And when he gets the chance, he writes about things like this.
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.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
I thought this blog might need an introduction. Who am I and what do I write about?
Well...in a nutshell:
I'm a guy who was born in Philadelphia, grew up nearby in New Castle, Delaware, lived for seventeen years in Nashville, TN, and a year ago relocated to Lynchburg, Virginia. Phew!
I work for my alma mater, which is a thrill. I'm a BRM (Business Relationship Manager) for the IT/COMS department.
I love working for Liberty University. I graduated from here, and I played hockey here for two years. In fact the Hockey program is one of my customers, so it's full circle.
Speaking of full circle...
That's really what this blog --and this journey- will be about.
I grew up loving the outdoors. I fished and hunted and hiked and explored. Then adulthood happened. Then marriage. Then divorce. My love for the outdoors, and hunting and fishing had to take a backseat to pretty much everything else. But I've gotten myself a second chance.
Now I find myself at Fifty-One, a single dad with a seventeen year old daughter about to enter college (at Liberty University!) and living in one of the most beautiful areas of this great country.
Since moving here, I've rediscovered my passion for fishing and hunting, and my love for the outdoors. I've decided to combined that with my other great passion...writing.
I won't tell you much about what lure to use to catch small mouth bass on the James River. Nor will I write about what size load to use to take a Virginia turkey.
But I'll have something to say about how good it feels to be back out in the woods and rivers like when I was a boy. I'll write about friendships from childhood, and dreams of big bass and large bucks.
I'll write about old bird dogs and new waders.
I write about the way it feels to be outdoors again at fifty. I'm excited to be resuming the journey.
I hope you'll come along.
I named him Jesse.
He was the second Springer Spaniel that I had owned by that time. I was Twenty-two years old. I had long before fallen in love with the breed, and my family owned one when I was fifteen.
But Jesse was mine alone. I bought him from a family friend who showed and bred champion Springers. He was eager to learn, and eager to please. In just days, he knew to sit, shake hands, come, stay, lay down, and –if I knelt down in front of him- he knew how to “give me a hug” but putting his paws on my shoulders and laying his head against my neck.
He was my constant companion. He rode shotgun in my pickup truck to every job I went on. I was a carpenter back then and Jesse would come to work with me every day, lying in the front seat dutifully. It took a little work to get him acclimated to the truck, but after a few weeks he enjoyed it and when he knew we were going anywhere, he would jump and bark and prance until I snapped his leash onto his collar and opened the door so he could jump in.
If I was up on a roof, or walking on a scaffold, Jesse sat down in the yard, in the shade, keeping vigil until I came down. If I was working at ground level, or indoors (only on new construction jobs) he was by my side. He somehow knew not to get in the way, but he never went far.
He was a show dog, bred for the ring, not the field. There is a field variety Springer, and they are essentially the same dog, but the field dog has a keener nose and ability to flush out a pheasant or a quail. Show variety Springers don’t usually make good hunters, but Jesse was the exception. He had a good nose, eyes like a sharpshooter, and he was fearless. He wouldn’t flinch when he heard my shotgun fire, and he never retreated from harsh terrain. He held a point like a statue, and best of all…he never ranged far from my side.
Some bird dogs get on a scent and they will wind up in a farmers field two miles away. But Springers are known for staying close to home, and Jesse was especially prone to stay nearby. He was fast enough to flush pheasants –which tend to run for a while before taking flight- and even pursue a rabbit.
He was the best dog I’ve ever owned and I’ve owned a lot of them. I’ve owned six Springers, and three other breeds. Jesse was my favorite. It might be because I bought him on my own, the first dog that was entirely mine. It might be that he was mine in my early twenties when I was starting a business, and had moved out to my own apartment. He kept me company when I worked carpentry jobs by myself even though I probably needed another pair of hands.
He sat next to me at dinner, in my first tiny apartment. He walked for miles at St. George’s hunting area, or Phillips Nursery, when we stalked row after row of shrubs and evergreens, looking for rabbit or Pheasant.
When he was still a pup and I was training him not to be gun-shy, we walked that St. Georges ground for so long, and he grew so weary, that he would sit there staring at me. I’d walk on ahead and he would wait until I got about fifty yards on, and then he’d come charging to me. He’d run past me for about twenty yards and then plop down, exhausted and hoping that I’d end this hunt and head for the truck. He stepped through some thin ice on a puddle and sunk in to his chest. He was cold and wet and shivering and he still wouldn’t stop.
