Broken sunlight filtered through the oak trees. A cicada whistled from far off. I was dividing my time between throwing tiny pieces of stick at the water striders, provoking their attack, and daydreaming. Young boys will daydream on lazy summer afternoons.
Suddenly the bobber went down with a barely audible “bloop!”. I ran over and picked up Dad’s old casting rod, and tried to set the hook.
Darn, I missed him!
I reeled in the black dacron line and impaled another minnow on the hook. I’d never gotten the hang of casting Dad’s Shakespeare level wind, but there was a fish out there, and I was going to try. My attempt went twenty feet.
That was far enough. The bobber went right down again. I tried to set the hook.
Darn! Missed again!
I hooked another minnow, and gave the Shakespeare another try.
“Bloop!” The bobber went right down.
DARN! Missed AGAIN! If this kept up, I’d use all of Dad’s minnows. I put on another one and threw the line back out.
Suddenly I was hooked up with Leviathan. The biggest, baddest fish I’d ever seen beat the surface of that quiet Charles River cove all to a froth. I can’t say that I fought it with much skill, I just hung on and tried to gain line. Fortunately for me, I outweighed the fish! In a few minutes the most gawd-awful bass I’d ever laid eyes on lay gasping at the base of my now-rubbery seven-year-old legs.
I was afraid of it.
“Dad!” I yelled. “DAD!!”
I would never again see him move so fast. He came chugging down that dirt path like an Olympic sprinter, only he was wearing hip boots and was carrying a fishing rod. He thought I’d fallen in. Dad smoked a lot of cigarettes and was not fond of high-speed running, especially while wearing boots. When he discovered that his first-born had winded him over a mere fish, let’s just say he was less than pleased.
Dad’s passion for fishing caused my birth to be by Caesarean section. One sunny August morning he said to my very pregnant mother, “Let’s go to the Concord River for a couple of hours.” She agreed, and off they went. Mom sat in the car knitting while Dad fished.
Hours passed. Mom grew tired of knitting, and the car was getting really hot under the August sun.
She got out of the car and called down to him on the riverbank, asking him to leave. “In a little while”, he said. He always said that when he wanted you to be quiet or go away, or both.
Since it was obvious Dad wasn’t leaving for awhile, she decided to join him on the riverbank. At least there was some shade under the bridge. In order for her to get to him she had to jump down a low wall. When she jumped, she felt a sharp pain. She didn’t realize it, but she’d torn a small hole in the amniotic membrane. The amniotic fluid began slowly leaking out, and started leaving me high and dry. The doctor discovered this the following Monday, and I was born, by emergency C-section, that afternoon.
One day the following summer Dad said to Mom, “Let’s go for a ride.” Mom wanted to know where. “Never mind,” he said. Mom wanted to know how long they’d be. After all, she had to feed her little son. And there was always the diaper problem. “Just an hour or two,” he said. “Hurry up!”
By this time Mom should have known better, but she got in the car with only one bottle, and no diapers. Dad drove to Monponsett Pond in Halifax. He loved fishing there. One thing you could be sure of: a trip to Halifax was an all-day trip.
Before long the bottle was empty and the diaper was full, and baby began to fuss. “John, when are we going to leave?” Mom wanted to know. The inevitable reply- “In a little while.”
She waited a little while. Baby fussed more. “John! The baby’s hungry!”
“For crissakes, Cent, get off my ear!”
It finally dawned on my poor mother that she was going to be there all day. She took immediate action. First she replaced my dirty diaper with her own underwear (I swear I’m not making this up). Then she carried me down the road to a small store that used to be there (Toto’s by name) to buy some milk. Before Dad finally agreed to leave she’d used most of her clothing as substitute diapers for me.
Mom learned her lesson well. She never went fishing again. I, however, was relatively unaffected.
Mom tells a story of how I went fishing with Dad one day. I was three years old at the time. When we got home he took me out of the car and put me down. I took two steps and fell flat on my face. Mom picked me up and was hit with the unmistakable odor of beer breath.
She wanted to know what he had done to me.
“He got thirsty and beer was all I had in the boat,” said Dad.
The main reason Dad liked Monponsett Pond so much is that he used to catch a lot of fish there. He’d fish by the bridge where Rt. 52 crosses the connector between the east and west ponds. Back then the water under the bridge was deep, and he’d pull some enormous yellow perch and chain pickerel out by using “chubs” (saltmarsh killifish) for bait. He took me with him one day when I was five or so. He had a good day.
He wanted me to hold the stringer up so he could take some pictures. Now I’d been around fish for all of my young life, but these chain pickerel were big, all over two feet long, with large, nasty looking teeth. And they were all too alive. I didn’t want any part of them. It came down to, who was I more afraid of, the fish or my father?
Dad won, hands down. He got the pictures, and one ran in the Boston Globe.
In spite of the occasional bad experience like that one I came to truly love fishing myself. Most of our trips were wonderful.
Years ago in Massachusetts the third Saturday in April was opening day of fishing season. I distinctly remember that it was every bit on level with Christmas as far as my anticipation and excitement went, perhaps even more so. I so badly wanted to go fishing!
