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Original Issue


At 62, the Splendid Splinter is none too slender, but he still is hard-hitting when talking of baseball and the outdoor life

I didn't see him go over. It was more a matter of hearing it happen from a temporary limbo, as one knows a home run has been hit while one is at a concession stand buying a hot dog. In this case the tip-off was a shrill relaying of information from Edna the housekeeper, stationed at a vantage point (I could only imagine) near the window overlooking the river. There she often stands to look out, never farther than a broom handle's length or two from her beloved skillets and double boilers. "Lord, God! Come quick! Ted's in the water!"

I was in the basement, suffering a communications gap with the long-distance operator. The telephone is at the bench where he ties his flies. Usually it's sequestered among the mounds of animal hair, bird feathers and strands of tinsel that comprise the backbone of the wardrobe of his petite creations. As a concession to the outside world, he will sometimes answer it there; upstairs, when he's preparing to fish or to eat or to sleep or to make entries in his log, he's more likely to give it the indifference he thinks it deserves. In the local directory, the phone is listed under "Spaulding Trappers Association," or an equivalent, to further discourage intrusions.

I hung up on the operator, glad for the excuse, and bounded up the steps to the main floor of the cabin. Edna was now on the porch. Her apron was at her mouth. I banged through the screen door but had to pull up short to allow my eyes to adjust to the late-afternoon glare off the Miramichi. Framed by the white birch trees that surround the camp, the great glittering ribbon dominated an altogether lovely view. It's hard to think of the Miramichi as being a party to violence, but like all rivers it gets its share, and more than that now that the high incidence of salmon poaching has led to bloodshed.

It is 100 feet, almost straight down, from his porch to the river. When I finally saw him, he was already out of the deep water and trudging through the shallows, pulling the canoe behind him by the painter. He had taken on a Rockwellian perspective; he looked like a large worn-out boy trailing home his sled after a day on the hills.

We waited for him.

"You don't look so hot," I said as he reached the knoll at the top of the crude steps that lead up from the river.

"I'm all right," he said, wheezing.

He wasn't really all right. He was an obelisk of wet leather and rubber and soaked-through flannel, and the water squished in his waders. His breath came in audible bursts and made cartoon balloons in the cold New Brunswick air. He sat down heavily on the bench and began to remove his waders.

"Roy says you're a cow in a canoe."

"There's a lot of jealousy around here," he said. "A lot of jealousy."

"What happened?"

"The water's high and I wanted to fish a spot on the other side. I was standing up, poling across, and the pole got pinched against the middle of the canoe by the current. All of a sudden I was over."

(I had a flash image of a grim scenario: of the pole banging into his head, of the canoe smothering him, of his waders filling with water and tugging him down, of the river rushing over him. CANOE FLIPS; HALL-OF-FAMER WASHED INTO OBLIVION.)

"You better get right in and take a warm bath and get some dry clothes on," Edna said, her practical jaw set. She was looking at him sternly. "You'll catch your death."

"No time to shower. I'm going to change and go back," he said, and abruptly stood up and lumbered through the door. I watched the screen tremble and looked at Edna. She rolled her eyes.

"He'd do that?" I asked. "He'd go back now, cold as it is, after almost drowning?"

"It's still light, ain't it?" said Edna, and went inside. She had, after all, said her piece.

Roy Curtis, Edna's husband and Ted's guide, arrived soon after that. He'd been off in the pickup on an errand and came back to fetch Edna home just as Ted retraced the steps to the river in dry clothes and waders. Told of the near catastrophe, Roy joined me on the porch to watch, both of us now well jacketed against the evening's advance. He said that he and Ted had already fished a full day without luck at another place, and after Edna had filled them with the usual surfeit of calories, Ted announced his intentions to salvage something here, at the home pool.

The Curtises have been in Ted's employ since the late 1950s. They bestow on him a tender but cautious devotion, not so much on account of his celebrity, which they merely tolerate, but because of his uniqueness. He brings to their lives security in a wretchedly insecure world—a third of the citizens of New Brunswick are on relief in the winter—and the uneasy excitement parents might feel in rearing a generous but temperamental prodigy. In turn, they ensure that all his needs on the river are taken care of. The porch where we stood was built by Roy; he had, in fact, helped build all three cabins in the camp. In the fishing season, he not only fishes with Ted but also guides the visitors Ted favors with invitations to the camp. In the winter he makes repairs and sees to the cutting of wood for the Franklin stove.

