Our Great Uncle Hal had a fishing pole that he treasured beyond anything else. He'd saved his money for a long time and finally, when he had enough, he'd sent all the way down to L. L. Beans in Freeport to get it.
Two weeks later, when it finally arrived, we all gathered around to see this wonder of wonders. Uncle Hal was just as excited as we were and we crowded closer as he withdrew it section by section from its zippered case.
He slowly and lovingly began assembling his precious fishing pole. Finally, he had it all together and he made a few tentative casts around the room. The fishing line whistled and snickered as it snaked through the air and dropped to the floor exactly where he wanted. As he quickly rewound the line, Uncle Hal's face shone with joy as he imagined himself casting his line into the rapidly moving water of the Aroostook River.
It was still two weeks away from the official opening of fishing season in "tha County" and Uncle Hal was chafing at the bit. He was ready! He knew that this was the year! He was going to catch the biggest, most beautiful trout that had ever been caught in the good old Aroostook River.
The long awaited day finally arrived and Uncle Hal jumped out of bed at the crack of the crack. He pulled his pants on over his union suit and headed for the stairs. His head was heady with the thought that he was finally going to try out his new fishing pole.
He hurried down the stairs, through the parlor and into the kitchen. He walked over to the kitchen windows and pulled aside the curtain and stared in the direction of his island. The eastern sun was just coming up and it glinted off the still flood-covered island. "That friggin water ought to have dropped enough for me to get to the island okay," he thought to himself as he dropped the curtain back into place and hurried to make some breakfast.
With trembling hands, he lit his first Camel cigarette of the day and impatiently blew on his steaming cup of coffee to cool it. He again ran his fishing list that he'd made the night before, through his mind. He wanted to be certain that he wasn't forgetting anything.
He dug his old watch out of his pocket and glanced at it. It read five ten a.m. He slapped his faded, sweat-stained Ford hat on his baldhead and grabbed his fishing gear. The house shook as he slammed the door and headed down the back stairs with his fishing stuff out to his truck.
He carefully placed his new fishing pole on the front seat beside him and dumped the rest of his gear into the back of the pickup. He switched on the ignition and the engine of the old truck coughed once or twice and died. He pumped the gas pedal impatiently and cursed out loud, this was one thing he hadn't thought of.
After several more tries the engine finally roared to life and blue-black smoke rolled out of the exhaust and filled the air around Uncle Hal. He revved the engine a few more times for good measure and then he slammed the truck into gear. With a screech of tires the old Ford lurched forward and he roared off down the circular driveway around the back of the barn and out to the dirt road.
Uncle Hal was notorious for his poor driving and his driving was often the topic of discussion amongst folks around town. People would say things to each other like "I saw old Harold Sutherland go by on the way to town the other day." "Oh yah, well, which side of the road was he driving on?" The older he got, the worse his driving became and today was no exception!
On this particular morning, he didn't even see the road. He didn't see anything but the huge trout he was going to catch. He drove at breakneck speed across the Bangor and Aroostook railroad tracks, past the potato house and down the muddy road to the flats. He drove rapidly through the hub high water towards the bridge. When he reached his destination, he slammed on the brakes and the truck slid to a stop in the muddy water. He hopped down out of the truck with the lightness that belied his sixty-odd years and headed toward his favorite fishing spot.
Uncle Hal was very good to us kids. He gave us spending money, he gave us jobs. He picked us up and took us to town whenever we wanted to go. He brought us home from basketball games and dances. There wasn't too much Uncle Hal wouldn't or didn't do for us. But, there was one thing that we knew we shouldn't mess with and that was his fishing gear.
The bridge that crossed the Aroostook River was a temporary affair. Uncle Hal had built the bridge so that he could cultivate his potatoes on the island that the Aroostook River ran around. The bridge was made out of a couple of railroad ties and long planks that were just wide enough to hold the wheels of the tractor and sprayer. This makeshift bridge usually washed out every spring when the river flooded over the island and Uncle Hal would have to rebuild it all over again.
