Friday, January 29, 2010

Coming of Age

My mother’s family lived in a small town in central Wisconsin. My Grandfather moved the family there somewhere around 1920. Grandpa started a hardware store and ran it with his brother until he retired in his 90s. The memories I have from visits to the homestead and small town with my family in the early 1970s led to the setting for this story. All characters are fictional. I believe that the old story of boy gets fish, or man conquers nature have been done to death, so I thought I would put a bit of a twist in this tale.

Copyright 2010, Erik F. Helm

Coming of age.

Ronnie’s converse high-tops pattered and thumped against the pavement as he rounded the corner of Oak Street at full tilt and turned onto Division. His canvas newspaper satchel with the Courier logo in bold letters bounced against his hip to the rhythm of his legs. He was running from old man Hebert’s bullmastiff. The huge dog was Ronnie’s nemesis. It lay in wait in the bushes or behind the garbage cans until he opened the screen door to Mr. Hebert’s house to deliver the paper, and then chased Ronnie all the way to the corner. This game had been going on for months.

Although Ronnie was running from the dog, (anyone could see that) he also had a hidden agenda; for standing in the middle of Division Street was Theisen Brothers Hardware, and in the window was the latest object of Ronnie’s dreams; a fishing pole.

Ronnie slowed a bit as he approached the shop, and for the hundredth time that summer, tilted his ball-cap back, and cupping his hands to the side of his head, peered in the large display window. The pole was standing next to a wicker fishing creel, a softball and bat, and several bins of nails. Between Kerberg’s five and dime, and Theisen Brothers, A kid could find everything he desired, and more.

As he always did, Ronnie dug deep into his front jean pockets, and pulled out his collection money from the newspaper route. Forty-three cents: half of which would have to be turned over to his mother when he arrived home. Minus Bazooka Joe gum, a pack of baseball cards, and the Saturday afternoon gangster film at the Aurora, he might add another nickel to the money he had stashed under the old squirrel’s nest in his tree house.

Ronnie knew it was a fly-fishing pole. He knew this for a sacred fact because of the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue from 1942 that he had found in the trash along the curb on his paper route. In the long evenings and rare occasions when Ronnie, Joe, and Fatty Smith were not throwing crab apples or swapping comic books, Ronnie could be found in the tree-house savoring a warm piece of corn bread, eyes glued to the pages of the catalogue, and dreaming of what it might feel like to catch a fish.

Not that Ronnie had never been fishing. Indeed, he had been fishing twice with his father. Once when he was just old enough to remember getting his jeans and sneakers full of mud and receiving a spanking, and the last time Dad had been home on leave from Germany before, well… before that day the telegram arrived and Mother had cried. Dad had caught a few bullheads from Stoker’s Pond, but Ronnie just lost his worm and corn to nibblers.

Ronnie knew he didn’t need a fly pole to catch a fish. He had Dad’s old cane crappie pole in the shed, but Ronnie possessed a secret so precious that he wouldn’t even tell it to Fatty or Joe.

On a stifling July evening so typical of a Wisconsin summer, Ronnie took off after his supper to try to find some relief from the heat by swimming in Stoker’s Pond. He had had to endure the endless cautions and fussing from his mother before he was free. Mom had changed, he thought, in the months since Dad had ‘gone away’. She just seemed so much more protective.

He was seated with his bare feet dipped in the tepid water, reading a Hardy Boys mystery he had traded with Fatty for a broken cap-gun, when the pond was disturbed by rings and splashes at the surface of the water. Strange bugs like the ones that gathered around the streetlights downtown suddenly filled the air. Ronnie slapped at his ear, and looking at his hand, found an insect with clear upright wings, an elongated body, antenna, and long tails trailing behind it. The town kids, who delighted in stomping on the flies when they became disoriented or hit the glass bell of the streetlamp and fell to the curb, called them ‘crush-bugs’. Ronnie knew they were Mayflies. He also knew, thanks to the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue, that they hatched out of the water in rivers and lakes. Now he knew something else too; that the mayflies that he and the other kids had just assumed appeared out of thin air, attracted by the mating call of the incandescent light, had an origin, and he had found it less than a mile from his house.

