I have a confession to make. The cover photo on You’ll Need a Guide, available from Amazon for a paltry amount, shows me gleefully displaying a rainbow trout to the camera. The photo leads the reader to believe that trout leap into my hands on a regular basis. Steady yourself: I do not always catch fish when I go fishing. This may surprise my more credulous readers, along the lines of the shock they felt when, as a pre-teen, they learned that Mom and Dad did it. The crack publicity department here at the Craig publishing empire felt a book on fishing (even one that is “not much about the fish”), should have an actual fish on the cover, with me holding it. Opting for honesty, I argued for the above photo on the cover – the raw, unvarnished truth – showing me empty handed, but they would have none of it. The public must be served.
Confession #2: it has been several years since I last caught a trout. My trout catching took a harsh blow when the US Postal Service decided that a carton I shipped from St Pete, containing waders, boots, vest, and boxes of flies, addressed to Denver, CO, should go instead to the postal terminal in Newark, NJ and disappear. Like The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, my box of fly-fishing gear vanished in the bureaucratic bowels of the Newark PO. Maybe someone will buy it one day at the PO’s lost-and-found sale and go try his luck on the banks of the nearby Passaic River. Unfortunately, he will find no fly in the tackle bag to match the daily beer can hatch rising on the waters of the Passaic.
It is true that fly fishing is not as productive a way to catch fish as chucking nature’s own, organic goodies in front of a fish. It is all about skill, mastery of a craft. This allows me to feel superior when I fish to no effect with my fly rod and see a guy downstream from me in cut-off shorts and trucker’s hat on backwards nailing them with a can of worms.
Confession #3: one day my son Hutch and I bought a bucket of shrimp, got out our spinning rods, waded into Tampa Bay on an incoming tide and caught humongous redfish and snook one after the other, releasing them all with a sore lip. I was ashamed of my fall from grace and had to go afterwards to Cliff, the fly-fishing maven, at St. Pete Outfitters, fall on my knees and confess my sin. “Did you have any fun?” he asked sternly. “Of course not!” I said, crossing myself. When I return from a morning of abusing the water surface with a fly rod, clumping in the front door with gear, My Life’s Editor asks, “How’d you do?” Pals at a fishing lodge ask the same question when everyone gathers for an after-action briefing with fortified beverages in their mitts. This question gives me pause. Should I do a full-on George Washington? Fess up? Under the eye of My Life’s Editor, I wilt like day-old cabbage and admit to going O-fer.
Recounting the day’s results to the guys at the lodge with beer in hand, the dynamics change. Peer pressure for inflation, like tenth grade boys discussing dating success, enters the picture. This brings us to the Theory of Fishing Relativity: the number of fish you caught (y) grows logarithmically with (a) how far your fishing companions were from you and (b) the time that has transpired between when you went fishing and the time you retailed your story to an audience:
Log(a) + log(b) = y
Fishing theory scientists point out that the AFF (Aging Fudge Factor) can also influence recollection of the number of fish you caught but is less measurable than time and distance. It is instructive that when you hear a pal talk about the number of fish he caught on a trip when you were in the same boat with him for eight hours, you wonder if he lives in an alternate universe.
There is also the question of size.
Guys spend their entire lives concerned about this. Guys like to buy pickup trucks so big they require a lift gate to reach the driver door. If you drive past auto dealerships on US 19, you will see not only a sea of small American flags flapping in front of a line of gleaming hoods, you will see one impossibly huge American flag rising erect in the middle of everything. This signifies the enormity of the dealership’s American-ness, so you don’t mind buying the snappy Kia you got a deal on versus the Chevy from the dealer who had a less prodigious American flag. In the literary world size counts, viz. Captain Ahab and Moby Dick and Santiago and the swordfish. Of course, in those examples redemption and angst are involved. Note to fishermen: these are called “feelings.”
Fly-fishing magazines cater to size. The photos show bearded, macho dudes dressed in all the cool fly-fishing duds, cradling enormous trout/tarpon/bonefish. Fly-fishermen stash these magazines under mattresses, hide them in office drawers and bring them out furtively, eliciting heavy breathing and a desire to buy fly-fishing equipment. Fly-fishing porn is a growth industry.
I have more to say, but I think my latest copy of Trout for Men: Big, Bold and Bare just arrived.
