Tuesday, November 7, 2017
It would have been the summer of 1971.
We moved into our house in February of that year, and I think that summer I got my first fishing rod and reel. I got it from the guy who sold sporting goods in the New Castle Farmer’s Market on weekends.
Not long after, Tommy Riccio, my neighbor from across the street, took me to the secret fishing hole that the boys on my block all went to on summer mornings. They called it “Nonesuch Creek” and it’s not just a local moniker, it actually appears on maps of the area. A small little outcrop off the Christiana River, about three miles from our neighborhood.
It was tidal, and dirty, and smelled like diesel and dirt. We never caught anything but carp and catfish but that wasn’t really the point. We weren’t there for trophy fish or to catch our dinner. We were there being little boys. Fishing by ourselves, at a time in this world when little boys could jump on their bikes after breakfast, pedal three miles to their secret fishing hole, and spend the day in the sun, hidden from the nearby highway traffic, deep in a meadow that ran alongside this dirty little creek with the mysterious name.
We’d dug earthworms from our parents’ gardens the night before. We packed a lunch of bologna sandwiches and Coke’s wrapped in aluminum foil, in a vain attempt to keep them cold, and we set out on our spider bikes.
Tommy Riccio was three years older, and it wasn’t many more summers before his interests in hanging with the younger boys on the block waned, and he discovered girls and KISS records, and we didn’t do much together anymore.
But for those first few years, he was one of my best friends, and my fishing buddy.
He was creative and funny and mischievous and smart. Like all my other friends on that block, Tommy added the color to my childhood that made it fun and in many ways, tolerable. Home wasn’t the happiest place, but out on the block, with my friends from Monroe Avenue gathered on the white block wall that ringed my yard…I was happy.
Tommy and I grew up, and moved on, but we’d run into each other now and then when I’d get home for a visit and it was always good to see him. Somehow, even after 45 years, I still held him just a little in awe. He was still special to me. They all are, those kids from Monroe Avenue. It is always good to run into my childhood friends and Tommy was no exception.
Tommy passed away unexpectedly last week and the news hit me hard. He’s the second of my close friends from childhood to go, and like Sheila six years ago, this is painful for me. I love his family and I loved Tommy. His mom and dad were always the two people I made sure I visited when I’d get home. His mom passed earlier this year and I still struggle to grasp that. Now Tommy joins her.
I keep thinking about Tommy and that fishing hole and those spider bikes and the time we dissected a bullfrog in his garage and it looked like a scene from a horror movie. I think about the first tree fort we built in the big sprawling oak behind the Ferraro’s house. How we’d tar-papered the roof and it was weatherproof and we would sit up there on rainy summer days and talk about what boys talk about, while the Phillies game was on a transistor radio we’d brought along.
I thought about how we’d all pile into my mother’s VW Beetle and head to the Chesapeake Bay, or to the Drive-In on a Friday night or to the haunted houses at Halloween and we’d all go through them together. One big gang of kids, all from the same dead-end street. Friends to the end.
I’ll be thinking of Tommy next spring, when the snows thaw and the James River runs fast and deep and I begin another season of fishing. The James is a far cry from Nonesuch Creek. It’s beautiful, clean, and surrounded by pristine mountains and the fish I catch are true trophies. It’s what I dreamed of when I was a little boy, fishing that dirty creek with my neighborhood friends. In every imaginable way, it’s better fishing than what Tommy and I experienced on Nonesuch Creek.
Or is it?
There won’t be three other boys there; bikes piled clumsily nearby, with a coffee can full of earthworms nearby and cork bobbers floating anxiously on the water.
We won’t be telling jokes and peeing in the bushes, and getting tanned and sweaty and dirty and enjoying just being out there with each other.
It will just be me. Floating a section of one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen, like I dreamed when I was a boy.
In my heart though, where the best memories live forever, Tommy will be there. He’ll be there laughing at my jokes, telling me a few of his own, casting to the best spot and watching that bobber with an eagle eye.
He’ll live on in my heart, this old friend of mine, and he’ll fish with me in those brief, flashing moments when I’ll think of him, and Johnny and Richard, with our rods and tackle boxes in our hands, pedaling our way down the path that led to our secret spot.
I can still see his face as it was when we were kids. He’ll laugh, he’ll cast his line in that perfect clear water next to mine, and then he’ll go back to the place in my heart where he’ll be forever.
Godspeed dear old friend.
I’ll see you on a bright Saturday morning next spring. You’ll come out from your place in my heart, and we’ll fish together for a few moments.
Hug your mom for me.
