I was playing one of my grandson’s favorite games—only this time with myself, not with him. He hits me with a question, often hypothetical, sometimes as fast as he can make up new Hobson’s choices, sometimes slowly, inviting—or daring—me to explain my answer. Bizarreness and non sequitur are perfectly acceptable, but you have to make the choice. “Would you rather be Hitler or Mussolini?” That’s easy; in for a dime, in for a dollar; if you’re going to go to hell anyway, you may as well shoot for the big time. Hitler. “Would you rather have for a slave a giant spider or Jar Jar Binks?” Much tougher, this one. My feelings for Jar Jar approach in intensity and quality those of the media for George W. Bush, and I am arachnophobic to the point of murderous rage directed against all eight-legged creatures. The game usually ends when both of us are laughing too hard to continue.
So. Which was better: fishing with my grandfather or fishing with my grandson? I spent blissful days devoting all my spare neurons to contemplating the question, aided by the occasional mug of Laphroaig. Watching the play of light on all the facets of that hypothetical gem, in the strictest, mutually exclusive form of Jordan’s game, beguiled me. The whole point of the game is to choose, which I finally found myself completely unable to do. When I suspended the mutual exclusivity rule the answer was instantly obvious: fishing with my grandson, because I had not only the sheer joy of that moment, but also its essential precursor, a precious memory of early life-forming experience. Even though I know the answer, I fully expect that thinking about the question will delight me until my dying day.
L. L. Bean was what had led me to the charming dilemma, giving me an intense flashback which even exceeded that occasioned by going fishing for the first time with my grandson. Cracking open my tackle box, which hadn’t seen the light of day for forty years, did come close, but it reminded me of my own fishing career. Since I see old friends who go back to those days all the time, I’m accustomed to hearing of events of that period and immune to any disorienting sense of anachronism. However, L. L. Bean, with its arrays of Royal Coachmen and Wulffs, crossed a divide. It brought back earlier, more primal, memories of my grandfather, the fly fisherman. I got to thinking.
It was our custom to spend a summer week in Westfield with my mother’s parents, Gramma and Grampa, “on vacation” from our exceedingly light family duties. My brother Dave and I would go one week, and our little sister Kathy another. This saved both my parents and grandparents from having to deal with the vast majority of our internecine rivalries. Dave and I had little use for Kathy. We treated her with the barest minimum civility our parents would let us get away with until our mid-teens, when we were all beginning to become rudimentary adults.
Westfield is a small rural western Massachusetts city, an easy drive, just enough distance to let us know we were away from home. A century or so ago it was a thriving hotbed of buggy-whip manufacturing, and is still known as “Whip City.” Located in the Connecticut River Valley, Westfield can be infernal in summer, and in winter often appears on lists of the five coldest places in Massachusetts. We were familiar and comfortable with the city, yet there was ample opportunity for bicycle-based exploration of areas we’d never seen before. It was exotic in minor, appealing ways. My grandparents’ neighborhood, newly developed in the early 1920s, had grassy tree belts between the street and the sidewalks. Almost every afternoon a varying subset of a half dozen neighbor ladies would come by, circle the lawn chairs, sit for a while in Gramma’s front yard, and discuss what interested them—it was a true neighborhood. The people spoke with pleasing foreign accents. Sophie Stewart next door was Slovak, her husband Ed came from Kentucky, and everyone else grew up far enough west of Boston so that they sounded like upstate New Yorkers. The New York Central’s Boston & Albany mainline paralleled the Westfield River a mile or two away, so we often heard the horns and steel-meeting-steel cacophony of freight-switching during the sweltering still nights.
Grampa was chief engineer at the H. B. Smith Co., a foundry right in the center of downtown Westfield where they manufactured cast-iron steam boilers. It was stygian, except when they poured the Niagaras of yellow molten iron, and probably as dangerous as Hell, too, since even normally fearless photons hesitated to come in. The sharp sweet mineral aroma of what I surmise to be flux seduced my nose. This industrial Grampa was also a quintessential country boy who grew up in the woods of hilly rural Russell and Huntington, and I doubt he would have seen anything contradictory about this. He was a resolute and strong-willed man; he didn’t allow any kind of contradiction. Grampa died when I was ten. I bear his name and will always perceive him, in near-mythic dimensions, through ten-year old eyes. I was greatly astonished when I recently saw a picture of him standing next to his wife on their wedding day. He appeared to be half a head shorter than Gramma, but I know for a fact that he was at least seven feet tall. And even on his wedding day he had a look, a Scorpio set to his face, that didn’t bode well for anyone who trifled with his family.
It is the outdoorsman and conservationist that always first springs to mind when I think of my grandfather. As befits a man whose son was a fighter pilot on the Yorktown, and whose son-in-law fought in the Hürtgen Forest, he invited Churchill’s The Second World War to share shelf space with Ray Bergman’s Trout, of Biblical heft, and Forbush’s magisterial Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Grampa spent his spare time walking the woods around Mt. Tekoa, and fishing local streams and the nearby Westfield River (I’m sure it did not escape him that the Westfield River downstream of the Chapin & Gould paper mill was not the greatest place for fishing). Sometimes he was accompanied by the likes of Thornton W. Burgess, whom my mother recollected sitting with as he read to her from his books. Grampa gave me many nudges toward awareness of my surroundings. He pointed out, and demonstrated, the ant lions in the narrow strip of sandy soil behind the rose bushes in front of his house, and you are welcome to imagine how pleased I was, decades later, to find the telltale conical holes around my own foundation for the edification of my grandson.
