Wednesday, June 13, 2018
It had poured the night before. Truly torrential rain. And the morning didn’t look very promising either. There were patches of blue here and there. And the late-summer sunrise had been spectacular—reds, purples and fiery oranges, even before the sun crowned on the horizon, shooting rays, like a Hand-of-God church bulletin photo, through the thunderheads gathered there, and that elsewhere scudded across the sky propelled by a stiff breeze. Moments later, the sun was an enormous fireball that spotlighted the drenched landscape, taking my breath away, filling my chest with a feeling not unlike awe, and providing me with hope that the weather might change, that the rain, rain, would go away, and come again some other day.
I watched morning break from our backyard until my mother called me in for breakfast. I was six at the time and there was a semi-promise afoot to go fishing with my paternal grandfather...if it didn’t rain too hard...if he could see a few clients first...if he didn’t get stuck at the office...if, in short, he felt like it. I’d been up since six, driving my mother, Reba Mae, nuts with questions about whether or not she thought it would stop raining, whether Grandpa Murel would come even if it didn’t, whether maybe it was clearer at Indian Lake than here. “Stop fretting,” she said finally. “You’ll just have to wait and see.” But waiting-and-seeing when you’re six is an almost unbearably iffy proposition.
As the morning sky clouded over and it started to rain yet again, I invested my time wisely, praying that it would stop. But then there was that Methodist Sunday School pang of guilt. It worried me that perhaps I was being selfish. I mean, I didn’t want it to stop raining everywhere. Especially not in the parts of the country where there was currently a drought...or where the farmers needed it for their crops...or where wells had run dry...or where there were forest fires (the places Smoky the Bear reminded me of when he pointed at me from the TV screen like some furry Uncle Sam and said, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”).
Back then, I believed literally in the power of prayer—indeed, of my prayers and the specificity of my requests. Reba Mae was always quick to remind me that prayers weren’t to be taken lightly and that their subject shouldn’t be frivolous or selfish. In fact, prayer should mostly be for giving thanks, not for asking for more all the time. Most of all, you should be careful what you prayed for. What, then, if I prayed for the rain to stop, and it never rained again? I remembered the desolate Saharan dunes in Buster Crabbe’s TV interpretation of Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion, and I shuddered.
So I added a little addendum to my prayer, a kind of postscript in which I told God I was only asking for it to stop raining today...and only where I was going to be, not all over the world. Not even all over Ohio. And then I told Him that if I was being selfish, then I was truly sorry...but I really, really wanted to go fishing with my Grandpa Murel.
After praying, I stood, disappointed, in front of the picture window in the living room and watched it drizzle steadily outside, searching the sky for a patch of blue, some sign that my prayer would be answered. When I wasn’t sky-watching, I was continuing to badger my mother. By ten-thirty, she’d had enough and said, “Look, it’s barely misting out now. Why don’t you go down to the pond and fish for a while and stop driving me crazy until your grandfather gets here.
“Is he coming for sure?” I cried excitedly.
“I don’t know, for the thousandth time!” she said. “But go anyway before you drive me insane!”
I reminded her that I didn’t have a pole or tackle, that I depended on Grandpa Murel for all that, since, unlike his father, my dad, Whitie, wasn’t a fisherman. There wasn’t a rod, reel or speck of tackle in the whole house. So she gave me a length of butcher’s string and an open safety pin en lieu of a hook and instructed me to go find a stick to tie them to.
I found one under a tree near the pond and tied on the string and safety pin. Nightcrawlers were lying out everywhere, their tunnels flooded by the previous night’s storm, so bait was easy to come by. After skewering one on my safety pin hook, I put more with some dirt in a rusty tin can I found, to take along when and if my grandfather finally came to get me. He’d be proud of me for bringing my own bait.
“The pond” was actually a boggy lot two doors down on which an enormous puddle formed any time there was heavy rain. The rest of the time, it was a gateway to some other swampy land several blocks square that the developer of our neighborhood had never been able to sell, because it would take so much fill dirt to make it livable. Clearly, fishing here was a fool’s errand. But seeing its surface reflecting the oil-paint sky of that rainy morning—the scudding clouds that now broke a bit here and there to reveal a heavenly world of sunshine and blue behind them—for me, it might as well have been Lake Erie.
I’d been dunking my writhing bait in the futile waters of the pond for a good half-hour, when I looked up the street toward home and saw my grandfather’s maroon Studebaker turning into the driveway. I tossed down my makeshift pole—string, pin, worm and all—and ran home as fast as my legs would carry me.
