Hook, Line and Sinker

Michael J. McGrorty is a labor compliance officer for the Metropolitan Transit Authority and a freelance writer

I became a fisherman in april 1965 as an alternative to getting yelled at by my fourth-grade teacher.

About a thousand years old, Miss Baxter was erect, punctual and dutiful, and expected everyone else to be, too, including 9-year-old boys who wanted only to be left alone in the back of the classroom. She was from the Midwest, a place of morning chores in freezing weather, endless weed-hoeing and cow-milking. Miss Baxter spent the half-hour after the flag salute breaking ice off the well water, pulling heifers out of swamps or nursing her brother through diphtheria, all for the benefit of 30 Southern California urchins, not a one of whom knew what tough times were.

I felt more dread than usual that April morning because it was the first day back after spring break. Miss Baxter had assigned lots of homework, and I hadn't done a page of it. It was a half-mile bike ride through Lawndale streets to Kit Carson Elementary, hardly enough time to think of an excuse, so I turned a few loops to buy time. Then, for some reason, I cranked away from school.

Thirty minutes later, I was riding into Alondra Park, between Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach boulevards. At its center was a concrete lake about a half-mile in circumference, filled with storm runoff, some scraggly ducks and, reportedly, actual fish.

I decided to stay for a few minutes, then return to school after the morning sermon. My watch read 9:30: My class would be handing in the spelling homework I hadn't finished. If I was there, Miss Baxter would be making me explain why I hadn't done the assignment. It would not go well. Later there would be the arithmetic I hadn't done, the story I hadn't read and . . .

Feeling the self-pity of the unrighteous, I swore an oath and rode off around the lake. I was passing a nest of picnic tables when something invisible hit me in the chest, followed by something else that hit my face. In an instant, the bicycle and I tumbled to the ground.

I got up in a tangle of strings, trapped like Gulliver. From the picnic tables a voice called out: "Look! That damn kid drove through our lines!"

Sure enough, in the fog, I'd ridden through the lines of four fishermen. Around me lay a collection of cork bobbers and baited hooks, yanked out of the water by my momentum. At the other end of the mess lay four fishing poles, pulled to the ground; behind them stood four men, not terribly happy. One came over. "Don't move," he said, "you'll get caught on the hooks.

He unraveled me from the lines. He and the others wore loose uniforms with their names embroidered above their shirt pockets. His read Mike. I asked if he was mad. "Not yet," he said, picking up his pole.

"What are you doing out of school, pardner?" another of the men asked.I lied: "I'm on my way there right now.

They laughed.

Yeah, and we were just heading to work ourselves," replied Mike, evoking more belly laughs from his fellow anglers.

Mike looked me over and surveyed the ruined lines: "OK, chief, you're coming with me on a supply run. Hope you got some money.

All I had was a 25-cent lunch ticket.

*

We got into a pickup truck with a county sticker on the door and drove across the street to a bicycle shop that stocked fishing tackle. Mike picked out some things, then we went next door to a store where he bought some bottles that the clerk handed him from behind the counter.Back in the truck, Mike gave me a wooden dowel wrapped with string, a small fish hook and a Chinese takeout box filled with damp sawdust and yellow grubs. "Mealworms," he cautioned. "Don't eat 'em all at once.

On the way back, Mike said that he and his pals were county maintenance men but didn't say why they weren't maintaining anything that day. When we got back to the lake, Mike handed out the bottles to his friends, who took long pulls from them before fixing their lines and casting again.

A man with the name Frank over his pocket attached the hook to my string, then a little cork bobber and a leaden marble. Finally, he skewered a mealworm onto the hook and had me toss it into the water. I looked at my watch: 10:30. Not far away, 29 kids were checking each other's subtraction problems; I was fishing with grown-up men.

Frank told me to check my hook. The grub was gone. "That's how it goes," he said. "You feed them and sometimes they feed you.

It was a strange process; you tossed out, pulled in and the hook was clean. Fish must be smart, I thought. I'd fed them three or four times when something yanked my bobber. Everyone yelled, "Pull!" I did, and when the bobber surfaced, there was a little flipping demon a foot below it, jumping to beat the band.

Frank took it off the hook and tossed it back. "Catfish. Too small," he explained. I asked how large they had to be before you could keep them. "Can't keep 'em today, anyway," Frank said. "No place to put 'em.

So that was the game: You fed the fish until you fooled one, then gave it another chance, and drank out of bottles while you did it rather than going to school or work. It seemed like a good thing, this fishing.Before long, all the men had caught fish--three carp and one crappie, I was told. We went back to the picnic tables for lunch.

Mike gave me half his sandwich, and one of the others handed me an apple. Maintenance work must have made them hard of hearing because they all shouted at each other. And ordinary things seemed to strike them as extremely funny.

After eating, the men went back to fishing. The sandwich made me thirsty, so I tried some of the red juice in the flat little bottle that Frank had left at the table. It tasted like raspberry juice mixed with lemon and finished hot in the throat, like cough syrup. I told myself it was part of fishing.

The raspberry stuff went better with bites of sandwich, and the yellow juice in the round bottle went real good with the apple. Somehow, the bottled stuff made the picnic bench become soft as a couch. And it turned the sunlight reflecting off the lake into a million-starred galaxy.

Back at water's edge, my coil of line had taken on a humorous aspect; I laughed at the hook on the end and at the suddenly ridiculous bobber. The mealworms, however, settled me down; they seemed now to be sad creatures, twisting through their universe of damp shavings.

*

Mike sat down close beside me, bringing the sweet odor of pipe tobacco to the haze wrought by the red and yellow juices. "This ain't the best place to fish on this pond," he said softly. "We're just here so nobody sees us. Next time, go where the breeze blows your bobber away from you." He flicked my ear, hard, adding, "Now get on your bike and do a lap around the lake; blow off some of that booze.

The wooziness faded to a light glow once my legs started moving. The wind cooled the sweat down the back of my neck to spearmint. By the time I returned, the men had packed. Mike told me to put my bike in back of the truck and get in. "Home or school?" he asked. Then he answered for me: "I always hated school, too. Never did a lick of work, hardly cracked a book. No fun in it at all." He went to the bed of the truck and pulled out a metal scoop like a snow shovel. "This here's what it got me. I clean out storm drains with this feller. All day, every day. Some job, huh? Figure it out, chief.

About 30 Aprils have gone over the spillway since that morning. I haven't used a shovel for pay since college, although I still sneak off to fish sometimes. I avoid the red stuff, but the yellow juice in the round bottle still goes good with an apple.

God bless you, Mike. And you, too, Miss Baxter.

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