WHEN I WAS SEVEN, my mind was sufficiently developed to decide that Father didn’t take me fishing enough. The year before, we had moved to Cortland, New York for Father’s first full time job in the English Department and Cortland State Teachers’ College. That’s right, Cortland, New York, home of Cortland fishing line, Cortland reels, Cortland you name it. My father certainly went fishing enough. I’d watch him return home from sojourns to the Tioghnioga, the Onondaga or Factory Brook with messes of whitefish, small mouth bass and brook trout. I’d sit in our back yard knocking hazel nuts off of the trees or squishing elderberries between my fingers, waiting to see what he’d bring home next so that, like mother, I could ooh and ah and perhaps win him over for the next fishing trip, but no dice.
In desperation I finally came up with a plan. I wandered upstairs to his study where he was finishing up his dissertation on American grass roots democracy. He glanced up from For Whom the Bell Tolls, puzzled that I wasn’t planted in front of the television and Superman.
“I love you,” I said. Father gave me a look like some creature had just moved inside of his stomach. I figured he must not have heard me right so I repeated it with a different emphasis.
“I love you…Dad.” Mouthing something I had heard my mother say in one of her frequent moments of emotional candor, I added, “I just figured that people don’t say that enough to each other and that the world would be, well, a better place if they did.” He put down For Whom the Bell Tolls, wandered over to his bookcase, pulled down his copy of Death Comes to the Archbishop, opened it, and started thumbing through it, as if it might contain some profound rejoinder. Then he looked up and said,
“O.K. Peleg, I’ll take you fishing.”
I thought he had called me Peleg Greg because, several years before, I had quite publicly peed myself when I found the Minneapolis Zoo to be lacking in rest room facilities. I didn’t know at the time that he called me that because Peleg was one of the Quaker owners of the Peqod in Moby Dick AND because I had quite publicly peed myself.
All in all, the nomenclature didn’t much matter because, after that, he started to include me in his fishing forays. When he was sneaking up on little pools of brook trout, I would come clattering down the bank, dislodging rocks and trailing brambles to ask if he could perhaps spare a worm. When he was pensively reclined against a tree, watching his bobber and musing on Henry Nash Smith’s The Virgin Land, I would come shrieking out from behind a boulder, covered with ants. At his wit’s end, he finally came up with a way to keep me occupied. He showed me how to catch chub.
Yes, he would find a slow, oozing tributary, bait up my little outfit and put me on a pocket of chub. In this way, I learned how to catch and unhook fish and to re-bait because I was constantly catching fish. Skill and patience went out the window and chub came flopping in. Because chub taste something like an inner tube pickled in sewage, Father discouraged me from honing my fish-cleaning skills on them, but he did let me keep them. He gave me a big jar, which I filled with stream water and kept beside me as I fished. Thus our fishing trips turned into true quality time. Father could relax and consider profound comparisons between Thoreau’s Walden and the panoramas that stretched before us, and I could watch the multicolored chub convex and plink against the walls of their jar as it became more and more crowded. Before we went home, I would always release the chub back into the element from whence they came—though most of them would just sort of bob away, belly up.
My Cortland experiences only amplified the obsessions I developed for the magic of fish as a toddler on Long Lake, Minnesota. Otter Creek flowed right next to our yard, shallow enough to assuage my parents’ fears about my drowning but deep enough to harbor crawdads and the occasional trout. I knew nothing about the latter until one day when the city drained the creek. I remember wandering down the bed in awe and reverence, finding small brook trout flipping and churning in the shallow pools, somehow reminding me of Mother’s jewelry.
On another occasion, the city stocked the creek with brown trout, and some local civic group sponsored a fishing contest. I hadn’t yet developed the facility for catching trout, but I remember wandering across the bridge near our yard slack-jawed as I watched older boys walk by with willow twigs loaded with the marvelous creatures. I also remember a young man in an ill-fitting game warden outfit offering assistance to boys who had just caught fish.
“That’s certainly a nice one, son.”
“Gee Mister, ain’t he swell?”
“You shouldn’t let him suffer.”
“You shouldn’t let him suffer. Here, let me break his neck.”
Then the young man was off to the next kid down the stream, leaving the previous one staring at the limp, crooked shape in his hand.
“That’s a good one. I think it’s a female.”
“How do you know, Sir?”
“Because she’s more rounded and has a smaller lower jaw. You shouldn’t let her suffer. Here, let me see her.”
The magic continued when the family would make weekend excursions to Skaneateles, one of the nearby Finger Lakes where our nextdoor neighbors, the Booths had a cabin. The trip there was always a bit harrowing because the steep, downhill dirt road from the highway to the lake was filled with hairpin curves verging on vast drop-offs. Father would go arnk, arnk when we’d hit bumps and be briefly airborne in our pre-seatbelt Ford. On one of the last curves when the fear was beginning to wane, we’d pass a shack where two hermits lived. They would frequently run out to our car, reeking of booze and God knows what else, and Father, who had a soft spot for the down and out, would engage them in brief conversation while Mother hung her head out the passenger’s window, gasping for air.
“Where ya headed?” they’d ask from the stubble and stink of their beards.
I’d think, “Fishing, let me out of here.”
But Father would say something like, “To hell eventually.” or “To the nut house if that sonofabitching Eisenhower has a say in it.”
Then, with the smell of boozy laughter in our car, we’d descend to water so pure you could drink it straight. When we rowed out on it, huge boulders bulged up from the depths, and we’d lower our minnows twenty or thirty feet down where rock bass would take them and we’d pull them flopping into the boat where their red eyes would shine like Martian Jujubes.