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Original Issue

Burning one's bridges to the past

He awaited retirement eagerly, a time to fish and feel the sun, but when it came, the old man on the highway span was sadly disillusioned

One day some years ago I drove from Miami to Palm Beach for a business appointment, and it was on the kind of day that causes a man to move to Florida in the first place. Bright, sunny, with just enough homemade divinity in the sky to break up the monotony of the flat horizon. It was a goof-off day, and because I was goofing off I took the slower but scenic AIA route after the maze at Fort Lauderdale.

I crossed a drawbridge past Deerfield Beach and noticed the cluster of ancient fishermen on the crest of the bridge, their lines dripping over the concrete balustrade. But there was one old man down at the end of the bridge, well away from the other fishermen. The water was shallow near the bank, and I wondered why he didn't move higher up, where he could cast into deeper water. Perhaps the old man had discovered a deep pool or an eddy that could not be seen from the highway. Perhaps, if the old man had not been standing all alone, I would not have noticed him.

The business transaction in Palm Beach was pleasant. The man who gave me the check was happy to do so because the money belonged to his company and not to him, and I was happy to get the check because I had already worked out a great way to spend it when I got back to Miami.

Going home, I drove even slower than on the way to Palm Beach. This time when I approached the drawbridge below Deerfield the jaws were open. I parked on the side of the road and walked over to the abutment to watch a powerboat chug through. The captain, or pilot, wore a Navy blue flannel jacket and a yellow silk scarf. The woman with him, however, was wearing an orange bikini and a heavy layer of suntan oil. I could smell the woman and the coconut in the oil as the boat passed. The boat was almost out of sight before I spoke to the old man, who was still there, still fishing.

"Catching anything, Pop?"

He nodded. "Three bream. More'n I wanted to catch."

He was a clean old man, wearing stiff khaki chinos, blue canvas tennis shoes and a long-billed cap. His long-sleeved sport shirt still had starch in it, even though he had been standing out in the sun all day. His face was close-shaven and there was a scaly circle on each cheek the color of a ripe Valencia orange. Sun cancers. Benign, of course, but potentially dangerous—and sometimes they itch a little. I had one carved off my left temple by a dermatologist for $50, and it left a round white scar the size of a dime. Now that we are all wearing our hair a little longer, the scar is almost hidden. Florida fishermen get them constantly. Even if you wear a hat the reflection from the water gets to your face. But the prospect of sun cancers has had no statistical effect on the mass migration of old men to Florida.

I looked into this one's yellow plastic bucket. It held a Col. Sanders snack box, an empty Nehi bottle and a wadded Oh Henry wrapper.

"Where are the fish?"

He shrugged. "I turned 'em loose."

"But bream are supposed to be good eating."

"If you like to eat fish, they are."

"You don't eat fish?"

He shook his head. "No, and I don't like fishin', either."

I didn't laugh. I took out a cigarette, and offered the pack to the old man. His fingers reached out, and then he swiftly pulled back his hand.

"I don't smoke," he said firmly.

After lighting my cigarette I said, not unkindly, "If you don't like to fish and you don't eat fish, why have you been fishing all day? I remember seeing you in this same spot when I crossed the bridge at around nine this morning." He was silent.

"Because," he said at last, "I don't know what else to do. Before I retired I was a vice-president of an insurance company in St. Louis. And this is what I always thought I wanted to do someday, retire to Florida and fish. The first day I tried it I discovered I disliked it. But by that time it was too late. I had already bought a house, and my wife wouldn't let me stay home during the day.

"So I fish. Every day. In the beginning I used to take my catch home. But when I did, my wife felt that it was her duty to cook them. And I hate the taste of fish, the stink of fish and even the smell of other fishermen. That's why I stand down here by myself. Now when I go home in the evening I tell my wife that I didn't catch anything. It's simpler that way. She doesn't have to prepare the fish, and I don't have to eat any."

"Why don't you stay home and get a hobby of some kind?"

