The end of the season is nigh, here at Fish and a Barrel Pond, but it ain’t over yet and I should have known better than to write like it was as I did a couple of weeks ago when I got all sentimental and gooey in my post “Mostly Photos, from Somewhere in Vermont“. A string of sunny days full of blue skies and brook trout interspersed with starry nights scented of bourbon and wood smoke can do that to a guy.
It’s been almost six months since the 2010 fishing season began for the members of the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society and it was nice to spend another Saturday night by the fire, sipping toddies and swapping stories with a swell bunch of fellows but on Sunday afternoon, as I stood in the road waving good-bye, a chill, northern breeze boxed my ears and tossed my hat in the ditch, reminding me it is the end of their season, not mine.
All week long that breeze blew. It took the sunshine away, replacing it with steady rain, and by Thursday afternoon the breeze was a flag-shredding gale and, after a brief lull, the rain became sleet.
You pay your money and you take your chances when you come to Fish in a Barrel Pond, especially in October. Some folks, with little apparent effort, have a fine time no matter the conditions, while others don’t try at all and are miserable, rain or shine.
Our smallest camp, the Cahill, was booked for a long weekend by Milt Audette, George Kraft, Wally Gibb and Leonard “Stinky” Taft, who have all been fishing here for longer than I’ve been alive. They make me nervous, clambering in and out of boats and toddling back and forth from the docks, but they’ve done it a thousand times before and I am not about to tell a group of octogenarian veterans they shouldn’t go fish. Their hooch is as warm as their worn flannel shirts and they are a hoot to hang out with. They provide a pleasant contrast to their neighbor for the weekend, Dr. Marcus Feely, semi-retired proctologist, philanderer and personal lubrication mogul.
Doc comes up quite a few times each season, including the weekend after Labor Day, which he usually spends boinking his receptionist, although I must say in his defense he does spend six straight days here each July with his family, pretending to be a caring husband, loving father and doting grandpa. This particular weekend is the one he spends with some of his colleagues, pretending to be outdoorsmen and I had them booked into the Parmacheene Belle, our oldest camp, just down the shore from the Cahill. In a nifty bit of foreshadowing, I will tell you Doc believes that part of being an outdoorsman involves making and eating chili. I will also tell you I declined the invitation to sample this year’s Nine-Bean Extravaganza.
Everyone arrived shortly before dark and settled in as the sleet turned back to rain before turning to snow, and the next morning found me pumping and scooping cold water from the listing boats at the dock. My rain gear was not up to the task of making it through just one more season and cold trickles found their way between my shoulder blades, sending shivers up and down my spine as I set my portable pumps and bent to bail.
A vehicle — more vehicle than anyone could possibly ever need — pulled to the roadside, blinked its lights, and my shuddering became nearly uncontrollable as I realized the driver was Doc Feely.
The headlights blinked on and off again but I ignored them. Then the horn honked. I ignored that, too, but Doc is persistent so I eventually gave in and walked over to see what he wanted. When I arrived Doc rolled down the window not quite an inch and spoke through the crack the way rich guys and jerks sometimes do.
“Quill, our toilet’s broken,” he said.
I pretended to not understand so he rolled the window down just a little more and repeated what he’d said. Again, I feigned deafness until he had the window down most of the way, where I wanted it. I stepped to my right and the wind flipped Doc’s comb-over to the other side of his head and tore at his little windbreaker, making a flapping noise that could be heard over the roar of his heater.
“I said our toilet’s broken!” he shouted over the din.
“What do you mean, broken? Not flushing?”
“Well, there’s more to it than that. You’ll see when you come over to fix it.”
The boats were not yet in danger of sinking, and toilets are kind of important, so I pulled my pumps and headed to the shop. Not sure exactly what needed fixing, I threw everything I could think of into the truck and made my way to the Parmacheene Belle.
I was nearly knocked over by the heat and stench that greeted me as I stepped inside the old camp and I almost fainted at the sight that greeted my eyes. Stove wood was stacked three feet high in one corner and to the windowsills across one wall; filthy, wet towels were piled outside the bathroom door, seeping coffee-colored nastiness; and, possibly worst of all — a sight that will be with me for the rest of my life — five pale, soft-looking proctologists were standing there in their underwear. Their footgear ranged from leather Topsiders to a pair of loafers that looked to be eel skin and had little tassels.