Saturday, June 3, 2017
The first real “fishing hole” I remember was “None-such creek” back home in New Castle, Delaware. Before that, I’d fished a few times with my grandfather in a little finger of the many creeks that ran throughout the marshy areas that adjoined the Philadelphia Airport, down the street from his house. I lived there for the first five years of my life and that was the first fishing I remember.
When we moved to New Castle, my new friends in the neighborhood had their spot at Nonesuch and they let me come along. Nonesuch was nothing to grow sentimental about. Not the landscape anyway. It was just a tributary of the Christiana River, which, itself, dumped into the Delaware. In the 70’s, when I fished there, pollution was an afterthought and the river smelled like diesel and dirt. You knew better than to eat the fish you caught because they tasted like the water they swam in.
None of that mattered, however, because we weren’t there to fish for food –although we tried that once- we were there to fish. For us, at eight years old, fishing was about being out on our own, away from our homes and families, growing up together. We talked about what eight-year-old boys talked about back then. We brought our bologna sandwiches in brown paper bags in our knapsack and we rode our spider bikes two or three miles to our secret fishing spot.
As dirty as that river was, the meadow that surrounded it was clean and sweet and beautiful. In the summer, it smelled of honeysuckle and hay. Butterflies fluttered about and birds flew overhead. It was a wonderful escape from the sameness of suburban housing. I never remember looking around and thinking about the history I was walking on. I was just a little boy, there with his friends, trying to catch a fish.
Now, though, things are different. Where I fish now is steeped in history and I am of an age that I pay attention to those things. I fish the upper James River mostly. Up above Snowden Dam, almost to Balcony Falls.
I found a parking spot last year and I walk the train tracks from there to Balcony and fish my way back, learning about this river as I go. (The plan is to buy a kayak this summer as soon as finances allow) Walking train tracks has always been an allegorical prop in literature. The wandering. The restlessness. The feeling of always moving along. It’s not that for me, necessarily, as much as it is a thread through history. I walk these tracks and wonder about the trains that have come and gone over the years.
I came upon a unique marble historical marker on my last trip. It reminded me that this river…as all rivers, has been flowing for a long time. And in that flow, is history. This marker dates back over 150 years. The thing it talks about, this man losing his life to save others…it happened right where I was standing.
When I first moved here three years ago, I started thinking about the historicity of the area. I would, occasionally, look around as I cast my lure, and think about all those who have fished these waters before me. Native Americans who fished for food and drew their drinking water from the Powhattan, as they called it. Explorers, winding their way west through this gorge. Soldiers in the civil war –mere boys, really- fishing here for something to eat, after a fierce battle…or on their way to one. Locals. Little boys like I was when I fished None-such creek. Kids on their bikes, throwing cork bobbers into the water and being thrilled with whatever they caught.
Nowadays, when I fish...I look around. I never used to do that. Yes, I’ve always loved the scenery, but now I view it through the prism of history. These giant boulders that have been worn smooth by thousands of years and millions of gallons of water pouring over them. This gorge that was probably cut into these mountains by the Flood. These railroad tracks.
My best friend and I are talking about a late-fall trip here when he is done on his commercial crab boat for the season. Mark and I haven’t fished together in about 30 years. Life happens. To wade these waters and talk like we used to when we were boys will be life-giving for me. So much time has passed, and so many miles.
I have a mid-summer trip planned for Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Right next to the Antietam battlefield fishing, no doubt, the same waters where civil war soldiers fished and swam and worried about whether they’d make it through the next day. Nothing like that will be on my mind...I'll just be there to fish. But I will be thinking about them, maybe feeling their memories in the river.
The river rolls on...but as I get older, I find that, as it does, it deposits some of its’ memories in my soul.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
It’s Tuesday morning and I am getting ready to leave for work. But all I can think of is the spot on the James River that I discovered a few weeks ago. A spot so promising that I can’t believe nobody else fishes it. It took me a while to find this place. Actually, it happened by accident. I was looking at Google Earth, trying to find the dam they were discussing in a newspaper article. I found the dam, and then, out of curiosity, I moved a little farther upstream and saw the spot I usually fish. I continued to scroll upstream and discovered this magnificent spot where the rock formations were perfect and there was an equal amount of deep water and shallow riffles. The satellite images are amazingly clear and I could see beneath the water in a way that I never could with the naked eye. I could see the rock shelf and the variation in depth. I saw the channel that cut it’s way through the bedrock over thousands of years. (I recommend using this Google earth technique when fishing new areas) The next week I went out and walked about three miles to the spot I had researched. It didn’t look like anyone had fished it recently. No trash along the rocky shoreline. No tangled remnants of line stuck in the trees.
