I am looking at a newspaper clipping from 1954. Eleven elementary school boys with two adults, me and Art Morris. This is the Oakland Recreation Department District II All Star football game that year. There are eleven boys, three of them white, eight black. The black students are from Longfellow school where I was the after-school director. I recognize the names. I had dinner in those boys’ houses. Arthur and I were in our early twenties, two young men who spent their afternoons and Saturdays coaching young black students in neighborhoods that did not promise a lot.There I am, the white director who coached those boys, helped them find themselves on football fields that were blacktop playgrounds. I ferried them to away games in my 1939 Ford sedan.That was against the rule but it was a long walk to Santa Fe playground where Scottie was the director or to Mosswood which was even farther away, and I did not want them to be tired out when the game began, so I broke the rule.I wedged eleven boys into that old Ford sedan, seven in the back, four more up front with me.One of them crouched on the floor under the dash. Those ten year olds would be 74 years old now, many of them dead, the others retired, and they would bear little or no resemblance to the boys crouched at the edge of Bushrod field with two young men leaning over the back row, one of whom is now dead, the other, me, eighty-six years old. I made ninety cents an hour, worked from three o’clock to five-thirty on week days, from ten until five on Saturday, seventeen dollars and fifty-five cents a week. It kept that car in gas and oil (it burned a lot of oil), books, lunches, and the insurance on the car and the occasional fly fishing trip to the Sierras with Art. Beneath that old clipping is a photo of that car. It has whitewall tires and sits in the driveway of the house on Regent street. I bought it from Ken Carpenter for $100. Today that car in fair condition is worth twenty-five thousand dollars, but I had no garage where I could have stored it for more than sixty years.So all I have is that clipping from the Oakland Tribune. Art and I were pretty good looking twenty year olds..
This is a departure from the other entries. Nathaniel is the next generation, one of my grandsons. I took Nathaniel with me to Turneffe Atoll off the coast of Belize for my eighty-sixth birthday, There is a photograph of Nathaniel holding a barracuda he caught that is as big as his leg, its head a third of its body, a “killing machine” according to the Belizean fishing guide. We went out each morning in a skiff, sometimes a wave-slamming hour-long voyage to where the guide would point us to bonefish. I caught a half dozen of those larger fish, each time Nathaniel would belt me to the steel stanchion on the skiff so that I had my hands free to cast, did not worry about being thrust over the side into the shallow water of the Turneffe flats. Each time one of those fish took the fly it sounded, bending the rod, the reel spinning, a torpedo dashing into the depths, and it was, for me, the experience of a lifetime.
At noon I quit fishing, had my lunch and retired to the cabaña. In early afternoon Nathaniel continued with the guide, taking barracuda, snapper, angelfish and then he came back to the cabaña in late afternoon where we sat looking at the Caribbean waves coming in over the reef.
He cared for the old man, made sure I did not stumble over the roots of palm trees, shepherded me up the stairs to the dining room, made sure I was securely belted in the skiff, stood in endless lines in airports, followed my wheelchair to one after another airport lounge. Without him I would have been lost. I turned 86, Nathaniel was 22, a 64 year difference. Sixty four years . More than my father’s lifetime.
Nathaniel and I fished the Sacramento River on an early morning and we both caught sizeable Sacramento rainbow trout. Probably my last time casting to a trout. In the end is my beginning, T. S. Eliot wrote. My first trout was on a hand-made rod, the tip portion a bamboo shoot from Uncle Howard’s garden, the rest the end of an old casting rod, an old Pfleuger reel taped to the butt with black electrician’s tape.That trout was on the McCloud River. I brought it back to the camp site and aunt Edna cooked it for my breakfast.
Seventy three years ago my brother Paul and I stood on Mt Shasta boulevard in the town of Mt. Shasta for a photo. I was thirteen years old and Paul was ten.
