By Greg Clark, April 3, 1943
“Certainly we go sucker fishing,” cried Jimmie Frise.
“Aw,” I begrudged, “what happens? We catch cold. We get wet. We strain our aging muscles. And, if we are lucky, we hoist out two, or maybe three, measly pink suckers.”
“Measly!” protested Jimmie indignantly. “Pink! I tell you, in the spring, just after the ice goes out, suckers are the most delicious fish you can eat.”
“Puh,” I said. “Bones, millions of Y-shaped bones to catch in your gullet.”
“A chicken has bones,” retorted Jim, “but you don’t get chicken bones stuck in your throat; why? Because you take care to eat the chicken in a gentlemanly fashion. You don’t wolf a chicken the way you do a fish. Eat fish as intelligently and genteelly as you eat a chicken, and there won’t be any bone problem.”
“Pooh,” I determined. “Suckers. The very name is nasty.”
“Back in the old days,” said Jim, “when men were going around giving things names, they were just plain common men who named things in the beginning. And if a thing looked like a sucker, they called it a sucker. The scholars and gentlemen came along later and gave everything a much prettier name. But nobody uses those pretty names. They named the sucker Catostomus. Pretty, isn’t it? Catostomus. But we don’t call a sucker catostomus. We call it a sucker.”
“A catostomus by any other name,” I said, “would be as bony.”
“Listen,” protested Jimmie. “I tell you, in the early days, the settlers around here used to put down barrels full of suckers in brine for their spring and summer food, before the harvest gave them all the food they wanted in pork and eggs and vegetables. The spring of the year was a pretty hungry time of it, for the pioneers. This annual swarm of suckers up every creek and river was a godsend.”
“We do things better now,” I pointed out. “We maintain an all-year-round food supply. I can understand the early settlers doing down a barrel full of suckers in brine. But that is no reason why a couple of respectable and comfortable citizens like us have to go wading in the icy rivers.”
“Listen, Shorty,” uttered Jim grimly, “let was never get into the habit of thinking of ourselves as respectable and comfortable. Let us never forget the things our early settlers knew. Because there might come a day when a good many citizens, as respectable and comfortable as we, would go mighty hungry if they had forgotten what their grandfathers knew about sucker fishing.”
“Can you see our wives doing down a barrel full of suckers in brine?” I scoffed. “Why, the smell of fish in brine would cause the neighbors to telephone the health department.”
“Probably the pioneer home,” admitted Jim, “didn’t smell as sweet as the modern band-box we call home does. But the pioneer home was a lot more substantial than the band-boxes we dwell in today. All I say is, we ought to go sucker fishing this year, if only for sentiment’s sake.”
“I never feel very sentimental,” I submitted, “when a gulp of muddy ice water goes over the top of my hip waders.”
“By sentiment,” stated Jim, “I mean – here we are at war. Our food supply is becoming more and more rationed. A faint suspicion is dawning in all our minds that we really are at war. Isn’t it about time that those of us who can’t fight were planning to look out for ourselves? Suppose the government got really involved in the war, so that they had no more time to devote to rationing and controlling and petting the civilian populace. Suppose they had to give all their time and attention to war. Where would the mass of us get off then, my fine feathered friend?”
“We’d manage,” I assured him.
Courses In Woodcraft
At Cornell University, in the States, informed Jim, “and in Buffalo, at the Museum of Natural History, they are conducting public courses in woodcraft. Specialists, sportsmen, mining men and others who have lived part of their lives in the open, with nothing more than they could carry on their backs, are teaching classes of hundreds of city slickers how to live without cities, towns or even villages. How to carry a pack, how to make a camp out of brushwood, how to use an axe, how to cook, how to live off the country …”
“My dear man,” I snorted, “you don’t expect we’ll ever be refugees …!”
“The Russians never expected to be refugees,” said Jim. “The French never expected to be; and I bet there are millions of Frenchmen now who wish they had known how to camp out. It was because they were helpless denizens of cities and towns that they had to surrender when the Germans took their cities and towns. Free men should know how to be free, even in the wilderness.”
“Are you trying to scare me?” I inquired. “I was in France. I saw what happened. I didn’t leave France until the day France fell, mister.”
“Then,” declared Jim hotly, “you above all men should be going up and down the land, teaching people how to live in the bush, how to make a packsack, how to sleep dry in a brush lean-to in the rain …”
“Do you think the Germans,” I scoffed, “or the Japs, are going to attempt to conquer Canada?”
“If it was a question of trying to conquer us,” said Jim, “it wouldn’t be so bad. We know that is a big, tough job they could hardly tackle now.”
“Ah,” I said, resting easy.
“But,” said Jim, “the danger of their making an attack of desperation on us, a bad, violent, inspired raid on some part of North America, grows with every month that they realize they are in danger of losing.”
“But,” I cried, “to what purpose?”
