This is an essay about fathers and flyfishing (and the fierce competitiveness of fishermen), about the gray aura of death, about nature and love, about coming back to the beginning of things, and about (even if tangentially) becoming a writer. David Carpenter is an old, though (unhappily) seldom seen, friend from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (where dg was a once newspaper copyeditor at the Star-Phoenix, yea, these many years ago). In an essay on humor published in my collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, I use one of David’s books as a example:
Between the twin horrors of love and the loss of love, it often seems there is little opportunity for satisfaction and happiness. So that comedy’s two faces, Janus-like, are a kind of voodoo, at once recognizing and evading the truth we fear.
David Carpenter has written a novel called Jewels about a homosexual librarian from Saskatoon. In a wonderful sequence of scenes, a jealous husband barges into Julian’s apartment accusing Julian of having an affair with his wife; Julian rushes out, leaving his gay friends and the jealous husband to sort out their sexual misunderstandings; he takes a lonely walk by the river, and then retreats to the darkened library only to walk in on the wife and her paramour in the act of love. This is a deliciously stage-managed comedy of errors that deals out pain and laughs in about equal proportion, and the laughs are a spell against our feeling too directly the utter wretchedness of Julian’s life.
Aside from the “utter wretchedness” part, this is about as good an introduction to David Carpenter’s writing as I can imagine — he’s a gentle, witty, generous and very human author.
One June morning in 1968, while wrestling with a stump, my father had a heart attack. He was sixty-two. My mother packed him into the car and drove him to the hospital. That night she phoned and told me to meet her at the cardiac ward the next morning. I saw her standing just outside his room. She had spotted me coming down the corridor, and when we made eye contact, she shook her head. No, she seemed to say, he might not make it.
Dr. Flanagan had a different take on father’s condition.
“Your father is very lucky we got to him when we did.” A moment later he added, “But yes, your father is a very sick man.” I tried to put this very bad, good news together: a not quite massive heart attack. The next week would be crucial in determining his chances for recovery. My father wanted to talk but he could scarcely whisper. I knelt down to hear him.
“It’s amazing,” he said, “in here, how they fix you up.”
We visited with my father and consulted with his team, and I wrote to my brother not to worry; there was nothing he could do but wait for further developments.
After a few days of guarded hopes and worried looks my mother said, “You may as well go fishing with your friends. Not much is going to happen this weekend.”
The doctors claimed that my father was stable, and he did seem to be rallying in small ways. But he’d been thinking about his mortality in the way that first-time heart attack patients do, and he was clearly depressed. He looked gray.
There is a cabin belonging to the Anderson family that sits on the shores of Lake Edith, which in turn lies almost in the shadow of Pyramid Mountain in the heart of Jasper National Park. At one end of the lake, a small feeder stream winds through the gloom of a forest of ferns, thick bush and Douglas firs. It bubbles up from beneath the massive roots of an old fir and murmurs its way over the gravel and into Lake Edith. The lake is shaped like a pair of sunglasses, front-on, and it would have been two small lakes but for the presence of a shallow channel connecting the two bodies of water. The water is absolutely clear. From the shallows to the depths, this lake covers the spectrum from pale green to near-purple. The rainbows that spawn in the tiny stream, and in the spring-fed beds of gravel out on the lake, are pampered by a sumptuous array of nymphs, bugs and minnows. The rainbows of Lake Edith, when I was a young fly fishing fool, grew bigger and fatter than any other trout in the Park. Right at sundown the big ones would cruise the shallows for emerging insects a few yards from shore. The water is so clear and placid in the evening that you could see them coming a block away.
My father was a practical man and a family man. He never crossed the line on such things as drunkenness, womanizing, gambling or anything of an obsessive nature. He taught me and my brother about fishing, but he could never have predicted how easily I would become addicted to flyfishing. I read Outdoor Life and Field & Stream and stocking stats and fishing guides with the devotion of a literary scholar. Writers like Roderick Haig-Brown or Isaac Walton had conversations with me in my dreams.
