I don’t remember life before fishing, and that’s fine with me, from what I’ve been told of it. Much of my infancy was spent in a St. John’s hospital room, recovering from one of 13 surgeries performed by good Okie doctors working with the skill and instruments available to them in 1947 to remove a blockage from my frustratingly minuscule urethra. They failed, leaving behind a good bit of scar tissue, which would beleaguer me one way or another for the rest of my life. They kept the water running by inserting a more or less permanent catheter. The head man, whose name I believe was Dr. Brown, called on Dad at his office and, with hand-on-shoulder gravity, said, “Mac, there’s nothing more we can do for your boy. But there’s a man in New York…” And so, following tightly behind this exciting but predictably maudlin Hollywood script of the period, we went to New York. Doc Campbell in that great city had a procedure, one which would eventually make him quite famous in urology circles and save me from uremia and very early death.
The New York surgeon’s bill—$4,000, which could have bought a presentable house in Tulsa in 1947—threw the old man into a swoon. Dad wrote the doctor a letter of protest. Campbell’s one-sentence reply still gives pleasure: “Sir, I am the only man in the Western hemisphere who could have saved your son. Sincerely, etc.” The sweetness of the little poem rested in the geographical exactitude—not America, not New York, not the world, but the Western hemisphere.
Although I can’t recall my first fish, I do remember the first photograph of me with fishing pole in hand. I was perched on a rock. Behind and below me on another rock was a woman of good shape in a bathing suit. I wore an absurdly large beret that melted around my pea-head on all sides. I held the cane pole with two hands. Somewhere beyond the vision of the lens my line dropped into Lake Como in Italy. I had been placed on that rock by one of the staff of the Villa d’Este Hotel where Mother, my nana Raymonde, and I were holed up for a few months. It was 1952. The American dollar bought a lot of Villa d’Este in 1952. I was five years old.
Mother had rocketed through marriage number two in record time and was ready for a little hell-raising in the European style. Suffice it to say, she had no trouble finding a date. She was funny and smart and had read the right books. Fluent in French. And were she standing next Ava Gardner, Clark Gable might have said, “I don’t know. I like ‘em both.”
Her second husband, Arthur, had been crazy as a coot and gladly exhibited behavior to prove it. Their marriage began with a honeymoon to Europe on the Queen Mary. One evening the steward brought an envelope to Mother’s stateroom. In it was a check for $5,000 from Arthur. On the back of the check he had written, “This is an implement of divorce.”
During the first and only year of their marriage, Arthur furnished a lifetime’s worth of hijinks and insanity that is generally amusing in the retelling but was not so funny at the time. Finally, late one night, he stumbled stone drunk into their bedroom. Mother feigned sleep. The entire household (myself included) had come to understand that sudden movement around Arthur was inadvisable. In fact, any form of contact was to be avoided. Think of your grizzly bear trail-encounter instructions: “Do not look the bear in the eye. Make no sudden movements. If he charges, play dead.”
Due to my shaky urethra status, I pissed my pants from time to time. This incensed Arthur. Perhaps because he was a well-known stud with a big dick and a convertible Cadillac, a kid (sort of his own) with a little leaky penis struck him as a straight-up personal insult. A bit of pee in the pants scored me a bare-assed belt beating delivered by a guy who liked his work. I spent much of marriage No. 2 in hiding. At the time, we lived in a large deco house, since brought to earth and replaced by the Okie Versailles now favored by the giant rich. The deco joint provided plenty of nutty 1930s nooks and crannies in which to hide. I used them all. A daylight sighting of Grant was rare as a painted bunting. I remember thinking, “Why does she let this happen?” Mother was never shy about telling men when and where to get off the train, but not this one. He had something on her—something I thought I might snap to when I got older. And, of course, I did.
At any rate, on this occasion Arthur arrived home late and drunk. He got nude, flopped down on the bed beside Mother, and shook her shoulder.
“Pat, go down and get me a turkey sandwich with Durkeys.”
Mother’s act went from deep sleep to something akin to coma. He shook harder.
She yawned, turned over. There he was. Nude. Floppy cock. Hood eyes. Head slowly rolling about.
“Arthur. Please, it’s two in the morning… ”
Arthur opened his bedside table drawer. He pulled out his .45 auto and shuttled a slug into the chamber. Then he placed the barrel gently against her temple, and said in stage whisper, “I want a turkey sandwich.”
Weepy Mother slipped from the bed and did in fact return with a turkey sandwich slathered with Durkeys. Just as she extended the plate to him, he sucker punched her and broke her nose. The marriage—glory be to God—was finally coming to an end. The Villa d’Este lay just over the horizon.
