We stood on the gravel lane outside his boathouse. Grandma called “Yoohoo,” and he turned from his workbench and walked toward us, his red and white checkered shirt so faded the whole thing looked pink. His shoulders were square and arms long. His torso resembled a box.
“Good afternoon, Ruby,” he said, wiping his hands on a cloth he carried, then looking down at me. “Who have you brought with you today?”
Grandma put a hand on my shoulder. “This is Fred, one of my favorite grandsons, visiting from Virginia.”
He extended his hand. It dwarfed my own. “Hello, young man. I’m Dominic Klein.”
I said, “We saw your boat go by while we were fishing this morning. Grandma said you were going to the Wolf River.”
“I didn’t even see you there.” Mr. Klein squatted to my level. His eyes were bright blue and his head was bald. “I’ll bet you caught some perch.”
“We got eight keepers. Grandma is cooking them for dinner.”
“There’s no better meal than a mess of fried perch.”
“How was your luck?” Grandma asked.
“It’s been real slow. Just one small pike today.”
“I’ve never caught a pike,” I said.
Mr. Klein made his hand look like a fish’s mouth, opened and closed it. “They have long heads and lots of sharp teeth.” He stood up. “If it’s okay with your grandma, maybe you can come along and see for yourself.”
“Can I?” I asked Grandma.
She said, “Do you mean ‘may I’?” Grandma used to teach school back when all the grades learned together in one room.
Grandma hesitated. “Let’s see what your grandfather thinks.”
Mr. Klein said, “How is Elmer?”
“Oh, he still lets me beat him at cribbage on occasion, so I guess I’ll keep him. And Becky?”
“She got her new hearing aids. So you might not hear our tv set from your house anymore.”
“We never did!” Grandma protested.
Mr. Klein looked at me. “I’m getting some leaders ready for tomorrow, if you’d like to help, Fred.”
I looked up at Grandma. “May I?”
She smiled. “Okay. Dinner is in an hour though. Don’t be late.”
His boathouse smelled like wood and gas. Nets, ropes and pieces of engines filled the shelves. He showed me how to tie a cinch knot and spit on it make it tight. He said he didn’t fish with cane poles and worms, like Grandma and I did, or by casting a lure, which I’d seen Grandpa do. He had a setline strung across the bottom of the Wolf River with twenty of these leaders spaced along it. Every morning and evening he rode out with fresh bait to collect whatever fish had hooked themselves and put new bait on the bare hooks.
“How do you like Virginia?” he asked. “I bet the winters there aren’t nearly as cold as ours.”
“We just moved last year. The kids at school say I talk funny.”
Mr. Klein shook his head. “They have different accents everywhere. When my wife and I moved here, people had a hard time even understanding us.”
He sounded kind of foreign, but I understood him okay. “Some kids make fun of my voice by talking with their nose pinched shut and others say that I talk through by nose. How can it be both?”
Mr. Klein looked closely at the eye of the hook he was threading. “Sometimes people are just mean. It’s not worth worrying about.”
I spat on a knot. The boathouse floor was gravel so it was okay to dribble. “That’s what my mom told me too. Just ignore them.” After we had tied enough leaders he showed me where he kept sunfish in a concrete tank, and his boat, which had two metal tubs wedged in the center.
“The bait goes in the small tub and our catch goes in the other one.”
The larger tub looked big enough to hold me. “How big are the fish you catch?”
He grinned. “The bigger the better. It’s mostly catfish and pike. Every so often, a turtle will hook itself.”
“You eat turtles?”
“Some people do. I don’t. I let them go if I can.” We turned away from his dock. “It must be close to dinner time. I don’t want to make you late.”
I showed him my digital watch, with red lines that created numbers by lighting up. “This has a stopwatch and an alarm too.”
He looked at it closely. “A timepiece without a dial. What ever will they think of next? If your grandfather says it’s okay to fish with me tomorrow, set that alarm for 7:00 am. I like to get out there early.”
“Okay. I hope they say I can go.”
“Me too. But if not, you can still come by and see what I’ve caught later on.”
Grandma was frying perch in a black skillet. The oil hissed when she flipped one. “Go wash up, Fred. And tell Grandpa dinner’s ready.”
Grandpa was asleep on the porch with a newspaper in his lap. He was a war veteran.