It took some work to get there and I imagine that anyone less than a serious fisherman wouldn’t bother.
I’m sitting here at my table this morning thinking far more about that fishing hole than I am about my job. When I was a kid, riding my bike to “Nonesuch Creek” with my best friends, fishing was about fishing. Just catching a fish, any fish, and hanging with the guys was all the motivation I needed. Fishing was just what little boys did.
But I’m almost 54. I am a divorcee, a single dad trying to navigate this life of mine, and learning on the job what it is that dad’s do with 19-year-old daughters, and trying to hurry up and figure out the rest of my life. I don’t fish simply for the fun of it anymore. I fish now, because I need to. Desperately.
I need some sort of connection to a much simpler time. I need the memories that fishing stirs. I need the internal solitude and the chance to unravel the tangled ball of yarn that my soul has become. I need to think, and to pray, and to reminisce, and to see if I can still dream. I dream of writing. Of communicating the questions I ask and the answers I've found. I doubt my abilities to do this but I desire it nonetheless. I think of this a lot when I'm on the river.
Fishing, now, has become my soul retreat. My quiet place where I can recharge. Whether I catch anything or not is of little consequence. Of course, I want to catch fish. But sometimes actually catching a fish is distracting to the things going on inside.
My second cousin is a professional fisherman. We’ve never met, and it was a surprise to me, to learn that he is a relative. He’s pretty well known and extremely popular on the Bass circuit. (Mike Iocanelli, a second cousin on my grandmother’s side. Her maiden name was Iocanelli) Ike fishes for a living and so his approach is, by necessity, far more aggressive and business-like.
When I was a boy, that would have been a dream job. But I watch his video channel and I see how much hard work he puts in to be as good as he is and I don’t think that would be for me. Obviously, Ike loves what he does, but I wonder if he ever gets the chance to simply fish for the fun of it. Maybe someday we’ll meet and I’ll ask him.
My heart is in the spin cycle right now. Turbulent and tumultuous. I realize I am running out of time to make career choices and I feel very far from home. Maybe that’s why I feel like I need to be on the river today and not on the campus at Liberty University. I need to lose my thoughts in the mechanical repetition of casting and retrieving. Of reading the water and looking for structure. To the steady noise of the water as it rushes by and the thrill of a strike. A thrill that eventually loses it’s gravity as I dig deeper into the bird nest inside my heart and try to draw a roadmap for the next 20 years of my life.
Years ago, Rich Mullins, one of my favorite musicians, wrote a song called “The River.”
The chorus says this:
"And I know the river is deep
And I found out the currents are tricky.
And I know the river is wide.
Oh and the currents are strong.
And I may lose every dream
That I dreamt I could carry with me.
But I know that will reach the other side.
Please don’t let me have to wait too long.”
The river is a metaphor. Maybe for me, the James River is a metaphor as well. Maybe out there, I’m not the formerly homeless guy, or the 54 year old man in a twenty-something world, or the single dad who feels like he’s feeling his way along the back wall of a cave in the dark, when it comes to relating to a 19 year old young woman as a daughter.
Maybe I can be all of that, plus that eight-year-old boy, riding on a spider bike with his best friends, just looking to have fun.
I need to go find out.
The river calls.
Friday, January 15, 2016
It’s a cold, grey January afternoon here in Lynchburg, Va.
My screensaver on my office laptop is a shot I took during a fishing trip last July on the James River, about two miles above Snowden dam.
It was hot. The water was warm by then. The fly hatches were three months removed and the smallmouths were only eating what lives in deeper pools.
But I was fishing, and that’s what mattered.
I remember these long dreary days from when I was a boy. Sitting in class on those seemingly endless Friday afternoons, dreaming of fishing with my friends and knowing that tomorrow was Saturday but I wouldn’t be going to “Nonesuch Creek” or the “A-Bridge” or Smalley’s Dam or any of the other fishing holes we would pedal our bikes to.
I’d be indoors, until after Bugs Bunny was over, and then I would go out to find my friends and maybe play street hockey or skate on the frozen patches in the little storm-runoff-fed creek behind our houses.
Eventually the pull of fishing would get the best of me and I would break out my trusty old True Temper rod and reel and head over to the county park to practice casting.
The truth was I was plenty adroit at casting my line, I didn’t need any practice. But I needed to feel the rod in my hands and I needed to watch the line peel off the spool and I needed to crank the handle and feel it coming back.