I backed My Life’s Editor’s molten orange CRV into a post yesterday in St. Augustine. The good news is the boxes with cupcakes and brownies from the Casa de Sueños B&B survived undamaged. My justification for backing into the post was that herself had brought up a map on the “Driver Information Interface” screen, rather than the backup camera. The map did not show the post which had snuck up behind us in the parking lot during the night. She pointed out that Honda supplies a rearview mirror for such events. Rearview mirrors are so old school. My Mini Cooper, in the same situation, would have beeped anxiously at me: “Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!” The trip home was uneventful, but for a few moments of terror caused by tailgaters on I-95 and the rural sign on Route 70 reading “Only God and Donald Trump can save America,” terrorizing me in a different way. In all, we covered six hours of driving in air-conditioned splendor with only two rebukes from the nanny brain of the Honda, informing me that I was inattentive and distracted. The drive led me to think of my childhood and the trips my family took without driver aids, other than the observations of my mother from the passenger seat.
In 1955, fresh off the boat from a military tour in Germany, our family purchased a snazzy blue 2-door Customline Ford for about $1900. It had a front bench seat, a column gear shift, an AM radio, crank windows and no air conditioning, as in zero. Long car trips were few; they taxed the family budget. But one stands out in my memory. In the fall of 1958 the entire family – parents, three sisters, and I, minus Colonel, our dog – piled into the Ford to drive to Middletown, Delaware. I was being delivered, sight unseen, to St. Andrews, an Episcopal boys’ boarding school, where I was to be molded for the next four years, a scholarship student. We packed a basket of food for lunch – tuna sandwiches, chips, and apples, washed down with a thermos of lemonade. There were no McDonalds, Cracker Barrels, or IHOPS. Howard Johnson restaurants, featuring fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream, were an expensive proposition for six mouths. An army issue, dark green footlocker stenciled with my name, joined the basket of food in the car trunk. The remaining necessities were AAA maps and a roll of toilet paper. At 55 mph and with many two-lane roads, the overland trek took three hours. Not covered wagon conditions with Indian attacks, but there were hostilities.
In the front seat, skirmishes erupted between my mother, the map reader, and my father, the wagon master. “Bill, we should have turned off at the Baltimore exit!” “Dammit Peggy, I thought we were going to avoid Baltimore! I’ve got to pull over and look at the map!” “Here, you take the darn map!” etc. Wedged between the wagon master and the map reader on the front seat, the smallest member of the entourage squeaked, “I have to pee.” As there were no roadside loos in those days, peeing en route was an alfresco affair. Those who needed to pee would pile out, car doors left open for a modicum of privacy, and business would be done. Hence the TP.
In the back seat, I was squished between my two older sisters, all of us sweltering in the heat. I wore pressed khakis, a white, short-sleeved nylon shirt, a tie with a Siamese dancer, and a sport coat recently bought at Robert Hall. Their advertising jingle remains to this day an irritating earworm:
“When the values go up up up/And the prices go down down down/Robert Hall this season/Will show you the reason/Low overheads – Low overheads” etc.
The totally inorganic coat erupted with tufts of nylon thread from snags on anything rougher than a baby’s bum. Hot and itchy, I wriggled between my sisters. They objected strenuously to management in the front seat. Hostilities abated when my father pulled off to the side of the road and threatened confinement to barracks upon return. For the remainder of the trip, vertical lines reaching to the moon were drawn between backseat combatants. Any object passing through the plane, invading a neighbor’s space, brought outrage and further supplications to the adults.
We arrived at St. Andrews School hot, disheveled and a quart low on family happiness. We slid off the sticky car seats, got out and gaped up at the ivied walls that were my future. That fall drive in 1958 was a one way trip for me in more than one sense. It was a trip from which I would never return.
Five years ago, My Life’s Editor and I unloaded half our books and all our brown furniture (rejected by kids and consignment shops) and moved into a condo in the beating heart of St. Pete. “So, how do you like living, ah, downtown?” a friend asks, dubious, as if he meant to say, “How do you like living in a pestilential hell-hole?” I respond, “Best thing we’ve ever done!” The friend follows, unconvinced, “No, I mean, really what’s it like?” I reflect, sipping on my Kahwa latte, that we haven’t yet been mugged, run over by a scooter, or nailed at a crosswalk by an octogenarian in her Audi. It is true that songbirds trilling in our oak trees at our former manse on 19th Ave NE have been replaced. Instead, we hear the growl of Mustangs on Beach Drive, driven by testosterone-laden youth, cruising. Excluding dogs and one opossum I saw trotting down the sidewalk, people are the dominant downtown animal life form. That said, one afternoon while reading on our 21st floor balcony, I heard an explosive “thump.” Three feet from me, teetering on the balcony railing, was an osprey the size of a MINI Cooper, featuring a wickedly hooked beak as big as a catcher’s mitt. He glowered at me with demonic yellow eyes, decided I was not on the menu for lunch, and flapped off. Awesome.