He’d told me that when he was test driving a car, which would have been his first car, while my mom was a baby, news came over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He was in the Army Reserves. He said he told the salesman, “Never mind. I won’t need a car where I’m going.” My mom said he landed in Normandy six days after D-Day but the only thing Grandpa ever said about it was, “I was a paymaster. I carried a sidearm and my men carried carbines.”
When I said “Grandpa?” to tell him dinner was ready his eyes opened right away. Maybe he wasn’t asleep.
We had fried perch, corn on the cob and potato salad. Grandma said, “We stopped by Dom’s earlier. He said Fred can go fishing with him in the morning.”
Grandpa smeared butter on his corn. He looked up at Grandma. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“I don’t see why not. Fred’s a responsible young man.”
Grandpa lifted his corn to his mouth and spoke over it. “But what about those Racine boys?”
“Oh Tug.” Tug was the only thing I ever heard Grandma call Grandpa. His name was Elmer. “That was ages ago.”
I said, “I already helped Mr. Klein tie twelve leaders, and he showed me the sunfish he uses for bait.”
Grandpa nodded, said “This corn is so sweet,” and took another bite. “So can I go?”
Grandma said, “Fred—”
“May I please go fishing with Mr. Klein tomorrow?”
Grandpa set his corn down and looked at Grandma again. “I suppose it’ll be okay,” he said.
My watch alarm chirped at 6:30 the next morning. The cabin smelled like bacon. Grandma wore an apron with yellow sunflowers. She had pancakes and orange juice ready too. I was almost done eating when Grandpa got to the table. He looked at my nearly empty plate. “If I’d slept any longer, I might have gone hungry.” Grandma set a full plate in front of his chair.
“I have to get to Mr. Klein’s dock before seven o’clock. He likes to start early.” “You better wait while I get you a lifejacket,” Grandpa sat. “I don’t think he has children’s sizes.”
I was ready to go. I finished the piece of bacon I’d saved for last, set my fork on the plate, and looked at Grandma.
She said, “Dom has lots of life jackets, Tug. We were just over there yesterday.”
Grandpa poured syrup on his pancakes. “Do you have a warm coat?”
“Yes, Grandpa.” I stood and lifted my hooded jacket from the back of my chair.
“Put that on under your life vest, so you don’t have to take the life jacket off when you get cold. And listen carefully to everything Mr. Klein says.”
“I will,” I promised.
He went back to breakfast. I headed for the door.
I sat in the very front of Mr. Klein’s boat, where I could hold both rails. He sat in the back with a hand on the motor. The channel was choked with weeds so we moved slowly. Once we got to the lake he twisted the throttle and the boat surged. I let go of a rail long enough to raise my hood. The water in the bait tub tilted and sloshed, but none of the sunfish escaped. On the starboard side lily pads covered Boom Bay so completely that it looked like a person could walk across it. That was where Grandma and I anchored and fished for perch. On the other side, Lake Poygon stretched blue as far as I could see. A few white clouds hung in the sky, the same color as the wake behind us. Engine noise drowned out everything.
At the edge of Boom Bay we turned onto the mouth of the Wolf River, where it flowed wide and slow after draining hundreds of miles of farmland and forest. We rode upstream for about ten minutes and Mr. Klein slowed the engine. He turned us towards a wooden stake with black numbers close to shore. Our own wake caught up to us and lifted the stern. When we got beside the stake Mr. Klein switched off the outboard and lifted a long pole from the bottom of his boat. It had a rubber handle on one end and a hook on the other. He lowered the hook into the river and pulled up a line that was tied to the bottom of the stake. It was too thick to call a string and too small to be a rope, running straight out across the river. He grabbed the line with his hand, set the hook pole down and started pulling us away from shore, hand over hand.
“I think fishing must be in your genes,” he said. “Ruby, your grandmother, she’s an expert fisherwoman.”
“I guess so,” I said. “We fish with cane poles and bobbers.”
He nodded. “I used to fish with my grandparents too. We had different kinds, back in Austria, but fish are fish everywhere.”
“Is that where kangaroos live?”
He shook his head. “That’s Australia. Austria is in Europe.” The first hook we got to was bare. Mr. Klein motioned with his chin to the bait tub. “Scoop us out a lively one, Fred.” I netted a sunfish and held it up. He ran the hook through the dorsal fin and tossed it overboard, letting it sink into the river behind us as he pulled the boat forward. The next hook still had a live sunfish on it so we went past. Then he said, “There’s something on.”
I looked into the water but saw nothing except his line disappearing into the depth in front of and behind us. “There is?”
