The Patch is the seventh collection of essays by the nonfiction master. It is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Sporting Scene,” consists of pieces on fishing, football, golf, and lacrossefrom fly casting for chain pickerel in fall in New Hampshire to walking the linksland of St. Andrews at an Open Championship. Part 2, called “An Album Quilt,” is a montage of fragments of varying length from pieces done across the years that have never appeared in book formoccasional pieces, memorial pieces, reflections, reminiscences, and short items in various magazines including The New Yorker. They range from a visit to the Hershey chocolate factory to encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, Joan Baez, and Mount Denali.
Emphatically, the author’s purpose was not merely to preserve things but to choose passages that might entertain contemporary readers. Starting with 250,000 words, he gradually threw out 75 percent of them, and randomly assembled the remaining fragments into “an album quilt.” Among other things, The Patch is a covert memoir.
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About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:March 8, 1931
Place of Birth:Princeton, New Jersey
Education:A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
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Part IThe Sporting Scene
FISHING,FOOTBALL, GOLF, LACROSSE, AND BEARS
You move your canoe through open water a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads. You cast just shy of the edge of the pads — inches off the edge of the pads. A chain pickerel is a lone ambush hunter. Its body resembles a barracuda's and has evolved to similar purpose. Territorial, concealed in the vegetation, it hovers; and not much but its pectoral fins are in motion. Endlessly patient, it waits for prey to come by — frogs, crayfish, newts, turtles, and smaller fish, including its own young. Long, tubular, with its pelvic fins set far back like the wings of some jets, it can accelerate like a bullet.
You lay a kiwi muddler out there — best white or yellow. In the water, it appears to be a minnow. Strip in line, more line, more line. In a swirl as audible as it is visible, the lake seems to explode. You need at least a twelve-pound leader, because this fish has teeth like concertina wire. I tried a braided steel tippet once, of a type made for fish of this family, but casting it was clunky and I gave it up in favor of monofilament thick enough to win the contest between the scissoring teeth and the time it takes to net the fish. I've been doing this for more than forty years, always in the fall in New Hampshire with my friend George Hackl, whose wife owns an undeveloped island in Lake Winnipesaukee. Chain pickerel are sluggish and indifferent in the warmer months. In the cold dawns and the cold dusks of October, they hit like hammers, some days on the surface, some days below it, a mass idiosyncrasy that is not well understood.
Thoreau understood — more than most, anyway — this "swiftest, wariest, and most ravenous of fishes ... stately, ruminant ... lurking under the shadow of a pad at noon ... still, circumspect ... motionless as a jewel set in water." He said he had "caught one which had swallowed a brother pickerel half as large as itself, with the tail still visible in its mouth," and he noted that "sometimes a striped snake, bound to greener meadows across the stream, ends its undulatory progress in the same receptacle."
Men who pass us on the lake in bass boats, sitting on their elevated seats and sweeping the water with spinning gear, are less impressed. They think of chain pickerel as trash, call them names like "slime darts," and actually laugh when we tell them what we are fishing for. They also tend to thank us. They want bass in their nets, not pickerel, and pickerel can not only outrace bass to the lures but also wreck the lures with their teeth. We are out there neither to trash them nor admire them but to catch them for breakfast. A sautéed young pickerel is more delicious than most fish. The paradox of pickerel fishing is that a pickerel's culinary quality is in inverse proportion to its size. The big ones taste like kiln-dried basswood, and are also full of bones. The Y-shaped, intermuscular bones of the very young ones go down soft. Pickerel grow like bamboo. Ichthyologists have watched them grow an inch in two days.
As far as I know, my father never fished for chain pickerel. When I was three years old, he was the medical doctor in a summer camp on the Baie de Chaleur, and he fished for salmon in the Restigouche with his bamboo rod. He fished with grasshoppers in a Vermont gorge, and angleworms in Buzzards Bay, taking me with him when I was six, seven, eight. And across the same years, we went trout fishing in New Jersey streams. On Opening Day, in April, we would get up in the pitch dark in order to be standing beside a stream at the break of dawn. One time, as dawn broke, we discovered that the stream was frozen over. On the way home, he let me "drive." I sat in his lap and steered — seat belts an innovation not yet innovated. These are my fondest memories of my father, his best way of being close, and I therefore regret all the more that my childhood love of fishing fell away in my teen-age years, and stayed away, in favor of organized sports and other preoccupations.
The dormant angler in me remained dormant until he woke up in Arctic Alaska for the purpose of eating grayling, salmon, and char. After that, I took fishing gear on other canoe trips — down the Allagash, down the St. John — but seldom used it until the October of my forty-eighth year, camping with the Hackls on the New Hampshire island, watching the colors fall into the water, and looking around for things to do.
