Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ramblin' with and without Emil

     Ramblin' fits what's gonna come like a good pair of socks, the kind I can't afford. If I ever won the lottery - okay, first I'd have to buy a ticket - high priced socks would be The major change in my life. Flat seamed and sixteen bucks a pop. Lap of luxury. As for this entry, I have no idea where it'll will go. The intention was a some form of bitch session in which I'd figure it all out and set the world straight.  Gave it a try in ink and didn't much get anywhere. But I wrote a lot of words and Sister Eleanor Marie ground it into my brain a long time ago that it's a sin to waste words. Don't think she meant it in the same way I learned it. But I wrote 'em and don't intend to waste 'em all. By the way, if you'd like to read something written by a guy who writes like I wish I could, give Michael Perry a try. That's the Michael Perry from the boondocks in Wisconsin.

     Emil tells me there's a time for everything. Maybe he stole that idea from the Old Testament but most of my ideas have come from books. So why not Emil? What he was driving at when he first brought it up during my early post-Vietnam years, brought a smile to my face. Believe me, it wasn't a smile of agreement. You see, he was driving on one road and I was hearing on another. Another communication problem back in the age of the Generation Gap. Pondering that conversation, I suspect he was saying something simple and profound. But that's not what I was picking up on. You see, I was a hot shot with long hair, a college degree, a tour in Vietnam and a protest cat to boot. New generation, new way of seeing life. All gonna be better when we take over. Most of all I had this thing about Lifers. Picked it up in the Army where FTA was a big deal to us Draftees. We tended to look upon any soldier who'd re-upped as a Lifer. A short haired, flag wavin' SOB who'd no doubt shed a tear at the end of the movie Patton and then re-upped for the cheap booze at the NCO Club.
     After I got out I felt a moral need to protest the War, mostly 'cause I was pissed about having been in the Army in the first place. That's when I got to meet some of the movers and shakers of the anti-war movement in Minnesota. In their own way they were as big a bunch of assholes as the Lifers in the Army. Seemed to have a pecking order as to who was against the War for the longest. They gave me the feeling they were still fighting the revolution with the Red Army in 1917 or manning the barricades of Paris in 1848. In truth they hadn't been anywhere or done anything as far as I could see. They were against the war and abhorred the fact that the American Army was fighting its war with way too many Blacks and poor people. At the same time they fought like hell to keep their deferments. So who did they think was going to get drafted? Wars are always fought by the poor.
     So, back to Emil. He was a WWII veteran. I sure knew where they were coming from. Short hair, the straight line, my way or the highway, love it or leave it with a flag decal in the rear window of the station wagon. But if I'd taken the time to give Emil's Nomad a closer look I'd of seen there wasn't a sticker on it anywhere. Maybe Emil hadn't landed on the beaches but he'd been blown out of the water and dog paddled with the dead. He knew life was a gift not to be wasted. And that we lived in a time and place that was blessed. He didn't ever talk about the war, was glad he went and wouldn't go again even if his life depended on it. He had his shit together and I couldn't see it.
     What was it he was saying? While my mind wandered, Emil had moved on. I think the angle was still  about a time for everything. As I drift back in he's pontificatin', " Seems like everyone has their own idea of what constitutes the best buzz. Changes as you get older I guess. The wine sippers have their bouquet, the beer guzzlers their hoppiness. There's pot heads, coke sniffers, what-have-you. Hard to keep up with all the bad habits these days. Now if you want my two cents, absolutely nothin' beats a good cup of coffee, a long road and someone you like to talk with ridin' shotgun." 
     When I first heard that spiel I wrote him off as over the hill and then some. That was a long time ago. Times change. Nowadays I've come to see his point. Might have something to do with being about as old as he was back then. I suppose part of me knew it all along. Used to be a toast dunker when I was a kid. Best time of the day in the Delta - didn't take much to be a best time of day in The Nam - was just before sunset. We'd be set up a short hump from our night position. Finishing off our supper break. Roll the pant legs up, shoot the breeze. 'Bout the time the sun was on the tree line tops, I'd fire up the cappuccino. Yeah, we carried an espresso maker with us. The big brass kind that weighed about three hundred pounds. We'd make the newest grunt in town hump the beast just so's a couple of us caffein aficionados could have the pleasure of a fine brew. Sorry about that, sometimes my fingers get carried away. Reality was instant coffee, creamer, sugar, cocoa and water heated up over a small chunk of match-lit C-4 in a c-ration can stove. All provided free of charge by the U.S. taxpayers. I'd sit back, sip the brew, savor a last smoke and watch the sun go down on another day in paradise. Night sucked but that cup of coffee and cigarette made it almost worthwhile.
