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My nephew and I amble slowly up to the creek bank. It’s early enough that the cold morning air causes a light fog to rise off the warm, black water, but does nothing to lift the low-lying cover fogging my brain. I yawn. I wish I’d had that second cup of coffee.
It’s hard to believe Teddy Roosevelt ever came here to fish, here at this nothing stream that runs along the backside of my property. As the story has it, an Indiana politician brought him here for no more than an hour or two. They got off the campaign train, took a break, and fished. But, of all places, why here?
Soon enough the morning sun awakens and colors the tips of the trees on the south bank a glowing yellow, as if someone turned on the kitchen lights. I sit down on a rock, one of those big ones, gray and smooth, jutting out from the edge of the bank. I look across a pool of still water, not studying or thinking, just staring, then I slip one leg into my waders, making sure to get my leg inside the suspenders. In goes the other leg and up and over my shoulders come the suspenders.
My nephew, bare-legged and anxious, has already broken the water and the ripples disrupt the deep blue reflection of the cloudless sky. He strips fly line off the reel and the sound of the drag gears zipping backwards hangs in the air like a fiddle solo in a gospel song on Sunday. A few small mayflies lift off the surface of the water, fluttering haphazardly to freedom.
I’ve long heard that Cicero Creek is a world-class smallmouth bass river, but it’s never been enough to motivate me. I’ve lived on the creek for eight years now and not once fished. I gave up my obsession with fly fishing when I left New York. I always fly fished for trout. Trout seem noble. I have two young daughters who take up my time now, and happily so. Besides, when you ask anyone if they eat the fish, they always say no, the river is polluted.
I watch my nephew back cast and hear the delayed whistle of the fly line as it whips forward. The tippet rolls out and drops the fly perfectly into the water on the upriver side of a sunken log with a forked branch sticking out.
It’s obvious by the force and violence with which the smallmouth bass breaks the surface that it is hungry. The sound grabs my attention, the fish grabs the fly, and Will’s rod doubles down.
It’s a beautiful smallmouth, a glistening seaweed-green on its back with a pearl-white belly. I feel a little of the old adrenaline coursing. It’s way more invigorating than that second cup of coffee would have been.
It suddenly dawns on me that something very similar probably happened, nearly a hundred years ago, maybe right in this spot, at this hole that’s holding some really big fish. I nod my head, understanding, and the vision is clear.
The train, an old wood-fired locomotive, leaving a campaign stop in Indianapolis and now headed to Chicago, stops in the small town nearby. Roosevelt and a few other men get off the train at the small station, and a young kid who knows the stream like the back of his hand, like my nephew does, is waiting to take them by carriage the short distance to this unremarkable little creek.
When they arrive creekside, the elder statesmen look at each other, shrug, and wonder what, if anything, they will catch. Maybe they even wonder why they got off the train, smiling at each other, knowing this kid has no idea of the amazing fishing they’ve done and the beautiful, rushing rivers they’ve seen.
The farmboy, kindly urged on by Roosevelt, goes first, casting under the branch line that hangs out over the water and up close to the embankment. The same thing that happened this morning happens then: BAM! A big smallmouth bass takes the hook and runs the line upstream. Now the two statesmen are really smiling, grateful for this moment of relief from their busy schedule, and they begin to fish.
It’s a banner day; they’re hooking them left and right, talking and fishing without a thought of politics or business. Their guide, the kid, can’t get the fish off the hooks quickly enough. He releases most of them, but some are the right size, perfect for eating, and he puts these on a stringer that is quickly getting full.
The flurry of activity only lasts an hour or two, the same length of time that all good fishing lasts. Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of these United States, and company pack up and head back to the Arcadia station.
My nephew and I are doing the same, heading to the car.
I ask, “You ever eat any of the fish you catch out of here?”
He replies, “No, the river’s polluted.”
Click here for the recipe: Pan Fried Red Snapper with Tarragon Tartar Sauce
Recently, for what seems like the millionth time, I sat down and watched the original The Hustler. Not because of the story, although it’s a great story; or Paul Newman’s blazing good looks, although his blue eyes are piercing, even in black and white.
No, this time I was watching the Great One: Jackie Gleason. He completely captivated my attention. He’s not in many scenes, but he steals the ones he’s in, hands down. You can almost see Newman studying him right there on-screen, as though his blue eyes are fixed, mesmerized, on the great acting Gleason is doing.
Their first scene together might be one of the best in any movie. Gleason comes up the stairs, enters the pool hall through a set of double doors, and there he is: the presence, the clothes (who else could wear that hat?), the je ne sais quoi. Newman’s eyes might pierce, but watch the banter between the two and notice the moments when Gleason smiles and his eyes are nothing less than sparkling. That sparkle in Gleason’s eyes has fascinated me for months. I’ve gone back and watched old footage of him on talk shows and other clips of him talking with folks. I thought “je ne sais quoi” was about the best way to describe the sparkle, but then I realized it was much more.
Jackie Gleason knew how to live. I never met him, of course; I don’t even know much about him except for what I’ve seen in those clips; and I have no idea what he was like in his personal life. But when I see that sparkle in his eyes, I can tell that he knew how to live.
And it’s not just Gleason. Others from his time seemed to have living down, too. The Rat Pack comes immediately to mind, but so do many others. Maybe their whole generation lived life to the fullest, having come through the Great Depression and World War II. I don’t know–maybe they were all jerks–but their collective persona had a “live each day like it’s your last” attitude, and if they had a few regrets they got past them.
Even if you accept that this was their stage persona and life behind the scenes was very different, they still personified something that has gone missing in today’s culture. What might be responsible for that, in my mind, is how every time you blink someone’s telling you what you can’t do and why not. It’s becoming oppressive to so much as eat a steak, have a smoke, drink one too many, or buy food that wasn’t grown by you or the farmer next-door. And this doesn’t even include all the old-school stuff like riding a bike without a helmet or driving without your seatbelt. Of course, you shouldn’t blow cigar smoke at the next table while you’re enjoying your steak and scotch, but that shouldn’t stop you from living.
But this isn’t really new. People have always been told what not to do, and rarely have they been given complete freedom to live on their own terms. The ’40s and ’50s weren’t exactly prime eras for civil liberties and personal expression. I guess what Gleason’s generation had was the ability to let go. They knew how to compartmentalize. They busted their butts while they were working, and when it came time to enjoy themselves, they shut out all that other stuff and truly, fully enjoyed themselves.
It’s a gift to be able to focus on what’s in front of you, be it work or pleasure, so that the task at hand and the people you’re with are always, at that moment, the most important thing in the world. The dinner table is the perfect forum for this, as long as the people, not the food, are the primary focus. I used to focus so much on the food, hoping each dish would be properly prepared and revered, that I sometimes forgot about the dinner. It’s like going to a top-tier restaurant. You go there for the food, not a bunch of banter and laughter–and that’s why chefs, generally, would rather just go to a bistro or a sushi joint, where the food is just as great but the experience is centered on the people and the reverence is for the atmosphere, not for each perfectly presented dish.
This pasta recipe is just the dish to enhance, rather than distract from, that kind of dining experience. A big platter served to a group of friends, along with a few sides, great bread, and some wine, it’s just the capper for the evening. Sure, I put some time into creating this dish for my guests, but there’s nothing serious or formal about this food. It lets you focus on your friends and it lets them relax and enjoy the meal.
Hopefully, as the night progresses, everyone will be living in the moment, experience life at its fullest–and maybe, should luck be a lady tonight, you’ll catch that sparkle in everyone’s eyes. How sweet it is!