Dad usually went to Walden Pond on opening day. It was quite an experience for a young boy. We’d get up at 3:00 AM, after a sleepless night for me, and eat breakfast. Then we’d fill the thermoses up with hot chocolate (for me) and coffee (for Dad), pack a lunch, and off we’d go. We’d park the car and grab our gear and start the long hike in the dark to the secret fishing spot. (It had to be secret, why else would we walk so far?)
In the pre-dawn, campfires could be seen all around the lake. As the darkness faded and the light brightened, ghostly vapors arose from the waters. A virtual flotilla of boats was out there. Fishermen, practically shoulder to shoulder, lined the shores. Thousands of fishermen! To my young eyes, it was truly a spectacle.
We dunked bait, like most people there. We usually used nightcrawlers that I had caught on previous evenings. Dad always caught more fish than me. I suspect that he was less subject to daydreaming. When we finally headed back to the car, he’d have me carry the fish, so I could “feel like a bigshot,” as he used to say. He’d tell everyone who asked (and plenty of people did) that I’d caught them all.
I guess it’s true- all fishermen are liars.
Dad purchased a boat in 1962, an eight foot aluminum pram which he used to cartop. It became our fishing “machine”, and we spent many pleasant hours in it. When I was twelve, we drove to Nova Scotia for a vacation. Dad brought the boat. On the way home he was exceeding the speed limit on I-95 in Maine when the boat and the car separated company.
Dad hadn’t felt a bowline attached from the boat to the car bumper was necessary. God was with us, as the boat flew over three cars that were traveling behind us and crash-landed onto the highway’s median strip.
Dad wanted to leave it there. Mom forced him to go back and get it.
The stern was badly smashed. The two of them reattached it to the car’s roof. Mom then drove the rest of the way home at a slower, far safer, speed.
Dad had the boat repaired, but it wasn’t ever the same again. For one thing, it leaked. For two things, the rivets had this disquieting habit of suddenly falling out without warning.
The first time he took me out in it after getting it back from the shop, we went to Upper Mystic Lake. We lived in Medford, so it was convenient to our home. At the time, the then Division of Fisheries and Game stocked the lake with trout. The water quality was good enough to support holdover browns, and Dad would get at least one or two big ones there every year.
After we were safely (from his point of view) out on the water, he calmly and quietly said to me, “If the boat starts to sink, I don’t want any scenes. Just get out and help me push it to shore.” Easy for him to say, I still didn’t know how to swim. No life jackets aboard, either!
The afternoon passed without undue mishap. When we returned to the car I learned that a rivet had fallen out the day before, so he’d patched the hole with a band-aid and then coated it with petroleum jelly to waterproof it.
During the winter we would watch the old “American Sportsman” show on the television on Sunday afternoons. We loved that show! Dad was particularly fascinated by the tarpon fishing. Every week he’d sit me in his lap and say to me, “I can’t wait until you’re old enough to take me fishing in places like that!” Little did he realize the seeds he planted in my head.
Our relationship as fishing buddies began to get a little strained as I moved into my teen years. Like many teens, I was an obnoxious jerk who thought he knew everything. Dad further strained the relationship by bringing fish home and expecting me to clean them. I felt, quite reasonably, you caught ’em, you kept ’em, you clean ’em! Dad disagreed, sometimes strongly.
We fished less together as my friends and girlfriends took more of my time. Finally, an event happened that cut out our fishing time completely- I received a letter from then President Richard M. Nixon that began, “Greetings from the President.” It invited me into the armed forces in a voice that couldn’t be refused. Off I went to boot camp. What fate awaited me, I couldn’t know.
I was sent to Germany. During my second year there, I got an awful letter from Mom telling me that Dad had been diagnosed with cancer, and he was only expected to live six more months. I had five months left in the Army!
With the help of my uncle, I was transferred from Stuttgart to Fort Devens. I rushed to the V.A. Hospital to see him. We were overjoyed to see each other.
He didn’t look good. Ugly purple lines, used for aiming the radiation therapy, were painted across his now-bald head. He looked smaller, weaker. Of course, we talked fishing. We made plans to go.
We finally did get to go at the beginning of September. I took him by canoe down the Ipswich River, through the Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary, as pretty a piece of water as can be found anywhere. We didn’t catch any fish, but it was a glorious, bright, crisp, beginning-of-autumn-in-New-England day, beautiful, wonderful. It passed all too quickly. I guessed that it would be our last day ever on the water together. I was right.
Dad passed away a few days later.
I live in Florida now, tarpon country. I have a wife, and two sons of my own. And when I take my sons out in the boat and we go looking for fish, I think of my Dad, watching American Sportsman and saying, “I can’t wait until you get old enough to take me fishing in places like that.” I am old enough now, Dad, and you’re not here.
My Dad. He could be a real shit. But he taught me a lot about fishing. About life. About how it takes perseverance, and sometimes suffering, to be successful.
God, I miss him.