I’d love to be able to tell you that Grampa and I spent endless seasons stalking trout, and that I absorbed angling lore and other wisdom at the feet of a master, but that wouldn’t be true. In fact, I can’t even remember the first time I fished, and the closest Grampa and I got to actually fishing was a reconnaissance mission to a stream near The Gorge in Russell. One evening Gramma and Grampa and Dave and I got in the Pontiac and headed west out Route 20. On the way Gramma and Grampa showed us scenes from their history, as I am now inclined to do with my own grandchildren. We finally arrived in the middle of nowhere and pulled over. I was peeved, as Gramma would have put it, after we bushwhacked through miles of mosquito-infested wilderness only to find that the brook was too low to fish. But my fate was sealed when Gramma and Grampa gave Dave and me bamboo rods and Bronson spin-casting reels one Christmas. When the fishing season opened and my latent angling mania overtly manifested itself, Grampa sent me some fly-tying supplies and basic instructions. Cool-headed Dave got good use out of his rod and reel, but managed to avoid my derangement.
I lived to fish. My mother drove Doug Blaisdell and me to Whiting’s Pond, The Mudhole, Fuller’s Dam, Hoppin Hill Reservoir, and Turnpike Lake with never a complaint. I trace Baby Boomer decadence right back to here: although we did so occasionally, our predecessors would certainly always have walked or cycled. Probably the only reason that Doug, a couple of years older than I, put up with me—I was an obnoxious youth—was transportation to prime fishing grounds. I’d set my watch back ten minutes and claim it must have stopped so I could fish past the agreed-upon pickup time. I’m sure my mother never caught on. One time I brought home a pickerel, I think it was, which she duly cleaned and cooked for supper. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the woman was a saint.
When I wasn’t at water’s edge I was a greedy sponge, reading everything I could about fishing. I read Trout. I read A. J. McClane in Field & Stream. I read Robert Ruark’s “The Old Man and the Boy” series in Field & Stream (you could do worse). Then I read everything else in Field & Stream, including the ads. I reveled in sucking up the esoteric vocabulary, my ability to use which far outstripped my meager practical experience, as is so often the case in so many of life’s endeavors. This avidity is evidently a characteristic of the young, so it does not surprise me to see my grandson, who has a sense of time and history, doing the same thing with World War II. Evidently, it is not a universal characteristic, or it is not easily channeled, else teaching would be a cakewalk and we would not be hearing incessant chatter about how our schools are failing.
For all my youthful passion and the inordinate time I spent at ponds, I never became a competent fisherman, let alone outdoorsman. If you dropped me off in the middle of the woods, I’d probably die of exposure or starvation, but at least I might be able to tell you the names of the weeds amongst which I was expiring. If one nail is good, three are better was my modus operandi in tying flies, mainly streamers of my own design, on big hooks which suited my limited motor skills, using vast amounts of lacquer to hold together all the intermediate steps. With the judicious application of a good-size split shot I could spin-cast them, but of course, they never fooled anybody. I never saw a trout, nor learned fly casting. I caught, purely by accident, the random perch, bass, hornpout, or pickerel, but sunfish, which we called kivvers, were my main prey. They were considered vermin, and the prevailing wisdom was they didn’t really have a sense of pain, so the best they could hope for at my hands was to suffocate and fertilize the surrounding forest, or be cut up as bait in the pursuit of worthier fish.
My grandson and his two sisters were excited about going fishing. I had bought Jordan a basic spin-casting set, fiberglass, not bamboo, and a package of synthetic marshmallows alleged to be irresistible to our piscine brethren. I should have known better. We had no more luck using bread balls on the next couple of outings, but I had sworn that my worm-impaling days were over. Finally, Grammy took matters into her own hands, decreeing that Jordan must catch a fish. It was ironic enough that a card-carrying PETA member endorsed sticking unsanitary sharp barbed steel things into a fish’s mouth for the sport of a human, but she compounded the felony by buying a pint of night crawlers, who would add to the carnage by drowning and being mangled by pointy little kivver teeth. Sure enough, at Shad Factory Pond Jordan landed a kivver, and eventually his sisters did, too, all fun and games until there was a hook to disgorge, but that’s what a grandfather’s for. Their attention waned, and soon they were more occupied with watching the herring run than catching and releasing kivvers.
Jordan was six or seven at the time, and I was concerned that he might find fishing’s glacial pace boring, and that learning to cast might be too frustrating. I needn’t have worried—he was intense in his dedication to getting the timing right in his casting. He quickly got it down with only a couple major snarls and without putting anyone’s eye out, and was able to spend a reasonable amount of time waiting patiently for a nibble. It turns out that fishing isn’t his passion; baseball and World War II history are. It does not disappoint me that Jord isn’t a fishing maniac. It’s natural to use your own childhood experience as a guide to what your grandchildren might enjoy, but perverse to try to force their childhood to mirror your own. Never think that a child’s experience is inferior or somehow not authentic because it doesn’t match yours. How could the experiences not differ, when times change, for better or for worse? Fifty years ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of asking my grandfather such a question, but today I find myself pondering my grandson’s latest: “Would you rather be eaten by ants or impaled on a growing bamboo plant?”