William E. York
Bill York is a navy veteran of WWII. He lives in Stone Mountain Georgia where he is a retired furrier and still considered an expert in the industry.
Starting at the age of 75, Bill has written six novels, with another due out in April. He writes freelance for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Bill is involved in vigorous sports having won 27 medals in tennis, table tennis, golf and archery over the last decade. He hosted canoeing wilderness documentaries in Canada for Georgia Public Television. Bill represented Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters after retirement taking anglers to fly-in lakes and rivers in Manitoba to catch Muskellunge and Northern Pike.
The author’s books are available in booksellers, Yahoo, and Amazon. Some books are available in E-Book format. York’s writes columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
I STILL GO FISHING WITH JOHNNY
On December 19, 1944, two weeks before General McAuliffe said “Nuts” to the Germans in Bastogne, a German 88 rifle killed my brother. I lost my fishing buddy who was also my best friend. Johnny was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, two years older than I, but not yet 21 when he died. At that time I was on board an LCT in the Mediterranean. We had returned to Sicily after the invasion of Southern France. Communication then was by V-mail and letters was often as much as three months late but his messages were uplifting at times when my spirit was being mauled. Johnny made fun of me about “floating around in bathtubs”. I said it was stupid to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Often he would ask me if I had learned anything about China.
Johnny had a craze about Asia, with emphasis on China. He knew about the Boxer Rebellion and the Opium Wars. When we were kids he would get a world map and show me the Great Wall and the Yangtze and Yellow River. He knew there were more Chinese on earth than any other nationality. I knew Johnny was the smartest brother in the world.
I could find fishing worms by digging near the creek, where the cows grazed, and catch crawfish before the raccoons got to them. When we went fishing I always caught the biggest fish.
He used his knowledge against me all the time. When I shot the first squirrel he would invariably ask me some question about China to show me I was not so smart. When I held my breath under water longer than he, Johnny would ask me to explain what years the Yuan Dynasty ruled China. He would smirk when I didn’t know the answer.
There’s a distinct advantage to being smart. You always get to decide things. Like wolves, my brother and I established our pecking order early. When Johnny was a Cowboy I had to be an Indian and be killed. When he was a General I had to be a private. That didn’t bother me because I had the greatest General in the world. I understood that when we grew up he would be a Sheriff and I would be his Deputy, which was okay with me.
It seemed, when living was hardest during the Great Depression we could depend on each other. During the 30’s, many fathers hitched rides on railroads heading to cities like Chicago and Indianapolis trying to find work. We felt sorry for our dad because he wasn’t able to take us fishing. Survival was hard for him. When the time came when we could have gone fishing my brother and I were in the war somewhere in Europe.
In spite of rugged times our future seemed assured until the smart half of our team went down in German panzer-tank fire in the Battle of the Bulge.
My brother and I made youthful plans during the mid-1930’s, in a coal-mining town in Indiana, during the time when the union kept miners out on strike until there was little money for food. The Great Depression was in full swing. Johnny had a talent for innovation that emerged early in our life when it was needed most which permitted us to survive even in tough times.
By the time I was eight and Johnny was ten we helped in our grandfather’s garden and raided the woods for black walnuts and hickory nuts, with mushrooms in the spring and hazelnuts and blackberries in the fall. We’d set box traps that produced rabbits all year long. Frequently we cleaned a rabbit and sold it to a teacher who was one of the few people who had money. We could buy more rifle shells. We gigged frogs in a slough and seined for turtles and fish in creeks and ponds.
After the plowing was done we could saddle up two old horses and go into the woods and live off the land, day and night, for a couple of weeks. We took fishing-poles and 22 caliber rifles. We lived on fish and squirrel and sometime we stole a watermelon, and a couple ears of corn, from a nearby farm. We cooked our meals in an old rusty galvanized bucket.
We climbed gnarled vines that tangled up high in the canopy and gave Tarzan’s yell as we swung out over the creek and let go, plunging buck-naked into the old swimming hole. We slept covered with leaves in the boughs of ancient trees.
‘Liberty’ magazine was a major publication when we were young.
Johnny read where a leather dealer in Terre Haute wanted to buy furs and hides. We knew where muskrats and foxes could be caught. We knew about beaver dams. We knew where bobcats hunted. We stayed away from the swamp, said to be the home of a panther although only the town drunk had seen it. The rest of us heard scary screams sometime at night.
We hitchhiked to Terre Haute and spoke with the skin merchant. He sold us some traps and taught us how to set them. By the time I was eleven we were checking traps every morning before school. We got a quarter for a muskrat pelt and one dollar for a beaver. If we got a bobcat it was worth three dollars. Johnny took care of the money explaining that he was our accountant even though I wasn’t sure what that meant.
