James W. Eral
The Ol' Fart and the Boy
The creak of timber nudging timber awakens him; the culprits being the posts and beams once rough-hewn from trees in the nearby forest and fashioned into supports for the old cabin to keep it from toppling into Mosquito Creek. Perversely the determined and increasingly canted skew of that same lap boarded structure declares its intent to do precisely the opposite. The Ol' fart, as he is generally referred to in the community, rolls onto his back, and raises rough bony knuckles to rub away the milky sleep residue from his eyes. He grunts as he levers himself upright and settles his feet into leather slippers that have lost any memory of ever being new. He scratches the demarcation line defining the border between the fringe of white hair and the arid plateau of his scalp, smacks his lips, sucking - to draw moisture into his mouth, and with some effort pushes himself off of the bed. He stands, nods his head slowly; a surrendering gesture to life being what it is, and walks into the bathroom with its overhead cistern and pull-chain. He withdraws his pecker (as he calls it) relaxes his bladder muscles and sighs when he is rewarded by the sound of a steady stream splashing into the reservoir of the toilet bowl. Forcing air up from his lungs he urges a small clump of mucus-based matter from its bronchial resting place, spits it into the bowl, and pulls the chain. He watches it all swirl around and away; the beginning of another day.
Snap Crackle and Pop. Joey regards the three cheerful gnomes on the Kellog's Rice Krispies box and wishes that the product lived up to its advertising. When the milk was first poured over the cereal it did snap, crackle, and pop and the first several spoons full were as crispy as promised, being all that any boy could desire. After that, however, W. K. Kellog's breakfast treat gradually devolved into the sodden, disappointing mush that now languishes before him. The crispless Krispies are somewhat improved when coupled with a slice of hot buttered toast which his mother had set by its side. The crunch of the toast with its warm butter lifts the drowning Rice Krispies to a nearly acceptable level.
"Good-by, Hon," he hears Big Joe say and turns his head to see his father kissing his mother who has just placed a sad iron on the wood stove to heat. Nearby, draped over an ironing board, awaits a dampened shirt.
"What time will you be home," she asks.
"By four, I'd say. Do you need anything?"
"We're, low on milk and pick up some chipped beef, for just in case. And you better get more ice."
"Right." As he strides to the door, Big Joe tousles his son's unruly blond hair with marginal effect. "See ya later, kiddo."
"Yeah, Dad," Joey says through a mouthful of Rice Krispies.
An announcer's voice, reading the farm report is coming from the small, ivory-colored Motorola that sets on the kitchen table. Hog futures are continuing to rise while corn futures seem to have leveled off.
A boy's voice penetrates the walls of the cottage, "Joey, Joey – come on out, Joey."
Joey shovels the last of the Rice Krispies into his mouth, drops his bowl into the sink, and rushes to the door, with remaining toast in hand. "Hi, Kenny," he says allowing the screen door to slam behind him.
A boy of seven years age, with sandy hair, freckles, and wearing patched overalls is sitting on a small pile of logs that had been collected as posts for a fence, never built. "Hey, Joey, you wanna do somethin'?"
"Yeah, what?" answers Joey, and takes his last bite of toast.
Kenny rises, I don't know somethin'," he says and they walk side by side up the path and toward the dirt road that fronts the row of cottages. Kenny spies a dirt clod and casually gives it a kick, exploding it into particles across the path.
They pass near a row of grapevines sending out young, spring shoots. Joey brakes off one of the tendrils and chews on it enjoying its subtle sourness. Kenny does the same, his brow furrowed in contemplation, and says, "We could go down to Steward's creek – maybe catch some tadpoles or somethin'."
"Yeah – or crawdads," says Joey.
"We'd need some rotten chicken for that. That's what they like," says Kenny knowledgeably.
"We could build a dam," offers Joey.
"Yeah; with rocks and stuff. We could do that."
The creek bottom mud squishes and squirms between his toes as Joey carries another large rock to the gradually growing dam. He tries fitting it into several locations until he finds one where the rock settles in snugly. He returns to the bank for another rock and disrupts a school of minnows that fly upstream in terror. He breathes in, enjoying the scent and weight of the creek air - laden with primal ooze mixed with the sweet aroma of the wild blackberry blossoms from the thorn laden tangle bordering portions of the bank. He hears the sound of metal scrapping hard-packed earth and turns his head toward the source. Kenny is dragging a rusted tractor fender along a game path that angles down to the stream.
"This'll be better than a ton of rocks," says Kenny. He drags the derelict fender into the creek, trailing a fan of ripples, and lays it curved side toward the low wall of rocks.
Kenny stands regarding his work proudly while Joey is thinking that he doesn't like the look of the ugly rusted metal lying in the woodland stream. It makes their dam look like a pile of junk. Had he use of words he will one day have, he would say it is a rude insult to the pristine beauty of the stream. The thoughts of both boys are disrupted when a mother quail followed by five chicks scurries from nearby brush to more secure, denser, uphill growth. Kenny picks up a stone from the side of the stream and lobs it at the fleeing family. Joey wonders why but says nothing.
The Ol' fart in his faded Casey Jones overalls and union suit stands on the listing back porch of his cabin. He holds a china mug from which steam rises to disappear into the cool morning air and watches the spring swollen waters slowly seek their way to join the Mississippi. This is flat land and the water is in no hurry; a fact greatly appreciated by the lethargic catfish and bullheads lurking therein. He takes a sip of the coffee that he had made in the percolator atop the wood stove and breathes in, sampling the creek air. He studies his sloping porch and considers whether it has tipped further in the three years that he has lived here. He wonders if he should shore it up and dismisses the thought when he is distracted by a sound. He turns his head toward the source; voices, familiar but now rarely heard - boys at play. He tries to see through the growth of trees and catches a glimpse of movement along Steward's Creek; a small tributary that feeds into Mosquito Creek. His mind traces back to when he was a boy but the vague memory found seems hardly to be of himself. It seems the memory of another person to whom he has been granted access; the memory of a boy who had once been him but is no longer. His mind wanders on and finds its way back to the present. He looks at the cup and then the forearm attached to the hand holding it. By highlight and shadow, the low slanted rays of the morning sun reveal the crinkled crepe that is his aged skin. He is what he is. He sends his mind elsewhere - A full moon will be coming up. Fishing will be better. The full moon - three days before and three days after - "that's the time," his daddy had said. He had never questioned his daddy.