I turned for the truck and he jumped in and stretched out on the seat. Ten minutes down the road, with the heater making the truck warm, and the softness of the seat lulling him to sleep, he was snoring like a buzz saw next to me. I gave him a bath when we got home; put an extra half-scoop in his bowl and he passed out on the couch and didn’t stir until morning.
He would fetch a ball until your arm was sore from throwing it, and he would have stood still while you stroked his hair until you rubbed the fur off his back if he could. He was smart. Maybe the smartest dog I have ever owned. The combination of intelligence and eagerness to please was something special. I got to where he never had to hear my voice, he worked entirely off of hand signals, like the champion show-dogs do. I would set his bowl down and he would stare at it until I said “eat.” He lived to please. If he could have figured out how to work the stove and read a cookbook, he would have made my dinner.
Jesse loved the water, as most Springers do. I took him fishing with me all the time and he would leap into the pond or the gentle current of the Brandywine River and swim for hours while I fished just upstream. He was gentle as a lamb and maintained his playfulness long after his puppy years had passed.
Jesse was by my side through thick and thin and in those days…there was a lot of thin. But I was young, single, working hard and spending a lot of time with my little friend. He was beautiful. Just beautiful. A gorgeous liver and white coat that shone in the sun and was soft as down. He had that regal gait that champion dogs all possess. He held his head high and pranced as much as he walked. He didn’t do this all the time, but when he knew he had an audience, he loved to strut.
We spent nine great years together. Nine hunting seasons, and fishing seasons and nine years of riding in my work truck, keeping watch while I worked. In late winter, early spring of 1993, I noticed he was a little gaunt in the hips. Having a long coat, I didn’t notice the weight loss until I’d had him groomed. Then I knew something was wrong.
Then came the lack of appetite. Then the weakness. By Easter I knew this wasn’t going to pass. I called the vet and described the symptoms. He said “Bring him in, but I have to tell you…this sounds like canine kidney disease to me and there isn’t much I can do…”
I took him to our vet. He’d been caring for Jesse since I picked him up from Ginger’s house at six weeks old.
He did a battery of tests and took a full body x-ray. When he went to read the x-ray, he cocked his head a bit, and a worried look came over his face. I could tell that he struggled with what he had to say next. Pointing to Jesse’s abdomen, he said “This is his renal stem; this is where his kidney should be…” But there was nothing there. Jesse had been functioning without working kidneys for at least three months. Dr. Spencer put his arm around my shoulder and said “Jesse hasn’t produced a red blood cell in months now. He doesn’t have long.” Then he said something to me that I never forgot. He was stroking Jesse’s head and he looked at me and said, “I know the answer before asking, but he is an inside dog, isn’t he?” I said yes and that not only did he live indoors but he was with me all day, almost every day. Dr. Spencer said; “Craig, your dog should have died three months ago. He loves you, and it’s obvious you love him. The bond between you is literally what kept him alive. You did a great job with him.”
I smiled. I didn’t cry then. I don’t think I grasped what was happening. Dr. Spencer gave him some hydrotherapy and I took him home. We tried a special diet and the hope was I’d have six months to a year with him if we were lucky.
We were not.
The next morning, Jesse had begun to shut down. By evening he was fading and he was suffering. The following morning –Easter 1993- I took him back to Dr. Spencer’s office and we put him down. I spent a half hour alone with him beforehand. I reminded him about our antics. The rabbits and the birds and the swimming holes and the long rides in the pickup truck. I scratched him on the top of his head and said goodbye. I told Dr. Spencer it was time. He gave Jesse one shot and he went to sleep. I left the room for the second one. I couldn’t stay.
I took him to Ginger’s house and he is buried next to his mother.
And until tonight, I had never shed tears over him. It’s not that I didn’t miss him…because God knows how I have. I had simply never chronicled him before. I’ve never replayed all those great scenes at one time until just now.
I’ve owned many dogs since Jesse, and it’s not fair to compare them, but I inevitably do. Jesse was a special dog at a special time in my life.
Sometimes, when our current dog, “Sugar” comes up next to me on the couch and lays her head in my lap and lets out a soft, plaintive sigh, hoping for five minutes of affection…I feel Jesse there.
I miss the playful bark as we rode up on the fields to hunt. I miss the proud little strut he had when he retrieved a bird or even just a tennis ball. I miss the smell of spent shotgun shells, and morning dew on his coat.
I miss my pal.
He is where all great dogs are. In my heart. And a little bit of him is in each dog I’ve owned since. Because a dog is very much a reflection of the humans who love him.
