FRESH YARN presents:
In an effort to be a typical American family, my dad bought an afternoon on a charter fishing boat for him, my sister, my nephew, Nick, and, it seemed, me, when we were vacationing in Door County, Wisconsin this summer. Yes, we vacation in Wisconsin.
I am not a fisherman. I don't even like fish. For that matter, I don't necessarily like Man. That last part probably stems from the fact that I used to live in Los Angeles, which, if I'm to believe "maps," is near an ocean. However, like most people who live there, I hadn't seen that ocean (either the Pacific or the other one, not quite sure) in many, many years. As Lincoln said, why go to the beach when there are much better bars further inland? So "fishing," as my dad called it, is not high on my list of "things," as I call them. But he made the reservation for a tritely early fishing time of eight o'clock in the morning, set the alarm clocks for six, and that was that. Imagine the amount of wine I had to drink by myself that night in order to pass out early enough to get up that early.
Now, it's a thirty-minute drive to the dock. But my dad was concerned about traffic (We're in Wisconsin.) so we piled in the Buick (What else?), squinting at both the early morning sun and the swing music my dad had taped off an AM radio station that was tuned just enough off center that even the tubas were sibilant. We arrived at the city of embarkation an hour and a half before the scheduled embark, my dad impressed with the time he made on the roads (We're in Wisconsin.), and we set off to find Captain Paul's Charter Fishing Boat. Now, in Gills Rock, Wisconsin, there actually are two Captain Paul's Charter Fishing Boats. We wanted Captain Paul's, not Captain Paul's, and we almost made a mistake by going to Captain Paul's until we saw the sign for Captain Paul's.
We pulled in, signed up, got our fishing licenses and then waited for what seemed like an hour and a half. It was, to be more truthful, an hour and a half. Now, when you arrive at the boat an hour before the professional fisherman who has unashamedly slapped the title "Captain" on himself arrives, you know you're just too, too, too early. (But credit must be given where it's due: He doesn't go by "Cap'n.") The immediately likable Captain Paul (not Captain Paul) arrived and started to prepare the boat. He told us that there would be two other people joining us in our fishing expedition, and, it seemed, they had the audacity to show up exactly at the scheduled time. Suspicious.
It turns out they were father and son, up from Naperville, Illinois where Dad owns and runs and talks incessantly about a car wash. On this five-hour cruise I learned a lot about the proper ph-balance in water with which to wash a car, what they do with the "used" water once said car is washed, and how he was a proud lobbyist with the National Car Wash Association. I learned all this because I wasn't learning a thing about fishing. Here's why:
The way Captain Paul fishes with his eager fishermen is that he makes a sort of game out of it (!) First, he does all the preliminary work of tying on a fly and setting up the rod so that we don't have to get our hands all busy. There are six of us, so there are six rods, each inserted into its own holder, the lines dangling over the end of the boat. However, we don't each have our own rod to watch. We take turns. One person watches all six rods for ten minutes. If one rod gets a bite, the person whose "shift" it is grabs the rod and reels in the prize. When the ten minutes are up, as signified by the ding of an egg timer, a piece of nautical equipment as pedigreed as an astrolabe or a sextant., that person goes back to doing nothing. Which is essentially what he was doing during his "shift" anyway. But now, he can't participate in the actual fishing partor semi-vigilant stick-watchingfor another hour. And he is forced to listen to how the newly-popular "Laser Car Wash" system has nothing at all to do with lasers, which Captain Paul thought was astounding (!)
So we sat. Seven strangers in a boat. "Fishing." In a horrible breech of high-sea etiquette, I almost got caught watching the poles when it wasn't my turn to watch the poles, and quickly realized that that sort of greedy eye behavior wasn't going to fly in the always-let-the-other-guy- watch-things-because-you-probably-don't-know-how-to-watch-things-as-well-as-he-can-watch-things Midwest.
Finally, after a week or two, a bite came during the shift of the Car Wash King's son. The boat all cheered as he sprang to action! Well, Captain Paul sprang and grabbed the pole to start things off, then he handed it to the proud and grinning lad who then reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled and reeled. And, sure enough, there was the fish. He pulled it on to the boat. Captain Paul took the hook out of its mouth. They took a picture. They tossed the fish in a cooler. And the end. O! What a tale to tell his children and, later, his grandchildren about the day he turned a crank for a minute or two and wound up with a fish.
See, there doesn't seem to be much of an art to all this. When you see Brad Pitt slashing his fly fishing pole through the misty dawn and plunking his home-tied fly delicately into the beautiful rivers of America's west, sweat glistening, sinews flexing, well, that's art. This is sitting and cranking. And, due to the 10-minute shift rule, the cranking part is iffy. (Interestingly, "The cranking part is iffy" has always been my favorite Cole Porter lyric.) If family bonding was the goal of this endeavor, it wasn't going to happen watching string dangle in water as we clip along at an average trolling speed of a mile an hour. Family bonding happens when its members are challenged, on a dangerously wind-swept adventure, having their mettle tested. (I have had my mettle tested every year since college and fortunately, it always came up negative.) This wasn't exactly that. This was well, we ate prepared sandwiches that Mom made. Mom-made prepared sandwiches are rarely part of wind-swept adventures.
