. He was a versatile fisherman. I called him Mark Trail.
On my wildlife showcase wall are some fish and winged mounts, which I passionately cherish. Each represents a memory that exhilarates and raises my spirits when I recall fishing and hunting with John, the consummate outdoorsman. What I have on display would pale when compared to the ultimate fishermen and hunters, but they are, nonetheless, emotionally fulfilling.
I like to recall standing in mountain streams, my ears sensitive to the water’s movement, my eyes connecting with nature’s most splendorous views. I like the loneliness of a duck blind that suddenly becomes an explosion of fury and consternation when a flock of mallards descend within range of my shotgun. I like it when wood ducks require that your aim must penetrate the right opening in the woods for success.
My friend John — the former Georgia halfback, coach of Jesup and later Wayne County high schools, assistant coach at Florida and UGA — passed away Tuesday at age 92 in his hometown of Jesup.
Even in recent years when John’s health began to fail, I would walk by a marsh hen mount or look up from my computer at a spottail bass that once was a 35-pound collector of smaller fish and thought of him.
I remember our football conversations. John played the game well; he succeeded Charley Trippi in the backfield at Georgia and later coached several of his teams to championships. He loved the running game. He could design a quick-hitting play that, accompanied with crisp blocking, would allow for a patented first down or a touchdown.
He was a hit the hole with alacrity and verve, a knockout-punch kind of guy. Even with his predilection for the running game — his love for running the football and fishing for a 5-pound pass endeared him to his one-time boss, Vince Dooley — he had affection for the passing game. John taught passing principles to Steve Spurrier when he coached Spurrier as a freshman at Florida.
John was not above matching the chicanery of fellow coaches, such as Wright Bazemore of Valdosta High School. While he espoused lasting respect to Bazemore, he took great pride in beating Bazemore at his own game.
Before the center-keep was outlawed, Bazemore used it to perfection to win big games. The center snaps the ball, but the quarterback does not take the snap but instead goes through a series of fakes as if he is handing the ball off. After a couple of seconds as the defense is moving past the line of scrimmage, the center, usually a big man with superior speed for a lineman, sprints downfield through an unaware defense that is caught totally off guard, with the play often resulting in a touchdown. What made the play work more often than not was propitious play calling. John found the sideline chess matches thrilling.
For years, I heard John recount how that play worked to defeat Valdosta a couple of times, recalling every detail as it unfolded in his memory banks — still savoring the moment after several decades had elapsed. After the game, he signaled for the band to parade around the field, blaring out victoriously in song “The Old Gray Mare.” Jesup was awash in celebratory retribution for any past failures to the Wildcats.
I gloried in every fishing outing with John, especially at Shellman Bluff, motoring past the ballast that the celebrated pirate, Blackbeard, had dumped. The contrast was real: Blackbeard a dishonorable man with nothing in common with my principled friend. I can see John, a right-hander, casting with his left hand after making himself ambidextrous for more casting efficiency.
John was good man who lived a good life. Neither alcohol nor tobacco touched his lips in his 92 years on earth. He owed his longevity, in part, to medical science — open heart surgery twice with pig valve replacements. He was about fair play and tending to your own knitting. He loved to breathe the salt air and commune with nature.
After one prosperous outing near Sapelo Island, he enjoyed a serendipitous experience that I stewarded into print — my epitaph for my treasured outdoor friend.
“Let’s cast a couple of times along the beach here,” John said as we were heading home. “Water’s clearing up, you never know.”
As soon as he eagerly watched his line spin off his reel, he hooked something too big and strong for his lightweight equipment. A 25-pound spot tail bass had taken his bait. Only finesse would bring the quarry home. Only skill would succeed in boating such a fish. Power and force would lose this battle. Tiring out his prey, with the velvet touch, gained him the catch of the year.
Today, my heart is heavy, but the sadness is ameliorated by an appreciation for John’s sportsmanship and masterly skills.
Fishing with John Donaldson was like watching Monet paint.