"Our first time there, an old soldier sold us three spinners and something called beef jerky. The spinners had red bodies, each with a gold wing to which a small adhesive strip, florescent orange w/four black spots, was attached. They were beautiful. They were expensive...."

a fish at the beginning
memoir by john brown


Driving down Oldfield road, you would pass houses that were built before George Washington was born. Ours was a white salt box colonial with green faux shutters. If you were to look in the living room windows one early winter evening in 1971, you would have seen a family of five playing some sort of game.

We were taking a vote. If the result was not unanimous, we were to forget about the whole thing. "Who wants to move to Oregon?" There we sat, three boys 9, 11 & 14, with, mostly steady hands raised. My father made few promises. A busy man like him knew how to temper commitment. My oldest brother had some reservations, but agreed, the move would be best in the long run. My other brother, had already left and begun anew. And even without the little aside from my father, "there?s lots of good fishing," I was ready to pack my bags. That little aside, or maybe just the idea of it, stuck with me. You see, my one bonding moment with my father was when he took me along on a boat ride to Long Island Sound. Technically I was going to fish, but we were on L.I.S.. In the summer of 1971. I caught a six pack of beer in an onion sack. (The tepid beer, still drinkable as my father was quick to demonstrate.) And a full size Styrofoam surfboard. Happy that the kid wouldn't go home empty handed, we were back at the dock by 9:30am. The stern flag on his friends vintage Cris Craft speeder, rewrapped, in a plastic bag.

Still, my expectations, if not met, were wetted. Even if the water held little promise, the idea of fishing somehow did. Though the only pictures my minds slide could develop, were the convergence of mean spirited kids brandishing sticks on a suspect drain. Or of a noisy Hungarian family we knew, clamoring among slippery rocks, grasping at eels with their hands. And beery old men, leaving dull and staring Blue Fish on the front lawn. Blue Fish my mother would never clean. Blue Fish no-one would ever taste. All these memories were leading somewhere. So far, they were just memories of an idea, vague, uneven, unclean.

Something of that idea in my head was perceptible to my mother as well. Like the look of a young man who needs help with his homework. Who has a concept, or an equation, he can not maintain. Maybe it was my early history of day long road trips. The packing of supplies. Lonely days spent walking or riding my bike to another obscure part of the sprawling borough navigated by cyclone fences, churches and schools. My mother knew. She was a women always looking for clues. Anything that would spark the fire of passion in her boys. Evidence of the genius she knew existed, but had no proof. Anything that could ignite the precious coals of inspiration that she had long held in a tinder box of a hope. Whatever it was, she tucked away those memories, some idea of it, and of that little aside. And then, in secret, sometime while packing up the entire household by herself, she did the unthinkable, she responded to an ad by Ron Popeil. An ad for the "Pocket Fisherman." It would be a moving to Oregon gift. A gift that was for moving away from everything she had ever known.

****

The hope of Oregon was clean. Clean of expectations. Clean like fresh sheets. Clean like a brand new word worth repeating. Green. A word that popped up from back seats and every kind of conversation. A word that stood out like a New Yorker in blue denim jeans. We had to look up "Oregon" in the Encyclopedia. Find it on the map. West, straight across the continent. West of Idaho. Idaho. Idaho was a word we had never uttered in our lives. It made us laugh. An uneasy laugh brought on, no doubt, by the distance of it all. A new mathematics. A new scale by which we were to measure our surroundings.

It would be eight months before the family was all together in our new place. That time apart suddenly compressed when we found ourselves driving the dramatic roads and highways of the Northwest. Eager just to be in it. A part of it. Practicing new words, on signs, as they appeared. We were always near water. Confused at times, our internal compasses spinning.Where before, in our previous lives, water would lead us in a particular direction, here, in this new geography, water didn?t seem to know its place. Great arteries of it running from south to north. Running. Great gasping truths of it. And wherever we went, there was hope. The hope of a chance to fish. I took along my "little fishing thing," as everyone called it. And both parents began to make sure that I did. Now my wanderings had, what they thought, a singular purpose. It would be some time before I had the focus to meet those expectations.

