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McGrath: Recalling another summer’s fleeting passage

The McGrath brothers — P(from left) David Jim Kev Ken Charlie — show their satisfactiafter successful fishing trip long ago.

The McGrath brothers — Pat (from left), David, Jim, Kev, Ken and Charlie — show their satisfaction after a successful fishing trip long ago. | Supplied photo

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Updated: September 26, 2013 6:28AM



Summer would never be the same.

It was our last day at Saddle Lake in Michigan. The week had stretched out in a languid rhythm of fishing, swimming and eating outdoors at the picnic table, barefoot and in swimsuits till dusk. And then we would change into jeans and zippered sweatshirts for the campfire.

This night, we sat in the semi darkness — watching the moon riddle the surface of the lake, the colder, nighttime water smelling of lily pads, sand and vaguely of fish.

My brother Jimmy asked if I might want to come again next year. It was his campfire joke. For it was known I was crazy for fishing. For shivering at dawn for a chance at surprise.

I was too young to know the meaning of obsession. But I had it worse than my older brothers.

The feel of the rod tells you when the fish mouths the bait. Underwater, the disturbance of the metal hook sends a vibration up the nylon braided line, and through the ferrules of the fiberglass rod, which then pulsates like a silent guitar.

My first time, I dropped the rod on the floorboards, so startling was the sensation of a live creature worrying my hands from 15 feet below. The sensation became an addiction.

My first trophy was a largemouth bass, which we kept on the stringer with a dozen pan fish to get a snapshot back at the pier. After Charlie took the picture with Dad’s box camera, we gently slid the stringer through the bass’s hinged jaws and placed him in the water at the end of the dock. He swam directly to the bottom, stopping. I watched him finning, pouting, skeptical of his new freedom. Finally, I lost sight of him in the shadows and the sun.

So on Friday, seated around our last campfire, I told Jim, yes, that I want to come again next year. But I knew it would all be different because of what happened earlier in the week.

Tommy Booth, my classmate and pal from across the alley back home, had shown up at the lake with his family, our parents all friends. There was so much that I needed to show him — the fish picture, my new rod, the secret island on the lake’s north shore.

But I stopped talking as Lynn suddenly skipped down the steps of their cabin.

Lynn DiBennardi was staying with her family in another cottage at the resort. She was in the same grade as Tom and me at St. Bernadette’s School but in Sister Philomena’s class. And she was a girl.

“Will you take me fishing?” she asked us.

“If you like worms,” Tommy said.

She made a face and turned to me, brown eyes, or they could have been green — so darkly flaming they were with anticipation — and I could feel the sunburn on my neck. I smoothed my scalp with my hand, knowing my hair must be sticking up like straw.

I went ahead of them to the dock, while Tommy went to get boat cushions, his fly rod and a net. Lynn brought sunglasses and a beach bag. There also may have been a hat, but I jerked my head down to undo the rope and fix the oars in the locks.

How I wanted to row! To make her feel each pull with my aching arms. I remained quiet, not daring to say or even think that it was not unpleasant, propelling a pretty girl in a straw hat to the other side. For it felt oddly like betrayal. Of fishing? Of the lake? Of something I did not yet understand.

Stopping at the deep end of a weed bed, I heaved the anchor, a Hills Brothers can of concrete, over the side and watched the yellow rope go slack. Tommy was already standing, stripping line, rocking the boat.

“Show me how to fish, David?” Lynn asked.

She ducked her head to see me under Tommy’s whips and back casts. Her prim knees drawn up, her arms wrapped around her legs. One hand clutching an elbow — pink nails and a golden ring.

Her earnest, impossibly beautiful smile and the midday sun like a hammer, I pivoted my left foot on the gunnel and had to dive in.

The rush of cold; the comforting, aquamarine silence.

I remembered the bass hunkering safely in the depths. I tried to stay and hold my breath as long as I could.

I don’t well remember what was said when I emerged, But all these years later, I think of the lake and of summer as a time when it all begins — dreams, possibility, love, longing.

And how terribly fast it rushes by.

Former Oak Forest resident David McGrath is Emeritus English Professor, College of DuPage, and author of “The Territory.”



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