by Guest Columnist, Alan Gauvin
HOULTON, Me—(Weekly Hubris)—9/27/10—My father, Aime, was brought up in Maine, by his French Canadian grandparents for the most part, and spent his youth fishing, reading, and learning to draw. In 1929, at age 19, he journeyed down to New York to become a painter and, when he wasn’t painting, he was hanging out in saloons, where he developed a taste for beer and booze and wasn’t long in the city before becoming hopelessly hooked on the freely swinging jazz served up at those same saloons.
In addition to painter, he was a professional cartoonist, actor, writer, and chef: he could transform a ground-up shoe into ambrosia. But what had the strongest influence on his post-war life sprang from the fact that, although he hadn’t finished high school, he was a voracious reader and became a supremely articulate and knowledgeable speaker with a distinctive resonant voice to match.
He landed a job at WHN in NY (which changed hands twice, becoming WMGM and then once again WHN), where he gained prominence as a newscaster, and hosted a long and diverse list of programs over the course of nearly 30 years on the air.
In 1950, he decided to broadcast live at his own expense from his favorite jazz venues three or four nights a week in addition to his daytime obligations as newscaster. He’d finish up late night at Eddie Condon’s, Jimmy Ryan’s, or Lou Terrassi’s, go to the radio station and crash a couple of hours till due on air, put in his eight hours, return home for supper and then head out to the next scheduled date and repeat the cycle.
My dad certainly had stamina and, despite being a heavy drinker in those days, his on air performance was always flawless. He called himself “Dr. Jazz . . . with a prescription for what ails you.” Those gigs he covered were recorded when broadcast and included remarkable banter between Dad and the musicians. Unfortunately, although many of the sessions are in print and available today, only the music has survived the producer’s hand: my dad’s running commentaries are lost.
Dad met Mom at a hockey game, discovered they shared more in common than a passion for puck-pushing and, upon Dad’s retirement, after 30-some years of marriage, they returned to Maine, where he hosted a talk radio program devoted to issues of local interest. He passed away in 1980.
His home state is still basically a wilderness with about a million year-round residents, most of whom are concentrated in the lower half. As a child, beginning in 1950, I spent a month or two every summer deep in the forest. In those years, the entire family made the two-and-a-half-day, non-stop-drive from NYC north, with Mom and Dad switching off as drivers. There was no interstate and few parkways back then, but plenty of two-lane blacktop slithering through the mountains of four states and on up into northern Maine. The trip was scenic and very slow going.
Because my folks preferred owning two small cars rather than one large one, we did it stuffed into a tiny, 39-horsepower, British Hillman, or some other similarly ill-suited conveyance, bursting with four people, all our camping and fishing gear, and our dog, to ensure extra coziness. Ironically, after Mom and Bro lost interest, we moved up to a full-sized station wagon. It was just me and Dad then, and by this time, sufficient stretches of interstate enabled us to make the trip in a day, which meant more time for fishing and exploring.
Today, more than ever, wandering into a sprawl of mountains, lakes, bogs and streams triggers dramatic calm in me. My tense shoulders and blood pressure drop, my skewed brow spreads, and a deep breath of pine-soaked air hits me like a pure narcotic. Stepping out of the car into the peaceful quiet punctuated only by an occasional bird song, buzzing insect, or breeze lapping my face, my senses normally blunted and blurred together by civilization regain acuity.
This is where I belong.
I routinely visit the places made memorable by Dad and, although he has passed on, he still travels with me. As I fish a deep pool at the base of a 12-foot cascade, I’m all but overwhelmed by my sense of his presence. As I work my way upstream, pool by pool, I almost expect to meet him on the trail working his way down. If only I could. To say I miss him is hugely inadequate.
At the conclusion of one six-hour solo hike begun at sun-up over rugged, evergreen terrain, and carrying roughly 80 pounds of camping, fishing, and photo gear, I arrive at a string of ponds linked by stream nestled among the foothills surrounding Mt. Katahdin. I pitch my tent under a canopy of white pine. Now, I may fish for my supper in the shadow of the colossus, receiving both physical and spiritual nourishment from the same source.