“To grab a base,” said Jim, “to make a bridge-head, however temporary, from which they could bomb our great power plants, our industrial centres, our key factories, the nerve centres of our vast war production.”
“Oh, they couldn’t!” I declared.
“Just a minute,” stated Jim. “What has German aircraft production been doing, this past year, besides producing one new model of the Fokke-Wulfe? What have they been up to? They haven’t raided Britain much. They haven’t used much aircraft elsewhere. They quit trying to smother the Russians with aircraft over a year ago now. They have eased off on Malta. What are they up to?”
“Okay, what?” I demanded.
“Might they,” inquired Jim softly, “have been concentrating on the production of some novel, unforeseen giant new long-range troop carriers and long-range fighter-bombers? Something new-as new and surprising as the tank units they smashed France with?”
“H’m,” I muttered.
“If the Germans can build a 300-foot submarine,” went on Jim, “that can stay months at sea, thousands of miles from a base, they can easily build 600-foot submarines easily capable of each transporting a whole regiment of specialized and light armored troops to America.”
“Oh, yeah,” I cried. “To land where?”
“To land,” submitted Jim, “anywhere along hundreds and hundreds of miles of uninhabited Atlantic coastline, where German submarines, for over two years, have been coasting to our certain knowledge. Look: if we think nothing of landing army and navy reconnaissance officers along the coast of Norway and Africa, why do we imagine the Germans won’t do the same?”
“Do you mean to say,” I grumbled, “that there have been German soldiers ashore in Canada?”
“Why not?” demanded Jim. “Then don’t forget the long range air transports full of paratroopers. Those Germans have had two winters of experience in Russia, of fighting in wild and rugged terrain. Who can tell what new and ingenious machines and devices they have thought up in Russia for use in the wildernesses of North America, from Baffin Land to Florida or Mexico?”
“You’re an alarmist,” I accused.
“Every living Canadian,” stated Jim, “man, woman and child, should have thought these things over months and months ago. It is our common duty to foresee every contingency.”
“Okay,” I said, “suppose they do make some foolhardy landing in the uninhabited wilderness?”
“They seize an airfield,” Jim said insidiously. “It isn’t to conquer America they have come. It is just, in desperation and fury at the way they are losing the war abroad, to come for a few fierce days and destroy and disrupt our war industry, to smash our great power centres, to wreck our nerve centres of war production, our essential factories, and to exploit the panic potential of Canada and the United States.”
“And then what?” I begged.
“And then start talking of a negotiated peace,” rounded up Jim.
“Why, it could happen!” I exclaimed.
“Anything can happen,” declared Jim, “once the Germans and Japs get really aware that they have lost the war. They will attempt anything. And do you think the big German industrialists, who have a lot to do with planning their war, like to sit home at night, in their deep dugouts, thinking of America and all its great cities and mighty industries, all undamaged …?”
“You make my flesh creep,” I stated.
“Good,” said Jim. “Your flesh creeps at the thought of a jugful of muddy ice water slopping over the tops of your hip waders, as you dipnet suckers out of the Humber. Your flesh creeps at the thought of the enemy doing what we might naturally expect them to do. Your flesh creeps easy, doesn’t it?”
“Jim,” I announced anxiously, “I’ll go sucker fishing with you. Not merely to catch suckers. Not merely to add even a few pounds to the food supply of the country, but for the sake of hardness, for the sake of doing something to remind me that I come of pioneer stock, and that like my ancestors before me I can be counted upon, in an emergency, to get tough again and tackle anything, in the wilderness, in the cold, in the discomfort …”
Jim, who has done a great deal more sucker fishing than I, was able to borrow a good big sound dip net. The Humber river runs through the suburbs of the city, and in past years, when we were younger and looking for idle amusement, we have often gone down to the river, in the first flush of spring, after the ice goes out, to dip a few suckers out and distribute them among any of our humbler friends who liked fish; even suckers.
Jim also decided that night was the best time to dip for suckers.
“When I was a kid, back in the country,” he said, “we never dreamed of going sucker fishing in daylight. The big swarms of suckers move upstream from the lake at night. When I was a kid, we used to make torches and stand in the riffles and shallows, and spear the suckers by the light of the torches with pitchforks. We’d get potato sacks full.”
“Besides,” I suggested, “if we light a good big bonfire, we can wade out of the water whenever we like and warm ourselves.”
“Let’s do this in the good old pioneer tradition,” agreed Jim. “We’ll go to that pool we used to fish in, you know the one …?”
So just before dark, we scrambled down the Humber banks, high banks they are and uninhabited, even in the outskirts of the city, and found a couple of lone sucker netters just packing up, at our favorite pool, to quit for the night. We did not advise them of our plans. They were city dwellers, who did not know that the best way to net suckers is by the light of a fire.