Sometimes when chain pickerel are hovering high they see your moving fly from a distance, and come for it, come right toward you, etching on the surface a rippling wake, like a torpedo. It takes just one such scene to arouse you forever. Across an open channel from the New Hampshire island lay a quarter mile of sharply edged lily pads, and soon we were calling it not a patch but The Patch. We scouted the lily pads of other bays, and fished every one of them, but always came back to The Patch. It was the home shore, running from a sedge fen off the tip of a neighboring island and along a whitepine forest on the mainland to the near side of another island. Our wives — Ann and Yolanda, each the other's oldest friend — were absolutely uninterested in pickerel except with their toast and coffee, but from year to year George and I grew better at fishing for them, each of us standing up and casting from his own canoe, anchored or drifting, sense of balance as yet uneroded. At the end of the seventh October, after Yolanda and I had driven home to New Jersey, we came up the driveway and the telephone inside the house was ringing as we approached the door. My brother was calling to tell me that my father was in a Baltimore County hospital, having suffered a debilitating stroke.
* * *
HIS ROOM HAD a south-facing window. My mother, in a flood of light, eighty-seven, looked even smaller than she was, and space was limited around her, with me, my brother, my sister, and a young doctor together beside the bed. I was startled by the candor of the doctor. He said the patient did not have many days to live, and he described cerebral events in language only the patient, among those present, was equipped to understand. But the patient did not understand: "He can't comprehend anything, his eyes follow nothing, he is finished," the doctor said, and we should prepare ourselves.
Wordlessly, I said to him, "You fucking bastard." My father may not have been comprehending but my mother was right there before him, and his words, like everything else in those hours, were falling upon her and dripping away like rain. Nor did he stop. There was more of the same, until he finally excused himself to continue on his rounds.
During our second day there, my mother, brother, and sister went off at one point, and I was alone for an hour in the room with my father. Eyes wide open in a fixed stare at the ceiling, he lay motionless. I wondered what to do. I wasn't about to pick up a book and read. I looked out the window for a time, at Baltimore, spilling over its beltway. I looked back at him. Spontaneously, I began to talk. In my unplanned, unprepared way, I wanted to fill the air around us with words, and keep on filling it, to no apparent purpose but, I suppose, a form of self-protection. I told him where I had been — up in New England on the lake in the canoe, casting — and that the fishing had gone well despite the cold. One day, there had been an inch of ice on the water bucket in the morning. My fingers were red as I paddled and cast. Water, coming off the fly line as I stripped it in, froze in the guides that hold the line close to the rod, and so jammed the line that it was uncastable; so I went up the rod from bottom to top punching out little disks of ice with my thumb until I could make another cast and watch a fresh torpedo come out of the vegetation.
I went on in this manner, impulsively blurting out everything I could think of about the species, now and again making comparisons and asking him questions — did he remember the sand sharks off Sias Point? the rainbows of Ripton? the bullhead he gutted beside Stony Brook that flipped out of his hand and, completely gutless, swam away? — to which I expected no answers, and got none.
* * *
WITH THOSE MINUTELY OSCILLATING FINS, a pickerel treads water in much the way that a hummingbird treads air. If the pickerel bursts forth to go after prey, it returns to the place it started from, with or without the prey. If a pickerel swirls for your fly and misses, it goes back to the exact spot from which it struck. You can return half an hour later and it will be there. You can return at the end of the day and it will be there. You can go back next year and it will be there.
In an acreage of lily pads, their territorial haunts are not always far apart. I have laid a fly on the water and seen three wakes converge upon it. Where Genio C. Scott, in Fishing in American Waters (1869), describes chain pickerel at such a moment, he says, "You will find cause for surprise that will force you to ejaculate." For my part, I'll admit, I damned near fell out of the canoe. An acreage of lily pads is not entirely like a woven mat. There are open spots, small clear basins, like blue gaps among clouds. By no means all the pickerel in The Patch are close to the edge as if looking out from beneath a marquee. They are also back among the gaps, and some are in acute shallows very close to shore, in case a mouse slips on something and falls into the water. To fly-cast among the gaps is much more difficult than along the edge of open water. Typically you are trying to drop a long throw into six square feet of clear space, and if you miss you will be stuck fast to nymphaeaceous stems and cursing. Yanking on your line, you will bomb the territory and retrieve a pound of weed.