As Joey and Kenny gather rocks cradling them between forearm and chest, a chipmunk runs from their perceived threat and scrambles up a tree where it sits atop a branch staring back at them - it's tail twitching. Joey watches the animal while Kenny's eyes focus on something beyond.
"That's him; the Old Fart," says, Kenny.
An elderly man stands on the rear porch of the nearest of two cabins bordering Mosquito Creek.
"Yeah," says Joey. Of course – the Ole' Fart, so what?
"My dad says he's a Nazi."
Joey looks at Kenny, his eyes questioning.
"He's probably one of those fifth column guys."
"What's the fifth column?' asks, Joey thinking how lucky Kenny is to have a dad who knows about such things.
"Sabotage and like that," explains Kenny seriously. "We ought to spy on him."
To boys of a certain age, spying is as irresistible as free ice cream and will therefore be engaged in upon the slightest pretext. From the safety of the limb, the chipmunk watches the boys drop their rocks and sneak off through the bushes en route to their spy mission. As they near the Ol' Fart's cabin they crouch and rush from cover to cover until they come to rest behind a rambling oak surrounded by low brush. From that vantage point, they have a good view of the side of the cabin and a partial view of the rear porch. Their small bodies become tense in the thrall of their secretive and illicit enterprise.
"I bet he's got a short wave radio. Got it hidden somewhere," says, Kenny. "That's how they talk to Hitler and the other krauts."
"Krauts?" asks Joey.
"Yeah, Nazis, Krauts – all the same. My dad knows all about em."
Kenny's dad knows all about them.
The two boys hide and watch the Kraut Spy.
The Ol' Fart carrying a fishing reel walks out onto the porch. On the corner rail is a large circular cage, set on its side. It is made of slender wooden slats and rotates around a central axle penetrating two bushings set into vertical wooden supports. Extending from the axle on the inboard side is a hand crank. The Ol' Fart sets the fishing reel on free- spin, ties the line end to one of the slats, and turns the crank, transferring the fishing line to the cage. He does this frequently to dry out the line and keep it from rotting.
The boys observe this curious procedure.
"I bet that's his antenna," says Kenny
When the fishing line is fully transferred to the cage, the Ol' Fart re-enters the cabin.
The boys watch.
The boys continue to watch.
For only so long can two seven-year-old boys rest on their knees watching nothing. Such a thing is not in the nature of boys.
"We gotta find where that antenna is attached to his short wave radio," says Kenny. "I got an idea." He is very serious. This is serious business. "Here's what: You go around to the other side of the cabin and throw some rocks at it. When Ol' Fart comes out to see what's goin' on, I'll sneak up to his porch and see where the antenna goes to."
"I don't know," says Joey, who has always been uncomfortable with wrongful behavior.
"Ol' Fart's a Nazi," says Kenny. It's our - he searches for a term used by his father - "patriotic duty."
Joey nods in reluctant assent. A patriotic American should not shirk his duty. He sets off for the far side of the cabin and Kenny edges slowly around the opposite way in the direction of the porch.
Joey collects three throwing rocks and finds a place where shrubs screen him from view, yet near enough to hit the cabin with a rock. He selects one and throws it at the lap boarded side. The projectile arcs, lands and he hears the hollow thump of stone hitting wood. In rapid succession, he follows with the other two rocks. The front door of the cabin opens and Ol' fart steps out looking in his direction – precisely in his direction. Joey watches the old man through the gaps between the leaves. There are too many gaps – too few leaves. He discerns the steady gaze of the piercing gray-blue eyes and senses that the shrubs between the old man and himself offer too little visible shelter. He can think of only one option; flight.
The old man watches a blond-headed boy in a blue and orange striped T-shirt and jeans run from the bushes and up the path that lies behind. The boy looks very much like one of the two he had glimpsed messing around down by Steward's Creek. Boys! His eyes follow the retreating rock thrower until the boy disappears. His eyes trace down to a pot of Azaleas. Several flowers have been crushed by one of the rocks when it rebounded from the wood siding. With no formed reason in mind, he picks up the rock, looks at it, and stows it in the pocket of his overalls. Azaleas had been one of her favorite flowers. He has always seeded and grown a few pots in the spring: tributes – floral memorials – reminders; as if he needed a reminder.
"We gotta watch him at night," espionage wise Kenny tells Joey. "That's when spies send their messages." The boys are sitting on the one-step porch in front of Joey's cabin. Joey, with no designated purpose, is worrying the wooden porch edge with a penknife. His father had given him the treasured knife. It has a mother of pearl handle of which he is very proud. He likes to use this knife simply to be using it; to see the blade dig into wood and watch the shavings fall. Kenny observes this activity as if it is of great interest.
Joey is ruminating about how to get out in the evening. "What do I tell my mother?" he asks.
Kenny (the guru of ruses) considers the question. "Tell her we're going out to catch fireflies. You can only catch em when it's dark. Tell her that"
Joey does tell her that and to his surprise, the fabrication succeeds. Joey is blessed with gentle parents who rarely find cause to mistrust him. Kenny, Conversely, is less than blessed with parents who are generally unconcerned about his whereabouts, if not his well being, and seldom miss him when he is out of sight.
The boys tromp down the road on the warm spring evening. Crickets are chirping in the brush. A barn owl hoots in the distance. Warm and gentle zephyrs brush their faces carrying the scent of night-blooming jasmine. It is good to be a boy on such an Iowa evening; to be with a chum; to be on a mission, to be heading toward danger and adventure. Their blood is stirred. The seductive tingle of excitement races through their young bodies.
Advantaged by the cover of darkness, the boys are minimally cautious as they near the Ol' Fart's cabin. They find a pair of scrub pines to hold up behind. As initially established, Kenny is the captain (a commission granted by the benefit of his spy-wise father's handed down information) and Joey is the lieutenant (because Kenny chose the ranks and captains outrank lieutenants). The captain lays out the plan of attack. "I'll sneak up and watch through the front window. You go around and watch through the one on the right side. If he spots one of us or goes to the door or anything, give two owl hoots. If you see him go to his radio, coo like a dove."