On the subject of politics, my father always said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of idealistic quests, my father said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of various girls, he said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of flyfishing, he said, Don’t get carried away. On the subject of saving my money, he said, Now you’re talkin, son.
I learned how to cast flies with my friend Hyndman one winter when I was fifteen. Every Wednesday night we would take the bus to a school in Edmonton’s east end. We would practise casting under the tutelage of an old Scotsman, whipping flies beneath basketball hoops at target patterns on the gym floor. Our guru never tired of telling us, Laddie, y’kenna catch a fesh if yer line’s no in the water. By the end of the winter we could cast a straight line forty feet or more and tie a few basic flies. I remember a streamer we called the Kilburn Killer, which imitated a minnow about two inches long.
My father paid for it all. My first fly rod, my subscription to Outdoor Life, my membership in the Edmonton flyfishing club. Have fun, but don’t get carried away. At fifteen years, I was the monster he created. Thank God my friend Hyndman was just as obsessive as I.
The Andersons’ cabin at Lake Edith was a social, psychological, spiritual, piscatorial, culinary smorgasbord of conviviality. When I arrived on the evening of opening day (always June 15th in the Park), Lynn Anderson (lean, tall, a hiker, and incurably sociable) threw open the door. Credence Clearwater Revival was celebrating their love for Suzy Q and everybody was dancing. We were in our twenties. Lynn and I were schoolteachers. She had yet to become a fulltime artist, her boyfriend Lloyd had yet to become a lawyer, and I had yet to become a writer. Anything was possible. That’s what Credence Clearwater was telling us as we danced. That’s what the wine was telling us, what the month of June was telling us: Life, opportunity and Suzy Q were ours for the asking. We were, I’m sure, getting carried away.
The plan was to party till four or five in the morning and then hit the lake. There would be a prize for the biggest rainbow. Perhaps only a few of us took the contest seriously, but I was one of them. My arch rival in this endeavor was Scot Smith, another victim of flyfishing addiction.
Maybe a dozen of us left the party before dawn and went down to the water to cast from shore or troll from the Andersons’ canoe or fish from some other boat. The water was calm and so was the fishing, and then the sun rose, the insects got going, and friend Scot had a hit, and Lloyd got a hit, and one of Lynn’s brothers got a hit and I got a hit, and all over the lake, eager voices, mostly male, were calling out I got one or I lost the (expletive) fish or I just saw a monster or you’ve just crossed my (expletive) line again or I got another one.
By late morning, Lynn was barbecuing a rainbow that was, if I remember correctly, just shy of five pounds. It was one of Scot’s fish, so the bar for the biggest fish had been set.
One by one, weary anglers all over the lake retired to their sleeping bags and their cabin bunks, and when at last I brought in a five-pounder and claimed the prize, Scot was the only angler from our party left out on the water. Before long, perhaps late in the afternoon, he came in with a fat silver rainbow so clearly bigger than mine that I knew my labours had only just begun. I grabbed my waders and set out for the other side of the lake, the shaded end where the little feeder stream flowed in, wearing for itself a shallow channel that dropped steadily off into the deep water where the lake followed the spectrum from pale green to blue to purple.
This was where the last of the ragged ones patrolled the shoreline. The spring spawn was over now, so these ones were legal to catch. Their numbers had dwindled to about a dozen from more than a hundred. When I arrived, these last ones were nosing through the shallows like the last revellers to leave a party. They made half-hearted runs at their rivals and continued to circle past the redds as though caught up and exhausted by the perplexing mysteries of love that Credence Clearwater still sings about.
There were no fish remaining in the feeder stream. The rainbows in the shallows were rolling past in about three feet of water in front of me. They seemed to prefer the gravel here to that in the little stream, where they would have been vulnerable to predators. They all looked pretty big to me, but one dark male seemed longer than any other fish in that exhausted band of spawn-fraught rainbows.
I waded in and stripped some line from my reel.