Although Ronnie may have had trouble with his math homework from time to time, he was not slow. It took him a grand total of five seconds to put two and two together and realize that the carp in Stoker’s pond, some of which, to his youthful imagination, he thought must have weighed more than a hundred pounds, were feeding on the mayflies at the surface, and making a messy feast of it at that.

He was down at the pond the next evening with Dad’s crappie pole, and the mayflies were back. The carp were circling lazily on the surface, sucking down the easy and tasty bugs. He rigged up the pole and chose the smallest hook in the old chewing tobacco tin his dad used to store his tackle. He caught a mayfly, and carefully placing it on the hook, heaved it out as far as the length of gut would take it.

It was if someone had suddenly pulled some magical switch. One second the carp were at the surface, and the next they simply disappeared. Ronnie looked for his bait. It too had sunk. It, and the sloppy cast had put all of the big fish off their evening meal. For the next week, he tried corn, worms, grasshoppers, stale liverwurst, and a ball of mushy dough, but the notoriously spooky and selective carp would have none of it.

That was last year, and by now, Ronnie had devised a plan for catching the big carp. The secret, as he had learned from his catalogue, was a floating mayfly imitation on a tiny hook, and the only way to make this work was the fly fishing pole: the very one that now teased him from Theisen Brothers’ window, the very one that he saved his paper-route pennies for and could never tell his mom about.

At first, he thought of telling her of his desire, but Mom was a girl. She understood magical things about carrots, naphtha soap, cabbage, and how to get chocolate stains out of Ronnie’s Sunday church shirt, but she could never understand about tadpoles, carp, jack knives, or why he would need a fly-fishing pole. For his birthday that spring, she baked him a cake, gave him a hand-knitted sweater too large for him, a new pair of sneakers from Kerberg’s, and sent him to a double feature at the Aurora. No, Ronnie would have to keep the secret to himself for now.

He calculated that with his meager savings, even if he cut back on the gum and skipped the weekly cinema film; he would still be a bit short on the price of the fly rod by the critical time for the mayfly hatch.

Providence sometimes intervenes, and it does so in its greatest effect in childhood. Ronnie had completed his paper route that happy Friday afternoon, when the elderly Mrs. Thompson came out of Abel’s grocery store with a large bag of produce and breathlessly asked if Ronnie could help her carry them home. He consented happily, and after setting down the bag in Mrs. Thompson’s kitchen, was asked if he would be willing to help her every Friday, and with a few chores around the house as well. She was getting on in years she explained, and it would her happy to have the company as well as the help. Reaching into her purse, the ancient lady extracted a quarter and smiling, handed it to Ronnie. Like everything about Mrs. Thompson, the quarter smelled like baby powder, but it was his now. He quickly agreed to the job, and clutching the quarter, ran for home.

A week later, he marched into Theisen brothers with his head held high and his eyes wide.

“Well hello young man, how may I help you?” asked William, the taller of the brothers and the more friendly.

Ronnie got right to the point.

“I want to buy that fly rod in the window,” he stated with eager anticipation.

“Well, now…” said Mr. Theisen, “That is a fine rod for a young boy, a model made in Indiana if I am not mistaken. She runs two dollars and a quarter,” he stated with raised eyebrows. “Sure you don’t want one of these cheaper poles over here?” he asked pointing to some crooked telescoping steel rods displayed under the brand ‘Catch More!’

“Nope, just the one in the window,” Ronnie replied.

Mr. Theisen carefully removed the fly rod from the window, gave it a dusting, separated it into two pieces, and wrapped it in yellow butcher’s paper.

Ronnie selected a dozen of the smaller tan flies from a bin by the counter, and laying them next to the rod on the counter, placed his pile of coins next to them.

“Well, young man, will you be needing a reel and line with the rod, or do you already have them?” Mr. Theisen asked.

Somehow, in all his planning, Ronnie had thought the rod came with everything. He was so fixated on the fly rod itself that it had never occurred to him that a separate reel and line would be needed.

“Um, well… How much are they?” he asked in trepidation.

“Well son, the reel we got to match this rod is a dollar, and the line and gut are fifty cents.”

Ronnie, who all this time was almost hovering above the wooden floor in excitement, suddenly felt deflated. The dreams of the carp were vanishing before his very eyes.

He began pulling out his pockets, unearthing a sour apple, a screw, a broken pocketknife, and three pennies.

