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AN ANGLING LEGEND OF THE HARLEM MEER
by
Randy Kadish

Once, not that long ago it still seems, I was an unpublished writer. Then I wrote a fishing article and sold it. And so I dreamed of erasing some of my failures, of becoming an outdoor writer. I did; and after a long run of publishing in magazines, and after a wild sprint of writing a book, my dream drifted downstream of me. I didn’t pick it up. You see, I no longer wanted to endure endless hours, sitting at my mostly white and black computer screen, revising sentences five, ten, even fifteen times; no longer wanted to endure submitting a story five, ten, even fifteen times, and only occasionally landing, like an elusive brown trout, an acceptance. Besides, didn’t I finally deserve to enjoy endless hours doing what I loved, what ironically my writing had kept me from: fishing?

Yes! This striper season I wouldn’t miss, especially with so many new piers sticking out of Manhattan like the legs of a giant caterpillar.

I checked the tides. High tide was six hours away. Another disappointment, though small in the scope of things, I reminded myself, especially when I had another fly-fishing option: the Harlem Meer.

An hour later I walked into Central Park. The Meer, at least the half I could see, looked more beautiful than I remembered, perhaps because the autumn leaves were orange, yellow, amber and different shades of green. Again it seemed unfair that leaves looked most beautiful just before they fell.

The wind chilled me. I zippered up my fleece jacket and looked for anglers. I saw only one, near the ice-skating rink.

I set up my fly rod, and walked along the bank. Suddenly the Meer’s shape reminded me of a giant boomerang. Maybe the shape wasn’t an accident. Maybe whoever designed the Meer wanted to remind people the Meer’s beauty was never going away.

I liked the image of a boomerang, so habit told me to take out my pad and write it down. I did. But the more I looked at the Meer, the more its shape reminded me a of bird with long, outstretched wings. Again I wrote, then I thought of how migrating birds, like boomerangs, always came back, and of how the two images, therefore, were connected by a bridge I couldn’t see.

The angler near the ice-skating rink was an African-American, about my age. He fished with an old, beat-up spinning rod and reel. He flipped a jig and landed it gently a few inches from the small island.

Impressed, I said, “I haven’t been here for a while. How’s the fishing been?”
He glanced at me, then studied my fly rod. I hoped he didn’t know the cost of a GLX.

“I don’t remember you. Did you give up fishin’?”

I wondered, is he accusing me? Interrogating me, to see if I now felt too good to fish the Meer? If so, when it comes to fishing, I have nothing to atone for.

I said, “I’ve been busy with work.”

Without looking at me, he worked his jig up and down.

A silence. I didn’t like it. I walked past him.

“Wait a minute,” he said. He reached into his beat-up canvas bag, took out a small photo album, and showed me pictures of big bass he and some of the other Meer anglers had caught. He looked into my eyes, sadly I thought. “Those TV anglers got nothin’ on us,” he stated. “I’d like to see them fish from a bank, without fish finders and all those rigged rods. Let’s see how many fish they catch then.”

“Not many, I bet.”

He grinned.

I asked, “Do you know Thomas and Kenny?”

“The old guys? Sure. I just saw Thomas in the first cove. He’s fishin’ from a wheelchair. He’s got cancer. He told me Kenny’s cancer came back. They’re legends here. Fishin’ here won’t be the same without them.”

“No it won’t. I’m Randy.” I held out my hand.

He nodded, then shook it. “My name it Bruce. Nice meetin’ you. Nice fly rod.”
I walked to the start of the sharp bend, put on my stripping basket and thought, I don’t know where Bruce is coming from. He was probably dealt a bad hand. Therefore, I shouldn’t judge his bitterness, especially when I often wish I was someone else in this card game of life: a lawyer, a father, a close friend to people who actually asked to read at least one of my publications.

I false cast, letting out more and more line. I landed my popper well short of the island. I cursed. Yes, I needed casting practice, but I forgave myself for a bad cast, then looked across the Meer and watched boys throw stones into the water. Angry, I wanted to yell and tell them they might hurt some fish. Luckily I didn’t have to. They ran out of the park, taking my anger with them. Suddenly, in my flushed-out mind, I saw the image of a long dock—the dock I saw in a new edition of George M. L. La Branche’s, The Dry Fly In Fast Water. I retrieved my popper, six inches at a time, and thought it was sad that almost no one knew that some of the first American, fly-casting tournaments were held in the Meer, and that La Branche and the great fly-rod builder, H. L. Leonard, had competed. I told myself, there should be a bronze plaque, insuring that the legacy of the tournaments won’t be washed away. At least La Branche is remembered for his book, and Leonard for his fly rods, but not the other competitors. And what will Thomas and Kenny be remembered for? And me? I hope, I pray some of my memoirs live on in the annals of fly fishing.

I cast again and again. No strikes. I turned away from the island. Casting lefty, I landed my fly in the deeper water.