I asked Roy if he remembered the first time they had fished together, and he said yes, in 1955, "when we were both young fellers." Roy is a stockily built man, 60ish, with cloudy blue eyes and cheeks that glow like slabs of country ham. In his taciturnity, he makes the perfect companion for a fishing genius. That and the fact that he's highly respected among the salmon guides of the province for his expertise make him special. The evaluations Ted seeks in fishing matters wouldn't be given by sycophants.

"He asked me if I knew anything about salmon fishing," Roy said.

"What did you tell him?"

"I said, 'Some.' "

"He was pretty cocky, uh?"

"No. Well, yes. Maybe a little. But in 40 years on the river I've met an awful lot of fishermen and most of 'em either they can't fish at all or after a year or so they start telling you. Most of 'em you have to straighten out, for sure."

"You had to straighten Ted out?"

He grinned. "Some. But don't tell him I told you that. Thing is, I liked him right off. He's such a great big kid, you know. Just a dandy feller to be with. And, of course, now I really can't tell him anything. He likes to tell me."

"I think he believes he's the best," I said. "Is he the best?"

"The best I've seen," said Roy. "Forty years, and I ain't seen none better, no. There's days a feller can beat him, maybe, but day in day out, he's the best. He can do it all. He can tie the best flies, rig 'em just right. He can cast to the toughest spots. He can cover more water than anybody. He knows exactly how to play a fish and he has a fine steady hand to release 'em, and that's an art, for sure. Sometimes I sit on the bank and never lift a finger."

"I bet you like that."

Roy ignored me. "And persistent? Oh, my. He'll stay out there all day, any kind of weather. Stay and stay."

Roy nodded at the river, and we watched from our perch. Ted was alone now, moving along the near side of the Miramichi, now a silver gash—casting, moving a step or two downriver, casting, moving. Edna brought us Scotch to warm the vigil. The silence between us grew as we watched. Then, when it was almost impossible to see, there was a small detonation on the surface of the water, a flash of tumbling flesh and a quick one-sided battle. The lone figure moved to the river's edge, his rod held high in one hand, his other reaching down as he bent over.

"He's releasing it?" I asked.

"Yeah," said Roy.

"All day for one fish, and he's releasing it?"

"Yeah," said Roy. "Persistent."

It has been Ted Williams' dream to one day own a shrimp trawler, 75 feet or better, carefully appointed with gun and tackle rooms and enough of the essentials of life to accommodate a man who eats well and recreates vigorously, and then to spend the rest of his days scouring the world for fish he has never caught and animals he has never hunted. He read that Zane Grey had a boat he used for just those purposes. The image of Grey at the helm, restrained only by the injunctions of wind and tide, made the writer a hero of Ted's.

Whenever Williams talks of this dream voyage, the enthusiasm that makes him so volatile a conversationalist—he doesn't converse, actually; he competes, he challenges, he needles—is rekindled. "Being there is what I love," he says. "Away from people. Away from the telephone. I can't think of anyone who got more fun out of life than Zane Grey, traveling, hunting and fishing...."

The dream was nurtured during the early years of Ted's major league career when, as a singular hero/anti-hero who seemed always to be in the vortex of controversy, he came to rely on the rivers and streams of North America and the saltwater flats and channels of the Florida Keys and any number of wilderness areas for isolation and relief. The more Williams suffered the trespasses of his idolators and the pryings of his critics, the more he retreated until, in middle age, he had wittingly fashioned for himself an idyllic outdoorsman's life—fish where and for what he wanted, hunt where and when he pleased.

He never bought that big shrimper. He has had the money to buy a dozen like it, but he has only talked about it, dabbing at the image as if it were a favorite painting that needed constant retouching. I suspect that he'll never buy the boat, that he'll just go on talking about it forever, or at least until he's done once and for all with the first love of his life, the love that held him for 25 years as a player, seduced him, kicking and screaming, out of retirement to manage the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers for four years—"What a lousy job that was," he says—and even now, in the spring, brings him back to advise the young hitters of the Boston Red Sox in Florida. (For a fee, of course.)

The passion for hitting a baseball is still on him; the batting cage and batter's box remain beguiling places. In his youth they were the wellsprings of his expression, the laboratories where he fashioned as scientific an understanding of the art of hitting as the game has ever known. His love for the possibilities they pose continues to compete with the full-grown tugs of nature that take him so far away' from the arenas where he once starred.

