There are a few special places in our lives that will always be a large part of us, no matter how far from them we stray. We all have one or two places that put a shadow of a smile on our face when we look back on them. I’m not talking about vacation spots. For the most part we all have great memories of vacations we took to places we probably won’t ever visit again. I’m talking about the places we knew well but outgrew or watched disappear as life took us away. For some of us it might be an old little league ball park. Others might long for an old playground or patch of woods. Some examples may even seem a little strange. Or ridiculous. My wife used to go to a certain amusement park every year and repeatedly ride the roller coasters and thrill rides. Cedar Point is her special place. Of course this makes her pretty much certifiably insane and the only reason I haven’t committed her to a Shutter Island-style asylum is because she cooks so well… but I digress.
Great meatloaf, sweetie!
We all have those special places and I’m no different. Those that know me probably won’t be surprised to find that one of my most special of places is a body of water, and that chunk of water has a bunch of fish in it. Why I have this undeniable attraction to water I’ll never know. I’m drawn to water like a moth to a flame and wherever I go, I take a cursory, subconscious survey of where the closest water happens to be. Whether that water is a pond, lake, river or stream makes no difference. Water is special to me. Fishing makes up so much of my life that it’s no wonder one of my special places is a small farm pond in Michigan.
The little lake was officially known as Kurtwood Pond but I always dropped the “pond” and called it simply Kurtwood. I’ve written before about trespassing into this hidden gem with my childhood buddy. The productive little puddle was located in the middle of an apple orchard. Getting into the pond was half the fun and eluding the owner and her legion of migrant workers helped me hone the skills of speed and stealth I would use in many Army field operations for the rest of my life. After sneaking through the orchard and reaching the soggy, reed-covered shoreline, some of the best fishing in Michigan could be found. But getting there was no joke.
Come on, boys. Be quiet or Old Lady Spencer…um, I mean the enemy, might get us.
Old lady Spencer owned the orchard and the pond. There were rumors that she had a shotgun loaded with rock salt for any intruders bold enough to take fish from that forbidden piece of watery paradise. 30 years later it may seem unbelievable that a woman would shoot at a teenager and I don’t know if she would have ever actually hurt me. But I can tell you she shot that gun in my direction on more than one occasion. I can’t honestly say if she was aiming at me or just throwing a shot up in the air but either way the result was the same.
My quarter mile time would put Usain Bolt to shame. Hell, with a shotgun going off I had a quarter mile time that would put John Force to shame.
That John Force
The old broad didn’t just have the firepower, she had the manpower. She had a veritable army of migrant workers that descended on the orchard to maintain it in the summer and pick the apples in the fall. In no time at all there was a type of bounty on the head of “that damn West kid.” The migrants lived in an old shack in the middle of the orchard and really wanted to return to the job year after year. These guys all figured that catching a trespassing teenager sneaking in to fish the pond was a good enough feather in their cap to ensure future employment. This gave them the same passion for law enforcement that drove Elliot Ness to catch Scarface.
Everybody who’s been chased through an apple orchard by a Honduran on a farm tractor raise your hand.
You can’t see it but my hand is high in the air.
45 year-old Bryan understands that those migrant workers were working hard and doing all they could to provide for their families but 13 year-old Bryan was all about closed borders, fences and deportation. 13 year-old Bryan hated those guys. And make no mistake about it…they were all guys. There wasn’t one gorgeous, raven-haired, buxom, apple-picking senorita in the mix, which was a huge mistake on old lady Spencer’s part. I would have been caught a lot more if somebody like that was chasing me.
I tried to make friends with the migrants. My nefarious intent was to use that friendship to convince them to look the other way and let me slide in and do some fishing. I had a plan to approach them in a friendly manner and use my charm and wit to establish a rapport. I was even prepared to help them pick apples for a while to get at that pond. In the end the plan fell apart. It didn’t turn out to be a lack of charm on my part. It all came down to language. Language has been the bane of diplomacy since time immortal and in this case it was no different.
Every time I approached them they started yelling in Spanish. I failed Senorita Hoffacker’s 9th grade Spanish class so I do not abla the espanol. The migrants would start yelling in Spanish and it always sounded like they were mad as hell! They may have been mad as hell, or they may have been welcoming me as a brother. Either way, they always sounded mad and I couldn’t understand them so I would turn around and get my feet moving in fear.
“Bienvenido, amigo mío! ¿Cómo está este buen día?”
Years of experience as a military policeman has now taught me that if somebody sees you and runs, you damn sure better chase them. The migrant workers/pond police were no different. My attempts to bribe them with the luxury and privilege of my friendship always ended with me breaking (or at least matching) Olympic sprint records and the migrant workers getting a pretty good cardio workout.
Running the gauntlet of Central American seasonal help was worth it to reap the bounty of Kurtwood. I hooked bona fide five-pound bass in that little pond and I lost a pike that stripped every inch of line from my reel before shaking his head, snapping off and bringing tears to my eyes. Every place I could cast a lure had the potential for producing the largest fish I had ever caught.