“See the line moving?” I looked ahead of the boat and saw what he meant, the line waving back and forth beneath the surface. Mr. Klein hooked the line to a clip on the stern and grabbed the landing net. It was big enough to cover me. He lowered it into the river. “You have to get the net in early or it will spook the fish.” He pulled us forward with one hand and held the net underwater while the fish tried to swim down. From the brown color I knew it was a catfish but I had never seen a fish that big.
Suddenly he looked upriver. I looked too and saw a boat heading towards us. Mr. Klein pulled the net out of the water and set it back in the boat. He grabbed the pole again and used both hands to lower the setline as deep as the pole allowed, letting the catfish swim down where it was eager to return, though still attached to the leader. The other boat slowed when it got close. It looked a lot like Mr. Klein’s boat, green aluminum, with two men wearing plaid jackets. Mr. Klein waved. One of them yelled, “Catching all the big ones this morning, Dom?’
“You still might find one or two,” he yelled back.
They smiled and motored downstream.
Mr. Klein pulled the line back up and clipped it to the stern again, put the hook pole away and netted the catfish. He stood up, lifted the net with both hands and brought the fish into the boat. It was huge. I had caught smaller ones so I knew that catfish hid spikes in their fins. The spikes on this one were as big as daggers. Mr. Klein didn’t bother taking the hook out of its mouth; he just unclipped the whole leader from the setline and dumped the fish into the big tub with the hook still in it. He clipped one of the leaders we made the day before in its place. “Let’s have another bait, Fred.” I scooped one and he hooked it and tossed it into the river and we carried on, hand over hand across the water.
“Would that boat have hit your line?” I asked.
“Probably not, but I can’t take the chance. Not just the line; their propellor could hit one of my fish.”
A couple hooks later the line shook again. “Something’s on,” he said.
I looked into the water further up, eager for the first glimpse of whatever it was. “I hope we don’t catch a turtle.”
“Sometimes you can tell what it is by how the line moves. Catfish swim down. A pike is likely to rise, but a turtle will always swim up if it can. Dead turtles float.” When we got closer he said, “That’s a big pike.” It was a long green shape, like a torpedo. It tried to swim away but he netted it and dumped it with the catfish, which had quieted down but started thrashing again when the pike went in. We traversed the Wolf River one hook at a time, pulling and baiting, interrupted by the thrash and outrage of veritable beasts, to me, at eleven, not much taller than the fish were long, while gulls squawked and marsh hawks glided above.
By the time we got to the last hook we had two catfish, a pike and a sheepshead. Mr. Klein pulled the starter rope, told me to hang on, and opened the throttle. Back at his dock he asked me to put the remaining sunfish in the live well. He took the big net, scooped out the pike and carried it into his boathouse. After I had moved the bait I went to see what he was doing. He had the pike on a board by the sink. He made two quick motions with his knife then lifted the fillet from its skin. He put the bloody white meat into a Wonder Bread bag and handed it to me. “Will you do me a favor and take that to Ruby?”
“Sure Mr. Klein. Thanks. I had fun.”
“I go back out about an hour before sunset, if you want to come along,” he said. “If not, that’s fine too.”
“I’ll be here!”
Grandma was picking strawberries when she saw me. “How was fishing?”
“We caught four. They were huge.” I held out the bag. “Mr. Klein gave us half a pike.”
She looked at the meat in the bag. “Let’s get that into the refrigerator,” she said. We walked toward the cottage together. Grandpa was asleep in a chair on the porch.
That evening, while Mr. Klein and I were halfway across the river, another boat came downstream so he lowered the line and waited for it to pass. It was a big fiberglass boat, and it didn’t slow down. Instead, it steered towards us and then arced away, sending its wake in our direction. Mr. Klein said, “Hang on Fred,” and released the setline completely. He stood up and faced the offending craft, hook pole by his side like a staff. When their wake lifted the stern, he rose above me. I gripped the rails and tucked my chin into my life jacket. The wake’s crest lifted the bow while the stern into the trough. It tried to pitch me off my seat, but I never let go of the rails. Mr. Klein held the hook pole as if it were anchored to the bottom of his boat. He shouted at the offending craft, “There is a child aboard!”
The big white boat slowed and circled back at us. One of the men yelled: “Go home, Hitler!” They laughed and sped away.
Mr. Klein sat down. Drops of water clung to the creases on his face. “Are you okay?” he asked.
I figured he could see I wasn’t hurt but nodded anyway. “Why did they do that?”