"Okay," whispers Joey. He is uncertain as to the difference between the hoot of an owl and the coo of a dove but is reluctant to reveal the fact. Kenny stoops and creeps toward his position, and Joey does the same. When he nears the window he sees that it is too high above the sloped terrain for him to reach. He looks around for something to climb upon and makes out the silhouette of a wheelbarrow near a woodshed. He walks to it slowly, being careful not to step on any twigs that might snap. The wheelbarrow is old and rusty with one of the rear legs slightly askew. He grabs the handles, rotates the barrow to point toward the cabin, and gently pushes it forward. A tortured scream shreds the air; oxidized, oil-deprived metal scraping against metal. Startled by the sudden noise, Joey stops abruptly and stands still with short, shallow, panic-driven breaths. Was it heard inside the cabin? Did it cause an alert? Or, he hopes - it might be considered to be only one outside noise among many. In truth, there are not many outside night noises; save the soft sound of breeze riffled leaves, the chirp of crickets, and the croak of frogs accompanied by the occasional call of a distant bird. Joey; a statue in the darkness, waits – long dragging seconds – then more, listening for movement within the cabin. He hears none and waits yet longer.
Holding his breath, he ever so gradually inches the wheelbarrow forward and finds a place between virtually no movement and something hinting at movement where the squeak is barely discernible. The iron wheel rolls over the uneven ground at centimeter per second rates, whispering its squeaky complaint. When the wheel is near to touching the house, Joey lifts the handles and pivots the barrow broadside of the wall. There is a slight tremble in his limbs as he climbs into the bed, steadies himself, and with palms pressed against the rough boards for support, slowly raises his eyes to the level of the window sill.
A single light bulb hanging over a small kitchen table provides the sole illumination. Beyond its aureole, the room fades to deep shadow. The Ol' Fart is seated at the table, leaning back in a chair with a book open in his hands and his eyes focused upon a page. On the wall behind him are rows of shelves lined with books. Other than in a library, Joey has never seen so many books. Do some of them have to do with spying? Where could the shortwave radio be? He moves his head from one side of the window to the other attempting to see further into the room. To his right, he makes out a corner of what appears to be a counter or workbench. Upon it are implements, small boxes, and a fishing reel. To obtain a better look, Joey moves to his left on the wheelbarrow and finds a balance point with his left foot on the narrow handle closest to the wall. He can then see a portion of what appears to be a radio. Tingles run up his spine. He has found it. He shifts further to the left to improve his view, and with that - the bent leg of the barrow hanging an inch above ground dictates that the second leg become a fulcrum. Nature's laws are not to be denied. The wheelbarrow tips on its designated fulcrum, the wheel rises from the ground and Joey topples to the earth accompanied by the resounding clatter of tumbling metal and boy.
Joey doesn't think to give the owl hoot, but none is required. Both boys are in full flight as the Ol' Fart storms out of the door. As the boys run at terror enhanced speed, Joey says in words spaced between gasps for air, "I...saw it.....the radio...I saw it."
They have their proof. They have valuable knowledge that no one else has. And, what is now to be done about that knowledge? Well, they are seven-year-old boys after all; they have something that is theirs and theirs alone and that is how it will be kept; at least – for a while. Perhaps they will allow themselves to give a hint; just a small hint. After all, the fun in knowing something that no one else does is in their knowing that you know it.
The building that houses Borg's General Store and Tack Room sits stoically on Saddler's road near the center of the small rural community. Surrounded by chestnut and buckeye trees, the tired structure displays once whitewashed wood siding, a steep gabled roof for shedding winter snows, and a raised, covered porch to deliver patrons from winter slush and summer sun. In the middle of this warm day, Joey is the beneficiary of a nickel donated by his father and has bought for himself a fudgesicle. He is stepping onto the dusty dirt road and taking his second bite from the frozen bit of chocolate heaven when he sees the Ol' Fart coming down the road on his way to the store.
Joey loses all sense of the delight in his mouth. He stands still as if carved in stone – stone, albeit, with a shiver running up its spine. Visions of his yesterday antics come to him. But the Ol' Fart can't know it was him. How could he? There is no way. Limbs frozen by guilt and fear he watches the approach of the gangling old man, who nods at him. It is a simple nod – not unfriendly – just a nod. Joey nods back, stiffly; more a jerk than a nod. It is the first movement his body has made in a while. He feels the cold drip of melting fudgesicle on his hand and is reminded to take a bite – as if everything is normal – as if everything is alright – to make everything normal and alright.
With one foot raised to settle on the storefront porch, the Ol' Fart remembers something and returns the foot to its former position on the ground. He turns toward Joey. He then reaches into his overall pocket and takes something out to then hold in the middle of his palm for all to view.
"I think you left this up at my place," he says and hands the rock to Joey.
Unable to do anything else, Joey accepts the evidence of his guilt and stands silently, knees trembling and fighting back tears.
The old man is quietly looking at him, thinking, considering, weighing. "You like to fish, boy?" he asks.
Bereft of voice, Joey nods his head. Again – more a series of jerks than a nod.
"You got yourself a fishing pole?"
Joey shakes his head, no; horizontal jerks this time.
"Well, I got this old one I don't hardly use any more. You come by and I'll let you have it. How's that sound?"
Joey nods his head vigorously. He is, surprisingly, able to nod instead of jerk up and down like a too tightly wound up robot.
"When you come by, you can just knock on the door. You don't have to throw that rock to let me know that you're out there." The Ol' Fart gives him a last nod – it's settled then - and proceeds into the store.
Joey doesn't tell Kenny. How can he?. He can't tell Kenny that the Ol' Fart (a Kraut spy) knows that he threw the rocks, and then didn't do anything to him; didn't threaten him, didn't torture or kill him. All he did was offer him a fishing pole. Joey is a churning cauldron of emotions; relief, surprise, doubt, fear, gratitude; sampled sequentially and together. A fishing pole of his own; he thrills at the thought - How can any boy pass up on a fishing pole?
Some things have a high inevitability factor; the afternoon of the same day finds Joey at the Ol' Fart's door and announcing his presence by wrapping on it with his knuckles.
The old man opens the door and looks down at the boy, his face easy and relaxed but bearing no smile. He gives the head nod that often accompanies his experiencing of both the expected and the unexpected. "Well. So you're here. What's your name?" he asks.
"Come on in, Joey," he says and steps aside to make way. "Guess you know who I am."
"Yeah," says, Joey. "Ol'.....," he begins and stops not wanting to say the next part of the name.
The crags and fissures of the old man's face reform to create a smile. He understands. "Olaf. Olaf Farer," he says. "Oh yeah – I do know what most of them around here call me. It gives them a chuckle to push Olaf Farer into being Ol' Fart. People do like to have their chuckle. And – well; being who I am, it sort of fits, I guess." He goes over to the workbench where a fishing reel rests next to a wood encased Zenith table radio.