At that moment, William Theisen remembered what it was like to be ten years old and to want something more than life itself. In his case, it had been a catcher’s mitt.

“Say… son, can you hold on a minute? Let me look in the storage room, I think I might have something there for you.”

He returned in less than a minute with an old tarnished and rusty reel that was still attached to a broken rod. Mr. Theisen carefully placed a chisel against the rod fragment and with the single tap from a wooden mallet, freed the reel.
He handed it to Ronnie.

“Here you go, son,” he said, placing the reel in Ronnie’s outstretched hands.

“It is a bit bent and rusty, but a bit of an oiling will fix it up nicely. The line is in serviceable shape too. It should work just fine.”

“How much?” Ronnie asked, not grasping the intention of the moment.

“What you have here will just cover it,” Mr. Theisen said smiling. He pushed his glasses onto the top of his head and placed the coins in the register.

“Not a word though, son. Can’t have folks thinking we just give things away,” he stated with a wink.

That evening after supper, and with his math practice completed and delivered to his mother, Ronnie ran to the tree house and assembled the rod, reel, and line. The reel was a bit bent, and even after oiling, would squeak and grind when the handle was turned. It didn’t matter though, it worked. That was the point. He carefully ran his hands down the intermediate red wraps on the cane rod, and sighted down its length, just like the man in the Norman Rockwell print from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post that he had saved, and which now hung by several nails in his tree-house.

It was sort of straight. Not perfect, but not too bad, he thought. He attached the gut, and stored the flies in an old cough-drop tin. He was all ready for tomorrow. He hid the rod under some old comic books in the corner, and went in to listen to the radio. His mother didn’t even have to remind him to wash his face. He was asleep in minutes that night, dancing mayflies filling his head.

All day long on that Friday that he and Stoker’s pond had a date, Ronnie had difficulty concentrating. He delivered papers to the wrong houses, barely escaped Mr. Hebert’s dog, and poked at his chores. He ate his dinner so fast that his mother had to warn him three times that he was going to give himself a stomachache.

After helping dry the dishes, he was excused for the rest of the evening. The screen door banged on its hinges as he made the dust fly running to the tree house.

The sun was just touching the tops of the trees that lined the far edge of the pond when Ronnie arrived. Standing well back from the water, he assembled the rod, attached the reel, and strung the line through the guides. He reckoned that he had around half an hour before the bugs started hatching, so he decided to try a practice cast or two in the clearing where the townspeople parked their Fords.

At first, it was as if the rod had a mind of its own. Whatever Ronnie intended to do, the rod would just not cooperate. It was like learning to ride a bike, he thought, as he tangled the line around his head. The harder he tried, the worse it got. Finally, he sat down in the grass and tears of frustration began to well in the corner of his eyes.

Then he remembered something he had read in one of his trips to the library. It was something about casting slowly and stopping the rod, something about loops. He stood up and tried again. This time, to his delight, the slower motion of the rod caused it to bend and unbend, and the line went forward and fell in a heap. After a few minutes more, Ronnie was able to make the line turn over and land the gut gently twenty feet from him. It would be enough, he thought, to place a fly in front of those carp.

Looking up at the gathering dusk while wiping away the remnants of his tears, Ronnie noticed the first mayflies over the water. They seemed to coming from the surrounding trees instead of the water, Puzzled, he peered through the tall grasses at the surface of the pond. To his eye, there seemed to be two colors of mayflies, some were creamy white, while the others were sort of tan. The tan ones had clear wings and were flying, while the creamy ones struggled in the surface film and crawled up the stems of cattails. Ronnie tied on one of his cream colored flies to the length of fine gut.

The first carp were surfacing and slurping in the bugs as he stood to make that first delicate cast of his life.

The rotten apple hit high up on his right cheek and shattered in fragments. Ronnie’s eyes exploded in colored lights as his nostrils recoiled from the stench, and he fell backward into the shallow water. As he sat up and shook off the water and apple crud, he heard laughter. Standing to his right, not thirty feet away, was Tommy McRory, the pimpled bully of the fifth grade, standing filthy and barefoot as he always did, and grinning through his yellow teeth.

“Ronnie ponnie, puddin and pie, you got apple slime in your eye,” he sang as he approached, his matted hair almost covering his eyes.

