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We knew the same people, Nick and I. Not so much in the actual sense although we both know natural resource types in the north. But when Nick described earnest conversations with the Elders of his boyhood church, I saw again the weathered faces of the same gray men I knew.
I recited my catechism for a steely farmer with a heavy Dutch brogue. Someone told me he had been part of the Dutch resistance. True or not, he looked the part and when he told us, “Memorize this, then they can’t take it away from you,” it had an added gravity.
Nick’s the only person I know who calls me a kinsman with no pretense at all. He’s from the Hollanders in the Fox River Valley region. My Dad’s people.
Our day began in a worn-in familiar diner looking out over Chequamegon Bay. The same booth, I think, where he told me about Mishibijew one dark morning. We traded transcendences we’d recently read or remembered. He’d lean over the table to make me understand. I drank black coffee out of a thick ceramic mug – you know the kind, finish scoured off the proud edges by generations of use. A full plate of corned beef hash for me. Egg over easy. Western omelet for him.
He’s a resurrected fishing guide, returning to the work because he loves it and because he’s dragging a self-published book over the finish line. I’m a pudgy professor with fatigue in my very soul and I played hooky for a day to hire him, knowing that the actual fishing was going to be secondary.
I brought him a wedge of gouda from the Babcock dairy on campus and some Madison sourdough. He gave me a bag of wild rice – the real deal. Sometimes it’s smoked redhorse sucker or pickled northern. Sometimes it’s maple sugar. One time it was chaga. It’s a thing we do.
The book describes a people’s resistance, how the tribes and their allies created an education camp in the bush to stand in the way when a multinational wanted to mine the Penokees, the headwaters of the Bad River. They cooked for each other and welcomed visitors, made syrup and sugar. They kept the faith in canvas tents during a polar vortex. They prevailed – for now.
We fished elementally from his 1957 wooden boat, and he pulled us through the little inkpot lake on finely made oars from Maine. Flawless New-England ash and leather oarlock chafe guards. Not even sun-yellowed. We fished with vintage gear and landed bullish slab bluegills on nearly every cast. I’ve never caught bluegills like that. We laughed and celebrated the big little fish and filled the basket.
We cleaned the bluegills, and I contemplated my long drive home. I took a meal’s worth with me in my lunch cooler. Nick took the rest, phoning an elder he knew and giving to a friend he enlisted to help with the fileting.
He told me many of his stories and I told him a few of mine. He was more generous with his pain and laughter (his stories were better) but he heard the things I didn’t say. We caught up with each other on family. On our grandparents and their dreams. He remembered that my mom was Frisian. He knew what he was doing, taking my mind on a walk across the universe to clear its head.
At one point he asked me out of the blue and from the center of the boat, “What is your only comfort in life and death?”
Without missing a beat, I answered, “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ …”
And then we both laughed, remembering the gray men who taught us and what they might think of us now.