Thursday, February 4, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Elmer was my great-uncle. He lived in Shushan, New York, and his home stood on an eastern bank of the Battenkill. In the water that cut a swath through his backyard, I caught my first trout on a fly. Elmer was my great-aunt Aggie's second husband; her first drowned in the river as had her only son. It's a tragic story, and an indelible reminder of the lower river's deceptive power. I digress.

Out of the necessity born of poverty, Elmer was a fisherman. In fact, he was a superlative fisherman. No, he never wrote any magazine articles; I'm fairly certain he never read any either. Hunger, family and the vows of marriage were his only motivators. He didn't own a pair of waders; he kept only a single flybox in his wicker creel. Elmer fished a steel rod because Elmer had always fished a steel rod, and his silk fly line was wound onto an old nickel-silver baitcaster.

Elmer's nose looked to have been broken a dozen times; his hands showed the scars and calluses of a lifetime of manual labor. I imagine him as a prizefighter in boxing's heyday, but more likely he had been on the bad end of more than a few bar fights. Elmer would never have made the cover of Flyfishermanalthough he may have appeared on a timeworn Field and Stream.

Elmer caught trout - bushels of trout - every season. I remember once marveling at the contents of his chest freezer. Hundreds of browns and a few dozen brookies, were lined up and packed like cord wood in the cavernous, frozen vacuum. If he and my aunt subsisted on fish, as I must assume they did, then they ate well and often. Elmer may have heard the arguments in favor of catch and release, but the freezer left little doubt that he dismissed those discussions as so much romantic drivel. When Elmer took a trophy fish - and he often did - that fish ended up on the dinner plate, not on the wall.

Elmer died years ago, and Aggie followed shortly thereafter. Their house - or what remained of it anyway - was sold to a gentleman angler from New York City, who thought it quaint to own a home on the Battenkill. I drive by occasionally, and when I do I invariably lament the loss of the place and the man. Elmer's home and Elmer's water occupy a sanctified place in my memory.

And as I revisit that memory, I find it tinged with a hint of sadness at the realization that my children will never know Uncle Elmer. They'll never know anyone like Uncle Elmer. The world has changed.

The world has changed, indeed.

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