Down East 2013 ©
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather, Frederick Gilbert. Maybe it’s because school’s out, and we’ve been having that lazy kind of summer weather. The kind of weather where it’s pushing 70 degrees when you wake up in the morning, and you just know it’s gonna be a scorcher.
Days like these, Grampy and me would go fishing. I’d set my alarm for 5 a.m., my fishing clothes all laid out the night before. He’d drive up in his battered old pickup, I’d grab my gear, my lunch bag, and off we’d go.
Gear! You should have seen my little fishing rod. It was all cobbled together from spare parts Grampy found. A rod from here, a spinner from there. But darned if it didn’t work like a charm. His charm. Trout, perch — I caught all kinds of fish with that thing.
I’ve been thinking of Grampy, too, because the other day, I was straightening out our storage shed, and I come upon his old fishing creel. Beautiful thing. Opened the lid, and in it was the blood oath he made me sign as a kid. The one where I promised to never tell anyone where we’d gone fishing. Those spots were secret!
Fred dropped out of school after third grade and came to Maine from Quebec in his late teens. He spoke French, of course, and broken English, but was basically illiterate in both. So, he had my grandmother write the oath out for him. On the first day I went fishing with him, sitting in his truck in our driveway, he had me sign it: “I, Ida Gilbert, swear to never tell anyone where Grampy’s secret fishing spots are.” I printed my name with a backwards “d”, “Iba.” Heck, I was only five! Then Grampy heated a straight pin with his lighter, (honest to God) gave my finger a little poke, and had me put my finger print in blood beside my name. He tucked that piece of paper into the pocket of his plaid shirt, and off we went. At the start of every fishing season, he’d have me renew my vow by putting my hand over my heart and repeating that oath.
Grampy gave me that fishing creel a couple years before he died. He was having trouble getting around on his own and knew he wouldn’t be needing it. He made me swear my oath again, for good measure, and tucked that piece of paper inside. That’s where it’s been ever since.
See, this secrecy business was very important to him because Grampy made his living in the woods. He was what’s known as a Registered Maine Guide, one of those fellas who escorts folks from away to the best hunting spots, the best fishing holes, and all. Basically, he was being paid to keep those places special.
What a character Fred was, with his French accent, a Pall Mall cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and his beat-up green fedora! I’ve seen pictures of Grampy back in his hay day, and he was a looker: a little wild and wooly, but cleaned up nice.
Back then, you didn’t have to pass a written test to be a Registered Maine Guide which is a good thing, because Fred would probably had a little trouble with that. No, you just needed the game warden to sign off, to say you knew what you were doing. Being the outdoorsman that he was, Fred passed with flying colors. ‘Course, it didn’t hurt that his cousin was the game warden!
So anyways, Fred’s job was to guide folks to places that they could never find on their own, and to make sure they had a good time along the way.
God, he had some stories. He was quiet, fishing, but early mornings in his truck I heard tons of tales. Then there were the ones that I caught out of the corner of my ear at a party. A lot of those I only understood when I was older.
Here’s my favorite: “This big guy comes up from Pennsylvania to go hunting. He gets off the train and I’m thinking, How’s this fella even gonna hike a mile? He was huffing and puffing just walking over to my truck. So the first night, we’re staying in this cabin I know of. Before my head hits the pillow, the guy falls asleep and starts snoring. I mean, sawing wood ‘til the cows come home and beat the band! “Hank!” I yell. “Pipe down!” He’d sputter to a stop for a minute, like an old jalopy. Then he’d crank up again. “Hank!” I yell, but it was no use. Finally, I get up, walk over to him and kiss him on the lips. He wakes up, I smile, and go back to bed. He doesn’t sleep a wink the rest of the trip, but me, I sleep like a baby!”
By the time I came along, Fred was kind of winding down with the guiding. Who could blame him? He still took folks out, just not as many, and only day trips. I think he’d have just as soon gone fishing with me.
In the early years, I hadn’t developed a feel for it yet. I’d see how many fish Grampy’d catch and I’d get discouraged. “I’m never going to catch any fish!” I’d whine, like kids do, you know.
“Mon p’tit choux,” he’d reply (“my little cabbage.” It doesn’t sound like a term of endearment, but it is), “Mon p’tit choux, if you think like that, that’s what you’re going to get. Me? I think, Today is a new day. I can’t wait to see how many fish I’m going to catch!” Now there are some words to live by.
All these years later, a piping hot summer day transports me back to that time: climbing into the truck at sunup, smelling Grampy’s cup of coffee; eating Grammy’s homemade donuts along the way; sitting in the canoe with Grampy, a cooler stocked with a couple of Bud’s for him and Cokes for me, the kind in the green, glass bottle. The smell of balsam mingled with Grampy’s cigarette, the quiet, just the water lapping against the canoe, a little breeze keeping things comfortable, the bumpy drive back from…..No! I’m sticking to my oath. Those fishing holes are secret!
That’s it for now. Catch you on the flip side!
(Listen to the podcast of Ida's column here .)