And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fishing for Memories from Years Gone By

"Never shall I forget the days I spent with you.  Continue to be my friend, as you will always find me yours."  Ludwig van Beethoven.

A rainy summer Sunday afternoon....  As good a time as any to remember some old times fishing.

You see, I just had my 30th high school reunion last weekend, and, to be honest with you, I wasn't crazy about going.  Too much going on in my life right now to spend a weekend thinking about what's in the past.  Who needs it?  After all, today is the first day of the rest of your life, right?  Why focus on what's over and done with?  Why go back and think about all the hopes and dreams you had that didn't come true.  What's the point?  Who needs to think about all the "woulda's, coulda's, and shoulda's"?  A pretty pathetic pity party is what all of that sounds like....  (My 10th Grade English teacher would have been so proud of that alliteration, right there.)
The Brandywine Bulldogs.  All together now, "Three cheers for old Brandywine.  You bring the brandy, I'll bring the wine."  I don't remember the rest of that fight song.  But I do remember our class slogan:  "Raising Hell and having fun, we're the Class of '81!"  Sheesh.  I'm old. 
Well, that's kind of what I was thinking, but when I talked with my old friend Joel and he said he was going -- and he lives in Anchorage, AK, for crying out loud, I figured I can drive five hours and go.  Besides, as a good reformed Presbyterian, I know that everything we do has a purpose and there are no mistakes in God's plan.  I would take a weekend and embrace the past -- and maybe remember a few good times while creating a few more.  Who knows, I might even learn something....

The drive up the Eastern Shore was spent listening to old Eagles and Springsteen c.d.s (my SUV doesn't have an eight track player like my '74 Gremlin did), and my thoughts of high school days and nights made the drive go by as fast as any I've made.  It had been too long since I had thought of those old days that help form us to be who we are today.
Back in high school, this baby had L.L. Bean sheepskin seat covers (over the vinyl seats), an 8-track player and four stereo speakers.  It was the penultimate vehicle from the '70's.  The AMC Gremlin.  Truly, one of America's ugliest cars.  I didn't complain, though.  Shoot, I was just glad to have a set of wheels.  I drove Joel, and two neighborhood girls into school every day.  One of them, I'm still friends with...  The other has disappeared, it seems.

I was excited to see Joel and all my old friends, and just drive around the area I grew up.  Since my parents moved to Florida several years ago, I have had no reason to go back there, so I was curious to see what was the same, and what had changed.

One of my first fishing memories of growing up in the Brandywine Valley area, was trout fishing the local streams in the spring.  I've already written about that in my Tribute to Trout post back in December.

I got to Wilmington Friday afternoon, and drove around my old neighborhood.  Seeing my old house brought back a flood of memories:  The games spent kicking a football in the front yard with Joel.  Playing in the woods in the back with any number of friends.  Building igloos and snowmen in the front, and sledding down the street when the snow on the street became packed and then froze.  We would sled forever down the street.  Skateboarding, too.  And countless games of Kick the Can down the street....

I passed the house. My house.  I stopped.  I pulled up into the driveway.  Nobody was home.  The memories flooded back even more.  Climbing on the roof.  Picking blueberries and raspberries in the back.  The monster apple tree grafted with four different types of apples had been cut down, as had the 50 foot tall blue spruce that almost forty years ago had been our little Christmas tree one year.  But the house still looked like home.  I had the local Country station on my radio at the moment, and couldn't help but laugh when Miranda Lambert's "The House the Built Me" came on.  Irony.  Coincidence.  Whatever.
From 1970 until I graduated college, this was home to me.  And seeing it today brought back a whole new flood of memories I hadn't thought about in years.  The apple tree was in the side yard to the left, and the monster blue spruce was on the right side of the front yard.  Our basketball goal was by the garage on the right.  It's gone, too.
I drove around the neighborhood and went by all of my friends' homes.  The distances seemed shorter, and the homes all seemed smaller now.  Joel lived "on the other side of the neighborhood".  That was far away when I was a kid.  I don't even think it was a quarter mile in my car.

I've recently gone bass fishing with Parke in the lakes around Suffolk.  The last time we went out we were using plastic worms.  I told Parke it had probably been decades since I've bass fished with a Texas rig and plastic worm.  And I told him this story:  When Joel and I were in high school, we went fishing all the time.  But north Wilmington doesn't have a lot of public fishing areas.  It's certainly not like Hampton Roads.

Anyway, there are a couple of country clubs in the Brandywine Valley area, and they all have golf courses.  Golf courses have ponds.  And those ponds have bass.  Big bass.  The problem is, you can't fish those ponds if you aren't a member.  In fact you can't fish those ponds if you ARE a member.  Because people are playing golf, obviously.  Those ponds are consequently never fished!  That was too tempting for a couple of diehard, young fishermen.  So Joel and I would park on a side road late at night, and sneak onto the course with our rods and tackle.  My favorite lure was a black plastic worm.  And it worked!  How a bass saw a black rubber worm at night, and why it attacked something that smelled like plastic only goes to show that bass attack a target based on movement and vibration as much as anything.

