“They say when the Shad are in, the Mullets are soon to follow. Don’t really know if that’s true or not, but that’s what they say.”
“Excuse me?” I said from a neighboring bench.
“Shad!” He nodded his head in a pointing fashion towards his wife who was fishing just in front of us. “She hasn’t caught a thing but Shad since last week.”
I took a sip of my coffee, smiled using just the corner of my mouth, bobbed my head up and down, and said “Oh.” But, somehow I just couldn’t let the conversation end there. What a colorful man, I thought. All he needed do was to replace his ball-cap with a straw hat, and I would be looking at and talking with an 80 year old Huck Finn in character.
I picked up my coffee and walked towards him. He didn’t watch me walking, nor did he turn his head when I arrived. He just sat on the bench facing his wife with his legs spread about 2 feet apart, each hand resting on a knee. They were large, hard-worked hands with a beautiful golden color. His face was long; his ears were huge and awkwardly out of proportion. He sported green, baggy pants with suspenders, a plaid shirt, and an oversized plaid flannel over-shirt that he draped just below his shoulders.
“What’s Shad?” I asked, so that we could continue the conversation. He rubbed his whiskers making them dance on his face, and said, “Well, I don’t know exactly. That’s just what they call them. I just know they aren’t any good to eat – too bony. We just throw them back. That’s why I don’t fish no more. I’m either catching nothing or Shad.
Since he just looked straight ahead, I respected his position and turned my own body towards the lake. We both just stared out while he talked about his first fishing experience as a young lad with his father and the way the world has changed throughout his lifetime. He talked about his daughters, one that drives him and his wife to Florida every year and the other who drives them home. He talked about his son.
“My son and his wife will be stopping by soon. They’ll take a walk together around the park then they’ll sit with us until we leave. I love them, and I know they care about us, but I don’t know why we can’t just come here alone sometimes. Our children think we’re old-fashioned, but that’s because they only see us in the context of need. We don’t have closed minds, they do. We have a lot of experience-knowledge to contribute if they would just open their minds to identifying it. Mostly our needs are physical. Our parts are just wearing out, but our minds are sharp. But just because we like to talk about how we used to spend time or songs we used to sing, they think our minds are feeble. There’s a lot to be learned from us old people.”
“How so? The ways you did things are not the way things are done today. I’m 30 years younger than you, and it’s hard for me to keep pace in this society.”
“Well, for example, I’m an expert at hospital stays and can tell those marketers a thing or two about patient care. When I leave the hospital, they hand one of my daughters or my son a questionnaire. How can they answer for me? Mostly my children are concerned about whether or not I received the treatment that I needed. That’s the least of my concerns. I’m not too dumb to know that most of my parts can’t be fixed. I’m concerned about friendliness, being treated with respect, and human touch. And I’ll bet if you ask 10 old-timers, most of them would tell you the same thing. Yep, I could teach those marketers a thing or two. It seems to me that too many people are interested in organizing everything for us. I don’t need to be organized. I need to be identified as a useful person.”
“Interesting,” I said. “I guess I never really thought about it in that way before.”
“You will,” He said.
His wife leaned her head slightly back in an effort, I thought, to hear our conversation, but she too was not an eye-contact person. She sat on a lawn-chair, surrounded by a container of wet breadcrumbs, a bucket of water, and a bait can full of crickets. There was a towel behind her on top of the bucket, which she used every so often to wipe her right hand. But she didn’t remove the towel. Instead, she just swung her arm over the back of the chair and swiped her hand on it, in an exclamatory sort of way, front and back, once each side. As the man spun one story after another, I watched her methodically bait her hook, drop the line, and throw food into the water. She would wait, bob the line a few times, and start the whole process over, yet she didn’t speak a word until she made her first catch. When she did, she yanked the fish out of the water and stepped on it with her left foot. She then stood tall, and while pointing at the fish, she turned, looked at me very direct, and said, “That’s a Shad.”
Aha! I knew she was listening to us. She had probably even snuck a peek at me at least once.
“Yep. That’s it”, her husband confirmed. “That’s a Shad.”
Before the catch, her husband had been relating a story about logging during his teenage years. He said that loops in the rope wrapped around his leg and drug him a considerable distance before his father was able to save him.
“I was scared, way down deep, don’t you know, but you didn’t show those kind of things then. Of course, Dad told me later, after I got out of the hospital that they almost had to amputate my leg. I guess they knew what they were doing,” he said, as he rubbed his left leg between his knee and ankle, “I still got my leg. At least, I think it’s my leg. It matches the other one pretty good.”
For a moment I forgot the unspoken rule, so I broke stance and looked right at him. He was grinning with pride at his joke while I actually chuckled out loud.
“Yep,” he said. “That’s a good one. Everybody likes that one.”
Meanwhile, his wife, unhooking the Shad says, without looking at me, “Well, you want to see it, or not?” I walked down to the shore.
As she unhooked the Shad, a man who was fishing about 20 feet away caught a Mullet. He asked her if she wanted it, and she said yes. She threw the Shad back into the water while he threw the Mullet about 2 feet away from her chair. As she rinsed the Mullet and placed it in her bucket of water, she turned to me and said, “ Yesterday he caught a whole bunch of Mullet and never offered us a one. Sometimes I just don’t understand. I’m 83 years old, and sometimes I just don’t understand. Black people ain’t like that here. They always share the fish, and so do we. ‘Course, they just come right out and ask ya. Seems like White people gotta decide first if you deserve it or not.”
I had to ask her, even knowing the explosive subject matter. “How does someone who is 80 plus and Caucasian call Black people, Black people?” She jerked her head sharply towards me. With eyebrows raised, and eyes slightly squinted she asked, “Has it been changed again?”
“No,” I said, halfway smiling, “I’ve just heard other names coming from people in your age group.”
“Oh, I see what you’re getting’ at. Well, I can’t explain ignorance, and if I could, I wouldn’t want to explain it. We’re originally from New York. We were Dairy Farmers. We only come here for the winter months. The kids, we have three, think they’re our bosses now, and the doctors tell me to watch my activity level cause my heart is weak. There are all kinds of ignorance. That’s ignorance too. I’m not going to just sit home and wait to die. If I die here, fishing, I will die happy. I’m going to do it, and I’m not going to explain it to anyone too ignorant to understand, and I’m not going to try to understand anyone’s ignorance. People have feelings. You here alone?”
She injected the question so fast I almost missed it. She was done with the subject of ignorance, and I suppose, given her position, I should be thankful she went as far as she did. “Yes,” I said.
“Seems you’re the one who should be doing some fishing, then.”
“Yeah. Maybe you’re right, but I don’t want to catch any more Shad either.”
“You heard my husband. When the Shad are in, the Mullets are soon to follow.”
As she looked up at me, she smiled and winked, and I thought what a marvelously, delightful lady this is, and what a treasure I have found in both of them. I did go fishing that day, not with a pole, or line, or even bait, but with my heart. The fisherman cast my net. Little did I then know the mesh would yield such a fortune. It was time to go home.