Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hayfield Hijinks

Although this is not a photo of the wheat field I grew up with, it reminds me of it because of the hay bales and the tree right in the middle of the field. Our forty acres boasted two apple trees--both planted smack dab in the middle of the arable acres. Dad refused to cut them down and each year planted around them. The trees produced wonderful fruit for our family and dad's motto was "if it's edible, leave it alone." To mom's dismay, flowers had no standing with a man who had farmed all his life. Soon as mom would choose a likely spot for some beauty, dad would rip them out and plant vegetables. It was a battle that continued throughout their lives.

I absolutely loved harvest time. The Minnesota sun was softer now and our hayfield wove its own magic by smelling both sweet and dusty at the same time. Every autumn my middle sister and I rode atop the horse-drawn wagon while my dad and our hired man walked alongside and pitch-forked the hay shocks onto the wagon's wooden bed.

With great anticipation, we watched for the field mice to scamper out of the shocks so we could catch them and pretend they were our children. Hey, we didn't have dolls. Besides, mice were cuter. We loved the way they wiggled their tiny nose.

Once the wagon was piled high it was over to the thresher where the wheat kernels went one way and the stalks another. My sister and I were allowed to sit in the grain truck bed. We loved having those millions of wheat kernels rain down over us. Dad had shown us how to crack the wheat shell and dig out the germ. Get enough and you had a sort of chewing gum. Who knew?

The year came when dad announced that a bunch of farmers had gotten together to help one another with the harvest and my sister and I wouldn't be part of it. We were devastated. "But dad," we whined "we always go so we can ride on the wagon and play with the tiny mice. Besides, we like sitting in the grain truck.

My mom was soft spoken, seldom raising her voice. But not today. I hear a shriek and a single word. "Mice," she shouted. "What do you mean--mice?" We explained and I swear, she looked like she'd just stuck her finger in a light socket. "No," she said as adamantly as I'd ever heard her. "You're not going."

Dad laughed. It was the wrong thing to do. Mom turned her snapping hazel eyes on him. "Why on earth would you let the girls play with mice?" she said accusingly. "Such filthy, dirty, germ covered animals. Dad looked at her, shrugged his shoulders, and said he was always so busy with the wheat bundles he hadn't known what we were up to. He figured we were just riding along for the fun of the harvest.

My sister and I knew how to approach dad. We grabbed his hands and pleaded. "Please, please, daddy. You always let us ride the wagon." I could see him giving in but what he said was, "It's up to your mother." Being the eldest, I came up with what I thought was a good compromise. I turned to mom and said, "What if we promise not to play with the mice. Can we go then?"  She gave it some thought, then reluctantly agreed.

Harvest time was the highlight of my whole autumn season. To this day I cannot drive by a hayfield or see wheat shocks or even come across a photo that reminds me of that time without seeing two little blond girls giggling in delight at the sight of a furry mouse or the cascade of wheat kernels or the hay flying off into the bailer. It's one of my favorite memories and although I'm now past 70, my minds-eye remembers every detail.

Perhaps the reason haying season remains so indelibly printed on my memory card is because it was not only an adventure for my middle sister and me but because it ushered in crisp mornings and the knowledge that as autumn crept into the hardwoods in layer upon layer of color, it would be time for hayrides and apple cider and molasses cookies. Soon it would be time to walk through drifts of crimson and gold leaves, just to hear them crunch underfoot--my middle sister's and my favorite past time.

The spectacle known as Fall was on the way and though each year seemed the same, it always varied as the crimson and gold blazed across the countryside. How I loved watching the colorful parade as it spread from tree to tree that I might walk to school beneath a blaze of crimson or clouds of gold and orange. Or sit atop a hay wagon full of hay bales, nothing but a lantern or two to show the way along dirt roads, and all the time singing songs with the friends my sisters and I had invited to ride with us.

I've heard it said that city kids have the greatest advantages and the best chance at a productive life. Who makes up this stuff? Far as I know, all the adventures those city kids ever had involved either riding a bike or playing with dumb old dolls. I always felt sorry for them. They had no idea how cute a field mouse was up close and personal. Or how soft was their fur. Or how intriguingly they twitched their nose. I can still envision it. And it still makes me happy.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My True Fish Tale

Back left, my mother and a woman unknown to me; front left, a child I do not remember, my middle sister, and myself.

I grew up in a fishing family. Every summer brought all manner of these wonderful delicacies to our table and even today, fish and seafood remain two of the things I love the most. Forget the filet mignon; I'll take a floured, fried in real butter walleye, pike or bass any day of the week. And I'm not talking about those grocery store fillets either. Dad always contended that filleting the fish involved tossing out edible food and he stubbornly refused to do so. My sisters and I were taught to eat around the bones. We're still good at it.

