Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Magic Places

The Magic Places
Thomas McNulty

There are enough of these magic places still that anglers speak of them with reverence. They occupy our conversation over a cold beer in a faraway lodge, or in the passing comments we make traveling the highways of this great country. They are the places that are both hard to find and right in front of us. They are the small lakes and winding rivers that intersect our lives. These are the places where the water reflects the blue sky and the summer wind stirs our imagination as we toss a line over the bow, cut the Evinrude, and drift with a yellow straight-tale grub affixed to a hook.

We are connected to these places by memories, and by this constant desire to kindle the flames of that contented feeling we first experienced on some long ago day when a father or an uncle took us fishing for the first time. Maybe it’s because of that, or maybe it’s because in those halcyon days the world seemed fresh. Keeping that sensation of freshness alive matters more with each passing winter. A canny bass fisherman knows the shoreline reeds and tall grass cast late afternoon shadows in secret coves and hidden bays across Wisconsin and Minnesota. Down deep in those shadows the bass feed on minnows; relentless shoreline hunters as the sun eases down like a molten doubloon tossed across and azure horizon. A burst of water-lilies in the shadow of an old plank pier offer the angler an opportunity for the bite of a lazily gliding northern pike.

The quiet coves and sun-splashed inlets, free of computers and the nonsense of social media, bring a solitude punctuated by the choices we make from a case of colorful artificial jig combos. Sometimes there is an urgency in our actions. “He’s down there,” a friend told me once as we fished a familiar cove, “and he’s mine today.” He was referring to a rather large northern we had seen the day before in this same spot, and we had failed to catch it. We hadn’t seen much fish in the shallows this day, but of course they were down there. They were always down there. Catching them was another matter entirely. My friend caught his northern, but in a different spot. The bounty we receive is dictated perhaps by terms we have never understood. There is skill involved, and a knowledge of fish and ecosystems, and there is luck. Fishing such magic places invokes a philosophical pursuit every fisherman knows well. Time in the boats with a line in the water gives each man or woman time to ponder the vast mysteries of life.

The night fisherman has the heavens above and myriad galaxies sweeping past in a heartbeat, the flash of falling stars a constant reminder of our mortality. How many fisherman, I wonder, have wished upon a falling star as much because of a learned cultural reflex but also in response to some atavistic desire to embrace and understand the unknown. To debate in solitude the benefits of live-bait rigging over a tackle box overflowing with colorful plastic lures is to engage the memory banks with images of crappie and bluegill, or largemouth bass and panfish. Fishing is relaxing, to state the obvious, but what is obvious to a fisherman is not always recognized in a society prone to hated-filled electronic communication. So the angler retreats and comes home simultaneously; it’s a way of driving the mind pollution away and recharging one’s spiritual battery.

The fishing pole in hand, an array of lures, and reasonable weather is all a man can ask for. When I fish I seek a familiar shoreline, a quiet place where the sun can warm my back and the scudding clouds are mirrored by the pristine depths of a sandy bottom; and then, suddenly, I glimpse the silver flash of gills as my lure strikes the water. There are times when fishing alone is vital, and yet other times when good companions are necessary. Competition is one thing, but truly admiring a fellow angler’s cast or the instinctive way he chooses the spot for his lure to drop all helps to fill the afternoon with a fraternal appreciation for the great outdoors.

Everything that we understand about ourselves can be summarized in the singular act of fishing. We define ourselves by our actions and by the lures we choose and by the sun-dappled coves we float in, with rod and reel in hand, a contented smile on our lips. The 10-20 pound monofilament line is standard issue for bass and northern pike, and in the event a record-breaker is hauled in the happy fisherman gets bragging rights on skill in handling the torque and axis rotation.  There are times where I’ve fished myself to the point of exhaustion without necessarily fishing well, and with little to show for my effort, I allowed the boat to glide into a shallow bay, the water-lilies rustling against the boat’s aluminum side. Sometimes I’ll lift the camera and snap photos, or I might just bask in the cool shadows thrown by the towering shoreline pines. If I’m especially lucky, I’ll watch an eagle swoop soundlessly from above as its talons snap a fish from just below the surface. Such a sight is awe-inspiring and not without its own irony, because the American eagle is infinitely better at catching fish than any man yet born.