I have no idea who took it with my Box Brownie camera. Paul had on a white sailor’s cap and the two of us stood there, posed for the photo with snow-covered Mt. Shasta in the background. Now I am 86 and Paul is 83. He is on dialysis, and continues to hang onto life. I am caring for Eleanor who is suffering from heart failure. Who knows where it will end? There we are, two boys who have no idea what the future holds. Two boys held by a bond that was forged by living together in the same room for a lifetime. It is a photograph of a lifetime of connection. That was the summer that we climbed Black Butte with our mother and older brother. We slept in a tent on Frank Bascom’s front yard, and explored an asbestos mine. We walked up the Southern Pacific railroad tracks to Mossbare Falls and posed for a photograph behind a huge rock that is still there,
I have fished in the pool that the falls empty into. The water still cascades through the ferns as it has done for a thousand years. It is no different than it was in 1948. But I am different. So is Paul.
Yankee Flier in North Africa, Yankee Flier in the South Pacific. Worn green covers, paper that will turn yellow if exposed to the sun for more than half an hour. Filled with the impossible adventures of O’Malley, the Irish fighter pilot and his Yankee compatriot; they dive bomb and strafe the enemy, get their aircraft riddled with bullet holes, and still survive. I read those books under the covers by flashlight in 1943 and 1944, only eight or nine years old. It was my introduction to World War Two. Uncle Howard was a block warden who went out at dusk with his shaded flashlight to make sure that the blackout curtains were pulled throughout the neighborhood, to prevent Japanese planes from bombing our neighborhood , Those books are still on my shelf, a remembrance of my early reading, my obsession with going under the covers to read anything: pirate stories ,the antics of fictional fighter pilots, newspaper accounts of advances in Europe, imagining the tanks surging forward into the German lines. Such was my childhood in that world ,Should I give these books away, who will cherish those greenclad books, who will know that they are touchstones of another world.
Our Belizian guide, Dion, releasing a bonefish that I caught. Dion was good at taking out the fly, releasing the fish unharmed. One of the nice things about Turneffe Flats was that all of the fish were catch and release. Except for one big snapper that Nathaniel caught. Dion took it back to the lodge, had it filleted, cut into finger sized strips and deep fried and served to Nate and me that afternoon as we sat with a cold beer unwinding after a day in the skiff. It was a surprise to us, it was delicious and that evening I found I was too full to eat my dinner.
Dion put us on a spot where bonefish had gathered and almost every cast produced a good-sized fish that immediately sounded, so strongly it nearly tore the rod from my hands. Eleven years ago, when I first went to Turneffe for my seventy-fifth birthday Dion was the guide for Graham and Ethan. According to Ethan, Dion taught him how to wade in the flats, looking for the dorsal fin of a cruising bonefish and how to stalk that fish. It was the first time, he said that he had ever stalked a single fish. It was entirely different from trout fishing. So here is Dion about to release a silver torpedo and behind him is my fly rod. I am belted to the steel stanchion of the skiff, my hands free so that I can cast the fly with a stiff wind at my back. I’m not sure the rich men who shared our table at supper knew how important this moment was to me. I was in the Caribbean with my grandson, catching an exotic and fierce fish, a long way (an eternity!) from the boy who read about the Caribbean under the covers with a flashlight in Illinois.
The cliché is that a picture is worth a thousand words. Not so. In my last two posts on WordPress I have explained two pictures of two men , each holding a fish. The pictures do not reveal the thoughts of either man, nor does it tell the viewer much of anything about those fish and the catching of them. Nor does it touch on where they are as they stand for their picture. The pictures are merely illustrations, and they do not tell of the presence of Nathaniel, a constant presence that enables an eighty-six year old man to live out his dream. They do not let the viewer know that he is on a skiff in an atoll in the Caribbean Sea where Blackbeard Tech moored his ship several hundred years ago. They do not show the guide who tells those men about their fish, who coaches one of the men to where the fish lie and how to present his fly to hook one. Nor do they tell us anything about the violent chain of events that is the underworld part of that atoll. The words tell you that. The picture is decoration.
