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 to rest. 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.
I went fishing again this morning. It’s Sunday and I should have gone to church, I know this. But honestly, my Spiritual life seems a little flat these days. Life is busy, and I hear so many voices in the course of a day that I need to get alone so I can –hopefully- hear God’s voice.
I would love to tell you that God met me there, and we had a deep conversation, and things got straightened out, but that’s not how it happened. God showed up, alright. He is everywhere at once and that includes fifteen miles upstream on the James River, with the sun just breaking over the tree tops. He was there just as much as He was with the worshippers in early meeting.
I didn’t talk to Him right away. I was busy fishing. I pulled out my Bible in the car just before getting my waders on and I read a Psalm. Then I caught myself feeling ridiculous, like I was fooling God at all with my tacit, dutiful reading of one Psalm. I figured He wasn’t buying it, and He already knew my heart anyway, so I headed off for the river.
I picked out a new spot this week, different from where I’d been fishing the last two times out.
I had to hike down about a quarter mile trail to get to the new spot. Just before I reached the river I had to cross some train tracks. I paused to look up the tracks and down, not because I was worried about a train approaching, I would have seen that. But there is something about train tracks. Something endless. Something that signifies wandering and restlessness. They seem to not have beginning or end, they just go on into the horizon or around a bend. You can’t see the end and maybe…there is none.
I paused and thought about all the trains that have run down these particular tracks. Where they were going and what they were hauling? I thought about the men who worked those rails and hauled those loads. I love trains. Since I was a little boy I have loved trains. Most boys do.
I walked to the river and began fishing. I am so happy that I’ve reconnected to this lifelong passion of mine. I’m so thankful to live a short drive from someplace as beautiful as the upper James River. I walked out onto some big boulders that jutted out about twenty feet into the stream and found my place. I didn’t cast my line immediately. I drank it in again. The sound of the current as it whisks past me. The croak of the giant Blue Herons that had stirred from their roost and were heading out for some fishing of their own. The call of the birds in the trees. I could have sat there without dropping my line even once. I could have listened and watched and meditated. The river holds promise every time I go there. Each cast might be the one. Each lure might be the right combination that draws in that one lunker waiting in his lair. With fishing, success is possible in every moment, and failure is not really failure…it’s just practice in between successes.
I watched the sun coming up, and listened to the world awakening, and didn’t catch anything at all. I didn’t have the right color combinations with me, or I was presenting wrong, or the fish just weren’t biting yet. Whatever. Catching fish is only half the reason I come here. The other is to get away. To return to something primal inside me. Something better. Something battered by years and hidden by age. I guess I come to be a little boy again.
I sat down on the big boulders after a while. I wanted to make a pious pronouncement somehow and reconcile my being here in the river when my sense of responsibility told me I should be in church. I tried to pray, but the only thing that came out was a plaintive discussion with Jesus. “You liked fishermen,” I thought, “I bet you’d like this place.” Then of course, the thought hit me, “Of course He’d like it…He created it.” I do that to myself a lot. I think. I should have stayed in that whimsical moment and just gone ahead and wondered at the surroundings with Jesus as my companion but I out-thought myself and ruined it. The fact that He created it and it is breathtaking is not lost on the human side of Jesus. I should know this.
But this was not a spiritual retreat, I was here to fish. I cast my lures absentmindedly and thought, far more than I fished. I thought about life. Fishing is a great place to do that. The cell phone gets no service, the highway is too far away to lend it’s thrumming. The only sound is the gurgle of the current as it sweeps around the rocks, and the life all around me.
I sat there fishing and thinking and suddenly I heard, in the distance, the sound of steel wheels on the tracks, thirty yards from where I was. A train was coming.
I’m 51. I am a dad. I have seen hundreds of trains in my lifetime. Yet whenever one approaches, I have to watch. It’s part of the wiring that makes us men. Trains are large. They are powerful. They are overwhelming. They can be frightening in scale and awesome in force. They are everything a boy and a man love.
But they also represent something else. In literature, a train is often used to signify the slow, constant, unstoppable passing of time.
Heading somewhere specific. Not moving overly quickly but not slowing down for any reason.
I sat there and watched the twin locomotives roll past me. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the engineers in the cabin but the windows were darkened. What if they had been open? What if the engineer was riding along, with his arm bent and resting on the window frame, enjoying the beauty of the scenery as he rolled past it? I guess I would have waved, and hoped he waved back.
Trains make old men into boys again. I’m not old yet, But I’m closer than I was when I was fishing all the time with my friends, that’s for sure.
The train rolled past and disappeared. I returned to my line. And I returned to my childhood. To places like Nonesuch Creek, and the A-Bridge, and The Dikes in Delaware City, and Smalley’s Dam, and Lum’s Pond and Lake Como. Lake Como is where my best friend and I fished on Sunday afternoons. He lived nearby the lake, and I would sometimes go home with his family after church and we’d walk to Como and fish until time to leave for evening service.