He settled himself carefully on his favorite perch on a railroad tie and began threading a pale angle worm on his hook. He sat there hour after hour, smoking one endless Camel cigarette after another, cursing and swatting mosquitoes. He'd pick at the small black sore on his lower lip, that kept growing larger each year, and curse loudly at the never ending onslaught of mosquitoes, midges and no-see-ems that kept finding a way up his sleeve or down his wrinkled neck. He never got tired of fishing. He just knew that he was going to catch a big one and it was going to happen this year because of his wonderful new L. L. Bean fishing pole.
He'd smoke one cigarette after another and when one pack was empty, he'd heave the package into the swirling water then he'd fish around in his pockets until he'd find another. Every now and then, he'd cuss like hell when he'd see a large fish come up and check out the cigarette butt that he'd just flicked into the fast moving current. The fish would come up next to the butt, look it over, roll its beautiful white belly into the sunlight and with a flick of its tail, it'd be gone, leaving Uncle Hal all the more determined that he was going to catch that friggin fish!
When he felt the call of nature, he'd slip the end of his precious rod under the railroad tie, weigh it down with a good sized rock, scramble up out of his perch and head for the bushes. He always prayed that he didn't have to do anything too serious because he hated to give all those insects such an unprotected target. Sometimes, in his haste to get his clothes pulled back up, a couple of mosquitoes or no-see-ems would get trapped inside his underwear. It wasn't too long before he would be doing a little dance all around the river bank while the imprisoned insects played hell with his bare, white bottom.
Uncle Hal would resolutely sit on his perch about ten feet above the swiftly moving river until he had no choice but to go home. When the sun had slid below the horizon and he couldn't see to fish any longer, he'd carefully and lovingly disassemble his fishing pole and slide it into its case. He'd then placed the case into a small hidden crevice he'd scooped out under the railroad ties.
Uncle Hal had thought long and hard about how he was going to hide his new fishing pole from other fishermen and us kids in particular. "I'll be back in the morning right after I make a flying trip to Presque Isle to get some parts for my tractor," he told himself as he pushed the fishing case under the railroad ties. Then he wearily made his way up the flats towards home.
We could easily see the island from our kitchen window and we waited impatiently for the rest of the flood water to recede. It was a rule in our house that we weren't allowed to go fishing till the water had gone down off the flats. On this particular day, the sun was a red fire ball in the eastern sky and school was out. We arrived at the bridge in a fever of excitement. The four of us looked at the rushing, swirling water and babbled excitedly about all the fish we were going to catch.
Our fishing equipment was rudimentary to say the least. Jake had a real pole with a reel, hook, line and sinker. I had a pole with no reel but I did have a line and sinker. Bub had a stick tied to a line with a hook and a bobber. Helen, who was deathly afraid of all kinds of insects, including worms, got to hold a rusty can of them.
Time passed slowly and we didn't get one bite. Not one! Jake scuttled over the railroad ties as agile as a monkey and happily settled himself into Uncle Hal's favorite spot right on the very edge of the railroad tie. He dropped his line into the rushing water and waited. He sat there for quite a while without a bite and he repeated loudly and often dad's predictions that the fish weren't going to be biting because the water was still too high and too cold.
Something, in the high, black current caught his eye and he leaned over the edge of the railroad tie to have a closer look at the swirling water. As he leaned forward, his eye caught sight of Uncle Hal's fishing pole case stored carefully under the makeshift bridge. Jake let out a whoop and chucked his old pole onto the green grass at the edge of the bridge. He snaked his left hand down under the railroad ties and withdrew Uncle Hal's new pole from its hiding spot. He quickly reassembled the pole and cautiously threaded a worm onto the hook. He wiped his dirty, sweating hands on his jeans and in one swift motion, swung the pole back over his head and snapped the line forward as hard as he could. The fishing line sang as it spun out of the shiny new reel and down, down until it disappeared into the swirling river current.