I am not skilled at small talk, and don’t enjoy the chatter when it is so obviously intended as filler for a day that requires no filler. Choose your fishing companions carefully. This wisdom I have heard repeated countless times, and it should never fall on deaf ears. A lousy companion is immediately recognizable in a boat, and if such darkly comedic rumors are true, a poorly chosen fishing companion is responsible for more than one intoxicated northwoods homicide. I recall with clarity a conversation I had with my uncle who was an avid hunter and fisherman. Perhaps the moment lingered because I heard it in a Wisconsin saloon beneath the glare of a five-point buck guilty only of bad taxidermy and who appraised us with the accusing glass stare of a ghost while my uncle sipped a tall glass of cold Hamm’s beer. It was the late 1960s and my uncle, who despised the counter-culture longhairs as “aberrations,” but nonetheless availed himself of the sexual revolution by taking up with a buckskin clad girl who, in his words, was “great in bed, but lousy at fishing and housekeeping.”

When he was in his cups, as it were, and the sparkling carbonation in a cold glass of beer loosened his tongue, he casually remarked to the bartender that if the Herb Albert album spinning on the turntable wasn’t soon replaced by Glen Miller he would demonstrate a lifetime of expertise with his 12-gauge Remington. Nearly in the same breath he vowed that never again would he allow a no-good downtrodden hippie chick ever talk him into coming along on a fishing trip again. “There’s no reason to ruin a good day fishing by taking along a girl I won’t marry.”

Being prone to reflection, I seek out the same fishing spots that my uncle favored, which is easy to accomplish given I am now overseer of the property, and I think of the old days with far greater frequency than any old-timer should publicly admit. I smile thinking of his contradictory nature, and that of his brothers, and on those hushed afternoons just before summer’s end, when you can sense the coming of the season’s first frost, I acknowledge my luck to have had such good companions in the boat, and for an all-too brief moment they are with me again.

The magic places we favor are as varied as the angler himself. Because I am surrounded by some strong-willed women who fish with the same intensity as any male angler, I have broached the subject of jigs and lures in my quest to identify the best techniques. One man’s poison, I soon learned, is a woman’s cure. The many generations of knowledge passed down by fathers, brothers, uncles and sisters are on display at any northwoods flea market.

Musky lures are particularly fascinating. Hand-carved lures painted with care by some long forgotten fisherman are common enough, and sell regularly enough that most flea market vendors make a point of keeping a box of them handy. With their rusted hooks and painted eyes, they adorn a shelf or tackle box as a reminder of a bygone era before everything was made from plastic in a Chinese factory. A musky lure, carved in the silhouette of a loon hatchling, is a piece of Americana.  Any lures made by Heddon and Son out of Michigan prior to the first World War are highly prized by collectors, as are those made by the Shakespeare company. A wooden minnow or underwater spinner in its original box can be quite valuable. I’ve talked to collectors who concentrate on finding any lures from the Creek Chub Bait Company out of Indiana or any Pflueger minnows. Collecting lures is a favored past-time for the sentimental angler who will never admit to sentiment. “My pa owned one like this,” you might be told, followed by a description of some magic place where they fished on a spring day long ago.

On any of the thousands of lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin are secret coves and bays known to only the fisherman who covet the solitude. It is here that they come to fish, and while they fish to listen to the sound of the wind in the tall pines; and to smell the pines on the warm breeze. The act of fishing and their awareness and love for the outdoors is something that is sacred.  I know an inordinate number of northwoodsmen who, when they’re not fishing, haunt the antique shops looking at old lures or rummaging through moldy boxes containing dimpled copies of Outdoor Life or Field & Stream, forever in search of that one story discovered in youth but lost in adulthood. I have searched unsuccessfully for several decades but to date have failed to locate several old magazines with grizzly bears on the cover that my aunt kept at her cabin. I’ll know them when I see them. Maybe just looking for them is enough.

The labyrinthine enigmas of a fresh-water lake on a July afternoon offer a bromide for the disaffected wanderer. Each lake has its special cove, shadowed inlet or dilapidated pier where a day alone with a line in the water is like a salve on a wound. The public misconception exists that fishing is a sedentary activity and unhealthy. Ask any angler, no matter if it’s a fly fisherman, bass fisherman or deep sea fisherman, and you’ll receive a treatise on the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle.

