Feb 10, 2018

CATCHING FISH AND A FRIEND 

 
People come and go throughout one’s life, but some people become a part of your life, staying in your heart forever. One of those is my German fishing buddy, Arnold.     

It’s been over twenty years since the first time we met. At one time, I was invited with a group to go to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. I had retired from the Army a year earlier and was involved in a business, which wasn’t doing too good, so the invitation came at a good time. I needed to get away for a few days and go fishing.      

A couple years earlier, I had put together a trip to the Boundary Waters for the Combat Support Division at the Readiness Group at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where I was assigned. We were active duty soldiers advising Reserve and National Guard units in Minnesota and Iowa. The trip had been a great time and was remembered fondly by those who went. A newly assigned Captain, Ken Leners, who worked with me, decided to carry on the tradition after I left. Perhaps because I organized the first trip, Ken decided to ask me to return. Several members of the new group going on this canoeing trip were still in the military. Ken also asked his father, Mike Leners, who lived in Iowa, to join us as well as his old German landlord, Arnold Walther. When Ken was assigned to Germany as a new lieutenant he rented an apartment from Arnold.      

I met Arnold just prior to when we all got together the first morning for departure to the Boundary Waters. Arnold would have been in his later sixties, at the time, and I was amazed that he was willing to go on such a rigorous trip. But Arnold thrived on it. He slept on the ground, paddled a canoe all day and dragged gear over portages with relish. He became part of the group and would return over the years for several more trips. He loved the Boundary Waters and the rugged adventures we had. 
      
I have two distinct memories of that first trip to the Boundary Waters with Arnold. The first happened on one afternoon when Ken and I were fishing on one side of the lake and Ken’s dad, Mike, and Arnold were in a canoe on the other side of the lake. We looked over to see the canoe turned over, floating on the surface of the lake. We dropped our fishing rods and started paddling furiously to get to them. The more we paddled the more concerned we were becoming but once we got closer we saw both Mike and Arnold in life jackets swimming for shore. Although they lost all their fishing equipment, they had a great story to tell everyone that night around the campfire.      

The second memory is how I became the camp cook. The original plan was everyone brought and prepared their own food. Before we left, I told Ken I would clean all the fish, keeping them on ice for a big fish fry I would put together our last evening in the Boundary Waters. One late afternoon Ken, his dad Mike, Arnold and I were sitting around a campfire making an early dinner before we went fishing to catch the evening bite. I was cooking a T-bone steak while Ken was cutting up a couple cans of Spam for their dinner. Arnold looked over at my steak, saying, “That looks delicious.”      

I felt guilty about that, and at the end of the trip, I told Ken for future trips I would take care of all the cooking. I would get all the food, make a big breakfast in the morning and later, when we all got back to camp, make dinner for everyone. All I asked is everyone chip in for the food and if I was going to do the cooking and clean all the fish someone else take care of cleaning the pots and pans. “It’s a deal.” I was told.   

From then on I became the camp cook, which included not only the Boundary Waters, but trips we took to Canada, South Dakota, northern Minnesota, or where ever our adventures took us. To this day I still am the camp cook.       

Eventually, Arnold came to stay with my wife and I. We would fish the lakes in northwestern Wisconsin where we live, before and after our other trips to the Boundary Waters or Canada. Arnold became part of our family, going with us to visit a newly born granddaughter and joining the family in baptizing another granddaughter. We also became part of his family, visiting him, his wife, Christa, daughter, Kerstin, and husband, Daniel, and granddaughter, Katharina, when we were in Europe.     

One year, he and his family came to visit us and we spent a week at a cabin on Gunflint Lake on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border. Arnold and Christa were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. It was a wonderful week. We listened to the haunting call of loons on the water as we made breakfasts on the deck of the cabin. Arnold and I, along with his granddaughter, fished for smallmouth bass during the day. We watched the sun sink behind us, disappearing in the vast dark forest of pines that surrounded us.      

Before and after our trip to Gunflint Lake we took his granddaughter fishing with us for panfish in one of our local lakes. Both Arnold and I enjoyed watching the thrill and excitement Katharina had as she reeled in another bluegill splashing on the surface. I took a photo of her one day, fishing cap sitting on her head and holding a big bluegill she caught. That picture still sits in a frame in Arnold’s office in his home in France.     