Satisfied with his first cast with Uncle Hal's pole, Jake happily settled himself on the railroad tie to await his first bite. Every now and then, he'd give the line a little jerk and the red and white bobber would dip and bob in the fast-moving water.
We weren't too scared that Uncle Hal might come home unexpectedly and catch us using his pole because we could look up and see his house and anything that was going on clear up the Goding Road past our house. Any vehicle coming down the Goding Road left a tell tale sign of dust that told us someone was coming. We'd know immediately if he drove out of his driveway to come fishing.
Time moved slowly and we didn't talk because Jake believed that the fish could hear us and besides, he'd swat us if we talked too much. The sun grew hotter as it moved up slowly into the clear blue sky of the county. Jake, sitting in the same place for so long in the warm sun, began to doze and he started to fall forward. Suddenly he let out a yell and nearly fell off the railroad tie. To keep from falling into the river, he let go of the fishing pole and grabbed hold of the railroad tie with both hands. The glorious pole seemed to have a life of its own and it went sailing down into the fast moving current of the river. Jake stared after the swiftly disappearing pole with a look of horror on his face. His blue eyes bulged out of his head and the mass of brown freckles stood out on his white face like spots on a Leopard.
"Oh Jaysus!" "Oh God!" Jake yelled and he stood up and began tearing off his clothes. He kicked off his sneakers and dove head long into the cold dark water. He swam frantically along in the swift current trying to locate Uncle Hal's pole but, it was gone!
Cold and exhausted, he finally swam over to the river bank and pulled himself up out of the icy water. He collapsed onto the green grass and lay there shivering. We all stood around kicking our feet and trying to come up with an idea that would somehow redeem the situation. We finally decided that there was only one thing for us to do and that was to lie.
After much arguing, we decided that we'd walk along the riverbank until we were out of range of Uncle Hal's house. Then we'd cut through the Alder swamp below Mr. Beauliers and then go across to the Bangor and Aroostook railroad tracks and walk along them until just below our house. If mother happened to see us coming up the back way and ask us how our fishing had gone, well, we'd tell her that we'd gone down to Beaulier's flats instead of Uncle Hal's. We gathered our fishing gear and headed for home as fast as our legs could carry us.
By now it was around ten o'clock in the morning and we knew that Uncle Hal would be coming home soon. Sure enough! He came tearing down our dirt road in a cloud of dust. Seeing us standing on our porch, he tooted and waved to us as he flew past. We all looked glumly at each other. We knew that it wouldn't be too long before the shit hit the fan.
We heard the clanking of metal upon metal and the cacophony of swear words that accompanied the work as Uncle Hal pounded the new part onto his old Farmall tractor. We waited until those sounds ended and time hung long and heavy in the morning air. It wasn't too long before we heard him rev up his old tractor and we watched in horror as the faded red tractor rounded the driveway and headed towards the bridge. Uncle Hal, oblivious to the fact that he was pulling a fully loaded potato sprayer behind him, went flying down the dirt road towards the island, hell bent for fishin.
Jake ran around to the back of our house and climbed up on the roof. He was just in time to see the tractor and sprayer come to a halt near the bridge. "What's he doing now Jake?" We asked. "Don't know," Jake mumbled. "What's he doing Jake?" We screamed. Jake craned his head forward and then he turned and ran down the roof and jumped off. He threw himself down on the long grass behind the house and stared up into the bright blue sky. "He knows it's gone." He said in a hollow voice. Visions of no more candy, no more ice cream, no more rides to basketball games, dances or fairs, slipped through our minds again and again.
We hung close to home all that day and still Uncle Hal never approached our house. Mother kept looking at us like she knew that we'd done something but, she didn't have a clue how bad it really was. Finally, when we couldn't stand it any longer, Jake announced that he'd better head down over the hill to Uncle Hal's house to see what was going on.
