Cane poles and bluegill

Ready to go…

When I was a boy, my paternal grandparents lived in a tiny, 100-year-old house on the outskirts of Buchanan, Michigan. It was here where Grandma and Grandpa would often look after me on those occasions when Mom and Dad had things to do. And one of my favorite summer adventures while spending time with them was a cane pole fishing trip out to Weaver Lake. Now, with the warm days of summer fast approaching, I thought it might be fun to share with you some of my recollections of those trips. So, let’s see how well my memory works here. (That’s a joke, of course; we all know how well my memory works.)

Okay, picture this: it’s an idyllic summer afternoon, circa 1956. I am about ten years of age and spending the day with Grandma and Grandpa. I’m perched on the steps of the porch with elbows resting on my knees and my chin in my scruffy hands, idly watching popcorn clouds with flat bottoms slide slowly across the sky. The heat of the day is tempered by a light breeze that tousles my hair on its way to the open windows of the old house, where it gently ruffles the sheer white curtains inside. It’s just another lazy, hazy summer day.

And I’m bored.

My elderly grandfather, seated in his porch chair puffing on his ever-present pipe, notices my deep sighs and pops the question: Would I like to go fishing?

* * *

These trips typically began with the harvesting of a coffee canfull of nightcrawlers from the soft, loamy soil around the perimeter of the old, dirt-floor garage out back. Then, Grandpa would organize our gear and load us up in his big, four-door Buick for the ride out to the lake. I would usually be assigned shotgun (with Grandma in the back seat) so that I could stick my arm out of the rolled-down window and hold onto the fifteen-foot cane poles that were roped to the side of the car.

And off we would go.

Weaver is located just east of Clear Lake Road. Back in those days, a rutted, dirt drive led up to a seemingly unoccupied old cabin situated on its southwest bank. Walking onto the porch, one would find the dried and dusty heads of several large-mouth bass tacked to the exterior wall, presumably hooked in those very waters long ago, along with a wooden box with a slit in the top for our honor payment. The payment was for the use of one of the rowboats tied up to the narrow, dilapidated dock behind the house.

It’s well-known that the scariest parts of flying in an airplane are the takeoffs and landings. And, so it was on these fishing trips, where Grandma’s ingress and egress from the vessel were, often as not, heart-pounding events. Grandma, who was getting up there in years and had put on a few pounds, was a little unsteady on her feet. So, standard procedure was for me to get into the bow and hold the boat steady as Grandpa helped her step down from the wobbly dock into the wobbly boat (tough enough even when not wearing a dress—grandmas didn’t wear pants in those days. At least, not my grandma).

Once everyone and everything was situated, we would shove off. And with the rhythmic squeaking of oarlocks and the occasional splash of an oar, Grandpa would propel us across the lake in search of a suitable fishing spot.

As the boat cuts through the mirror-like surface I reach down from my post in the bow and drag my fingers in the warm water, mesmerized by the wake until Grandpa finally slows our progress and nestles us into a small clearing near the lily pads. Time to drop anchor.  Next, we break out the poles, bait our hooks (I had to do Grandma’s—she did not like those worms) and, in eager anticipation, drop our lines into the calm water. Then all is quiet for a while, except for an occasional splash—probably a frog leaving his perch on a lily pad—and the eerie murmurs of conversations from other anglers, wafting across the water on the still air.

No action. Lift and try another spot. Still no action. Lift and reset the depth of the float. Nothing.

And then, suddenly, a bobber begins to bob, pushing concentric ripples across the surface and causing a heart to race. Then, with no warning, another bobber is suddenly dragged completely under, triggering a reflexive and unnecessarily strong jerk of the pole to set the hook. What fun. And even with all the wild swinging of poles, tangled lines, hooks lost to the lily pads and yet other hooks attached to lines flying precariously around the boat, no one gets hurt and Grandpa never once loses his pipe.

These trips almost always resulted in a catch sufficient in number to earn a skillet-fried fish dinner that evening. Grandpa would scale and clean the fish while Grandma readied the kitchen. There is no tastier fish than Bluegill.

As a side note, I don’t recall how or where, exactly, Grandpa cleaned our catch. But I do remember that when my dad would take us out to one of the many lakes around Buchanan, upon our return he would carry the pail of fish into the garage and place a board across the top of it. He would then take another pail and turn it upside down, where he would sit, shirtless, while scaling and gutting our catch on that board. I was only as tall as he was when seated, so my job was to stand behind him and smack the mosquitoes on his back as he worked. Funny the things we remember. Assuming my memory works at all.


Hmmm…not bad. This could be a Cubs rally beard.

“I hate it when you offer someone a sincere compliment on their moustache and suddenly she’s not your friend anymore.” (Source: Someone who rarely finds the opportunity to enjoy female companionship.)

