The old man lived alone, a mile or so from town. He was past 90 and seemed older than old.
There’s something sad about an old man with nothing to do.
Age notwithstanding, he ventured out regularly. His favorite destination was my house. His visits were wonderful and annoying at once. I loved the old timer and his stories, but I was 16, with “better” things to do.
Conversation with the old man was easy. He harbored little interest in current events and lived in a world long dead, forgotten by all save himself. It was this world of which he always spoke, feeling no need to concern himself with where he was going, only where he’d been. He hadn’t been far, but he was old. Thus, there were stories; told frequently, in old-man fashion.
He knew I was a fisherman and sometimes spoke of angling. He’d not had much experience. When he was a boy, he said, there was little time for fishing. He was too busy working. No embellishment there. He was hardscrabble poor as long as I knew him.
This old timer went fishing only once in his life, as a boy, on a 4th of July, sometime in the late 19th Century. I recall the story and the telling:
“Mama told me I didn’t have to work since it was the Fourth. I knowed I could do what I wanted to do that day. I told her I was goin’ fishin’ and asked her for some string and a straight pin. Weren’t no fishin’ stuff around the house. Just had to make do.
“She got the pin from her sewing basket and found me a little loop of string she said I could have. I ‘spect it come off a mail order box or somethin’. I dug me some worms out behind the old mule stall and was all fixed up.
“I bent the pointy end of that pin up and twisted the head down till it made a hook eye. Put it between two flat rocks and bent it into a hook. Never thought about no store-bought hooks. Wouldn’t a done no good if I had. I had me a rusty old Barlow knife. There was a patch of bamboo cane behind the old mill house on the creek and I cut me a six-or-eight-foot piece. That was just about right ‘cause all I had was about six foot a string. Had my worms in a Sweet Peach snuff can.
“The mill house had a little dam across the creek. Made a deep black hole down around the house timbers. Well, sir, I rigged that pole up and tied that pin hook to the end of the string. I baited up and chunked it down in that dark water. Hadn’t got more’n a foot or two down before one of them little redbellies swallered it near ‘bout to his goozle.
“I took the hook out real careful like. When you ain’t got but one hook and it a bent straight pin you got to be particular. I stuck the fish down in my britches pocket, then baited up and tried her again. I don’t know what took it that second time, but whatever it was didn’t even slow down. It just straightened out that line and broke that little pin like a stick a candy. My fishin’ was done for that day.”
There was a pause in the old man’s narrative.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“Went back to the house and spent the rest of the day wishin’ I was fishin’,” he replied. “That was more’n 80 years ago and I ain’t been fishin’ since. Why you reckon that is?”
The story had reached an end. I knew that from the semi-rhetorical question. The old man, like many old men, often ended his tales with queries to which there was no answer.
I heard this story more times than I can count and I realize to most folks it’s really not much of a story at all. But for that one old man, my great grandfather, it was the only fishing story he had. In the time he had left on earth, he told it again and again and again.
Ain’t that just like an old fisherman?