Jeff Lawenda

A Fish Tale

On a late spring day in 1952, we left behind the diner’s early morning hushed voices and coffee, bacon aromas. The walk to the car, on pebbles crunching under my Keds, was deliberate and eager. Promising June light began seeping into the darkness, the start of another long dayshift. Its low shafts surged up and swelled into a blanket of young sunshine as we drove along empty country roads.

We secured oars and bait at Burke’s Bait & Tackle and drove southeast on Route 35 to Muscoot Reservoir, one of ten in New York’s northern Westchester County supplying water to New York City. After parking off Route 35 in a clearing bordered by white birch, my father sorted out our gear and handed over enough for me to be a help, not a burden. With him leading the way, we began the downward hike to shore along the trail old Burke had outlined with the stub of a pencil on the torn piece of a brown paper bag.

The boat was exactly where he told us it would be, unchained, unlocked, and in fine condition. There was no worry about boat thieves in the 1950s. We turned over the green wooden hull, loaded it, and dragged it to the water’s edge.

Sitting erect on the center bench, my father rowed in smooth cadence. From the stern, I watched the oars slice cleanly into the water. I was transfixed by the boat’s forward thrust generated by his strong strokes.

As we crossed the reservoir, I marveled at the sparkle of its surface, affording me a liquid-light show. Beyond the array of glitter, a panorama of black pine, hemlock, spruce, and maple covered the hills. At the center of it all was our old wooden boat, making its way to a spot off the opposite shore.

From the moment my father had stirred me with a gentle hand and soft voice that dark pre-dawn morning, my anticipation kept growing. Each step along the way brought unimagined firsts, similar to when he and my mother had taken my sister and me to Playland, where every ride was a unique thrill. This day was even more exciting in that my nine-year-old mind saw fishing from a boat as an adult event, but most importantly, because I reveled in the specialness of being alone with my father on an adventure.

We rowed to within ten yards of a large projection of lily pads, tossed anchor, and my father assembled our gear. He opened the teal tackle box, exposing both neat compartments and open areas. I was fascinated by their contents and asked what everything was. He named each item and explained their best usages. There was a Jitterbug, three different CP Swings, a Daredevil, other gleaming lures made to resemble tiny fish, frogs and bugs, jars of pork rind and shrimp, hooks and weights of all sizes, swivels, pliers, a Swiss Army knife, spools of extra line, a chain with locking clasps for the fish we’d catch, and a red and white bobber. He snapped rod ferrules together, pulled line through the guides, and expertly tied knots that I was confident would never fail. He opened the cardboard box of squirming night crawlers, grabbed one, and put it on my hook.

He taught me the basics of lake fishing. In addition to technique, I received lessons in patience and gained an appreciation for serenity and shared experience. The learning process took all morning and was marked by my snarled lines, lost bait, and a half-successful attempt at endurance. In hindsight, my father’s fortitude was impressive. My frustration was tinged with the anxiety of wanting to prove myself worthy and pleasing him at the same time. He decided a break was warranted and suggested we have lunch.

We opened the bag my mother had filled the night before and laid out the neatly wrapped surprises on top of the tackle box between us. To our mutual delight, there were salami and Swiss sandwiches, brownies, and peaches. From the ice pack, my father opened a bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale for me and a Miller for himself, and we began to relish our hard-earned lunch. 

After lunch, our contentment evolved into renewed commitment, and we baited hooks and cast. By early afternoon my father caught two rainbow trout, a couple of large-mouth bass, and a number of perch. He released the bass and perch but kept the trout. On the other hand, while becoming increasingly more proficient in the mechanics of fishing, I had only caught seaweed and the hat of a bygone fisherman. My father reeled in another bass of substantial size, leaving it on his hook as it slapped against the boat’s bottom while asking to check my bait. I handed him my rod, and at that moment, he suddenly raised his hand and pointed out over my head, telling me to look at the jumping trout. I scanned the reservoir but saw nothing unusual and told him so. He pointed again and said, “There it is again!”