Those wannabe outdoorsmen seemed unperturbed by the fact that the temperature gauge on the griddle had melted, and they didn’t appear bothered in the least that the stove was hopping up and down and wailing like a freight train as it sucked in air. I, however, was quite perturbed.
“Jeezum crow!” I cried. “Damp this thing down!”
I reached for the damper handle on the side of the stove and a wisp of smoke rose as my glove sizzled on the hot metal, the scent of burned leather mingling with the miasma already present.
“You do know there are instructions for using this stove on the bulletin board, right?”
“No one reads that stuff, Quill. You know that. Now, what about the toilet?”
I ventured a quick peek into the bathroom before recoiling in horror. The toilet seat was on the floor and the toilet itself was askew, its porcelain base cracked in several places.
I will spare you the details of what looked to be beans and corn on the floor, sodden paper hanging from the light fixture and the way my breakfast was nearly added to the mess. I won’t tell you how I cleaned up as best I could with a broom, a bucket, a mop and a dustpan, and I will spare you the details of getting the filthy towels to my truck. I will, however, tell you I felt pretty smug that I happened to have a spare toilet in the back of the truck.
I told you I brought everything I could think of.
When I had replaced the toilet and the bathroom was once again useable I confronted the half-naked men with the broken toilet seat.
“Are these footprints?”
“Well, of course they are, Quill. That thing was plugged up pretty good,” Doc replied.
“So you stood on it?”
“Had to get more force behind the plunger,” he said, matter of factly.
“Okay. First of all, the magic of a plunger is in the pulling, not the pushing. You were just making the clog worse. A little pull will back things out, away from the clog, and get things flowing again.”
“That may be, Quill, but I hope you used a sturdier seat this time.”
“They’re for sitting on, not standing, Doc. I don’t get it. Back home, you would have called someone to take care of it for you. Why didn’t you let me know?”
“Because, Quill, sometimes a man needs to take care of things himself. Besides, we didn’t want to bother you with a little clog.”
“You’re right, Doc. Much better this way.”
One of Dr. Feely’s companions spoke up. “Say, Will, what kind of wood are we burning here? Marcus thinks you should be supplying something else.”
“My name is Quill and it’s a mix of hardwoods from some thinning I’ve been doing. Maple, ash and beech, mostly, with a little popple, maybe.”
“Well,” said Doc, “I’ve been doing some reading on the internet and they say apple wood gives off more heat than most other woods. You should work on getting more apple wood for us.”
I reached for the damper handle again and said, “You’re doing a pretty good job of warping cast iron with what you’ve got. I’d hate to see what would happen if I gave you apple wood.”
One of Doc’s other companions, wearing a slightly soiled set of briefs spoke up. “But Bill, Marcus has been doing a lot of research online. You really should listen to him.”
“My name is Quill and I know all about different woods and potential BTUs. It’s not like you’re trying to heat a whole house in the dead of winter.” I looked around, noted the stacks of wood again, and asked, “How much wood do you guys plan to burn anyway?”
“What difference does it make?” asked Doc, reaching for a chunk of maple. “I’m going to get my money’s worth.”
Wearing a scorched oven mitt from the kitchen, he opened the front door of the stove. Hot coals and smoke poured into the room.
“Doc! Open the damper before opening the stove! And this thing loads from the top!”
I kicked the door shut, latched it, and calmly explained the basics of using a woodstove to the men. They looked scared, like birds, with their little stick legs poking out of their baggy drawers, and I now wonder if I really was so calm.
“But Phil,” said one of them who had had the decency to at least put on a sweatshirt (it was yellow and had a baby seal and hearts on the front), “when we close that damper thing the flames die down and we have to squirt it to get the fire going again.”
He was holding a bottle of charcoal lighter fluid with big letters, in my handwriting, on each side. One side read OUTDOOR USE ONLY and the other read, plain as day, NOT FOR WOODSTOVES. I snatched it from his hands, shook my finger in front of his nose and shouted, “No!”
(Heating the camps has always been an issue for the caretakers employed by the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society. One solution, years ago, resulted in “The Conflagration at Green Damselfly Cove.”)
“You and your rules, Quill,” said Doc, “You’re almost as bad as the government.”
“Gil, a mouse ate a bunch of our cookies last night. You should do something,” said one of Doc’s friends from the kitchen.
“And where were your cookies at the time?” I asked.
“Right here on the counter!” he exclaimed.
“Well, there you go.”