Over millennia, the act of men cultivating various forms of facial hair has ranged from being a hobby (for those competing in handlebar moustache contests, for example) to a religious act (such as those associated with the Amish, Sikhism, Islam, certain sects of Judaism and major league baseball, for example).

In the days of my youth, my recollection is that it was uncommon to encounter someone with a full-blown, bushy beard (or, at least not in my small corner of the world). And those who did choose to sport a moustache, goatee or beard usually kept their affectations mostly short and well-groomed. Going around with a one- two- or even three-day crop of stubble evoked suspicions of undesirable personal hygiene.

No more: The three-day beard has become socially acceptable.

This trend seems to have been be fostered primarily by millennials. And I think the reason is two-fold: First, we’re seeing a lot more men with facial hair on television and other media due to, among other things, the attention being bestowed upon our friends (and others) from the middle east as well as other far-away locales where beards are simply more commonplace. As a result, the sight of an unshaven male has become more acceptable here as well.

Secondly, the cost of wrangling a face full of bristles every morning has gotten entirely out of hand. I believe this is due, at least in part, to a devious pricing tactic employed by the manufacturers of shaving products, which was apparently adopted from the manufacturers of computer printers and copiers. Regarding the latter: One might notice that the various computer peripherals on display at your local office supplies store may be acquired at suspiciously low prices. We eventually learn that the reason for this is that the toner and print cartridges required for their operation are NOT available at low prices. Case in point, I bought an inkjet printer for my office a year or so ago for about four hundred dollars only to find that the starter set of ink cartridges that came with it ran out in two weeks. A full pack of replacement color cartridges? About $65.

In further support of this theory, I submit my recent experience at the local grocery store. As is often the case on any given Saturday afternoon I found myself standing in the checkout line keeping myself amused by reading the covers of celebrity magazines (that’s how I keep up with these people). I eventually worked my way up to a rack of shaving products. And on that rack was a name-brand, new-fangled super razor for $9.99. And right next to it was a packet of four replacement blades for said razor listed at $17.99.  I rest my case. (Personally, I have been using the same Trac-II for decades, which works perfectly well when used in conjunction with bits of toilet paper to stop the bleeding. Generic blades are still available at reasonable prices for some reason).

And then, of course, there is the simple fact that many young men are inclined to provide observable validation of their virility by growing some manly facial hair just like they see in TV ads and on the covers of those celebrity magazines. Some of these youngsters have more success with this than others.

Okay, well, us boomers can ride that train, too. Now that I am retired I have taken to shaving only once per week; and also on those rare occasions when I find it necessary to get off the couch for some reason (other than going to bed).

The vast wasteland

The old indian head test pattern – circa 1955

My friend and colleague, Lynn Gerlach, recently posted a most enjoyable article in her Speakeasy Blog entitled Has Fiction No Place in Our lives? (you can read it here).  She speaks of the wonder and enjoyment those of us who are “of an age” experienced as youngsters watching those great television shows back in the 1950s. Unbeknownst to us, we were, of course, witnessing the birth of an industry. In fact, prior to 1947, U.S. households with television sets could be measured in the thousands. But, by the late 1990’s, 98% of all homes had at least one. Fast forward to the current era and the introduction of cable and satellite and, as she notes, we have programing coming out our ears.

Speaking for myself, though, my viewing habits have evolved along with the industry. I now find that I tend to mostly bypass the network offerings, having graduated to video streaming (via Apple TV), which provides me access to a vast catalog of programs more to my liking, particularly in the form of documentaries (and, of course, major league baseball). As I’m sure you know, these can be found in abundance on YouTube as well as the Smithsonian channel, NatGeo, TED, History, PBS, and MLBTV, for example. By the way, the first baseball game was aired on TV in 1939 (Princeton vs. Columbia).

It was Newton N. Minow, newly appointed by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who marked the end of that golden age of programming with his famous assessment of television as a “vast wasteland.”  And, in many respects, it has only gotten worse. But, with respect to Lynn’s query, it seems to me our old fictional favorites from that era have been replaced with a plethora of offerings of both comedy and drama, ranging from The Big Bang Theory to Bluebloods: It’s still out there—we just have to look a little harder to find it (not counting daytime: that’s still a wasteland). And, in testament to the quality and timelessness of those old classics she mentions, some quick research reveals that The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason’s “Funny Money”) has been viewed on YouTube 1.3 million times.  Oh, and Princeton won, 8-6. I’m sure you wanted to know.


The handprints of Vanna White in front of Hollywood Hills Amphitheater at Walt Disney World’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park.

A couple of nights ago, while biding my time until weeknight baseball comes back around (opening day: April 2), I found myself clicking through my 140 TV channels only to end up back at my usual seven p.m. default—The Wheel of Fortune, or simply “Wheel”, to which it is referred by its more avid followers. This simple game show, which draws heavily on the word-puzzle crowd (myself included—I do at least two crosswords most days, especially when there’s no baseball on TV), is one of the masterful creations of Merv Griffin, who also gave us Jeopardy. The show premiered in 1964 with Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford as the original hosts and Pat Sajak and Vanna White taking over the controls in 1983.