     I guess what I'm trying to say's that Emil wasn't so dumb. Maybe the simple pleasures of life are the best. Like being up at the cabin for another three day stretch of lonesome. Bein' by myself lasts for as long as it takes to make a pot of coffee. When the first drop hits the pot, Emil will usually show up with his old Pure Oil cup in his hand. The one with the dark stains on the inside from either ten thousand cups of coffee or one too many lube jobs. Even though he's not really there I'll pore him a cup. Always too hot to drink. But that don't stop Emil. He'll blow across the cup three or four times. Slurp a little off the top, set the cup down and say, "Thasss good."
     Uncle Emil's not the type to pop up when others are around. He likes the 'tween times as he calls 'em. Could be he's selfish with my time. Could be that he doesn't talk loudly and no longer hears as good as he used to. Quiet times are the best for him. The cabin, on the road, in the canoe on little out-of-the-way lakes. Or stomping his way through my dreams. Lordy, Lordy do he mess with my dreams now and then. The hard part is gettin' him to come out the inky end of my pen. Then he gets all shy and hidey. He's the smartest man I ever met. Can see through me and the BS of the world like he's lookin' out a window after Spring cleaning. But he's not all that easy to understand. Can be downright cryptic at times.
     So it's a Sunday night. Am up here to fit and hang fourteen home made cabinet doors in the kitchen. The kitchen's not really a kitchen, just an area in the great room. The great room ain't really a great room either. Sixteen by twenty-two with a lofted ceiling. The doors are made from six boxes of prefinished, birch flooring that just happened to be sittin' on the sidewalk during a local small town celebration. I tried to walk on by. Almost did. But they called me back with the Siren Song of "Hello sailor. We're cheap, shiny, tongue and grooved - get it? - and will do anything you want for eighty cents a board-foot." How could I resist? Yup, no one wanted them as much as me. Took a lot of work changing those trollops into something I could bring home and feel comfortable with. Didn't turn out perfect but Emil says they look exactly like something I'd do. Not sure what he meant by that but I'll take it as a compliment. All the prep work is done. Tomorrow the hanging.
     Ah yes, there is a plan for tomorrow. Work in the morning, eat lunch and be on the water by 2 p.m. Stay there 'til 5:30. Once I'm out the door and hit the highway there's a choice to be made. Left's an out-of-the-way carry-in lake just bustin' a gut with small bass. Right's toward a small, not quite a thousand acre, muskie lake. I've had this thing stuck in my craw, wherever and whatever the hell a craw is, to someday be a fly rod and solo canoe muskie fisherman. I intimidate myself with the thought. So much so that I ain't done it yet. Actual muskie anglers tell me I'd end up in the water with the fish. Even with the best of luck, what would I do with a thirty-five pound fish when it got tired of towing around a forty pound boat? Probably laugh a lot, then cut the line. Whichever way I go, Emil says he's coming along. Bass or muskie? Emil says so long as I keep the lake under the canoe, it doesn't matter which way we go. As for me, I'm thinkin' boat-towers.
     It happens most every time I get up here by myself. Monday morning dawns and the plan is in flux. Breakfast done, forty-five degrees out, fire in the stove and more I want to do than will fit in twelve hours of daylight. I could go at it like a banshee. Done that many times in my younger years. A lot gets done at the expense of enjoyment. I'm retired. Time to get stuff done at a fartin' around pace. A lot still gets done but I get a feeling of greater depth out of it. If I don't fish, no problem. And I'm actually looking forward to hanging the doors. I'm where I want to be, doing what I want to do.
     Life's a lot like homemade cabinets. Need I say more? I took my time building the new doors. They're not perfect but had I been shooting for perfect, they'd have gone on the floor like they were intended in the first place. The intention is to pull the old, warped doors off and just pop the new ones in. But I don't trust myself and my measurements. Whenever I usually do things involving wood and tools there's a near infinite amount of running back and forth checking and double checking involved. This time there was no running at all. Measured the door openings at the cabin and built the doors at home. I know the measurements are right but at the same time, know they're wrong.
     The doors themselves are like miniature, rectangular floors in a frame that is joined together with a biscuit joiner. The joiner was state of the art when I bought it. But when I bought it Ronnie Reagan was still in his first term and the joiner is now an antique. As I wade into the job it turns out some of the problems of the old set had to do with the cabinets themselves. And what was wrong with them thirty years ago ain't gotten any better over time. So I'm faced with the choice of scrapping the boxes and starting from scratch. Or continuing to live with them as they are. Not much of a choice really. The boxes are structurally sound. Plus now they'll have a whole new bank of pretty doors to distract the eye. I opt for the face lift.