My best friend’s name was Mark. He was closer than a brother to me when we were kids. All through High School. We were inseparable. We hunted, we fished, we cruised Newark, Delaware in my car. We played sports together in school. He was our ace pitcher and I was the catcher. Me and Mark. The best battery in the league.
We dreamed of living near each other someday. Near some place where we could hunt and fish and raise our families and remain friends. We would talk about stuff like this while we fished.
This morning, after the train went by and after I waited to see the engineer and maybe wave…I started to think about Mark. I haven’t seen him in ten years now. Since his dad died. We didn’t have a fight. We didn’t come to some crossroads. We just fell out of touch. And before I knew it, ten years had passed. This morning, sitting in the breathtaking beauty of the James River, I was thinking of my best friend and the trains, and the days that have rolled past…slowly, methodically, relentlessly. I started to cry.
That train became a metaphor for those years. Where did they come from…where were they heading? What lies ahead, around that curve in the track? Maybe I was the engineer, and hoped to get a wave as some recognition that I am still, somehow driving this train. Maybe he represented Mark, and the wave was some sort of sign that he still thinks of me and sees me down the bank from those tracks, fishing, like when we were boys.
Maybe the engineer is God, relentlessly, methodically guiding the train of our lives down a track toward a destination that only He knows.
Maybe all of these.
I cried. I said it out loud. “I miss Mark.” I missed being fifteen and fishing Lake Como with my best friend and talking about the future. The future got here and we aren’t talking about it together anymore.
I sat there and finally had the ability to pray. I poured my heart out. I talked to Jesus about the years that have passed and the ones that remain. I prayed for Mark. I prayed for my daughter, as she is really just beginning to get on board that mystical train.
I prayed for me.
I have fallen many times in life and always gotten up. The last seven years were painful but they did bear fruit. I’ve rattled off that list enough in the past. But the one best thing that came out of all that desert walking, was my writing. I love to write. I love to write. I see moments in the day and they become stories. Like this one did. I sat there with tears in my eyes and the face of my best friend etched in my mind and I thought about how I was going to come home and write this article. And even if nobody reads it, I was still going to write it and be happy that I did so. I found who I am out there, in the darkness when I was homeless and broken. I found the thing I love. I prayed this morning that doors would open and I can, somehow, find that niche. That group of people who like what I have to say. Because a writer, ultimately, needs to be read.
I prayed. I thought about all the fishing I have done through the years. I thought about my best friend and how awful it is that we blinked and ten years have gone by since we last talked.
Like that train.
My thoughts were interrupted by another train. A mile and a half of coal cars, loaded to the top, and beyond. Two massive locomotives, pulling in tandem. Heading who-knows-where. Riding on tracks laid out by someone with a Master Plan.
Just like our lives.
It was time to go. It was still early, but my reel broke, and honestly…I was ready to get home and get this soul full of emotions on paper.
The little boy in me came out again today. Once again it was a river, and a fishing rod that drew him from his hiding place. He was safe behind a wall of memories of friends, and fishing, and laughter and dreams. Back when the future was off in the distance. Like that train. Not here, where the future we dreamed of then, was what was supposed to have happened twenty years ago. Where we watch the train of life as it rolls along, wondering where it is heading, and how many cars it is made of, and what lies around that curve in the tracks.
*This is a repost of a story I wrote on my website. I'm reposting it here because it fits this new blog
This past Saturday I went fishing.
This past Saturday I went fishing.
If you know me, especially if you knew me as a child, you would not be surprised by this statement. In fact, you might wonder why I made it at all, and why I am writing an entire blog article about it.
It’s funny…I grew up loving to fish. I would have fished in a mud puddle if I thought there was an outside chance that it had a fish in it. I would practice casting in the above-ground swimming pool in our back yard. There was a creek in the county park in our neighborhood, and even though the creek was mostly a dry bed, I would often find myself casting a new lure in the pools that did exist here and there, just to see how it swam.
My friends did the same thing. Johnny, Richard, Tommy. We’d all be outside practicing our casts. When Johnny and I were both twelve years old, we each bought a fly-fishing combo at the New Castle Farmer’s Market. It was a seven-foot rod, a cheap but effective Martin reel, some level fly line and a small box with about a dozen flies inside.
Johnny and I set a Hula Hoop in the street and with a small piece of yarn tied to our tippet; we’d practice the rhythmic, graceful, pendulum motion of a fly-cast. We got good enough to land that yarn right in the hoop every time.
We subscribed to Bassmaster Magazine. We saved our money and bought lures two or three at a time at Shooter’s Supply on DuPont Highway. We rode our Spider bikes to “Nonesuch Creek” to fish the dirty waters that fed the Christiana River. We seldom caught more than a catfish or a carp, but we were fishing. We were out in the sun, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a brown bag, peeing in the bushes, getting tanned and being boys.
In our hearts we were Jerry McInnis on “The Fishin’ Hole” and we were catching twenty pound stripers on Rapala broken-backs in the morning mist of some mammoth Southern Lake.
