By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, June, 19, 1943.
“What a waste,” cried Jimmie Frise, “of valuable energy.”
“Where?” I inquired, glancing about the passing countryside.
“Right here, in this car,” declared Jim hotly. “You and me.”
“I can think,” I stated, “of no more honest use of our few gasoline coupons than visiting an old friend who is perhaps on his deathbed. Sam is one of our oldest friends.”
“What I mean,” cut in Jimmie, “is, we could have killed two birds with one stone. Right back there we crossed another trout stream.”
“I wish, Jim,” I said sternly, “that you would give up this eternal struggle to carry on your life as usual. We have entered into a solemn pledge not to waste our time, energy, money or gas on idle sport. Okay, let us stick to it, in the letter and the spirit.”
“Look,” pleaded Jim. “If one thing is going to hamper the war effort of this country, it is being stupid and stodgy. Never in our lives has it been more important that we use our imaginations, that we remain flexible and intelligent and alert, so that our every act, our every dollar, our every calorie, shall be fully spent to the best value. What is our situation right now? Sam, our lifelong friend, is very ill and has sent word that he would love to see us. We couldn’t get to his place by bus. And to go by train would be difficult, tedious and expensive of time. So we decide to use four of our precious coupons in driving out to visit him. Okay. After all, the human factor still survives, even in the midst of total war.”
“Total,” I asserted.
“Now,” said Jim, “in going to Sam’s, we know we have to cross at least seven famous trout streams.”
“Aw, Jim,” I snorted impatiently.
“Wait a minute,” insisted Jim. “We are both expert trout fishermen. Not many men in this country can get as many trout, in as short a time, as you and I. In certain respects, you and I are fish hogs.”
“Pardon me,” I stated. “I resent that.”
Just a Line of Talk
“Well, what I mean,” said Jim, “is, we could be professional fishermen, if we had to. There are not many tricks about taking trout out of a stream that you and I don’t know, are there?”
“I haven’t been really skunked,” I confessed, “in the past 15 years.”
“Okay,” pursued Jimmie. “There is, at the moment, a food shortage throughout our country. Every pound of meat we eat, every sausage, every chicken, is just another cipher added to the shortage.”
“Mmmmm,” I muttered, seeing his line.
“We have,” said Jim, “in the past half hour, crossed half a dozen trout streams. In each of them are several hundred pounds of speckled trout, the finest, if I may suggest, the finest meat in the world. And we have stupidly, ignorantly, pig-headedly passed right over them, though they were ours for the mere asking. Why? Because of a wholly unintelligent pledge we made with each other not to indulge in sport. It’s criminal, that’s what it is!”
“Jim,” I stated wearily, “it is just such a line of argument as you are using that is the curse of our war effort right now. What you have just said, in relation to our little problem, is being said by men and women all over Canada, only in relation to their own lives, habits and desires. Big industrialists, bankers, financiers and members of the board are sawing off, just the way you want us to saw off, about trout fishing. Before them is the straight, grim hard road of war. But every one of them is seeking the rational, the sensible course by which they can follow that straight, hard road and at the same time take a little shortcut to pick a few daisies. Each of them is searching for the ideal system by which they may give their all, and at the same time keep as much as possible.”
“Hah, the usual cynical line,” cut in Jim.
“If it were cynical,” I assured him, “it would not be so bad. But it is here, right in this car, with us. It is in great big factories, where, for all the furious war activity, the deepest thinking around the place is being done for the future salvation of the factory. Not a worker in the factory but spends some minutes of every day talking or thinking about his private rights and privileges, and how to improve or secure them.”
“Rightly so,” declared Jim.
The Pharisees of War
“We are the Pharisees of war,” I submitted. “It is more important that we appear to be in the war effort than that we are in it. Great and terrible as are the demands of war, our own little private concerns are deeper in our hearts.”
“There are exceptions,” said Jim.
“Yes, I admitted. “There are, after all, a few really good people in the world. But, like white pine, they are usually far back from the railroads. I am speaking about us all, as a whole.”