Of equal importance to the fisherman is the boat upon which his day is measured. From a leaky bark canoe to the sleek, aluminum bass and panfish boats with bow and aft casting decks, anglers rely on their boats to get them to that magic place. I’ve fished in Jon boats and from a pontoon boat and shiny new aluminum trailer boats. Perhaps my favorite was my father’s old varnished mahogany runabout, The Honeypot, a four seater that cut like a bullet across many a lake and river.

Like most runabout owners, my father relied on an Evinrude outboard motor which helped propel The Honeypot across the surface of Lake Michigan and other waterways. Such boats are treasures, and often I spy them at anchor or resting next to a pier like some otherworldly creatures, haunted with memories and anxiously waiting to come alive with a sputtering roar. Photographs of our boats are integral to any family album, carefully pasted onto the album page as a reminder of the sunlight on our faces and the feathering spray blown out in our wake by the blazing Evinrude.

I once brought a nephew to our northwoods cabin, situated on a lake and far removed from Chicago’s neon distractions. I observed with amusement his inability to adjust to seven days on a lakefront. He discovered that although the scene was relaxing, he was in constant motion. The simple act of walking thirty feet from the cabin to the pier was, after just two days, enough exercise to cause his unused muscles to protest. Constantly getting in and out of a boat, using one’s arms with a rod and reel, and gulping down all of that fresh Wisconsin air, complimented by the occasional tick problem, resulted in a physical collapse where he was flat out and shaking the timbers with his nasal buzz-saw. Afterward, he vowed never to go fishing again.

There is an unwritten history of the magic places that can be found on the road. I have found them in Wyoming side-trails, or down in New Mexico and Arizona. These are the places off the beaten path; the small lakes and nameless rivers discovered by accident but never forgotten. I cannot stop myself from pausing at any waterway to study the curving shoreline, watchful for a glimpse of a bronze head or the silver glint of a fluctuating gill. I travel to Wisconsin most often these days, my home away from home, and there on the lake but thirty feet from my porch, the water offers up its revelations, mysteries and the endless miracles of nature.  If I am to be guilty of being religious, then it is this – a religion of pine-scented breezes and the silhouette of a circling eagle above a pristine lake as I gather my gear and trudge down to the boat for a day in a magic place. A man truly owns only what he knows, and I know such places are my remedy. I need nothing else.

 NOTE: Thomas McNulty is the author of a biography about actor Errol Flynn and the Western Novels Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, Coffin for an Outlaw and The Gunsmoke Serenade. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Text and photographs copyright © 2017 by Thomas McNulty.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

I am committing an injustice by penning only a few modest words about Hesse’s masterpiece. I think there are enough essays and thesis papers and even blog book reports that you can indulge yourself elsewhere. My purpose here is to look back at my first reading of the book, and understand it at a visceral level. It was no accident that I carried this book around in my rucksack with George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, and A Happy Death by Albert Camus. There were other books, the ones I call my essentials, like A Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen and Beam Ends by Errol Flynn, but Hesse was pre-eminent among my rucksack companions. Harry Haller’s tale is one of exploration, redemption, and enthusiasm. His agonies are handled systematically. The Bantam 1969 paperback is the translation by Basil Creighton. Hesse was a poet, painter and philosopher, and his command of ideas is akin to that of an orchestra conductor, waving and directing the tremolo into a syncopated whole, brimming with melody. Hesse loved music. My analogy is intentional. The Creighton translation is my preferred text. The language is ripe with themes, overflowing with images and philosophies. In his 1961 introduction to the novel, Hesse says that the book “is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.” Harry Haller’s entry into “The Magic Theatre” and “For Madmen Only” struck a chord with the 1960s counter-culture youth who embraced the book. I am a child of the 60s, and I believe Haller’s suffering was seen as analogous for the turbulent era of “The Nam,” rock and roll, sex, drugs and a general refusal to participate in the global colonialism espoused by a corrupt political leadership. The wolf of the “steppes,” or the beast that is within all of us, is easily recognized in our political system today, as it was in the 60s. Hesse could not have foreseen that perception when he wrote the book, but having survived the Nazis, he would understand it. Reading Steppenwolf requires dedication, a love of language, a willingness to understand alternate philosophies, and perhaps a belief in the goodness of your own soul. Also recommended: Siddhartha, Demian and Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson

Artist and writer Jill Thompson is a 7 time Eisner Award winning artist and creative powerhouse. She is the creator of the Scary Godmother and has worked on The Sandman, and the Wonder Woman monthly series, and many other notable accomplishments. In 2016 DC Comics published her Wonder Woman: The True Amazon graphic novel in hardcover. This re-imagining of Diana Prince’s origin is unforgettable and heartfelt, a satisfying emotional journey that offers s fresh perspective on Wonder Woman’s formative years. At the heart of the story is Diana’s youthful selfishness which ultimately leads to a life-changing tragedy. Thompson wisely and effectively humanizes the goddess who will one day become a central figure in the world’s pantheon of heroes. A character-driven study and laced with the requisite mythology, Jill Thompson’s Wonder Woman: The True Amazon engages readers in a journey of self-discovery that will forever change their view of DC’s pre-eminent heroine, and that’s a good thing. Thompson’s vision of a young Diana as a spoiled brat may come as a surprise to some readers, but I felt that Thompson did her character justice and the resolution was appropriate. In one sense, the story reminded me of a traditional fairy tale, albeit infused with modern sensibilities, but wise and endearing. The artwork is great and the color palette is bright. The endpapers include sketches and a special “Pencils to Color” feature. Wonder Woman: The True Amazon will be published as a paperback later this year. I’d love to see a sequel. Recommended for readers of all ages.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Deviates by Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones wrote many fine novels, but for some reason this Beacon paperback from 1959 is the one that collectors want. For example, I own a first edition hardcover of Jones’ This Island Earth, his best known work, and collector’s rarely show substantial interest. This Island Earth is not difficult to find. I own the Science Fiction Book Club edition from Shasta publishers out of Chicago. The original owner had slipped the 1953 Science Fiction Book Club pamphlet into the book. We collector’s do have esoteric tastes at times. Anyway, The Deviates was originally published in 1956 as The Secret People. Nobody wants that edition either. They want this 1959 Beacon reprint with artwork by Robert Stanley. The Deviates is a science fiction story, published under Beacon’s Galaxy Science Fiction imprint. This paperback is widely offered on e-bay, often listed as “rare” but it’s not rare. Action Comics # 1 is rare. The Deviates is everywhere. I see this book all the time. For the record, if anyone tells you this book is rare they’re either intentionally lying or ignorant of vintage basic book collecting. It’s become the trend to list something as “rare” in order to justify a higher price. There are hard-to-find titles from this era, but The Deviates is not one of them. The Deviates is a good book, and I recommend it. This is the story of Robert Welton, Chief of the Genetics Bureau, who discovers that the genetics program is failing. There are fewer Normals each year, and most amazingly of all, he learns that not all Deviates are flawed. In fact, some of them are telepathic – like Welton himself! He initiates a plan begun by his father, to form a group of secret people who are hiding in the Canadian wilderness. Born of natural mothers and bearing his genes, the colony comes under attack when a government committee learns of their existence. The Deviates is a dystopian novel, typical of the era, and strong on characterization. Jones imagines a frightening world that promotes itself as utopian, but is actually simmering with conflict. Welton and the other characters propel the narrative. I’m a fan of author Raymond F. Jones, and in addition to The Deviates, I can recommend This Island Earth, Son of the Stars (for young readers), The Year When Stardust Fell, and Renegades of Time. I may cover some of these at a later date. Jones began his career in the pulps in the 40s. Several of his books are available for Kindle.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Curse of Skull Canyon by Peter Brandvold

Some years back, when I read my first Peter Brandvold book, .45 Caliber Revenge, I appreciated his skill in creating characters, the quick pace, and hardboiled action. Since then, Brandvold has never disappointed. His books are a blast to read. Ole Mean Pete is predominantly digital now, and I finally joined the Digital Age and bought a Kindle. Well, I’m loading it up with Peter Brandvold books. The latest I read is The Curse of Skull Canyon, a sequel to Lonnie Gentry, which I recommend you read first. Lonnie Gentry is a thirteen-year old in the Old West who cares for his mother. In his first adventure he gets tangled up with some bank robbers, a pretty girl named Casey, and a saddlebag full of trouble. Lonnie Gentry and The Curse of Skull Canyon are a change of pace for Brandvold who has made a name for himself with his edgy, adult-oriented blazing Western adventure novels. Lonnie Gentry and The Curse of Skull Canyon are coming of age stories with a homespun feel, but still loaded with Brandvold’s action scenes and great characters. Young Adult readers should find these tales at the top of their list. Brandvold’s ability to handle diverse themes and exciting plots combined with wholly original storytelling is all on display in The Curse of Skull Canyon. There’s a supernatural element here regarding the actual curse of Skull Canyon, and I enjoyed the tension as Lonnie Gentry works to extricate himself from yet another dire circumstance. The Curse of Skull Canyon is a delight. I won’t be surprised if Ole Pete pens another Lonnie Gentry adventure, and if he does I’ll be happy to saddle up and ride along.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Earthstrike Agenda by Bobby Nash

