Discover more from Slack Tide by Matt Labash
Spots of Time
When glory comes knocking, answer the door
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”
Author’s Note: Whenever I pull up to life’s lunch counter, and the only thing on the menu is a big bowl of suckage, I do what the reporter in me has always done: I go back and check my notes. To make sure the past didn’t always look so dim. To make sure extraordinary things happened the way I remember them. Or to reaffirm that they happened at all, since the smudge of the everyday serves to blot or erase them.
I’ve never been a journal keeper. The performing monkey in me feels like I’m shouting into the void when I write to myself, or to no one in particular. But emails to friends have always been a good excuse to get life’s rough draft down, to tally up its high notes or pratfalls, and make sense of the often senseless.
About a-year-and-a-half ago, I had a day that required setting it all down to a few trusted correspondents. It was the middle of shad season, which for fly fishermen in our mid-Atlantic region, are high holy days. It’s a short period of time, when shimmery, hard-pulling, leaping torpedoes - American and hickory shad - come running up our rivers from the sea for several weeks, making work and family and other pressing obligations prisons from which we need paroled. For a man has to keep his priorities straight.
During this period, I’d been having a rough time of it. The magazine where I’d spent over two decades as a staffer - doing almost whatever I wanted to do at a generous salary - had been shut down. I was freelancing, which is basically being unemployed. I spent a lot of spare time – which I had too much of – hiking and kayaking and cooking and reading and fishing and feeling adrift. Almost as badly as my country was, on that last count. So I had a lot of company.
It was an election year, so acrimony was already running high. We were only two months into the pandemic, at each other’s throats over masks and lockdowns and mounting death tolls. Kind of like now, except the injuries were fresh, instead of merely serving as Muzak - background misery to which we’d become acclimated, then which we’d mostly ignore. I mention in the letter below that at the time I wrote it, America had surpassed our death toll in Vietnam – about 77,000 deaths to Vietnam’s 58,000. Now we’re around 772,000 deaths, which is 13.3 Vietnams. The war took 20 years to log its carnage. The pandemic surpassed that by twelve extra turns in just 20 months. It’s funny what we get used to. Or maybe it’s not so funny.
But this isn’t about COVID. It’s about miracles. Or a miracle – at least something I regard as one. It happened to me on a random day in May of 2020. It’ll sound like a fish tale, but hand to God, I’m not making up one word. As a semi-professional Doubting Thomas, I don’t always believe in miracles. But on the rare occasions when they happen to me, I try not to slough them off. When the magic insists on inflicting itself, you let it have its way.
Below is what I wrote a few friends that day. I have gone back and edited some things out, while adding others in. But it possesses the basic bone structure of the original. A note not just to them, but to myself, so I wouldn’t forget what seems essential to remember:
When I woke up today, I had no intention of fishing. But then, I saw that it was a perfect 72 degrees outside, and that temps were about to drop for a week. So I had to go. The shad timer is ticking. Soon they’ll be gone again, so the decision was out of my hands. When I got close to Deer Creek in Havre de Grace, MD, one of my very favorite city names ("harbor of grace," in French), I pulled into the parking lot of an old Methodist stone church that dates back to 1843, where I frequently change into my waders, several miles away from the river. I never change at the river. It’s too nerve-wracking for me to see other fishermen arrive while I'm suiting up, potentially beating me to my spots. But when I wheeled into the parking lot, someone was sitting there in their car. And since changing requires me to drop trou, I opted for more private surroundings. So I drove up the hill to the church's adjoining cemetery.
I’ve never minded cemeteries. I walk my dog through them on occasion. Not because I’m some morbid goth geek. But because they’re usually in pretty places, and it’s quiet there. Though if you listen closely, you can hear the inhabitants beneath those granite slabs trying to tell us something: see what all your pressing concerns add up to? Not much. We all end up in the same place, where those troubles get retired, and so do we. Even if that’s not our final stop.
