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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Saying Goodbye to my First Fishing Buddy

It would have been the summer of 1971.
We moved into our house in February of that year, and I think that summer I got my first fishing rod and reel. I got it from the guy who sold sporting goods in the New Castle Farmer’s Market on weekends.
Not long after, Tommy Riccio, my neighbor from across the street, took me to the secret fishing hole that the boys on my block all went to on summer mornings. They called it “Nonesuch Creek” and it’s not just a local moniker, it actually appears on maps of the area. A small little outcrop off the Christiana River, about three miles from our neighborhood.
It was tidal, and dirty, and smelled like diesel and dirt. We never caught anything but carp and catfish but that wasn’t really the point. We weren’t there for trophy fish or to catch our dinner. We were there being little boys. Fishing by ourselves, at a time in this world when little boys could jump on their bikes after breakfast, pedal three miles to their secret fishing hole, and spend the day in the sun, hidden from the nearby highway traffic, deep in a meadow that ran alongside this dirty little creek with the mysterious name.
We’d dug earthworms from our parents’ gardens the night before. We packed a lunch of bologna sandwiches and Coke’s wrapped in aluminum foil, in a vain attempt to keep them cold, and we set out on our spider bikes.
Tommy Riccio was three years older, and it wasn’t many more summers before his interests in hanging with the younger boys on the block waned, and he discovered girls and KISS records, and we didn’t do much together anymore.
But for those first few years, he was one of my best friends, and my fishing buddy.
He was creative and funny and mischievous and smart. Like all my other friends on that block, Tommy added the color to my childhood that made it fun and in many ways, tolerable. Home wasn’t the happiest place, but out on the block, with my friends from Monroe Avenue gathered on the white block wall that ringed my yard…I was happy.
Tommy and I grew up, and moved on, but we’d run into each other now and then when I’d get home for a visit and it was always good to see him. Somehow, even after 45 years, I still held him just a little in awe. He was still special to me. They all are, those kids from Monroe Avenue. It is always good to run into my childhood friends and Tommy was no exception.
Tommy passed away unexpectedly last week and the news hit me hard. He’s the second of my close friends from childhood to go, and like Sheila six years ago, this is painful for me. I love his family and I loved Tommy. His mom and dad were always the two people I made sure I visited when I’d get home. His mom passed earlier this year and I still struggle to grasp that. Now Tommy joins her.
I keep thinking about Tommy and that fishing hole and those spider bikes and the time we dissected a bullfrog in his garage and it looked like a scene from a horror movie. I think about the first tree fort we built in the big sprawling oak behind the Ferraro’s house. How we’d tar-papered the roof and it was weatherproof and we would sit up there on rainy summer days and talk about what boys talk about, while the Phillies game was on a transistor radio we’d brought along.
I thought about how we’d all pile into my mother’s VW Beetle and head to the Chesapeake Bay, or to the Drive-In on a Friday night or to the haunted houses at Halloween and we’d all go through them together. One big gang of kids, all from the same dead-end street. Friends to the end.
I’ll be thinking of Tommy next spring, when the snows thaw and the James River runs fast and deep and I begin another season of fishing. The James is a far cry from Nonesuch Creek. It’s beautiful, clean, and surrounded by pristine mountains and the fish I catch are true trophies. It’s what I dreamed of when I was a little boy, fishing that dirty creek with my neighborhood friends. In every imaginable way, it’s better fishing than what Tommy and I experienced on Nonesuch Creek.
Or is it?
There won’t be three other boys there; bikes piled clumsily nearby, with a coffee can full of earthworms nearby and cork bobbers floating anxiously on the water.
We won’t be telling jokes and peeing in the bushes, and getting tanned and sweaty and dirty and enjoying just being out there with each other.
It will just be me. Floating a section of one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen, like I dreamed when I was a boy.
In my heart though, where the best memories live forever, Tommy will be there. He’ll be there laughing at my jokes, telling me a few of his own, casting to the best spot and watching that bobber with an eagle eye.
He’ll live on in my heart, this old friend of mine, and he’ll fish with me in those brief, flashing moments when I’ll think of him, and Johnny and Richard, with our rods and tackle boxes in our hands, pedaling our way down the path that led to our secret spot.
I can still see his face as it was when we were kids. He’ll laugh, he’ll cast his line in that perfect clear water next to mine, and then he’ll go back to the place in my heart where he’ll be forever.
Godspeed dear old friend.
I’ll see you on a bright Saturday morning next spring. You’ll come out from your place in my heart, and we’ll fish together for a few moments.
Hug your mom for me.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Soul of the River

