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Down by the Power Dam
Every year it is necessary for fishing to start. Even though it has gone on year-round it must have a beginning each year, and fishing always started in the spring.
In the small northern town in Minnesota where we were raised it is possible that everything started in the spring, but fishing was the most important thing, and it became vital to watch for the signs that it would begin.
There were two primary indications.
One was the car on the ice.
Pollution was not then considered nor discussed, and each year the town would put an old car on the frozen ice of the river and tie wires from the car to a clock on a tree on the bank. The idea was that when the ice started to go out the car would fall through the ice, trip the clock, and there would be an exact record of when this event occurred.
Much was made of this whole business. It was not just a way to dispose of old cars-- although over the years the bottom of the river became littered with them, and god only knows how many fishing lures were lost by people trying to fish around the cars and catching their hooks on door handles or bumpers. More importantly, the old car on the ice became a contest that occupied the whole town.
Everybody guessed at the exact moment when the ice would progress enough into the "rotten" stage (also known as "honeycomb ice," which I would come to know intimately and with horror later, running dog teams on small lakes and the Bering Sea) and allow the car to drop to the bottom.
It started that simply. At the courthouse or the library there was a large bulletin board, and for a dollar you could sign the board and write down your guess to win the car-through-the-ice raffle. Of course, you never met anyone who had won, but only those who knew somebody who had won, and therein, in the winning, the simplicity was lost.
The raffle dominated the town. Merchants competed with each other to put up prizes for the winner so that along with a sizable cash award there were dozens, hundreds of other prizes, and all of them had to do with summer and most of them had to do with fishing.
Rods, reels, life jackets, lures, anchors, boats, picnic baskets, motors--it was said that a person could win the raffle and be set for life as far as fishing or summer was concerned, and as the time approached people would find reasons to walk or drive along the river to see the old car.
"Oh, I had to run down to the elevator and check on grain prices," they would say. "The car has one wheel through but she's still hanging there."
"My aunt's been feeling poor," they would say, about an aunt they hadn't spoken to in twelve years, "and I thought I should stop by and check on her. The car has both rear wheels down now. She's just hanging there, teetering..."
"No, the car, you ninny--the car on the ice."
And as the time grew still closer there were those who would come and sit with bottles in paper sacks and fur caps and boogers hanging out their noses and drink and spit and scratch and wait and sometimes pray; just sit there and wait for the car to fall and make their fortunes.
Naturally it never happened when anybody thought it would happen, but it always signaled the end, the final end of winter.
And the beginning of spring. Also, when the ice became that rotten it began the signal to the fish that spawning was close.
The second indication was the light.
All winter the light had been low, flat, cold. In midwinter it became light in the morning at nine or so and began to get dark at three-thirty or four in the afternoon on a cloudy day, and most of the time it seemed to be dark and cold.
But as spring came and the ice became rotten on the river the light moved, was a thing alive. The sun came back north, like an old friend that seemed to have been gone forever, and it changed everything, changed the way things looked. There was still snow, still cold at light, but during the day it was brighter, clearer; everything seemed bathed in soft gold.
People changed as well. During the winter, talk--what talk there was--was always short and to the point and almost always seemed to be on weather-related problems: how difficult it was to start a car in the cold, who was sick with a cold, who was getting sick, who had been sick and was getting well only to get sick again, how it was necessary to drain the car radiators at night (this was before antifreeze) and refill them with warm water when it was time to start them the next day and how they almost never started and wasn't it a shame that the car companies, the Car Companies with all their money, couldn't design a car to start in the winter?
The light changed all that, made the winter end, though there was still more cold weather, still more mornings when nostril hairs stuck to the insides of your nose and the combed ducktails froze on the way to school, more days when it was possible to play the joke where somebody talks somebody else--and where do they keep coming from, the ones who can be talked into these things?--into pushing their tongue out on a frozen propane tank where it would stick and leave a piece of tongue-skin.
The light changed all things.
It was the same sun, and it seemed to come up at the same time, but it rose higher and made gold, new gold that altered everything. Jacobsen's Bakery, where we would get free fresh hot rolls sometimes in the morning to carry when we delivered papers--two rolls each, one in the mouth and one still hot in the pocket of the jacket for later--the bakery was transformed. It had been an old brick building with a loading ramp on the back for the truck to get the fresh bread, and now, in the new gold light it became a bright castle of fresh bread smells and beauty; rising out of the alley next to the Montgomery Ward (always, always called the Monkey Wards) store.
The trees near the library, still without leaves, still with scrabbly arms that reached into the sky, did not seem ominous now but reaching. And the library seemed to shine with warmth and beckoned in the new light, and it became impossible to believe in winter any longer, only in the newness of spring.