Broken Elbow Critical Mass
For Wes Ernest, who introduced me to that cathedral in the woods.
Wally caught some bug that insisted Broken Elbow needed a Critical Mass ride. Since I'm his partner in crime for most of his exploits, I couldn't help but back him up on this one too. With bird dogs, it's called “honoring” the other dog's point. Wally and I are nothing if we're not dogs, him especially. He'd posted signs all over town, advertising the ride for the last Friday of the month, as is traditional for CM rides the world over.
So we were fairly conspicuous standing there on the corner of Main Street next to Larry's Cafe while we waited for the expected mass of riders. Police Chief Fred rolled up in his patrol car. He expected to corral a bunch of law-breakin' anarchists on bicycles, probably the biggest mass arrest Broken Elbow had ever seen. But it was just me and Wally on the corner. We're the usual suspects whenever something untoward happens anyway, so Fred decided to interrogate us immediately.
“Are you guys planning some kinda protest demonstration?” Fred was a little brusque, but at heart he's a nice guy. “Did you put them posters up?”
We tried to explain about Critical Mass, but Fred didn't want to hear it.
“I ain't gonna tolerate any anti-Catholic protests in this town,” Fred stated flatly. He pronounced it cath-a-lick. He used ath-a-leet too, but Fred was basically a good guy and we didn't try to correct him. Wally and I liked Fred. It would be rude to make him look foolish. While Fred may have been raised as a Baptist, he wasn't going to let anyone rile one of Broken Elbow's most respected men, Father Wisniewski. They were fishing buddies, worshipers at the altar of the almighty brook trout. It's a faith that cuts across all political, religious, and economic lines. Wally and I are true believers too.
“Huh? An anti-Catholic demonstration?” I said. “Fred, you of all people ought to know we wouldn't do that!”
Father Wisniewski, also called The Wiz though never while he was within earshot, caught Wally and me trying to poach some trout on a cold spring morning long ago. We were flogging the water into a froth with our spin-cast rods, and our inept fishing method made him madder than the out-of-season poaching. The good father gave us both barrels of his ire, then sat down on a wet, mossy stone to tell us the right way to fish. He talked of monstrous trout, fragile tackle, and the stealth a true fisherman needs to be successful. We learned of the art of enticing wary trout to take a dry fly. Somehow, our fumbling efforts to catch some fish seemed to be unworthy and crude. Father Wisniewski talked for an hour as we stood transfixed while slowly succumbing to the cold and the lure of his ideas. He was a scientific angler and a member of Trout Unlimited. His knowledge of both insects and trout was staggering. The university even invited him to teach entomology. He spent cold winter evenings tying dry flies and nymphs, dreaming of the glorious spring to come.
Every man needs a passion, and Father Wisniewski's was trout fishing. He didn't proselytize the unbelievers, however. No, the Wiz was canny enough to keep quiet about the joy of fishing, because if it became too popular, his favorite streams would be over run with converts. He needn't have worried, though, because most people in Broken Elbow preferred to get their fish from the supermarket in conveniently frozen square chunks. His favorite, secret fishing spot was called the cathedral in the woods. It's not on any map, just the one he kept in his head. It's a tiny stream that you'd cross without really noticing. But it has gorgeous holes that hold brookies and rainbows. Beams of light slant down through the trees, making both the stream and the woods dark and forbidding in places. But the contrast with the sunlight sparkling off the water is so intense it made our eyes hurt.
Father was a big, tough guy, with huge square hands calloused through long hours spent in his garden. If he hadn't been a priest, I figured he would have been a farmer, a miner, or one of the hard men in the professional peleton. He was accustomed to being outside in all sorts of weather, and his face showed the effects of days spent in the sun and wind. The parish provided him with a car, but he preferred getting around town on an old Raleigh Tourist that looked like it had seen both World Wars. The bike suited him, an upright, respectable bike for a similarly upright and respectable man.
He came into Larry's Cafe now and then, though he was far from a regular. We'd sit in the back telling outrageous lies of fish landed and lost. Father told tales of unvarnished truth, a highly unusual characteristic in a fisherman. I guess it's kind of hard to tell whoppers when you work directly for the Big Guy. What's more, he immediately forgave us for some of our more blatant transgressions. After a couple of drinks he'd start telling us puns in Latin, and that indicated it was time to call a cab for the Wiz.
Father Wisniewski rolled up alongside Fred's patrol car. “I thought if you boys were going to ride out toward the old North Road, I'd go with you as far as the creek.” He rode his Raleigh with a graphite fly rod was stuck on the rack. It was an oddly jarring, modern note on an otherwise timeless bike. “I took some temperature readings in the water out there earlier today, and there should be a mayfly hatch in an hour or so. The fishing will be very, very good!” His eyes danced in anticipation and a gentle, knowing smile lit his face.
“A hatch?” Wally and I said it together, all thoughts of Critical Mass forgotten.
Fred's eyes suddenly had that slightly-crazed look of a skier about to plunge over a precipice. “Would you mind some company, Father?” he asked. We were scrupulously courteous and polite when it came to spending time in that cathedral in the woods.
The Wiz said he'd be delighted with some company. Fred did a quick u-turn to fetch his gear. Wally and I jetted off for home to get our fly rods. We knew we'd catch up with Father long before he reached the creek.
The Wiz had gathered his flock, and we were going fishing!