Joey looks at the radio. He has a memory of that radio. He sees it now; an ordinary Zenith tabletop model lacking both shortwave antenna and telegraph key.
Olaf picks up the reel and then takes a short casting rod from the wall where it rests on hooks. While setting the reel onto the rod he says, "So, it's Olaf. My friends used to call me Oley even though I'm not a Swede. You can call me that if you want." He holds the pole by its cork handle and gives it a side whip as if casting. "Nice action. I think this is what you came after, right?" He hands the rod to Joey.
"Yes, sir," replies the delighted boy, holding and admiring the gift. "Gosh! It's super. Thanks."
"Do you know how to use it now that you got it?" asks Oley.
"Well," he coughs, clears his throat, and continues, "You want to go down to the creek and give it a try?"
"Yeah," says Joey.
Oley lifts a battered gray fedora from its hook near the door and claps it on his head. The gray fedora is the last remnant of his out on the town duds from a lifetime earlier. He hands a capped jar to Joey, picks up his rod from where it leans in the corner and his tackle box sitting alongside.
With Oley in front and Joey trailing they head out the door and down the trail leading to the creek. They arrive at a brush cleared portion of the bank straddled by a short length of a felled tree.
"This'll do," says Oley. "We can fish. And we can sit. Let's rig your pole." He sets his own gear down, takes the boy's rod from him, runs the line through the guides and the tip, and ties on a nylon leader from his tackle box. He then adds two #4 barbed hooks and a lead sinker. "That's how you rig it," he says. "Now we bait the hook." He unscrews the lid of the jar Joey had carried, digs into the contained, moist earth, and withdraws a large wiggling nightcrawler. He skewers it onto the lower hook, looping and piercing it in several places so that it covers most of the hook from shank to tip. The two ends of the worm wiggle in apparent and purposeless desperation.
"Does it hurt?" asks Joey.
"Worms are rated pretty low in the animal kingdom. Cut one in half and the two parts will crawl off in different directions. Then the one without a head will grow a new one."
"But it's wiggling like it's hurting."
"Just low-level reflexes. It doesn't know what hurt means. Your turn." Olie withdraws a second nightcrawler from the jar and drops it into Joey's hand.
Following Oley's example, a peaky Joey threads the worm onto the second hook and looks up at his teacher.
"Good enough," says the old man. "Now, I'll show you how to cast it. Since you're new to it all, I'll show you the sidearm cast. I don't want you setting that hook in your ear."
The old man demonstrates with his rod and after a few attempts, Joey is able to cast his line far enough from the bank to successfully land where a fish might be wandering by.
"Reel your line in; just until it's taunt," says Olie. "Now watch the tip of your pole. When you see a wiggle, you'll feel it too. Don't do anything on the first little wiggle. That's him just, being curious - nosing the bait. Wait for more of a jerk. That's when he's taking it. Then, you jerk back – jerk back fast and set the hook"
Side by side they sit on the felled tree quietly watching their lines in the lazily moving water as it brushes along the banks and curves into an eddy in a side hollow of the stream. Joey offers up a silent mantra; bite the hook – bite the hook – bite the hook.
"If you're lucky," says Oley, "You might tie into old Spotty Sam. He hangs out around here sometimes."
"Yep – long as your arm, old as Methuselah and savvy. It'll take a pretty good fisherman to land that one."
Spotty Sam, Joey thinks, that would sure be something. Then his mind turns to the old man beside him. "Are you really a German?" he asks.
"Half." he gives a little cough, swallows to get his voice back in gear, and continues, "My father came from Bremen in Germany. My mother's family was from the Netherlands."
"Holland – like where all the tulips come from?"
Oley smiles at a thought. "Yep, where all the tulips come from. My dad used to call my mother his little tulip."
"Do you have any kids?"
"No. It didn't quite work out that way."
Joey feels a sudden slight tug on his rod and sees its end dip. Thrilled, he sucks in a quick breath of air. "A fish ….I think," he says and focuses on the tip of his rod. It wiggles slightly and is suddenly pulled downward and Joey pulls back – hard.
"Not too hard," says Oley. You don't want to tear the hook out of his mouth. It looks like you got him. Pull up on the rod and then reel in line when you ease the tip back down.."
Joey follows Oley's instructions. His line cuts through the surface of the water, leaving a tiny wake one way and then another. Joey continues raising his pole tip to then retrieve line while lowering it. He repeats the maneuver until he can see his fish near the edge of the bank.
"Drag him up onto the bank and I'll get him. You got yourself a fine little catfish" says Oley. He leans his rod against the tree trunk and scrambles down to the water's edge. He lifts the fish by the line and grabs it by its white belly with thumb and fingers edging the underside of the pectoral fins. "Have to be careful he doesn't horn you," he says. You see these fins, here, here and here -" he points.
They've got sharp spines and he'll stick you with them if you aren't careful." He sets the fish down high up on the bank where it flops and gasps as if trying to suck in air.
When Joey's hook is rebated and both lines are back cutting trails in the lazily moving stream, Oley reclaims his place on the felled tree.
"Catch another couple of those and you are on your way to a fine meal," says Oley. "I do think that Pan-fried catfish and corn on the cob are two of the more worthwhile pleasures in this world. Maybe with some collards to add a little tang."
"My Dad likes collard greens," says Joey. "I like spinach better. I didn't when I was little but my mother said it would make me strong like Popeye and now I like it."
"Popeye; there's a one for you."
"Popeye is great."
"I yam what I yam what I yam. I'm Popeye the sailor man, "muses Oley in a Popeye imitation.
"I like it when he socks out Bluto."
"And Bluto darn well deserves it. A real original is your Popeye." A thought comes to mind. "He was first, you know, but Gertrude Stein gets all the credit."
"Who's Gertrude Stein?"
"A lady writer. She said, 'A rose is a rose is a rose' – and the line became pretty famous.
"That's really dumb. Everyone knows what a rose is. I think she's dumb."
"She might have just been showing off a bit. She was making the point that there's the rose out there that you're looking at, and there's the idea of it in your mind, and then there's the name you give to it. So they're all a rose and they're all different. Anyway, I prefer Popeye's version."