When I got out of the car, and did drop trou to put on my waders, I practically smacked into some guy's tombstone. His name was George A. Finter. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He’d won the Legion of Merit and a Bronze Star. He was killed in Vietnam. He’d left this world in 1970, the same year that I entered it. For some reason, it caught me in the throat. Maybe because I'd been listening to so much horrible news on the two-hour drive. We just surpassed the number of Vietnam casualties. Instead of pulling together, everybody’s fighting. The country seems unable to remember its former glory, let alone replicate it. It’s getting dark out there.
While I was standing by his grave, it grew really windy. Exceptionally windy. I hadn't even noticed a slight breeze when I got into the car in the driveway back home. But now I had to hold on to my hat. As I stood there in the wind, reading George Finter’s headstone, putting my waders on, I felt overcome, like I should pray. So I did: "God, let me see your glory out there on the water today. I need to see it." I had no idea at the time, but it was the same prayer Moses offered up in Exodus when trying to find his way out of the wilderness: “Now show me your glory.”
I drove the few extra miles to the park, and nothing looked promising. There were cars everywhere, stir-crazies trying to get outdoors, furloughed from their prison cells and cable boxes. The Susquehanna River was high and chocolate after all the recent rain, a total mess. Nobody could fish it. So I figured everybody would be up in Deer Creek, where just the fly fishermen typically go. But nobody was fishing the creek. Not a soul. I had it all to myself, at least for now. So I hiked about a half mile in, pushing through brambles and hopping over downed trees, past my favorite pool, to hit two additional spots that sometimes produce fish. I cast about 20 times apiece in them, and nothing. I didn't see a hint of shad. So I walked back downstream to Alan's Pool – a stretch named after a generous friend who turned me onto it years ago, and who doesn’t mind if I go there without him to educate his fish.
As I approached, I saw some camo-wearing local had motored up in his four-wheeler on the other side of the creek and had spoiled my pristine spot twice over. He was strafing the hole with a spinning rod, while letting his dog swim through it. He couldn’t have put more fish down with a hand grenade. A sure sign I should move on, which I did. I figured I'd head out to Gunpowder Falls, but as I was walking the trail back to the car, I noticed some fishy looking water down a steep ravine that I'd never fished before. So I hit it, and caught 12 shad in short order. Which is not nothing these days. This place used to yield a lot of fish for me and my friends. But the water’s been practically dead for the last five years. So I was pretty thrilled just to have those.
The action slowed, and I decided to move back to Alan's Pool. Camo-grenade and dog had taken their leave. So I carefully waded into the high water, cast some double darts, and started pulling shad after shad. While doing so, strange things began happening. Things I never see while fishing - and I fish a lot. Two Canada geese and their downy goslings entered the river and swam up on me, just sitting there for the longest time, watching me cast as if hypnotized by my line. Then they waddled up a nearby bank, and started putting on a bit of a show, like tiny dancers. Even with hickories pulling and leaping, I was watching my new feathered friends instead. Geese usually want to keep their young away from you, but they were making me feel like part of the family.
Then, a white-tailed deer entered the river, one pool down. Not even in a shallow spot. He crossed all the way over, up to his shoulders. I've seen that before while kayaking, but hardly ever. And never while fishing. There were great blue herons everywhere. Not surprising, since the shad run was on. But I fish with herons a lot. They're pretty solitary creatures, at least while fishing. But here, there was a flock of them - no fewer than ten - flying right over my head at the same time. I've never, ever seen that. And they are all over my home river – the Patuxent - so I would've. They cut such a large swath in the air, they looked like a gang of blue pterodactyls. Between the goslings, and the swimming deer, and the flock of herons, the creek started to feel somewhat dream-like.
I used to put up big numbers at Deer Creek - my best day ever being around 60. But I probably haven't caught more than 30 fish there in the last five years combined. Something's been off. Even when I called the shad expert at the Department of Natural Resources to find out where my hickories had gone, he said “your guess is as good as ours.” But after casting for a while in Alan’s Pool – water I now took for next-to-dead – I had 65 fish on the day in about three hours, while watching all these sideshows.
