“The Surface World”

When I returned home from Township Unknown just before midnight, the phone message machine was flashing “1,” and just that fast, my two remaining days off evaporated. That’s because it was June, the money month. In June around here, if you’ve got a guide’s license and you’re willing to work, you will. The message was from a lodge owner who’d heard through a social network, faster than any invented so far, that I’d had a cancellation. It was the Grand Lake Stream grapevine, which has two main stems: the Post Office and The Pine Tree Store. In a town this size, the grapevine is completely interconnected. It’s for that reason that you can dial a wrong number in Grand Lake Stream and talk for forty-five minutes.

It was to be a solo job, meaning I’d have only one sport for the two days. Suddenly and surprisingly, I felt up to jumping back into the game, and I realized that that’s what Drummond had done for me. By sharing a parable from his own long life, he had shown me what a thin membrane exists between the here and gone. Moses had said, “It’s OK,” to Drummond with his final breath. I spent a lot of time pondering what that could possibly mean between men who were so fully committed to living solely in the present. But instead of having some great epiphany, I found myself living in the moment, focused on the immediate task in front of me. My trip to Township Unknown had done all I could ask of it: plant me squarely in the now.

My client’s name was Caleb. From the moment he stepped into my canoe, he was continually scanning the horizon in every direction. It’s understandable, and quite common. He had never been to this part of Maine, where every blink of his eye revealed a world brand new to him. A stiff southeast wind had whipped up the lake so that spray was coming over the gunwales, and though Caleb was pitching in his seat, he seemed unfazed as he took everything in.

In the morning when you’re traveling with a first-time client who is facing you from the bow seat in the canoe, you inevitably try to guess their line of work. It will come out eventually in the course of the day, but it’s possible to acquire a fairly good batting average in the game of guessing occupations. Is he a contractor? It might show up in his gait and bearing. A job foreman might speak at a volume a decibel or two louder than normal as their work environment demands. A surgeon or anesthesiologist, on the other hand, is usually quiet-spoken. Professors may be professorial, even in a canoe in the middle of nowhere with a complete stranger. If all these stereotypes fail, as they so often do, sometimes the eyes hold the prize, or maybe the diction. Failing that, too, a close look at someone’s hands can be very telltale.

On all counts, I was coming up bust with Caleb. His was by no means a bland face. On the contrary, it was intense: a face that focused on you and you alone. His eyes were dark blue, framed by heavy, long eyebrows and deep indentations of crow’s feet at the corners. His clean-shaven face was dark from a robust growth of beard that would surely be sprouting by midday. His lips were thin. This was a challenging case with no obvious clues. And yet, that incessant scanning of the lake, the tree line, and the horizon seemed to be saying something about Caleb. Many people do this, just not so intensely. He definitely seemed used to being on the water. That was clear from his comfort level on a very unfriendly lake that morning.

Try as I might, I couldn’t crack Caleb’s code. I determined to look for my opening as soon after we stopped as possible. I’d say something benign like, “So, are you on vacation, Caleb?” and hope for a full disclosure. The fact that he was well-equipped to fly-fish might’ve been helpful information once upon a time, but therein lies one of today’s most fallible stereotypes. At least up to and through the Eisenhower administration, if you found a fly fisherman on a river, he was, by most definitions of the day, a gentleman. Most of those definitions spoke to station in life, especially among “the professions.” Today, the backhoe operator and house painter may both be fly fishermen. Their dentist or lawyer may be an avid basser, fond of fast boats and beguiling lures that win them trophies or cash in competitions.

Caleb took a Sage nine-foot, five-weight rod out of its case and attached a Pflueger Medalist 1496 reel to the butt section. He threaded the rod with line one weight heavier than the rod weight for faster casting action. His leaders were his own, tied with blood knots in descending strengths down to a 4x tippet. This was clearly not his first day at the fly-fishing game. When I complimented his choice of fly rods, he told me it was the rod he used for trout fishing on the Little Red River in Arkansas.

“Is that where you’re from, Caleb?”

“Yeah, Little Rock,” and right then, a hidden chamber of his voice opened up, one that hinted of collards and okra and chicken-fried steak. “I get back there as often as I can to visit the folks and to fish,” and “fish” came out, “feeush.” He must’ve heard it too, since the door of that chamber quickly closed.

Wind gusts were trying to organize into a gale. To give Caleb a fighting chance on the fly rod, I had to find a relatively quiet cove or lee shoreline. The lake I’d chosen allowed good opportunities because of its many islands.

Despite our first real exchange, Caleb seemed in no hurry to fully identify himself. He was content to be taking in the scenery while presenting a beaded olive wooly bugger. It was a good choice on that dour day to go below the surface and show this universally accepted pattern to deeper fish. Caleb allowed that up until today, the only kind of bass he’d ever fished for were—and he no sooner got the word “largemouths” out of his own mouth when he had his first fish on. “Wow, these smallmouths really pack a punch, don’t they?” No matter what species you’re after, a pullback is a pullback, and it’s No matter what species you’re after, a pullback is a pullback, and it’s 40 wide and deep exciting. It put the first wide grin of the day on Caleb’s face. It was now clear that all he needed was to be put over fish. His skills were obvious, but my batting average for career guessing had tanked. The suspense was killing me.

“So, Caleb, what line of work are you in?”

“Oh, I’m a submarine commander.” He fixed his gaze on me as if trying to read my mind. He might’ve read: “I’ve fished with a lot of interesting people before, but I never would’ve come up with that one! No wonder he’s always scanning the horizon! No wonder he’s unimpressed by pitching up and down in a Grand Laker!” Then I realized he was waiting for some kind of reaction.

“Sorry, you’re the first one I’ve ever met.”