I looked, longer this time, but again missed the jumping trout. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash as my father made a short cast with my rod. He said, “I put a fresh worm on your hook and have a feeling you’re now gonna get something.” He quickly handed me the rod and told me to concentrate and remember to raise its tip when I got a bite. 

I was controlling my skepticism when suddenly the rod exploded in my hand. The tip was bending and jerking. My adrenaline kicked in and coursed through my body. Remembering his instruction, I raised the tip, set the hook, and began reeling in my first catch.

With renewed fervor and gained confidence, I caught more fish that afternoon. My successes created a new dynamic in the boat. Now we were both fishermen. By mid-afternoon, we’d caught our trout limit and decided to pack our gear. We raised anchor and headed back to the opposite shore. My father asked if I wanted to row part of the way. I looked at him with widened eyes and asked if he really meant it. He nodded and proceeded to show me the way, and I energetically launched into it.   On the shore, the morning’s bright foliage had darkened, becoming shadowy and more settled. Throughout the rest of that afternoon, as we brought the boat ashore, hauled it to its original spot, returned the oars to Burke’s, and drove home with our catch, my father maintained a smile. I’d never seen him hold one for that long before. I saw something else in him that I couldn’t define but would in time as I came to know how I caught my first fish.

Years later, my father wore that same grin whenever telling the story, pleased I hadn’t caught him in the act. That he had actually transplanted the bass he’d just brought in on his line onto my hook will always resonate with me as an act of pure generosity. Yet, deflecting that goodwill, he said he’d done it for both of us. He thought I just needed some confidence. And he wanted me to love fishing so we’d have more days together like that one. 

Forty-four years after that first outing, years filled with school, army service, marriage, children, my mother’s early death, my father’s second marriage, and my career, we once again left in early morning darkness. We headed north and west toward Roscoe, New York, in the Catskills. It was there that we’d meet the guide I had hired to take us fly-fishing. As lifelong live bait and lure fishermen – angling in the freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams as well as the briny sounds, bays, gulfs, and oceans of New York and Florida – we were eager to try this classic pastime of grace and purity. We were anxious to stand in a river, shoot an arm out with an extra-long pole that held floating line tied to a handmade fly, and maybe catch a brook trout.

Driving north, we shared another June dawn as we had on other fishing excursions.  We exited the Thruway and soon entered historic Route 17. Thirty miles later, the Catskill Mountains appeared to the north, and I was humbled by its splendor. Replete with birch, black cherry, oak, pine, hemlock, spruce, and fir, I was reminded that my father had only a few years earlier emphatically declared New York – with its mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and ocean beaches – the most beautiful state in the nation.

Gazing into the forest, my imagination suddenly ran wild. I sensed an all-knowing presence hidden there, an invisible being who observes all who pass by. This omniscient spirit understands everything about us: our beginnings, ambitions, accomplishments, frailties, and ultimately our deaths. A chill ran through me, and I focused on the road ahead.

As we neared Roscoe, my eagerness heightened as it had whenever my father and I went fishing. I was aware of and encouraged by his calmness—no sign of his Parkinson’s. Mornings were good for him. His relaxed face revealed no fatigue or tension, just excitement for the day ahead.

We met Matt at the Roscoe Diner and drove to his home to learn and practice casting in his driveway. He was in his sixties, weathered, lean, and unmistakably of this land of mountains and rivers. He spoke sparingly in a soft, knowing voice.

After an hour of throwing lines out on blue-gray gravel, I was anxious to get to the Beaverkill for the real thing. Matt led the way in his truck and, after parking off the road, we disembarked, put on hip boots, and headed down to the river. Other fishermen were there with fly-laden vests, hats, boots, and creel baskets. Their fly lines, whipping and arcing in the air, created a soundless symphony. It was a glorious morning in Sullivan County.

Matt brought us to an uninhabited spot downriver, and we ambled into the moving river. I was at one with the Beaverkill, feeling the pressure of its essence around me as if I’d reentered the womb. While the flame of my innocent awe from over four decades earlier on Muscoot Reservoir had died, I was still touched by nature’s glory and my place in it. Looking back, I’m aware that my adult perspectives as I stood in the Beaverkill might have been inspirations for thought-provoking prose, while my nine-year-old visions were stimuli for tender poetry,

We cast lines. At Matt’s suggestion – to see which June fly would work best – I had a Blue Quill on mine. My father was using a Golden Cahill, and Matt was trying a Slate Drake. As a man who had mastered his craft, he instructed and encouraged us and was eager to share that knowledge.

