Monday, October 19, 2009

My father takes me fishing.

My father grew up without a father. That is to say his father died when my father was only twelve or so. So, he claimed, to have grown up missing the things fathers teach their sons to do.

There must have been Andy Hardy movies, or Henry Aldrich movies about All-American boys that impressed my father when he was young. He thought that a boy should know how to do things that he never learned to do from his father. His lack of knowledge did not inhibit my father. He was going to teach me to be as true-blue and red-blooded as Timmy on the old “Lassie” television show.

One of the first things my father tried to teach me was to learn how to tie sailor’s knots. He must have lit on the notion that a boy should know how to do this. It might come in handy and, in the right circumstances could even save the boy’s life or the lives of dozens of forlorn and helpless people on a sinking ship somewhere.

One evening my father came home with a poster that looked like a reproduction from a sailing school in the 19th Century. At the top of the poster there were the words, whimsical I guess, in type made to look like rope: “Forty Knots.” And beneath that type were the words (again in rope-type): “For Boys of All Ages.” That last part must have especially appealed to my father, the idea that he, too, though he was probably pushing 40 at the time, could learn these knots.

The problem with the poster was that showed forty knots, but didn’t give you the least bit of information as to how to go about tying them. They were knots loosely constructed—not tight—so I suppose if you had some knot-tying aptitude you could figure out the steps, but this seemed beyond the two of us. The easy ones, the “overhand,” the “lariat loop,” the “square knot,” we seemed to figure out. He would quiz me and time me. These I could do. But some of the knots were pure torture. They made as much sense as trying to read a book in binary code in the dark. The “sheepshank,” the “figure eight double,” the “slippery hitch” and the “hitching tie.” It was ok though, according to my father. Because “we had the basics.” “Once you know the square knot,” he would say, “you’re on third base and heading home. Anything more complicated than that is just showing off.” And so, we had enough of knots.

Next we were to go fishing and this didn’t end much better than the knots. My father woke me early; it must have been 4 or 4:30. I remember this because there was no milk in the house and the milk man came at 5. We drove off, each of us with a cup of black coffee, in his 1949 green Studebaker toward a pier that jutted off of City Island, a small island off the Bronx in the Long Island Sound. “Hurry,” he kept telling me, “hurry. I read the fish are running.”

At the time I didn’t question where he would have read that, or even what “the fish are running means.” It just meant, as far as I could tell, that I had to hurry. In about 30 minutes we got to a little shack near the pier and rented a rod and bought some bait. None of this demanded the tying of knots, but we were ready in case we had to.

My father cast his line into the sea, something he must have picked up from watching an outdoor show like “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins,” because I can’t imagine he had ever gone fishing before. And we sat there waiting for the fish to run.

The pier was empty when we had arrived, we were first. But around 9 or 10 AM, it was beginning to fill up with other fishermen and their sons. This is when my father caught the “big one.”

His rod bent in half. He stood up. He tried to reel in the line, but the fish on the hook was too much for him. Other fishermen began to walk over to where we were. “Lean in and pull back,” one of them advised and my father did. Slowly he started to be able to pull the line in. “He’s weakening,” someone said, meaning the fish, not my father.

I was convinced my father had caught a whale. Nothing could bend my father over that wasn’t at least a whale, and, I imagined, a whale of Biblical proportions. Time seemed to have stopped. The men gathered around my father on the pier offered to hold the rod for a few minutes to give my father a break, but my father was too courageous for that. He stuck with it. Holding as fast as a halyard bend or a tiller’s hitch.

Finally, the tension broke and my father began to reel in the line more easily. “He’s spent,” someone said. “He got away,” said someone else. But moments later we saw what my father had caught.

It wasn’t a whale after all. It was an old gasoline rag covered in barnacles. My father just laughed and said that that old rag had “fought like a son of a bitch.”

After that, we went home.