I am sometimes asked, “What about all those people in your building, so many people!” Demophobic folk (you can look it up) need not fear condo life. A condo is sort of an adult college dorm, absent loud music and random people coming in to drink your beer and plunder your stash of Fritos. I estimate there are 400 people in our condominium. The only time I see a significant cluster of them is at the annual meeting, where they swill free wine and munch on free cheese cubes and shrimp. They are there to torture the Board of Directors, who struggle to find their happy place while enduring verbal water-boarding.
Our residents are treated like visiting dignitaries by our front desk folk, garage attendants and maintenance staff. “Have a good day” and “Welcome back” are chirped with gracious smiles. I have not yet done it, but the thought has occurred that when I have a bum day, I could repeatedly stroll back and forth through the lobby, trolling for “Have a good day”s and “Welcome back”s until I felt my specialness return. By contrast, when I lived in a house and returned home, my triumphal entry from a day of bread earning was met by teenagers and wife who had featured my act before and were not impressed. I merited maybe a “Hey.” Our dogs, Molly and Bingo, were enthusiastic greeters, but were likely trying to distract me from discovering they had pooped on the dining room rug.
Regarding dogs, life in our former abode and life in our downtown condo differ sharply. On 19th Ave NE several times a day a neighbor would lurch by, dragged by a labradoodle the size of a small horse. We would exchange a brief “Howdy” as the beast strained at the end of the leash and towed its owner down the sidewalk. Our next door dog, Oscar, was a black Doberman about 16 hands at the withers, all teeth and attitude. Condo dogs, on the other hand, are knee-high ankle-sniffers who look up at you from the elevator floor with hopeful eyes, strapped into a dog brassiere with a leash attached. You want to lean down and say, “Be free! Run, jump, cavort! Join a pack, terrorize Pioneer Park! Pee whenever you damn well feel like it!”
Taking out trash was a chore at 19th Ave NE. I toted the bulging trash bag to the back alley, where squatted the gigantic multi-family black dumpster from hell. I had to lift the lid with one hand and skootch the trash bag up to the dumpster lip with the other hand, maybe support the lid on my head and then try to sling the bag in the opening. Or I would try to flip the lid back and throw simultaneously. The lid, not quite making it all the way over, would flop back and smack me on the head, chortling. In our condo, I peek out our door, look down the hallway to see if the coast is clear, and hustle to the utility room in my pajamas. I lift the trash chute lever, pop in the bag, and down she goes. Our grandchildren gleefully volunteer for the job, reveling in the thump, thump as the bag caroms down 21 floors. By the way, it never rains in our condo hallway.
19th Ave NE had no parallel to the sine qua non of condo life – the elevator. In my suit-wearing years, in downtown Chicago, proper office elevator culture called for no eye contact or communication among occupants beyond a noncommittal glance before turning to face the elevator door. I would look down at my shoes or up at the ceiling, hope my fly was zipped. In our downtown condo, life stories may be exchanged between the lobby and the 21st floor. Small talk is de rigueur, capped off by a departing “Have a nice one,” at minimum. The elevator door is like the curtain on a theater stage, pulling back to reveal a new act. Sometimes I imagine I get on an elevator alone, drop a floor and the door opens to a burst of Klieg lighting. It is Alex Trebek. He asks, “Marshall Craig, for a million dollars, on the World Series Champion 1908 Chicago Cubs, who was the third baseman for the legendary Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combo?”
I would crush it.
Decades ago, when I was in my salad years, a psychologist studied his summary report on me, looked up from his desk and said, “You should never be a watch repairman.” A watch repairman, bent over a watch case, tweezers in hand, would try to insert a tiny screw or a coil. It would drop into the mechanism and he would say something fierce like, “Oh rats,” retrieve it and repeat the effort to insert the part. He would drop it again, say “Double rats,” rinse and repeat. At the second drop, I would have blown out an expletive unsuitable for a family blog and launched the offending part into orbit. My customers would take their trade to another watch repairman with better skills and a PG-rated vocabulary. I am not proud of this trait. Friends would be surprised to hear that I am not a patient person at core. They see a genial, sociable type guy, cruising along life’s waters with steady sails, no luffing allowed. My Life’s Editor, of course, knows different. It has taken some work to create this fiction.