The first real “fishing hole” I remember was “None-such creek” back home in New Castle, Delaware. Before that, I’d fished a few times with my grandfather in a little finger of the many creeks that ran throughout the marshy areas that adjoined the Philadelphia Airport, down the street from his house. I lived there for the first five years of my life and that was the first fishing I remember.
When we moved to New Castle, my new friends in the neighborhood had their spot at Nonesuch and they let me come along. Nonesuch was nothing to grow sentimental about. Not the landscape anyway. It was just a tributary of the Christiana River, which, itself, dumped into the Delaware. In the 70’s, when I fished there, pollution was an afterthought and the river smelled like diesel and dirt. You knew better than to eat the fish you caught because they tasted like the water they swam in.
None of that mattered, however, because we weren’t there to fish for food –although we tried that once- we were there to fish. For us, at eight years old, fishing was about being out on our own, away from our homes and families, growing up together. We talked about what eight-year-old boys talked about back then. We brought our bologna sandwiches in brown paper bags in our knapsack and we rode our spider bikes two or three miles to our secret fishing spot.
As dirty as that river was, the meadow that surrounded it was clean and sweet and beautiful. In the summer, it smelled of honeysuckle and hay. Butterflies fluttered about and birds flew overhead. It was a wonderful escape from the sameness of suburban housing. I never remember looking around and thinking about the history I was walking on. I was just a little boy, there with his friends, trying to catch a fish.
Now, though, things are different. Where I fish now is steeped in history and I am of an age that I pay attention to those things. I fish the upper James River mostly. Up above Snowden Dam, almost to Balcony Falls.
I found a parking spot last year and I walk the train tracks from there to Balcony and fish my way back, learning about this river as I go. (The plan is to buy a kayak this summer as soon as finances allow) Walking train tracks has always been an allegorical prop in literature. The wandering. The restlessness. The feeling of always moving along. It’s not that for me, necessarily, as much as it is a thread through history. I walk these tracks and wonder about the trains that have come and gone over the years.

 I came upon a unique marble historical marker on my last trip. It reminded me that this river…as all rivers, has been flowing for a long time. And in that flow, is history. This marker dates back over 150 years. The thing it talks about, this man losing his life to save others…it happened right where I was standing.

When I first moved here three years ago, I started thinking about the historicity of the area. I would, occasionally, look around as I cast my lure, and think about all those who have fished these waters before me. Native Americans who fished for food and drew their drinking water from the Powhattan, as they called it. Explorers, winding their way west through this gorge. Soldiers in the civil war –mere boys, really- fishing here for something to eat, after a fierce battle…or on their way to one. Locals. Little boys like I was when I fished None-such creek. Kids on their bikes, throwing cork bobbers into the water and being thrilled with whatever they caught.

Nowadays, when I fish...I look around. I never used to do that. Yes, I’ve always loved the scenery, but now I view it through the prism of history. These giant boulders that have been worn smooth by thousands of years and millions of gallons of water pouring over them. This gorge that was probably cut into these mountains by the Flood. These railroad tracks.
This river.
My best friend and I are talking about a late-fall trip here when he is done on his commercial crab boat for the season. Mark and I haven’t fished together in about 30 years. Life happens. To wade these waters and talk like we used to when we were boys will be life-giving for me. So much time has passed, and so many miles.
I have a mid-summer trip planned for Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Right next to the Antietam battlefield fishing, no doubt, the same waters where civil war soldiers fished and swam and worried about whether they’d make it through the next day. Nothing like that will be on my mind...I'll just be there to fish. But I will be thinking about them, maybe feeling their memories in the river.
The river rolls on...but as I get older, I find that, as it does, it deposits some of its’ memories in my soul.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The River

