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Firefly nights

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. -- Fireflies lit the night. A lone cat crossed the street and scampered up the driveway next door. Echoes of anglers bounced off the lake behind me. All the while, Arkansas humidity ran down my back.

I activated the keyless entry remote that unlocks the minivan and opens its sliding side door; the whirls and clicking noises of the sliding door movement added to the sounds of the night.

For a minute, I thought I had escaped. Made it. Gotten through the interview for a story I had been dreading for months.

I was wrong.

It hit home the moment I felt the hand on my shoulder. When I turned around, I was eye to eye with my friend and Bassmaster Elite pro, Kevin Short.

He said to me: "DB, you want to know horrible? Horrible is having to write your own daughter's obituary."

That would be the exact definition of "horrible."

As I drove down the country road to I-40 and back to Little Rock, I tried to watch the fireflies dance in the hazy early evening misty fields of Mayflower, Ark., but I couldn't -- because away from Kevin and Kerry Short, from behind wraparound Gargoyle sunglasses worn at night, I was bawling like a baby, knowing that my friends lived through the phone call no parent ever wants to get.

That March 22, 2004 call was to tell them their 19-year-old daughter, Michelle Short, was dying in an emergency room bed. As a parent, that situation is just unimaginable.

Because if my son, Jimmy, is my heart, my daughter, Ashley, is my soul … and that's why I cried through the firefly-lit night.

Michelle Short

I never really became a man until I raised a daughter. (Dads out there, you know that.)

I was once a boy, and always will be a son. That I get.

But daughters are mysteries … unknown and maybe never completely understood. Daughters are from proms; fathers are from bars.

If daughters always dream about their wedding, dads always dream about that wedding dance. Let it be known now that regardless of what tradition says, we never, ever, give our daughters away.

Michelle Short was taken away.

While driving a Honda she had named "Fonda," Michelle lost control of her car in a construction zone and ran up a cement barrier, causing her car to overturn.

Kevin and Kerry Short were at a fishing tournament when the call came.

"We were 12 hours away," Kevin tells me, looking down at his feet as we lean against a metal railing. There are long pauses in his voice any parent would understand.

"The doctors were telling me on the phone that she was basically gone … I told them 'No, she is not. Do what you have to do to keep her alive until we arrive.'"

Michelle passed away with her mom and dad at her side.

Going down the hallway to their bedroom, Michelle's room is the first door on the right. On the wall to your left hangs a framed drawing of a dinosaur she made back in grade school. Inside, the bedroom is much the same as Michelle left it.

A hula man on the shelf sits next to a Slinky. A chair holds a pink N.Y. Yankees hat, and next to that, a life-sized cutout of Derek Jeter with multicolored Hawaiian leis draped around his neck. CDs in the room show an eclectic taste: Aerosmith, Jimmy Buffett, The Dixie Chicks, Queen, Beastie Boys, Nickelback and Korn.

Her clothes still hang in the closet. On a shelf above them are the board games the Shorts used to play on family night.

Once a week, we would all do something together -- go to a movie, putt-putt, or play board games," Kerry Short said. "I'm sure if I looked in that box of Monopoly up there, you would find three little baggies marked with all our names; however we left the game, we would take up all the money and pieces and put them in the bags until the next time. I'm sure they're still up there."

As Kerry talks, she is rubbing some tape on the bedroom floor. It's not Scotch tape, or duct tape, but more like masking tape.

"This is where Michelle used to exercise … she had this exercise routine worked out and she would use the tape to practice," Kerry said.

A 2003 graduate of Mayflower High School, Michelle was a cheerleader and an athlete. She played many sports, including basketball and softball.

Softball had been her love. As a catcher, she wore No. 13 and played the game well enough to go from the high school field to the baseball field of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) as a freshman walk-on player.

Preparing for the Michelle Short Scholarship Fund bass tournament

From tragedy came a tournament. Out of sorrow came scholarships.