Off Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, I have held on as he perilously rocked his bonefishing skiff while standing to demonstrate the proper way to hit a low outside pitch: "Hell, you can't pick your nose on this've got to be quick, be quick with the bat." I have seen him leap from a circle of fishermen on the edge of a jungle in Costa Rica to heft an imaginary bat and hit towering imaginary home runs: "See that? It's an upswing, not a downswing or a level swing. They've been getting that wrong for years, the so-called batting experts."

The fits of temper—the spitting, the gesturing—that marked him with Boston fans have long faded from the composite of his image. With time, cleaner, more agreeable lines have emerged that define him better. Like many loners, it was only the rude crowds he hated—that part of being a celebrity. The rest of his feelings were really not so intense—it was more a matter of taste, a preference for simpler things. He wasn't running away from something as much as he was running to something. Non-outdoorsmen never quite understand that.

He is, now, an expert fisherman—maybe the most expert of our time, the way Zane Grey was considered to be in his. The unique drive that made him want to be, in his own words, "the greatest hitter that ever lived" turned out to be transmutable: He'd not mind at all being called "the greatest fisherman that ever lived." His expertise is vast. He has fished for black marlin in New Zealand and tiger fish on the Zambezi, and he has won international tournaments. No kind of tackle, no body of water has escaped his interest. The weight of his experience has led him, at a youthful 62, to certain hard-held beliefs on the subject.

Of all the fish that swim, Williams believes there are three worthy of a sportsman's consistent attention: the tarpon, the bonefish and the Atlantic salmon. He has now caught—and, for the most part, released—more than 1,000 of each. He fishes for the first two near his home in Islamorada. For Atlantic salmon, he spends the greater part of every summer at his camp on the Miramichi in New Brunswick. He has been going there every season for almost three decades; he owns, or has an interest in, four different pools (i.e., specific fishing areas) on the Miramichi, the best salmon river in the Western Hemisphere. There are 11 genetic strains of salmon in the Miramichi. In 1966 a record 80,000 salmon were angled there. Ted now believes that the Atlantic salmon is the greatest of game fish. It is a soliloquy easily memorized if you are around him enough:

"There's no fish that can touch it for all-round enjoyment. What are the requisites of a good fish? Size is a criterion, but it can't stand alone. I've caught a 1,000-pound marlin, and I wouldn't really care to catch another. I've caught a 600-pound thresher shark. You might as well call a thresher shark a Mack truck, because that's the way it fights. Fighting ability is a better criterion. The tarpon is a more spectacular fish—an eager fish that bends hooks and breaks up lines. The salmon doesn't fight like that, but he fights. I've known a 12-pound to run as far as any 12-pound bonefish, or jump as much as any tarpon and take you a quarter mile downstream doing it.

"And then there are all the other factors. Where you catch 'em, how you catch 'em, the skill involved. You catch salmon in beautiful surroundings, places you never get tired of going to. There's a constant expectation. You're always seeing fish, seeing 'em jump, seeing 'em roll, seeing 'em walk over a bar. The technique you have to have for salmon is awesome. Sometimes they're so hard to take, you think they're smart, and sometimes it's just a matter of changing the arc of your cast a little bit. And there's the added pleasure of the salmon being extremely edible. Most game fish you can't eat at all.

"And, gee, the Atlantic salmon is such a romantic fish. The life cycle is so damn romantic. They know specifically that a salmon hatched up this river, maybe 40 or 50 miles up, even more, will stay in the river three years, surviving kingfishers, eels, skunks, mergansers, coons, otters—damn near everything in or along the river takes shots at him. Then the third summer he runs the gantlet to the sea. Man's after him, beast's after him. But he goes out, no one knows where for sure, and he survives the predators there, and finally a year later he comes back upriver a grilse [a small adult salmon], maybe three or four pounds, or, if he has the right genes, he'll wait another year and come back a nine- or 10-pound salmon right back to the exact place he was spawned. At that point, he's a 4,000-to-1 shot. The hen that went upriver four years before laid around 8,000 eggs. The experts figure the best you can hope for is that two salmon will survive everything and make it back four or five years later.

"The tarpon is a super fish, and the bonefish is a super fish. You never quite get your belly full of those two. But this fish. It keeps getting on you more and more. You dream about it. You think about the next time, the ways you'll fish for it. The flies you'll use. If I only had one fish to fish for, it would be the Atlantic salmon. I'll be a little closer to death when I know I can't fish for 'em anymore."