"Mother, look what I caught," says Joey as he storms through the door of the cabin, two catfish dangling from one hand on a fish stringer and his fishing rod in the other. Evelyn looks up from the small kitchen table where she sits, peeling potatoes.
"My," she says, "Look at that. Good for you. Put them in the sink and your father can clean them when he comes home. That's a nice fishing pole you have there. Where did that come from?"
"Oley gave it to me. It's one he didn't need anymore."
"Yeah, Oley. Everyone calls him the Ol' Fart but his name is Oley or Olaf.
"Well, that was very nice of him."
"Yeah, he's really nice and he showed me how to fish too."
Joey is at a gathering with Kenny and three of his friends in Kenny's back yard. The back yard is comprised, for the most part, of dried, untended earth and, seemingly, well-tended, invasive weeds. Kenny has been inwardly struggling for three entire days with two warring options: the thrill he is enjoying by continuing to possess knowledge held by only himself and Joey as opposed to the thrill to be earned from the adulation he would receive from passing this heady intelligence on to others. The adulation of others is difficult to refuse and the struggle collapses into an outright surrender.
The conversation of the moment concerns the merits of Duncan inner tubes compared to Good year when making a slingshot. One thing that they all agree upon; synthetic rubber is crap and prewar inner tubes are required.
Unable to wait for a break in the conversation, Kenny interjects. "Guys," he says and pauses until he has their attention. Attention claimed, he continues, "You all know that kraut, the Ol' Fart."
They all know the Ol' Fart. Who doesn't?
Joey can already hear and dreads the words to come. He has not wanted to tell Kenny about fishing with the old man. He has not wanted to hear what Kenny would have then said. Moreover, he didn't want to hear what Kenny would have then told him he should do.
"Well," continues Kenny with a pause to add drama, "he's a Nazi spy,"
Mike, Noah, and Johann; all ears now - wait expectantly for the juicy bits to follow while Joey inwardly cringes.
"We've been spying on him," says Kenny proudly (failing to mention who the "we" includes, but by look inferring - someone of importance) and we saw his shortwave spy radio and how he sets up his antenna …." With sinister implication, he then triumphantly adds "and all."
Joey knows that the spy's short wave radio is nothing more than a common Zenith table model. But how can he justify the possession of this information? He has said nothing to Kenny about his experience with Oley. He also knows that the fact of his having gone fishing with a person labeled a Nazi spy is not one to be well received.
"Now that you guys are in the know," says Kenny importantly, "we've got to plan on how to spy on the old kraut and catch him with his fifth columnists. It's our patriotic duty"
Joey remembers hearing those words – patriotic duty - words that have the power to make refusal impossible.
"Here's what we gotta do," says Kenny, and lays out his surveillance plan.
On afternoons and evenings, they will gather at a concealed stakeout point; evenings being problematic – it will be reduced to those evenings when they can sneak away from home. They will observe and keep notes in a spy log. They will write down the names and descriptions of any fifth columnists coming to and going from the cabin. They will write down details of any suspicious activity.
"What will we do when we know who the fifth columnists are?" asks Noah.
"We'll tell the F.B.I.," answers Kenny. "The FBI will arrest the Ol' Fart and his spy gang and hang em."
"Hanging, that's what spies should get," declares Mike patriotically.
"Yeah, "concurs Johann demonstrating his patriotic zeal by squeezing his own neck with both hands while tipping his head to one side with mouth open and tongue dangling.
Joey finds himself tossed into the turbulent waters of a multi-vectored quandary; weighing and choosing one above the others - loyalty, justice, and competing friendships. Coupled with that dilemma is a deep and indefinable, but also unquestionable sense, that something is wrong. The feeling has broken through the barriers set out for his self-preservation and demands to be heard. "It's just a regular old Zenith radio," he blurts out. "And that's not an antenna. It's how he dries out his fishing line. And this is stupid. You're a bunch of jerks." He storms off grandly; proudly and redeemed.
Shocked, open-mouthed surprise abounds. Was that Joey- the Joey they all knew – saying what he has just said? Could Joey have said that – Joey - really?
Joey is carrying his fishing rod when he raps on Oley's door. He hears the creak of floorboards and the door swings open.
"Joey," says Oley, "what brings you around here?"
"I thought you might want to go fishing," says Joey tentatively.
"Well," Oley gives it thought. "The fish might not be too happy about it.....But why not?"
Soon they are sitting on the tree trunk, lines in the water listening to the creek's soft gurgle, feeling the sun's warmth on their backs, watching and waiting; watching the lines, watching the water – watching, waiting.
Joey says, "I'm sorry I threw rocks at your house."
"Don't fret. I was a boy once. Hard as that is to believe. Did more than my share of things I oughten to have"
"Some guys I know are saying stuff about you."
"Well, that does happen, doesn't it? People just naturally take pleasure in saying stuff"
"They're saying that you're a Nazi spy."
Oley laughs. "A Nazi spy; that's a good one. So these guys you know; I suspect they might be about your age."
"Bet you a dollar to a doughnut your friends all listen to Gangbusters. Probably you do too."
Joey does. He quite definitely listens to Gangbusters. In his mind's ear, he can hear the radio program's opening: the shrill scream of a police whistle followed by the myriad footfalls of convicts marching in formation, then a police siren wailing, followed by the climactic ending with machine guns firing, and tires squealing. "Yeah, we all do."
"I have to admit, I listen to it myself," says Oley and imitates the audience familiar, deep, authoritative announcer's voice, "Tonight, Gang Busters presents the Case of the Ol' Fart Spy Ring." He chuckles at the thought and continues, "Brought to you by the makers of Sloan's Liniment which the Ol' Fart endorses and uses to ease his very own aches and pains." The familiar, craggy smile claims his face while he deliberates. He asks, "So then – you and these guys; you all do have your Junior G-man badges - I hope."
Joey smiles in return, enjoying that Oley is kidding him. "Some of us. I got one for Christmas in a Dick Tracy detective kit. It had a gun, a billy club, handcuffs, and a badge."
"That's good. The whole works there. You don't want to be going after dangerous criminals ill-equipped."
"The handcuffs are junk though. I can unlock them and get out of them myself."
"I prefer rope myself; old school - more dependable."
"And the gun only shoots sparks."
"Good enough to scare em." So how did your clever friends come to figure out that I was a spy?"
"Kenny's dad told Kenny. He told him you were a Nazi."