     Emil tells me that every so often we have to take a look at our lives much the same as I was lookin' at those cabinets. Dump the useless stuff that'll constantly need fixin' until it finally tears you down. Keep the stuff that works. And repair the things you'll need for the rest of your life. Life's full of choices. Most of them small. Once in a while a big one comes along. The big ones tend to lean toward dumping habits that're way too heavy in the fun factor. Maybe it's a Minnesota thing but it sure seems like too much fun's a direct line to too much trouble. Also seems like my biggest decisions called for me to do something I didn't really want to do. Thirty years ago Emil pointed out my big time shortcomings. But didn't tell me what to do. That was up to me to figure out. He doesn't give personal advice. Says if you want that, go and write Dear Abby. Oh he's got his opinions alright. Also knows everyone has the key to their own truth and he doesn't say any more than "figure it out boy."
     By the way, maybe he can tell me where he was when I was out on the water today. Lookin' back on it, the only things going through my head were boat control, where to throw the next cast, the location of the mini-channel into Mann lake and the growing beauty of the Fall around me. No Emil anywhere. Water was cold. Couple of turtle heads on the water. One a honkin' snapper. Ugly. Scary. Doesn't matter that I know what they look like, snapper's still scare me. Like they're sizing me up to dump the boat and then eat me.
     I guess it was okay that he left me alone. The wind was up. Wasn't supposed to be but it was. Didn't need an old geezer jabberin' away and not helping with the paddling. Baby's not a big lake in the Canadian sense. Doesn't make a mile and a half paddle into borderline white caps any easier. I'd come to fish for muskies and by gar I was gonna do it the right way. Thus the paddle to the far upwind end of the lake. Tried my best to J-stroke a straight line with little success. Regardless, forty minutes later I found myself in the calm with the lake to myself. Putzed briefly with the fly rod then reached for the heavy iron. A bit of a melodramatic description but what the hell, I was puttin' on my muskie face (believe that calls for heavy metal in the background. Never liked heavy metal. Guess I've got a problem).
     Don't like bait casting reels. Learned to cast with one. Also learned to dislike them at the same time. To me they're mostly bird nests with an occasional good cast thrown in once in a while just to tempt me. So I'm using a fair sized spinning reel spooled with thirty pound Suffix braided line. Don't like leaders either. A heavy duty ball bearing snap swivel suits me fine. If I hook a muskie I'll probably lose it. Don't mind that one bit. If someday it becomes a problem, I'll make my own leader. The rod on the other hand, is the real deal. Seven foot graphite heavy, suited for big fish. Am throwing, what else?, a homemade, big-assed spinner with a gaudy, jumbo bucktail. Bright days, bright lures. And, oh Lordy, do it go a long way when I flang it. Throw it so hard the canoe bounces. There's two hundred yards of line on the spool and it's half gone when the spinner hits the water. So much fun watchin' the spinner disappear over the horizon I don't much care if the muskies ignore it.
     On the way up the lake I was looking for the connecting channel into Mann. Didn't find it. Passed a couple of rubble rock bars that looked like smallmouth territory. Definitely prop busters. One of the beauties of my solo is being able to float it so long as there's two inches of water beneath. No problem. The bars gave me at least four over the biggest boulders.  On the way back I switched to my smaller rod. But no bass for me. On the upside I did find the channel. Just like it was described. Six inches of water and a bridge to pass under with about the same clearance as a large culvert. A ranger bass boat'd plug it up like Homer Simpson crawling through an open window.
     I'd headed into Mann for the bass. Had read Mann was smallmouth heaven. Where I thought they'd be was another land of impossibility for the solo. There the wind'd had the length of the lake to build up a head of steam. Five minutes of boat control per cast seemed awful low on the fun scale. So I diddled along a partially protected shore where I kept company with the yellowing birches and a few largemouth and pike. Boring story but kinda fun in the doing. My way of saying, "You had to be there."
      Emil finally showed his face on the drive home. Didn't take but a minute and we were off on one of our piss and moan sessions. Those gum beaters can be about most anything. In particular it's our way of lettin' off steam so's our heads don't blow off. Don't want that to happen seein' as how gray matter's particular hard to clean off the upholstery. The smart, upside of us doin' all our complaining when we're alone is keepin' other people out of the conversation. They'd fixate on the holes and miss the sense completely. Says his life's a contradiction from the get-go and naturally his opinions follow in line. Emil says he's never met anyone who's completely right about anything. If they think they are, the odds are they're close to totally wrong. Balance will out. So if what we say ain't completely kosher, don't worry about it. We sure as heck don't.