Arnold also is one of only four fishermen who caught two fish on one bait in my boat. It was early evening and we were fishing crankbaits, flipping them against a rocky shoreline. Arnold yelled he had a fish and a moment or two later when he pulled it in there was a bass on both sets of treble hooks. It was quite an achievement. My wife, another young fishing buddy and I are the only other ones in my boat to catch two fish on one bait in the 20 plus years we have fished in northwestern Wisconsin.     

Arnold fell in love with Wisconsin. Perhaps because so many of his countrymen came here in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Arnold saw the very same things which made them make Wisconsin their home. Arnold had his favorite lakes. One in particular, Squaw Lake, not far my home, became special to him. He and I caught a lot of bass from that lake. There was a small island near the landing and we always made sure we fished it just before we left at the end of the day. I remember Arnold setting the hook and the water exploding as a bass raced off. Arnold’s spinning rod was bent in half as the fish fought back and then finally Arnold got the fish alongside the boat, hauling the fish in. Most of the fish we caught off that island were between two and three pounds. I always expected Arnold was going to break a rod as he hoisted those fish out of the water, dragging them into the boat, but he never did. The smile would spread across on his face as he pulled those fish in.      

Arnold also became a Packer fan. Generally, he visited us in August during the time the Packers were playing their preseason exhibition games. He watched them, cheering with us each time the Packers scored. I gave him a t-shirt with a Packer helmet on the front, advertising Old Style Beer. It became his lucky fishing shirt. In Germany, he continued to follow the Packers and rooted for them throughout the season and playoffs. He was just as excited as we were when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV.    

We once fished for salmon on Lake Michigan. Arnold caught the first fish, a 10-pound king salmon, later telling me it was the biggest fish he ever caught. The lake was rough that day, with waves washing over the breakwater at Algoma. After Arnold caught his fish, he became sea sick and spent the rest of the trip lying down. By the time we got back to the harbor after dark, his voice was raspy and all he wanted to do was lie down. I took him back to the room and got him in bed. “What have I done to him,” I thought. I was sick with worry.   

Once I got him in bed, I left with the rest of the party for dinner, getting a bowl of chicken soup to take back to him. When I came back, I woke him and forced him to drink the soup. It worked. The next morning Arnold was back to his old self and I breathed a sigh of relief.      

Another time Arnold visited us he was complaining about pain in his leg. We thought initially it might be just a cramp from sitting for several hours in a plane. But after a couple days when the pain didn’t go away, I took him to the doctor. He had a blood clot in his leg. This could become serious. I took Arnold in for blood tests every other day. He could not fly home yet so he missed his flight back to Germany. Finally, the doctor said there was no reason he couldn’t go fishing so Arnold and I went fishing until the doctor finally cleared him to travel. At that time, the Olympics were on. So Arnold and I also watched them when we weren’t fishing. Arnold stayed with us for another week, which was ok. We got to watch the Olympics and catch more fish together. 
 
Arnold was conscripted in the German army at the end of World War II. One day, the army came into his small town in central Germany, calling all the men and boys out into the street. Arnold was 16. The Army took all the boys who weren’t too young and all the men who weren’t too old, loading them in the back of trucks. Arnold was now in the German army. They put him in uniform and handed him a rifle, shipping him to the Czechoslovakian border with hardly any more training than how to shoot his rifle. His unit was sandwiched between the Russian army advancing west and the Americans advancing east. The war was lost for the Germans and it was only a matter of time before it would all be over. His commander was a young lieutenant who realized the war was a lost cause. He knew if he engaged the Americans who were the nearest to them, it would needlessly cause their destruction. As the Americans drew near, his commander continued to pull them back so they wouldn’t be killed.      

The Gestapo found out about this, came into their unit area and executed the lieutenant in front of his men as a lesson. With that, Arnold told me his war came to an end. He started walking home. It took him two weeks to make it back to his town. He walked the equivalent of the distance from Chicago to Minneapolis, traveling mostly at night, running from his own army who would kill him if they captured him and the Americans who might kill him. He lived on discarded cans of c-rations the Americans threw out as they traveled along the roads. Finally, he made it home. He had been captured twice by Americans, but escaped both times. Once, he was hiding in a barn as German soldiers were milling around outside. He knew if they found him he would be killed. “I just wanted to be free,“ he told me. As he neared home, needing only to cross a bridge, he was stopped by an American sergeant. The sergeant let him go and Arnold was finally back home. 
 