• • •
I remember the man who set me up on that rock by Lake Como. The hotel employee with a brush mustache and a horse tooth smile. He ran me through the drill: bread on hook, hook in water. Then he hung around for a while ogling my nana, the fetching Raymonde. But she was there for the sun and paid him no mind, so he left me with a piece of French bread, a bucket, and a pat on the head before wandering back in the direction of the hotel.
The rig was a simple one, and I recall it as if it lay on the floor before me now. The Lake Como setup consisted of a very long and heavy cane pole, 10 feet or so of cotton line, and a piece of twisted lead 12 inches up from the hook, which memory renders as being absurdly small. Onto this hook I mashed balls of French bread. The bread sloughed off fairly quickly in the water, and I re-baited to keep pace. Later, as a young man of eight or so, Barry gave me the formula for Okie dough balls, a nearly waterproof white-bread and egg concoction which is more or less glued to the hook and delicious to fishes. But in Como that summer I was working with bread simple and that can frustrate a man and test a little boy’s patience.
Through the long afternoon I did not move from my post. I owned the reptilian stillness earned by a kid hiding under the breakfast table looking at the predator’s bedroom slippers. Our tableau quickly constituted something of the hotel’s charm. Raymonde, the babe on the rock. The adorable little boy fishing. Guests would stop, lean on the rail of the patio, and just watch. Raymonde slept in the sun and I fished. I rested quietly but alertly in this comfortable space executing this satisfying routine. I put the bread on. The bread came off. Small fish darted about cleaning up the water. Raymonde raised her head and shaded her eyes. “Tout va bien, bébé?”
• • •
Raymonde, Mother, Dr. Fritz, and I held down our assigned table in the farthest corner of the grand hotel’s dining room. Quite a room it was, and I envisioned many like it ahead of me—a life of astonishing privilege and luxury roping out smoothly into the future. We had just spent the winter in St. Mortiz at the Palace. We were next headed to a rented villa high in the hills above Roc Brun, where the French gardener would cut scorpions in two with kitchen shears and laugh like it was a Three Stooges bit. From there, back to the townhouse—Paris, Rue Victor-Hugo. Okies on the loose in Europe.
The difference between drying out for a week and quitting “for good” is the difference between being tossed a .38 slug underhand and being shot with one.
Dr. Fritz, our dinner guest, was one of Mother’s current beaus. She had two at the time, both Swiss doctors, both clowns on the make for a knocked out rich American broad. This one, Fritz, was a smallish man with sweeping gestures, lovely suits, and funeral-director manners. The other either was or looked very much like Jean-Paul Belmondo, and appeared far crazier, messier, and more intriguing than Fritz. He was constantly shooing me off with petty bribes so he could do some solo scoring. Belmondo resolutely refused to let any driver pass him on the road. He’d simply whip his car over, block the passing lane, and screech insults out his window.
At the table Raymonde fussed over me. Buttered my bread, straightened my collar. Fritz leaned in close to Mother. I overheard Herr Fritz deliver some flowery snippets about the color of the lake. Then a bell rang twice.
• • •
I believe that was April. Fifty-six years ago, at any rate.
I am now spending a few days on Parker’s ranch near Coweta, Oklahoma. Alone. It is early June and the first little taste of real summer is upon us.
Charlie, the caretaker, and his wife, Pat, arrive to cut the grass on my first day. They have matching yellow and white Cub riding mowers, which they unload from the back of a horse trailer. I station myself at the edge of the lawn on my $14 Walmart folding chaise lounge and observe the couple work the yard. I have always enjoyed watching people work. It makes me pleasantly drowsy. They fire up the Cubs and head out in opposite directions with unmistakable intent. I sense that there must be a pattern here but I don’t perceived it. Pat carves a deft arc around the edge of the dogs’ pen and then, as if overtaken by some wild enthusiasm, heads straight across the middle of the lawn. Suddenly Charlie is grinding towards her from the opposite direction. They pass each other a foot apart. Heads down, no-nonsense salutations. There is definitely a pattern here. In an hour it is done. Charlie stops his Cub a respectable distance from my chaise, cuts the motor, and approaches. We have not yet met.
Hand extended, “Hi, I’m Charlie.”
“Grant McClintock. Good to meet you.”
“Mr. Parker said someone was coming.”
Charlie reaches out and pats the top of my head. I almost flinch. What the hell? “You got a mosquito on your head,” he says. “You gotta watch that. They already reported one case of West Nile fever over at Tulsa. You got any bug juice?”
I admit that I don’t but I am immediately wondering where I can find the closest can of the stuff. Quick Trip? West Nile fever I don’t need.