Ten minutes later, still no luck. I walked around the bend, into the bird-head-shaped cove. At the back of the cove Thomas sat in a motorized wheelchair. The wheelchair, I knew, would hide—ironically, I thought—his most obvious characteristic: his limp. Thomas false cast about twenty feet of line, then landed his fly. I stepped toward him, but realized he might want to be alone with his thoughts and his memories. I didn’t take another step. Wanting to respect his fishing water, I cast across the mouth of the cove, and thought of how Thomas, a former corrections officer, once told me he regretted spending much of his life locked up with, as he called them, “the dregs of society.”

Yes, he has a real right to be bitter.

I heard the sound of a motor. Thomas was riding toward me. He stopped about ten feet away.

“I remember you,” he said.

“It must be my fly-fishing hat. No hard feelings if you laugh at it.”

“Kenny gave me your story on the Croton.”

“I’m glad someone I told about it managed to read it.”

“It was really different. I loved it; but you don’t look old enough to come to terms with a mid-life crisis.”

“Maybe I’m still working on it.”

“Speak louder, please. I’m having radiation treatments. They told me my lung cancer is terminal.” Thomas roll cast.

I retrieved my line, and walked up to Thomas. Because my mother had passed away from lung cancer, I thought I would be able to come up with the right words to say. I couldn’t. Again I felt like a writing failure. I put my hand on Thomas‘s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I wish I knew what to say.”

He smiled. “There’s nothing you can say. I just got to love the little time the man upstairs has left me. I just wish a fishing season was starting instead of ending. Well, at least I’ll have fly tying to keep me busy. Do you tie?”

“Now that I’m finished with writing, maybe I should learn.”

“Finished with writing?”

“My well is dry; and I too want to enjoy the fishing time left to me.” What a stupid thing to say. Thomas would give anything to have half the time I have left on this earth. “Thomas, I thought of you last week. I took the court officer exam.”

“My niece took the test too.”

I never heard him talk about his children; so I assumed he too didn’t have any.

Will he die alone? The thought scared the daylights out of me; I guess because I was scared I would too.

“Thomas, thanks to you, I didn’t take the correction officer exam.”

“Where would I be without the city’s great medical plan and great pension? Twenty years ago I retired, with what seemed like an eternity to fish.”

I was surprised by Thomas‘s gratitude. I wondered, will I have to wait for terminal cancer to remove my character defect of feeling resentment instead of gratitude?

The sun, I noticed, had slid behind the trees, stealing my precious fishing time. I looked into Thomas‘s eyes. They pulled me like warm magnets. I cut a new deal with myself, and decided to spend my fishing time on listening to Thomas.

I asked, “What are you fishing with?”

“Pheasant Tail nymph. Crappie love them.”

A flock of screeching seagulls landed on the water.

“Thomas, since when do seagulls come here? Do you think they lost their way?”
Thomas smiled. “Seagulls aren’t like people. They came from the East or Hudson Rivers, looking for easy meals.”

I thought of the small bait fish that might get eaten. “That doesn’t seem fair. Maybe they came because the Meer is so beautiful. Look: Baby geese. It’s amazing how instinct tells them to swim in straight lines, behind their parents.”

“Yes, it is. So many generations of geese and ducks, I’ve seen. My mother’s cousin, Eddy, first took me fishing here when I was about ten. We fished with cheap bamboo rods for bluegills. Eddy was the real quiet type. The only thing he talked to me about was sports, especially about how much he hated the Yankees. He wouldn’t even tell me where he lived. But I suppose just being with Eddy, especially outside, made me feel like I was as good as other boys whose fathers hadn’t died.

“When I got older Eddy bought me a spinning rod and taught me how to fish for bass. I still remember when I caught my first one, right near the steps over there. Fighting a bass was nothing like fighting a bluegill. I guess that’s when I got really hooked on fishing. Then one day, after Eddy said good-bye, I followed him, hoping to see where he lived. But he saw me and shook his fist, and seemed to turn into a monster with flaming eyes. ‘Don’t you ever spy on me again!’ he yelled.

“Scared he might hit me, I ran away. I cursed myself for doing wrong, especially when day after day I waited for Eddy to take me fishing again. He never did. Finally I asked my mother why Eddy didn’t want me to see where he lived.

“‘Maybe because he enlisted in the Army, and knew that because of this damn war, he might not see you again.’ My mother cried.

“To make a long story short, about a year later I came home and found my mother crying. She looked at me and said, ‘Thomas I’ve got something to tell you. Eddy was killed somewhere in France. How could a man like Hitler come to power? I’ll never understand. But what I do understand, as clearly as two plus two equals four, is that one day you’ll find out the truth, so it’s only right that you find it out from me. Eddy isn’t my cousin. He was the only man I ever loved. He was married to someone else. Eddy is your father.’