In those frozen hours in “Chelsea Manor Park” I wasn’t casting a 5/8” threaded nut that I’d borrowed from my old man’s hardware bin, I was throwing a Rapala broken back on Dale Hollow Lake, like I’d seen Jerry McKinnis do on “The Fishin’ Hole.” I was sitting on the bank of Nonesuch Creek with Johnny and Richard and Tommy and talking and joking like young boys do, until the rod tip bent and another catfish or carp was on our line.
Those winter days seemed like they’d never end, but just when we thought winter had won and would go on forever, spring arrived, and the rivers and creeks beckoned once more. The days grew longer, the fish began biting again, and our friendships ran deeper and deeper.
These days I sit in my office and dream of being on the water again. Last weekend I was rearranging some boxes in a closet and glanced at my tackle box and rod there in the corner. I was ready to load them into the car and head to the river just to see what might be hungry, and I still may do that. Having never been around a healthy stream in mid-winter, I never had the opportunity to try cold weather fishing. I think about it here and I might do it one of these weekends.
But the magic and the charm of daydreaming about my summer fishing holes are what I think about today. I remember that boy who loved fishing so much that he’d endure the chill winds of February to stand in an open field and cast a stainless steel 5/8” nut toward a hula hoop about 50 yards away, just to see if he could hit it. I think about how much he loved the sport, and how often he thought about it because he loved it, and at ten, or eleven, or twelve, there wasn’t anything to be worried about or to occupy his soul. Back then, there were no deadlines, no reports to write or customers on campus to call on. He wasn’t a dad yet, he had few responsibilities beyond cutting the lawns of his customers or delivering newspapers or cleaning up after the family dog.
He whistled his favorite songs and smiled at the thoughts of how, any day now, the weather would break and his best friends would be riding along with him on their bikes, heading for a day of fishing and just being boys.
Nowadays, he is a single dad. He works at his alma mater. In what spare time he has, he builds decks and writes books and works hard to provide for his daughter who is –unbelievably- already a college freshman.
And when he gets the chance, he writes about things like this.
And when he gets the chance, he writes about things like this.
He daydreams now and then about Lake Como and his best friend Mark and the bass they’d catch in the lily-pad cove. He thinks of Johnny and the backwater section of Lum’s Pond where the biggest bass and pickerel lived.
He thinks about that white True Temper rod with the red reel and cork handle and all the fish it brought to his hand. He’d give a roomful of $300 graphite rods to find that old fiberglass pole if he could.
He misses those days sometimes. Life is great and things have worked out well for an outdoorsman like him. He landed in a part of the country where so many great streams and rivers can provide him almost limitless opportunity to fish. It’s beautiful here, but sometimes these cold days take him back forty years or so to a young boy who waited anxiously for his Field and Stream subscription each month.
He watched “The Fishin’ Hole” and dreamed of the day he’d be an adult and be able to fish places like that. He remembers the little red tackle box and the Daredevil spoons he bought at the Western Auto store. The cork bobbers and the Eagle Claw hooks (because nothing else was good enough!) and the Uncle Josh’s pork rind in little glass jars. He misses a time when fishing…anywhere, for any species, was good enough.
Because he was fishing.
My friends are grown now, and dispersed all over the country. I haven’t fished with Johnny or Mark in probably 25 years…maybe longer. But on these cold, overcast days when a canopy of grey hides the sun, I find myself daydreaming once again. This time though, I’m not the ten year old boy impatiently idling away an hour dreaming about fishing with his buddies this spring.I’m fifty-two…and I’m wishing I could be him again.
Sunday, August 23, 2015
Since starting this blog, and returning to the fields and streams and rivers, I’ve caught myself reminiscing about some of the hardware I used to own when I was a kid.
One of the first stories I wrote here was about my first fishing rod. I also wrote about my first tackle box and the mysteries it held.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about my first, and only, shotgun. I got it for my sixteenth birthday. It was a Marlin model 778, thirty inch, vent ribbed, full choke, skeet sights, chambered for up to three inch magnum shells. This is not my actual gun, but this is exactly what it looked like.
Like I said, I got it for my sixteenth birthday. It was probably the best birthday present I ever got. It was the one time I can remember my mother and stepfather actually throwing a birthday party for me, and it was the one present I ever got that really was something I wanted. My birthday was always close to the start of school and so I mainly got school clothes for birthday gifts. But this one time, they really got it right.
I loved that gun. I assembled it and disassembled it about a hundred times the first few days after I got it. I oiled it and polished the walnut stock and fore-end until it looked like a piece of furniture.