"I'd love to, but a woman can't stand to have a man around all day. I'd like to stay home and watch TV. The house is air conditioned, and"—he fingered the sun cancers—"maybe I could get these things cleared up. But my wife gets jittery when I'm around the house, and runs me out. And after talking about wanting to come to Florida for 30 years I can't tell her that I hate to fish."

"To get it straight: You hate to fish, but you're forced by circumstances to fish every day."

"That's about the size of it. I believe I will take one of those cigarettes if you don't mind."


He was a fine old man with fissured character lines and pale but keen eyes. The white hair that puffed out below his cap was more plentiful than mine. I thought about the check in my billfold. If this tough old man had handled the insurance deal instead of the young guy in Palm Beach, the check would have been halved. At least 67, maybe 68, the fisherman had several more unhappy years ahead on this bridge.

"I guess that you'll be fishing here tomorrow, then?" I said.

"That's right." He returned the cigarettes and lighter. "When 8:30 rolls around, I'll be standing right here with my line out."

"I—I hope you don't catch anything!"

"Thanks," he said gravely. "I appreciate that."

I returned to my car, and driving over the bridge wondered about the other old men who were there. How many fished because they had to and not because they wanted to? It was a cinch that none of them fished out of necessity, out of hunger. How many of these fishermen, like the man I had talked with, hated fishing as much as he did but didn't have the guts to admit it?

I reviewed my own fishing experiences. When I was younger and living in Los Angeles, a gang of us occasionally went out to the all-night fishing barge off Santa Monica. But we never did much fishing. We would try for half an hour or so, and someone might catch a barracuda or a sand shark, and then we would all go inside where it was warm and drink beer and play poker for the rest of the night. None of us really liked to fish. We used the overnight barge merely as an excuse to get drunk and play poker.

Once in Bimini I tried sailfishing on a charter boat, but I got seasick after an hour and, to the captain's disgust, made him take me back to the dock. The only other time I could remember going out for fish was in Georgia while I was stationed at Fort Gordon. A sergeant I knew had a musette bag full of concussion grenades. We killed half a dozen bass, a dozen frogs and a cottonmouth that day. The bass, after being roasted over a smoky fire, tasted like salted buffalo chips. By the end of the day I had a swollen face full of mosquito bites, and chiggers all over my arms and hands. By the following morning the scratches on the backs of my hands had festered, and they resembled yellow worms. All day long I had been fearful of getting caught with the bag of grenades. The sergeant claimed, falsely as I discovered later, that the laws against fishing with explosives didn't apply to professional soldiers.

After reviewing these admittedly limited experiences I knew that I hated fishing and that I would never go fishing again.

This was live years ago. Since then, on my own and without the help of a federal grant, I have talked to a lot of fishermen, more than a hundred altogether. My random sampling has included cane pole fishermen, commercial fishermen, charter boat captains and clients and even some of the men who go out on tie shrimp boats at Fort Myers Beach. It is something no fisherman likes to admit, but after you work on them for awhile, gain their confidence and break down their defenses (machismo is definitely tied up with this thing, you know), every man I have talked the matter over with has finally admitted, or confessed, that he truly hated fishing!

The only excuse for fishing, like hand-to-hand combat, is that it gives you something to do with your hands. There it is, the ugly truth about fishing for "pleasure" and for profit. I spend a good deal of time—too much—just sitting and don't get nearly enough exercise. Last night, to do something about it, I dug out my bowling shoes and ball and drove to the nearest alley. Not wanting to bowl alone, I asked a guy who was putting on his shoes if he wanted to bowl with me.

"If you want to," he replied.

"Fine. You can go first."

"No," he said, "go ahead."

"All right. You can keep the score."

"No." He shook his head. "I don't keep score."

I laughed. "You sound like a guy who doesn't like...." I didn't finish the sentence. In the morning my back muscles would ache, and the stiffness would bother me all day. My thumb and middle finger would be swollen and sore.

Without another word, and without keeping score, we grimly rolled about 10 lines before we earned enough manhood to call it quits and get the hell out of there.