It is fun to imagine my father watching this moment of intense concentration from the beach, or reading this little adventure of mine in a magazine. He would approve. He would say, That’s real living, son. He wasn’t exactly mad about my books. My writing about self-deluded drunks, gay librarians, libidinous women, doomed victims, godless womanisers and reclusive intellectuals probably left him wondering where he had gone wrong. These things were absolutely uncarpentarian. But writing about the sporting life was okay with Paul Carpenter. It was something he could show his friends without embarrassment. He was like most fathers of his generation. He wanted his son to have a good job, a good marriage, and if he had to do this writing stuff, let it be a hobby. Let’s not get carried away.
A few of my friends from that summer were married, and most of them were paired-off and likely entering their own bouts of intense spawning with their partners, so the month of June, up at Lake Edith, had for them even more than me, a sweet and urgent tumescence with which the rainbow trout, decked in their deepest greens, reds, pinks and blues, seemed in tune. Or no, perhaps it was the other way around: my friends, besotted in deepest desire, were in tune with all those pink-sided cupids sweeping their tales in slow, exhausting circles over the gravel beds and ever so often thrusting their bodies into the silted bottom of Lake Edith.
Why did I do this? Was winning a prize for the biggest fish so important that I would disturb this last bout of spawning? Was this done for bragging rights? Or, in the absence of any spawning in my own life, was I simply sublimating into something over which I had some control? Socially at that time, and sexually, romantically, I was a fish out of water.
Enough of this. The fish are still gliding by and I need to tend to them.
I waded as close as I dared to the action before me and sent out a cast that went beyond the school of circling trout.
All day long I had been thinking about my gray-faced father in his bed at the cardiac ward, and how surprised he would be at the sight of a huge trout. I would catch it for him. Well, no, I would catch a big one for me and then present it to him. He’d get a kick out of it and maybe stop looking quite so gray. I wanted my father to be proud of me.
And I was getting carried away. When you want your father to be proud of you, you are probably wading through uncertain waters and unlikely to inspire pride in anyone–until you get over this need to impress him.
I let my line sink to the sandy bottom and began a slow retrieve. The fly I had chosen was my big Kilburn Killer, a streamer fly I’ve never seen in a store. It ploughed through the sand and gravel like a somnolent minnow with a death wish, an inebriate who showed up at the wrong party and risked becoming part of the menu.
When the great dark rainbow came back my way, I pulled the stickleback up from the gravel and drew it towards me in short irregular jerks. The big rainbow went right for it. He mouthed it, I raised the rod, and he was on. He bucked around in slow motion sending the other fish outwards from the spawning trenches in a wide explosion of silt. He moved off to my right, changed directions, flopped around, kicked up a mighty spray with his tail and took off for deep waters.
“Verrrry nice,” someone said.
I couldn’t recognize the voice and I couldn’t turn around. Perhaps he was a cabin owner or a conservation officer. I heard the click of a camera, an expensive sound, an authoritative slide of the shutter.
The old rainbow fought stubbornly, but never once did he jump out of the water or do a high-speed run to take my ratchet into the upper registers.
“If I had a cottage on this lake,” the voice said, “I would not go swimming out there. Not with guys like that in the neighbourhood.”
“He’s a big one,” I said to the voice.
It did not sound like a fisherman’s voice. It was lisping and pedantic, and mildly sarcastic, even when opportunities for sarcasm were unavailable.
“Rots a ruck, buddy.”
This is the point in the story where the angler gazes down on the dark bluegreen back, the wide band of deepest rose on the side, flecked with dark spots from head to tail, and he sees his fly protruding from the corner of the kiped jaw, and he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the old trout. He bends down, detaches his fly. He holds the trout by the tail and moves its body back and forth, opening and closing the gill-covers, reviving his old adversary, and sending him back to spawn again.
That didn’t happen. I brained the old rainbow with a piece of wood and held him up for inspection.
“Do you think you could kind of clean it up for me?”
I looked into the face of a man with a notebook. The mystery voice with the Daffy Duck lisp belonged to a newspaper reporter. Another man, a quiet fellow with a camera, stood beside him.
These two had come all the way from Edmonton to cover opening day for the sports page of The Edmonton Journal. The cameraman shot me and my trout from several more angles while the man with the notebook asked me questions. And then with a rush of purest joy and more than a trace of vanity, I knew how I would give my father a boost.