We fished together for years and then, for a number of reasons I no longer remember, Arnold missed a few summers. It had become more difficult for him to travel. It must have been disappointing to him. He traveled the world from China to the United States and now it had become too much for him. Changes came to his family as well. His daughter and granddaughter moved from Germany to Switzerland for Kerstin’s job in the banking industry. Arnold and his wife, Christa, sold their home in Germany and moved to Switzerland to be near their daughter and granddaughter. A few years later, Kerstin married a wonderful man named Daniele and eventually left the bank she worked at to buy a villa in southern France, running it as a bed and breakfast. Arnold and Christa followed them to France.  

We invited Arnold to visit us and go fishing again but this time it was the finale. He could not travel that far again. It made us both sad. It seemed an era in our life had come to an end too. It wasn’t Christmas yet and one night my wife, Becky, and I were sitting around the dining room table, talking while having a cocktail. We realized as we talked, if we wanted to see Arnold and Christa again we would have to go to France. We contacted Kerstin. Yes, we should come, we were told. So we started making plans and four months later at the end of March we were on a plane flying to France. We landed in Paris and the next day took a train for southern France. Arnold, Christa and Kerstin were waiting for us when we stepped off the train.      

Arnold and Christa might have been a few years older than they were the last time we saw them, but they didn’t look any older. We all hugged and there probably was a tear or two shed. Arnold and I, two fishing buddies, were together again. That night we ate a wonderful meal of chicken salad at Kerstin’s villa and Arnold and I drank a bit of bourbon like we had many nights sitting at our dining room table. Before we left for France, Becky and Kerstin exchanged a series of emails. Would it be possible for two old fishing buddies to be able to fish again when we were in France? Kerstin said it could be done.      

The next day Arnold, Christa, Becky and I met a guide named Joergen, who took us on a tour of Provence. We saw the very spot where Vincent Van Gogh stood painting his masterpiece Starry Night. We saw a Roman gate to a village, which was a thousand years old. We ate mussels at a café sitting outside where it was warm, shaded with ancient trees. We stopped at a winery and olive plantation to taste wine and olive oil. The next day Arnold and Christa took us for a picnic along a trout stream running through their town. The water was cold and clear and, in addition to trout the stream, also had grayling.       

A day later Arnold, Christa, Becky and I crowded once more into Joergen’s car. We were on our way to the Mediterranean Sea. Arnold and I were going fishing again. We drove to the town of Cassis. Becky and Christa went in search of places to shop. Arnold, Joergen and I walked down to the port. We found our boat. It was a commercial fishing boat that also took out sport fishermen in the afternoon. It was a bright day with sunlight dancing on the lightly rippled water, bouncing off the rocky cliffs along the sea. As the boat headed out to sea, Arnold and I looked at each other. We were smiling. We were going fishing together again.      

The captain pulled the boat close to a large gray cliff and dropped anchor. He showed us how to bait our hooks with what looked like sandworms. He told us we probably weren’t going to catch many big fish, but we would catch fish. It was good enough for Arnold and me. Arnold caught the first fish. It was about six inches long and brightly colored. I have no idea what kind of fish it was, but the captain seemed to be happy with it and had Arnold throw it in a bucket.      

A few minutes later I felt a pop on my line and my light spinning rod bounced as the fish raced off. It put up a surprisingly stiff fight by the time I got it in. It was about the same size and color as Arnold’s fish. A little while later Joergen caught the biggest fish, probably about a foot long. We continued to feel fish hit our baits and we brought our fish into the boat, starting to fill the bucket.  

The fish might not have been as big as the bass Arnold and I caught in our lakes in western Wisconsin, or the walleye we took in the Boundary Waters, or the northern pike we found in Canada, but we caught fish and enjoyed being on the water together one more time. The Mediterranean became just another fishing spot for us. It was a grand afternoon. When we returned to port, Joergan took the fish, later making them in a soup, which turned out well he said. The Mediterranean might have been different than the lakes we had fished before and fish soup is certainly different than the way we cooked fish on our other adventures together, but we caught fish and had fun, which is what fishing is all about anyway. Fishing trips in other parts of the world can be different but are still similar in so many ways. 

Back at port Arnold, Joergen and I found a sunny café on the edge of the water and ordered a beer. Shortly thereafter Christa and Becky joined us. We touched glasses, making a toast to fishing buddies being together again. It may have been a few years since we last were together, but at that moment it seemed like just yesterday. Joergen now became another fishing buddy. You can never have too many fishing buddies. Fishing is more than just catching fish. As we drank our beers, sweaty with condensation while sitting in the sun on the shores of the Mediterranean, we knew it was more about the people we are with than the fish we caught. Once more, fishing buddies, a world apart, are together again, which is the only thing that truly mattered.