One early trip was to Spirit Lake in southwest Washington. The consensus was that we, or I should say I, would be fishing most hours of the day. The distractions, on the surface, seemed minimal. I did manage to wet my line and to master a fishing knot. (There was a diagram sticker on the inside "tackle compartment" of the fishing things handle.) I deemed the basic cinch knot most efficient. Still do. There were just to many diversions. I was stuck on the beauty of the equation itself. Two + x = x + 2? The cycle of life revealed itself wherever I looked. The lake and the sky, the ground and the seed were ultimately the same. How did it survive the winter? It was July and there were still drifts of snow covered in pine needles, high against the trees. The water itself a cold breathing thing. You could see directly through it. I'd stare at the surface. One moment suspended in the membrane of a mountainscape painting, then with a slight change in consciousness, like the tuning out of a radio, I'd fall through to the bottom again. Sunken logs startling. Behemoths preserved. I'd plumb the lake in places with a sinker and report the depth back to camp. We paddled around in a numbered canoe. We visited a huge log cabin where there was a dock and were informed it was actually a "Lodge," for paying guests. We were escorted off the property by a skinny old man wearing a hat who had never met a little boy named Harry (my brother.) No. There was little time to fish.

And as suddenly as those times seemed to begin, they ended with an illness. It would be over a year before I could wander on my own again. A year and two months before I would fish. Perhaps I still needed time. Time to add it all up.

About the time I began to test the limits of my surroundings again, my parents bought into a piece of property at the edge of a National forest. A sidling piece of ancient thicket, on a fall line, along the upper fork of a river that sprouted out of a mountains volcanic seams. It was only about an hour away. A hour and fifteen if you counted time to stop at the tackle shop/general store on River Road, which became a matter of routine. Stopping for supplies was not so much a necessity as it was a connecting to the place. Unlike us, that store seemed to belong.

Our first time there, an old soldier sold us three spinners and something called beef jerky. The spinners had red bodies, each with a gold wing to which a small adhesive strip, florescent orange w/four black spots, was attached. They were beautiful. They were expensive. On the way to the car my father told me to "make 'em last!" I was pretty sure the jerky would. We were to be there three days.

You could tell the parents were proud and a bit nervous. Not quite realizing that if nothing came from their investment, it didn?t matter. Owning a piece of the forest was like owning someone else's dream. A part of some idyllic Eden from an unsteady suburban theme. A bit woozily, the parents showed us around, pointing out trails, and most importantly, the boundaries. The property lines and the imaginary lines, outside of which, someone was still required to "stay with Johnny." With those things said, we dashed along the trail with my "fishing thing" my, Popeil Pocket Fisherman, in one hand and two of the costly spinners in the other. The boundaries quickly falling away. And my brothers, after surveying the pool I was going to fish and uttering some inane instructions, they disappeared into the crags and gray rocks.

It was surprising how well the little fishing thing cast. I liked the feel of the fluttering spinner under the surface of the water. And just like the crystal painting of Spirit Lake, I could tune out the surface scene and see the mottled colors of the bottom below. This time, picking out the regular pulse and flash of the lure blade. Here, because the water was moving, that device of consciousness required real concentration. The scene flipped back, and forth. The pulse of the lure. The static. The sky. The stream. And then, thug thug! My world changed forever. Survival mode. Mine and something else's. My arm was popping. It felt like a heavy square-headed dog biting at it's own leash. I would have yelled for help, but couldn't. What could someone else have done? The brain sending signals.Signals to the adrenals, to the heart. Not to my legs. I stood on a little tongue of volcanic rock watching my line walk around the simmering pool. It walked right to me and under me. Stretching against the rock until it broke. Not knowing what to do I walked towards camp. Then towards the sounds of my brothers fighting. Then, back to the edge of the place. The exact spot.

The brothers seemed to sense something and appeared from out of the same rocks and crannies that had absorbed them. I had no breathe, no words, no numbers, to relate to them of my seconds long experience. They had nothing to go on or to believe in, except the scent of adrenaline in the air. They tried to disappear again but the pull of it kept them within a visible perimeter. Nervously, I tied on my other spinner. It seemed like forever. I had to look at the little sticker in the handle again before remembering the knot. After noticing about four feet of frayed line, had to do it all again. The worry was more about losing another costly spinner than any concern about losing a fish. I still hadn't done the math.

A deep calming breathe that I learned in the hospital.

