Friday, June 12, 2015
Ghosts along the James. Going Fishing - catching memories.
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…