"Ah, Uh-huh," says Oley and then repeats the, "Uh-huh," clearing his throat of something somewhere lodged.
Joey elaborates, "And Kenny figured you probably had to have some fifth column guys you were working with."
Oley grunts softly to move something in his bronchia and says nothing.
Joey feels that the silence wants filling. "Kenny can be kind of a jerk sometimes."
Oley considers this and comments."The imagination of the young is pretty lacking in restraints. I consider that a good thing. But, it can also – now and then - be troublesome."
"Why don't you have a wife," says Joey with the directness of the young and in whose experience a wife is an integral part of adult manhood.
Oley takes his time to respond. "I did once; the best few years of my life."
"Consumption took her." He adds, "Way too early."
"So she's in heaven with God now?"
"Some would say."
"Don't you believe she's with God?"
Oley slowly and silently shakes his head.
Joey considers the unspoken response and asks, "Don't you believe in God?"
"Many do. I know that. I don't happen to."
"Why not?" asks Joey who is of the opinion that everyone believes in God.
Oley watches the tip of his rod twitch slightly and come back to rest; some fish checking out the bait but lacking dedicated intent, or perhaps is spooked by the barbed hook. "A serious question," Oley declares. "To my mind, folks are mostly uncomfortable about not being able to explain things; like -how we all happen to be here, how the world came to be – sun, moon stars – all that. Most folks are just uncomfortable without some reason to account for it. They need an explanation; a story or maybe a legend – they can tell each other, for why things are what they. It makes them feel more easy about it all. So, somehow some story gets made up. God's one of those stories. There's God stories all over the place. Every race, tribe, and culture seems to have their own God story; some different, some a lot the same. But there sure is a lot of them, a whole lot. Now then, when you go to pick one to go along with for yourself – how do you know which?".
"The one in the bible," suggests Joey. "The bible is the word of God."
"Word of God; yes, a lot of people say that." Oley wants to smile but holds it back. This is serious stuff and not to be lightly treated. "You do know, don't you, that the bible was all written by men – just like you and me – just men. It's a bunch of stories written by men about what they thought was true in their time. That's one reason the biblical God changes so much from way back to now. The bible's God at the end isn't the same as the one in the beginning."
"My mother and father believe in God," says Joey in defense of the family belief.
"Don't take me wrong, Joey. I'm not saying there is no God. Your folks might be right. It's just that an almighty God just doesn't work for me. That's all I'm saying."
"My mother says you have to have faith," argues Joey who has concern for this old man whom he likes but who doesn't believe in God.
"So – faith; the definition being as I understand it - believing in something for which there is no absolute proof. That's another heady topic to get into." A thought comes to mind bringing with it a chuckle. "Kinda like me being this Nazi; your friend Kenny says I am, cuz his father says I am and so I am. Don't know that anyone ever brought up any evidence or proof, but there I am, a Nazi; it's a matter of faith."
It is at that moment the capricious and teasing fish finally deciding to take the bait and run with it. "Got you, you little dickens," Oley says, pulling back on his pole and reeling. Soon a large catfish lies struggling on the beach and Oley is kneeling to extract the hook. "Greedy bugger swallowed the hook he says." He cuts the leader with his pocket knife and brings the fish back to the top of the bank. When he opens his tackle box to get a new hook Joey sees trays lined with a brightly colored assortment of fishing lures.
"Do you fish with those?" asks Joey.
"Lures - you bet."
Among the lures, Joey spots a gold medallion with a red, white, and blue ribbon attached. "What's that?" he says pointing at it.
"Oh – just a little doodad I got during the war. I thought I might try making it into a lure."
"How do you fish with lures?"
"It's a whole different kind of fishing. Come to think of it, you might like it. Tell you what. Let's have you give it a try." He selects a silver spinner that revolves around a small orange sinker and attaches it to his line. Oley's fishing rod is distinct from Joey's in being longer and having a spinning reel mounted on the underside. He makes an overhead cast landing the spinner downstream and near the far side of the creek. He then begins to reel it back in. "See how you do it," he says. "You stop, let it settle a little, and then reel in some. You vary it – a little slower – then a little faster. The idea is to make some fish think the spinner is his dinner headin' for the other shore. Here – you give it a try." He hands the spinning rod to Joey.
Joey takes it and does as instructed. This is fun. He can feel the vibration of the spinner transferred through the line to the rod in his hands. When the spinner arrives at the nearshore, Oley takes the rod back, makes another cast, and returns it to Joey. Joey begins reeling and when the spinner reaches midstream something strikes it and the rod is suddenly being pulled one way and then another.
"You got one says, Oley. "Do like I told you – raise the tip of your pole slowly and then reel in as you let the tip down."
Moments later a silver and black mottled fish lays flipping and flopping on the bank.
"You got yourself a Crappie," says, Olie. "That's the best tasting white water fish there is."
At the end of the day, as they walk back to the cabin, Joey's mind is chewing on the gristle of an earlier thought. He asks Oley, "So, you don't have faith and that's why you can't believe in god and stuff?"
"Damn, but aren't you rough on me." He shakes his head in mock despair at the ordeal being imposed upon him. "I'm just cynical, Joey. That can happen to you when you get old. I can believe in things. There are things that I do believe; I just want there to be some real proof behind them. To go around believing things that don't have any proof. Well, I just can't do that like I once could."
Joey is not ready to give up. "So you don't believe in Jesus."
"I do. I do believe in Jesus. There's some pretty good proof that there was a Jesus walking this earth."
"But Jesus was the son of god."
"Yep - Well, to my mind, he was the son of god - In the same way, as you and I are; just as much as anyone is – or daughter, for that matter. Daughters ought to be included for sure." He is hoping to wind down the conversation. He feels out of his depth with this serious boy. "So that's how I see it."
"So - you believe in Jesus, but you don't believe in god," clarifies Joey.
"You're like a damn dog worrying bone, aren't you?" He sighs. "I allow there probably was a Jesus because there's a lot of proof to say so. And, I'll say that I agree with a lot he said, but no -I don't believe in god."
"If you don't believe in God, do you believe in Heaven?"
"Can't say I do. Nor hell for that matter."
