“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” – Henry David Thoreau, American Essayist, Poet, and Philosopher 1817-1862
Growing up on the banks of the Hatchie River of Mercer, TN, one would think I had fished a thousand times. While the river flowed steadily by and the poor came and threw in their lines from the bridges and the banks, I was off, adventuring in the woods. I cared little for the practice of sitting still and waiting for my food to come. As a boy of a single mother I was left to my own devices more often than not, and my devices were playing out the characters of Rambo and G.I. Joe, not wrangling my line from the weeds and low hanging cypress branches which lined the river. There is one fishing occasion, however, that I remember well. Not for the fish I caught, but for the company of men of which I was brought into.
On the Lake with Vance and Poodle
Of the men that came into my mom’s life, not all of them were bad. Vance had an uncle-like air about him, where he tried to walk the line between friend and mentor; too cool to be a dad, but too old to simply be a friend. Both Vance and my dad had interesting friends. The kind of men who were too crazy to be trusted in the life of a young boy, except by proxy, but also the kind of men who made every day memorable, both for their simplicity of mind which resulted in them saying – and believing – almost anything, and also for the genuineness of character. They were far from perfect, but because there was so little about them to be known, you could know all of them, and there is some comfort in such a friendship.
Poodle was one such friend of Vance’s. I don’t remember his real name, but he got the nickname from his long, curly black hair. When Vance invited me to hit the lake with him and do some fishing I didn’t know Poodle was coming along, if I knew Poodle at all. We arrived early and it was already warm and muggy. The lake was not particularly scenic and to be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of fishing, but the truck ride over, with all three of us up front, had suggested there might be more to this trip than reeling in the big one.
Poodle was a hoot, and with Vance playing the straight-man role perfectly I began to see a subtle but brilliant comedy playing out. If there were rehearsed jokes, I do not remember them. It was all off-the-cuff and little inside jokes. We cast our lines and blistered our skin for a few hours in the scent of cold Pepsi, the lake, and a bit of earth for the red worms. Did we catch fish? I like to think that we did, but I cannot say for sure.
Fishing and Friendship
Vance was a good guy. I wish I had the opportunity to know him better. Unfortunately, a few years later, he was in an accident and killed in the very truck that took us to the lake. In a strange bit of fate, I had moved back into the city with my mom, and Vance’s truck was brought to a repair shop just outside our neighborhood. It stayed there for some time, and reminded me often of my short time with its owner. I am not sure what happened to Poodle over the years, as Vance was our bridge and I was too young to manage such a friendship. When Vance was gone, our ties were severed.
But that time on the lake has stayed with me all of these years. I felt, possibly for the first time, that I could belong in the company of men. I found that I had reached an age where their jokes didn’t go over my head, and occasionally might throw in a punch line of my own that was well received. I found that I could bait a hook, cast a line, and do so with very little supervision. I discovered that, when men are out on the lake, we burp and fart all we want, and sometimes congratulate each other on the magnitude or uniqueness of our flatulence, the scale of measurement being almost instinctively agreed upon. I found that friends are better than loneliness, and it is better to have some bad luck on the lake with a pal than by yourself.
I found that when men go fishing, it is not the fish they are after.