Maybe our trapping and hunting together when we were young was the reason I devoted fifty years in the fur business. Over the years when cutting and sewing a fur garment I would pretend my brother was helping me. Invariably, I would create a work of art.
I guess Johnny teased me about floating around in bathtubs in the Navy to get even for the fact that I always caught the biggest crappie when we were young. He also got even by asking me a question about China that he knew I couldn’t answer. I didn’t think it was important. With his keen intellect and my luck with a rifle, the Great Depression was not that difficult.
Sometimes, late at night, when memories flood in unannounced, I get up and get the box from a shelf in my office and take out two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. I polish them. I read the letter from President Roosevelt and I feel the Screaming Eagle patches. I study a picture of his youthful face and I wonder if he knew his death was imminent and if he felt lingering pain. With my eyes blurred I put his memorabilia back into the box. I go back to bed and stare at nothing with tears running down my cheeks and dawn still long hours away.
I still spent time fishing, with less enthusiasm. The pain was always there and sometimes I would feel a close presence and often an unexplained question would pop up in my mind, like what is the Capitol of Mongolia? I would think for a time and find myself saying that I didn’t give a darn about Mongolia. Then it was hard to tie on my hooks with misted vision.
I retired in 1991 at the age of sixty-four. It occurred to me that my brother would have been sixty-six and perhaps President of the United States, although Johnny always seemed a lot smarter than that. More than likely he’d have headed up some University. I decided to take up fishing and write adventure stories about my experience. Instead of bass and catfish, I often spent weeks in the Canadian wilderness catching pike, trout, char and muskellunge.
On my vacation one year I went to an isolated river in Western Ontario. It is the home of muskies in sizes that will make you stare in disbelief. I caught several muskies, including three at over thirty pounds. I knew Johnny would have been proud of me.
Sleep was elusive my last night there. I took a canoe and paddled a few miles upriver. I lifted my oar and drifted. The silence was peaceful. I thought about how our plans had been altered and how reality was so different than our teenage dreams. I lay on my back gazing at the heavenly panorama in the sky, that my brother had explained to me fifty-some years ago.
The Big Dipper was still there. The moon was bright and looked the same. Even though I could not see it I remembered that Johnny had told me Haley’s Comet would travel back around about now. The spectrum was like a dome of precious jewels reaching from horizon to horizon and perhaps to infinity. I figured Johnny knew I was there, wishing he were with me.
Echoing across the tundra, I heard the howls of timber wolves possibly foretelling the death of an elk or another of wildlife’s wonders. A snow owl on silent wings ghosted low between the moon and me. Loons exchanged haunting messages upriver. A swirling bank of mist suddenly enveloped my canoe.
I drifted off to sleep. In the darkness Johnny came out of the vapor and into the canoe with me. Our embrace was long. I wanted it to never end. I felt the love and respect I had for him from a long time ago. I held a hand that I had not held in fifty years. I saw the same grin and blue eyes I had looked into with awe as we became teenagers. He asked me if I knew anything about China.
I explained that China had a landmass of 3,691,500 square miles, including Taiwan and Tibet. I told Johnny that their population was well over a billion and that they were from Tungus, Chinese, Mongolian and Turkish ethnic origins. I said their capitol was Beijing, and that Shanghai had twelve million inhabitants. I wanted so desperately to impress my brother that details just kept gushing out.
He stopped me and said. “I’ll be darned, my little brother finally got even with me, didn’t you?” I told him I had attended college because I wanted to be as smart as him.
My finest muskie rod, with the tip bouncing, appeared in his hands. He was engaged with an enormous fish. I watched the scene unfold. He was a master angler, practicing the art of catching a trophy fish. He lifted the muskie into the boat. It had to be a record. He grinned that same crooked grin I recalled from our youth.
“You were right little brother,” Johnny said. “China isn’t that important. Catching the biggest fish is what counts.”
I smiled, “I’ll be darned. You just had to get even again didn’t you?” He said he learned the technique so he could catch a fish bigger than mine.
I awakened with the sun coming over the top of the trees and felt a kink in my neck. I glanced across the river and realized I was alone. I couldn’t explain the feeling that came over me but I knew, somehow, I had been fishing with Johnny again.
Vapor lingered around my canoe. I spoke aloud to a vaguely discernable shape and I thanked him for fishing with me. I said I wanted him to go with me again, very soon. Slowly, very slowly, my brother faded away into the morning mist.
For some moments I had to keep my eyes tightly closed to hold back fifty years of pent-up emotions. After a while I discovered it wasn’t possible. The dike ruptured.
Later I returned to the lodge to the smell of bacon. I was hungrier than I had been in five decades.
©Copyright April 16, 2000 by William E. York