"But then - your wife – if she isn't in heaven, she's just gone. She lived and then she died and it's just over"
"Nothing is ever over," replies Oley. "It only changes. At least that's how I think of it. Change, change; it's all about changes. Everything there is - is always changing." He wants to help the boy understand his thoughts. He tries to explain by metaphors, "It's kind of like that stream flowing there: it's always moving, always changing, or it wouldn't be what it is. A long way from here it will change into being part of the ocean. While it's on its way to doing that, it's being sucked into the grass along its banks and it becomes part of the grass. It's sucked up by the roots of the trees and it becomes part of the trees. Little bits of it so small you can't even see them are being sucked up into the air becoming part of the air you and I are breathing, the air we're sucking in; becoming part of us. That's the way I see it; being with you and me, with everything – and always has been. So then, in that way - we're all part of everything else and everything else is part of us. Nothing is ever over and done. It just changes.
Joey goes silent. He has a lot to think about.
Oley is grateful for the moment of quiet and hopes this blissful silent break will last for a bit. He turns his attention to the tip of his rod.
Lamentably, when reference is to the young – all silent breaks have an inherent time limit.
"Since you don't believe in heaven, aren't you afraid of dying?" asks Joey.
Oley releases a barely audible sigh. "When I was young I was afraid of it - quite a bit, I'd say. There were too many things I hadn't done, and that I wanted to do. Now - well, I've done most of those things. I loved the woman that I wanted to love. I've done most of the things that I really wanted to do. I've been lucky in friends; had some of the best friends a person could want – but they're all dead now, and I made the mistake of living past em. With all of them gone; when most of the people you loved are gone, life can be okay, but it just isn't as much fun. And then, topping it off, when your body gets a might weary and old your legs lose their spunk; you sometimes feel like a long nap might not be such a bad idea. No. Joey – I'm not much afraid of dying."
When they arrive back at Oley's cabin they see a large swastika painted in black with Go Home Nazi, written in large letters beneath. Joey looks at Oley, wanting to say something but not knowing what. Oley studies the defilement, lowers his head, and takes a breath. His neighbor steps out of his front door and calls out, "Hey, O Oley. That was there when I got home. I didn't see who done it. Sorry."
"Hi, Jake." Says, Oley. He looks at the vandalized wall – thinking and flatly concludes, "Guess it was patriots."
"What kind of patriots might that be?" asks Jake.
"The poorer kind," replies Oley. He smiles at the thought and adds, "expressing a matter of faith."
Small communities have, in common; an entertainment void that begs to be filled. When filling that void, the allure of content will generally trump over that of veracity and ignore the lack thereof. As newly acquired information, valued for its elevated interest factor, lays a trail from mouth to ear to mouth to ear, it is rarely critically examined or questioned. It is, however, always quite eagerly passed on.
German, Nazi, Fascist: softly, secretively; the words are sucked into the greedy null to be rapidly circulated.
Olaf Farer has always been a reserved man; never one to aggressively engage in conversation with casual acquaintances. That being so, on this day when he comes to the general store to buy some whitewash, he senses a chill hanging in the social ether. Neither hello nor how are you are offered when he pays up at the counter, he is told only the tally, nothing more. When people look at him, they either turn their heads quickly away or look at him over-long; as if he were something to be studied. He has lived among his kind long enough to understand the subtext – to understand.
He returns home to find fresh brushwork decorating his front door; NAZI in bold black letters. He collects a paintbrush from his tool cupboard, opens the can of whitewash, and goes to work.
Joey is walking with his mother to John's Poultry Pen to pick up a roasting hen for dinner. John's chickens all run free in the fenced-in yard behind a three-sided shed containing a counter, an electric chicken plucker, and a propane tank with a wall-mounted torch for burning off pin feathers. "That one," says Evelyn, pointing to her choice.
John collects, and dispatches the condemned creature, holds it against the rotating plucker, and then torches the pin feathers. While wrapping it in butcher paper he asks, "You want the feet, Mam?"
"Yes," she replies, "They're good for the stock."
As Joey walks out of the shed with his mother, he spots Kenny and Johann across the street.
"Kraut lover," calls out Kenny when he sees Joey. Then, with a smug look, he says something to Johann.
Evelyn looks at her son with concern. "What's that about? I thought Kenny was your friend."
Joey wishes that life didn't have to be so complicated; so difficult to explain. "He's just being a jerk," he says summing it up and then directing the conversation in a more pleasant direction asks, "Do you think we might be able to get some Raisinets?"
"I think we might," says Evelyn and they head down the street to Borg's General Store.
Joey is a Nazi lover; words to be savored and passed on. It takes little time for the information to spread. Joey is soon wanting in playmates.
As with most of his species, Joey has an essential craving for social engagement. He now fills that need by more frequently visiting the place where he is welcomed; the cabin of the Old Nazi – at once the source of his current social problem and his refuge.
Oley is happy to have the boy's company and permits Joey to use his spinning rod while he teaches him the fisherman's art of overhand casting. One day Joey catches a bass on one of the lures and is ecstatic. "Wow!" he says, and then again. (Wow! Wow!) because catching his first bass certainly warrants more than one Wow.
It is early morning and Olie is mixing batter for pfannkuchen in a bowl. He doesn't know why; perhaps the return of an old habit – a reflex submitted to – the calling up of a small happy fragment from the past? It seems to him now; no more than an obligatory chore. When his wife had lived, it had been a labor of joy. She had loved his German Pancakes and with every whip of the ladle, he had anticipated her pleasure. He would throw the apple slices into the pan to be sweetly browned before adding the serpentine dribble of the batter – thinking about how all were to be savored in her mouth, bringing out her smile. That was then. This is now. Now making pfannkuchen is just another chore.
There is a rap on the door. These days there is but one person who raps on his door – besides, he recognizes its pattern. "Come on in, Joey," he says.
Joey enters with the fishing rod that recently seems to always be attached to his hand.
"You must have known I was cooking pfannkuchen," says Olie.
"What is puff..an..koochens?"
"German pancakes. The way my grandmother used to make them." His voice grows hoarse and he clears his bronchia. "Sorry – morning voice. Set down your gear and have a seat. There's a few Benham apple trees, the other side of Jake's. They're early birds and they're starting to come ripe." He goes to the wood stove and turns over the apple slices that lay sizzling in the cast iron pan. "So – it's time for pfannkuchens."
Joey watches a thin apple studded pancake being slid onto a plate, sprinkled with powdered sugar topped with a large dollop of applesauce, and set before him. He picks up his fork, cuts out a small portion, and puts it into his mouth. He looks at Oley, smiling with pleasure, and says. "That is really, really good."