Charlie is a small man of 50 in a well-faded green cowboy shirt and jeans. He looks hard in the body. He jerks around when he talks. There’s some sort of music in his head.
Charlie and I jabber on for about five minutes. He has worked on old Joe Parker’s place for a number of years. He assures me that he is no brownnose (it hadn’t occurred to me that he was). He doesn’t come around looking for praise, but if something needs doing, he is the man. Fine. We talk weather. Hot. Tornadoes aplenty this year. Too damn many. Something’s not right.
“Charlie, what’s the best fishing pond around here?” He whips up a suspicious look as if I’d just ask to take his daughter to the prom.
“Well… private, kinda.” Parker must have a dozen ponds on his ranch. I’m assuming they are all private and that Charlie owns none of them.
“I mean on the ranch.”
“Yeah. I see. What do you want to do? Just catch a nice mess of fish.”
A mess of fish. The expression gladdens my heart. Okie. I have spent much of the last 15 summers fly-fishing for trout, and have yet to hear anyone refer to a nice mess of trout.
“Yeah, just catch some bass. I throw ‘em back. Might keep a couple to eat.”
Charlie seems satisfied with this and he brightens into a smile. He should have taken better care of his teeth. He turns and points to the east.
“See that tree line past the fence?”
“Go about 200 yards south from there. That pond’s full of fish. I take the kids down there couple times a year. We use little bitty hooks and worms and we catch a mess of sun fish bigger’n your hand.”
“Yeah, I remember that pond now. I fished there years ago with Max.”
“Oh, well… ” says Charlie, meaning, why didn’t you say so in the first place. Max is boss-man’s son. So now we’re getting the batting order worked out.
“Well if you need anything, you call me. You got my number?”
“It’s written on the fridge there.”
“Well, have fun.”
“OK, Charlie. You want me to keep any fish for you?”
He laughs and throws a shadow punch at my gut. “Shoot. I live on the river. But thanks. That’s nice.”
• • •
Old Joe Parker, deceased, bought this place in 1956 so he could shoot quail with his buddies and ride a horse now and then. There are dog pens and tractor sheds, a horse barn and a galvanized metal doublewide shed that serves as a shelter. In the house hangs a photo of Joe kissing a belly dancer, two or three very bad paintings of bird dogs, Joe and Joe Williams grinning like bad frat boys with an 8-pound large-mouth bass, and various gazelles and other beasts from Joe’s African killing spree. The mounts are superb. Small paper tags hang from the antlers identifying the client, species, etc.—all in German.
There is a rusted fridge with an “Auburn War Eagles” bumper sticker on it but no phone number for Charlie. In the fridge is Ensure, a Sprite, some other junk, and, interestingly, three large and loaded syringes. A Formica table. A comfortable bed and a bathroom so filthy you wouldn’t enter it armed with a blowtorch. That’s my house for a week. No air conditioner and not much in the way of screens on the windows. A few missing panes.
I am at Parker’s ranch drying out—drying out as opposed to actually quitting. This is the middle path of alcoholic retreat, the one that doesn’t work. The therapy plus AA actually can keep you sober. I went that route for a year in the not too distant past. If, for whatever reason, you are one of those who must become sober, this is probably the way to go.
The opposite approach to the hooch issue, as exampled by my mother and many of her generation, is wire-to-wire and kiss my ass. (Go War Eagles.) To this ruddy-faced bunch of alcoholic heroes, quitting is for pussies. A sizable number of these folks augur in early with liver disease and few friends, but what the hell.
The quitters, however they do it, seem to get more accomplished, sometimes make money and have a slightly improved shot at happiness, while those who stay drunk, really drunk, die younger (if they’re lucky) and often have interesting stories until at a certain age—frequently as young as 20, never older than 70—they become impenetrable bores. So, it’s a toss up. Heads you’re fucked, tails you’re screwed. I am, of course, only speaking of the genuine drunk. Others, as I understand it, can take it or leave it.
I mentioned the unworkable middle way, which is at the moment my own. All alcoholics want a drink. Many deserve one. The problem is turning off the faucet. For an alcoholic, the ability to attend a simple cocktail party and not to declaim belligerently that Proust (whose work you haven’t actually read) was a third-rate writer nor to drive 80 miles per hour through the neighborhood on the way home nor to smack your dumbbell wife in the chops once you get there, this is the promised land. Drink and act normal. For the bad boozer this is a bit like holing a fairway bunker shot—possible, but I doubt it. Often, and soon enough perpetually, you are headed out of bounds into the land of unacceptable behavior where no one returns your calls. Lately I have been drifting, some might say stumbling, in that direction.