“What did I feel? Randy, I felt as numb as Novocain; but as the days and weeks rolled on, I began to hate Eddy and to hate his and my mother’s lie. Over the years my hate got smaller and smaller, but I couldn’t leave it behind, until, until I met so many inmates who never knew a real, or even a fake, father. Soon I remembered that before I hated my father, I loved him. And so I became thankful my father had given me something, fishing, that I’ve loved my whole life. Suddenly I wanted to love him again, and I did. I suppose that’s why, even though I’ve fished all the great waters of the Northeast—the Beaverkill, the Salmon, Martha’s Vineyard—the Harlem Meer is the water I always come home to. Often I see my father in the water’s reflection, smiling like a boy. Often I see him on the bank, teaching me how to cast a spinning rod. That’s when, for a few moments at least, it seems as if all my yesterdays have merged and re-formed into this one big today.”

Now it was my turn to feel as numb Novocain. I remembered the power of a good story, especially one told by someone who never wrote one. I remembered how my father, in his way, had also deserted me and how, even after his death, a part of me wanted him back, partly because I knew if he read my memoirs, even he would be proud.

I didn’t have to wonder why Thomas told me his story. He wanted me to write it and, in a sense, keep him alive in the small world of fishing. But did I, a little-known writer with a long line of mistakes in life, have power over life and death? If so, did I want it?

The wind, I noticed, had retreated. The leaves were still, and the Meer looked like a frozen frame on a movie screen, a three-dimensional, life-size frame. Did the Meer somehow act like a movie director and create the frame to acknowledge Thomas and to give him a little more precious time. If so, I wished the much larger world could do the same, for him and for other cancer patients as well.

Though the water had become darker, the colors of its vibrating reflections—trees and tall buildings—had deepened, ironically. I thought, how I wish that, as the sun sets on our lives, we became beautiful, like autumn leaves. Are men and women less deserving than leaves because of our mistakes? Because of our long, long string of wars? But now, as I long back, my mother, in my eyes, at least, was more beautiful just before she died.

A flock of geese dived and the shattered calm surface of the Meer. The geese and seagulls soon formed two distinct camps on the water. The camps reminded me of opposing armies on the night before they clashed. But the geese swam away. The seagulls didn’t pursue. Yes, geese and seagulls are more like anglers sharing the same lake or river than like opposing armies fighting, killing for the same land.

“Randy, I have to go. Good luck with your test.”

“Thanks, Thomas, thanks.”

I watched him drive out of the park. I wondered, will I see him again? Thankfully my sister never overdosed and I will see her again. What’s going through Thomas’ his mind, knowing he might not ever see the Meer again? What will his final journey—to where time cannot go—be like? I hope he, like my mother, won’t be ravaged by physical pain. And what will my final journey be like? Will it be peaceful? If not, I don’t want to now know.

I looked up. The full moon hung right between the two tall, matching buildings, and reminded me of a football flying through goal posts. Maybe the moon is being kind and giving me back the fishing time I had given to Thomas.

I cast toward the back of bird’s head. For the next twenty minutes or so I covered most of the cove’s water, still without luck. Wind chilled me. Time on the Meer flowed again. To keep my false casts from being blown out of shape, I cast harder; but in the advancing darkness I couldn’t see my casts unroll. My popper landed in the back of my vest. I pulled it out and was about to cut it off and head home when I noticed flickering in the park lamps. They were coming on. Are these man-made inventions, like judges handing out justice, giving me what even the full moon could not: more fishing time? Maybe the Harlem Meer, unlike the wide world, is governed by its own laws of fairness.

Standing still, I watched the lamps burn brighter and brighter. They reminded me of stars in the dark sky; and so in my mind, the Meer changed from a giant boomerang or flying bird to a small part of a beautiful, miniature galaxy.
Again I false cast, but the man-made light was short-ranged and didn’t reach my rolling fly line.

I told myself, yes, trying to see my line unroll is really a metaphor for my trying to see, like a Don Quixote, the world as it isn’t: a beautiful David or Mona Lisa. Maybe getting older shouldn’t be about seeing a world filled with images of dark and light, but about seeing beauty and gratitude where I once saw none. If so, therefore, it isn’t what the world and all its craziness owes me. It’s what I owe the world: more stories that, arrogant as it sounds even to me, help people come to terms with the unpredictable game of life.

Suddenly I felt like an angler after he fought and landed several good fish: grateful for another day of angling and ready, very ready, to go home. I reeled in my line, cut off my popper and broke down my rod. I retraced my steps along the bank. Again I looked up. Except for the real stars, the sky had turned pure black, but something told me the sun hadn’t set on my writing, that I had at least one more story to tell, one about Thomas.

And so I felt lucky, very lucky, to be a writer again.
This memoir originally appeared in Yale Anglers' Journal.
www.flyandspincasting.com
copyright 2009 by Randy Kadish
 

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Randy,

Great story, held me right down to the last word. That is some feat considering my A.D.D. doesn't even allow me to throw the same fly for more than 10 minutes! LOL.
Thanks for the escape from a slow day at work.
 
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