The first time I fired it was with my friend Mark at his house in Smyrna, Delaware. We walked out to the soy fields behind his house and put about a half a box of Remington #8’s through it. I loved how it fired. I loved how smooth and sweet the pump action was. It wasn’t clunky or loose or excessively noisy. A thirty inch barrel with a full choke keeps a very tight pattern for a very long distance. It took some getting used to when switching from geese to rabbit or squirrel. I could knock down a Canadian goose from a pretty good distance. But that barrel didn’t leave much for the freezer when I was hunting smaller animals, so I had to learn how to aim it so that only part of the pattern would hit my prey.
I got good at it though, and over the years during high school, Mark and I were like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, traipsing through the woods near and around his house, or the hunting area near the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, or down at Phillips Nursery. The Phillips’ let people hunt their nursery in the winter because it kept the critters from destroying the valuable shrubbery and trees they were growing for the upcoming spring. You could always count on coming home with a rabbit or two after a Saturday at Phillips’ nursery.
I got my first, and only deer with that gun. A beautiful eight point buck. He walked through the soy fields I was hunting in downstate Delaware and he stepped on the only stalk left in the field after the combine had come through. I heard the crunch from my tree stand and turned to watch him approaching. He was careless and randy, because the rut was in full force and I was perched just above his favorite scrape. He was walking straight at me, about fifty yards out and I waited for him to turn enough for me to take out a leg with a shoulder shot and make sure I didn’t leave him wounded and running.
The old boy never did turn, he got to within about forty yards and stopped. He nibbled something on the ground, looked around –probably for a doe to pursue- and stayed still. I figured the longer he stood there the better chance he’d eventually see me up in the tree so I aimed carefully and took my shot. I was using Brenneke rifled slugs (in Delaware, you can only hunt deer with shotgun or primitive weapon. No High Powered rifles) and the combination of the long barrel and the precision of those slugs, made it an easy kill. I hit him right in the chest, over his heart. He reared straight up, fell back about five feet, took one deep breath, kicked out his hind legs and expired. I doubt he ever felt anything, and I’m glad.
I pumped the second shot into the chamber so fast that I doubt a semi-auto could have been quicker. I stood there in my stand, watching him for a good fifteen seconds, hoping that he didn’t move. He never did.
I scurried down the tree and called out to my hunting partner Hank. Hank emerged from the woods a few minutes later as I fell to work, dressing my buck.
I was nineteen when I shot that deer. A few years later, I was in my mid-twenties, hunting had become more and more infrequent since I had started a business and the lady where we deer hunted had sold her farm. I sold that shotgun to a friend of mine who owned a pawn shop in Elsmere. I intended on buying something more fancy one day, but one day turned into about 25 years of not hunting or fishing or enjoying the places I used to love. I sure do miss that gun.
I don’t know who owns it now, if it’s still shooting straight, and taking game. I don’t know if it filled any more freezers after it filled mine. I don’t know if there are any more notches on the stock.
But I know there is one.
A few days after I took that buck, I got out my pocketknife and carved a precise, small little notch in the stock, just below the point where it attaches to the receiver. I had every intention of carving many more notches into that stock, representing many more deer, but I never did.
Marlin was never a high-end gun manufacturer, but they built very good guns for a very good price.
If you had covered over the stampings and told me it was a Winchester or a Remington or even an Ithaca, I would have known no different. Through the years, I found myself wanting to buy more exotic, pricier, trendy guns. Being Italian I wanted –and still want- a nice Beretta or a Benelli. Maybe a Browning Citori or a nice Remington 1100.
But if I could only buy one gun right now, I’d find that old Marlin 778 from my sixteenth birthday. I’d give the owner whatever he wanted for it, because to me it is priceless. It was my companion, along with my dog Jesse and my best friend Mark, on weekends and early autumn afternoons. It stood by me in the rain and the cold. It was next to me in the goose pit in Middletown when I took my only Canadian geese. It was a symbol of my manhood. It wasn’t a composite stock, or a carbon barrel. It was made of wood and steel, the way guns used to be made. It has a visible notch in the stock for the deer I took in 1981, and invisible notches for all the memories I made with it, with a friend, and a dog, that I loved dearly.
Friday, June 12, 2015
Ghosts Along the James
You fish to catch fish, obviously. But often you catch much more.
For the contemplative, you cast your thoughts as much as your lines, when you are on the water. Within the pulsing pull of the spinner blade as it flashes through the water, or the anxious passing of time as your bobber drifts across a likely spot, there lives a place where thoughts, and hopes and dreams make gentle intrusions. In those first hours, they flash like faces in a crowd, barely catching your attention before they disappear into the blur of the concentration required to fish, and the possibility that this cast will be the one.
