Trout Season in Philadelphia
At nine and a half, wisdom and manhood were one and we found ourselves in constant pursuit of this five hundred pound invisible “butterfly” no one could seem to capture, let alone find. Being young was a dilemma we all faced. Becoming an adult took so long we felt hopelessly trapped in youth. Shortcuts to becoming old were impossible, yet one fantasy kept resurfacing: provingyour superiority over beast.
Like faithful soldiers we marched toward “the light at the end of the tunnel.” (Or so we thought with our sixth grade education.) The size or ferocity of the beast was not important as long as it kept pace with your guts and brains. Some men became men by catching grasshoppers or throwing sticks for dogs. Not us. We saw this as a test that would follow us through our whole lives and we rallied. We wanted to prove beyond doubt that we were among the finest, in terms of strength, intellect, stamina, ability, agility, wisdom, and grace. More important, we wanted to have fun.
Since time began, monkey and man alike have hunted and when we discovered they stocked Penny Pack Stream with trout, a silent dare passed between Weed, Tut, and I. Spirits soared and our eyes lit up.
Having spent time in the wilds of Maine with my dad catching perch, sunfish, pickerel, and bass, I was the only one present with hands-on experience; and as such, I found myself immediately promoted into the noble position of fish consultant. I explained the fish catching process in lurid detail to a spellbound audience. It was rocket science at its best.
The same lightening that sparked Benjamin Franklin’s kite-key experiment and animated the Frankenstein monster shot through our ten-year-old minds. The formula wasn’t all that complicated, but we went over and over the details with the same demeanor and determination Captain Ahab used to track the white whale, Moby Dick. The needle sharp hooks were seen as a weapon of sorts, which only fueled our imagination and added a dimension of danger to the expedition.
By now we were hooked on this venture. We planned our trip with the same courage and caution that made this country what is, “land of the free and home of the brave” and we bonded as all brave men do as they wade into battle. We enjoyed a sense of adventure and shared our excitement with one and other as thoughts of reaping the reward raced and burned inside. The unattainable was suddenly within reach and we saw our fate unfold before us.
Bringing home a fine fish dinner would announce an unquestioned entry into manhood and to the world. We’d probably be seen as patriotic heroes defending women and children from the ravages of the sinister rainbow trout that threatened our shores “from sea to shining sea.” We’d be on the five o’clock news.
Since Weed came up with the idea in the first place, we put him in charge of logistics which meant coordinating dates and times so we’d know what time to set our clock radios, load up and deploy using the quickest route possible that could be navigated by bicycle. He suggested nutritional junk foods that would sustain our energy level and even kept an eye on the fickle forecast so we could dress accordingly. Rain or shine, we were committed. Lucky for us the day turned out to be a fantastic spring day: a “keeper” if there ever was one. Had it rained, there’s an unspoken law that exists among children whereby if the majority agrees to cancel “said operations,” nobody would be deemed a chicken. But we were men with a purpose, so it would take more than a few spring sprinkles to cancel the hunt. Over time, an unfortunate few have chickened out at the last minute and bore the shameful scar for many years- or until they could hide it behind a wrinkle. But as far as “The Three Bandoleros” were concerned, we were determined and dedicated to confront, fight and conquer fate and force it to fit our own agenda.
I was appointed “Apparatus Specialist” (inventory) and went over the list of equipment necessary to entice, trap, and harvest the fish, and deal with spoilage issues after the assault. Tut, as usual, knew how to handle parents and suggested the words and phrases we’d use to enlighten and outsmart our parents. He could speak adult language and commanded our respect. We’d emphasize our noble intentions of crossing the threshold into manhood (ball one), our patriotic duty (ball two), supplying dinner in the process (ball three) and then we’d ask “please?” (ball four- take a base!)
When our clock radios went off at three in the morning, things weren’t nearly as glamorous as predicted but we knew what we had to do so we got dressed and met outside and spoke in hoarse whispers. We kept our voices down for several reasons; we didn’t want to wake up anybody’s parents who may have had second thoughts and changed their minds about our trip, (strike one), and- we didn’t want the dogs barking (man’s best friend or not, they’d dime you out in a second, and worse, once one would bark, they’d all bark- (strike two). Then lights would flicker on like falling dominos and it was just a matter of minutes before a grownup would start hollering out the window, and once one would start, others would too (strike three- yer out!).
So we quietly moved on in a dogs parade the dogs proudly lead, and the obedient people trailed behind, trained by their pets. As a precaution, we observed utter silence due to the gravity of the situation. With surprise on our side, we were in no position to tip our cards. The trout were eight miles away, but we weren’t taking any chances. Number one rule in any hunt is “the rule of silence” which is solemnly observed without question. Most boys know this by the age of eight, certainly by ten.
Once we mounted up, peddled off, and felt the muggy air on our faces our voices returned to normal. Weed sounded like Weed, Tut like Tut and me like me. There’s nothing better than a free world where the young are free to explore without fear or threat. Someday I hope we find this world.