My father’s face radiated a lightness I hadn’t recently seen. I smiled inside, feeling I’d done the right thing by arranging this day. Might his euphoria have also been about other times? Decades of my life flew by, and I was a child again with him in our wooden rowboat. Could he have been in the same place? The moment was golden.

It was then that I saw him tremble and lose balance. I had told Matt of my father’s condition and we had agreed to keep a close eye on him. We managed to grab his arms, preventing him from falling into the river.

 The bliss he’d shown moments ago was replaced by fear, which I had never seen him display. Seconds later, his cheeks reddened, and he forcibly shut his eyes. My father was embarrassed. He insisted he was okay, but the tremor was there and accelerating. I walked him out of the river and helped him sit on a mound and was instantly assaulted by the realization that this day was a terrible idea. I knew his condition was not severe, his symptoms not constant, yet I should have known more about what was doable and what was not. How could I have imagined him capable of not only standing up to his thighs in a running river, but also holding a rod, casting and retrieving? He would never tell me he couldn’t because he’d want to so very much.

As I sat next to him, suggesting we pack it in and head home, he pleaded with me to get back into the river. I hesitated, unable to see myself fishing while my father watched sitting on a dirt bank. But his imploring eyes caused me to think it might be better for him if he felt my day was not ruined.

I agreed to his wish, reentered the river, and half-heartedly cast my line with little joy and abundant sorrow. Remorse flooded in. Why had I not spent more time with this man who seemed to ache for my presence as I did his?

Making executive decisions was what I did every day, but I now felt like a child unsure of what to do. I thought our leaving would be the right move but was becoming uncertain. How could I not give my father what he said he wanted? But by fishing alone, I’d be the beneficiary while my intention that day was to be the benefactor. And I wasn’t sure my father truly wanted to sit uncomfortably on the ground for hours watching me fish. My business attributes were not serving me well that morning on the Beaverkill.

I stopped rationalizing why I was still standing alone in that river and decided to call it a day. I moved over to Matt and worked things out. I wanted to pay for the full day while he wanted nothing. We both negotiated from the most honorable of places, but I could not succeed beyond paying him a small percentage of what he’d lose for the day.

Slogging back to my father, I prepared how to tell him we would be leaving. When I reached him, I stared into his eyes and simply said that it looked like this was not going to work out for us and that I was very sorry to have teased him with it.

He cut me off, claiming he would be fine sitting it out and that I should get back out there. And that it was great to just be there with me. He was doing all he could to control his tremor, and my heart broke. I told him I wasn’t going to fish without him, adding that fishing isn’t a spectator sport, and we should head back. He’d stay overnight at my home, and I hesitantly added that tomorrow morning we’d go to the nearby Croton Reservoir and fish from my boat. As the words about boat fishing left me, I began to worry whether the offer could become a reality. Would this become another disappointment for him?

After a pause, he said I was picking up fly-fishing, and watching me catch trout would make him happy, adding that he wouldn’t be just watching anyone. He would be watching his son—a lump formed in my throat. I reached down and put my arms around his shoulders and told him in a gentle tone that knowing he was not out there with me would make me miserable. He lowered his head in defeat.

Driving home, we sat in silence for the first hour, the air thick with disappointment. We passed the stretch of forest that had earlier stirred my imagination, and I wondered what my all-seeing spirit was thinking about us now.

I didn’t know what my father was feeling as he rigidly sat with a tight mouth staring out the windshield and occasionally turning his head to face the side window. But now, as I approach his age of that June day, I think he might have held an array of emotions. He was most likely frustrated – a Parkinson’s constant – by his inability to perform what his younger powerful self had found so easy. That frustration may have segued into sadness from loss of both youth and health. He might have been angry with and disappointed in me for making him stare at his infirmities. Yet, he might have also been thankful to me for ultimately choosing to leave, knowing he would be physically wretched sitting on the ground for hours.