My mother was sitting in a chair by my father’s bed, reading a section of the newspaper and occasionally looking over in my father’s direction. He had gone through the front section and the business reports and the editorials and made it at last to the sports page. He pulled a straight pin from the top pocket of his hospital gown and began to cut out an article. Did other people’s fathers do this? I don’t know. He handed the article to my mother with the usual comment.
“Something for the boys.”
My mother perused the picture and the article, which she had already read, and handed it back to my father.
“Remind you of someone?” she said.
Perhaps my father’s eyesight had been affected by the heart attack, or perhaps he hadn’t been wearing his glasses. Or perhaps he’d become preoccupied with his own mortality. But perhaps as well at this moment my father would have heard a note of mischief in my mother’s voice. He looked once more at the trout in the photo and this time he read the photo caption.
“As I live and breathe.”
As I live and breathe. Coming from a man who was so recently on the critical list, these words seemed well chosen indeed. My father’s recovery dates from the day he saw a picture of his son in The Edmonton Journal. It’s one thing, I guess, to catch a big fish; it’s quite another thing to have it celebrated for all to see. The Carpenter family witnessed a tiny miracle that summer.
I had decided on the shores of Lake Edith that my father needed a homecoming gift. I took my frozen rainbow to a taxidermist. The process took longer than expected, so I presented my trophy to my father on his birthday, more than a month after he’d returned from the hospital. It was attached to an oval mount made of stained maple, a twenty-seven inch stuffed male with all the original spawning colors shamelessly enhanced by the taxidermist. My parents decided to hang it in the den.
A time came when my parents sold their home in Alberta and retired to the gentler climate of British Columbia’s coast. They had to downsize drastically, so they gave me back my rainbow trophy. They did this rather easily, as though the value I had attached to it was in excess of their own sentiments. This makes sense to me now, because if my father had caught the rainbow and presented it to me while I was convalescing, I might do the same.
I hid the stuffed rainbow in the basement of my house in Saskatoon. I suppose I did not want anyone to think that I made trophies from the fish I caught. It seemed, by that time, disrespectful to the fish.
Honor, my girlfriend and a visual artist, agreed. She had been photographing the mounted rainbow in the following way:
Shot #1, the head of my fish just up to the gills; Shot # 2, the tail of my fish; both shots in black and white. She framed the head shot on the left side of my study window and the tail shot on the right side. Missing in the middle, of course, was the body of the fish. An entire window separated the head from the tail.
One winter night in early 1985, Honor said, “Why not return your fish to that feeder stream?”
At first this suggestion seemed like a bleeding heart gesture. But the more I thought about it, her idea gained an aura of atonement, and it took hold. The following August we drove west to the Rockies and found a motel in the Jasper townsite. The next morning we drove out to Lake Edith, and for the first time, Honor saw the Anderson cabin, the view of Pyramid Mountain, the two sections of the lake and the small feeder stream.
There were very few people around the lake and there was no evidence of fish. The Park had stopped stocking many years earlier, and a very small population of trout remained, perhaps the progeny of those few that had managed to spawn uninterrupted in or near the feeder stream.
Honor and I had work to do. The light was fading rapidly as it does this far north in late August. We had brought a hammer and a sturdy five inch nail. We rolled a large log over to a tree we had selected, a black spruce that perched above the feeder stream. I climbed onto the log so that my boots were a good three feet off the ground. I detached the trout from its maple mount and drove the spike through the middle of the trout and into the spruce tree. We rolled the log away, and as Honor photographed my rainbow, I had a last look at him. It was drifting above its creek, pointed upstream towards the pure source of his water.
I was thinking about my father, the man who taught me to fish, but who never made time for himself to learn flyfishing. He had taken me and my friend Hyndman fishing on many occasions when he might more happily have lazed around the back yard, resting from his labours. Now he was an old man living with his wife far from the prairie of his youth, and unaware of this hairbrained scheme cooked up by my girlfriend and me. My father, who didn’t die after all. I was thinking that this moment by the creek, with the sound of Honor’s camera reminding me of another camera from many years ago, was an appropriate ending to our story.
