Catfish Festival


Some things would be very troubling, if one took thought of them. One question that makes an occasional but fleeting passage through my mind is, “Why do I purposely waste portions of my life on things that are fruitless?”

My older brother George and I traveled together frequently beginning in the mid-1990s, and we have compiled a long list of places not to visit. Some showed great promise but were fool’s gold. The majority, however, were a self-evident waste of time. Still, they had a mysterious appeal that we could not resist.

A prime example is Taco Bender’s. Our sister lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where she is an oncologist. We spent a week with her a few years back, and while she worked, George and I made day trips to various sites in the beautiful cliff, canyon, and mountain country of western Colorado and eastern Utah. This particular day took us to Arches National Park and then Moab, Utah, the location of Taco Bender’s.

A person possessing a modicum of intelligence would have depressed the accelerator when seeing the converted gas station with the restaurant’s logo prominently displayed in the old Sinclair Oil sign frame.  Even if the car inexplicably stalled and forced the travelers to stop, the cardboard-and-magic-marker sign propped against some desert scrub outside the front door that read, “Today’s Special Burrito and Fries” would keep reasonable tourists safely on the outside.

The Burton brothers were there to absorb all the atmosphere of the great western states. Though our internal voice of reason screamed at us to keep driving, our sense of adventure overwhelmed us. George pulled our sister’s Lexus into a parking lot whose main features were gaping cracks with thick clumps of grass growing from them.

The adventure did not overwhelm, but it is possible that our taste buds needed more time to become acclimated to the food of that locale. Not surprisingly, Taco Bender’s no longer exists—at least in that location. A few years later I revisited the town, and another business occupied the premises. I do not recall its name, but it was not a restaurant. I surmised that burritos and fries became the rage and Taco Bender’s relocated to a more affluent area, but I may be incorrect in that assumption.

Though there is seven years difference in our ages, George and I possess some similar traits. Thanks to our father’s genes each of us suffers from hearing loss in varying degrees. Actually, our sister and younger brother do as well, and during family get-togethers all the spouses sit and marvel at the incongruousness of the Burton family’s conversations. We are not rude to each other, we simply do not hear what the other one says and start new topics without completing the previous ones.

Another similarity is that George and I have worn beards most of our adult lives, and we have frequently been mistaken by friends, thinking he was I or I was he. I once worked at a job for 11 years and wore a beard when hired. Seven years into the job, I decided to shave, and when I showed up at work the next morning many of my fellow workers did not know who I was. I have not shaved my beard since.

George no longer wears a beard. Overnight—at least it seemed like overnight—his hair went from brown to white, along with the beard. He has a streak of vanity, and when someone mentioned that the gray made him look older, the beard came off forever.

Our wives concluded that the trait we share the most is that we are slow learners because we did not seem to learn from our trips.

Most people I know enjoy live music. George and I do, and we thought we were in for a unique and memorable experience a few years ago when we visited the ParkeCounty (Indiana) Covered Bridge Festival, just north of Terre Haute. This festival is huge, attracting 250,000 visitors or more over a 10-day span. The live music this particular year was a group of pan flute musicians from Ecuador. The festival is held in towns throughout the county, and two different groups of musicians played at two of these locations. One was in a small town named Bridgeton, aptly named because a 140-year-old covered bridge dissects it. Adjacent to the bridge is an old grist mill, complete with water wheel, and the musicians set up their equipment in the grass next to the mill.

Their music could be heard throughout the town, even by two middle-aged men who have limited hearing. When I first heard the music, but before I had seen them, I thought the group was going to be a bunch of Ricky Ricardos, with puffed sleeves and singing “Babaloo.” Most of them, though, wore jeans and flannel shirts with tennis shoes, certainly Latin in physical appearance, but outfitted at Wal-Mart.

There were eight musicians present. Most of them played a pan flute, but one played only the drums, while another played acoustic guitar. The pan flutes were remarkable. Not being a pan flute connoisseur, I did not realize they come in different sizes. As might be expected, the larger the flute, the deeper the sound.

We anticipated this group would play songs from their native country, which they did to a small degree. Most of their songs, however, were popular American songs from the 1960s through the present.    Simon and Garfunkel had a song in the late 1960s titled “El Condor Pasa” and in this song is an instrument that is the type we heard, but we did not expect to hear that on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” It is easy to see it just did not work well, even though the musicians were very talented and shone through on songs of their native land.

One day close to the Fourth of July in the early part of this decade, George telephoned. My wife answered, and as usual, upon hearing his voice, rolled her eyes. A trip with George always involved an entire weekend day, possibly more. She had resigned herself to the fact I was going, wherever it was, so she mouthed, “Go ahead,” even before she handed me the receiver.

A couple of other traits the Burton brothers share are the ability to be sarcastic with each other and to appreciate the other’s sarcasm and laugh at ourselves.

“I’ve found a new place,” he exclaimed, chuckling at the same time.

“What now?” I could not hide my skepticism, which he simply ignored.

“Shoals Catfish Festival.”

“Shoals…Catfish…Festival,” I repeated.

“Yeah. You know where Shoals is?”

“Sure. Been through it a number of times. Can’t say I know why they would have a catfish festival, though.”

Shoals is a small town in the southwestern quadrant of Indiana, about an hour and a half from where I live. It has never been prosperous.

“What do they do at the Catfish Festival?” I inquired.

“I don’t know. Probably have catfish. There’s a river there. Must be a lot of catfish. I bet it’s like a lot of these other festivals we’ve gone to—”

“Then that should eliminate it,” I interrupted.

