From WTP Vol. V #9
A Photograph of My Father Fishing
By Paul Corrigan
My father is sprawled on the ground squeezing out his dripping socks after a day of fishing. His back rests against a cedar tree as he looks away from the camera down at his feet. He wears a green felt hat, forest green shirt, and long green pants. Sticking out of his mouth is the pipe he smokes after giving up a pack-a-day Chesterfield habit. His fishing creel lies on the ground beside him. Though he may have gotten “skunked” that day, let’s assume that inside the creel are several fat brook trout resting among layers of ferns.
Dad has been fishing Rum Brook at the spot where its cold, racing current skids almost to a halt and begins meandering among a tangle of alders and evergreens. He calls this spot his “little hell hole” and enjoys wading into the middle of it, enduring the mosquitoes and the black flies, the mud and the leeches, the slippery footing on logs that roll under when he steps on them. He says such hardships are a small price for those finned beauties with their delectable flesh. I picture my father balancing atop the beaver dams, making short casts to the expanding rings of rising trout as they sip insects off the surface.
The photograph of my father squeezing out his socks appears, at first glance, to be taken during a candid moment. But I have reason to believe it is staged. First there is Dad’s distance from the lens, far enough away so that his wiry frame turns into the physique of any slender young man. Then there’s his felt hat cocked classically over his brow, the pipe jutting from his mouth. These things convince me that the picture was taken by Dad’s cousin and fishing buddy, Tom McNally.
I can hear Tom saying, “Now Paul, go sit against that tree and face away from me as you wring out your stockings. Keep your pipe in your mouth and your creel by your side. I’ll take your picture.”
My father has told me Cousin Tom has a gift for arranging the commonplace into an eye-grabbing photograph, and a magical way of writing about a day of fishing with a good companion. Even then, as my father is starting his optometric practice in the nearby town of Millinocket, Maine, Tommy is freelancing stories for all the big sporting magazines including Field and Stream, and Outdoor Life. He will go on to become Outdoor Editor for the Chicago Tribune and pen several definitive works on fly fishing.
Cousin Tom is a boyhood hero of mine. He gets paid to go fishing. But my father cautions me about his line of work. “The typewriter calls him at all hours,” my father warns, “He has deadlines.” Yet ever since the day I watch Cousin Tom wade into a river, coiled line shooting from his fingers with each false cast, as his fly alights on water dimpled by feeding trout, I know there is no other life. To be sent on assignment to the sunny flats of Key Biscayne to cast for the skittish bonefish, or up to the Yukon Territory to lob spoons for the Arctic char, giant cousin to my humble Maine brookies, its vermillion belly flaring in the midnight sun—what better way to spend a working life.
Naturally, the daily practice of re-imagining the experiences one has had in some idyllic riparian setting for consumption by the print-loving public escapes my adolescent sensibilities. Years will pass before I realize that what Cousin Tom does is mostly formulaic; but that the way he packages his stories, with a measure of suspense and a dash of art is uniquely his own; that it has only been through sweat equity on late nights after the fishing day is done that he’s developed a vigorous masculine style that appeals to his readers. Year in and year out he has had to tickle the fancy of legions of mostly men who follow his columns in the Tribune.
What my father doesn’t mention about this companion of his youth, the thing that dooms their fishing friendship, is our cousin’s boozing. Dad is a teetotaler, and he and my mother think it best to shy away from the drinking crowd. They’ve gotten a belly full of the hurtful things family and friends, emboldened by spirits, can say to one another.
All through my growing up my father talks about the deleterious effects of alcohol on the brain and the other organs. When I am old enough to understand, he takes me to the parking lot of Gonya’s Garage behind our house to look at a wrecked car hauled in after a terrible crash. The crippled vehicle squats in the lot with its grille bashed in. I can plainly see where an occupant was flung head first into the windshield, shattering the glass outward. But what I take away, and hold to this very day is those shards of red-stained glass among the windshield wipers, and the reek of alcohol spillage on the upholstery. In my memory the summer sunlight will flash forever off the brilliant facets of that red-dyed glass.
“Take a good look, Son,” Dad says. “This is your Cousin Billy Brown’s car. Out last night partying with his friends, I suppose. He didn’t make it.”
It should come as no surprise that my father is a temperance man—perhaps the only progressive Catholic Democrat in my home state to subscribe to the ultra-conservative Maine Christian Civic League’s monthly newsletter. If Dad had his way he would reinstate the 18th Amendment, or at least make Penobscot County dry, prohibiting the sale of alcohol within its borders.
Cousin Tom, on the other hand, seems to have spent his writing career embroidering a world of perpetual adolescence where, after twilight deepens on the fishing river, a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon and a fishing story with more twists and turns than Rum Brook are always fitting bedfellows. Though absent from his writing are the stories McNally tells my father of his combat jumps over Italy as a paratrooper and his lone survivor status during one incursion, where he saw Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels. It says much for the intimacy of their friendship that Cousin Tom would tell Dad these things.
“He never liked to brag about the war,” my father, a World War Two Naval vet himself, says.
Years later, my wife and I visit Tom McNally at his Montana retirement home. While we are there I begin to understand Dad’s lifelong aversion to gatherings where distilled spirits flow a little too freely. One image of Cousin Tom stays with me from our visit. He is poised in the basement beside a pool table, dabbing chalk on his cue stick for yet another behind-the-back shot. His face is flushed and he has barbecue sauce in his beard. His fifth or sixth Brandy Alexander rests on the rail of the pool table.
It is a scene that amuses my wife and me. Afterward, we wonder how my father’s judicious clan could produce such an intemperate kinsman. To us it seems as if this reeling old sot with the cue stick in his hand, standing beneath the mounted fish and bamboo rods on the walls of his retirement home, is merely a brute caretaker of some finer man’s artifacts.
That is the report we take home to my father, who simply shakes his head and laughs ruefully.
Paul Corrigan has published his poetry in numerous magazines including Blueline, Poetry Northwest, Yankee, and Adirondack Life. Two of his poems were included in Maine Speaks, an anthology used in the Maine public schools. He has written about wilderness therapy and is currently at work on a memoir.