     Lately we've brought up the Draft. In my book Draft is always capitalized. If you'd been Drafted and ended up in Vietnam, you'd capitalize it also. Emil, he volunteered for the Navy back in WWII. I can understand that. Might have done the same thing myself. His war made a lot more sense than mine. Back in the '60s the Draft had grown to be a dirty word. Both in civilian life and in the military. Us Draftees didn't like what'd happened to us and had no problem sharing our attitude with the Army. Nobody liked it anymore so the Draft was dumped. Good riddance said we.
     The years passed. Talkin' with a good friend of mine the Draft reared its ugly head once again. My friend had a Conscientious Objector deferment during Vietnam and wasn't drafted. But he'd served two years in the Peace Corps as alternate service. I admired that. Funny what forty years can do to a person's perspective. Both of us agin the Draft in the past. Now both of us for it. But not the Draft of the old days. A new Draft in which everyone has to serve. By everyone we mean everyone. Right out of high school. Only it wouldn't be just a military draft. Each person would have a choice from a variety of public services. A hint of the CCC's back during the Depression. No free ride. Each and every man and woman jack puttin' in two years serving their fellow man for a pittance of pay. Even Uncle Emil thought that was a good idea. Two years doin' some form of grunt work'd give a person a different outlook on life. 'Specially if that two years didn't put a bullet in you.
     Talk of a Draft got Emil off on a teamwork tangent. And of course that brought up WWII, the big one:
     "Seems like the only time we can rise above all our senseless bickering over nothing - like a couple of caged parakeets peckin' each other in the head for no better reason than someone happens to be passin' by - is when we're gettin' the bejeezus pounded out of us like in The War. That whole situation was scary. Real scary. Made you forget who was a Republican and who was a Democrat. So bad yet it pulled us out of the Depression. But even during the war years there were idiots gettin' ready for the after-war rush.
     Jesus, Markie boy I wish I could figure it all out. Been a couple of million years since we climbed down from the tree and we ain't got a clue how to make it work so's everyone gets their fair share. You'd think somewhere along the line a group of people'd get together and come up with a system. But I sure ain't seen it. And if I did, I sure didn't recognize it."
     I had to interrupt as we pulled in the driveway. A thought had come to me. A memory of something I'd read a couple of days earlier. The idea that some mystics believe we are doomed to relive our lives, ad infinitum. Reading it sent a shiver up my spine. Having to live it all over again was fine with me. Like I'd written earlier, us baby-boomers have lived golden lives in a golden time. Vietnam sucked but I'd survived. No problem. The good outweighed the bad in my life about a hundred to one. The thrill of falling in love again, all of it. Do it over in a heartbeat.
     Emil cut in as the canoe was being unloaded. "How's about we do some real fishin' tomorrow? Shoulda listened to me today. And not paddled off like you knew what the hell you were doing with a muskie rod in the first place. By the way, did you brew a fresh pot this morning?" It was all I could do to give him the evil eye. On the other hand tomorrow sounded like a fine time to me.
     Next day, got in a bike ride, finished the cabinets and had an early supper. Daylight was beginning to wind down for the year. The long evenings of Summer were in the past and my time on the water missed them a lot. No six o'clock dinners for me if I wanted two hours of fishin'. The lake I was heading to was in the backside of fly-over country in fly-over country. Been there many a time and only shared the water once. The drive in's always worth the price of admission. Four miles of pavement. Three of gravel. Another of pavement. Finally sand winding down to two track, unimproved, travel at your own risk. The kind of forestry trail that makes you think about your tires. The ups and downs are a jumble of rocks. Peeking over the hood at a walking pace avoiding the sidewall slicers. It's a continual zig-zag on a woods lined track.  Don't want to have to throw on the spare back in there. When she levels out, the sand is oil pan deep. Gun it through the last stretch. Takes as long to cover the final mile and a half as it does the first nine. Deer, raccoons, hawks, fox and one crazy yellow lab own this last stretch. And maybe a single silver back gorilla. Not absolutely sure of the last one but my old Jeep had a chip in the plastic grill from a slung bunch of bananas. And I know for sure it wasn't me that slung them bananas. You be the judge.