“You came, you came!” I shouted, and was even happier to see that not only Grandpa Murel, but also my Grandma Alice had come.
It was about a twenty-mile ride to the lake. But I might as well have been Marco Polo on the Silk Road to China. This was an unexpected journey, a weekday treat to accompany my grandparents to the lake while the rest of the adult world was occupied with workaday tasks. The road to the lake back then was a narrow two-lane strip, despite carrying US Route 33 signs. It wended its way through bucolic Ohio countryside, past pretty farms and lovely woodlots that were already, if you paid attention, a different, more autumnal shade, but not yet, not for another month, sporting the red, ochre and gold tones of actual fall. Occasionally the rain clouds parted fleetingly, letting through rays of glorious sunshine that spotlighted a barn here, a shed there, a seemingly special tree or hill, a silo that, in that golden light, could have passed for the Tower of Babel.
We passed through the tiny villages of New Hampshire and Santa Fe (pronounced Sana Fee in our neck of the woods), and then we were driving through Russells Point and I had my first glimpse of Indian Lake, past the famed, if now down at heel amusement park with its barn-like dance hall where swing bands of renown had played in the twenties, thirties and forties—bands that had made the records my mother collected: Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Billy May, Les Brown and others. On we drove to Lakeview, a short distance down the road and from there to a place that was apparently one of Grandpa Murel’s favorite fishing spots, a pier of sorts, made of concrete, with a parking lot above and a not wide but also not narrow strip on which to stand or sit below.
Just as Grandpa parked the Studebaker and we started to get our collective gear out of the trunk, it began to sprinkle once more. And I started to fret.
“Dang rain!” I complained, afraid this might be like when Reba Mae would say, “Okay, it’s raining, everybody back in the car.”
But Grandpa Murel said, “Why, what’s wrong with the rain, bud? Rainy days are the best days to go a-feeshin’. That’s when they bite the best. When it’s rainin’ a little.”
With that, Grandpa retrieved his see-through nylon raincoat out of the backseat of the car and pulled it on over his white sports shirt and cardigan. His battered, felt fishing hat—a faded dark green Mallory of Fifth Avenue that had once been a dress hat—was already on his head. His fishing shoes were scuffed old two-tone wingtips and his fishing pants the bottom half of a dark suit he no longer wore as such.
Meanwhile, Grandma Alice broke out her long-billed fishing cap—the one with the marlin emblazoned on the front—and pulled it down over her blue-white perm. Then she dug through the trunk for her faithful green men’s cardigan with the black leather patches on the elbows and slipped it on over her sober cotton housedress. She handed me the canvas windbreaker Reba Mae had sent along for me and I put it on, along with my red baseball cap.
Grandpa walked off toward the pier without us, carrying his rod, reel, minnow bucket and tackle box. Grandma carried a big picnic basket and a canvas bag with two Thermoses and an extra cup in it, while I carried her already rigged cane pole, the short section of cane pole Grandpa had rigged up for me, and my can of nightcrawlers. Once we’d deposited our stuff on the pier, Grandma and I went back to the car to retrieve two folding chairs for her and Grandpa and a folding canvas and wood camp stool for me.
By the time we got back, Grandpa had thrown his first cast, under a light rain, and was already fishing. Grandpa was proud of his casting ability and he would throw his line out so far you could barely see his bobber from the shore. With cane poles you could only fling your line out a few feet and fish from the tip of the pole itself.
“If the fish are everywhere,” I asked my grandfather, “why do you cast out so far.”
“I’m a-throwin’ it out there where the big ones are,” he answered with an ornery grin. And right then I wanted to have a rod and reel too.
I said as much to Grandma Alice, told her that someday, I’d really like to have a rod and reel. She said, “Any fisherman worth his salt can fish with a cane pole.” And then she added, “But Christmas is coming up in a few months. Put it on your list and maybe Santa will bring you one.”
With this tentative promise under my belt, I settled into fishing. I sidled up beside Grandma. We were the cane-pole fishermen. We left Grandpa to his casting further down the quay. This was his fishing spot and the lake was part of his life insurance sales territory. He knew people here and they knew him, so while he fished, he chatted with others on the pier. And they only moved to “try their luck” further one way or another, or drove off to find another fishing hole altogether when he started hinting that they might want to talk to him about expanding their insurance coverage.
After a while of watching him scare away the other fishermen—to say nothing of the fish—with his constant chatter, Grandma said, “Murel...Murel...Murel! Come on over here with us and eat something. And with that she left her pole to fend for itself on the pier, her line still in the water, and with an occasional eye on her bobber, and opened up the picnic basket. There was never anything boring, like carrots or celery or apples in Grandma Alice’s picnic fare. And today was no exception.