One night we were fishing a golf course pond, when we heard a service truck coming.  We were near a service hut on the course, so right as we saw headlights approaching, we dove down flat onto the grass near the pond.  The truck stopped at the hut; its driver got out.  He went into the hut for a minute, retrieved something and then got back in the truck, turned around, and left, none the wiser that we were there within 30 feet of him.  Then we got back up and kept fishing.  It was always catch and release with us.  Going home with the smell of fish on our hands was the only reward we needed.  And good memories of fish stories.

I crossed the Brandywine River and went into downtown Wilmington.  I checked into the hotel, rested up for a bit, and then before the "Pre-reunion Get-together" at a local bar, I went out and toured around again.  I drove by our old high school -- it looked the same, and I pulled into the old parking lot I used to park my Gremlin in all the time.
Through these doors walked over 300 people who graduated in my class.  Preps and stoners, jocks and nerds, blacks and whites, urban and suburban.  And it still looks the same 30 years later.
I remembered a story of Joel and I coming to school late one day, Spring of our senior year.  I smiled to myself, as I idled in the parking lot for a moment.  I was looking forward to seeing my old friends, but first I wanted to go by my old workplace.

The hardware store I worked part-time at through my high school years was still there.  In the same shopping center where the bar was that we were to have our get-together, was Action Hardware.  Since I was dealing with plumbing issues back home, I figured I'd walk in and see if they had the part I needed.  I walked in....  Oh my word, it smelled the same.  Suddenly it was 30 years ago, and I was 17, working 20 hours a week for $3.35/hour.  Or was it $2.65, when I started there.  Then, a high school kid walked by pushing a broom with sweeping compound in front -- one of the jobs I used to do.  I smiled.  I walked to the back and to the left -- and the plumbing department was still there.  The store was still set up the same.  It hadn't changed in 30 years.  Yes it had... It was no longer a True Value affiliate.  Otherwise, it was caught in a time warp.

An older man walked up to me and asked if he could help me.  I asked him if they had the part I was seeking.  They didn't.  Oh well.  "By the way, I used to work here 30 years ago," I said.  "Oh yeah?", he said.  "So did I."

I did a double take.  "Have you worked here all this time," I asked.  "No, I just came back.".  We exchanged names, but didn't remember each other.  I asked who owned the store now, and he said the same guy.  Wow, I thought, some things really don't change.  I walked out, ready for a drink.

By the time I walked in to the bar, several old classmates were already there.  After the initial "hellos and hugs" I had with several of my classmates I remembered, another guy came over to me and asked me who I was, and did I remember him.  I didn't.  I asked his name.  It still didn't register, though he said he remembered me.  I looked at him as though he was from Mars.  "That's okay," he said.  "I was kind of a 'stoner' back in high school, and you were more of a 'prep'."  I laughed.  "Yeah, you had a great reputation... and I didn't."  He continued.  So I told him the story I had thought about earlier in the high school parking lot.

In the spring, after our term papers were turned in, Joel and I decided one morning we were going to go fishing on the Brandywine River for the morning, and then go to school around lunch time, when our French class was having a pizza party.  After dropping off the girls at school, we went down to the river -- Springsteen's River blaring on my speakers.  Several hours later, smelly and hungry for lunch, we came back to school.  I parked in the student lot, and we got out, backpacks in hand, fishing equipment still in the car.  Our worst fear lay ahead of us.

Mr. Miller, the Assistant Principle of the school was waiting on the sidewalk by the side door of the school.  Oh crap, I whispered to Joel.  We tried to play it cool, and kept walking to the door.  As we approached him and the door, he took a few steps towards us -- I was sure he was ready to bust us, but still we played it cool.  "How are you doing, Mr. Miller," I said, eyes down, just hoping to get to the door.  "How's it going, boys," he replied and then focused his attention to the "stoner" who had just driven up behind us -- probably at a legitimate doctor's appointment, or something.

"Alright, young man, where have you been."  And he walked to the lot to confront the flannel-shirt clad kid.  And as Joel and I walked into the school, I smiled and said, "All those years of having a good reputation paid off today."  And we laughed all the way to French class.

The rest of the evening in the bar was spent reminiscing with old friends, and learning about the fishing on the Gulf Coast and around Georgia and Florida, from some newer ones.  I look forward to catching snook down there someday on a visit.  I didn't make it too late a night, as I knew the next night would be a long one.  I was back in my hotel room by 11 p.m.  The next morning, I enjoyed a rare, lazy morning with no agenda....

By the following afternoon, Joel had arrived from Alaska, and had rested up enough where he called me, so that I could come visit his family.  His parents had moved to a retirement community on the outskirts of the Valley, and as I drove out to visit them, I passed another high school that reminded me of another old friend.  In fact, this one, I had known since we lived in Switzerland.

