THE CREEK/THE LAKE by Howard Feigenbaum
The Callicoon Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, flowed north, about a hundred yards from my parents’ house in the Catskill Mountain town of Jeffersonville, New York. Boulders poked through the meandering stream, shaded by dense tree growth. Trout nested along the banks, hidden under fallen trunks and rocks.
In the summers of my youth, the creek was the place I preferred. The flat stones in the water provided a pathway to my cousin’s house. If I stepped across carefully and climbed the protruding crags of a stone retaining wall on the far steep bank, I could be in his back yard in a few minutes. The non-creek alternative meant walking into town and proceeding down Main Street, a fifteen-minute exercise.
In the winter, when the creek froze over, the crossing became my nemesis. With flowing water under the ice, I could never be sure if the surface would hold my weight. There might have been a formula one could use which incorporated the temperature, the lateness of the season and the thickness of the ice. If there were such a formula, my impatience and willingness to see what would happen nullified its application.
The first winter crossing found me taking measured footsteps from the bank’s edge, listening for any cracking sounds, and reacting to any water seeping through the ice. The process usually made use of a tree branch that extended over the creek. I could hold onto the branch and use it to yank myself back to shore if things went wrong.
The second and third steps were the most precarious. My second-step strategy was simple: beat a hasty retreat to the bank with the objective of running faster than ice could break. My third step, however, was the moment of truth—the decision of decisions. I had to suck it up and make my move or forever be branded a coward. The tree branch was no longer a factor. I was working without a net. If any distracting flash of regret―like I should have taken the road through town―found its way into my thoughts, all was lost and I would be immobilized. No going forward or backward. The creek had won. But once I stood midstream, going forward—making a mad dash for shore at the sound of cracking ice—would be my best chance for victory.
When the ice gave way and chilled water filled one boot, the other boot was sure to follow. Survival became the objective. To reach shore I had to wade through the ice-covered stream wearing water-filled boots, which seemed to add twenty pounds to each leg. Treading on the slippery creek bottom created the feeling of balancing on a tight rope. One bad step and I would go down. Being alone in wet clothing, in the midst of frigid water, with nothing around to assist in getting to my feet could end it all. Fortunately, the creek was less than three feet deep.
After a mishap occurred, which happened the majority of the time, it was impossible to climb the crags of the stone retaining wall to my cousin’s house. The remaining choice—going home to face my mother―was the outcome I hoped to avoid.
“Oh, Howard, not another wet foot!” Her tone of disappointed resignation didn’t reach the level of anger. Had she known of my intention, she might have stopped me. But since the event was over and I was safely home, she accepted, then hastened to help me take off my boots and clothing.
“Next time, I want you to walk around.”
“How many times are you going to do this?”
“I almost made it. I was on the last step.”
“I don’t want to hear it. After you change, I’ll make you a cup of hot chocolate.”
For some reason, the defeats didn’t stop me from trying again. I savored the few victories. I guess the lesson is that I never let ice-cold water keep me from taking a chance. The line between determination and stupidity is very thin.
Fish loved my grandfather. That’s the way it seemed. Even if nobody else caught anything, he had a full bucket. When he put his line in the water, they waited their turn to bite the hook. He possessed a certain allure. I guessed that the magic came from the natural oils in his fingertips.
He spent almost every morning at Lake Briscoe. His daybreak ritual included digging for worms by the old water tank in back of the house, lowering the front passenger window of his sedan so he could place long bamboo poles inside the car, and grabbing a pail.
When his grandchildren were old enough, from time to time he would take each one with him. Some of us were better at angling than others. I was one of the others. I could ask questions and talk, but not too much. His primary demand was that I pay attention to the floating cork—after all we were there to catch something.
While Grandpa concentrated on his two poles, I let my attention wander. Sometimes my cork would be under water for a minute or more before I noticed. “Where’s my cork?” I asked, as if it should be where I last saw it.
When that happened, he calmly took my pole and checked the hook. A look of mild disapproval appeared on his face. Grandpa was almost never angry, especially with the behavior of his grandchildren whom he loved more than life itself. He followed an infraction with a mild, short corrective statement about how to do better next time.
We used a weathered wood boat that Grandpa rowed from shore to one of the many stumps that dotted Lake Briscoe. He knew which stumps were better for catching perch or pickerel or sunfish and anchored the boat according to what Grandma preferred for dinner.
One day, he anchored the boat to a flat-cut stump, and we dropped our lines in the water. After a while, I gazed about, scanning the shoreline, checking out the sky, and finally focused on the stump. I discovered something unusual in the center of the stump and picked it up. I held it between my thumb and forefinger, raising it up for closer examination.
“Grandpa, what’s this?”
He smiled and said, “Beaver shit.”
I couldn’t get rid of it fast enough.
What a moment! Had I not gone to the lake with my Grandpa that morning, I would have missed a very important life lesson: Never pick up anything before you know what it is.