“Still,” said Jim, slowing the car at the top of a long slope from which we could see a great dark valley full of cedar swamp, amidst which we knew one of the finest little trout streams in Ontario chills its secret course, “still, I think this case is different. We have to visit Sam. We have to use gas. We have to cross over these streams where, in maybe one hour you and I could take, for the alleviation of the food shortage, ten pounds each of the finest food…”
“Jim,” I said, closing my eyes so I could not see the valley, “you cannot temporize with life, much less with war. You have to set a hard and often grim rule. And stick to it as you would the ten commandments.”
Slowly down the mile long slope we coasted.
“I’m saving gas,” explained Jim, eating up the valley with his eyes.
When we entered the first fringe of the cedars, it was cool and fragrant, and Jim drove even slower. And when we reached the bridge over the stream, he stopped the car altogether.
We sat and looked at the beautiful dark, hurrying water. There is no water on earth as beautiful as a trout stream’s. There is a majesty about noble rivers. The St. Lawrence, below Quebec; the Ottawa above Mattawa, a noble river little known to millions of Ontarians: the Fraser, amid its mountains, a drama all unto itself. Certain lakes are incredibly beautiful. The sea is often so mighty in its beauty that it leaves you shrivelled and shrunken from that hour forth. But a trout stream, to be a trout stream, has to come from pure springs. It must travel in cool ways, avoiding the warmth of the open sun. It must be broken with riffles and rapids and falls, it must be alive and full of air, to be a trout stream. It must be secret and aloof in its character.
Jim got out the far side and I got out my side and we walked cautiously to the edges of the bridge and peered down under. Dark, quivering shadows darted this way and that, and suddenly a large trout, the size of a stick of stove wood, swung majestically around and hung poised in the shadows, its orange and milk edged fins fanning.
“You,” grated Jimmie, “and your temporizing! If it hadn’t been for you, there would be a fly rod in the back of my car.”
“Do you mean to say,” I demanded bitterly, “that you haven’t a fly rod in the back of your car?”
Jim just gave me a long, cold stare, as if he had never seen me before.
“In the back of my car,” I stated indignantly, “there is always an old fly rod. I always keep an old rod and a box of flies …”
Jim jerked so violently, the big trout vanished and all the small ones darted in all directions frantically. He walked off the bridge and wandered up the streamside amid the cedars, pausing to look cautiously into each pool. I went downstream, peering into the log jammed pools and seeing many a trout of good size, half a pound and up. In about 10 minutes, over 50 yards of water, I saw my 10 pounds of potential wartime emergency provisions.
By the time I got back to the bridge, Jimmie had cooled out, and he was signalling me eagerly from a clump of cedars up the stream.
When I reached him, he led me, stepping as soft as possible, to the edge of a pool. A spring came in there, right in the stream bed, and its golden sand whirled and eddied not only from the current but from the billowing up of icy fresh water from the earth. There, alert and filled with the lightning of their species, five glorious speckled trout circled and poised, ready for instant flight. They were all of a size, which would be about 16 inches each, or say a pound and ten ounces per.
“There,” hissed Jim, “is war effort!”
And after a good quarter hour of fascination, we wended our way back through the brush to the car, Jimmie not speaking at all.
He got in and slammed his door. I got in and shut mine politely. Jim stepped on the starter. It growled.
It continued to growl.
“Wait a minute, maybe she’s flooded,” I suggested.
Jim rested her a few seconds, and then impatiently tramped on the starter again. At the end of five minutes, we knew something was wrong with the engine. We had the hood up. We examined the carburetor. We checked the wiring to the spark plugs. We did all the things we could think of. But the engine was very hot. And very dead.
“What time is it?” demanded Jim.
“It’s just noon,” I replied.
“We were to be at Sam’s at noon,” said Jim pettishly, “and it’s another 30 miles to Sam’s.”
“Let her cool for a little while,” I suggested.
A Treat For the Eyes
So we stood around and studied the stream some more. I went back up to the spring hole and sat down and soaked my eyes in those five lunkers. Jim kept fiddling about the car. He put a hatful of the icy stream water into the radiator. I heard him grinding the starter again, and I came out.
“Don’t wear your battery out,” I warned.
In reply to which, Jim gave the horn a short, sharp snort.
“Well,” he cried, “are we going to spend all day here? If we only had a trout rod…”
“Let’s walk up the road,” I suggested, and find a telephone. Maybe in the next village there is a garage.”