Caleb smiled and unfurled for another cast. He deftly stripped line between thumb and forefinger until a pullback yanked the line out of his hand. When he found the line with his left hand, it was too late. The fish had come unbuttoned. “Huh,” he said. “That’ll teach me to pay attention.”

On guided fishing days, it’s good to get cats out of the bag that spur conversation. Now, I was nosy to know anything he’d tell me about his life at sea. I learned first that it’s quite typical for submarine commanders to be rotated between sea and land assignments. Most often for Caleb, it was three years at sea, two on terra firma. He was currently stationed in Memphis, his last sub hitch having been The Pacific out of Pearl Harbor. Caleb spends six months at a time underwater. No sunlight. Just a very tight-knit group of officers and enlisted men who come to know each other extremely well.

Before that assignment, his first as a commander, he was navigator on a submarine working the Indian Ocean. He saw Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and other ports of call along the way. He began to use the expression the surface world as if it needed no explanation. I finally realized that it meant the world I live in, not the one he and his kind inhabit so much of the time. For Caleb, there was a clear distinction between the two. Once out to sea, nuclear submarines rarely surface.

“Quite often we’re traveling at PD,” he said.

“PD?”  He has to continually be reminded he’s talking to someone from the surface world. He apologized and told me it stood for periscope depth. Once Caleb had landed several smallmouths, including two he picked out for lunch, he slipped easily into talking about his life at sea. He explained that the workday is extremely busy on a sub. It’s all about surveillance, or collecting scientific data, or ecological research. He also said he wouldn’t be able to discuss a lot of the work they do. The fishing was good that gusty morning and I had a good fisherman aboard, so good that my impatience to hear more was almost palpable. While I didn’t want to overdo it, I reasoned, how often do I get a nuclear submarine commander in my canoe?

I wondered out loud about hurricanes, tsunamis, and other potentially catastrophic weather events at sea. How deep do you need to go to be safe from these things? He told me that whatever is happening to the surface world, it is not felt at the normal running depth of a sub, which is three hundred to six hundred feet. “There is no sensation whatsoever of the weather going on topside. At PD though, you can feel everything.”

Once, while “running,” as he put it, in the north Pacific, Caleb said he heard an eerie sound. Day after day, this sound kept haunting him, especially since it was not being picked up by any of the onboard high-tech instruments. There were walls of steel separating him and his crew from bone-crushing pressure outside the hull, and yet this sound was getting through. As commander, he concealed the unsettling effect it was having on him. After several days of living on edge because of the persistent sound, its source was discovered. A whale, perhaps traveling the same route as the sub as though “schooling with it, was droning its plaintive mating call. “It’s a sound you’d never forget,” Caleb told me.

At lunch, still scanning the horizon, only now from his picnic-table perch, Caleb talked about the Connecticut and its mission to run up under the ice cap all the way to the North Pole. I interrupted to ask how submarines were named, and it led to the subject of boat naming in general. The story of any boat might begin with why the names of most shipping and sailing vessels are feminine. Whether it’s the Queen Mary or the aluminum runabout parked on the trailer in the yard, it’s usually a she. The British Royal Navy and Lloyd’s List of London have officially used the feminine for all British shipping since 1734. Before that, we know that boats have been considered female since the earliest Egyptians. They were built resembling certain feminine attributes and were thought to bring crews good luck. Throughout literature, symbolism, and psychology, the sea is referred to in the feminine, just like the earth and the moon. A contradiction in vessel-naming traditions seems to be submarines. American cruiser subs, Caleb told me, tend to be named after cities in the United States, while attack subs are usually named after states. His term for subs was “fishes.”

He told of instruments on the Connecticut that measure the thickness of the ice above. When all the sub’s coordinates said they were exactly at the North Pole, the ice device read only a thin sheet overhead. So they surfaced. By thin, Caleb meant two to three feet—thin by polar ice cap standards. The upward force and propulsion of the submarine exploded the ice cap like a rocket from below. Even so, the polar bears standing by to witness what must have seemed the apocalypse weren’t impressed enough to leave. The sailors snapped pictures of them loitering all around the submarine deck.

I learned that it was submarines on missions just like this one that first detected the movements of enormous schools of Atlantic salmon migrating from Greenland to the Canadian Maritimes and New England. It happened before their numbers were ravaged from the 1970s to the 1990s by deep- and mid-level trawling. Caleb said that much of the earliest scientific data collected on these migrations was owed to submarines.

During the afternoon of our second day together, I could see that in some sense, Caleb was always onboard his sub. His representations of his undersea life and work revealed a proprietary relationship to it. On land assignments, when he was in the surface world and his crew was out with another commander, it was a kind of violation to him, like a general forsaking his troops. Things wouldn’t be exactly right with him until he returned to his command.

On those two days of fishing in the Grand Lakes region, he said he felt a reprieve from that anxiety. Maybe it was just being out on the water. Maybe it was the fishing. Fly-fishing a freshwater lake, he confessed, is one of the things he likes most about the surface world. The intensity of his gaze never changed while we were together, but frequent smiles softened the severity of the lines in his complexion. I made my confession, too. That first morning, I’d been trying to psych out what he did for a living, something I’m usually pretty good at. I’d come up with a fat zero. Caleb laughed. “It’s an unusual line of work.”

On my way home after dropping Caleb off, I thought about what had just happened. I work in a town with less population than half a city block. I return one phone call and end up the captive audience of a nuclear submarine commander. I might’ve been his guide, but in truth, I was his beneficiary. In that time, I got to know someone who undoubtedly could steel himself for situations unimaginable to me, but whose easy, soft-spoken manner inspired me. It surprised me too, but I came away with the feeling that with Caleb on duty at the helm of his fish, probing the depths of his world, I could somehow rest easier here in mine.


Excerpted with permission from Skyhorse Publishing.  Copyright 2015.  All rights reserved.