Lure selection, speed of retrieval, water temperature…all these things preoccupy me when I first arrive on the river. They must. Fishing is skill and art as much as luck and work. There is a lot of information to process in those early, newborn moments in the stream.
But soon enough, I find my rhythm. I’ve happened upon the right lure selection, I retrieve it just right, find the depth at which the fish are holding, and it begins to require far less thought to catch fish. It becomes a little less of a science and more of a welcoming, friendly routine. It’s never automatic, not in a river anyway. It can be automatic when you are on a lake or a pond or out in the ocean and you settle on a school, and the stars align, and you fill your cooler. However, out here in the river, that seldom happens.
Fishing a river like the James means repetition. Repetition becomes the fertile soil of thoughts and images…and ghosts.
They are never scary, these ghosts. Never frightening. Sometimes they are what was. Sometimes they are what might have been. In them, sometimes, we see what yet could be.
I fish with these ghosts when they come calling. I feel them in each cast. I hear their voices in the splash of the stream as it swirls around my knees. Occasionally I hold up a particularly good fish so they can see, and nod approvingly. They smile, these ghosts. A smile I didn’t always see when they were here in the flesh.
I fish with a ghost named Jake. Jake was my grandfather. His given name was Albert. He was born on a steamer on the way here from the Ukraine. He was my mother’s dad. He came by the name “Jake” because he was a John Wayne fan and “Big Jake” was his favorite movie. He loved the water. He was a SeaBee in WWII in the Pacific. When he got home from the war, he worked at the Westinghouse plant for a time but he never could out-wrestle the bottle and it cost him the ability to ever hold a steady job. He was a bookie, and fish monger, and a welder. He had the capacity to love, but lacked the capacity to ever show it very much. He drank more than anyone I have ever known. He didn’t love to drink…he needed to drink. But he didn’t love it. He loved the water. He loved to fish.
I was his first grandchild. Normally that evokes doting and pride. I think he was proud of me. I guess he doted as best he could. But he was ruled by the bottle and the bottle isn’t a good communicator. I was 19 when he died, having made his peace with God and become a Christian only two weeks before his death. I’m glad. I’m glad I believe in a God who provides Grace in such a fashion that even my grandfather could live as he did until the final days of his life and still receive mercy.
When he died I didn’t really know what to think. I loved him…there was no doubt about that. But I only knew a little of him. I saw the softness and vulnerability of his heart so infrequently. Like the one and only time we went fishing.
I’d asked him over and over; “Pop Pop take me fishing!” He finally relented one summer day and we went –in his old Rambler American- to a tidal flat near the John Heinz Wildlife area just outside of Philadelphia. He drove slowly, like old men do. We parked on the shoulder of the road and walked down to the bank. I think we caught an eel and a carp. Nothing I’d brag about or snap a picture of, but I was fishing with my grandfather and that was all that mattered.
We never fished again, Jake and me. I never asked him to go. Maybe I should have once I got my license and could have picked him up and taken him someplace a little nicer. But honestly it never occurred to me. Warm fuzzy moments weren’t commonplace with Jake. I just never thought to ask.
Maybe that’s what makes it strange to me that Jake shows up here on the James, in the days since I’ve returned to fishing. Why here? Why now? He’s been gone since 1982, and save for a few flickering memories now and again, I’ve almost never given him a thought. But he’s here with me when I walk down the steep path to the train tracks above Snowden Dam. Maybe he lives here. Here in this beauty and peacefulness. Something he never found in his life.
I didn’t notice him the first day I was back on the water. He showed up on the second trip. When I was sitting on the barge where they are building the new bridge across the river. It was at the end of the day for me and I was mindlessly casting and retrieving a Rooster Tail and like a specter…there he was. His thick glasses glinting in the sunshine and a smile played on his lips. I blinked and he was gone but before he vanished like a wisp of smoke…he winked at me.
He likes this place, I think. Jake likes fishing the James with his eldest grandson. He doesn’t stay long. But his visits get longer each time. When the train passes just above me at my newest spot, he turns and looks in just the same way I do. Jake loved trains too. Maybe when he was a little immigrant boy, in a crowded house where he didn’t seem to fit, he looked for a train to catch and take him away. It didn’t come then, but it’s here now. Next to his grandson’s fishing hole.