It’s Tuesday morning and I am getting ready to leave for work. But all I can think of is the spot on the James River that I discovered a few weeks ago. A spot so promising that I can’t believe nobody else fishes it. It took me a while to find this place. Actually, it happened by accident. I was looking at Google Earth, trying to find the dam they were discussing in a newspaper article. I found the dam, and then, out of curiosity, I moved a little farther upstream and saw the spot I usually fish. I continued to scroll upstream and discovered this magnificent spot where the rock formations were perfect and there was an equal amount of deep water and shallow riffles. The satellite images are amazingly clear and I could see beneath the water in a way that I never could with the naked eye. I could see the rock shelf and the variation in depth. I saw the channel that cut it’s way through the bedrock over thousands of years. (I recommend using this Google earth technique when fishing new areas) The next week I went out and walked about three miles to the spot I had researched. It didn’t look like anyone had fished it recently. No trash along the rocky shoreline. No tangled remnants of line stuck in the trees.
It took some work to get there and I imagine that anyone less than a serious fisherman wouldn’t bother.
I’m sitting here at my table this morning thinking far more about that fishing hole than I am about my job. When I was a kid, riding my bike to “Nonesuch Creek” with my best friends, fishing was about fishing. Just catching a fish, any fish, and hanging with the guys was all the motivation I needed. Fishing was just what little boys did.
But I’m almost 54. I am a divorcee, a single dad trying to navigate this life of mine, and learning on the job what it is that dad’s do with 19-year-old daughters, and trying to hurry up and figure out the rest of my life. I don’t fish simply for the fun of it anymore. I fish now, because I need to. Desperately.
I need some sort of connection to a much simpler time. I need the memories that fishing stirs. I need the internal solitude and the chance to unravel the tangled ball of yarn that my soul has become. I need to think, and to pray, and to reminisce, and to see if I can still dream. I dream of writing. Of communicating the questions I ask and the answers I've found. I doubt my abilities to do this but I desire it nonetheless. I think of this a lot when I'm on the river.
Fishing, now, has become my soul retreat. My quiet place where I can recharge. Whether I catch anything or not is of little consequence. Of course, I want to catch fish. But sometimes actually catching a fish is distracting to the things going on inside.
My second cousin is a professional fisherman. We’ve never met, and it was a surprise to me, to learn that he is a relative. He’s pretty well known and extremely popular on the Bass circuit. (Mike Iocanelli, a second cousin on my grandmother’s side. Her maiden name was Iocanelli) Ike fishes for a living and so his approach is, by necessity, far more aggressive and business-like.
When I was a boy, that would have been a dream job. But I watch his video channel and I see how much hard work he puts in to be as good as he is and I don’t think that would be for me. Obviously, Ike loves what he does, but I wonder if he ever gets the chance to simply fish for the fun of it. Maybe someday we’ll meet and I’ll ask him.
My heart is in the spin cycle right now. Turbulent and tumultuous. I realize I am running out of time to make career choices and I feel very far from home. Maybe that’s why I feel like I need to be on the river today and not on the campus at Liberty University. I need to lose my thoughts in the mechanical repetition of casting and retrieving. Of reading the water and looking for structure. To the steady noise of the water as it rushes by and the thrill of a strike. A thrill that eventually loses it’s gravity as I dig deeper into the bird nest inside my heart and try to draw a roadmap for the next 20 years of my life.
Years ago, Rich Mullins, one of my favorite musicians, wrote a song called “The River.”
The chorus says this:

"And I know the river is deep 
And I found out the currents are tricky.
And I know the river is wide.
Oh and the currents are strong.
And I may lose every dream
That I dreamt I could carry with me.
But I know that will reach the other side.
Please don’t let me have to wait too long.”

The river is a metaphor. Maybe for me, the James River is a metaphor as well. Maybe out there, I’m not the formerly homeless guy, or the 54 year old man in a twenty-something world, or the single dad who feels like he’s feeling his way along the back wall of a cave in the dark, when it comes to relating to a 19 year old young woman as a daughter.
Maybe I can be all of that, plus that eight-year-old boy, riding on a spider bike with his best friends, just looking to have fun.

I need to go find out.

The river calls.