“Guess who’s sitting in front of me right now?”
My wife Beth was calling from work, from the nursing home where she’s been a hospice nurse and head of an Alzheimer’s ward for a number of years. She is without doubt the most compassionate woman I have ever known. While the dignity of patients come first with her and as much pain-free existence as she can possibly imagine for them, coming towards the end in most cases, she can nevertheless get rocked by hard associations. It is her curse in life, but, of all the women I have met, she is best equipped for this task.
Yet she finds it doubly difficult to bring me news might shatter a morning, a day’s start.
It would not be one of my old teammates, I said inwardly, for I’d kept close tabs on them, barely enough left to form a huddle, never mind field a team.
Undoubtedly, a finely strung inner element told me, it was one of my pals from fishing the Pine River in Ossippee, NH at least twice a year for more than thirty years. In her voice was a thread of consanguine knowledge. Yearly or more we grouped, gathering with tents, sleeping bags, cast iron grill a yard wide, two stoves, a Coleman lantern, old tackle, new attachments, all for the elusive trout deep in pools. It was a religion with us, an order of quiet brotherhood sprouting from red-blue-silver-bottomed ones divining the occasional pool or blow-down or rugged and alder-shaded banking on that meandering stream, teasing us evermore. Each of us could have plotted that stream’s course, the natural obstacles nature had strewn about its route, where a high fall or sweeper caught everything loose in the flow, where moose carcass once blessed the water, beaver broke it up for years on end, where pal Everett, at the height of a joke, had caught his tiger trout.
Our site was a small open area, big enough for two tents, called Deer Lodge. There was no lodge, of course, but the name remained. A mile walk out of camp gave us three miles of fishing back. Likewise, from the foot of the camp site, three miles of fishing gave us a mile walk back to grub and cold beer. A stellar group we had been, diverse but composite, broken now by an assortment of fate, will and odd caprice. Things keep happening, all around. Events may be borne in shadows, opaque realities, yet in turn become the hard fact extensions of faint ideas or still fainter threats. Life had spun for us early and was still spinning, the whole cosmos of it being touched, known.
(Once, by flashlight, before dawn, I penned in my journal: God, Gray Flies, A Man Paul
The fields are wet/with hunters, /fish float/on my stream, /gasps of a tree/root exaggerate
the song in my ears. /Clouds lean on/a last bright out ring/of moon August lets/go of. /
Friends continue/to carry themselves/away in black dress/their slow straps mocking/
the plight of brown grass./When we fished/the Pine River/you trod like an Indian/when you broke twigs/it was to start fire./The gray ghosting flies./you tied all winter/tumbled slowly like/a pigeon a hawk cut/in the speed lane/hackles dusting light/gray the first sliver/of sunlight, the last bare/sword of it cutting water./Next May the mayflies/will consecrate/the river all over./The river will turn/I will wake early…I was far ahead of myself, knowing fear, the dread promises sure to wake us.)
Back again with Beth’s phone call: Oh, I said again, blessings on them for all joy and gifts they backpacked then, no matter where they roam these days, or what darkness descends or lays its hand. In my mind came, tantamount of a philosophy… we become where we’ve been, and with whom. As one trouter said at the camp fire on a heady May night, perhaps twenty-five years ago, a loon displaced on Pine River Pond, a searcher calling back in the near silence, “Ain’t we been shit lucky in all of this.” Only nodding heads made answer in the firelight.
And so, the odd plunge of incomplete knowledge went down through me at her vague and shy announcement, clear on through to what I manage to carry clear of the yester years, all of twenty of them gone since I had made a trip back up there. She was sending me a warning… this was an old friend, an old acquaintance, a name to immediately spill out of my far past. The plunge came again. I dared not pin a name on the new visitor at the nursing home, definitely a new patient. Surely it was not a patient’s relative coming this early in the morning; barely past 7 o’clock, the sun’s early rays falling across my kitchen table, outside striping my tulips and daffodils just exploding this May morning, after cresting Vinegar Hill to the east of me. I felt timing making way about the innards, fly line tremor at fingertips, black flies urgent at war; May had often been the month for us.