Jake would be bothered by lures, I think. He was a bait fisherman. I don’t think he’d enjoy casting and reeling and casting and reeling, unless we were having great luck. I think this Jake…this ghost who comes to see me now, at 51, when I fish…I think he’s happy. I think this beautiful place brings him peace in much the same way it brings me peace.
Sometimes I’m joined by another ghost. One that always makes me smile, and often makes me shed a tear. His name is John, but only his wife called him that. Everyone else called him “Pop.” Or “Poppa John” but mostly just “Pop.” I first met him when he taught my hunter safety class when I was eleven years old. About twenty years later he became very much a dad to me.
Pop was Italian by birth and he taught me more about my heritage than almost anyone else. He was one of the wisest men I have ever met. He was funny, witty, cantankerous and talented beyond measure. He had the heart of an artist, held safely within the soul of a blue-collar truck driver. He loved the outdoors. Loved to hunt, loved to fish, loved to sit still and simply appreciate it. Pop had the unique ability to see both the artistic side and the pragmatic side. His daughter told a wonderful story once about how Pop had hunted a beautiful buck. He brought it home and later that weekend, sat down and painted a beautiful oil painting of the same deer he’d shot two days before. He did it as a monument of sorts. He respected nature and the outdoors.
Pop shows up here on the James with me. I hear his laughter and his joking nature. I think of the other times we fished together. The last time especially. He and his son Johnno and I…sitting on five gallon buckets at the bottom of the spillway at Noxontown Pond. Catching crappie and talking about what men talk about.
Pop lived a life far different from my grandfather did. Better. More successful. He left something behind as a legacy.
But here on the river, both ghosts have equal hold on my heart. Both make me smile. Both bring a few tears. I want both of them to be proud when I catch a nice fish, proud of the pictures I snap and my appreciation of the scenery. Proud of my words.
It was Pop who sat at his kitchen table with me one evening about five years ago, not long before he passed, and said “You’re a writer…you have to write.” Pop understood me. Pop understood the pull of art. For him it was drawing and painting. He needed to do that. For me, my palette is my vocabulary. My canvas is the story. I need to do this. Pop got that part of me.
The ghosts move about in the sway of the trees and laugh in the gurgle of the water as it shapes itself around the rocks. They smile in the droplets that make up a splash.
They make themselves known.
They speak of forgiveness, and fond memories, and they speak of promise.
My daughter wants to come out here with me next time. I haven’t forced it on her because she is seventeen and…well, she’s seventeen. But I asked and she said yes.
Next trip, maybe we’ll sit on the enormous boulders that line the river basin and talk. I’ll tell her stories about the great-grandfather she never met. Eventually, as she gets to know him through my words…he’ll show up. That ghost named Jake.
Pop…well she knew Pop. She loved Pop and Pop loved her. I think she’ll see him here all on her own. She’ll get to know these ghosts along the James who fish with me.
And perhaps, hopefully, in some way, she be creating a place by the river, for when it’s my time to fish.
As a ghost…
Thursday, June 11, 2015
I had a red Sears “Spider” bike.
I had a green canvas Boy Scouts knapsack that I’d bought at Mitchell’s Department Store with my paper-route money, because Mitchell’s was the only place you could buy Boy Scout gear.
I had a trusty old, worn pair of Converse “Chuck Taylors.”
I had that beautiful white True Temper spinning rod with the glistening red reel.
And I had my tackle box.
My first tackle box was a tiny red plastic thing I bought at the Western Auto store. It was maybe fourteen inches long, no trays or compartments, no see-through lid section. It held a carefully purchased and scrupulously arranged collection of Eagle Claw hooks, (always Eagle Claw…or the fish get away) pyramid sinkers, torpedo sinkers, and one of those round containers of split-shot that had the rotating dispenser.
It held my hook de-gouger, a fish scaler, and a big spool of twelve-pound test line. A small Boy Scout knife and some fingernail clippers, and a pair of pliers for pinching the split shot. Some snap swivels and a collection of bobbers rounded out the over stuffed plastic box.
I don’t know how I got all that in there and still managed to keep it organized. I’d go through it during the week and arrange and rearrange things. I guess it’s what young fishermen do during the school year when they can’t fish every day, but they have to do something that feels like fishing.
Friday night was nightcrawler night on Monroe Avenue. Johnny Wilkins showed me how to catch those monsters, that first summer I lived on the block. You go out in the early evening, as the sky was fading from dusk to darkness. You had to do it after a nice rain shower or at least a humid day when the grass would be wet. The water drove the worms out of the ground. You shone your flashlight straight down, but you found the night crawlers on the outer edges…where the light was faint and didn’t spook them back into their holes. One of us held the light, the other grabbed the slimy bait.
