Everyone has a fishing story. This one is true, I swear on my soul! It’s true, I tell you; true, true, true. It really happened.
When I was a kid, maybe 4-5 years old (I don’t remember exactly), my family lived somwehere in the south Miami area. I remember the street on which we lived vividly. There was a tall tree outside our house in the front yard. A hedge separated our backyard from the backyard of the house behind us. There was an empty lot around the corner from our house, facing the two houses’ backyards. A bee stung me on the elbow in that lot. Across the main road was a church where, curiously, I was taken for a YMCA summer day camp a few years later when my family had moved to Miami Beach.
I doubt if we lived there for a year, but I have a lot of memories of that house. We occasionally had catered lunches delivered from Three Sisters. I weathered at least one hurricane there. One of my mother’s friends came over for the storm and everyone gathered in the living room for a Hurricne Party. It got so hot and stuffy in there I was kind of grossed out, so I went back to my bedroom. My mother had opened all the jalousy windows in the house so my room was cool and a bit moist. The storm raged outside with thunder and lightning that I’ll never forget. I hit the bed and when I woke up in the morning the weather had passed on, but the street was transformed into a really cool scene with tree limbs and water everywhere (kids just think any disaster is cool).
If you turned left from the main road onto the street that ran by our house, you would pass our street and wander through the neighborhood. Eventually you would reach a little green common area, sort of a mini-park that looked out over an artificial lake. The lake, as I recall, was formed by a river that had been partially blocked when the main road was paved over. The lake was a freshwater pond, really, but it had a very deep section the kids were not allowed to swim in. You could see seaweed (or whatever the freshwater equivalent of seaweed is) growing out in that section, and once in a while a powerboat would cruise up and down the river.
There was a small dock that marched out into the water from the common area. It ran alongside the shore and then jutted straight out in a classic T-shape, so you could tie up boats on either side of the main stem. On the left side of the dock the water was shallow enough that I could wade through it close to shore or swim around near the dock as it moved toward the deep water.
My brother is 20 months older than me, and he used to look after me. Wherever Rick went, there I went, too. I was the classic attached little brother. For many years, we had many adventures together. We’d share the same friends, explore new vistas together, get into trouble together, and we fought like Tom and Jerry, cats and dogs, fire and ice.
Rick was more outgoing than me, and he actually made more friends than I knew. He would hang with the teenagers in the neighborhood on occasion. They worked on their bicycles and skateboards and taught him the basic mechanical skills he would later use to build go-carts, mini-bikes, and weird thingees I cannot begin to describe. I remember looking out the front window one day and seeing the bottom part of a bicycle. The upper part (the seat and handle bars) were at least ten feet above the wheels. The older kids had built extension bars onto the bike and were riding it up and down the street.
I was kind of scared because I was afraid the boy riding the bicycle would fall off. I ran and hid in my room, but my brother ran outside to see the bike. I don’t know if they gave him a ride on it, but I eventually gathered up my courage and followed him outside. He was down the street talking with the boys and I went up and asked about the giant bike. One of the teenagers said, “What giant bike?”
I said, “The one I saw you riding down the street.”
“I didn’t see any giant bike.”
Well, I knew he was lying, so I turned to Rick to get him to help me out. Rick didn’t want to get into the middle of it. I guess he liked the fact that the older boy was teasing me. But I got indignant. I knew what I’d seen, and I insisted he show me where the bike was. The older boy finally walked over to his bicycle and picked it up over his head. “You mean this giant bike?” he asked.
He laughed at me and then said they had taken it apart. The guy who owned the extension rods had taken them home. I did get to see the bike up close one other time when they were putting the extension rods on it. It was pretty cool, but I guess in today’s litigious world not too many parents would let their kids build such a contraption.
Those were the days of cleancut teenage boys who just wanted to have fun without getting into serious trouble. They were safe to let your young kids hang around. If we got in over our heads, the older boys would (reluctantly) help us out of whatever dilemma we found ourselves in. And they taught me and Rick how to fish. Mostly Rick. I never had the patience for fishing, and never could keep my fishing line from tangling up. I spent many an hour untangling that fishing line and finally gave up.