And I loved that one a lot.
It was white.
White with black threading on the guides. The guides were plain steel, none of that fancy ceramic. That wouldn’t even be introduced for a few more years.
It had a cork handle. Yeah…real cork. It was six-feet long and split in the middle. The ferrule would stick once in a while and I’d have to wrestle with it to get it apart.
I didn’t give it a clever name, like “The Assassin” or “The Fish Master” or anything like that. It was just my fishing rod. But man…was it ever glorious.
It was a six-foot True Temper spinning rod. My stepfather got it at the New Castle Farmer’s Market at the little sporting goods shop there. He bought it with the money I’d been given by a very grateful old man whose dog I’d found on my way home from school one day. He was a beautiful old English Springer named Joe and he had actually made it across all four lanes of DuPont Highway without meeting his fate by a semi.
He was walking around the grass in front of Our Lady of Fatima School when I came upon him.
I stopped and spent five minutes with him –I was always a big dog guy- and he followed me home. We’d scanned the newspaper lost and found section for almost two weeks and never saw an ad. I had grown attached to him and we were ready to keep him when my mother spotted the ad on a Friday night. We called, and it was Joe’s owner. A kindly old man who spent a lot of time with Joe and with whom a lot of memories had been made.
I was heartbroken. I had grown to love Joe, and I loved having dogs. But right was right and the old man arranged to come and get him first thing in the morning.
That Saturday morning I went with my mom to Philadelphia to visit my grandmother. It was, no doubt, just a plan to have me not be there when Joe was leaving. I guess it was a smart move. I don’t know how I would have reacted.
The old man was apparently weeping when he saw Joe again. He was overjoyed. He must have really loved that dog a lot, because he handed my stepfather a one hundred dollar bill as a reward for me for finding his beloved Joe. In 1972 that was a ton of money. When I got home, my stepfather had gone to the Farmer’s Market and bought the fishing rod and reel. I don’t know what how much it cost, but it wasn’t anywhere near a hundred bucks. I had no brand preference. I didn’t know enough about fishing tackle to know the difference. But I didn’t care. To me it was Excalibur.
He brought it home and gave it to me. No lures. No hooks or bobbers or weights or tackle box. Just a six foot fiberglass True Temper spinning rod with a real cork handle and a gleaming red True Temper spinning reel. I was ready. I was Jerry McKinnis from The Fishin’ Hole. I grabbed a ¾ inch nut from the garage and tied it on the end of the line and went out front to practice casting. One cast with the open bail and I had a nylon-line bird nest. The line fouled so badly that I had to cut it all off with an Exacto knife. Thankfully I had a big spool of 12 pound test line. I refilled the spool and tried again. A spinning reel is difficult to master when you’re eight years old. It took a day or so. But soon I was dropping that steel nut right where I aimed it every time. Sometime that winter I had ridden my bike to the New Castle Library and checked out a book called Better Fishing for Boys by James P. Kennealy. I read it over and over through the winter and imagined myself casting with great aplomb in my secret (and yet undiscovered) fishing spot. My stepfather hated fishing so he left it to me to figure out the mechanics of it. So I did.
That next week, after saying goodbye to Joe, and getting my new fishing combo in return, I went to the Western Auto store up the street and bought some fishing supplies. I got a little plastic tackle box, barely bigger than a lunch box, really. I bought two packs of #6 Eagle Claw hooks. The boys on my street all told me never to use anything but Eagle Claw. “You’ll lose the fish right away if you use anything else!’ they’d warned me. (I guess it stuck, because I have never used anything else…right up to this day.) They came six in a pack. I bought the ones that were “snelled,” which I thought was a funny word and as I was unwilling to admit my ignorance by asking, I deduced that the “snell” was the six inch leader that came already attached to the hooks. Instead of tying your line to the eye of the hook, you tied to the loop in the snell. It was easier, that much is for certain.
So I bought some hooks, some plastic bobbers, a hook remover, one of those nylon fish stringers to hold my catch while I caught some more, and some egg-looking bait in a jar. They looked like little garbanzo beans and they supposedly made the fish just about jump into your hands. I bought some sinkers and a fish scaler...because I was determined to catch dinner.
I still needed some lures. I knew that much. But the Western Auto didn’t stock very much. All they had was the classic Daredevil Spoon. It was red and white and would flash like a wounded minnow as it moved through the water. I bought two of them.
All in all I might have spent five bucks. Five bucks today wouldn’t buy you one decent broken-backed Rapala minnow. But forty-three years ago it filled my tiny tackle box nicely.
