Earl Hamner, Jr.
Flemming had allowed himself the luxury of sleeping late. Now as he walked toward the end of the dock he saw that all the boats but one had already left for the fishing grounds. The time of day didn’t matter all that much. He would be fishing for coho and they were crazy fish. They fed at any time of day, and were as liable to jump in the boat as they were to bite like a normal salmon, if any such animal existed. The man materialized from the fish shack and said "I'll be your guide today." Flemming thought he knew all the guides at River's Inlet, but he had never seen this one before. Without another word the guide stepped into the boat and began preparing to take it out. He was a tall lanky man in his thirties. His eyes were brown and deep socketed and Flemming felt he knew him from somewhere.
Flemming introduced himself. The guide smiled and nodded, but made no offer to tell his name. “What do you do when you aren’t guiding?” Flemming asked.
"Not much," answered the guide, again with the same puzzling smile.
It was customary for guide and client to exchange a few vital statistics before getting down to the serious business of catching salmon. Usually it helped the guide to know what kind of fisherman he was dealing with, how experienced he was, and how much help, if any, he should provide when the bite came. On the other hand, it was equally useful to the client to know the kind of man who would be guiding him. How qualified was he? Did he know these particular fishing grounds? Where the productive holes were? Where the kelp beds and underground snags were? Had he fished here before? Could he handle the boat if they had to chase a combative tyee? Usually a little information in the beginning was enough to bond guide and client, at least for the time they were on the water.
The guide was quiet on the way out to The Wall, but that was not unusual since it was hard to be heard over the outboard. But now they were here, and while the man was baiting his hook Flemming tried again to establish some kind of rapport.
"You got a family?" Surely this would get a response from the man, thought Flemming.
"Had one once," replied the guide.
The hell with him, thought Flemming. He decided that when they went in to the lodge for lunch he would ask the fish-master to assign him another guide. Flemming studied the guide. He worked intently sharpening each hook, cutting each herring for bait and laying them out methodically, washing his cutting board neatly after each cut. He studied the water carefully, watching the horizon for feeding gulls, the surrounding area for the presence of bait.
Like most boys Flemming had learned to fish from his own father. It was during the Great Depression, and in those days the fishing was as much for the table as it was for sport. The only drawback to fishing with his father was that his father always used the occasion to get drunk. In his drunkenness his father would become maudlin and overly affectionate. Sometimes he would reminisce about his own dead father and mother and cry that they were gone. At other times he would sing old Baptist hymns like "Throw Out The Lifeline" or "In The Garden.”
It was not the silly talk or the singing that bothered the boy. It was when he and his father got home that the row would break out. His mother would seize whatever whiskey that had been left over and pour it down the drain. That would lead to harsh words, and the harsh words would lead to threats and in no time the house would be filled with the murmur of frightened children and the abrasive voices of enraged adults. There was never any real violence, but it was threatened, and that was enough to terrify the boy and cause him to try to keep his father from drinking by any means possible
When he was twelve Flemming finally hit upon a way, if not to keep his father from drinking, to at least cut down on the amount he consumed.
It was a sunny Saturday in July, and his father had brought him fishing because it was his birthday. There had been a present (even during the depression), his own bait casting rod and reel, but nothing had meant so much as to be invited to fish alone with his father to the exclusion of his brothers and sisters.
On the river below the railroad bridge, in the snug old rowboat his father had built, they drifted gently with the current. The day was warm, cooled just enough to be comfortable by a slight breeze which fanned the weeping willows along the river's edge.
"Beautiful day, boy," observed his father.
"Damn tooting," the boy replied. His mother did not allow him to swear, but he had discovered he could get away with it when he was alone with his father. If one of the other siblings were around they would run squealing to his mother and tattle. For his sin he would be threatened with a spanking if it ever happened again and warned that he was getting dangerously close to roasting in Hell.
The boy was watching the cork bottle top which served as a float. It bobbed busily for they were using live bait, minnows which the boy had gotten up early to catch in the mill race.
His father caught the first fish, a wide mouth bass of well over four pounds. The bass had swallowed the minnow and the hook so that his father had to use pliers to remove the hook. Once clear of the hook his father held the fish up by its lower lip forcing its great jaws wide open, its bulky body curving over his father's hand.
"There's supper," said his father. He placed the fish on the stringer and dropped it over the side of the boat. He cleaned the pliers and wiped them neatly with a cloth before returning them to his tackle box.
