It was a desert springtime in the year 1987, and Dad was going to pick me up early from school. I couldn’t wait. I was a kid then, and it would be a year before I would know anything about morphine, bedpans, traction, or body casts. It would be a year, almost to the day, that I would lose a “normal” childhood as I ran between my friends Josh and Richard on the playground. It would be a year from then that I would fly through the air as if I were on the upward incline of a waterslide. It would be a year from then that I would feel excruciating pain, pain that a child should never feel; and the crack, the flat crack that everyone would say they heard as I spllintered both of my femurs. But I was not to know these things. All I knew then was that I was a kid, and I could do anything. That’s what Mom and Dad told me. They’d say, “Noel, you can do anything! You may be blind, but don’t let that stop you, do anything!” So when they called me on the intercom that day, I left Mrs. Cottner’s first grade class, and we embarked upon the most fun, most unencumbered trip I’ve ever had with my Dad.
John Kowalski was there too, and what a guy he was. My Grandpa died just five months earlier, so my sister and I looked at him in later days as my new Grandpa John. He worked for the state of Arizona with my Dad as his boss. Dad was a welder, and John always said he was a good worker. Dad wasn’t at school at the time; he hadn’t decided to take the plunge and start his engineering education yet, but I know that they were talking about it at the time. Dad wanted to take all of his knowledge learnt from working on railroad bridges and transfer it to something where he could really supplements my Mom’s teacher salary with a job that wasn’t Super Shuttle. Grandpa John wasn’t there to give Dad a paycheck, he was there because he was a family friend now, and he loved my sister and I. No girls were allowed on this trip though; this was for MEN only, and I felt so special that I was included. I could do anything!
So after going to the store to get the camping essentials (bate and tackle, CheeseIts, chips, cookies, beef stew, and water), we headed up the road to Bartlet Lake. The road was windy, and it seemed to take forever to get up there, but the time didn’t matter, I was one of them, and we talked about manly things all the way up there. We talked about how we might pitch our tents, and we talked about what fish we might catch. We’d also brought guns, and Dad and John promised me that they’d help me shoot them. This trip was going to be cool, and I WAS going to take something back to Mrs. Cottner’s class to show and tell. I was also going to write the class turtle a letter and tell him that I’d brought him back some really tasty fish flavoredfood for him.
When we got there, the air was cool and crisp, and the sun was as it usually is in the deserts of Arizona, warm and incessant. We got our poles out, strung them with line, and trekked down from where our campsite would be, down the steep hill to the lakeside. I remember that hill. Mired with brush and brambles, creosote and sage, and cluttered with rocks and boulders, it was a major hike for a seven year old. But I could do anything, and I relished the hike.
We sat among the cattails and moss, bated our lines, and dropped our lines into that clear calm lake. Dad said that we had to wait quietly for the fish to come and take our hooks. He said that if we talked too loudly, the fish could hear us through the line, and then we’d be in trouble because we would scare them off. I didn’t care how long I had to wait. My goal was to catch ,b>THE BIG LUNKER</b>, and if I had to remove my kid urges to constantly chatter and question, I would do it. I became one with my pole, and peace filled me as I felt the warmth of the sun on my face and smelt the clear desert air, unstained by Phoenix’s polution.
We didn’t catch anything that first day. I remember that my Dad kept telling Grandpa John and I that this was his normal luck, and that no matter who went with him, even if it were a guide, that he’d not catch anything. He still says this to this day.
The next morning, we got up early, and Grandpa John made bacon and eggs for breakfast that morning. He even had a contraption that made all kinds of weird gurgly noises. I was incensed with it. John told me that it was a coffee perculator, and the two words seemed almost as foreign as science fiction to me. Naturally, I asked him how it worked, and he told me he didn’t know exactly, but that the hot water perculated up through the grounds as it sat on the camp stove, and ultimately made coffee. Grounds? Coffee? All I knew was that it smelled amazing, and I was delighted when John offered me a small styrafoam cup of the hot nectar. I’ll just say that it wouldn’t be until I was fifteen or sixteen that I would gain an appreciation for coffee. At seven, coffee was not a nector, and frankly tasted disgusting. It was my first cup though, and I’ll never forget John giving it to me.
After breakfast and my brush with certain death by coffee, we set up targets somewhere away from our campsite. This was to be my test as a blind marksman, and I was going to succeed by gosh. I remember the target that we shot at because Dad made sure he told me. I had no idea who Momar Qadaffi was, but I remember hearing something on the news, and I knew that the U.S. wasn’t on good terms with him, but my Dad said that’s who we were shooting at, so shoot at Qadaffi we did. Now whether or not it was an actual picture of his face, I don’t know, but I remember feeling the target pattern afterwords, and it was definitely holey and decimated. I remember the ear muffs that we wore. I remember the recoil of the .22 in my hand. I remember being amazed that my Dad was trusting me with a firearm. But I could do anything, and that’s all that mattered! And we were shootingan enemy, and that’s all that mattered too.
That evening was the evening that I caught my first fish. Dad had to head up the hill to the campsite to get something, and left me to be one with my pole and the dusk. As I had done the previous day, I mentally rehearsed what I would do in the event that I would actually catch something . Feel the jerk downward, jerk the pole up, reel in. Easy. It had to be “automatic”, and being the nerdy kid that I was, I hoped that I could sideline all of my kid emotions and pull in my lunker. When the jerk actually came, I was first surprised, and then confused. Was this supposed to be how it would happen? Was this The Jerk. To be sure, I jerked upward, and started reeling. If I was wrong, The grasshoppers and waterbirds were my only witness, and no one would know. I pulled out all of the stops and banked the … thing. I didn’t dare touch what was on the end of my line, mostly because it was making growling noises and flopping around on the ground. Dad didn’t tell me that catfish growled, but this one sure did, and until he came up the hill, I kept my distance from the thrashing specimen. I was fascinated by my twelve inch catfish with it’s spines, slime, and sharp teeth. I held that thing high, smiled, and said, “Let’s try again, Dad!” I could do anything!
The next morning, we ate our breakfast and then, as real men do, we smelled ourselves and weren’t happy with the olfactory assault. So, being real men, we all trekked down to the lake, stripped, and hopped in. In contrast to the warm air, the water was goosebump cold. I remember being chest deep in the cool water and worrying that I’d lose the bar of soap in the lake. I remember the smooth rocks and sand at my feet, and I remember curious fish nibbling at my legs as if I were the best bate nature had ever created. I remember getting out, freezing, drying off with the towel, and feeling cleaner than I’d ever felt before.
We caught six fish (five bluegills, and my monster catfish) those three days, and would have stayed longer had we not been deluged by an old-fashioned “Arizona gulley washer”. Luckily, we had all of our gear on higher ground, so we were able to clear out in time before any theoretical wall of water could sweep us away.
As I lay in my various hospital beds in the coming years, I would think back on this fishing trip as a time that I felt completely free and unfettered. Even when I was free of bodycasts or IV Antibiotics, I still felt and still feel weighted down with the possibility that I’ll hear that flat crack and feel that agony, despair, and hopelessness. I could do anything then, I can still do most things now, but That worry just looms over me, threateningly. Oh what I would do to time travel back to the spring of 1987 when all that mattered was that I could take a story or an artifact back to Mrs. Cottner’s first grade class. I could do anything!