Axehead Lake shimmered in the afternoon sun, billowing clouds darkening and lightening the rippling surface of the water as the increasingly windy summer air sped their passage. The day was hot and the trunk of our car was filled with mismatched bamboo fishing rods, a bucket and a small collection of gear that included a pocket knife and a small container of earthworms.
To call our destination a “lake” was really a disservice to larger bodies of water. Axehead was a retention pond situated between some undeveloped land, an elevated Tollway to the West and and east/west surface street to the North. But we were young and small, and our little family rarely ventured away from home for an afternoon outing, let alone something exotic like fishing. I guess Dad thought it was time to teach us a survival skill, or at least impress upon us the luxury and necessity of having our choice of grocery stores.
My sister Chris and I eagerly helped Dad carry our equipment from the parking lot to the grassy bank where we staked our claim, the wilderness family. Mom carried a folding lawn chair, all tubular aluminum and woven plastic webbing. She was clearly along for the ride, an observer, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing her husband take the lead in a family adventure. His poor health had been a major deterrent for many years. His momentary happiness was palpable and the sunshine was warm.
It’s funny how disappointing catching a Bluegill becomes as we grow older. But I’ll never forget the first strike on my flimsy fishing line that day in 1961. After an initial period of disgust at impaling slimy night-crawlers on our barbed hooks, we quickly became adept at baiting and waiting. We learned to distinguish the trembling motion of the bobber as it surfed ripples on the water from the unmistakable unseen tug below the surface as a fish more often than not stole our bait.
We were soon hauling what initially felt like monstrous fishy beasts onto shore, noting that the creatures diminished in size greatly when lifted out of the water following the fight we sensed through the amplifying bamboo pole. Dad removed fish after fish from the tender line and placed their flopping bodies into a waiting bucket filled with dirty lake water. In this way we knew that we weren’t simply catching the same fish over and over. We were amassing a collection of seafood that we would…dump back into the lake before going home.
And go home we did. Clouds that had provided greatly appreciated shade began to darken while we were distracted in sport. A summer storm was quickly brewing, and Mom called it to our attention. Her fear of storms was the stuff of legend, frequently ushering us into the southwest corner of the basement to escape approaching tornadoes and other windswept demons. She nervously folded her chair and beckoned us to head for the car.
The rain gave only a brief warning. The first drops landed like mortar shells, thumping on the hollow metal car, creating dark shadows on the pavement and occasionally splatting on our faces or shoulders. We threw open the unlocked car doors, dove inside and breathed a sigh of relief. We had escaped a drenching. But Dad was still outside behind the car, fumbling at the open trunk with an armful of partially disassembled bamboo poles and windswept fishing line. He tried his best to quickly match the pole parts and properly wrap the line around their slim diameter, then gave up as a clap of thunder shook loose a deluge of raindrops.
We looked back through the rear window, seeing only what appeared at the sides of the car, over the top of the open trunk lid and between the crack at the hinged lower edge. Dad was in a frenzy of motion, throwing the bucket and gear into the cavernous trunk. And then his frantic motion became insensible. He gyrated and thrashed, poles flailing every which way. And suddenly we realized what had resulted from his reckless attempt to escape the storm.
All four fishhooks had managed to snag his slacks. The harder he tugged, the deeper they set, hopelessly caught in the material and binding him to the surprisingly strong bamboo rods. The rain was coming down now in sheets. Any hope of staying dry had vanished like a worm stolen from a hook. The comical dance he displayed behind the car was now accompanied by some impressive language. There was also more than a little laughter inside the car. He eventually ripped his pants, tore the lines and managed to slam the trunk and the door on the driver’s side, panting and dripping. He looked over at Mom, now laughing hysterically, and his own panic and rage melted into a laugh of his own. Water dripped from the end of his nose. He truly was the catch of the day. The one that failed to get away.