You can't beat a system you can't understand
As the sweet smells of spring permeate the air, the glassy-eyed stares of grown men focus on the sea, where the big ones prowl, waiting to do battle. This is where legendary tales are born, although few have so much as a hint of credibility. Nonetheless, the stories will be told to attentive ears that are easily bent by the masters of the art of telling the same dumb fish story year after year. Here's one from my youth.
My friend Brian's grandfather was the best storyteller I ever knew. He missed his calling. He would have been a great politician. I don't remember what he did for a living, but I do remember his fishing stories; they were great, and just on the edge of believable.
"Did I ever tell you about the trout I caught on a safety pin?" he'd say. "Yes, grandpa," we'd yell in unison. "But tell it again." A big smile would grow across his craggy face, as he looked each of us in the eye. Then he'd start slowly, just above a whisper, as if he were about to part with the greatest secret ever told.
"One day I was takin' a walk down by the old trout creek that flows into the Merramac River when we lived in the Ozarks. I wanted to see if the trout were risin'. Sometimes they'd come up and grab flies above the surface. On this day, they were doin' just that. Beautiful fish, jumpin' up in the air, the sun reflectin' off their bellies, lettin' you know why they call 'em rainbows. They grabbed flies as much as 3 feet over the water. Then they'd fall back into the creek with a mighty splash. And they were big - some of 'em weighed as much as 10 pounds. Anyways - here I was, watchin' those big fish, and I didn't have a pole. It was awful." Then he'd pause, and look each one of us in the eye again, just to see if we were paying attention.
"So you know what I did?" he'd ask. Invariably, one of us would blurt out: "Tell us, Grampa. What'd you do?" And the old man would smile again and go back into his whisper mode. "I couldn't let this opportunity pass. I had to figure out some way to catch one those big fish. So - ya see where this top button is missin' off my shirt. Well . . . I held it together with a safety pin until your grandmother had a chance to sew it back on . . . but I never let her repair it just to remind me of this story. I used that safety pin for a hook. Then I took off one o' my socks and unraveled it for the thread. I attached the safety pin to the thread so I had a hook and line. Then I found a stick that was long enough and tied the other end o' the thread to the stick. Now I had a hook, line and pole. So what do you think I did for bait?" he'd ask. Of course, we just stared in bewilderment, mesmerized by the tale of the old man's resourcefulness.
"Well . . . I took a little piece o' red flannel off the cuff o' this shirt. Just a little fluff, and threaded it onto the safety pin. Then I found a little feather in this abandoned bird's nest and tied it onto the safety pin right behind the little
fluff of red flannel. It looked just like a fly, it did. Now I was set. I crept up to the creek real slow and tossed the line into the water just upstream of the jumpin' trout, and let it float down. At first they didn't seem to pay attention, and I thought they weren't interested. Then from down below this huge fish shot up under my little safety pin and grabbed it so hard that he pulled me into the water. But I never let go o' that pole. Here I was soakin' wet, and fightin' this big fish. I didn't have a net and I knew for sure that the little thread wouldn't last forever without breakin'. But I was determined not to lose that fish.
So I dove in and tackled it. I grabbed it with both arms and held it close to my body as I climbed up on shore. That fish
was floppin' and fightin' the whole time - all 10 pounds of it. I never thought I'd hold on, but I did. I was cold and wet, but I had the fish. We ate it that night for dinner."
Then Grandma would say: "At first, I thought he was lying. Then when I went to the market on Monday and they asked how I liked the fish he bought on Saturday, I knew he was lying. But I never did learn why he was all wet when he came home." Although that made us laugh till we cried, we knew we'd be back next year to hear him tell the tale again.
That's when I first learned that I was born into a system I can't understand.