But a story doesn’t end until someone writes it down. Honor and I got married in 1990. I had lost that fish-out-of-water feeling of being the odd man out. Oh yes, and she loves to flyfish.
It was time for my annual drive out to British Columbia to see my parents in their apartment. To get there, we had to go through Jasper, so once again we got a motel and went for a drive near Lake Edith. A man was fishing close to the feeder stream, and he noticed Honor and I looking for our old friend the rainbow up in his spruce tree.
We found the tree that had been his resting place, and the spike that had impaled him up there, but the rainbow was gone. We approached the angler, who was not a tourist but a local man.
“Bet I know what you was lookin for.”
“What?” said Honor.
“You was lookin for that Jesus big fish.”
We played dumb. “What fish would that be?” I said.
“Up there, over there, used to be a old rainbow trout, nailed to the tree. Huge thing.” He spread out his hands in that hyperbolic way of anglers. “No guff, it was three foot long. Musta weighed twenny pounds.”
Six pounds would be closer to the mark, several ounces lighter than Scot Smith’s biggest rainbow from the summer of ‘68. From having recently spawned, mine was a lean fish.
The man reeled in a gob of worms and a bobber and checked his bait for signs of predatory behavior. Then he stood and launched his wormy delight far out into the lake.
“Yessir, they’re in here.”
Playing dumb to the end, I asked him, “How did this monster fish get up in a tree?”
“They say it was some kind of a … like a totem, eh? Indian guy?”
I asked him where the fish was now.
“No one knows,” the man said, lounging next to his cooler. “Figure somebody took it.” He looked up at me. “For luck, eh?”
I still have Honor’s black and white photographs, the ones of the tail and the head separated by the window in my study. It’s the big space in between that draws one’s attention and invites one to imagine just how big that trout was. So it’s no longer a trophy, a vanity, a thing to make my father proud of me. It’s just a reminder now of that summer when my father looked over the edge but didn’t get carried away.
— David Carpenter
David Carpenter was conceived in Saskatoon and born in Edmonton, where he grew up on Saskatchewan stories. He moved to Saskatoon in 1975 and began writing the following year. He spent 4 years working on a novel entitled The Loving of Michael Goggins, a modern version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His main characters were a Titania-like young woman, a pudgy Bottom-like man, and an homme fatal disc jockey. It was a story of ill-fated love, despair, romantic disenchantment and all those youthful, fun emotions. He finished the novel in 1980 and it was rejected in 18 days, a Canadian indoor record. That same year he finished his first short story and sent it to Saturday Night. They phoned him one evening when he was in his kitchen standing beneath a high beam. He had often tried to jump high enough to touch this beam, but he could never quite reach it. The editor told him that Saturday Night would like to “buy” his story. He had never heard that sentence uttered before. The editor asked him if $2,000 would be all right, and he told the man yes, that would be all right. Carpenter gave this reply in a tone suggesting that this sort of thing happened with boring regularity. When the phonecall ended, he leapt up into the air and slapped he beam above him and returned, very slowly, to earth. His novel Niceman Cometh was his 10th book, a story about a Titania-like single mom, a pudgy Bottom-like dreamer, and a flesh-foolish disc jockey in the Saskatoon of the 1990s. He launched a new book of fiction in the fall of 2009, a collection of novellas entitled Welcome to Canada.
Carpenter is currently at work on Volume One of The Literary History of Saskatchewan. He also just finished working on a nonfiction book, A Hunter’s Confession, about the rise and fall of hunting as a pastime in North America.
Carpenter’s writing credo is as follows (and it may not apply to poets): Most writers must learn to make a pact with dullness. Not boredom, or lack of imagination or passion, but dullness of routine. Keep your daily appointment with the computer screen and keep your ass on the chair until you’ve reached your daily quota. However rich your inner life may be, seek also the dullard within.
Wonderful – as Carpenter almost always is.
Lovely writing–such a great sense of the crispness of the place. And a great portrait of father and son.
One of the nicest memoirs-with-fish I’ve read (and it’s a favorite genre of mine). Thanks for the lovely writing.