I begin my fishing early, as it is a frequently interrupted occupation with me, there being so much going on around me: the feverish busy-ness of birds, butterflies, bees, dragonflies, chipmunks, and the occasional black bear, beaver, porcupine, or footloose moose. I’ve lost many a fine trout as a result of these distractions, but I am reluctant to kill a brook trout anyway. Unless the fish has taken the fly too deeply or I am very hungry, the likelihood is that it will be carefully freed from the hook, admired briefly in hand, and gently slipped back into its element.
Watching a released trout dart into the safety of the shadows, I am seized by a desire to see it at better advantage in its natural state, so I search among the jumble of boulders overhanging the edge of the stream until I find a narrow gap that allows me to peer into the water below. Lying on my stomach, I cradle my head on my forearms, eyes straining to penetrate the dim light. As my vision adjusts to the change, I make out a sudden shadowy movement; then stillness.
Soon I discern the shape of a fish directly below me, holding its place against the current with rhythmic economy of movement as it watches for unwary small fry or hapless insects sweeping by. Then the lightning swift attack, capture, and return in a flash of jeweled sides to its ambush. I am now so accustomed to the light that I can make out the vermiculations on the trout’s back and I am reminded of Thoreau’s description of another fish—“animalized water”—and the reminder interrupts my research by prompting me to ponder the difficulty of original expression. I turn on my back and cover my eyes with my arm against the sun, the better to explore the problem. The sound of running water, I tell myself, is an aid to concentration, but I promptly fall asleep.
I awaken to the pleasant sound of fish splashing and note that the sun is low in the sky. I am also aware of hunger. Do I find the splashing sound pleasant because I love fish or because I would love fish for supper: nature lover or carnivore? I decide the issue temporarily in favor of the latter and ruthlessly catch, kill, disembowel, cook, and eat two trout.
Hunger satisfied, remorse sets in. I should at least have explained to my-brother-the-fish my reason for taking his life, and apologized for what I was determined to do. After all, we go way back together. I was a fish once myself.
I remember the experience well. I was eight, it was late spring, and I was exploring the banks of the Kennebec. It was a stretch of water flowing swiftly through a deep cut into an eddy below. I spied in a crevice close to the water’s edge a flower I’d not seen before. Thinking I could reach it, I lay face down on an inclined slab of granite, grasping its water-polished outermost edge with one hand while straining toward the flower with the other. Suddenly, the hand lost its hold and I slipped headfirst into the cold rushing water.
Although I could not yet swim, I recall no sense of alarm nor discomfort from the cold. What I do remember is the marvelously translucent world into which I had been transported, and through which I was gracefully moving, while fascinating streams of sparkling bubbles issued forth and escaped into the source of light above. I clearly recall my head emerging for a moment into the bright sunshine of my former world and then I descended to become a fish once more, moving effortlessly through the green-gold world in comfort and peace toward some unknown place.
My destination, as it turned out, was a sandbar at the bend of the river just before the eddy. I was beached there by the current, gasping like any fish out of water.
I coughed up a quart of river and caught my breath. Then I sat up and took stock of my surroundings. There were fugitive logs from the spring drive floating in lazy spirals around the eddy. A pair of mallards was feeding in shallow water among the reeds. All was as it had been. Only I had changed.
Suddenly overcome by terror, I began to cry, clutching my knees and shaking; for the first time in my young life aware of my own mortality. Through the glaze of despair, I glimpsed a figure making its way toward me. Dad had observed my header into the liquid turmoil from a vantage point farther upstream, and had begun leaping and climbing toward me over the clutter of rock which contained the torrent. Never has anyone been more welcome an intruder upon my solitude. After his reassuring embrace, almost at once the dread I felt left me.
It’s taken me many years to come to grips with the loss of my father. I was on the road at the time of his death, and taken by surprise. I had let communication between us wane. For years, I suffered acute guilt over not having seen him for a long while before he died, and not having shed a tear at the moment I was informed.
My wife conveyed the bad news over the phone just before I went on the bandstand and I couldn’t seem to muster an appropriate emotional response beyond numbness. I finally broke down one day a decade later while looking through an album of family pictures.
Now, 20 years later, I visit our favorite places and I find I’m still unable to hold back the tears.
I love you, Pops, rest in peace.
To order copies of Alan Gauvin’s books, The Story of Dr. Jazz, a Lurid Tale of Sex, Drugs, Jazz, and the Occasional Trout, or Change of Life: Be careful what you wish for!, from Amazon, click on the book cover below.