For the past four years, Kevin and Kerry Short have put on a bass fishing tournament at Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville, Ark. They've donated the proceeds to the University of Central Arkansas softball program.

"We have specifically made it so that it benefits a freshman walk-on player on the girls' softball team who received no other financial aid," Kevin Short said. In other words, the scholarship benefits someone who's a mirror image of Michelle Short.

To date, before Saturday's tournament, Kevin and Kerry Short have raised $49,842 for UCA softball.

On Friday night, people steadily streamed to the launch site to sign up from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Bass pro Ken Cook and his wife, Tammy, son, Hunter, and golden retriever Ali drove in from Oklahoma to help with the tournament. Afterward we spent the early evening on the campground eating steaks, baked potatoes, corn on the cob and some sort of pickles that lit up our mouths.

(Kevin and Kerry are pickle freaks and probably have jars from every state. So if these guys offer you a dill or gherkin, take it. Trust me.)

We talked about chiggers (a sort of demonic Southern almost-invisible bug that can turn your skin into an insect milkshake, making you itch seemingly forever), RVs (the Shorts have one, and the Cooks and I are thinking about getting one) and Ali's chasing of squirrels, geese and ducks. We also discussed the Shorts and Cooks' trying to get me to travel to Zimbabwe for some sort of Tri-Nation Bass-Off in November (uh, guys, don't count on that where I'm concerned) and about sponsors who donated stuff to the tournament.

Tournament Day

After spending 15 minutes Saturday morning trying to get my shower to work without any luck, I instead stick my head under the sink faucet and manage to get most of the smelly parts I could reach at least somewhat wet.

Four squirts of cologne take care of the rest. It's good to be fresh.

At 4:45 a.m., as I drive into the state park, I spot a line of trucks and boats. I'm amazed that dozens of anglers were still showing up to register -- so much for mailing in the registration forms that were scattered in bait-and-tackle shops all over the state.

By the 6 a.m. launch, 119 boats -- the most ever -- have registered. Ken Cook unfurls the American flag, someone plays a taped version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Even Ali (the dog) stands still, looking straight at the flag.

Then, they're off.

Boat after boat passes me as Kevin Short announces/yells their names. (Speaker battery issues meant that by mid-takeoff, Short announced their names.) Father-son and father-daughter teams drive many of the boats.

Standing right in front of the speaker, I hear the names better than most, including the name Steve Bowman, a semi-boss to whom I semi-listen.

Below me in the water, I see a boat go by. Bowman's daughter, Melissa, all of 17 and looking young/pretty/hopeful, waves to the Shorts. Also in the boat, Bowman looks like, well … Bowman, though he manages a smile.

Not far behind them, fishing legend Larry Nixon and his daughter Lindsey fish their first tournament together.

Toward the end, a boat with a father and son drive by. Dad watches the no-wake waves; the young boy looks at me with an excited look, one of someone with his hand caught in the bass jar.

"This tournament is all about bringing children together fishing with their mother or father," Kevin Short said. "Michelle and I used to fish together -- and to know that now we can help bring other families together like this. [long pause] It's a help for Kerry and me."

Yet again, I'm glad I have my sunglasses on.

As Tammy Cook and Kerry Short run around, getting all the banners in place, the bottled water iced, the goodie bags filled and the sandwiches set up, Ken and Hunter Cook join me and a videographer from Costa Del Mar (who is wearing some kind of magic hat that won't come off on bass boat rides) to take a ride out on the lake, to see how folks are doing and to place a pink rubber ducky out on the lake.

(All the while, I'm thinking the pink rubber ducky thing must have been a first in the long career of Ken Cook.)

After putting the pink ducky on some sort of navigational device, we reach the Bowmans.

Melissa is happy, whereas Steve is … typical Bowman.

We hear the angler's lament from Bowman. "The fish were all here yesterday at practice," he said, surprised to learn that bass actually swim in lakes. From covering these tournaments, I've deduced that bass actually have one place they gather on practice days and a different place they hang on tournament days.