It never really gets dark in the city, except in the rare event of a blackout, so at quarter to four in the morning a mysterious twilight prevailed that was unique to the wee hours. The street lights, illuminated signs and outdoor lights left on either by negligence or on purpose, pointed the way. The mechanical, buzzing sounds of the traffic lights and the occasional car or two were all we heard besides Weed’s chain scraping the chain guard at regular intervals every few seconds. Our bicycles were not equipped with lights but we had no problem navigating the streets that eventually crossed Roosevelt Boulevard and led us to Penny Pack Park where we discovered what is commonly known as “dark” or “night” in the country. This was a relatively new experience for us, but we bravely pressed on. It wasn’t until we reached the park that some doubts popped up.
Trees, weed infested fields with an interesting assortment of trash and debris, escorted Penny Pack Stream as it snaked its way from Northeast Philly to Mayfair, covering a good eight or ten miles. Our spirits sank as we steered our bicycles into what we imagined the jungle must look like in the middle of the night when the lions, tigers, leeches, and other beasts of prey come out.
We slowed down as the road melted into a black abyss and pavement was replaced with packed dirt that turned into a suddenly narrow trail. The cool, clammy air dampened our mood as the sense of adventure evaporated before our wide eyes and was replaced with the survival instinct. Three bikes with six eyes, six ears, patched tubes and bald tires piloted the zigzags we never noticed in all the times we had been here before whenit was light. Now it was pitch dark.
The sun wasn’t due for another day or two and the canopy of trees shielded whatever residual light there was. It was as if we were magically transported to a new world were only animals and monsters lived. We didn’t like it. Everything was alien; the road, the dark, even the temperature dropped the instant we were swallowed up by the woods. At first we yelled back and forth with cracking voices, but soon after we stopped all talking, partially out of fear, and, partially out of embarrassment. We needed to devote all of our senses to the road.
Focused and straining, we concentrated on the path ahead. Our mouths were dry and tasted like pennies and we squinted our eyes to see. “Courtesy of the road” was maintained without reservation and whoever wanted to blaze the way was more than welcome to jump in. By default, Tut was in lead, as all of our driving skills were pressed into action. Safety was a novel experience to us. Our ears actually grew a few sizes and the handle bars got slippery from sweat. Tut’s bike was missing a handlebar grip and when he hit a ditch he almost lost control and nearly took us all out so we wisely spread out after that. We were silent, but we all secretly wondered the same thing. “Whose bright idea was this, anyway?”
We moved along as one, and when Tut slammed on his brakes Weed and I slammed on ours too. Imaginations running wild, we looked where Tut motioned with his nose and saw it. The wolf’s posture was menacing, but luckily, he hadn’t seemed to notice us yet. We were sincerely grateful for Tut’s cat-like reflexes that saved us from the jaws of what was either a wolf or a rabid dog. Rumors of rabies plagued the youth in those days and we had no problem adding two and two and coming up with five. The wolf faced us motionless, ready to spring. We were goners for sure. With sweaty foreheads, the three of us communicated via mental telepathy and instantly agreed that remaining perfectly still for the moment was the best course of action, and that’s just what we did. The “fight or flight” instinct flew out the window and we just froze solid like a Heironymous Bosch oil painting. Waiting, wondering and worrying, our plans for the day were on temporary hold. We combined bravery and discipline with a deep thirst for success; add a dash of cleverness, and we discovered just how brave we were when the sun finally rescued us, revealing nothing more than a rotting tree stump innocently sitting where the wolfwas. Cat-like reflexes? Tut needed glasses. Back to the hunt- we were burning daylight!
Once the sun came up we realized we were far from alone, and only a few thousand others had similar plans for the opening day of trout season. What had resembled the elephant’s secret burial ground in an old black and white Tarzan movie had turned into Harry’s Delicatessen up on Bustleton Avenue at Noon on Sunday. We thought we were the only ones who had cleverly thought of this and we’d have the trout to ourselves, but now we couldn’t seem to get through the crowd and reach the water.
Elbow to elbow, anglers of all sizes and shapes fought for the spot they felt held some advantage over the other places along the bank. The trout had a good laugh that day. True fishermen know things about fish and their habits, that when combined with experience, there is no doubt that certain areas are more likely to yield fish than others. But these folks were city dwellers, who, for the most part, knew as much about fishing as an Irish Setter knows about Origami.
By ten, the the sun was high and the herd had dwindled. The trampled underbrush was littered with newer and more colorful trash. Before we only had tires, shopping carts, bottles and cans, junk mail, last September’s sun-bleached yellow newspaper, tattered and torn remnants of clothing, rusted mufflers, distributor caps, fast food wrappers, and the usual assortment of general trash. Now we had a fresh assortment of breakfast and lunch leftovers along with the wrappings and recently opened packages representing every theater of fishing. Crusts of bread and even a single sneaker littered the park. Deep sea and fly fishing gear, all options were thoroughly covered. Fishing tackle commonly used in the Straits of Magellan or off the coast of Brazil were employed, but no matter how bland or how gaudy, the fish saw everybody coming and headed for the hills. We saw a thousand people and as many fishing techniques, but not one hooked trout that day. We almost saw a wolf, but you can’t go by that.