One beautiful summer day I had successfully eluded the migrants and made it to the pond. Every once in a while I would have to dive into some tall reeds to hide as a tractor passed by, belching smoke. About 45 minutes into my clandestine fishing trip I hooked the biggest Northern Pike I had ever seen. With my superior fishing ability (coupled with some prayers and promises to the almighty that I am sure I have since broken) I was able to land the giant and drag him into the reeds. At that point in my young life it was the biggest fish I had ever caught.
Like this. Only mine seemed bigger. A lot bigger.
I decided to forego my usual practice of catch and release and keep the enormous fish. I hefted it off the reeds, grabbed my rod and tackle box in my non-fish holding hand and headed toward my bike, hidden at the edge of the orchard a quarter mile to the West. All worry about getting caught was gone. I wanted the world to know about the fish I had caught and I lugged the monster right down the middle of the orchard toward my bike, imagining the looks I would get from the migrants when they saw the massive trophy fish.
…So of course I made the entire walk without seeing a single person.
When I arrived at my bike I was struck with the dilemma of how I would get the huge fish home. I had no basket (for girls, right) and I usually rode one-handed to carry my tackle box and fishing rod. After experimenting with a couple of ways to carry the fish I simply ended up threading my handle bar through his gill and out his mouth and letting him hang from the bar. I kid you not: he drug on the ground! There were countless other incidents of huge fish that made it worth the risk of capture to sneak into the pond. It was a magical place.
Unfortunately, the danger wasn’t over after sneaking in and sneaking out of the orchard. There was one more pitfall to avoid…
Those that don’t love fishing with an intensity that burns hotter than a billion suns don’t realize that the simple act of placing a rod and reel in your hand causes a rift in the space/time continuum. As soon as you pick up the rod, time changes. Your body actually moves at a normal pace while the world around you speeds up and moves three to four times faster. It’s science. This actual and not at all made up by me phenomenon often results in a young fisherman bursting through the back door to his home hours later than he may have been told to be there.
This picture should explain it pretty clearly
Dads all over the world are famous for ignoring this scientific wonder when it comes to their sons and fishing. I am confident that at some point a young Maasai tribesman in Central Africa has come home to his hut three hours late from fishing only to get his ass whooped by his angry father. A boy from Great Britain has probably come traipsing home late (they traipse in England) with his little poofy pants and a small trout only to be sent to bed without his tea and pudding.
My father was no different and lacked the paternal grasp of physics. In my house the level of punishment was in direct correlation to the degree of lateness. Normally I would be an hour or so late and would get yelled at in a fashion that only sons of former Marine sergeants can understand. Sometimes, however, I would be anywhere from 3 to 12 hours late and on these rare occasions I would experience a more corporal type of punishment. A few hard smacks on the rear with a flat hand were enough to make me pay closer attention to the scientific anomaly that beset me whenever I had a rod and reel in my hand. For all of the dangers inherent with shotgun-toting old ladies, migrant workers and unscientific fathers, Kurtwood made it all worth it.
As I got older, Old Lady Spencer bought more land and picked up a few horses to ride around the orchard. As is sometimes the case the smallest factors in our lives can bring about the biggest changes. In my case it was the lowly woodchuck that changed everything. Woodchucks that lived in the orchard dug holes. It’s kind of what woodchucks do. Mrs. Spencer’s horses stumbled in those holes and risked injury. Seeing the opportunity in front of me I boldly knocked on the old woman’s door and made her a proposal: I would kill woodchucks in her orchard for the fishing rights to her pond. She considered the offer and soon her eyes softened and she loosened the grip on the shotgun pointed at my groin. The thought of protecting her horses from injury proved too enticing and the deal was struck.
From that point forward I had free reign of the orchard and the glorious pond. I arrogantly strode the lanes of the orchard, rod and reel in hand. Migrants looked at me with a mix of resentment and apathy. When I got my driver’s license I even drove back and launched a small boat a couple of times. My sneaking days were over and times were good.
And with the good times a funny thing happened. The pond suddenly didn’t seem as large as before. The fishing didn’t seem quite as good and the fish themselves seemed smaller. The walk from the road to the pond seemed much shorter striding upright instead of rushing bent over from tree to tree. The migrants turned out to be really nice guys instead of the ominous sentries I had made them out to be. I guess the challenge of reaching the forbidden lake was half the appeal and as I grew up that challenge disappeared.
It turns out growing up kind of sucks.
I have talked with a few friends about sneaking into Kurtwood and a few of them have asked the same question:
“You were trespassing!” these friends say in a condescending manner. “What would you tell your own kids if you found they were breaking the law just to catch a few fish? What would you say to them?”
That question has really made me ponder what I would tell my children if they were considering breaking the law to sneak into some magical farm pond in some orchard just to catch a few fish. I think I would sit them down, look them in the eyes and tell them that white spinner baits are their best bet and migrant workers will only chase them about a quarter of a mile, tops. Work on your cardio, kids.
Let’s face it…everybody needs a special place.