It wasn't too long before Jake was back with good news. His whole demeanor had changed. His blue eyes were shining once again and he had a huge grin on his face. It seemed that Uncle Hal thought some lousy thieving bastard in a canoe had stopped down at the bridge to fish and made off with his new fishing pole. We all looked at each other in disbelief. Our prayers had been answered. We weren't even suspects!
Uncle Hal bought himself another fishing pole but, it didn't seem to have the same "magic" that the other one had. There wasn't a day that passed during fishing season that he didn't mention that other pole. Aunt Cassie said that he was getting to be a nuisance because he took to stopping every person he came upon, who was fishing around the island with a fishing pole, to check to see if it was the one that had been stolen.
Spring slid into summer and finally fishing season was over. We all heaved a sigh of relief at the close of summer and again school and the onset of the potato harvest occupied most of our spare time. We only thought about the fishing pole a couple of times that winter when we went down to the bridge to skate on the river. Jake used to lie down on the frozen surface from time to time and stare down into the ice to see if he could see the pole in the bottom but he never did.
Spring rolled around again but, Uncle Hal didn't seem as keen to go try his luck as he had the previous year. He'd lost all interest in fishing when his precious pole was "stolen." He still left his "new" fishing pole in the same place as the other one but it remained where it was, we didn't dare touch it. It just wasn't as tempting as the other one had been.
Then one day, I decided to go fishing by myself. I was sitting on the bridge, in Uncle Hal's favorite spot, in the bright sunshine when I felt a tug on my line. I scrambled back onto the bridge and stood up. I held the pole in one hand and swiftly reeled the line in to see what I'd caught. As I reeled and tugged, I became aware that there was quite a lot of resistance and that I must have caught a rather large fish! As the fish broke the water, I saw that it was the largest trout I'd ever seen! It came up to the top, flashed and rolled in the clear blue water and disappeared again. I tugged harder and it finally came free of the swirling current. The beautiful fish wriggled and jerked trying to free himself as I proceeded to reel him in.
I flipped the large trout over my head onto the grassy bank behind me. Then, I dropped my pole and ran to pick the fish up and began to remove my hook from his mouth. And then I saw it! There was another hook protruding from the fish's mouth! The second hook was all rusty and scar tissue had formed all around it on the fish's lip. I stared at the second hook for the longest moment and then I realized that there was a fishing line still attached to the hook.
I tossed the wriggling, slippery fish further up the bank and then I started pulling the second line out of the water. It was then that I realized that the line was also attached to something. I pulled and pulled and finally I saw the tip of a fishing pole come up out of the water. I pulled the slimy fishing pole out and wiped it on the grass. It was Uncle Hal's fishing pole! It was almost too much to comprehend!
I laid the slippery pole down on the bridge and tried to think what I was going to do. If I took the pole up and gave it to Uncle Hal, then he'd know for sure that we'd been the ones who had taken it. It was then that I decided to throw it back. I stood up and quickly tossed the fishing pole back into the swirling water. Then I scooped up my beautiful trout and headed for home.
As I made my way past Uncle Hal's house, Aunt Cassie spotted me scurrying past with my treasure and she yelled at me out the kitchen window to come and show her my fish. I ran across the lawn and as I got closer, she exclaimed about what a beautiful fish I had. She hefted it in her hand and looked at me with eyes that held the knowledge of time. "You know Tooter," she said, her brown eyes shifting from me to the fish. "Uncle Hal sure would love to catch one like this and he'd sure love to eat one like this too!" She looked at me keenly for a couple of long seconds and then she said, "Tell you what; I'll give you a dollar a pound for that fish right now! Uncle Hal will love to have this for his supper tonight, especially since you caught it." With that final compliment ringing in my ears and the guilt hanging heavy in my heart, I capitulated.
As I slowly walked up the hill towards home with the money jingling in my pocket, I began to feel a lot better. I figured that everything had turned out all right in the end. Uncle Hal had the beautiful trout that he'd coveted for so long, I had some spending money and only God and me knew what had really happened to the L. L. Bean fishing pole.
Autobiography of a Simple Soul
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