The work started on a seawall of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. back in my tadpole stage. Sitting in my shorts, chubby legs against the concrete, basking in the sun and my father’s presence, I was oblivious to the detritus that slid along on the river’s surface back in the 1950s: beer cans, discarded paper cups and the occasional drowned rat. A bamboo rod, a direct wind bait casting reel and cotton-braided line completed my gear, passed down by my grandfather to my six-year-old self. I waited for an eternity, possibly five minutes, assured by my father that patience would be rewarded. Tap, tap. Something down in the murky water was interested in my bait. The tap, tap became a tug, the rod bounced up and down, and my Dad shouted, “Marshall, Marshall! You’ve got a fish on!” Huh, a fish? What?
I declined to make use of the crank handle thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer. Instead, I clutched the rod, stood up and ran back across the grass field behind us. The catfish, launched out of the friendly Potomac, banged against the seawall and landed flopping on the grass. I threw down the rod and pounced on it. In the ensuing years, my landing technique hasn’t greatly improved. But it was a starting point for exercising patience. The life lesson being if you hang around long enough, you might get lucky.
I put this into practice in college in pursuit of My Life’s Editor. A junior, she was overseeing a “mixer” her college put on for freshpersons. For readers younger than my dirty buck shoes, a “mixer” was a dance at an all-women school to which guys from a particular all-male college were invited. This mating ritual is now extinct. Likewise a junior, but from an uninvited all-male college, I had arrived with a roommate to check out the new crop of freshperson talent. My Life’s Editor-to-Be was looking extremely good, so I stopped at the entrance where she was checking IDs and threw moves at her: “Hi, what’s your name? Would you like to dance?” Though I was not from the approved college, she allowed me in, looking at my regulation red crewneck sweater and khakis, no doubt thinking “Why not? He’s clueless, what harm could he do?” I got a whiff of her perfume (Jungle Gardenia) and was poleaxed. She tried to shoo me away, but I hung in all evening, getting enough demographic data on her to mount a long-term campaign. It took me five years to convince her to accept the My Life’s Editor position, further proof that if you hang around you might get lucky.
The wage-earning/family-forming stage of life presented me a tsunami of patience-testing opportunities from major to minor: obstinate teenage children; unending introductory speeches at charity events; embarrassing drunken toasts by groomsmen at weddings; slow talkers who crank back up just when you think they had ground to a stop; and the lady in bifocals and Birkenstocks in front of me at the express checkout lane, counting out change from her coin purse. But when I took up fly fishing those tests of patience were all dwarfed by comparison. A fly fisherman is condemned to suffer travails that make Job look like a party animal. I offer a day on the river as proof.
I approach Michigan’s Au Sable River in my waders, edge down the bank, catch on a root, and fall forward on my hands and knees into the river. Whew, didn’t break my fly rod. But wait, I take in a gallon of 60-degree water through the top of my waders. It now runs down my crotch into my booties, soaking my socks. I slosh out to where the stream burbles along, rocks glistening, wildflowers lining the opposite bank. I start to tie a dry fly onto monofilament tippet the diameter of one of Albert Einstein’s eyebrow hairs. The fly being the size of the nail on my little finger, the hook eye the size of a gnat, I need to use the bifocals hinged to my cap bill. I reach up to flip them down, knock the lens askew. Bad words. I adjust the bifocals but drop the unattached fly into the water, where it floats downstream, promptly snapped up by a ravenous brook trout. More bad words. I fetch a second fly from my fly box, prodding among the feathered goodies. Finally, I advance to cast the fly lightly as a lover’s kiss on the water. Brook trout, native to North America, are not particularly difficult to catch, unlike, say, the clever brown trout, a German import. This is not much comfort. All around my fly, as it drifts, brook trout nosh on floating insect life with shameless gluttony. They laugh derisively at my offering. When I fetch my fly box out of my vest to dig for a different fly, my cold fingers fumble the box. It tumbles into the Au Sable, bobbing away on the current. Exceptionally bad words.
Prayer does not help. Competing with me for God’s attention on this Saturday in the fall are millions of college football fans who are praying that their team will totally crush the other team, albeit in a Christian way. Since there are too many requests for God’s services to deal with, She tends to other things like tectonic plate drift and the decline in butterflies in the Amazon.
I sigh. I check my fly, make another cast. I am patient. I just might get lucky.
Henry Adams (1838 – 1918), Harvard graduate and pedigreed Boston Brahmin, was a great-grandson of John Adams, the 2nd President, and a grandson of John Quincy Adams, the 6th President. American Studies majors are not permitted to receive their college diploma until they have read The Education of Henry Adams, his autobiography. The CliffsNotes version of Education is that Henry Adams was educated and culturally formed to be an inheritor of what an Adams was rightly due – a role among America’s good and great. To his chagrin, he never got the shot. The bustling, industrious, make-a-buck train of railroad barons, oil magnates and engineers roared towards the end of the 19th century and left elegant, moral Henry standing on the platform, his world invalidated.