The first time I remember trying to catch my own fish was when I was around seven. Our family was at one of Minnesota's Ten Thousand Lakes, staying at the same cabin resort where we vacationed every year. I was out on the long dock that reached a good way into the water. I was close to the end when I spotted schools of tiny fish swimming all around the casements. I'd noticed them before and dad had told me they were perch and not good for eating. Maybe so, but to me they looked plenty good enough for catching. I don't remember where I got the old cane pole with a couple yards of black line and a hook tied on the end, but I distinctly remember deciding to catch some of those cute little swimmers.

I was after the biggest ones--likely all of four inches long, but to me they were fish worth trying for. I remember there was a worm on my hook, though how it got there eludes me. I probably got it from the same place I got the pole: someone had left it on the dock, intending to come back and without any ill intentions, I decided to use it. While those details are fuzzy, what happened next remains clear in my mind.

Without a weight on the line, the hook wouldn't sink into the water where those little buggers were swimming. I leaned out, trying to push the hook into the water with the pole end. No luck. I tried again, stretching my arms as far as I could. Still couldn't reach it. I moved as close to the edge of the dock as I could, toes barely over the edge and leaned my body forward, stretching my arms to their max. I was determined to push that hook down to the fishes or die trying.

I came to lying on the dock with all manner of adult faces staring down at me. I was soaking wet and didn't know why. I looked at all the faces again, searching for my parents, but they weren't there. I remember that I didn't cry, not a single tear. I was too busy trying to figure out what had happened, but my young mind couldn't conjure up any plausible explanation for my predicament. To this day I do not remember falling into the water. Fortunately, there was someone who had seen me lose my balance and tumble into the lake. I was told the lady had run to the end of the dock, jumped into the water and hauled me out. If I ever knew who it was, I don't remember. What I do remember is that I never caught any of those tiny fishes I was after.

Two things happened to me shortly after that. Swimming lessons and fishing practice. Young as I was, I understood the need to learn how to swim and my parents made sure I learned it that summer. But fishing lessons? Shoot, anyone could fish. I mean, toss a line in the water and wait for a fish. My dad didn't see it that way. He ran a tight  boat and there were rules to be obeyed. Dad had rules about everything, so fishing boat regulations weren't a great surprise. Since my unexpected excursion into the lake, it seems that my folks had decided that if I wanted to fish bad enough to go in after them, I'd best learn how to do it right.

A few days later, my dad came into our rental cabin and motioned for me to follow him. He led me to a grassy area where he handed me a rod and reel, the line-end tied onto a sturdy metal weight. Then he taught me how to cast overhead--the safest way to avoid snagging other fishermen in your boat. That was during the 1940s, when fishing poles and reels were manual do or die sort of things that backlashed into snaggles that could never be undone. It took me two days of practice and undoing more than my fair share of ornery backlashes before my dad deemed me fit to fish.

They woke me when it was still dark. "Get up, we're going bass fishing." I complained that it was still night time, but to no avail. "Bass bite at dawn," they said. It was now or never. And even though we had a perfectly nice cabin and boat rental at the resort and a huge lake at our doorstep, dad plopped his old wooden duck-hunting boat atop the car and we were off to some dinky lake tucked away on private property. That was the day I learned about Lower Mudd and the elusive bass that hid around its reedy edges.

With eyes barely open, I cast my line toward the weeds, the practice weight replaced with a funny-looking bit of wood painted red and white. Dad said it was a Lazy Ike--a real bass catcher. Nothing. I reeled back in and cast again, marvelling at how proficient my thumb had become at preventing backlashes. Plop. Plop. Plop. The lure  sailed overhead, hit the water and got reeled back in. I was on my fifth or sixth cast when my line took off, spinning out of control, the black line travelling faster than I'd ever seen it go. I hadn't even had a chance to set the reel's break. Whatever I'd caught was strong and mad. And there I sat, in the boat's middle seat, doing my best to get that fighting fish into the boat.

I reeled and reeled, thinking I must have hooked the biggest bass in the lake. I'd make some headway only to lose all I'd gained and then some. "Reel it in," dad said. I told him I couldn't do it because my arms and fingers were too tired. He ignored my complaint. Just then the fish jumped, arching out of the water in a splash of ripples. Then it did it again. I heard my mom tell dad to help me. She could see I was was in over my head. Dad's ever-kind, thoughtful reply was "She caught it, she can reel it in." Didn't I tell you he had strict rules? Knowing I was on my own, I set a stubborn, determined face and reeled that sucker in. My arms and hands were sore for two days.

I was hooked at the thrill of it all. I knew right then and there that I'd forever be a fisher kid. In the many years after, I caught a lot more bass as well as walleye, northerns, sunfish, crappies, and catfish. I caught alot of fish that weighed more than my first two-pound bass, but none of them brought the exhilaration of that first fight. I had fought the battle alone and I had won. In retrospect, I was glad dad had forced me to do the job myself for I had such a sense of accomplishment that from then on I was pretty much convinced that if I could land that bass, I could do just about anything I put my mind to. Good lesson to learn at the ripe old age of seven. Thanks, dad.