Oley watches him; the chore had, in the end, turned out to be worthwhile; had brought about a smile. He makes a pancake for himself and sits at the table across from Joey.
"My dad likes to fish too," says Joey. "That's why we stay here in the summertime. He has to work all week but on the weekends, he likes to go fishing."
"Your dad must have heard; this part of Mosquito Creek is a pretty good spot. Not too many people know about it – not yet anyway."
"What happened to all your flowers out in front?" asks Joey.
"I didn't know anything had," says Olie. He rises from the table and goes to the door. He swings it open and steps outside to see that all of the Azaleas have been ripped from their pots and now lay strewn about the yard. He comes back in, his face somber and thoughtful. "Someone tore them all out," he says. They were Anna's favorite – my wife, Anna. That's why I still grow them."
"That's really awful," says Joey. "I'll bet it was Kenny and them,"
"I suppose." He takes in a couple of breaths while he thinks. "You, know, Joey – for the most part, children are pretty much okay. They come into the world being quite fine people until adults show them how to be otherwise."
"Adults like Kenny's dad," surmises Joey.
"Might be," says Olie. "I don't know the man – but might be."-
"Someone should talk to him."
"Well, some people you can talk to and they hear you, and some people you can talk to and they only hear themselves. It's important to know the difference before you go wasting your breath."
One morning when Joey visits Oley, he finds the old man with a bucket and a scouring brush scrubbing egg residue from the side of the house. Two days later when he comes, Oley is picking up litter that had been strewn across the yard. Joey joins in helping collect the clutter and transfer it to a metal garbage can. "You should call the sheriff," says Joey.
"Not much he can do without catching them in the act and I don't think he's going to want to sit around waiting for them to show up."
"But it's gotta be Kenny and them. I know it's them."
"Knowing is one thing. Proving is another. They'll get tired of it in a while, or find something else more interesting."
"But it's not right," declares, Joey.
"No, it's not right. But this old universe we find ourselves in doesn't give a damn about right and wrong; nor, come to think of it, do many of the critters in it. Don't fret over it, Joey. They're just misguided boys doing what misguided boys do."
"So, you aren't going to do anything?
"Oh yeah; I'm doing something - I'm going to outlast them."
Joey has a narrower view. Kenny and his friends are being cruel and mean. In his young world, such behavior deserves punishment.
Joey tells his father what is going on.
Big Joe agrees with his son and allows that Kenny's father should be told what his son is doing.
One evening he stops by Kenny's house and knocks on the door. The door is opened by a rangy man wearing a frayed denim work shirt and trousers.
"Mr. Lawton?" inquires big Joe.
I'm Joe Holik; young Joey's dad." He holds out his hand.
Lawton takes the offered hand as if it were something of no interest that he would rather not hold.
"It's about Kenny," explains Big Joe. "Something I thought you should know."
"There's this old man that lives on the road along Mosquito Creek."
"Your son and his friends have been giving him a little grief of late; painting things on his house, egging it, strewing trash – that sort of thing. I just thought you should know."
"You talking about Ol' Fart's place?"
"Olaf Farer; yes I am."
"So – the Ol' Fart," Lawton corrects assertively. "The fuckin' kraut Nazi. Well good on him," he says and slams the door.
Near summer's end, Joey visits Oley one last time.
"We're packing today and leaving early tomorrow," says Joey.
"Sorry to hear. I kind of got used to you being around," says Oley. "I find some nuisances to be more agreeable than others," he adds, making it a joke.
Joey smiles. He likes Oley's backhanded, jokey compliments. "We'll be back again next summer."
"Right – and then we'll go after Spotty Sam."
"Well, while you're off - you be careful about whose house you go throwing rocks at"
"Yes sir. I'll be real careful."
On a spring morning the following year, Joe Holik settles his family into another cabin within the Mosquito Creek community. When the unpacking is done, Joey, fishing pole in hand, is out of the door heading towards Oley's. Excited to see his friend, he hurries along the dirt road and down the weed overgrown path to the creaky, lopsided cabin. As he nears it he can still discern some of the edges of the black swastika beneath the whitewashed cover. He is sorrowed by the reminder. When he raps on the door there is no response. He raps again more loudly and calls out, " Oley – hey, Oley. It's me, Joey."
Next door, Jake hears his call and comes out into his front yard. "Hey, Joey. So you're back."
"Hi, Jake. Yeah – we just got back this morning. Where's Oley?"
Jake walks over slowly thinking about what words he wants to use. "Well, Oley left us?"
"Left?" Left – what does left mean?
"He was doing a bit poorly mid-winter. He's had some problems ever since he was gassed way back. You know, in the war - over in Germany. That gassin' kind of messed up his lungs and I guess it got worse in the cold months. Anyway, before he went - he talked about you and he asked me to keep some things for you. Wait here an' I'll go get em.
Joey stands silent, benumbed. The world about him has taken on a curious vagueness; one with fuzzy edges. The ground beneath his feet seems strangely insubstantial.
Jake returns shortly carrying Oley's spinning rod and tackle box. "He thought you could make use of these." He holds them out.
Joey accepts them, holding both rods in one hand and the tackle box in the other. He struggles against the tears that want to come.
Jake understands and is sympathetic to the boy's distress. "He said to tell you that he was more than ready for a good long nap and for you to remember what he said about nothing; nothing ever being over. And he said something about a stream too – oh yeah -he said you should just think – like as if he is just joining the stream. I think that was how he said it"
"Where did they put him?" asks Joey unable to speak the word, bury.
"Down in the common. There's a board sticking up there with his name. He didn't leave any money for a stone marker."
The following morning Joey tells his mother that he's going after Spotty Sam and heads off to the creek with his spinning rod and tackle box. He goes to the part of the bank near the side hollow with its endlessly swirling eddy. He stands quietly, breathing in the creek's bouquet of primal decay coupled with the sweetness of new growth blossoms; a ritual he had often practiced upon arriving. He breathes in again and savors the known and friendly aroma that in some mysterious way speaks of timelessness
He opens the tackle box, takes out a treble hook spinning lure, and attaches it to his line. He casts it to the far side of the eddy and slowly retrieves, varying the speed as Oley had taught him. He looks at the slowly coursing stream that is becoming part of the grass, trees, and air; himself – everything. With each breath, he thinks of it becoming part of him. He makes another cast and reels and as he reels he offers up a silent prayer. His prayer is that this stream will go on changing forever and that Spotty Sam will never be caught.