Although I innately knew this was a waste of time, I agreed to go. It is like the proverb, “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.”

George pulled his late model Crown Victoria into my driveway. He always drove, and he always picked me up. There were a couple of reasons for this. He and his wife had more than one vehicle, so if George was gone for the day, his wife could still get out of the house. My wife and I possessed only one, and if I took it, she would be home for the entire day. The second reason was the most important one. I am a law-abiding driver and never intentionally top the posted speed limit. George was born with a birth defect: his right foot has lead in it. If we take the number of minutes it would take me to get from one place to another and multiply that number by .625, then that would be the approximate number of minutes it would take George to arrive at the same location. Amazingly, George went for over 20 years without receiving a speeding ticket.

On another adventure in the late 1990s, we went to North Carolina for some genealogical work. On the way home we had to pass through two tunnels in West Virginia. Of course, George was doing the driving, and as he exited the tunnel traveling approximately 85 miles per hour and accelerating, he passed a state trooper whose sole mission in life was to wait at the end of that tunnel and capture speeders. George never saw the patrol car, but I did and I calmly pointed it out to him, but it was too late. He got his first ticket in two decades. Over the next four weeks, he received three more tickets, forcing him to attend driving school. This produced no longstanding effect on his driving habits, though.

“I did a little research about the Catfish Festival,” said George with a smile after I climbed into the passenger seat.

“You mean there actually is research to do? Where did you find information?”

“I called town hall,” he said.


“The guy I talked to said they have booths set up along the street and sell things.”

“Define ‘things’.”

“Crafts and things, like we saw at the Covered Bridge Festival.”

That got my interest. Even though the Ecuadorian music at that festival left us unfulfilled, the festival itself is outstanding. Almost any craft or artistic item is there.

“Think they’ll have chain saw art?” I asked.

“I would think so. Of course, there’s catfish to eat as well. That’s what the festival is all about. By the way, why didn’t Denise come?”

Denise is my wife. She accompanied us on exactly one trip. I am a Civil War buff, and in 1998 there was a huge re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh, the battle that made Abraham Lincoln take notice of Ulysses Grant, future star general for the boys in blue. We made plans to stay in Jackson, Tennessee, for three days while this re-enactment was to take place. Unfortunately, a deluge dropped on the event and cancelled it. We spent one half of one day in the pouring rain and mud and saw nothing. Denise swore never to go with us anywhere again.

“What else is in Shoals?” I said, ignoring his query about my wife. George smiled and paused. “Just tell me,” I said.

“The guy I talked to at city hall is the town marshal. He said the jail is used more on the Saturday night of the Catfish Festival than at any other time of the year. He said most of it’s for drunkenness.”

“Now that sounds like a strong selling point,” I said.

“There’s a parade, and a queen, so you know there must be something to it.”

“Yeah. Right. The Catfish Queen?”

July in the Ohio Valley is hot and humid. Some nights the temperatures never drop below the 80s, and the humidity generally is in the 70-90 percent range. My sister still laughs at the people in Colorado who complain that “this humidity is unbearable” when it climbs to the 15 percent range. This day was a typical summer day: hazy, hot and humid. George usually cranks the air conditioner to the max on days like this. Then, because the air conditioner is so loud, he has to turn the radio to max as well. It really makes no difference since we cannot hear the music.

My hopes were not high as we made our way over the serpentine road to Shoals. I have taken my family on it and they have gotten motion sick as a result more than once. The motion, the heat, and the prospects for a strange festival played on my mind.

The town’s claim to fame is a large rock on the main thoroughfare appearing in the form of a huge jug balanced upon another stone. The local school’s nickname is the Jug Rox, taken from the town’s signature attraction.

We had to cross the White River to enter Shoals. I peered over the bridge, trying to spot frantic catfish attempting to escape the nets of the Catfish Festival, but I saw none.

George pointed the car in the direction of downtown. It was not difficult to find. We drove through the main street, but saw nothing on it. However, down one side street, going in the direction of the river, we spotted some booths.

“There it is,” said George excitedly.

“Not much there,” I replied.

“Probably just the outskirts of the festival,” he said.

We parked and made our way there. It took us no longer than two minutes to deduce that this was not the outskirts at all, but the festival in its entirety. A handful of booths lined the street, but most of the booths were uninhabited at the moment, and completely void of not just people, but wares. Besides us, there were a few other people there, maybe 20 or so, but no one was buying what little there was to buy.

When I was young, the town in which I lived had a yearly event called the Street Fair, which was a benefit for our local volunteer fire department. A person could extract as much fun as there was to get out of the Street Fair in 15 minutes or less. The Shoals Catfish Festival made the Street Fair look like Disney World. There were no attractions that we could find at the Catfish Festival. The few booths contained yard sale items, none of which interested us.

We did stop at a local store. I do not recall its name, but it was the rough equivalent of a Five and Dime-type store that existed when I was a child. There were items that are no longer manufactured, covered in dust, and candy sitting in open barrels, which I would not buy or eat.

To be fair to the Catfish Festival, I believe the day we went there was the set-up day and the festival had not begun in earnest. I have seen photographs from a local newspaper of the festival queen riding in an open convertible during the festival’s parade, and there are plenty of people lining the street in these photographs. It is possible our timing was off by a day or so and therefore our observations were not accurate.

George and I drove an hour and a half, one way, to visit the Catfish Festival and stayed less than a half hour total. The Shoals Catfish Festival immediately became the standard for which we measure all other fruitless things we have done. It is the low-water mark for poor decisions we made in how to spend our free time and money.

We did stay out of the jail, however.

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