The Observer is seriously thinking of chuckin' it all, putting a sign on the door, and going fishing. No, not just saying we're going fishing and going home to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and watch old episodes of the "Andy Griffith Show" in our boxer shorts like we usually do when we say we're going fishing. This time we mean it: rod, reel, floppy hat, folding chair, umbrella, hooks, bobbers, ice chest full of tall boys and a squeaking cardboard tube full of terrified crickets. The woiks.
This is quite a milestone for Yours Truly. Ma and Pa Observer had a place on Lake ExxonMobil (formerly Lake Conway) when we were but a pup, a ramshackle old joint whose sole redeeming feature was a long, sturdy boat dock strung with nekkid lightbulbs and hogwire to keep the cottonmouths visible in the dark and The Observer's water-skeered mother from feeling like she was going to slip into Davy Jones' locker. It seems like we spent every ... single ... summer ... weekend (and a few in the winter) there at the lake when The Observer was in elementary school, in that TV-less hell where the only thing to do was watch a cork float, the boredom broken only periodically by the experience of having your bait robbed by the lake's skillet-sized bream, which seemed smarter than your average Blue Heeler.
The Observer's Ma and Pa were fisherpeople — fishers of fish, not fishers of men as in the Bible. They were content to take fish, and to hell with the men. They had fishing in their blood. Even after they sold that place on Conway, they went to the lake as often as they could, The Observer along with them. This is the saddest truth of most childhoods: You are tied to the whims of those who don't care much for what you want other than food, shelter and clothing. Had Ma and Pa took a wild hair to move to Arizona and sell turquoise jewelry by the roadside, The Observer assumes we'd be writing this from a shack in the high desert, watching semi trucks and Winnebagos whizz past, hellbent for California or bust.
When The Observer was in junior high, we spent a goodly number of our weekends on Lake Ouachita in a double-axle camper. At least we could swim there, but it was still a particular kind of dull for a mannish boy without the inborn urge to wet a hook. The most exciting thing we can remember happening on those many, many trips, it seems like, was the time a huge cottonwood tree there by the edge of the lake, maybe 25 feet from our camper, just keeled over of its own accord one night as we sat outside by the fire. The tree, we recall, was bigger around than we can reach even to this day, having grown all those years before giving up to gravity while we happened to be there to grant it an audience. The Observer remembers the awe of watching it in the firelight: the tree maybe 40 years old, towering, then letting out a kind of solemn groan as it fell, the base rising out of the mucky earth, unburying tentacle roots, and then the mighty splash as the leafy crown of branches went into the water. A tree fell in the woods, and we were there to hear it, so we know it made a sound: an unearthly groan, a hiss of leaves moving through the air, then a splash and thud like the end of the world. Even remembering it now, the feeling is still that The Observer had witnessed something rare and secret: a tree committing suicide.
But we digress, as we are prone to do. The Observer says all this to say that we got all the fishing we could stand as a lad, dragged to lakes all over Arkansas. There were good times, of course: the fires and marshmallows and looking for kindling with Ma, pissing outdoors and looking for crawdads and watching Pa gut catfish while he talked about his grandfather. The sitting and waiting for a bite, however, we never quite got a taste for.
It's odd, then, that the urge to sit by the water and wait for a nibble has found us again, at the coattail of our 30s. We don't know if that means we're maturing, or if we're just tired of gray — the complicated hair-splitting of life that leads The Observer so often to question whether we've done the right thing these days. That's the best thing about fishing, you know: There's nothing gray about it. The only real question to consider when you're there by the water with a rod and reel in your hand is: Are the fish biting or not?
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