There were three of them. There were four of us, and April lay on the campsite and on the river, a mixture of dawn at a damp extreme and the sun in the leaves at cajole. This was Deer Lodge on the Pine River in Ossipee, New Hampshire. The lodge was naught but a foundation remnant in the earth. Brother Bentley’s father, Oren, had found this place sometime after the First World War, a foreign affair that had seriously done him no good. But he found solitude abounding here. Now we were here, post-World War II, post-Korean War, Vietnam War on the brink. So much learned, so much yet to learn.
Peace then was everywhere about us. It was in the riot of young leaves, in the spree of bird confusion and chatter, in the struggle of pre-dawn animals for the start of a new day. A Cooper Hawk smashed down through trees for a squealing rabbit, came the yap of a fox at a youngster, and a skunk noisy at rooting.
We had pitched camp in the near darkness, Ed LeBlanc, Brother Bentley, Walter Ruszkowski, and myself. A dozen or more years we had been here, and seen no one. Now we were into our campsite deep in the forest. So deep that at times coming in we had to rebuild sections of narrow road (more a logger’s path) flushed out by earlier rains. Deep enough where we thought we’d have no traffic. Suddenly there came the sound of a growling engine. Into the camp site chugged an old solid body van. It was a Chevy, the kind I had driven for Frankie Pike and the Lobster Pound in Lynn delivering lobsters throughout the Merrimack Valley. It had pre-WW II high fenders, a faded black paint on a body you’d swear had been hammered out of corrugated steel. The engine made sounds too angry and too early for the start of day. Two elderly men, we supposed in their seventies, sat the front seat. Their slouched felt hats were decorated with an assortment of tied flies, like a miniature bandoleer of ammunition on the band. They could have been conscripts for Emilano Zapata, so loaded their hats and their vests as they climbed out of the truck.
“Mornin’, been yet?” one of them said as he pulled his boots up from the folds at his knees. The tops of the boots looked as wide as a big mouth bass coming up from the bottom for a frog sitting on a lily pad. His large hands and long fingers I could picture in a shop barn working a primal plane across the face of a maple board. Custom-made, old elegance, those hands said.
“Barely had coffee,” Ed LeBlanc said, the most vocal of the four of us, quickest at friendship, at shaking hands. “We’ve got a whole pot almost. Have what you want.” The pot was pointed out sitting on a hunk of grill across the stones of our fire, flames licking lightly at its sides. The pot appeared to have been at war. A number of dents scarred it, the handle had evidently been replaced, and if it had not been adjusted against a small rock it would have fallen over. Once, a half-hour on the road heading north, noting it missing, we’d gone back to get it. When we fished the Pine River, coffee was the glue, the morning glue, the late evening glue. That was fact even though we’d often unearth our beer from a natural below-ground cooler in early evening. Coffee, camp coffee, has a ritual. It is thick, it is dark, it is pot-boiled over a squaw-pine fire. It is enough to wake the demon in you, stoke last evening’s cheese and pepperoni. First man up makes the fire, second man the coffee. Into that pot has to go fresh eggshells to hold the grounds down, give coffee a taste of history, a sense of place. That means at least one egg be cracked open for its shells, usually in the shadows and glimmers of false dawn. I suspect that’s where “scrambled eggs” originated, from some camp like ours, settlers rushing west, lumberjacks hungry, hoboes lobbying for breakfast. So camp coffee, ever since, has made its way into poems, gatherings, memories, a time and thing not letting go, not being cast aside.
“You’re early enough for eggs and bacon if you need a start.” Eddie added. His invitation was tossed kindly into the morning air, his smile a match for morning sun, a man of welcomes.
“We have hot cakes, kielbasa, home fries, if you want.” We have the food of kings if you really want to know. There were nights we sat at his kitchen table at 101 Main Street, Saugus, Massachusetts planning the trip, planning each meal, planning the campsite. Some menus were founded on a case of beer, a late night, a curse or two on the ride to work when day started.
“Been there a’ready,” the other man said, his weaponry also noted by us. It was a little more orderly in its presentation, including an old Boy Scout sash across his chest, the galaxy of flies in supreme positioning. They were old Yankees. The face and frame of them saying they were undoubtedly brothers. Saying also they were staunch, written into early routines, probably had been up at three o’clock to get here at this hour. They were taller than we were with no fat on their frames. Wide-shouldered and big-handed and barely coming out of their reserve, but they were fishermen. That fact alone would win any of us over.
Obviously, they’d been around, a heft of time already accrued.