Sajak, born Patrick Leonard Sajdak in 1946, is the son of a Polish-American factory worker in Chicago. He attended Columbia College in that city, during which time he won a contest on WLS radio’s Dick Biondi Show to be a teen guest DJ. He went on to a short run at Chicago’s WEDC radio as a local newsman on the night shift (midnight to six a.m.) and, in 1968, joined the U. S. Army, where he served in Viet Nam as a disk jockey on the Armed Forces Radio.

Sajak moved from broadcast radio to the small screen in the mid-1970s as a voice-over artist and anchor for five-minute newscasts during NBC’s Today Show. He soon moved up to a spot as weekend and substitute weatherman for the show and then, in 1977, was picked up by KNBC-TV in Los Angeles as a full-time weatherman. In 1981, he was discovered by Merv Griffin, who offered him the job of hosting Wheel.

Sajak has had a long career in radio and television, including a short-lived late-night talk show in 1989 and frequent guest host appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live and Live with Regis and Kelly. His foray into acting has been limited to a small role in the 1982 comedy film Airplane II: The Sequel, and a part in Days of Our Lives in 1983. But his forte is clearly that of hosting games shows, which, over the years, have included Super Password, Password Plus, Just Men! and Dream House.

Vanna White was born Vanna Marie Angel in 1957 in Conway, South Carolina. Her father abandoned her family when she was a child and she eventually took the name of her stepfather, Herbert S. White, Jr. Her first appearance in a game show was in a 1980 episode of The Price is Right. She was selected in 1982 as one of three candidates to replace Susan Stafford as co-host of Wheel.

In addition to her career as a letter-turner, White has made numerous cameo appearances on various television programs and starred in the television film Goddess of Love, but to little acclaim. The film was widely panned by critics with TV Guide joking that White’s acting was “wheely” bad. In 1992, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized her as “Television’s most frequent clapper” (she reportedly claps more than 28,000 times each season, but who’s counting) and Vanna has worn more than 6,000 outfits on the show. In any event, in 2006 she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame.

Some people have suggested that the marketable skills of these two might be limited.  But, in keeping with the program’s title, it should be noted that in 1964 Chuck Woolery had an annual salary of $65,000, which, in 2015 dollars (adjusted for inflation) would have been about $500,000: Sajak is pulling down $12 million. And Vanna? $8 million. So, guess who gets the last clap on that?

Woods, campfires and dogs

Jay enjoying a walk in the woods of Alabama.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in a rural environment. Behind our hilltop home in Southwestern Michigan my father owned twenty acres of rolling farmland where each spring he would plant fields of corn or wheat until the Feds offered to pay him NOT to plant fields of corn or wheat (it was a government thing, naturally). And just beyond those farmlands to the south was a vast expanse of virgin forest.

When not otherwise engaged, my younger brother and I and, oftentimes, our neighborhood friends, all accompanied by any number of family dogs, would spend countless hours entertaining ourselves in those woods. In fact, it was not uncommon for us to spend all day out there: picking wildflowers for Mom, playing hide and seek, building forts, chopping down trees, killing small animals, you name it.

Later, we became Boy Scouts and were taught how to survive in the woods without destroying it. We learned how to stay dry, start a fire without a match, pitch a tent and leave a campground in such condition that if one were to come upon it following our departure, it would hardly be known we had been there.

I retained my love of the forest into my adult years. My wife and my adolescent daughter and I would spend many a vacation night cooking over an open fire and sleeping in a tent in state and national parks from Florida to North Carolina. And banging the bottoms of pots with spoons in the evening to scare off the black bears, although I have a suspicion those bears considered that banging to be a dinner bell. It didn’t matter though, since at some point after dinner and before retiring for the night, my daughter would usually throw up somewhere in the perimeter of our tent apparently due purely to adolescent stress (my best guess). That worked better than the pots.

Some other members of my extended family up there in Michigan possess this same love of the outdoors. Hunting and camping and blowing up abandoned outhouses with black powder just for the fun of it. These activities are included among those that one can enjoy when spending time with these people outside the realm of most law enforcement agencies (seriously—I have the video).

I have reached the age when the mere thought of sleeping on the ground gives me a crick in my back. But I still love to get out there and get dirty once in awhile. Importantly, I have found that my penchant for the great outdoors is shared by my son, Jay. He and his friend, Jason, have gone on numerous hiking/camping trips to Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia, where one is still allowed to have a ground campfire. They are accompanied by Jay’s adopted canine, Wrigley (named for the friendly confines of the home park of the Chicago Cubs). And the three of them go up there to Cohutta and get, well, dirty—and tired.

 I think it’s a shame for kids to grow up without having had the opportunity to learn to appreciate where we all came from: the woods. You never know when we might be thrust back into that environment.