I have heard these same words, in more or less the same order, over and over. Lately they've taken on an urgency. Like many sportsmen, Ted believes the Atlantic salmon might not be around by the end of this century.

A stunning rendition of reveille, full and reedy and unorthodox, stirred the camp at first light. Ted stood in the open area between the main house and the guest cabin. He had his heels together and his backbone arched, and he let his stomach—no longer a splendid splinter, he—thrust forward unchecked. With his forefinger and thumb curled and pressed hard to his mouth to form a facsimile of a bugle's mouthpiece, he blew again, toward the river, only this time the music was the Marine Hymn. As a former Marine fighter pilot, he finds it applicable to almost any situation—a call to dinner, a salute to a passing duck, a response to a smart-aleck remark.

The second burst drew a shout and a wave from a bulky gray silhouette on the Miramichi. Ted watched the angler cast, and from that could name him. "He was in my pool again yesterday, in his canoe," he said to Roy. "I'm going to have to have him over for a drink so I can tell him he's fishing right over the hot spot." Ted said he didn't mind the natives fishing his pools, but "you'd think a licensed angler would have the courtesy to ask."

"Maybe you're jealous that he can handle a canoe," I said.

"Maybe you don't know how lucky you are to be here," he said, lifting the side of his mouth.

He walked to the truck where Roy was loading waders and rain gear. During the night, sheets of rain had slashed into the camp, and there was threat of more. He said I was about to join the "best fishing team on the Miramichi, Williams and Curtis," and that I would do well to pay attention.

Edna came out with lunch in a bulging brown bag, and we piled into the pickup, Roy at the wheel, Ted at the other window. They'd decided to try Ted's pool at Grey Rapids, downriver toward New Castle. The pool washes into a long stretch of rocky, active public water and makes a first-rate salmon run. By canoe, it's no more than two miles from Ted's camp, but it's a half-hour drive by truck. We circled back the 10 miles to the nearest town, Blackville, crossed over onto Route 8 and then picked our way down a series of unpaved side roads.

"Why not just use the canoe?" I asked.

It wasn't done, Ted said. "And that kind of fishing holds no fascination for me. They use canoes a lot on the Restigouche, but I don't like it. You can't make subtle moves in a canoe. You can't get right down there with 'em, where it's intimate." He raised his eyebrows.

On the side roads we passed knots of schoolchildren waiting at unmarked bus stops in the gray light. Brightly clad and scrubbed-looking, they stood out like bouquets against the beaten-looking houses and farms. Ted waved and called to those he knew. At the property line of one larger spread, he leaned out the window and began yelping and banging on the door. "Yip! Yip! Yip!" We were almost to the fence on the other side of the property when a German shepherd suddenly shot out from its hiding place behind a bush and ran toward us, barking ominously. At the fence the big dog pulled up short, but continued to bark. Ted responded, holding up his end of the duet. "Yip! Yip! Yip!" Ted and Roy laughed happily. "Bastard does it every time," Ted said.

We turned down a dirt road. Roy grunted as he worked the gears, the pickup hammering and pawing along, gaining and losing and regaining traction.

Ted said that his first time on the Miramichi, when he was still playing for the Red Sox, hadn't exactly thrilled him. He had come up to do a fishing film; the script called for him to span seasonal lines, to go for bass, bonefish, tarpon and salmon, and it had been a job getting it all in. "You couldn't even think about doing that now," he said. "They've made the baseball season too damn long for that. Too long, period. It's lousy for baseball. Lousy. Cold, rotten weather at the beginning of the season, cold, rotten weather at the end. I'd be screaming if I played now. I hated to hit in cold weather. They want to know why batting averages are so low, that's a factor."

He said he wasn't immediately won to the salmon: "In the first place, I didn't like standing in line on the river, with five guys in front of you and five guys behind you and guys casting right across from you, sometimes close enough to hit you in the eye. I didn't like having to fish somebody's private pool. It was a good pool, but I didn't like that part of the act.

"Then a guy gave me a couple flies he'd tied that were half the size of the ones I was using, and I got some fish, and I thought, 'Gee, if I could tie my own flies, and if I had my own pool....' Eventually, I got a pool, and right away came the biggest flood in 50 years and moved the rocks around and wrecked the whole damn thing."