So after hours and hours of non-bonding and non-fishing, my sister pulled out a book, Nick, my nephew, pulled out a Game Boy, and my dad somehow continued to feign interest in Armor-All. Me, I had no diversion except piecing together the reasons why I was such a malcontent. Here I was, on a boat, absolutely the odd man out. I live in New York City, I'm "a writer," I would normally be waking up right about now. And being surrounded by three sets of parents and their offspring, I'm glaringly childless. And I'm nursing a horrendous hangover, mostly because my mother opted to not buy the Advil I requested because she doesn't "trust" ibuprofen. "It's too new."
So I just sat there, quietly.
Finally, it was my shift. With the cat-like agility of former Chicago Cub shortstop Shawon Dunston, lifetime batting average .269, I subtly shifted my gaze from sandwich to poles. And, evidently, started fishing. Ten minutes of absolute focus. Ten minutes to make my dad proud of his TV watching, city-dwelling son. Ten minutes of proving my worth to my family. I broke into a sweat again, mostly from the bottle of Shiraz I downed last night, but it was sweat nonetheless.
Then, as they used to say every three minutes on The Wonder Years, it happened. The line went tautI saw it! (as was my job)and Captain Paul (not Captain Paul) sprang into action, grabbed the pole, and handed it to me. I had caught a fish! Or, more accurately, I saw a fish get caught and had a pole handed to me! But at that moment, something primal seared through my body, something that is implanted in the soul of Man from the beginning of time, something basic about survival and longevity of the species, and I instinctively knew that it was time for me To Reel. And reel I did. Not with the dull wrist crank of the Car Wash Kid, but with the assured artfulness of the lead dancer of the Ballet Russe or Shawon Dunston.
The cheers of my boatmates were thrilling. Somehow, I had become a better fisherman than theyI know that makes no sense, that it was luck of the draw, that any boob could have been at that ten-minute pole helmbut it didn't seem to matter. I had caught a fish (I, not they), and I was reeling it in (I, not they), and they would be eating it tonight (they, not I. Again, I don't like fish.) I was the hero in a battle of humankind against the unknown depths of the sea. And my dad was there to see it. Truly, there are few moments more significant in life than a fatherly pat on the back. And he was patting. And I was reeling (physically and emotionallywhat a neat word!)
The whole afternoon suddenly made sense.
Then my sister patted me on the back. But this was of a pat of a different nature. She leaned in and whispered, "Would you let Nick reel the rest of it in?"
Every single part of my body screamed "No!" (And I hadn't heard a peep out of my shin since the last time we all went Christmas caroling.) See, this was my moment. Selfish as that may sound, I hadn't had a moment in a long time, except for the time I realized that I knew all of the words to "American Pie" and then got clocked by a well-thrown bottle of Jack, understandably. At this stage, my heroic activity, my thrilling fish tale had merely entailed rolling up a piece of string. The actual reward was still fighting and writhing at the end of the hook. It was still an intangible. I had to see the prize. I had to land it myself, or it wouldn't count. I had to catch the fish. And I got up so early. And this is such a perfect moment of manhood. And my dad was there. And I immediately handed the pole over to Nick.
And Nick took it and, with the expertise of a Minnesota boy whose father has a moose hunting license, he reeled in the fish with agility and grace. The huge thing eventually plopped on the deck and flailed about and Nick grabbed it by its bloody gillsbettering what I would have done which would have been "shrieked" and "maybe kicked it a little"got his picture taken, and that was that.
Now, I realize that I come off pretty damn swell in this story. I sacrificed my day in the sun so that my nephew, this sandy haired eight-year-old (Nine? Eleven?) could have a story to tell his dad when he got home. I gave Nick something precious. I gave him a childhood memory of a successful adventure. And I knew that that simple gesture made me a good uncle. And a good man.
Well, fuck that. What the hell was I thinking? I never, ever, ever get a chance to catch a damn fish. And if anyone needed to catch a damn fish on that damn day, it was me and not some happy little child. The hell of this day (six o'clock in the morning?!) pretty much assures that I'm not doing this again any time soon. It was god-awful from start to finish and the only AAA-battery sized amount of joy I got out of it was that I was going to land a fish, and now, for the sake of having a cute time that everyone can ooh and aah over when we make our damned s'mores tonight, I have to be the good guy and give the moment of glory to a tiny brat child, the same tiny brat child whose temperament is such that we are eternally forced to cheat against ourselves so he can win every asinine game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos we ever play, or else there would be a whine and a pout so daunting that no amount of extra half hours of Scrappy Doo before bedtime could possibly quell. "Here, take my pole! Take my day! Take my car! Take my knowledge of Impressionist painters! Just take it all, little boy! Because I'm an adorable fucking uncle and I know you're going to make it up to me so thanks in advance for your annual Christmas present of a homemade construction paper duck."
Then we docked and went out for chicken.
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