The ones that got away.

Micah at Hurricane Creek.

Fly fishing is one of those things I hope to carve into a few spaces in my life as the kids get older. And reading books like Howell Raines’ The One That Got Away, a memoir cast through love, longing, and wisdom, baits the imagination.

Fortunately, Raines doesn’t dwell too long on the technical details of how he got from Birmingham, Alabama to the top position in the New York Times. Neither does he drag out his downfall and the Jayson Blair scandal- tiny pieces in the bigger plot of a life.

My preferred Raines- the raised-at-the-knees-of-southern-storytellers Raines- reminisces and somehow pulls me to the present throught the mud puddles and tiny creeks of his past:

Before I was a fisherman I was simply a boy who could not stay away from the sea, lakes, ponds, puddles, rivers, creeks, brooks, branches and springs, and up until I was eight or nine years old I could happily be around water without fishing in it. The gift for being a companion of water rather than a flailer of it deserted me, but I remember those days as possessing a peacefulness that lies beyond the reach of incurable fishermen. For them- for us, I should say- every stretch of unfished water is a missed opportunity. In that happy, earlier time, all marine pleasures- swimming, dam building, collecting and liberating newts and minnows and crabs- were equal.

As Micah and Milla piddle through, content to be “companions of water”, Max has begun to seek rewards from the water- a means to specific ends, the quantitative congratulations of “the catch”. His hooks are now carefully organized in the budding language of lures. A strategic vision underlies his discussion of possible fishing expeditions at the beach or at the creek. Raines describes his preferred water spots:

I had several favorite venues, none of which lay near my home. Indeed, one of my chief grievances against the part of Birmingham where I grew up was its lack of ponds and creeks. Between them, the municipal sewage system and the United States Steel Company had polluted every stream within bicycle range. But once I could get down to the Gulf coast at Panama City or back into the hills of Winston County, Alabama, I was in the kingdom of joy.

Howell Raines lives up north now, so it needn’t break his heart that even the Gulf Coast has been polluted beyond fish-ability by the oil spill. Eyeless shrimp and fish with big black appendages are now a regular fishing find for Gulf Coast fishermen. Explaining to Max why we can’t eat the fish we catch in the Gulf is a uncomfortable conversation- one in which he asks why “you adults” let these things happen, why “you big people” destroy things you can’t repair.

I tell Max, in my big-person voice, that money talks. But resignation and acceptance of political corruption doesn’t fit anywhere in a child’s worldview. It takes “maturity” to live a lie without blinking. These days, I find myself blinking all the time.

I suppose that Max’s favorite fishing holes will soon become part of his water lexicon. Raines suggests that this development might be more significant than the doorway measurements in determining the gradual journey from childhood to “maturity”.

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