Johnny and I were a good team and we’d fill a coffee can in less than an hour. Dirt on the bottom, dirt on the top and we were set for morning.
If it was a Saturday, we’d meet at 8:05 and head out. Why 8:05? Because that’s when The Bugs Bunny- Road Runner Hour ended. We loved to fish…but you didn’t miss ‘ol Bugs.
If it was a weekday in the summer, we’d leave early…around 7. I would down my Sugar Pops, (In the world before dietary political correctness, “Corn Pops” were called what they really were…Sugar Pops ) and head out the door.
Navigating a spider bike with a fishing rod is an acquired skill. I had my knapsack filled with my lunch, (bologna and mustard, on “heels” -the name my grandmother gave to the ends of a loaf of bread- and a can of Coke wrapped in aluminum foil in a vain attempt to keep it cool) my fishing rod, a camping shovel, the Maxwell House coffee can full of night crawlers, and a compass. I have no idea why I took a compass…we knew the way to every one of our secret fishing spots like we knew the way to our bathroom in the middle of the night.
I never put my fishing rod in the knapsack. It would have been easier, but when you’re eight, or nine, or ten, every second spent rigging your rod is a second wasted. So I’d rig the hook and sinker the night before then split the rod at the joint, push the hook into the cork handle, reel in the slack and hold it in my hand along with the grip of my “Monkey Bar” on the Spider bike. My red tackle box would rattle like a jar of marbles in my knapsack whenever I hit a bump.
We’d ride through three different neighborhoods and then down the path through the meadow to “Nonesuch Creek.” Once there, we’d hop off our bikes before we’d even come to a stop, leaving them rolling another ten feet before they all crashed together in a heap…like horses in a livery at the end of a cattle round-up.
Then it was a dash to stake out our spots along the bank.
Put the pole together, grab a slimy nightcrawler from the coffee can, cast out to the perfect spot, and wait. We’d find broken branches on the ground that had a “Y” shape and then push the pointed end down into the ground and rest our rod in the notch of the “Y.”
My trusty red tackle box –tiny and crammed with things I might never use- sat right by my side…waiting.
I had that little red tackle box for four years. During that time it was faded in the sun. It smelled from the pork rinds I forgot were in there over the course of an entire winter.
It had Mann’s Jelly Worms melted to the bottom. It had a deep sea rig coiled in a baggie…the only fishing tackle my grandfather ever gave me.
When I was 14, I saved my paper route money and my grass cutting money and bought a “Plano model 747.” They called it that because it was enormous…like the Jumbo Jet. I think I remember paying $30 for it, which was an astronomical sum in 1975. It had three terraced trays that folded out when you opened it. It had a small, clear compartment built into the lid for your favorite four or five lures that you used most often and didn’t want to root through the big box for. It was heavy and huge. I worked for two summers filling it with Rapala Minnows and Rebel crawfish lures and Mann’s Jelly worms and Mr. Twisters and Rooster Tails and Spinner baits.
I got my driver’s license when I turned sixteen and fishing was easier and the spots were better. But it had become a contest by then. Read the water condition. Read the temperature. Read the lunar tables. Match a lure to the feeding habits.
Johnny and Richard and Mark and I had stopped throwing a line in the water with a ¾ ounce sinker and a #6 Eagle Claw hook and a fat nightcrawler, and sitting on the bank and talking and joking until something bit. Now we were fishing. We read articles in Field and Stream and Bassmaster and tried those tips on our excursions. It was fun, but it wasn’t the same.
Life rolled on, and we grew up. Fishing became angling. Tree forts became houses for our families. Spider Bikes became mini vans. My laptop now holds the keys to my success.
But there was a time when those keys were held in a little red plastic tackle box that I bought at the Western Auto store on DuPont Highway in New Castle, Delaware.
There was a time when everything I needed was not on the internet, or at my desk, but within confines of that little plastic vault. A time when opening it was like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp, because it held promise, and potential and secret weapons, and magic.
I sure wish I had it now. I wish I could open it and smell the sweet, plasticky smell of a Mann’s Jelly worm that had sweltered in the sun and became part of the bottom of the box. Or that baggie with the deep sea rig that my grandfather gave me. Those days are done now, but I search for them every time I go out to fish at 51 years old. I want to catch fish…that is a given. But I want to remember. Each trip out is like opening a little red tackle box of memories from a time and place that might be gone physically, but lives on forever, where all great memories live.
In our hearts.