“What does that mean?” he wondered.
“Fishin’s terrible, Quill,” offered Doc. “I don’t even know why I come up here any more.”
“What have you tried?” I asked, meaning to be helpful.
“Haven’t even been able to get out,” he replied. “Look at it out there! What do you see?”
“I see snow, no, rain, wait, it’s snow again, now it’s rain. Nope, snow. Snow and lots of wind.”
“Well, I don’t see how anyone could catch fish in this weather,” said the man in the baby seal sweatshirt.
“Kind of hard to catch fish from the couch,” I said, offering up one of my best fishing tips.
“What do you mean?” asked Doc.
“If you tell me the weather’s a bit too rough to get out, I’m probably with you, but if you haven’t even tried …”
Doc interrupted, defensively, “There’s no way the fish would be biting, anyway, in weather like this, so what’s the point?”
“Say, Carl,” said the man with tassles on his loafers, “It sure must be nice for an old hippie like you to live up here with nothing to do but fish whenever you want, eh? Living the life of a trout bum?”
It hurt some, that hippie remark, but I let it pass. The trout bum crack really stung, though.
“My name is Quill,” I said, bending down with my glove and wiping a kernel of corn off my boot, “and yeah, it’s great.”
“Look,” I continued, “I’m sorry the weather is the way it is. It’s October. You’re in Vermont. Use the damper, quit squirting lighter fluid in the stove, don’t leave your food out where the mice can get it and, for gosh sakes, take it easy on the chili. I’ve got to get back to work.”
As I stepped outside, into the snow and closed the door behind me I heard one man say to Doc, “Wow. You’re right Marcus. That guy sure has a lot of rules!”
If I didn’t already drink, guys like these would drive me to it. Because I do already drink, I drove myself to the Cahill, with the broken toilet and filthy towels in the back of the truck, knowing Milt, George, Wally and Stinky could fix me up even if it was only 11:00.
Peeking in the window of the tiny cottage, I saw George, asleep in his chair by the stove, a book on his lap. Wally had nodded off on the couch nearby but there was no sign anywhere of Stinky and Milt. Figuring they were warm in their beds, waiting out the storm, I didn’t knock or go in. Instead, I drove back to the main dock and resigned myself to spending the rest of the morning emptying boats.
The snow was coming down hard and starting to stick. Visibility was reduced to near zero for minutes at a time as another series of squalls moved through, but every now and then the curtain lifted and I could briefly see trees along the far shore. The wind shredded foam from the whitecaps on the lake and the spray hit me full-on in the face. I blinked hard in the gusts, to shake water from my lashes and clear my vision, then I blinked again to clear my head as I began to believe Doc Feely was right. Maybe it was too nasty to fish.
A dark shape caught my eye, just off the east shore, restoring my faith and proving Doc wrong. Stinky and Milt were not snug in their beds, snoozing away the day, they were out there, riding the waves as good fishermen should, casting nymphs in the snow!
I was sure I could hear them, shouting and laughing over the wind, and I thought about joining them but remembered I had to work. Another trickle made its way down my back as I emptied one boat and moved to the next.
I watched as they drifted away, into the mist, fog and snow and I had almost emptied the last boat when Doc Feely pulled up again, honking his horn. Lugging my pumps to the roadside, I went over to see what he wanted this time.
“Quill, we’re leaving. Business back home, you know.”
“Aw, gee, Doc, that’s too bad,” I lied.
“Yeah, I know. That’s the way it goes sometimes but it’s not because of the weather. We were just getting ready to go out when we remembered we needed to get back. Boy, doesn’t it just figure?”
“Yup. Funny, that.” I offered.
“So this is it for the season,” he said. “Stay warm this winter and take care of yourself, okay?”
“Thanks, Doc. I’ll do that.”
“Oh, and one other thing, Quill. What you saw this morning? Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Don’t worry, Doc. Not a word.”
And so Doc Feely’s season came to an end and I breathed a little sigh of relief. Gloom, both literal and figurative, lifted as he left. The clouds parted and the sun poked through, lighting the far hills and illuminating one last squall as it made its way across the valley. The squall fizzled out, its energy spent, but before it died it bent and separated the light into one of the rarest of meteorological sights, a “snowbow.”
Quite fitting, it seemed, as my day brightened, and I would have missed it completely if it weren’t for Doc Feely, his friends and the broken toilet.
I’m pretty sure I can make it through one more week.