The difference between drying out for a week and quitting “for good” is the difference between being tossed a .38 slug underhand and being shot with one. Implicit in “going on the wagon” is the idea that someday you’ll get off the damn thing. I did once try the quit-for-life gig (one day at a time). My wife, the third, had delivered the get-sober-or-get-lost dictum. It was summer. I was in Montana. The trico hatch was set to explode on the Missouri River. The small mountain freestones that I love so dearly were prime. I was signed up to guide a few Smith River trips. God was in His heaven, and I was headed off to my first AA meeting—shaky, frightened, but determined. And what I will say is that it worked for a time. I was sober a year and met a few of the finest people I have every known. I love alcoholics. Although not long after I got my nine-month chip, my wife turned to me as we glided through the desert between Phoenix and Sedona in an awesome 454 Suburban and, suddenly weeping, said, “I don’t want to be married any more.” So I guess being drunk wasn’t the entire problem.
• • •
Morning, final day at the ranch. Hell of a storm last night. I stood outside for a while watching the wall-cloud bear down on us. Then the wind got serious, and I cruised inside. The radio tracked the storm straight to my door.
“Doug, what’s your position right now?”
Static. Doug may be dead.
Here he comes, “Bill, we are on State 51 just east of Broken Arrow. We are seeing straight line winds of up to 60 miles per hour.”
New voice. “Doug, this is Andrea. Any rotation?” Is it always about sex?
“Ah, yes, ah, Andrea, we have seen rotation but nothing on the ground… ah.”
“OK. Thanks, Doug. We’ll get back to you. Looking at our News Center Six Weather Watch Radar, the following towns should be alert and citizens there moving immediately to cover. Coweta…”
Moments later the winds hit. I have both dogs, a headlamp, and a water bottle huddled into a closet. Ivy, the girl dog, whimpers and snuggles in. Henry, the young and stupid stud, goes to right to sleep. The shed trembles, the roof pulses up and down but holds, and the storm moves on in three minutes. I thought Ivy was going for a coronary.
These Okie thunderstorms create a little extra space in the world when they pass through. The next morning is clear and clean and big as Montana.
I grab my rod from the corner, a gesture that electrifies the dogs into a bust of unrestrained approval. They are Brittany-Springers and quite crazy. If they don’t get to run far and fast every day, we all suffer. Sensing some outdoor work in the offing, Ivy barks and then moans. She lies flat on her belly and pants. Then more barking and moaning. Henry spins randomly around the room in tight little circles. One or the other may well charge into the pond ahead of me and spook off the five-pound bass God meant me to have, but it’s a price I’ll pay. I love to fish alone, but I’d rather fish with a dog.
Charlie was right enough. The pond is a good one. I have hooked a lot of bass this week using to the weapons of my youth—Ambassador reel, Shakespeare rod, and a single willow-leaf spinner. They once called this bait-casting and perhaps they still do. Awhile back I switched over to the fly-fish-for-everything crowd, and over time I lost track of the metal chunkers progress. I recently caught up.
I was hunkered down in a Red Roof Inn on US 1 in New Jersey. Working the remote, I pause at the Outdoor Channel and caught 20 minutes of some laughing goober hauling in a nice mess of bass. This fellow, and his kin, compose the Brahmin class of bass fishermen—the pros, the enlightened ones. They enter fishing tournaments and make some money. Eventually the best of them are awarded their own TV shows, where they demonstrate how it’s done between hawking bug spray and outboard motors. These old boys are having a ball and making serious money while they’re at it. They dress like Nascar drivers and scoot all over the place in glitter boats with racing stripes and giant Mercs. Every fish is “beautiful,” and so is life.
Electronics rule here. Sonar, radar, GPS. The modern angler is now offered a video camera, which he simply lowers over the bow, stares the enemy right in the eye, and drops a rubber worm down on his nose. A tricked-out modern bass boat should have no fewer than three displays blinking at all times. Updike noted that, in America, every passion can be transmogrified into a reason to buy. I would suggest that every passion can be double-quick transmogrified if an LCD screen is somewhere in the deal.
• • •
We reach the pond. Ivy and Henry dive straight into a blackberry bush, perfume of rodent no doubt. I begin randomly spraying casts into the pond, just warming up. A good rule of thumb is to make your first cast your best cast. The more delicate the water—spring creeks, small freestones—the more this holds true. But the large mouth bass is not what you’d call a sensitive character. He shares these farm ponds with snapping turtles and cottonmouths. He won’t find a few ill-directed lures bothersome.
I take a small bass in mid-pond no man’s land. He was lying where he ought not to be, but that happens from time to time with all sorts of fishes and human beings, too.