Which we did. The valley was wide, maybe half a mile, and just at the far edge of it, where the cedars began to give way to hardwood, we saw a little cabin set back in the woods.
In the doorway, an elderly man was standing and he waved cheerily at us.
We walked in his path to inquire where we could get the nearest telephone.
He was a genial old boy. Apparently he was just cooking his lunch, for he had an old tea towel in his hand, and from the door came the most ravishing odor of cooking.
“No phone,” he said, “within two miles. Abbott’s used to have a phone, just over the top of the hill, there. But they took it out about 12 years ago.”
“Two miles,” we sighed, for it was a warm day and a long hill ahead.
“Stay right here,” suggested the old boy, “and in about an hour, Jake the mail man comes by. He’ll give you a lift to the nearest phone.”
“Mmmm,” I said, “we don’t want to interrupt your dinner.”
“Come on in,” cried the old boy, “and share it. I don’t often get visitors. It’ll be a pleasure.”
“Is it trout?” I inquired eagerly.
“No, I’m fed up with trout,” said the old boy. “I’ve ate enough trout this year to last me. What with the prices they can get, the farmers around here even haven’t any eggs, let alone a bit of meat. But sit down, I’ll have a dish fit for the king in another 10 minutes.”
We came inside the tidy cabin and the old boy went to the stove and forked the frying chops which sizzled with the most punishing of savors.
“No woman here?” I asked.
“Never had a woman here,” said the old boy above the frying, “women, are too pernickety for me. I like to lead my own life, always have.”
New Kind of Chops
We had arrived at the psychological moment, for the chops were just done, the potatoes were boiled and a small saucepan full of some fragrant sauce was simmering on the back of the stove. In a few exciting minutes, the old boy had three tin plates all neatly portioned and laid before us.
“Aaaah,” he said, “that sauce is made of things I picked up in the bush right handy here. Pepper root, wild garlic, tansy mustard and sweet cicely! Have plenty.”
And from the saucepan he poured liberal helpings of the sauce over the golden brown chops.
We set to.
“Gosh, that’s good!” I exclaimed.
“Lamb?” inquired Jim.
“You’d be crazy to eat lamb now,” said the old boy, stuffing it in. “Conserve your lamb, brother. Mutton will bring a good price next winter.”
“What on earth is it?” I asked, for the chops were not chops at all, but neat little sections of tender and delicate steak. I even got a miniature rib on one of my pieces.
“What do you say it is?” the old boy asked Jim.
“Well, sir, it’s mighty good, whatever it is,” said Jim. “Would it be chicken?”
“Guess again,” laughed the old boy, stowing away, and mopping up the wild herb sauce with his potato.
So we tasted and tested and guessed. And by the time we had tasted it all and tested and rolled it about and savored and sniffed, and gave up, the old boy sat back, with a heavy sigh.
“The red ones,” he said, “are no good. Only the gray ones. The grayer the better…”
“Squirrel?” I cried.
“No, groundhog,” said the old boy, picking his teeth. “Young choice groundhog. I call it the Brown Market.
Jim and I could not think of anything to say so we just looked at him.
“It stands to reason,” he said, “that a groundhog should be choice victuals, because it eats only the best. From early spring to late autumn, only the finest shoots of young wheat, garden vegetables, Brussels sprouts, only the finest.”
“I thought it would be kind of soft…” ventured Jim, trying his voice.
“Not it,” said the old boy, “Only use the good gray ones, cut out the little kernels from under the fore legs, boil him for an hour to remove any flavor there might be, and then fry him. You’ve got a dish for the king.”
I felt all right. I felt good, as a matter of fact, except spiritually. Moses did not mention groundhogs in his instructions to the Chosen People; but somehow I felt I had just offended against Holy Writ.
So we thanked the old boy. And on Jim’s suggestion, the mail man not having come by, we walked the half mile back to give the car one more try before deciding to walk the two miles over the hill.
At the first growl, the starter took, and the engine leaped to life.
“There you are, Jim,” I said. “If we had had trout rods with us, we would never have tasted groundhog.”
“Erp,” said Jim, giving her the gun.