August 22, 2007
"Two bits for the first fish," he'd say. My dad had this standing bet whenever you went fishing with him; "Two bits on the first fish" he'd announce. For those of you who don't know the value of two bits, it's a quarter. I remember as a kid we could run to the Five and Dime on Main Street in Winthrop and get two pieces of candy for a penny. We'd buy thirty pieces of candy, go to Jim's bar and buy a bottle of strawberry pop and still have money left over. The value of two bits has declined quite a bit since those days. But two bits was always the bet. My Dad was a master fisherman back before the days of Global Positioning Systems and depth finders. His form of GPS was a milk jug tethered to a rope, weighted with a cement anchor, which was tossed overboard. He tracked his prey by landmarks and milk jugs and he successfully took many a fish from the uncharted lakes of Minnesota. I often wondered though if he would ever discover the love flitting about within the murky depths of my own heart, waiting to be caught and cherished as if it were the catch of the century. I wondered if he would ever find the treasures hidden there, waiting just for him.
When I was in fifth grade my dad needed a fishing partner one bitterly cold fall morning at 6:30 a.m. when no one else wanted to crawl out from the warmth of their beds, so I went. I didn't get to go very often but I was up to rolling out for that occasion. We bundled into our coats, grabbed the bait and poles, and away we went. I was huddled against the north wind just behind the bow as we sliced through the whitecaps of Lake Washington in his pride and joy, his boat. I knew the only reason I was really along was to weigh the front of the boat down to keep it from flipping on him as he sped to his destination. I didn't care; dead weight or not, I was with my dad.
We started out fishing in a bay on the northwest side of Lake Washington and after a few passes with the boat, dad declared they "weren't bitin' there" so we headed through the underpass to Lake Stella and set out once again for the northwest side into a bay just at the bottom of a steep hill dappled with fire orange leaves dancing in the arms of the twisted branches of an oak tree grove. We fished the shoreline and soon my dad had a bite. He fed the line, set the hook and as usual he had it. He kept telling me it was the first fish and that I would owe him two bits if he got it in the boat. He pulled in a nice Northern Pike weighing in at just over eight pounds. He turned to me with a grin on his face as he held up his prize, silver-green scales flashing in the early morning sunshine, and said "Beat that." I didn't care. I was fishing with my dad. It didn't matter if I never got one single bite on my line. The chain of the stringer clicked as he dropped his catch over the side to be dragged along with the boat as we trolled along. Time was graciously standing still for me that day to bask in the glory of sitting alongside my dad, just the two of us, listening to the lap, lap, lapping of the waves against the side of his boat and sputtering of the single stroke motor.
We made a few more passes along the shoreline when out of the blue I had a strike. I never said a word as I quietly fed out the line and set the hook, my hands stiff and red from the cold north wind. He said to reel in so we could head back up the bay to make another pass when he realized I was busy madly reeling my line in and pulling up on the pole every now and then, playing the fish perilously hooked on the end of my line. When he turned back to look at me, I had the handle of the rod jammed into my gut, the tip of it bent sharply down. I was reeling as though Moby Dick himself had decided to take my bait for breakfast that morning. My dad declared, "That ain't no fish, you got a snag! You let out too much line!" And just as he finished those words, the line peeled off with a resounding "zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!" "By God," he said in total disbelief, "You do have a fish on!" I reeled for what seemed an eternity when in reality it was only fifteen minutes or so. I told him my arm hurt.... I said I couldn't reel it in.... He said, "If you don't reel it in yourself, I'll cut the line. I'm not doin' it for you." I cranked in exhausted desperation with arms that felt like cold cooked spaghetti noodles. Finally the fish broke water. It was the biggest Northern Pike I had ever seen. I got it next to the boat and it dived, again my line peeled off. The adrenaline rush was all I needed to bring it home. I pulled up on the pole and cranked with renewed strength until finally the fish and I were both worn out. Dad netted the fish and it weighed in at eleven and a half pounds, a nice fish as Northern go. I said to him, as my eyes filled with tears, "Well, you told me to beat you, so I guess I did." And by the end of that sentence the tears were spilling over my icy cheeks and down my neck when I started to shiver. My dad laughed; reached for the bottle of Lambrusco wine he always had with him in the boat, shoved it towards me and told me to take a drink. I grasped that bottle, tipped it up and took a long swig. He shook his head as he chuckled. He wanted to know what I was crying about. How could I ever put into words why I cried those tears that day? Tears of shear pride;I was proud to be fishing with him. I was proud to have out fished the Master of the lake. I was proud because my dad approved. I was proud I finished the job on my own and that I had achieved the right of passage to drink from his bottle of Lambrusco. So very proud he was proud. It's one of the best memories I have of my dad; fishing on Lake Stella in the late fall, so cold the wind could cut right through you. I owed him two bits, but I out fished him. He never paid his bets anyway so I knew I'd never really have to pay him. But his bet was always "two bits" on the first fish.
