Of Supernormal Stimulus and Fish
Everyone has associations with certain words or sounds or smells. Sometimes we keep these to ourselves, as they’re too personal to share. At other times, when under the influence of such stimuli, we can’t help but blurt something like – “Whenever I let my socks go too long, I am reminded of my grandmother’s elk and mushroom pizza.” Or – “Whenever I’m surprised by a sneeze, I am carried back to that rainy day when I had my first kiss.” I have dozens of these triggers in my own psyche, some long dormant, some more or less traumatic and recurrent, some even pleasant. But there is one that I have never been able to shake. It sneaks up on me at least once a week, especially in the spring. It’s just as vivid and pungent as it was when, as a kid, it first became snagged like a hook in my personal mythology. Alas, I have come to accept that I will forever be under the subliminal and nauseating sway of the word Wednesday.
Let me explain.
When I was growing up, my dad worked in a nursery. Most of the year business was just steady or slow, but in the spring, with all the earth in the throes of enthusiastic fecundity, things got busy. And things got especially busy on weekends when all those home gardeners were planting their new shrubs and flowers. Because of this, my dad could only take a day off in the middle of the week. And because he felt it important not to miss the fleeting childhood of his rapidly growing offspring, my little brother Brad and I enjoyed the dubious privilege of never going to school on a Wednesday through the months of April and May. Yes, our teachers balked. And no, you’d probably never get away with it these days. But my dad had his priorities firmly established. What could possibly be more educational, he argued, than a fishing trip? You’ve got climatology and travel and biology all wrapped up in one, and not from some abstract observation in a textbook, but from firsthand interaction with the elements and the creatures that people them.
We always left at an hour that didn’t even truly exist for most folks. Brad and I called it god-awful o’clock. It was somewhere in that dark region where Late and Early collide in a black hole of withered dreams and sucked time. Humans aren’t supposed to be awake then. But my dad (possibly not human?) was in full swing. He’d open the door to our room and recite his singsong lines, like the minor notes of a nightmare, or something out of the Twilight Zone. “It’s time to go hunting and fishing with Conley Kindall,” he crooned. And then he’d flip on the light. Unless you’ve ever come out of a coma, or remember your own birth, you cannot know what this moment was like.
A river ran only two miles from our house, but it was inadequate by my father’s standards. Instead, we had to travel to some point at least one hundred miles from home at the end of the most twisted road he could find on the map. “Part of the adventure,” he assured us. And so the three of us would pile into the cab of our Chevy pickup and head off into the darkness of outer space.
I remember the radio going in and out of tune with static, a sort of sonic indicator that we were progressing toward something. I remember the babble of small talk and the heater blasting and my dad philosophizing about fish bait and of me jerking awake again and again as my head fell forward into lapses of catatonic slumber.
Eventually we would stop at a café, one of the dozens that waited like strategically placed outposts exactly thirty miles before all of our ultimate destinations. They had names like Bucky’s or Betty’s or Lakey’s (Although Brad and I lumped them all under the heading of Pukey’s.), and they all catered to a local clientele of early risers – farmers, loggers, insomniacs, on-the-run criminals – and a handful of we middle-of-the-week fishermen. The walls were covered with crosscut saws upon which were painted scenes of mountain lakes, or bugling elk, or Indian maidens. Americana bric-a-brac. And there was always a display of varnished, wood-burned plaques offering aphorisms of wisdom and humor. These said things like – “There ain’t a cowboy can’t be throwed, nor a horse that can’t be rode.” Or – “On the seventh day, God watched football.” Or – my dad’s favorite – “A bad day of fishin’ still beats a good day at work.”
These cafés were always otherworldly bright. We sat in the booths by the windows peering out into the predawn ink. Brad and I were generally so carsick and in shock that the mere odor of fried eggs and burnt coffee caused us to reel with queasiness. Nevertheless, our dad always ordered us the “He-Man Plate.”
“You’re going to need your strength when you hook that big one today,” he always warned us.
But to no avail. We never ate more than few bites.
At last we would reach our destination. We’d fit our poles, rig up, and head to the water. Since it was Wednesday, and the rest of the responsible world was just getting out of bed to go to school or work, we always had these fishing holes to ourselves. This was the moment each week when my brother and I would look at one another and think, hey, well, at least we’re not in school. Since we were raised as good Protestants, this always caused a confusing push and pull of guilt and glee. Fishing on Wednesday ranked a close second to fishing on Sunday for sins that couldn’t be forgiven. Could we possibly go to hell for this? Maybe. If so, we decided, we better make the most of it.
Our father seemed to suffer no such doubts. As far as he was concerned, he had already made it to heaven. He’d usually say something like, “I’m going to try it over there.” And then he would skip off with his pole, whistling a tune that would swing back and forth between the Marine Corp Hymn and something sounding eerily similar to a march tune from the Third Reich. Brad and I could either follow, or choose not to see him again until the end of the day.
To say that my dad was obsessed with fishing is to understate his condition. It was more like a disease with him, or a very irritating itch that needed a good scratching at least once a week. It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing. His concentration never wavered from the pool or riffle where his line disappeared into the fishy depths. He was so focused on the mystery beneath that swirling surface that nothing could distract him. Once, during a thunderstorm, Brad and I watched from the cab of the pickup as he was struck by lightning.
“Did you see that?” Brad asked.
“Yep,” I answered, “didn’t even faze him.”
He just kept fishing.
There was truth in what my dad said about these trips being educational. Brad and I hiked and explored, climbed the hills, caught lizards, examined bird eggs, and generally bonded with nature in ways that lodged on a very deep level in our souls. They were impressionable adventures in our formative years, and no doubt they shaped our outlook on the world in ways that wouldn’t have occurred had we spent those Wednesdays in the classroom.
As with all good things, the day would eventually end. We’d drag back to the truck in the gloaming and start the long ride home. Brad and I were always bone weary. We slumped against one another, half asleep, struggling to stay upright through the twisting ride.
But Dad never faltered. He always drank a can of Pepsi and ate a Snickers bar, and these, combined with his natural enthusiasm for our day’s adventure, would keep him high and alert all the way home.
“Boy!” he’d say. “Did you guys see the size of that trout that jumped out in the river today?” He’d shake his head wistfully. “I’d sure like to hook into him.”
The cab smelled of mud and sweaty boys and fish.
“Maybe we’ll get him next Wednesday,” he’d burp.
And it is that moment, in all of its sensory overload of sound and odors and sleepy-headed bliss, that overcomes my being whenever I hear the word Wednesday.
I am zoomed back in time.
I am a boy again.
I am teetering on the edge of a distant dream.
Oddly, it’s a very pleasant trip.