Guesswork didn’t come easy for me, or naming names. It seemed there had to be choices made, names or faces discounted from this early morning selection, this new terror at old hands. How could I pick one of them, for that’s what it had to be: she had never called me at this time of her day, and something just told me it was another one of those things that comes with the territory, comes with being soft in the shoulders, fat in the gut and long in the tooth, as someone else said perhaps a century earlier. The territory thing had all ready hit our fishing crowd, and the bell had rung, had tolled for dark spaces in an old photograph taken at the camp site.
For the matter, the thinning ranks of fishing buddies made me shrivel with mortality’s aim, knew the shiver of expectation and truth. I almost uttered aside, “I’ve had all I want of this,” all of it getting too close to home, too near the heart beat itself. In one splendid moment, they came near me in a rush, the ones who had left too soon, at sky work now, had become the simple stars of my small and cloudy universe.
Jim M., the mechanical devil had long departed, leaving sweeping memories behind. A genius more ways than one who could stand at the edge of a deep pool for hours, he worked easily on huge and complex telescopic glass bound to search the other end of the universe, as well as the conglomerate innards of pocket watches. So capable. So imaginative. So daring. Once, when the engine of his truck blew a piston rod, and he was hauling a trailer back home from vacation, he made a roadside fix. He plugged the piston chamber with a hunk of wood carved and fitted by hand, and replaced the engine head. The trailer was safely, but slowly, hauled home. Another time, one whole tire and wheel assembly destroyed in a freak accident, his spare wheel handed off earlier to another trucker in a moment of grace, he mounted his spare tire to a differently designed wheel, pulled from a dump site, using only three mounting holes for wheel studs. It was a bumpy out-of-sync ride, but he managed to get the vehicle safely home to fair treatment.
Best pal, Eddie L., prince among men, had moved off to Florida job improvement years earlier. For twenty years we talked by phone every week. When computers allowed free talk, we did it every night for almost three years. The standards started to show in those communications, and it all came to a crawl as Parkinson’s hit home on the sweetest man who ever lived. Never had we argued or given advice, not in thirty or so years. Now I can neither chastise innocently nor offer suggestions. For those thirty odd years while here he had checked and repaired or replaced brakes on a host of my vehicles… Ford coupes, Dodge vans, Pontiac sedans, Chevie pick-up trucks. Fixed electrical mysteries. Plumbed planes level. Brought water safely through walls. Eddie was comfortable in grease, sawdust, multilayer computer boards and the foreign likes of electronics and refrigeration and television sets. Like Jim, he could do anything, fix anything, make anything, from wood, plastic, copper, glass, you name the raw material or the component and he could handle it. If he walks at all now, it is by shuffle, and those remarkable hands, lying idle, must itch for certain tools. Perhaps the memory will only linger in his fingertips, or at his soft palm, once so rough and ready for anything.
Now, all those God-given talents are found behind thickening clouds in a nursing home more than a thousand miles away. The shadows are almost complete. Somewhere, in past the seeming density, he must remember moments on the Pine River. I hope they do not come with pain. Forever he will harbor all those classic jokes with their majestic sound effects, like he was on-stage at the old Orpheum between dance acts. And he will keep to himself as well all his secrets… but not what made him a special man.
I saw other faces, sounded other names, as Beth waited for my reply, my inevitable question of “who?” It was May, it was a beautiful morning, it was too early to summons a pal to the inevitable.
I couldn’t say who. I chose none. I remembered more, as the mini-parade continued, a partial face, a nickname, an event indelible for all my time.
Greenie, in his turn at the Pine River, had lit up too many nighttime camp fires with his humor, had nearly lost a son pranking around in a railroad yard and managed to lose both legs. I couldn’t pick him: he’d had enough in the long haul, though the high-pitched laughter at the camp fire was as warm as burnt spuds, almost touching the Three Stooges when we most needed a laugh.
And super chef Charlie, in the Boy Scouts for thirty years, the master fisherman who could bake an apple pie at camp site with a reflector oven or make clam chowder in the midst of the forest, had most gently cared for his cancer-ridden wife through three years of torture and love. I last saw her fetal, worn, thin as a wire, in his arms as he started to change her bedding. Oh, God, I said to myself, I can’t point at him whose chowder drew as back to the camp site in a rush.
