Thursday, January 21, 2016

Old Fish

Down here the min­ing com­pa­nies built the towns. Every­one owed their liv­ing to the min­er­als com­ing from the belly of the earth. Even if they didn't swing a pick in the dark, they worked at one of the room­ing houses, shops, or saloons that the min­ers needed. As things will, the shaft min­ing dried up. The bosses brought in giant elec­tric shov­els for strip min­ing and most of the min­ers, no longer needed, left to find work on farms or in fac­to­ries. The big shov­els tore wounds in the earth. to get to the coal, nickel and Galena hid­den below. Those giant ruts stayed and even­tu­ally the sky filled them and they became lakes that would out­last the com­pa­nies respon­si­ble for them. Around here they call them strip pits. Some of the pits were fed by streams and with the rains came the fish. They grew in abun­dant vari­ety and every young man was expected to make his first catch in one of those pits. The giant shov­els, aban­doned, were left to rot where they stood; not unlike the min­ers that pre­dated them.

When I was five my dad took me on my first real fish­ing trip. He would have got­ten to it ear­lier, but he had spent most of my life on the road build­ing a pipeline to move nat­ural gas across the coun­try. We took his lit­tle flat bot­tomed row boat out to County Pit 23 and shoved off into the water. He rowed while I looked around at the oak and elm trees that lined the banks. I was try­ing to spot a sas­safras tree so we could dig up some root and make tea that night. My best mem­o­ries of my dad up to then were of boil­ing the root, strain­ing it then adding just enough sugar before we hud­dled together on the couch and watched what­ever mind­less thing the TV had to offer.

Dad found a good spot and handed me my rod. It was a trusty Zebco 33. His was fancier. We were after cat­fish and flat­heads so we used chicken liver as bait. Chicken liver is great for cat­fish. When it hits the water the blood spreads and swirls and the smell moves out like a sig­nal. Cat­fish are drawn like sharks from hun­dreds of yards away. Shad works well too, but you can never get the stink off your hands.
Dad popped the to
p on a can of Pabst and cast his line. Some­thing hit almost imme­di­ately. He strug­gled a bit, then pulled in a small cat. It was too lit­tle, so he tossed it back.

Grow some more, lit­tle man,” he said to the fish as he let it slither back into the murk.
Two hours of that and dad had hooked three good sized cats. All I had man­aged to catch was a baby drum, which I badly wanted to keep.

No, son,” the old man said, “we’ll come back and catch him when he’s all grown up.”
I asked for help rebait­ing my hook. Dad linked the liver over my hook then I cast into a shady spot near the bank and waited. Min­utes passed. I kept watch­ing the bank, want­ing some­thing to hap­pen. Then my line went tight. Some­thing big. I thought that I had the daddy of all cat­fish on the end of that line. The thing wanted to pull me into the water as badly as I wanted to pull it out.

Dad grabbed my arms and helped steady me while I fought. When the thing cleared the water I was ter­ri­fied. The thing looked like a leg­less croc­o­dile with fins. It was part mon­ster, part dinosaur and part fish and I knew that it wanted me. Its  dead eyes spoke of rep­til­ian hunger and pre­his­toric rage. This was that crea­tures’  planet and he wanted it back.

I took hold of the rough thing and tried to work the hook out of its razor jaw. My fin­gers went too deep and I felt the fire as the sharp teeth sipped through my flesh. Blood seemed to be every­where and dad moved so fast that the boat almost over­bal­anced. He tore the thing from my hands and cut the line with his pocket knife. The mon­ster slith­ered back into the murky water with tan­gles of my skin still hang­ing from its teeth.

I watched the gar until it van­ished into the mud and knew that I would never swim in that pit again.

First appeared in Fried Chicken and Coffee

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