I cherish that memory of my Dad and I in the boat that day, I keep it safely tucked away within the pages of my memory, in the scrapbook of my mind. Dusting it off every now and again to recall the day when no words were needed to tell him how much it meant to me, to be there fishing together, just he and I. Remembering he day when it didn't matter that I wasn't a boy. The day he finally saw me for the girl I was; strong, determined, and hungry for his attention, acceptance and love.
Not too many years later my own daughter, Josey, went fishing with her Grandpa when she was around the same age I was on that chilly fall morning, and unlike her mother, she won the bet; two bits. She earned bragging rights forever. True to form, he never paid up, something she would relentlessly tease him about every time they were together. For the both of them though, the sun rose and set on the other. They were buddies. He adored her and she worshiped him and I, well, I treasured them both. I can still see the two of them, fishing poles in hand, heading out on yet another trip together, trips that ebb to and fro like the gentle rocking of a boat bobbing in the waves of time. Always in the sunshine, forever Grandpa's girl.
A few years back we laid Dad to rest. At the funeral, setting on top of the urn that held his ashes, also rested two bits. Grandma called Josey to her and as she pointed to the quarter that was setting there waiting just for her, Mom leaned down and whispered "Honey, that's for you," Josey smiled as the tears began to fall. There were no words needed to say what the quarter was for. She still has that quarter safely tucked into a picture frame that holds a photo of her and her Grandpa taken a month or so before his death. Two bits was always his bet. He limited out on love. His debt was finally paid in full. The memories alone filled the bill.
I am a 45 year old college student working towards a bachelor degree in Multimedia/Web Design. I have lived in Minnesota my entire life. I was born in Shakopee Mn.
Four years ago I was diagnosed with advanced stage Nodular Melanoma cancer and have so far succeeded in winning the battle that always seems to be ongoing. During my illness the first year I lost my job because I was unable to work. The chemo made me too sick to work. About eight months into the chemo, the church where I worked called and said the environment was too toxic for my health and they were asking me not to come back. It could only happen in a Lutheran church. They had some issues they were working through. Looking back, they were right.
That's when I sent a piece I had written in to the local newspaper and they contracted me to write a column for their paper. So in a nut shell, I am etching out a very minor income as a writer and trying to reinvent myself as a full time student. My sister holds the belief that I can make more than just a minor living with writing. I just want to be part of the living world again only this time doing what I love to do and not what I have to do. I want to make a difference in this world now and find I cannot settle for anything less. Tonight a student posted to our discussion board in class and said he wanted to learn more about the Lake Wobegone area of Minnesota, he'd like to visit someday... he also posted your link. I had to post back and tell him that Garrison is a true artist, his work has convinced some of us into believing of the existence of Lake Wobegone. The farmer next door had a Lake Wannabegone in his bean field once, but that was a few years ago...before the drought. Anyway, when I saw your website, I had to send in something I wrote. This piece got fairly good reviews from the people around home here in Hutchinson. I'll be interested to hear if you think it's okay.