The following weekend, I was going on my first fishing trip ever. It wasn’t with my dad, or my stepfather, or my grandfather, like little boys dream of. It was with Johnny Wilkins and Tommy Riccio and Richard Ferraro. Three guys I would fish with –in various combinations over the years- for all of my childhood. In later years I would fish mostly with my best friend Mark, but we didn’t meet until I was 14. These three guys were kids I grew up with on my street. We all loved to fish and so we did it together a lot.
Friday night I dug for worms in our yard. Johnny had not yet showed me the secret to catching big night crawlers, so I settled for garden worms in an old coffee can. The problem with “digging” for your worms is that you wind up with only half a worm much of the time. The shovel is indiscriminate when it pierces the soil. But we dug until we’d filled our can with what we decided was enough bait for the four of us.
That night…when I should have been asleep…I was awake in my room, checking and re-checking my gear. Reading my fishing book. (New Castle County Free Library…I’m sorry that one never came back. How do I make it right?) Dreaming of catching trout or bass the next day. I had my line all rigged. The #6 Eagle Claw hook was tied about eight inches above the sinker and I had pulled it down until I could push the point of the hook deep into the cork handle of the True Temper rod. I wonder if I found that rod somehow today, could I even count the number of pinholes in the cork handle from all the hooks I kept safe until morning by pushing them in?
Saturday morning came after a long, anxious night. I was up, dressed, had my Sugar Pops for breakfast, packed a lunch in my Boy Scout knap sack and went outside. I got my bike from the garage, met Johnny and Tommy and Richard and we were off.
The guys were taking me to Nonesuch Creek. It sounds like something we simply affectionately called it, but it’s actually labeled that on maps of the area. I’m sure it got its name from some boys our age, many years before we ever dropped a line in the murky waters. Somehow it stuck and by the time we were kids it was already how it was known officially.
We pedaled through two neighborhoods, down route 141, and dropped down a narrow trail that ran perpendicular to the highway. Through a small grove of trees and out the other side, we burst into a meadow of thistle and goldenrod and weeds. Tommy knew just where to go and in another five minutes or so we were setting up our gear by a bend in the creek.
I don’t remember if I caught a fish that day or not. I do remember I caught some poison ivy. We were boys. We were fishing and being boys in a time when boys did things like fished and hunted. This meant peeing in the bushes, and in those bushes, lay the evil shiny-leafed vine. The four of us came home covered in it.
I don’t know how many more excursions to Nonesuch creek we made…my friends and I and our spider bikes and my trusty True Temper rod and reel. Probably hundreds. We fished other places too. Anywhere our bikes would carry us, and occasionally places where we could convince one of our parents to take us and drop us off. We fished together for a few years and then Tommy lost interest. He was older and started hanging with older friends. But Johnny and Richard and I fished together for years after. In my freshman year of high school I met my best friend Mark. Mark spent as much time at my house as he did at his own and so he became friends with Johnny and Richard as well and we often fished together. Then life took us all down separate roads and suddenly it’s been half a lifetime since we were standing on a bank, lines in the water, talking about what boys talk about.
I’ve owned a lot of fishing rods and reels in the forty three years since I got that white fiberglass True Temper and the red True Temper spinning reel. I’ve owned some that were much nicer and some that weren’t. I’ve caught a lot of fish and spent a lot of time in rivers and streams and lakes and ponds.
But at 51, I only find myself on EBay looking for one specific --and now a “vintage” - True Temper rod and reel combo. I don’t seek out a nice graphite rod with a lighting fast Shimano reel. I’m not looking for a Scientific Angler fly fishing set. I’d love to own those too.
What I seek…what I long for…is to somehow locate a pristine, white, six-feet long, True Temper fiberglass spinning rod, with a real cork handle and a shiny red spinning reel from the same manufacturer. The action would be “medium” and the cork handle would feel perfect in my grip.
If I looked closely –now through my reading glasses- I could see the tiny pock-marks from all those hooks kept safely encased in the cork, as I pedaled my bike to another fishing adventure with my buddies.
The one I got when I was eight years old is long gone. But the stories, the adventures, the moments shared with three boys from Monroe Avenue are still as clear and sweet as ever.
I think it’s what I am searching for when I take to the water these days. I love fishing as an adult. Knowing more about the sport, having more resources. But I wish I could feel what we felt back then when we were kids, fishing in a dirty creek that fed an even dirtier Christiana River. That old rod could tell some tales if only it could speak.
It can’t, of course.
…so I do.