The boy dreaded what would come next. His father always celebrated the first catch with a nip from the bottle. He hated it when he saw his father remove the pint bottle from his tackle box. If history repeated itself then the bright day would end in disaster. And its my birthday, he thought resentfully. It was then the idea came to him, a way to keep his father a little less drunk.
"I'll bet you a quarter I can hold some of that down," said the boy.
"You think you can drink like a man?"
"You got a long way to go before you're a man. You're still just a
little old shirt tail pup!"
"Bet you a quarter I can hold as much of it down as you can."
"Shoot," said his father. "You wouldn't know a quarter if you saw one."
"Would too," replied the boy. He took it from his pocket, a quarter so bright it sparkled in the sun. It was a birthday gift from his mother, and since it was a present she had cleaned and polished it. The boy was planning to splurge with it and spend the whole thing on a chocolate soda the next time he was in town.
Before taking the first drink, his father considered a moment, and then passed the bottle to the boy. He lifted the bottle to his lips, closed his eyes and swallowed. The first taste was surprisingly sweet, but then with the second swallow the liquor turned hot and strong and he realized that his lips and his throat were burning, but still he swallowed again and again, and he was still attempting to force more of the liquid fire into his throat when his father reached over and removed the bottle from his hands.
"Damn," he exclaimed more in wonder than in anger. "You damn near swigged half the bottle."
For a moment the boy felt as if time were frozen. He could hear a great roaring in his ears, his eyes watered. His lips and throat were on fire, and an even greater furnace was shooting flames through his chest and stomach. A hot weight rested unsteadily there, as if he had swallowed a Roman candle.
"You okay?" his father asked.
He nodded but he could not speak. A volcano had come to life somewhere inside him and he felt that any moment molten rock, steam, smoke and as he might explode from him.
When he did become sick his father rowed him ashore and watched sympathetically until the boy had recovered.
"You want to fish some more?" asked his father.
"You going on home?"
The boy started off but then he turned back, reached in his pocket and took out his quarter.
"Reckon this belongs to you," he said and flipped the coin across to his father.
His father regarded him gravely for a moment, hesitated, then pocketed the quarter and rowed away.
Flemming thought ruefully of the last time he had seen his father. He had returned home after a long absence. His mother was dead, and his father lived on alone there in the old family house. It was in October and the woods were afire with the colors of autumn. It had been a hot dry summer and the rivers were low and what fish were there weren't biting. His father had fished alone and had come home in the early afternoon, singing that old Baptist hymn and walking unsteadily.
Flemming put the old man to bed, impatient with him, feeling some of the ancient resentment. The old man could have waited until he was gone before getting drunk. He was not able to be home all that much. There were things they could have shared. He could have waited.
While he was loading luggage in the car, Flemming passed his father's room, and he heard the old man call to him.
"Come here, son."
"Go to sleep, Pop," Flemming had said impatiently. He did not go into the room but finished loading the car and drove away without even saying goodbye. He would regret it, for his father died a month later, and Flemming was never to know what his father had wanted. It was a moment he had grieved over more than once. There had been so much unfinished business between him and his father, so much left unsaid.
Flemming was jerked out of his reminiscence abruptly when a coho bit with characteristic speed and ferocity. The fish had hit running and in seconds it carried a hundred feet of the line screaming away from the reel.
The fish was an acrobat, an exhibitionist, a clown. It walked on the water, it spun and twisted and leapt in the air again and again. Finally it allowed itself to be reeled to the edge of the boat, only to make a doubly long run the second time. Even a small coho is a formidable challenge, but this one was of some size and with his lightweight fly rod it took Flemming nearly a half hour to subdue it and bring it to the net. Once the fish was in the boat the guide looked to Flemming with that same mysterious smile he had worn most of the day.
"What the hell's so funny?" demanded Flemming.
"You might have caught yourself a trophy fish on that light line," said the guide. "You might want him mounted."
"Let's get him back to camp, and see what he weighs," answered Flemming.
When they arrived back to the dock the guide lifted the fish and went on ahead into the fish-shack. Flemming gathered up his camera and the extra reel and hauled himself from the boat up onto the dock. When he entered the fish shack he saw his coho hanging on the scales. It was a noble fish, clean and ocean fresh, weighing in at twenty pounds and ten ounces. He looked around for the guide, but he had vanished. Flemming looked back to his fish, and that was when he saw on the dark ledge beside it a quarter so bright and shining it might have been recently polished. –e-