Then a pounding came, from inside the truck, as if a tire iron was beating at the sides of the vehicle. It was not a timid banging, not a minor signal. Bang! Bang! it came, and Bang! again. And the voice of authority from some place in space, some regal spot in the universe.
“I’m not sitting here the livelong day whilst you boys gab away.” A toothless meshing came in his words, like Walter Brennan working the jail in Rio Bravo or some such movie.
“Comin’, Pa,” one of them said, the most orderly one, the one with the old scout sash riding him like a bandoleer.
They pulled open the back doors of the van and swung them wide. There was His Venerable Self, ageless, white-bearded, felt hat also loaded with an arsenal of flies. He sat on a white wicker rocker with a rope holding him to a piece of vertical angle iron, the crude kind that could have been on early subways or trolley cars. Across his lap he held three delicate fly rods, old as him, slim bamboo, probably too slight for a lake’s three-pounder. But on the Pine River, upstream or downstream, under alders choking some parts of the river’s flow, at a significant pool where side streams merge and phantom trout hang their eternal promise, most elegant. Fingertip elegant.
“Oh, boy,” Eddie said at an aside, “there’s the boss man, and look at those tools.”
Admiration leaked from his voice. Rods were taken from the caring hands, the rope untied, and His Venerable Self, white wicker rocker and all, was lifted from the truck and set by our campfire. I was willing to bet that my sister Pat, the dealer in antiques, would scoop up that rocker if given the slightest chance. The old one looked about the campsite. He noted our clothes drying from a previous day’s rain, order of equipment and supplies aligned the way we always kept them, the canvas of our tent taut and true in its expanse. He saw our fishing rods off the ground and placed atop the flyleaf so as not to tempt raccoons with smelly cork handles. He saw no garbage in sight. Then he nodded.
We had passed muster.
“You the ones leave it cleaner than you find it ever’ year. We knowed sunthin’ ‘bout you. Never disturbed you afore. But we share the good spots.” He looked closely at Brother Bentley, nodded a kind of recognition. “Your daddy ever fish here, son?”
Brother must have passed through the years in a hurry, remembering his father bringing him here as a boy.
“A ways back,” Brother said in his clipped North Saugus fashion, outlander, specific, no waste in his words. Old Oren Bentley, it had been told us, had walked five miles through the unknown woods off Route 16 as a boy. He had come across the campsite, the remnants of an old lodge at a curve in the Pine River. A mile’s walk in either direction gave you three miles of stream to fish, upstream or downstream. Paradise up north.
His Venerable Self nodded again, a man of signals, then said, “Knowed him way back some. Met him at the Iron Bridge. We passed a few times.”
Instantly we could see the story. A whole history of encounter walked in his words. It marched right through us the way knowledge does, as well as legend. He pointed at the coffeepot. “The boys’ll be off, but my days down there get cut up some. I’ll sit a while and take some of thet.” He said thet too pronounced, too dramatic, and it was a short time before we knew why.
The white wicker rocker went into a slow and deliberate motion, his head nodded again. He spoke to his sons. “You boys be back no more’n two-three hours so these fellers can do their things too, and keep the place tidied up.”
The most orderly son said, “Sure, Pa. Two-three hours.” The two elderly sons left the campsite and walked down the path to the banks of the Pine River. Their boots swished at thigh line, the most elegant of rods pointed the way through scattered limbs, experience on the move. Trout beware, we thought.
“We been carpenters f’ever,” he said, the clip still in his words. “Those boys a mine been some good at it too.”
His head cocked, he seemed to listen for their departure, the leaves and branches quiet, the murmur of the stream a tinkling idyllic music rising up the banking. Old Venerable Himself moved the wicker rocker forward and back, a small timing taking place. He was hearing things we had not heard yet, the whole symphony all around us.
Eddie looked at me and nodded his own nod. It said, “I’m paying attention and I know you are. This is our one encounter with a man who has fished for years the river we love, that we come to twice a year, in May with the mayflies, in June with the black flies.” The gift and the scourge, we’d often remember, having been both scarred and sewn by it.
Brother was still at memory, we could tell. Silence we thought was heavy about us, but there was so much going on. A bird talked to us from a high limb. A fox called to her young. We were on the Pine River once again, nearly a hundred miles from home, in Paradise.
“Name’s Roger Treadwell. Boys are Nathan and Truett.” The introductions had been accounted for.
Old Venerable Roger Treadwell, carpenter, fly fisherman, rocker, leaned forward and said, “You boys wouldn’t have a couple spare beers, would ya?”
Now that’s the way to start the day on the Pine River.