As I was doing so, everything was perfect. The weather was beautiful. I had on a fishing jacket that usually makes me sweat, and a ski hat, but was neither hot nor cold. A steady breeze was blowing. The sun was at my back, and I had to keep turning around, even while I had fish on the line, to see it dapple the moving water. I was alone in every direction, except for the aforementioned creatures. I finally waded to the bank, and sat down for a while, locking it all in. I never do this while fishing. I don’t take in scenery, much. I’m too keyed into the fish. But I knew I'd likely remember this day - these exact hours - when I'm old. So I wanted it to be clear. It was about an hour before sunset, and I figured I should probably head out on a high note and call it a night. Then, the shad started going off like bombs at the pool’s tail-out. So I waded back down to them, and started doing little 10 foot flip casts. I’d sweep my rod arm and watch the flash of their turn on the take – take after take - hooking them as fast I could unhook them and recast. It took me about three hours to get from 0 to 65. And about an hour to get from 65 to 155. The most shad I've ever caught in one sitting. The most fish I've ever caught in one sitting. But I didn't even feel like I was catching them. It felt more like they were catching me. I had nothing to do with it.
The great Norman Maclean, whose A River Runs Through It is a staple of every fly fisher’s library, gave an interview in 1986 at his cabin on Montana’s Seeley Lake. In it, he said:
One of my fascinations about my own life is that every now and then I see a thing that unravels as if an artist had made it. It has a beautiful design and shape and rhythm. I don’t go so far as some of my friends, who think that their whole life has been one great design. When I look back on my life I don’t see it as a design to an end. What I do see is that in my life there have been a fair number of moments which appear almost as if an artist had made them. Wordsworth, who affected me a great deal, had this theory about what he calls ‘spots of time’ that seem almost divinely shaped. When I look back on my own life, it is a series of very disconnected spots of time. My stories are those spots of time.
As I was fishing through my own spot of time, the sun was setting, and I was still catching as fast as I could cast. But all of the sudden, my right foot grew cold and wet. My wader stocking had sprung a leak - right in the middle of the miracle. I usually curse prodigiously when this happens. But this time, I laughed. Because that was okay, too. We live on this earth. Real life always sets in, its inconveniences and indignities. Shit happens, as the Good Book says. (I forget which translation.) But so did the glory that happened just before it. I saw it with my own eyes, and felt it on the end of my line. I had what I needed, and more than I could want. And what I really wanted, more than shad, was my faith restored that anything can happen, and that sometimes, those things are good. That 155 fish could come from dead water.
I don’t usually call in fish tallies to my wife, as they aren’t one of her primary interests. But tonight when I did, telling her the whole story, she got curious, checking out some biblical concordance to see if there was any significance to my final number. Shortly thereafter, a matter-of-fact text from her arrived. It said:
The number 155:
Greek: a request; what is or has been asked for
I didn’t look long and hard to find this. It’s just what came up immediately. You asked to see his glory.
That night, when I arrived home, I made a late-season fire, and sat down with a book. The Book of John, in fact. In it, there’s a passage, in which Christ’s disciples go fishing all night, catching nothing. Early the next morning, J.C. himself appears on shore, but from a distance, his own crew doesn’t recognize him. He calls out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they replied.
Jesus told them to cast their net on the other side of their boat, “and you will find some.” They didn’t find some, they found a lot. So many, they couldn’t lift their net, and had to tow it to shore. In fact, John tells us, they caught 153 fish.
I closed the Bible, and gazed at the fire, trying to take in whatever lessons were to be had. And what I came away with is this: I out-fished Christ’s disciples by two fish, and they had a net, and J.C. as their fishing guide. I only had a fly rod and a prayer.
Not that I’m keeping score. But again, a man has to keep his priorities straight.