Rick said, “Don’t worry about it. Just watch the fish and I’ll share some with you.”
He loved to fish. Still does. He’d catch brim (is that spelled b-r-e-a-m?) for an hour or two and then we’d take his catch home. Our maid would gut the fish and cook them for us, and we’d have a nice lunch. That was a magic summer. Some days all the kids would go down to the fishin’ dock for a swim, or to fish for brim and bass, and some days it would just be me and Rick. You never knew who would show up or how long they’d stay.
Well, a lot of men in that neighborhood spent some time fishing at the dock, too. They loved to fish for bass. You could sit around and listen to fishing stories for hours on end. And one story I always loved to hear, in its many variations, was the story about “Grandpa Bass”. He was the biggest, meanest, ornierest fish you’d ever seen. And nobody really had seen him because he’d stay out in the deep water amidst all the kelp. But people knew he was there because he broke fishing lines and stole prize fishing poles. His conquests were legion.
Some guys offered real money for a chance to play Grandpa Bass if anyone would hook him. Of course, all the old-timers said he was too smart to get hooked any more. One old man said, “Why, son, that fish ought to be so scarred he ain’t got no lip left to hook. I done hooked him when I was a kid and he got clean away with my fishing pole and everything.”
“Do you still try to catch him?” I asked.
“Naw. I give up years ago.”
That fish beat a lot of men. I just couldn’t believe it. These guys would come and bag bass right and left. If I saw an especially big one, I’d ask, “Is that Grandpa Bass?”
One day, the boy with the giant bike laughed at me and said, “Michael, Grandpa Bass is THIS BIG!” He held out his arms as far as they could go. “If they ever catch that fish, you’ll know it. They’ll be on TV.”
Well, my hopes of ever seeing Grandpa Bass were dashed, because I knew no one could ever hook a fish that big (little did I know what I would see come off the boats when I moved to Miami Beach — but that’s another story). So I went back to watching Rick’s catch, or playing with my friends, and enjoying the endless days of childhood’s last pre-school summer.
One morning, Rick and I walked up to the dock to catch our lunch. No one else was there. As usual, Rick hooked brim after brim and threw them up on the grass. I’d stand there and watch them. For some reason, I wasn’t wearing any shoes that morning. I guess I just liked the feel of the grass under my feet (and never much believed in the vicious hookworms that Mom said I’d catch if I didn’t wear my shoes). One of the fish kept flopping back toward the water. It was a fighter. I decided it was getting too close and tried to kick it back up the slope.
Well, that works when you’re wearing shoes. But the dang thing bit my big toe. “Ouch!” I stooped to press my fingers around the blood and think angry thoughts at a poor fish that would soon be my lunch.
So, there I was, surrounded by vicious, angry, dying fish, bleeding from my wound, when all of a sudden I heard my brother say, “Mike! Mike! Come here!”
“I can’t,” I said. “Your stupid fish bit me.”
“What’d it bite you for?”
“I was kicking it.”
“Don’t kick my fish and come here!”
Well, I didn’t want to do what he said but he was providing lunch so I reluctanly turned around.
What an amazing sight. I’ll never forget it.
There was my 7-year-old older brother holding on to his fishing pole for dear life. The pole was bent near to the breaking point and the line was taut with the tension of a mighty struggle. But the most amazing part of that scene was the fact that Rick, who waswearing shoes, was slowly sliding toward the end of the dock.
“Come here and help me!” he yelled.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.
“I can’t! You’re too big!”
“Stop screaming and get over here!”
Well, I limped over there as fast as I could (still bleeding from my toe). I grabbed Rick around his waist and held on tightly.
“Don’t hold me, you idiot! Pull me back!”
So I tugged and I pulled and I writhed and I cried. It didn’t matter what I did, that fish just pulled us closer and closer to the water.