When deeply bothered, my father had always suppressed his feelings in prolonged silence. But his taut face and mirthless eyes would give away what he intended to hide. Until his Parkinson’s, he often smiled, displaying warmth and congeniality. However, L-Dopa, the medication he took to still his hands and limbs, could make him stiff, causing an observer not to know if he was really upset or if he was experiencing a side effect of the drug. But as we rapidly drove away from the place where he wanted to be, I was confident it was not the L-Dopa behind his impassive demeanor.

In the past, we had often spent quiet passages of time together, content with just being with each other, a tribute to our closeness that made talk an option, not a necessity. But the premature drive back from the Beaverkill was not comfortable. The anxiety running through me was a growing firestorm, but my angst mattered less to me than what was burning inside my father.

I knew from experience that in time he’d sort it out and return to himself, but I was eager to end the silence. Aware that every meal – simple or fancy – was a celebration for him as long as it was prepared with skill and inspiration, I mentioned that the sandwiches Bonnie had prepared for us were amazing and that we should find a beautiful spot to pull over and enjoy them. After a pause, he looked at me for the first time since leaving the river and asked what she had made. I told him, and his face opened into a smile; his eyes came alive. He was ready to move on.

As planned, I took him to my house, where my father remained in good spirits. Before dinner, we sat on the deck, sipped cocktails, and discussed current events. With sadness and outrage, we covered the recent Oklahoma City bombing, the domestic terrorist attack that killed 168 people. We moved to the nuclear non-proliferation pact signed by 191 nations, which we both applauded. And we mutually wondered whether the Yankees new shortstop, Derek Jeter, had the goods.

The next day we drove a mile to the Croton Reservoir, where my jon boat would be secured to a tree trunk. Before leaving home that morning, I had asked my father if he was sure he was up to it. His response was not only a firm yes but that he had looked forward to the outing since I had brought it up. I was concerned but saw no way to reverse course. I comforted myself with the knowledge that his condition was milder than those of other Parkinson’s victims I’d seen. And he’d be sitting, not standing, wearing a life jacket, and I’d be facing him just a few feet away.

We never made it to the boat. He did poorly on the trail leading to the reservoir and fell, cutting his arm badly on sharp branches while I was too laden with gear to prevent that from happening. After getting stitches in the emergency room, he said he wanted to go back to fish. I knew this time it was bravado, and he quickly gave in.

We spent the afternoon on my deck speaking as we had not in a while. Not the news but personal stuff, about us, the rest of the family, life in general. I listened to him more closely than I had in recent years. He had never been one to share his inner feelings, but that day he did. He spoke of his condition, which seemed to be getting worse. And he confided that his marriage was not what it had been.  

After a long pause, he locked on my eyes and told me what had clearly been on his mind for some time. He was concerned that my business world was invading my personal life, that I needed separation, more balance. I had no response and just let it go, yet he had touched a nerve and I was shaken knowing he might be right.

We hugged when I later dropped him off at his home, and he said the past two days were the best he’d spent in a long time. I drove back home filled with emotion, feeling closer to him than I ever had.

My father’s health further deteriorated, and we never fished together again. However, we’d occasionally relive past outings with warm nostalgia. Once, while in a philosophical mood, he reminded me that catching fish was ultimately a distant second to being together on or next to water, leaving life’s problems behind, and relishing the easy quiet of kinship while surrounded by old trees under a joy-producing sun.

This bit of fatherly wisdom was one of his greatest gifts, and I know he intended its meaning to transcend fishing. He was advising me about life, urging me to think differently about success, be it a three-pound bass, a pot of gold, or a job title.

When thinking of my father, I’m thankful to him for the loftier implications of his words. I know they have brought me closer to achieving the harmony he had wanted for me.

After a career in the media, Jeff Lawenda has spent the last ten years writing fiction (until this non-fiction project). Two of his short stories were selected for publication in Turk’s Head Review, the literary/art magazine. Subsequently, his collection, Pathways: stories and novellas of new york, was published. More recently, his novel, White Hat, Black Hat, was also published.