He muttered, “I don’t know,” as he pulled the starting rope. He said something else I couldn’t hear over the engine. He turned the boat downstream and opened it up. I didn’t tell my grandparents about it because I didn’t want them to say I couldn’t go out anymore.
Two evenings later we found a turtle. After checking five hooks and catching nothing I saw a white shape rising in front of us, but the line never shook. The dead turtle floated upside down, as big as a tire. We heard another boat coming. Mr. Klein looked upriver and lowered the line to let them pass. It looked like the same fiberglass craft that had sent its wake at us earlier. Mr. Klein didn’t say anything. He just stared at the big white hull getting closer. It didn’t slow, so I held on, waiting for the wake.
As the boat neared us Mr. Klein lifted the pole and the turtle rose. Their boat made a thud when it hit the carcass. They cut their engine. There were four people onboard, two couples, and not dressed for fishing. One man looked over the stern at their engine, and then looked back at us. Mr. Klein had the line in his hands and was pulling us across the river again. He made the normal motions of fishing. I watched the line too and didn’t look up when I heard the other boat open its throttle and move away. The turtle was a mess of shredded shell and flesh. He yanked the hook out with pliers and it sank out of sight. We didn’t talk about anything except “pass me a bait,” and “that’s probably a pike” the rest of the evening. There was a lightness in his voice though.
The next morning when I walked to his dock, I found Mr. Klein throwing seaweed out of his boat. There were symbols like a strange x painted in red. He only looked up for a second and said, “I have to go alone this morning, Fred. Sorry.” I watched him toss the seaweed into the channel and then ran back to the cabin.
Grandma and Grandpa were still eating breakfast. I took the seat I had just vacated. “What’s going on?” Grandma asked.
“Mr. Klein doesn’t want me to go today. Someone painted on his boat and threw seaweed in it.”
Grandma looked at Grandpa. Grandpa said, “What?”
“Some people in a big boat sent their wake at us a few days ago and called him names. Mr. Klein said he has to go alone this morning.”
Grandma stood up and said, “Tug.”
Grandpa was already out of his chair and walking to their bedroom. He came back wearing a big black coat. “Hold breakfast, Ruby.” He headed for the door.
“We are coming with you,” Grandma said.
Grandpa turned and shook his head. “He’s just a boy. It’s not safe.”
Grandma didn’t raise her voice, but her tone was firm. “It’s not safe for you to go alone.”
Grandpa said, “Ruby…” and they locked eyes in some silent, ancient battle I not only had no part in but also had no idea what was going on. Then Grandpa said, “Fine.”
We loaded into their twelve-foot boat, Grandpa at the motor, Grandma in the center seat, and I again in the small seat in the bow. The boat had less than half the horsepower of Mr. Klein’s, so we didn’t catch up to him until we got to the river. We saw his boat and the same big white cruiser both near the bank. A man in the stern of the white boat held an oar over his head. He swung it and hit either Mr. Klein or his boat, we were too far away to tell. Grandpa cut our motor and stood up. He reached into his coat and said, “Cover your ears.” I put my hands over my ears and looked at my shoes. I felt the blast of the pistol as much as I heard it. The boom echoed across the marsh and birds flew away. I looked up. Grandpa stood holding his sidearm pointed skyward, looking over my head at the two boats. I turned and saw the man in the white boat move to his steering console. A second later he went upstream fast. Grandpa sat down, put the pistol on the seat beside him, and put our motor in gear. When we got close to Mr. Klein Grandma called out, “Are you okay, Dom?”
Mr. Klein sat holding his hook pole in his lap. He smiled but it looked forced. “Not to worry, Ruby. I’m fine.” He jutted his chin at Grandpa. “Nice shooting, Elmer. Did you hit anything?”
Grandpa shook his head. “I was aiming at a drake but then it flew off.”
Mr. Klein nodded. “They’ll do that.”
Grandma said, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Mr. Klein nodded. “Never better, Ruby. It’s just rambunctious boys, you know how they get.”
Grandpa shoved the till and we arced away. I waved to Mr. Klein and he waved back as Grandpa opened the throttle and took us home. In the channel he slowed to navigate the weeds and I could hear again.
I said, “Grandpa, was Austria on our side during the war?”
He and Grandma exchanged a look. We tied the boat up and climbed out. Grandpa put a hand on my shoulder as we walked back to the cabin. He said, “It’s leaders who start the wars, Fred. People like us have to fight them.”