Mike Jones - KEEPING UP

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Friday, June 29, 2018
A Cautionary Tale
Friday, July 13, 2018
Born to Fish

Mr. T
My first job fresh out of college quickly cured me of celebrity. After sneaking onto every movie lot in Hollywood, I somehow finagled a job in the NBC mailroom. If this was the belly of the entertainment beast, it was definitely much closer to the dispensing end. And while it didn’t take long to see that my writing future would be elsewhere, I never forgot how treacherous it could be to actually meet your heroes.

Time and again, the lessons learned in Burbank were never far away. They were the voices in my ear and the hands on my shoulders holding me back while everyone else rushed the stage or clamored for an autograph. They were the blowtorches cauterizing any fan boy instinct or star-struck twinge. They were true north. 


The first time I shook hands with Bill Dance was at some long ago, long-forgotten fishing event. I was among a group of people introduced to the legendary man in the Tennessee cap, so it was a moment as inconsequential as it was brief. Six months later I was at some other sport show and there was Dance, posing for pictures with a beaming young angler as a line of devotees, three-wide, snaked off into the distance.

“Hey Mike,” he said, flashing an electric smile for the camera, “How’s the fishing out there in California?”

My first thought was of photographic memories and other such ethereal talents. Maybe this guy was a savant in facial recognition. I mean, how could someone pose for a picture, keep a 12-year-old enthralled, chat up the parents and remember who the hell I was? Over the next 30 years or so, I learned the answer to that question.

I admit I’ve set the bar impossibly high. As a youngster, Roy Rogers was the be all and end all of heroes. Moreover, he proved worthy of my childhood reverence by never disappointing me. And that, my friends, is the ultimate benchmark of anyone elevated to hero status. Time, as they say, will tell.

Since our lives only intersected a few times a year, getting to know Bill was an incremental thing. I saw him in different venues, under different circumstances and surrounded by different people. Somehow, he was always the same person — a person, I might add, who reveled in the practical joke. Just ask NFL Hall-of-Famer, Terry Bradshaw. Many years ago, he set up a bass fishing trip with Dance and when he asked about getting a fishing license, his host assured him that such details would not be necessary. Of course, the sun hadn’t been up too long before a game warden — tipped off by Dance — pulled alongside and began demanding licenses. At the very height of his football fame, Bradshaw was pulling out all the stops, amazed that the officer didn’t recognize him or his friend, perhaps the most famous guy in the state.

Like a sword, however, the practical joke can cut both ways. Having caught more victims than Bradshaw in his web of deceit, Dance would eventually endure payback. On a publicity tour in Georgia, some local fishing reps had agreed to provide Dance with transportation to the event. All was going well as they whisked along the turnpike, that is, until a bank of red and blue lights turned night into day. Thinking it was a thorough, yet routine traffic stop, Dance got out of the vehicle as ordered and sat down on the metal highway guardrail.

The state troopers seemed to be especially on edge. They asked the driver if they could search the vehicle. He agreed. The next thing Bill Dance saw from his roadside perch, in the glare of passing headlights, was an officer of the law extracting several plastic baggies from one suitcase.

“Oh no,” he thought, as the troopers focused their attentions on a suspicious white powder. “This is what happens when you travel with people you barely know.”

Bill told me later that he hung his head down between his knees and quite literally saw his career flash before his eyes. Fortunately, the perpetrators of the joke and the burly state troopers decided that enough was enough.

Taking it as good as you give it may well be another mark of the hero, for here is a talent often overlooked, yet something Dance and others like him possess in spades. Self deprecation is proof of an ego under control and, with Bill Dance, it may also point to his business acumen. For a certain generation where blooper reels became part of the culture, Dance was one of the first to capitalize on wince-inducing outtakes showing all manner of tripping, conking, falling and splashing miscues.

Of course, the very best way to take the full measure of any man is to spend a day together on the water. My opportunity came under sultry, sunny skies not far from Memphis. The strikes were coming on frogs slipped off plate-size lily pads and, as the mid-morning sun began to sear, Dance reached down and snapped off one of the larger pads, handing it to me. He then broke off another one and promptly placed it on his head. I, of course, followed his lead.

“When I was kid, this was how we stayed cool,” he laughed.

So, how real was that? It was Bill being Bill. Just as it was one day before the doors opened at a BassMaster Classic sport show. As fishing reps and pro staff busied themselves preparing their booths, one man sat alone in a bass boat amid a sea of boats on display. As I got closer, I realized it was Bill Dance, all but unrecognizable without his white-and-orange Tennessee cap. He waved me over and invited me to sit down for a chat. Soon, the doors opened and in rushed a sea of happy people.

Bill shook my hand and reached down for his cap.

As he slid out of the boat, I asked, “Time to be Bill Dance?”

He winked and was instantly engulfed by the crowd. And, in that moment, I realized I had misspoken. It wasn’t time to be Bill Dance, he was always Bill Dance.

* * *

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