On paper plates she served each of us a sandwich of pressed ham and American cheese on the whitest of Wonder Bread, slathered with butter. On the side she shook us each out a generous portion of Dayton’s own deliciously salty Mikesell’s potato chips. There was plenty of both, so I, for one, had seconds and nothing had ever tasted better, especially with piping hot sugary coffee and cream from one of the Thermoses. For dessert, there were Milky Way candy bars, Grandma’s own favorite. We all had a sweet tooth. It seemed everybody on my father’s side of the family did.
Now it was drizzling a little harder. Not a soaking rain, just a heavier drizzle. And Grandpa had been right. The fish were starting to bite. Grandma was the first to snake one out of the water with her cane pole. It was a nice-sized bluegill.
Grandpa, of course made light of it, said, “Hang on, in a minute or so I’ll show you some real feesh. They’re a-nibblin’ at my bait right now.”
Grandma said, “Shut-up, Murel,” and re-baited her hook and put the fish she’d caught on a stringer.
Then it was my turn to snag one. I pulled it out, a beautiful silvery fish that flapped on the pier until Grandma helped me get it off the hook. Grandpa said, “That there’s a nice little 'croppy',” accent on “little”. But he was the only one to belittle my catch. It was a weekday. Younger adults were at work or at home caring for their kids, since school hadn’t begun yet. I was the only kid on the pier with a number of mostly retired, grey-haired men and women like my grandparents and a few other, younger men, who looked as if they were fishing for survival rather than for sport. So when I pulled out my first fish, I heard applause from a few of the anglers down the way from me and some, “atta boys!” and “way to go kids!” to celebrate my catch.
When I pulled out a second bigger crappy, however, their enthusiasm waned and by the third one, they were ignoring me completely and tending to their own lines. Grandma Alice pulled out a couple more fish as well. Grandpa was livid with envy, since his professional casting was turning up zero results. So he went back to the car and returned with another sectioned cane pole and line that he kept in the trunk. He put his chair between Grandma’s and mine, clearly hoping some of our luck would rub off on him. Eventually it did, and before we knew it, the three of us had harvested a nice mess of fish.
As the afternoon progressed, a breeze stirred up, ruffling the water in front of the quay and heaving up whitecaps further out on the lake. The sky began to clear as the sun sank lower and our outerwear felt good despite the sunshine’s appearance after a day of steady drizzle.
As quickly as they had begun, the fish quit biting, and one by one, our angler colleagues decided to call it a day, packed up their stuff and made their way back to their cars to leave. Eventually it was only us and the hungry-looking fishermen on the far end, passing a bottle of Gallo among them, who remained. And soon, Grandma also decided to pack it in and said, “Come on, Murel, let’s go.” He complained that “this was just the time when they were gonna start a-bitin’ again,” but even as he said it, he was packing up to go.
By the time we headed for home, we had an ice chest full of fish in the trunk and the three of us were feeling happy, satisfied and accomplished. Grandma Alice divvied up the remainder of the sweet coffee in her old scotch-plaid metal Thermos among the three of us and offered Grandpa and me a sugar cookie from the tin canister she’d brought along. Then she took one for herself as well, and for a while we all rode in contented silence, munching our treat and watching the scenery in the last light of day.
We’d had a wonderful afternoon and the crappies, bluegills and rock bass that we had caught—worthy pan fish all—would make a delicious fish-fry. The sky was clear now, and it was growing even cooler. I snuggled into a corner of the backseat, covering myself with an old Indian blanket Grandma kept in the car, and finished my few sips of coffee and my cookie while watching the sun sink low.
Just before it reached the horizon, the sun became a huge glinting orange disk, its light now sufficiently muted by twilight that, if you peered across the open fields that whizzed by outside, you could gaze right at it. To me, it looked like nothing as much as an enormous orange sucker, and I said as much. “Hey Grandma,” I said, “ever notice how sometimes the sun looks like a great big orange sucker?”
Grandpa Murel harrumphed and said, “A sucker!?”
But Grandma Alice was less quick to belittle the proposal and turned toward the passenger side window. She took a judiciously long, appraising look as the setting sun came to rest on the western horizon, smiled and said, “Y’know, bub, I think you might just be right!”
That evening, that big orange-sucker sunset was all mine, the perfect end to a perfect day, to carry with me for the rest of my life.