Fish Story

Grampa Jim finally relented and agreed to take sis and me fishing.  He bought each of us a bamboo pole with heavy green line, hooks, and a bobber.  I filled a tin can with loose soil and dug worms from the ditch. We were set.

The day finally arrived to go fishing. Dad dropped us off  at the boat launch on Paw-Paw Lake.  The DNR had carved a channel from the lake to a point near the road where they created a sand-ramp and parking lot.  The channel formed an island, and the water circulated from the lake back into the lake.

We set up on the bank to catch our supper.  The big adventure soon became a big bore.  We caught a few small blue gills and kept them on a stringer.  By late afternoon Gramps must have gotten more bored than we were and he went tramping off into the bush.  He came back a little while later with a long stick that he cut from a willow bush.  He made a pole so he could show us how to fish. Instead of sliding a worm on his hook, he cut up a bluegill.  He said, “ if you want to catch a big fish, you have to use some real bait.”  I did the same with my pole and Sis’ too.

We were tired of holding the poles by hand, and Gramps showed us how to prop them on a rock so we could sit by the pole and watch the bobber. Just then, Dad came to pick us up.

We were telling him all about the day when my bobber went under, and the line started moving.  I grabbed the pole just as the line went tight, and the pole bent over.  Whatever was on the end was huge.  Dad got so excited that he ran up behind me, and put his arms around me to help.  He was afraid that the “fish” would pull me in.  I was pulling on the pole with all my might.  The pole was bent 180º and the fish was pulling hard to get off.  Then, in a flash, there was a huge splash. The line snapped and sent me and dad over backwards.  We didn’t even hit the ground when the second pole went down with the bobber out of sight.  Dad ran over to help Sis.  This time there was no splash.  Dad just reached around Sis and pulled hard on the pole; the line snapped. They fell over backwards.  In the meantime, Grampa Jim watched the whole thing. He told us that the splash was a huge fish jumping to shake the hook.  Instead he broke the line.  None of us saw what hit the second pole.

Needless to say, the boredom turned into an adrenalin rush.  I think dad and gramps were more excited than Sis or I.   My excitement turned into anger for letting the fish of my life get away.  Grampa told the story many times over, and each time the fish got bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

Jackin Up The “A”

One of Grampa Jim’s closest friends was Mr Toth, a Hungarian farmer from down the road. His friend worked in the pickle canning factory in Coloma, and he farmed too. Mr. Toth was a character who excited easily, and cursed incessantly in Hungarian. I never understood what he was saying, but I knew he was swearing. He ranted and raved and called people names.  The crowd at Fish Corners knew him well. They often played tricks on him just to see him get excited.

I remember watching a prank played on him.  Grampa Jim and his buddy arrived at Fish Corners in Mr. Toth’s Model A: a daily ritual for the two of them.  He pulled up next to the gas pump, ran a gallon of gas into the tank, and went in the store to pay. Of course they had to have a beer too.

Fish Corners was a 1950’s version of today’s Gas City.  This family run business consisted of a small grocery store, an auto service station, and a tavern. Grampa walked through the store into the tavern, and sat at his favorite table on the edge of the dance floor. They nursed a beer, and cajoled with friends.

While they talked, the pranksters went to work. Two older boys put a jack under the rear axle of the Model-A. They lifted it  just enough so the wheels would spin without grabbing. Everyone, at the store, saw what was happening, and many of them waited around to see the outcome.

They came out and got into car; started it up, put it in gear, and let out the clutch.  The car didn’t move. Mr. Toth got out swearing to himself. He looked around. Everything seemed okay so he tried again. The swearing got stronger. The motor was running, but the car didn’t move.  Mr. Toth sent Grampa Jim  to watch the wheels. He put the car in gear again. Gramps bent over to watch. He saw the wheels turning. The swearing got really loud. A very red-faced, Mr. Toth jumped out of the car ranting, and kicking the gravel.  I picked out Hungarian words like Jesus, God, mother, saint, and heaven. All were mixed with words I heard often, but didn’t understand. This time, he found the jack. He raised his arm and shook his fist as he ran toward the store. All the while he ranted in Hungarian. His face was purple, and the veins in his jugular stuck out; boy was he mad. Everyone at Fish Corners laughed hysterically. Grampa Jim stood back and laughed too.

Words of Wisdom

“I don’t like it”, I said, when Mom put something on the table.  Most of the time, if I didn’t like the way a dish looked, I hated it immediately.  When Grampa Jim over heard my complaint, he said,

“If you were hungry, you would eat rusty nails.”

I don’t think I have to interpret that one. Grampa Jim, Mom, and Dad too, all came from very poor families. They often went hungry for lack of food.

Mom served potatoes often, but Dad would not eat them.  We asked him why?  His reply was “I ate enough potatoes in the old country.”

He was sixteen when he left Hungary to come to America. That means his diet must have been all potatoes for siixteen years. What else could kill his appetite for more?