“What is it?” I screamed. “Is it a monster?”
“No, you idiot! It’s Grandpa Bass! I’ve got him and I’m going to catch him!”
Well, that was about all I needed to hear. A fish bigger than me and my brother was going to pull us into the forbidden deep waters and either swallow or drownd us.
“Let go, Ricky! Let go!” I yelled. “I don’t want to die!”
“We’re not going to die, Mike! Just hang on!”
Well, we were running out of dock and by now instead of leaning back against the pull of the line we were both almost upright. My strength was giving out, partly due to fear, I’m sure. I didn’t let go because I didn’t want to lose my brother. But I sure didn’t want to hit that water!
“Please let go, Ricky! Please let go!”
“No, we’ve got him!”
I guess Rick was moved by the terror in my voice, or maybe he finally realized he wouldn’t win the battle. Right as we were about to hit the edge of the dock he yanked the pole or the fish yanked it. The line snapped and we both went tumbling back.
I, of course, started bawling like a baby. I was just so relieved to be alive I couldn’t hardly breathe. Rick, of course, was not happy about losing the fish, half his line, or his best lure and snag hook. He got up and started stamping and fuming.
“We had him! We had him!” Rick cried out in frustration.
“We didn’t have him,” I said. “He had us!”
So, there I sat blubbering like a 5-year-old fool and along came the boy with the giant bicycle (that’s how I’ll always remember him). “What’s going on?” he asked. “Why are you crying like a baby?”
Rick wouldn’t say a word. So, I said it for him. “Grandpa Bass almost killed us!”
The boy just laughed at me. “Grandpa Bass didn’t just try to kill you.”
“Yes, he did!” I insisted. “He almost pulled us into the lake!”
The boy looked at Rick, who must still have looked pretty shaken. Then he looked at Rick’s fishing pole and saw the broken line. “What happened, Ricky?”
“It’s like Mike said,” my brother replied. “I hooked a big fish and it almost pulled us in.”
The boy still didn’t believe us. “There is no Grandpa Bass,” he said.
“Yes, there is,” I insisted. “He almost pulled us in.”
Well, about that time, some fish decided to jump out of the water. I didn’t see it. I don’t know if Rick saw it, but Giant Bicycle Boy saw it. “Jesus!” he cried. “IT’s GRANDPA BASS!”
He ran back to the grass where I’d laid my fishing rod and he started casting out into the deep water. Now I got mad, because I knew he was too big to be dragged into the water, but I was afraid he’d get my pole broken. So there we were, yelling and screaming at each other about my fishing pole while he was whipping that line out into the deep water like crazy, and Rick was just laughing, and up comes one of the neighborhood dads.
“What are you boys yelling about?” he asked.
“He won’t let me use his fishing pole,” Giant Bicycle Boy said.
“He’s trying to catch Grandpa Bass!” I complained.
The man just laughed. “He won’t catch anything with that light rod, son. And, besides, there isn’t any Grandpa Bass.”
“Yes, there is! He almost pulled me and Ricky into the water.”
Well, 5-year-olds have no credibility, so everyone looked at Rick. He just shrugged. “I never saw it,” he said. “I just know something was pulling us in.”
The man just shook his head. “You boys are lucky the line broke. You could have drowned out there. I’ve heard those stories since I was a boy. I never hooked him, but people have got into trouble in the deep water.”
“You don’t believe in Grandpa Bass?” I said.
“Son, that fish would have to be sixty years old. Do you think any fish would live that long?”
I shook my head. “I dunno,” I said.
But by this time, Giant Bicycle Boy had put my fishing pole down. “I hooked him once,” he said. “He broke my rod.”
“Something broke your rod,” the man replied.
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe it was a monster.”
“It wasn’t no monster,” Giant Bicycle Boy said.
“Well how could it be a 60-year-old fish?” I demanded (and I had no idea of what 60 years was anyway).
The boy just spread his arms wide and said, “Why do you think they call him Grandpa Bass?”