David J., elusive on the stream, private, yet first to start morning’s fire, start coffee and drop eggshells into the fireplace pot for the best of luck and the deed of grounding the grounds at the bottom of the pot, was the first to vaporize. There was no goodbye. One morning he fished with us for about his tenth year; the next day he was gone. To this day we know very little but that something or someone drew him down or away. Once, and once only, there was a postcard from Alaska. It simply said, “You guys never took me FISHING!”
Walter R. and Brother B. and Ray E. were, in more recent communications, still pushing the wheel, for I had newly penned a few lines about them and the Pine River.
I crawled to a stop in my memories, a long breath marking the end of a long thought.
“Donnie V.,” she said, and my mind began its hopscotch through the past, from the then to the immediate now. Oh handsome Don, the guy with a smile that could light up a town square or a whole camp site. Handsome Don sitting in pal Eddie’s kitchen planning a fishing trip, drawing up menus, shopping lists, drinking beer, going back over last year’s last trip, for while we hit the Pine River in New Hampshire a couple of times a year at least, we also found an occasional adventure at Ripogenes Gorge or the Penobscot in Maine, or along The Connecticut River or Lake St. Francis in New Hampshire.
One night, darkness all around our arrival at Lake Francis, we pitched our nine-man tent in a likely spot near the river. In the morning we took it down, at Donnie’s insistence that it was crooked, that it sat on too many rocks, that across the way another party yelled out asking how things were in Saugus. They had noticed the giveaway sticker on my yellow Dodge Sports Van that said, anonymously, “The clock of life is wound but once.” Donnie said, “They’ll say we didn’t know how to set up a tent. They know that damn Dodge bumper sticker everywhere.” He was taking tent poles down before we could move into action.
He still sends memories. To each trip, to every camp fire and solemn late hours of stories and worldly encounters that make lives so enriched, he brought a surplus of energy. His job then was climbing mountains and searching for communication tower installation sites, the towers strung out on high points, chasing each other down the continent of America, long before the satellites came into everyday parlance. Early on we heard about line-of-sight communication, and eventually here to a defilade point of the Pine River, behind slow hills and thick forests, would come a Thursday evening of Mitch Miller and McHale’s Navy… sweet trumpets and face-rugged Ernie Borgnine doing an about-face of Marty.
At John’s Café on Route 1, south of Maine and north of Rhode Island, in Saugus, we’d
watch those shows on TV every Thursday night. Draft beer was cheap, the talk good and solid, the traffic mere yards from us as heavy as it had been in 200 years of that road to Newburyport, the friendships coming cemented without petty troubles.
The big impact was his relationship to work, how he viewed his simple tasks in the long run; simply conveyed, it was a matter of energy control that you brought out of the sack in the morning for your work day. The kick-start. Day made early demands, always. So it was that he rose early at camp, lit fires, potted coffee, looked to find the first trout of the day, and to bring it back for breakfast. He was a joy; and he made me work at my journals, knowing they’d be ensconced in my pack starting out, later in my sleeping bag for late incorporations. “If you work your pen like I work my mountains,” he said one night at the camp fire, “we’ll touch the stars.” Then pausing, preparing an annunciation, putting caesura to work, setting off the challenge, he added, “We’ll touch them, or they’ll touch us.”
It was at his insistence that these lines following were logged, and he made me recite them endlessly out on the river at a favorite bend, the sunshine our only other companion for one whole afternoon of bliss on our sacred river: It only happens at the Pine River, /too far inland to be real. /All night I hear white water /slapping the bulkhead of the hill, /the prow of the island cleaving the river /into two torturous descents, /downstream, oars lifting clear, hitting back. /Clearing the canvas chamber I wake in, /my comrades at fishing or women /in the darkness of syllables, /their movements subtle as new tides /as slow and as secretive as turtles, /I find something fleshy in the night /that stars expose: a breather, /a swimmer climbing wet to the camp site, /a sailor overboard from a dream.
Now he’s ever so close, and even if it’s years in coming, his hand has made the reach.
One day, who knows when, Beth will read this and remember the call, remember Donnie’s vibrant smile, and know the sense of departure as I know it, and how the sense of prayer deepens.
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