Life rolled on and we fished less and less. For my entire childhood I dreamed of living someplace where the fishing was generous and the bass were big. I moved to Tennessee in 1997 and, with an unhappy wife and a newborn daughter not long after we arrived, I found myself living in exactly such a dream location, and never fishing there even once.
I did find time to take Morgan fishing when she was 4 or 5 years old. There was a little five acre pond near my house and we caught a few Sunfish. But it was a long, long time before I found myself in a river, seriously pursuing a bass or a trout, with solitude as my only companion.
In 1994 I had returned to Liberty University for one year. That spring of 1995 I spent a few good weekend days in the Tye River, and the James, but I had not been back there to fish since I left in 1995.
1997 brought the move to Tennessee. 1998 brought my daughter’s birth. 1999 brought divorce. It was during those lonely, excruciatingly painful days of my divorce and the years immediately after, that I should have been fishing.
When the pain that is inherent with the end of a marriage –and the death of a dream- was so crushing, that’s when I needed the peace of a river or a lake the most. I don’t know why I didn't think of it then. I don’t know why I didn't spend a few hundred dollars and buy some nice new equipment and lose myself for an entire Saturday now and then. But I didn't.
I guess I simply forgot.
I forgot how good the sun feels on your face. I forgot how the gentle, relentless flow of the river can mesmerize you, and then, eventually, that flow begins to carry the burdens of your soul downstream somewhere. It isn't always about whether you caught anything. It’s what you released. Worry. Doubt. Fear. Pain. Sometimes, on a good day, each cast carries them away from you.
Saturday I returned to something I had loved a lifetime ago. I was thirty feet out in the James River, about a quarter mile below an old, retired hydro-electric dam.
The James is a beautiful river when you are this far upstream. She’s clean, and clear, and fast in spots. She has a solid rock bed with little if any algae and growth. You can find a path of boulders jutting up just above the surface and, in spots; you can make your way to the middle of the stream without getting your feet wet.
I wasn't quite that far out on Saturday but I was far enough. I had an old Shakespeare spin cast combo that I might have paid twenty bucks for about eight years ago. I’m surprised I still had it, but it was in my closet. It had a chartreuse buzz bait still tied on and I cast it a few times, thinking nothing would hit a buzz bait in a river like the James.
On my third cast, I was pleasantly surprised when a nice smallmouth flashed up from underneath a cut in large bedrock and attacked my lure.
He was hooked instantly and he put up a decent battle before I landed him. I picked him up carefully. He was small, definitely not a keeper. But he was beautiful. A lovely green-bronze that only the smallmouth wears. He was all of about ten inches or so, maybe a second-season fish. But he was game, and I carefully removed the hook, made sure he was unharmed, and turned him loose. With a little luck, he’ll mature and offer someone else a battle someday.
Maybe a little eight year old boy who lives to fish as I once did.
I was excited. It had been a long time. I snapped a picture with my cell phone and sent it to a buddy. I smiled.
I fished for two more hours, hoping to catch another. I drank in the breathtaking scenery around me. I wondered why it had been so long. I thought of Johnny and Richard and Tommy and the days when we fished all day long in the heat of summer, catching nothing worth keeping, except the memories we would carry with us forever.
Do boys fish anymore? I don’t know. Boys don’t do nearly as many “boy things” as they used to do.
But they should.
They should be out there with their buddies, and with their dads and grandpas. Because those memories will get them through hard days when the only thing they can do to assuage the fishing bug is remember when they used to go out on steamy Friday evenings after summer rains and snatch giant night crawlers from the wet grass. When grown-up life rushes at them like an army of Huns, they’ll recall getting up at dawn, meeting their three best friends in the street, and riding their bicycles a few miles to their secret spot.
When the disappointments that life throws at us like so many curveballs take a toll…they could fall back on the best moments of childhood with the best friends they've ever had, learning about nature, and friendship, and luck.
Saturday, as I was casting my line and hoping for another beautiful bronze back, I was thinking about those friends of mine. I wished I could have held up that little bass and seen Johnny Wilkins, or Mark Sterling, smiling at me from twenty feet away, as happy as if they had caught it themselves.
I was alone on the water, but I had the company of the memories of those childhood fishing trips and the friendships that have been swallowed by adulthood, and the miles between us.
At the end of the great thriller, “The Hunt For Red October,” Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan asks Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius why he went to the great lengths it took to steal the Red October and bring her to America. He answered: “I miss the peace of fishing, like when I was a boy in Vilnius with my grandfather.”
“I miss the peace of fishing…”
So do I.
I miss the excitement and the skill and the talks we had on the way to our fishing hole. I miss the camaraderie and the bragging rights and the knot-tying contests.
I miss my childhood friends.
I won’t be able to be on the river for a few weeks, but when I do, I’ll carry Johnny and Mark and Richard and Tommy with me. I’ll do something that connects me directly to my childhood. Each cast will take with it just a little piece of the worries and cares that fifty-one years have heaped on my shoulders. I’ll wonder. I’ll squint in the sun, and curse at a snagged line and then laugh at myself when I do.
Hopefully I’ll find another bronze back or two…or three.
And I’ll find peace…