The jaws and head of this barracuda are more than half of its length. There is no other fish designed like this Not even great white sharks are shaped in this proportion. Dion, our guide called them “killing machines.” Nathaniel landed this one after a difficult fight. The eye continues, unblinking, to take in whatever is around: water, a fish, or a finger. The lure is a piece of green plastic tubing with a pair of treble hooks. It’s designed to look like a needlefish, something that Nate saw dancing on the water just off the boat, probably trying to avoid a barracuda. The barrcuda eats other fish, jacks, snapper, grouper, small tuna, mullets, killifish, herring, anchovies. It can swim thirty-five miles an hour, has two rows of teeth, small teeth for tearing flesh apart, a row of dagger-like teeth to grasp its prey. It swallows small fish whole but it chops larger fish in half, then eats the fragments.
Handling a barracuda to take the hook from its jaw was a delicate matter. Our guide, Dion, used a pair of pliers, not his fingers.
There I am, belted to that steel stanchion, holding a bonefish, wearing my sun glasses, my hat with the cheaters clipped to the bill, the Caribbean sky behind me. Nathaniel has caught several bonefish and he turned it over to me, belting me to the steel stanchion at the bow of the skiff, and there I am with a substantial fish, one that sounded, bending the rod, almost tearing it from my grasp. I cast fifty feet to the left according to Dion’s instructions, stripped the line, and suddenly the fish was on. Then as I played it, brought it close to the skiff, because of that belt I could not turn to bring the fish close enough to Dion so he could take out the hook, so I passed the rod back to Nathaniel who was there, always there. My goal was to catch bonefish, not tarpon or snook or permit or barracuda. Bonefish. Which I did at eighty-six. I survived the chop of the wind over the flats, managed to cast into a stiff wind; I did what I had come several thousand miles to do on the Caribbean Sea. Behind me was Nathaniel, a constant presence. Fierce fish took a fly tied by my son Graham. Nathaniel and I were doing what the rich guys do, casting for big tropical fish from a skiff guided by a Belizian man in an atoll on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. When I was a boy I read Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, stories of pirates who roamed that sea. and one of them, Blackbeard Teach, moored his boat in the very atoll that we were fishing. I had come a long way from Pyle’s paintings of swarthy pirates standing on a beach, burying a treasure.
When dogs bark in the night other dogs respond. Suddenly there is a chorus of dog barks. But when the coyotes bark on the ridge above, there is no response from the neighborhood dogs. At 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning the coyotes sound off and they are the only sound, the shrill yips and then the needle-sharp howl that rises But the domesticated dogs do not reply. It is as if they recognize the wildness in the coyotes noise and know that it is unfamiliar territory for them.
My neighbor’s dog barks near midnight and I wait for it to stop. Other dogs respond, faint echoes from down in the canyon, across in the houses shielded by the trees.
I heard coyotes in Humbug valley talking to a pack of coyotes on the other side. One side called out a series of yips and long howls. Silence. Then from the far side of that shallow valley came the response, not like the cacaphony of domestic dogs, but a clear response to what they had heard. Here we are, they cried. You are there and we are here. No dog houses, no chains, no owners calling them in. No bowls of food and water. Just the open night.
The books are side-by side on my shelf, Ted Hughes, Billy Collins, W.S Merwin. When I was in England I thought of going to Hughes’s center for writers, but I was hesitant, didn’t think my writing would measure up. Now, looking at my most recent book,, I realize that I was as good as anyone who might have been there. I have published nine novels, two books of essays and a book of short stories since then. Two of those novels are in film development and three of them were nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe Prize.Several of them have been translated into foreign languages. All of them have received positive reviews in the media.That shelf of books reminds me of my own hours spent writing, touching the keys, putting words on paper, making some small stream in the mountains come alive.
To be able to touch someone, let their mind float over the words, know that pull of the water, know the chill of the water on your legs, feel the crunch of the grass as the temperature slips below freezing, see the brilliance of a trout. Once on the Feather River I fished with my son,Geoffrey. We dropped off the levee just before sunrise. In Ghost Trout I wrote: Now the rain came sideways ,the water gray-green and moving continuously so that unless I paid attention, I began to feel as if I were moving, my feet planted on the bottom ,but the water motionless and my body sliding upstream. The heron lifted off the point, its wings unfolding and folding as it moved slowly toward the valley.