Saturday night Garrison Keillor was back on “live” from the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul. There was a point in the show where he described annual trips to Brainerd in northern Minnesota, for summer vacations. He cued-up the sound effects guy who did the sound of a loon a couple times during the sequence. I don’t know, I’m telling you, I’m admitting something, maybe some weakness, but his reference to those trips combined with the very realistic sound of the loon, well, my eyes started to well up. I was so surprised by the feeling that came over me, that I wondered, what’s the matter with me?
Like the family in his story, mine too had taken those annual summer trips, staying at various resorts on lakes scattered around northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. And those places, as I think back, jeez for a youngster, they became the entire “world” for a week or two. Things that happened on those trips, even though I was just a kid at the time, stick with me to this day. I know this; I’ve had a distrust of horses, maybe all large animals, ever since that year when I was about 9 when all of us climbed on horses for a little ride on the back roads. Toward the end of the ride, when my horse sensed it was near the barn and the end of the ride, it took off like a “horse from hell,” me bouncing up and down, hanging on for dear life, nobody able to catch the damn thing and rein him in until he slowed on reaching the barn. Crying, and sore where it matters most for a little kid, I was so mad and full of distrust after that, well like I said, a lifetime of horse-hate, and a good long time of distrust of my dad for getting me into that fix. Of course, any dreams of being a cowboy, forget about them.
Naturally, fishing was a big part of these trips. There was one year when it seemed all the fish in the lake had themselves gone on vacation, the infamous Year of no Fish. Men sat around in the evening mumbling and disgusted, drank beer and tried to come up with better battle plans for the next day. Would it be surface bait, or big heavy lures that would hopefully find the fish lounging down in the depths? Or perhaps it should be those big “chub” minnows, heavy sinkers and a bobber as big as a tennis ball. Would trolling be better than sitting still? Sitting still, ha, it was fishing with my dad when I first became aware of one of his abiding personal traits. That man had no patience. If he didn’t catch a fish in five minutes, he’d be yanking on that motor’s starter and it was off to the next spot. That trait is what made him an excellent Manager of Short-term Investments for 3M, but lousy at buying stocks for the long-term in his own portfolio. But I digress.
Well, the men should not have fretted and instead just have enjoyed their ice cold Hamm’s beer(1) and relaxed, because my little brother would soon show them the way. The men, the real fisherman, had always headed out just as the sun was rising, and, yes, the last calls of those loons were fading away for the day. I don’t know what they thought, perhaps the fish might do something stupid before they had thoroughly awakened?
Anyway, on one of those days when the men had come in for the day, my brother Phil and I took a boat out alone. He couldn’t have been more than 6 0r 7 and that would have made me 10ish. It was mid-day, sunny and hot, essentially a lousy time for fishing. We took cane poles, and fished the only way we knew how, with a worm on a hook and a bobber on the surface. I don’t recall anymore how long we’d been fishing, but at some point I noticed Phil’s bobber was no where in sight. Phil pulled up on the pole, it bent practically in two and the line tightened as if a log was at the other end of the line. Phil kept the line tight, lifted the pole as high as he could and a thrashing Northern Pike broke the surface. Details fall away with the years, but somehow Phil and I got that fish into the boat.
We weren’t that far out in the lake that our frenzied activity went unnoticed, so when we got back to the dock a hero’s welcome awaited us. Phil was the man that year, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen on anyone, as big a smile as he had on his face that day as he posed for photos and basked in the glory.
There were many years of me at the end of a tow-rope trying to water ski. I discovered during that time that the human body has a built in self-protection urge to hang on to whatever it is hanging onto, in any situation where catastrophe appears immanent. And thus, as I tumbled off the skis and plowed into the lake head-first, self-preservation told me to hang onto the stupid rope for dear life while gallons of disgusting lake water rushed into my mouth and nose. And I despised the more athletic, idiotic brother because on his first attempt he popped right up like a pro, and before the end of the first summer was slalom-skiing.
Then, as if it wasn’t enough to suffer the shame of my failures, in between those summer vacations everyone delighted in watching my ill-fated attempts on my dad’s 8mm movies. When I found out that during my folks move to Florida the many boxes of movie reels had somehow been lost, there was some relief in knowing that now finally certain things would be forgotten, almost as if the entire family had submitted to a vacation memory lobotomy. One thing should not be forgotten, however, I believe it was in my third summer of attempts, I did finally get up on those damn skis…big deal.
And of course, with three boys, three years apart, wrapped up with everything else, someone would be “coming of age.” So it was that one year the idiotic brother started acting even more idiotic (at least to my mind) than usual. He wasn’t interested in fishing so much anymore, and he’d disappear for long periods, especially after supper, down at the cabin of a family that had a girl about Jim’s age. Of course, what girl could resist the handsome, water-skiing star? It was the summer when the Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest, was in the theaters, and someone drove Jim and his girl to see it on a date.(2)
Three years apart is a lot at that age, so Jim’s new fascination with girls (yuck!) was a mystery to me. Why would he want to sit there in the dark with a girl, when he could be hanging out with the guys cracking stupid jokes, throwing Jujubes around the theater, and getting warned about it by pimply, teenage movie wardens. I could tell that our parents were mildly amused by Jim’s new behavior, but they did not condemn him as a traitor like I did. Behind their knowing smiles (I understand now), they saw themselves.
I was wrong (naturally); not all memories can be erased, nor of course would we want them to be. And these stories, well not just the stories themselves, but the sudden realization of how far back, so far far back in the mire of time they are, that’s I think why the eyes welled up. Then again, it could just have been those damn loon calls.
Happy Labor Day everyone, and thanks for reading.
(1) Years later, when I was in college, my dad arranged for me to meet the advertising guy at a twin cities ad agency that came up with the idea for the Hamm’s beer bear that appeared in all the cute TV commercials of the day that were so popular.
(2) Wikipedia tells me that the year North by Northwest came out was 1959.