The War Canoe
One particularly rainy weekend, I think it might even have been opening day of fishing season in 1958, we returned from the Wabash, cold, miserable and empty handed. My father was in a foul humor and had struck terror into me over my usual tangled line. We were driving along in an electrified silence in our 1950 Ford sedan when we passed a large white farm house, gray and weathered, like the kind of hideout ambushed by bounty hunters on tv. An 18 ft canoe was on the front lawn, resting on 2 saw horses. “For sale, $25, inquire within.” The canvas had numerous clumsy patches, injuries from rocks on ill conceived river ventures. It had been repainted several times with a dark green marine paint but still was a beautiful thing.
It was an Old Town sailing canoe. This graceful vessel with its varnished wood was meant for the gentler usage of lakes. Its sailing rig had been lost and my father bought it on the spot with 2 battered paddles and an odd little anchor that looked like its first job had been a paperweight. After considerable bargaining it was ours for $20.
It weighed over a 100 pounds and I could not begin to hold up one end. I dubbed it the war canoe it since it began a war between my parents that continued through the rest of my child hood, an armistice only occurring when we sold it and moved east. Not long ago I went through a canoe and guideboat phase. I bought a used square stern 16 ft aluminum canoe with a smoky 2 horse Evinrude. I sold that and bought a Kevlar guideboat, which looks like a canoe but it has a keel and is rowed. When it blew into a tree I bought a magnificent wooden guideboat. I had looked for a restored Old Town sailing canoe and found one that was identical to ours, but instead of inspiring the sparks of excitement attendant upon such prospective purchases, it gave me an odd chilled sensation, and I never went to see it.
From the time we bought the canoe, my mother was conscripted into all our fishing trips. As reluctant as a dog being taken to the vet, she would load the car with enough books for a snow-bound winter, an portable “plein air” easel with materials for painting and drawing, Balkan Sobranie Turkish cigarettes and to eat, preserved ginger (she never liked anything normal,) and bittersweet chocolate. My parents would lift the war canoe onto the top of the Ford, the ubiquitous cop car in 50’s film noir. They would struggle to secure it to a vehicle hopelessly wrong for the purpose, and together with my sister and Foxie, the fox terrier, we would set out like opposing camps mistakenly put in the same car bound for a conference at the UN. My sister did not object to these excursions on snobbish, intellectual grounds. She was a girlie girl and wanted to play tea party. Since none of us ever gave that idea a minute’s consideration, she played her games alone in the back of the car and on the shore of the lakes and streams we frequented. The one thing my sister and I shared was the conviction that when crossing a bridge, we had to sing in unison and at the top of our lungs the Mickey Mouse theme song. When we reached the other side, the song would end abruptly. I don’t know how this musical program came about, we certainly never discussed it. It was just a tacit musical bargain between us that could not be deterred by even the great power of the combined parental will.
At the start of each fishing trip, Mother would set up her easel with the air of the first Indian chief sent to a reservation, and look daggers at my father. Her outdoor painting never came to much, and the most glorious landscapes were reduced by her to the murky blurs of abstract expressionism, a school she had seized upon like an angry manifesto.
Fishing in a canoe is at best a precarious affair. Once launched, my father in the stern and me in the bow, we strove to stay upright and not hook each other. Frequently I was the cause of overturning the canoe. My balance was never good at the best of times, and bitter recriminations would follow. Until I had my own child I never realized what a perfect pattern my parents presented of what not to do, or rather how not to do it. A state forest should not feel like a
detention center, and fly fishing for small mouth bass should not become a work detail.
One mitigating fact stands out in my memory of this period, something oddly kind about my father. Whenever we were driving and saw a turtle crossing the road, he would stop the car. No matter how far back the turtle or how dangerous the traffic, he would always get to it and set it out of harm’s way at the side of the road after showing it to us. They were almost always box turtles, occasionally a wood terrapin and once a large painted turtle in search of a new bog. Today, if I see a turtle crossing the road, and they are much rarer now, I stop and briefly think of him.
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