     The road ends at a line of boulders. Not huge but at least five hundred pounds per. My best guess was the gorilla put 'em there. Way too big for even the local, corn fed tree choppers. Those boulders definitely keep the Ranger boat riff-raff out. From the line to the water's about a city block. Or about forty rods for us plastic canoe totin' fellers. One trip down with the gear. A second with the canoe. You'd be amazed at the number of times I've been out for fishin' and found myself staring out at the water knowing something was wrong. Then snap my fingers and go back for the boat. Definite signs of ATV travel and thickets of fall wildflowers. One a cluster of what look like four foot tall purple asters. The wonder of the World Wide Web tells me they were probably New England Asters. New England? Must be lost. Never seen 'em before. Woulda taken a photo but my camera batteries were dead. Be mostly prepared is my motto.
     The lake. She's a tiny one. The Minnesota DNR Lake Survey only hit here once. And that was back in the '60s. Said there wasn't but bullheads suckin' snot off the bottom and when you see the lake, that's about how it looks. Like an overstuffed farm pond. Somewhere, somehow that all changed. There's a single cabin on the north end hidden back in the trees so's you can't see it from the water. Had it been my cabin, I'd have thrown in some bass and panfish. Seems as though they were of a like mind. A fine little fishin' hole. Most of the bass are small. Once in a while you'll hook up with a four pounder. The sunnies are of fair size, some around a pound. Throw in a few perch and the occasional pike. For a small lure thrower in a puddle jumpin' canoe it's always worth the drive.
     Shaped more or less like a bow tie. The south bay's knee deep shallow, the north drops to eighteen feet. Good cabbage beds scattered throughout. There just doesn't seem to be enough room for all the fish, so there's always a lot of bass and sunnies in places no self-respecting game fish would ever occupy. Six inches deep with zip for cover and structure. But they're there and if you move at Mother Nature's pace so as not to scare 'em, they'll take small spinners, dry flies and, believe it or not, a tiny plastic tipped jig suspended three inches below a bobber. Almost the innocence of virgin water. Even I can catch fish like a master here.
     On a typical day you'll see deer come down to the shore to drink, ears perked up like antennae. Bald eagles, osprey, kingfishers darting along the shore. And the beaver who always snaps my head around when he whacks the water to let every living thing in Christendom know the Great White Fisherman is stalking the area. Today there are twenty-two swans in the south bay. I know because I'm a counting fool. Can't help it, I was born that way. I talk quietly to them. Keep my distance. Don't they understand I'm no threat? But they get a runnin' and honkin' start and are soon airborne. Off to some other small slew. Maybe even Deadman.
     To this point Emil's kept his tongue. Too much to see I guess. He never knew this county during his outdoor days. But he likes it. Tells me it's all in the smell. "The right spot'll always bring me back. This here little puddle puts me in those places I fished without the stink of a motor. The blue cloud and rainbow water of gas and two-cycle oil drowned out the cedars and pines. When it's quiet enough to hear the ripple of bitty waves at a half mile, I like to be able to smell the water and trees also. Made me feel more alive back then. Almost makes me feel alive now."
     Emil had his plan of attack. I had mine. His was tried and true. Mine was a vision given to me by the Spirit of the Highly Improbable. But since it was me who had the paddle in hand, I outvoted the old fart one-zip. Paddled to the far northeast corner of the lake where glass was on the water. And as I snuck up on the shore, the bass treated me like a Duty Officer lookin' for volunteers. Rather than attack gifts falling from the sky, they ran from my descending spinner like it was an anti-piscatorial bomb. Those bass were chickens for sure. Give up? Not me. I worked tight to shore, out from shore and followed the weed line where it dropped off into deeper water. Nada. Could of been an embarrassment but I've screwed up enough in my 64 years to realize my level of imperfection in many fields. 'Specially in front of an uncle who isn't really there. So I sucked it up and went with Emil's idea.
     Of course it worked. Tucked the shaded west shore and let the tiniest of zephyrs carry me to bass after bass. All in a few inches of water. So shallow you'd think their backs'd be stickin' above the surface. Oh yeah, one pike, pushin' thirty inches. I know there's a big one in here somewhere. Been bit off by a heavy, slow moving weight when fishin' monofilament. The pike in the lake spook me. Lotta baitfish to chow down on. And northerns are an amorous lot. Numbers go up, other fish go down. Someday it's all pike. Seen it happen before.
     Emil's nice enough to not 'told ya so' me. Pullin' into shore all he said was, "That was my idea of fun. Great night. Did enough catchin' to say we got some."

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