I find it immeasurably enjoyable to read a science fiction novel where it’s obvious the author was having fun. Too many authors take themselves and their work so seriously, that the entertainment value is muted by their pomposity. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Bobby Nash. Here’s an author that jumps right into the tale with a gee-whiz attitude and spins an exciting Space Opera with all of the galactic world-building you could ask for. Earthstrike Agenda is New Pulp Fiction at its best, professionally written, thrilling and satisfying. The various elements of the tale will be instantly recognizable to readers, including a dash of Star Trek, Star Wars and Flash Gordon, all while weaving an original story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Nash creates a fantastic protagonist with starship captain Virginia Harmon who takes command of the ship, Pegasus, just as earth is about to face a threat from deep space. Nash creates a vibrant supporting cast, and devotes large chunks of multiple chapters to them. With so many players, I admired Nash’s ability to not only keep track of them, but to make them relevant. Earthstrike Agenda is decidedly Old School adventure writing, and I mean that in a positive way. The drama unfolds at an easy pace, builds momentum, and before you know it you’re racing along with Virginia Harmon, Dr. James Silver, Ensign Bailey and others as the fate of earth hangs in the balance. An expertly constructed Space Opera like Earthstrike Agenda shouldn’t be missed by any Sci-Fi fan. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent by Joe Bonadonna

This eagerly awaited follow-up volume to Joe Bonadonna’s classic, Mad Shadows, is exactly what I hoped for. This continuation of Dorgo’s chronicle is comprised of three novellas: “The Girl Who Loved Ghouls,” “The Book of Echoes” and “The Order of the Serpent.” This is razor-edged fantasy at its best. In the first tale, Dorgo has some romance going on in his life, with a witch. This is not a Harlequin romance. Bonadonna’s masterful prose is ripe with images, appropriately gothic, spooky as hell, and a delight for fans of classic fantasy-adventure fiction. I love Bonadonna’s world building. Laced with autumnal winds and lonely graveyards, Dorgo’s world is chilling and often deadly: “What little was left of Glacken lay to the south, between Widow’s Fell and Baloo Fen. The fire blackened ruins of Sahn Magnor, the old Estaerine church, stood on the outskirts of the ghost town. The cemetery lay behind the church and had been part of its once-sacred ground. I gave the supposedly haunted hamlet a wide birth, not wanting to encounter any demons or devils…” (p.30) I love this type of natural exposition where the writer can so deftly transport us into an imaginative and exotic locale. Dorgo never has an easy time of it, but I’m always rooting for him to overcome his tribulations. Bonadonna pits Dorgo against some fairly wicked creatures. In “The Book of Echoes” Dorgo learns about “The Book of Echoes” which seems to be on everyone’s mind. After being nearly killed, Dorgo learns that the book can open realms beyond time and space, and holds answers to all the riddles of the Echoverse, the secrets of life and death, and the Nine Levels of Attainment. But such knowledge has a price. Those who are pure of heart will become the Crystal Children, while those with evil intent will become Endarkened Ones. Bonadonna brilliantly structures the tale and populates it with plenty of weird characters, nasty monsters and rising tension. The third novella, “The Order of the Serpent,” ties it all together and pits Dorgo against a warlock, the leader of the Order of the Serpent. Engaging characters, artful construction, scenes dripping with mood, and a world of castles, goblins and wild monsters are all hallmarks of Joe Bonadonna’s Dorgo the Dowser tales. Impossible to put to down, Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent is a richly imagined collection. The great cover artwork is by Erika M. Szabo.