I begin to work my way down the bank towards the honey-hole—the 20 yards of shoreline where I have done my best work this week. The east end of this pond narrows into a toe. Across that toe of water the bank consists of willow overhangs, stumps, fallen limbs, bramble, and weeds—perfect bass habitat but tough to hit. So now the real fishing begins. In front of me are seven or eight prime targets. I pick the tastiest spot and flip my spinner in that direction. The lure falls a good foot short of the hole. The next toss overshoots the bulls-eye and hangs up in a willows mess. I give the line a good tug, and I’m lucky in two ways. The spinner rockets out free of the willows, and I duck in time. After a few more feeble attempts, I begin to relax into that thoughtless lizard brain where no space exists between the seeing and the doing of a thing.
The lure comes down on a dime. One crank, the bass strikes—like electricity, but soft, said Joan Wolff.
Perhaps not a life, but it’s all a life might be, made bright by the perfect cast, which connects with the proper fish.
I could do this forever now. I see it from above. Every cast is sweet, pitched to the middle of the glove.
I have five or six bass under my belt, and that’s enough. I look around to locate the dogs. Ivy is getting old. She’s never runs far, but Henry’s got some rabbit in him and he’s gone. From Cabela’s I bought a scary-loud whistle, and I sit on that for a minute. Henry finally scampers up, and I scratch his ear.
I have arrived at the “one more cast” stage of the day. This usually means about 10 minutes of final effort. Well justified, because if there is a God, He surely thrives on irony, and what is more ironically apt than hanging the biggest bass of your life on the last cast of your life dressed out in a tee shirt, ball cap, and clogs? But once again, I am denied.
I toss a “final” shot. A weed, something obstructive. I crank it quickly to the bank and lift the bait to my hand, ready to clear some grass or a stick or an early summer moss. But attached to my hook is a fish, a bass. This fellow is three inches long. He has eaten a bait larger than he is.
And that is the final cast.
• • •
The bell rang twice. And then twice again it rang, and the Villa d’Este dinning room went quiet. A three-man parade emerged from the kitchen. Leading was the stately old maître d’ hôtel in his prewar dinner jacket. Grave, upright, chin lifted—a brave man headed to a firing squad. He was followed by a much younger blond fellow. I had seen this one only at breakfast. He would lean in over my shoulder and whisper, “Ju d’orange, monsieur?” He held an enormous domed silver tray on his shoulder. Our regular waiter came third in line, a white napkin draped over his upheld forearm. I remember him well: Maurice, a stout man with a trim black mustache. Salt-and-pepper hair running straight back into a nicely contained ducktail. Serious, sad eyes. Each presented a solemn demeanor as they moved purposefully into the dining room. I looked around. Where is this going?
The trio glided down the center of the room and then bent into a right turn, hung together like roller-coaster cars. And they bore down upon our table. The maître d’ hôtel moved to the side. The young man lowered his tray and presented it to me.
Maurice stepped forth and raised the dome and there lay the minuscule perch I had caught that morning, ringed with garnish and centered on this great oval platter. The solemnity had vanished. All three, even the dour Maurice, were smiling pleasantly.
The young man turned and presented the platter to the dining room. The guests applauded.
• • •
In the years between that small alpha perch at Lake Como and the equally small omega bass at Parker’s ranch I have interrupted the tranquil existence of a whole horde of their brethren. I have hooked, lost, landed, eaten, and released them with diligence over the last half century. I might recall a dozen or so exceptional monsters, but it feels a bit as if the past is a single fish that I have caught over and over again. And I like that. In the end a 130-pound tarpon on a fly and a bluegill on a worm, while very different in tone, are recognizably from the same family of experience. The one is Jerry Lee Lewis as loud as it’ll go and the other is Nat King Cole just before you doze off. I don’t know. I like ‘em both.
On the other hand, anglers are a varied lot. All fish want to get away. This you can count on. Anglers don’t know if they want to get away, declaim Wordsworth, or slit their wrists. I have fished with people made miserable by the activity, with those who think it’s OK but sort of stupid, and with those who are as good as they are going to get when they have a rod in their hands and desire in their hearts. While this essay may overflow with fishes, it aspires to be a story more about the human beings who chase them—a remembrance of those with whom I have fished, that antsy theater line of anglers running back through my memory and out into the street. As a thoroughgoing cynic, I often arrive at brutal sentimentality when shooting for straightforward gratitude—so alcoholic. That in mind, with the dying sentence of this essay I want to say directly to all who appear here and anywhere else in my life, thank you.
Excerpted from the author’s forthcoming memoir. Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 3, February 1, 2015.