A recent media image made me think of Henry Adams and the idea that treasured beliefs may be trashed by events. That image was the Confederate battle flag waving in a portico of the Capitol as rioters crushed against the out-manned Capitol Police and poured into the Rotunda on January 6. My ancestors wore Confederate grey. They fought and died behind that flag. Wherever during my “army brat” childhood my family lived, I pinned to my bedroom wall the iconic photo of Robert E. Lee framed in a doorway at Appomattox, in his Confederate uniform. “Marse Robert,” as his troops called him, stood for integrity, courage, loyalty, and chivalry. I knew that the Battle of Bull Run was properly called the Battle of First Manassas. I had read Lee’s Lieutenants. I knew that Stonewall Jackson, as he lay dying, had said “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” I knew, as one of my ancestors said, “one Confederate could whip five Yankees.” I was marinated in the Lost Cause.
Cultural clues reinforced my bond to the south in my childhood. The US Army was chockablock with southerners. Army brats played “Civil War,” no one volunteering be a Yankee. When my army post Boy Scout troop marched, we sang “Dixie.” There followed “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and then “Mountain Dew” (“My Uncle Bill owns a still on the hill . . .”) No one saw a thing amiss with ten-to-twelve-year-old boys singing about liquor. My father’s family in Nashville were unregenerate southerners. Minnie Pearl of Grand Ole Opry was my aunt’s next-door neighbor. At age ten, I was shocked to see up close that Minnie had all her teeth. When my father was a cadet at West Point, he was given the privilege of escorting Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, meeting her at the Thayer Hotel. He wrote to his mother afterwards, “Mrs. Coolidge was a very nice lady.” His mother reposted, “There are no ladies north of the Mason-Dixon line.” There was fear about my father’s going north to school and meeting Yankee women, but the US Military Academy trumped everything. In the hierarchy of acceptable professions in the south, not much tops being an officer in the military.
My Life’s Editor is a Yankee, by way of Cleveland, Ohio. Her first and only encounter with my Nashville relations was at the celebration of my father’s retirement. My Uncle Johnnie’s eyes lit up at the sight of My Life’s Editor. Like my father, Uncle Johnnie appreciated an attractive woman. Sidling up, oozing southern charm, he addressed her as “you sweet tomato.” Her glare could have frozen a Bessemer furnace.
Along the secondary roads of the south in the 1950s, interspersed between Burma Shave signs, there were “Impeach Earl Warren” signs. Further down the road there would likely be an al fresco roadside stand selling quaint tourist goods like dish towels decorated with a fat, bearded confederate, wielding crossed swords and the legend: “Forget, Hell!”
In my youth and early adulthood, I mentally walled off my cherished noble south from slavery and racism. Search the preceding paragraphs for the terms “Black,” “African-American,” or “slave” and you will not be rewarded. I never met a Black officer in my childhood. They were soldiers or non-commissioned officers. On one occasion, when my family visited relatives in Nashville, my father sought out an elderly Black gentleman named Chad, who had been his aunt’s driver. My father brought him a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Over time, two silos developed in my mind. One silo contained the south of my childhood, full of Marse Robert’s virtues. In the other, the south was morphing into something much less attractive. My “Henry Adam’s moment” is seared into my mind. In the seventh grade I wrote an essay on Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. I took it to my father and stood proudly aside as he read it. His explosion of wrath sucked the air out of the room. “Goddamnit! Who is teaching our kids? What are they teaching them?” Lincoln was no hero to him. Slavery was insignificant against his resentment at the grievous wound the south had suffered. I realized my concept of the noble, glorious south and its legacy of rebellion, slavery, and racism could not coexist. Statues honoring Confederates speak to the problem. Can a sculptor conjure up a memorial celebrating solely Marse Robert’s virtues, separating out his roles as slaveholder and insurrectionist? It would be like unscrambling an egg. Does another country in the world celebrate the rebels and insurrectionists who sought to dismember the country?
The image of the Confederate battle flag being waved by a scruffy hooligan at the Capitol stirred up my childhood beliefs. Some guy from Michigan had stolen my symbol, Marse Robert’s flag. The flag waver put the best values it stood for in my youth to the lie. My vision of my southern heritage is tattered like an old battle flag. “Dixie” needs a revision: “Old times there are best forgotten.”
The Old Road Peddler