As we head back to the launch ramp at 10 mph, or "db speed," as Ken Cook likes to call it, we come across a father and son fishing. The boy had just landed a bass and was showing it to us with pride, while the father showed concern about getting said bass in the livewell and to the winner's circle.

Winners

I've interviewed tons of athletes and anglers who wear mirrored sunglasses, and I like watching myself be me, dancing around in their reflective lenses.

That's something I normally would do right now as well, but in this angler's shades, all I see is my stomach, because my interviewee is all of 10 years old.

Melissa Eldredge of Eufaula, Okla., has been fishing since she was 4. She started "in the hole out back," she said.

This kid is eating me up and spitting me out: "I don't want to talk about my fish today, OK? They're small … only caught two."

She has a black ball cap on with "Kevin Short" stitched in pink, and is holding and swigging a can of pink lemonade. Her red lipstick and mirrored glasses look up at me from just above belt height.

I'm toast. So I leave.

Wandering over to the docks, I watch as young Beau Browning tries to grab a bass that doesn't want to be grabbed out of the livewell. Beau, props to you -- I'm about 105 years older than you are and I would never try to grab the things myself.

FYI

Throughout the year Kerry Short has had all the Bassmaster Elite pros sign a giant lure, a Heddon Lucky 13, which is now being offered for auction on eBay. All sale proceeds will go to the Michelle Short Scholarship Fund.

You can bid on it by going here.

Donations to the fund also can be sent via mail to:

U. of Central Arkansas
Michelle Short Scholarship
Dept. of Intercoll. Athletics
P.O. Box 5004
Conway, AR 72035


2009: Next year, the tournament will be held on Saturday, May 30 at Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville, Ark.

Dad Browning reaches in and grabs the bass, putting it into the bag Beau is holding, before father and son walk together to the weigh station.

Back in the crowd, I watch Melissa Bowman, who is onstage, doing an interview with Kevin Short. She's all bubbly and still in her Victoria's Secret PJ lounge pants with PINK written across the butt. Off to the side of the stage, there's Steve, looking like he somehow got dragged back to the weigh-in under the boat.

(Their bass look better than Steve does.)

Two rows from the stage, I spot Melissa Eldredge sitting there, watching everything. So I go over and sit down next to her, as the black ball cap and mirrored glasses turn to look at me. Only this time, I've got my mirrored Gargoyles on as well.

It doesn't help much.

"The fish weren't biting. I threw my white spinnerbait and nothing happened, so then I tried my frog bait …" Mid-sentence she returned to looking at the stage. But I knew every cast she made today was being replayed through that 10-year-old brain of hers.

I wouldn't want to be a bass the next time Melissa Eldredge hits the water. We sit together, and she's mostly silent. But every once in a while, she says something such as that she wants to fish on the Women's Bassmaster Tour when she's old enough, or how she "went fishing with Mr. Short once, he told me about his daughter, we e-mail each other." Later, when she goes onstage to collect her prize, she gives Mr. Short a hug, and he hugs back, clearly making a connection.

Other winners go on and off the stage, but to me the real winner leans against a window behind the action: a large presentation check made out to the Michelle Short Scholarship Fund at the University of Central Arkansas in the amount of $7,954.61.

After saying goodbyes to the Shorts and Cooks, who left here and headed for the Bassmaster Southern Challenge on Lake Wheeler in Decatur, Ala., I grab a large chocolate milkshake and drive back to the park to watch the sunset over the lake and cool off from the 91-degree day.

Sitting there, I can't help but think of the final conversation I had with 10-year-old Melissa, and how she told me she had gotten up at 2 a.m. to drive with her father to be here for this tournament.

"The night before, I had just played a doubleheader of softball."

And through the trees, I watch the sparkles of light begin. For me, it's the spirit of Michelle Short, still shining brightly … on these Arkansas firefly nights.

Don Barone is a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. His other stories can be found on Amazon.com. For questions, comments or story ideas you can reach him at: db@DonBaroneOutdoors.com