Another nice cast to the same spot across the pool. Falling into the oily dimension of the pool. Thug thug? same result. Though, this time, the line walked, briefly, on the surface, being chased by something longer than my leg. And, just like before, it all disappeared below the undercut at my feet. And like the popping of a pimple in your ear, my lure was gone. My brothers came, crab like, scrabbling over the rocks. Shouting questions and accusations. Log throwing? Ha. Then, they too went through the pacing motions of not quite knowing what to do. "Cast again!" "Do it again!" I lost my spinner. "Put on another one!" I only have one more. "Put it on! Dad's got it. "Oh?" But that question in their voice told me of their support on this issue. They were trying to convince themselves of what they had already seen. That, or the idea of it, we would work out on the trail back to camp. Where they would realize, they were supposed to be with me the whole time. My word, in this instance, would be the rule. They were my only proof.

I got the other spinner.

The weight of the words "that- is- the- last- one" slightly slowing my stride as we headed back on the trail, through a thousand shades of green.

The brothers lost interest before I could tie the lure on. This time, I kept the spinner shallow on the retrieve so that, perhaps, if the situation repeated itself, and I had no reason to believe it wouldn?t, I could get a better look at what it was I was dealing with. I didn't get the chance. After a couple of casts I pulled in a 14 inch trout. It was fatter than the pocket fisherman and I didn't really know what to do with it. I carried it to the trees where I strung it on a branch pulled from a low laying shrub. With it still gasping. I stumbled along the rocks to find my brothers.

In my pride, I had made a fatal mistake. They would not be denied their turns... and quickly lost, on a snag, "the last one" of my last precious lures. Happy that I was not going home empty handed, weak kneed, I returned to camp alone.

My mother's excitement bubbled over that I had finally caught something with "the fishing thing." She shared the sadness of my lure situation and of my having to tell my father. My father. He was ready to eat trout, with eggs and bacon. He would in the morning and marvel at the pink flesh of the fish.

Somehow they both had to bear witness to the origin of the thing. As if the pool itself would add it up for them. To somehow claim, for themselves, another piece of the waking dream. With the broken chop of their uneasy laughter stumbling between the trees we made our way back to the pool.

They stood tentatively on the rocks above, waiting for a little internal assurance or maybe, just a little stunned at the view. We made our way to the little jut of rock where I had stood and lost three dollars worth of tackle in less than two hours. My father worked his way out to the furthest point with my mother in tow. Him, splashing at the edges in some short goofy boots. Her, careful not to get her clean canvas shoes even a little wet. He stood there, bent at the waist, my mothers arm on and almost around his back. Had they ever been closer? Working out the shadows and the sky. Squinting, then becoming aware that the trick was to relax your eyes. My mother saw their reflection. Nothing more. Perhaps you could see something if you didn't breathe? They held their breathe. And the earth stopped spinning. Silence and the crowded lens of the pool emptied itself into the air. The membrane of it stretched, snapped back and shattered. My mothers hand a fist of shirt secured. Leaning back to take it in. The fish aloft using it's body as it always had. Except for the air. In defiance of it all. Pretty pictures. People who stare. It crashed again as the parents audible yelp echoed between the rocks and beneath the bridge some yards below. Their collective gasp coming back to us. "Je-sush, Je-sush." The burbling laugh of "what a scare!"

It took a few moments for them to process the snap shot negative taken in the black and white panic of the scene. Process it to color. Apply it to the pieces of their new life. As the image began to reveal itself, questions arose that had already been answered, by me, back at camp. The colors and tones continued to fill themselves in. A slow double exposure coming to life in it's watery pan. The answer to one question escaped them. "What was that on it?s lip?" "It was beautiful." "Something gold," "with something bright orange. Orange with... black dots."

We made another trip to the store.

****

The next morning my brother helped "scoop in" a Steelhead longer than his leg. People watched from the bridge and cheered. As we weren't quite sure what to do with such a thing in the shallow edges of the pool, we started to pick words out of the rattling shouts from above. Piecing the echoes together, we got... LET- IT- GO? RI-VER CLOSED. Oddly, the people on the bridge were pointing to the trees.

Any sadness we felt quickly dissipated as we climbed the bridge for a brief interrogation. We had entered the area from the road, well below the signs, and came up fishing behind them. That fact, and a brown and white "little fishing thing," incurred nothing but amusement and understanding. Anyway, we did let it go.

Somehow I had come to the beginning and the end. The tough and the most certain parts were over. The answer entered in correctly on the page. Everything would be different now. Catching fish would be more difficult, demanding. There were rules to learn. New dreams. Maybe, all leads to, and returns from the sea. The whole middle of everything lay below me, like the winding curves of a stream.

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©2003 John Brown / Smokebox
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