Grampa Jim’s Advice

Grampa Jim  didn’t have a formal education, but he was wise.  His favorite advice to us, spoken in Hungarian was this:

“If someone hands you money, accept it graciously.

If someone approaches you with a stick in his hand,

run like hell!”

Eatin Chickin

Grampa Jim loved chicken and chicken soup.  Most of his teeth were gone, so he had a hard time chewing tough meats.  When Mom made chicken soup, she used the entire chicken in the pot.  We ate the soup with her homemade noodles. For chicken soup she cut the dough into long fine strands.  We ate the soup first. She served the boiled chicken parts for the main course.  Dad always took the breast; I always took a leg.  Gramps stuck to the wings, feet, neck, and head.  He thought he would be taking it off our plate if he took a larger part to eat.

By the end of the meal he had the neck sucked down to a pile of discrete vertebrae.  He did the same with the wings, and feet.  We all hated the boiled skin, so we pushed it aside into a pile on our plates.  Gramps always asked for the skin, remarking “You’re leaving the best part behind”.

Toward the end of the meal, Gramps attacked the chicken head.  He used the fine point of his pocket knife blade to pick the eyes from the socket, and eat the eye right off the tip. He never washed his pocket knife, he only wiped it off, folded it, and put it back into his pocket. I was with him at times when he used the same knife to cut fish for bait.

It was a short time before the chicken head was a bare bony skull; smaller than a walnut.   One would think that there was nothing more to eat, but we were always wrong.  Gramps set the skull down on the table. He lined up the sharp edge of his knife along the top of the skull. Then, SLAM. He hit the dull side of the knife with a karate chop. The heel of his hand slammed against the knife to split the skull in two.  Again, he used the very tip of the knife to pick out the chicken brain which was the size of a small pea.  Sometimes he had to pick a piece out of both parts.  The brain disappeared into his mouth off the end of the knife like it was caviar.

Long Hard Winter

When Grampa Jim stayed in Michigan for the winter, his life was extremely hard.  It wasn’t until he reached his late seventies that mom insisted he come to live with us for the winter.  Even then, he would only last until March, and then one day he would disappear. He took a bus back to Coloma.  God only knows how he made it out to the farm from town.  Other times he took the train from South Chicago to Watervliet.

Gramps winterized the house for the really cold months.  The house didn’t have insulation, but did have storm windows.  The heat came from pot-bellied stoves.  One was in the living room, the other in the dining room.  To conserve heat, he hung a heavy blanket from floor to ceiling over the archway that separated the living room from the rest of the house.  This way, when he fired up the stove, the heat stayed in one room.   He closed the doors to the bedrooms to further seal off the big room.   His cot was in a corner. He pulled the dining room table into the opposite corner by the driveway and the front yard.  This gave him daylight from the windows on both walls.

Grampa Jim got icy cold water from a hand pump in the kitchen, and warmed it on the kerosene stove.  I remember seeing lots of coffee cans under his bed. Others were  by the door.  Some had fluid in them, some were dry.  He used the cans to save going outside to urinate.  The outhouse was  seventy-five feet away from the side door.  God knows what he did when the snow was deep.

Gramps didn’t weigh more that 120 pounds for his  five foot height. His diet was simple. During the winter he subsisted on canned foods like pork and beans and soups. Hot dogs were a treat.  He recycled the grease in his solitary fry pan. Sometimes, he soaked a slice of  rye bread in hot grease for a yummy meal. When he had kerosene, he warmed soup in the can.  Other times he warmed the soup can on the pot belly.

One of his vices was smoking, but in winter he never walked the quarter mile to the store to buy a pack of Camels.  There was always a sack of Bull Durham around, and he rolled his own. After he ran out of tobacco he scoured the ash trays for butts .  Friends and neighbors came by to check on him when they hadn’t seen him for a while.

The pot belly stove kept him from freezing;  he burned coal. It was a chore to drag a few pounds at a time from the basement in a coal bucket.  Winter on the farm was brutal, but he preferred living independently. He lived alone as long as he could. Eventually, he gave in to his daughter’s arguments, and came to spend winters in the city .

Grampa Jim Studies

In the wintertime, Grandpa Jim came to live with us.  The winters in Michigan were hard.  His house wasn’t insulated, and there were only two pot belly stoves to heat the place.  There was no indoor toilet.  So, Mom insisted that Gramps stay with us.

His day began with a breakfast of coffee and bread. He tore one slice of  Silvercup bread into shreds, and plunked them into coffee with milk. Slowly, he spooned up the soggy bread like cereal. After he ate, he shuffled into the living room to sit in the easy chair to read.  First, he read the Hungarian paper cover to cover. The special paper came once a week, but it didn’t matter. He re-read the thing everyday until the new issue arrived. After he finished the Hungarian news he moved to the daily Chicago Times. After the Times, he pulled out a volume of the encyclopedia, and read that.  He was self-taught, and his  English reading skill was not great; but he loved to study. When he returned to the farm, he had new knowledge to share with his friends at Fish Corners.

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