Tommy was the eldest son of the extended McRory clan. They lived together in a run-down single story house on a slope above the swamp that bordered Stoker’s Pond. Ronnie knew that people whispered about Tommy’s pa, who delivered coal when he was not sitting behind the firehouse drinking something from a paper sack. His mother warned him to stay away from the McRorys, but she herself often left slices of cornbread or a potato or two by the coal chute. These would disappear, even if Mr. McRory avowed that he “Didn’t take no charity from no one!” to anyone who would listen.

“What you got there?” Tommy said as he grabbed the fly rod out of Ronnie’s hand.

“A fishin pole, huh? This here is my pond, sissy, so this must be my rod too.”

“Give it here Tommy, it isn’t yours and you don’t even know how to use it,” Ronnie shot back.

“Who’s gonna make me… little girl, you?” Tommy spit with foul breath. He shoved Ronnie in the shoulder and laughed in hysterics as Ronnie staggered and fell once again into the mud at the edge of the pond.

“Watch me crybaby, I’m gonna catch the biggest fish in this pond.”

The young McRory waved the rod forward as if to cast a conventional bait-caster. When it didn’t work, he threw it harder, causing a dangerous bend in the rod.

“This rod is stupid, like you, prissy-boy. It don’t work right.”

Although tears were already trickling out of his eyes, and he was unable to form words in his anger and blubbering frustration, Ronnie began to feel a sober rage forming in his belly. He wished his father were here. Dad would send the bully home with a sore behind he thought. But his father was not there, and Tommy was much bigger than he was anyway. What could he do?

Ronnie’s sneakers made a squishing sound as he rose.

“Cut it out, Tommy, you are gonna break it.”

The bully didn’t reply. He was too busy poking the rod into the water at a large carp, trying to spear it. Ronnie thought about all the money he saved for the rod, the hours spent mowing lawns and delivering papers, all the anticipation, and Mr. Theisen and the hardware store. He thought about how he would have to explain all this to his mother, and how his classmates and friends would find out; find out that in the end, Ronnie really was a scaredy-cat. A coward.

“Give it here NOW!” he shouted.

The person that uttered those words, and that now advanced on Tommy McRory was somebody Ronnie did not recognize. The words may have come from his own mouth, but they sounder older, more determined, more commanding.

Bullies are cowards at heart, and the last thing they expect is the humiliated victim to fight back, but the fist that hit McRory square in the nose was no illusion; neither was the blood that flowed down his shirt or the sudden fear and panic that sent him flying back towards the shelter of his family hovel.

Ronnie sat down and cried. Never before had he had the guts to stand up to a bully, and the raw emotion of pain and humiliation followed by triumph overwhelmed him.

When he calmed down, he looked at the rod, now broken in three pieces and lying before him. He looked for a long time in silence, then he removed the reel and line, threw the broken pieces of the rod far into the pond, and after washing the mud from his clothes and shoes as best he could given the circumstances, turned and began the long walk home, the reel safely in his jeans pocket.

For some reason, a sense of calm came over him. He reasoned that it would take some extra work, and maybe a second paper route, but next year he could buy another rod.

He had come as a boy to catch a carp. The young man that walked back on the path away from the pond felt slightly sorry for Tommy McRory. At least Ronnie had something to look forward to, he later reasoned, as he dreamed of the carp and the new rod in the deep stillness of the hot Wisconsin summer night.


  1. Wow! Good stuff Erik! I'm reminded of my father, who once said "At some point you're going to have to stand up for yourself. If a bully starts pushing you around, let him have it. You might still get your as kicked, but he'll reckon the price is too high for entertainment." There is a valuable lesson about life in your story. The best and worst of people, and the hard facts of living. One of your best efforts yet.--AJ

  2. TC,
    Thank you.
    Yes, there was a lot happening. All that anticipation, just to end with a dream deferred, how would he react? No father figure left. On his own. The indipendance that was fettered to the depression generation doing everything to survive while trying to still play and hope and have fun. What happened is that by necessity they grew up and had to be mature at an earlier age.

  3. Reminds me of uptown Weyauwega when I visited my grandparents as a kid.

  4. Sherri,
    Good to see you Saturday, and glad the piece brought back a few memories!


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