When all was quiet, save for the soft rush and chatter of the swollen river, in its full spring spate, Jim and I gathered driftwood and sticks for a rousing big fire.
Long Night Before Us
We got the fire going in a modest way, and enjoyed sitting beside it, in no hurry, since we had the long night before us. In the dancing rays of the fire, we sat with that happy feeling of campers, even though, a couple of hundred yards away, the great city roared about its nightly business.
Along about 9 p.m., we heaped the fire up big and hearty and got the net unrolled and strung on its hoop. And into the river we waded cautiously for our first dip.
Down we sank the net and waited. Up we hoisted. Down we pressed. Up we hoisted. But neither on the first nor the tenth nor the twentieth dip did we raise a sucker.
“Maybe,” said Jim, “the run starts a little later.”
And we waded ashore from time to time, to replenish the bonfire with fresh driftwood and stumps and logs. And a fine leaping fire we had; and the river sang its song into the night.
About 10 p.m., as we stood in the pool triumphantly hoisting out our very first sucker into the air, we heard shouts above the noise of the river and turned to see two men coming out of the brush beside our fire.
“Put this fire out,” shouted the foremost, “instantly!”
We waded in.
On their arms, the men were wearing air raid warden armbands.
“Come on, you,” cried the leader hotly. “Get this fire out!”
“What’s up?” inquired Jim, depositing our fish on the stones flopping.
“Surprise air raid warning,” said the warden crisply. “Come on now, make it snappy, get this fire out as fast as you know how.”
He and his partner were already hauling out the larger chunks and flinging them into the river.
“Jimmie,” I hissed, “maybe–!”
Embers Of Fire Gone
We exchanged a glance in the already dying light of our fire, and set to with a will to kicking and flinging the burning sticks into the darkening stream. With our hats, we dipped up water and poured it on the coals. In less than 30 seconds, our fire was all but out.
“It was only by chance,” said the warden, “that we happened along the crest, there, and saw the glow of the fire. A fine thing that would be, for our section, if this fire was reported. We’d look like fools. Why, you cast a glare all over the country. You could see the river, the banks, and even a faint outline of some of the houses above …”
“It’s dark enough now,” I said hollowly.
Because, with the glare of the fire still in our eyes, an excessive darkness engulfed us, there by the hissing and tumbling river.
With the last embers of the fire gone, we stood in complete and stony blackness.
Gone were the twinkling street lights from along the high banks. Gone, even, were the faint shadows and outlines of the steep cliffs and declivities of the Humber.
“We’ve got to get back up,” said the warden, “to our beat. Do you know the path up?”
“We’ve been here dozens of times,” assured Jim. “Just wait a few seconds until our eyes get used …”
We stood for a few minutes.
“Okay, come on,” said the warden impatiently. “Lead on.”
Jim, a shadowy and ghostly figure, the net over his shoulder, started into the brush.
I got right behind him. The wardens came on my heels. But it was dark, oh so dark. Jim stumbled and cussed. He announced he was leaving the net until morning, when he could return for it.
But with the street lights on the hills gone, with the bridge, a few hundred yards south, also gone, with its kindly lights, with the whole friendly familiar world suddenly blotted out, it was an eerie and alarming world we found ourselves in. Not a landmark remained.
We followed Jim a little way, with many a stumble. When outside the range of the river’s sound, we stood and listened. All was a ghastly silence. Not a car, not a street car, not a voice. Faintly now, we could make out the shape of the hills, but they looked strange. They did not seem at all familiar.
“I think it’s this way,” I suggested.
“Don’t be crazy; we bear right,” asserted Jim.
“We came down over that way,” said the wardens anxiously.
We stumbled on a few yards through brush, over stones, brambles scratched us. We reached the foot of a high bank. It was as steep as a wall.
We wandered along it, finally finding a slope we thought we could climb. But after a few tries, in which all four of us failed to get 10 feet up, and all of us very muddy and scratched, we gave up.
“You’ll hear about this,” warned the head warden angrily. “Taking us down here into this wilderness …”
But by heading southward, to where we knew the bridge was, and after much climbing over boulders and falling over sticks and thrusting through tangled brushwood, we saw, at last, ahead the unmistakable and dear outline of the bridge just as the silent heavens were filled with the baleful yell of the all-clear signal, and the kindly lights leaped on all over the world.
But it just goes to show you. Even right near home.
Editor’s Notes: Sucker fishing seemed to be a common practice in the spring in the country. Jim would often have it featured in Birdseye Center. A dip-net was a long pole with a net on one end that could be used as a lever to dip into the water and raise up with migrating suckers.
Jim referred to “modern” houses as band-boxes, a term used for very flimsy cardboard boxes, often for holding hats.
Focke-Wulf was the name of the German manufacturer of the most common German fighter plane, the Fw-190. It was only around this point, in early 1943, did allied countries feel more confident that the war would be won.