Roy grunted amiably. The pickup banged into a rut and then surged forward noisily.

By 1958 Ted was hooked. That year he won his last American League batting championship, a steal at .328 compared with his supernatural .388 of the year before. In 1958 he was 40 years old. Right after the last game he flew to Bangor, Maine, and drove straight through to the Miramichi. He was on the river the next afternoon, beating the close of the salmon season by just two hours.

"It was cold as hell, and the wind was ripping down the river," Ted said. "But I'd been tying flies all summer and I had a yellow butt on a double-8 with a short shank, and I laid it out there. And I kept laying it out there—picking up slowly, laying it out. Then there was a big boil, and I put it out again, and there was that beautiful roll and the feel of weight that you get when he's taken the fly. Whooosh. He was way downriver before he jumped and I could see him for the first time. Then he came back upriver and greyhounded right past me. He fought like hell for about 30 minutes. A 20-pound hookbill, the best I ever got on the Miramichi."

Two trucks were already parked in the clearing that adjoined a narrow trail to the river.

"It'll be crowded today," Ted said, hurrying to put on his waders. "The Miramichi fishes 10 times more anglers than any other salmon river, wouldn't you say, Roy?"

"For sure," said Curtis. He and I were still gathering up equipment as Ted plunged off through the opening in the bushes, rod in hand. When we reached the bank, he was rigged and moving into the water. His pool was up and around the bend from where we came out, Roy said. This was public water through to the bottom end of the rapids. Three men were already on the river, casting.

I waited on the bank as Roy deposited our gear. I wasn't eager to fish too close to Ted. His scrutiny can be devastating, not to mention loud. Ted stripped out line and began to cast—righthanded, the way he threw rather than the way he batted. Still, the fluid ease and enormous power that made him so marvelous a hitter was reborn before me. The wind was angling into us; he double-hauled to build up line speed, and cast again. The line shot forward with a sharp whistling sound, and at its full length sent the tippet rolling out like a lizard's tongue to flick the water, delicately laying down the fly. A 70-foot cast. Farther out, a zipper on the surface signaled a fish. His next cast covered the distance.

"See that?" said Roy. "He drives it out there. He has a bull arm. That's one reason he gets more than anybody. He reaches 'em where the ordinary fellow can't."

Roy pointed down and across the river, to a crude log cabin high on the bank. He said he'd been born there. He said one windy fall morning a few seasons ago he'd come over from that point in a canoe and spotted a big salmon lying by a submerged rock. "When we fished that day we couldn't get anything, and I finally said to Ted, 'The waves is high and the wind is right on you, but if you can get it out there, there's a dandy big salmon. I can't reach it, but I can tell you when you're over it.' The wind was in his face and the waves was pullin' his line over every time he cast, but finally he got it right there, and I said, 'That's it.' And he kept casting. He stood there for two hours, casting. And do you know, he nailed the fish. A 15-pounder."

"That was a holding fish," Ted said. He'd come back to change flies. The light had changed, he said, and with the higher water he needed something brighter. From the pocket of his flannel shirt he took out his fly case. Inside, in neat little rows, like earrings in a jeweler's display, were the flies he'd been tying at night in the basement.

"You know, Roy," he said, "I discovered something about tying a Conrad a couple days ago and I think you ought to know—something that could help you a lot."

But instead of showing Roy the fly, he cupped his hand over the case mysteriously.

Roy grinned and waited.

"Naw, I better not," Ted said. "I better keep this to myself. You're a big Canadian guide, up all night tying flies. These amateur efforts wouldn't interest you."

He turned and held the fly out of sight, studying it.

"I don't know if you're ready for this or not."

Roy waited. Finally, inevitably, Ted turned back to reveal his creation. Roy adjusted his glasses and held the fly up to the morning light. "Yeah, that's a good one," he said.

"A good one? A good one? Boy, there is a lot of jealousy around here. That's a peppermint stick, that fly. Even you could catch fish with that fly. I was going to make you a little presentation, too, but now...."

"Oh, I'll take it, for sure," said Roy.

"Yah, yah, I knew you'd say that." Ted winked at me. "What do you think of Ted Williams now? What-do-you-think-of-Ted-Williams?"

When Ted was rerigged, he moved upriver, around the bend to his own pool, and out of sight. Roy took me out to join the line of fishermen in the public water. One of them, farther down, raised a fish, and then lost it.