Jonny was my best friend in Geneva.  When his family was also relocated to Wilmington, they moved to the Valley.  Many a fun night/weekend was spent at his house "in the country", riding dirt bikes, playing guitar until the wee hours of the morning, and playing the first Atari games.  One of the other advantages of going to Jonny's was that they had a pond.  Once I could drive, I drove over to Jonny's as often as I could, as it was one of the only private ponds I had permission to fish.  It was stocked with plenty of big largemouth bass.  In fact, too many.  It is the only place I've caught 24" long bass that weighed only five pounds.  But I still only practiced catch and release.  

Hula poppers were one of my favorite lures there.  I remember one evening fishing there, and hooking a big bass on a popper.  With only 4# test on my ultralight rod, the bass broke my line, and my hula popper was gone.  Lost.  Two weeks later, I was back fishing again with a rubber worm.  I still hadn't had time to go buy another hula popper, so worms were my backup.  One of Jonny's neighbors, however, had recently gotten a Golden Retriever puppy.  He came down to see what I was doing, and where ever I cast my line, he would jump in the pond and swim, scaring any fish around, and ruining my fishing.  I was really getting annoyed with the pup, and tried to run around the pond to avoid him, or leave him behind.  Yet he always followed.

As I squatted on the grass near the edge of the pond, switching my worm and cursing the fact I didn't have my hula popper anymore, here came the retriever pup, having followed me again as I had run around the pond to try and create some distance between me and the troublemaker.  I glanced up at him, and it was obvious he had something in his mouth.  His tail was wagging and he came up to me and dropped what he had by my tackle box.  It was my hula popper.  Apparently the fish I had hooked two weeks earlier had spit it out, and it had floated somewhere to the side, hidden by the cattails, reeds and other plants.  Yet this puppy had found it.  And brought it to me, of all people.  I couldn't believe my good fortune and the coincidence.  I patted the dog, hugged on him, and somehow didn't mind him following me the rest of the evening.
How the pup didn't get hooked by one of these treble hooks, and how he knew this was my lure, I'll never know.  All I know is that I have never been so glad to have an annoying puppy follow me around after that.  In fact, from that point forward on my trips to Jonny's pond, I would look forward to the Golden Retriever coming to join me.  Eventually I even got a Golden Retriever.  Maybe that's why.  I knew what a great dog they are.
I had a wonderful visit with Joel and his parents, catching up on the last few decades with them.  They still looked great, and were doing well.  Then I went back to the hotel, resting up for the reunion that night.  Soon enough, it was time to go back in time.  I dug up my old yearbook, laughed at old photos, and wondered who would look the same, and who would look different.  I knew I was different:  less hair, more pounds, you know, the usual things a middle-aged guy says.
Our senior portraits were actually taken during our junior year.  The following week after this portrait was taken, I left the '70's behind, and started parting my hair on the side.  Now if I could only part with the 20 extra pounds I've put on since then....  Oh well.
The reunion was a blast.  We had over 100 people show up, and it was so great catching up with so many people from so long ago, I was really glad I went.  And major kudos to the two that took over a year of planning and put it all together.  They did a tremendous job setting it all up.  The event was supposed to end at 11, but it was midnight before we all left... and then it was just to go back to another buddy's hotel room.  It was 3:30 before I got back to my room, after many memories, laughs, and a couple more drinks with friends I realized I do care about -- even if I hadn't seen them for so long.  Joel and I weren't the only two that fished, I discovered, and a few fishing dates were planned, to get a couple of the other guys down here to "God's Country", so that they can try and get down and enjoy the types of fishing I have come to love.  I hope they follow through.  I don't want to wait decades again, before I see some of these guys again....

As I drove back home the next day, (a little hungover, I must confess), I realized that I am blessed with so much.  And one of my greatest blessings is that I have good friends... true friends.  Friends back home in Virginia that I see all the time... and friends from Delaware that I may not have seen for decades, but all you have to do is spend an evening with them, and you realize the bond is still there.  And it is still tight.  And I am very grateful for that.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them."  I would add that it is not just that you can be stupid, but you can be yourself.  And there are times when we are all stupid.  But friends understand us; and we are just forgiven.

Until next time,
Fish on!


P.S.  There was one time, when Joel and I were encouraged to keep the largemouth bass we caught in that private pond near my buddy's house.  There were too many, and they were too skinny, so we kept a stringer, so that others may have a better chance of thriving in that small pond.  Joel recently found the photo his family took (he kept the fish, as I don't like to eat bass).  It was quite a day!
Joel, looking part young Springsteen in this photo (let alone, he still had hair), with the results of a successful day, fishing hula poppers and rubber worms in one of the smallest ponds I've ever fished regularly.  Impressively long, but skinny fish.  It wasn't a bad thing to weed out a few, so that others could have more to eat.
Ahh, memories....

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