This family — Esocidae — is not popular with aesthetes, with people who torture trout. Put a pickerel in a pond full of trout, and before long all that's in there is a larger pickerel. There are people who hunt pickerel with shotguns. In Vermont, that is legal. Two other members of the family — pike and muskellunge — are quite similar in pattern, configuration, color, and appetite, but are, of course, much and very much larger. Under each eye, chain pickerel have a black vertical bar, not unlike the black horizontal bars that are painted under the eyes of football players, and evidently for the same reason, to sharpen vision by cutting down glare. A pickerel's back is forest green, and its sides shade into a light gold that is overprinted with a black pattern of chain links as consistent and uniform as a fence. This artistic presentation is entirely in the scales, which are extremely thin and small. On a filleting board, a couple of passes with a scaler completely destroy the art, revealing plain silver skin.
On the filleting board, evidence is forthcoming that chain pickerel are as voracious as insurance companies, as greedy as banks. The stomachs, usually, are packed and distended. A well-fed pickerel will readily strike, the fact notwithstanding that it already has in its stomach a frog, say, and a crayfish and a young pickerel, each in a different stage of decomposition. I have almost never opened a pickerel and found an empty stomach. I have caught pickerel, slit their stomachs, and watched crayfish walk out undamaged. I put the crayfish back in the lake. Stomachs of pickerel have contained birds.
Pickerel have palatal teeth. They also have teeth on their tongues, not to mention those razor jaws. On their bodies, they sometimes bear scars from the teeth of other pickerel. Pickerel that have been found in the stomachs of pickerel have in turn contained pickerel in their stomachs. A minnow found in the stomach of a pickerel had a pickerel in its stomach that had in its stomach a minnow. Young pickerel start eating one another when they are scarcely two inches long. How did I know all this that was tumbling out? I was mining a preoccupation. I am the owner of not one but two copies of An Annotated Bibliography of the Chain Pickerel, E. J. Crossman and G. E. Lewis, the Royal Ontario Museum, 1973.
In uncounted millions, they live in the lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers of the Atlantic watershed from the Canadian Maritimes to the whole of Florida, and across to the Mississippi, and up it to the Current River in southern Missouri. They seem about as endangered as mosquitoes. In Midwestern states and elsewhere, walleyes are often called pickerel and sometimes walleyed pike. A walleye is not a pickerel, nor is it a pike; it's a perch. A bluegill maneuvers better than most fish do. Blue sharks and tunas are ultimate cruisers. In the department of acceleration — the drag race of the deep — almost nothing comes near a pike, pickerel, or muskellunge. A pickerel's body is sixty per cent muscle. Undulations move along the body in propulsive waves that culminate, like oar sculling, in straightline forward thrust. A particularly successful tuna will catch about fifteen per cent of the fish it goes after. A trout catches half the fish it strikes at. A chain pickerel, on a good day, nails eighty per cent. The last time a frog escaped a pickerel must have been in Pliocene time.
* * *
THE YOUNG DOCTOR RETURNED, twenty-four hours exactly after his earlier visit. He touched the patient with fingers and steel, and qualified for compensation. He said there had been no change and not to expect any; the patient's comprehension would not improve. He went on as he had the day before. My father, across the years, had always seemed incapable of speaking critically of another doctor, perhaps, in a paradoxical way, because he had been present in an operating room where the mistake of another doctor had ended his mother's life. Even-tempered as he generally appeared to be, my father could blow his top, and I wondered, with respect to his profession, to what extent this situation would be testing him if he were able to listen, comprehend, and speak. Silent myself now, in the attending physician's presence, I looked down at my father in his frozen state, eighty-nine, a three-season athlete who grew up in the central neighborhoods of Youngstown, Ohio, and played football at Oberlin in a game that was won by Ohio State 128–0, captained basketball, was trained at Western Reserve, went into sports medicine for five years at Iowa State and thirty-six at Princeton, and was the head physician of U.S. Olympic teams in Helsinki, Rome, Tokyo, Innsbruck, and elsewhere. The young doctor departed.
In a small open pool in the vegetation, about halfway down The Patch, there had been, this year and last, a chain pickerel that was either too smart or too inept to get itself around an assemblage of deer hair, rabbit fur, turkey quill, marabou silk, and sharp heavy wire. The swirls had been violent every time, the strike consistently missing or spurning the fly, and coming always from the same place on the same side of the same blue gap. In the repetitive geometries of The Patch, with its paisley patterns in six acres of closed and open space, how did I know it was the same gap? I just knew, that's all. It's like running a trapline. You don't forget where the traps are; or you don't run a trapline. This gap in the lily pads was thirty yards off the mainland shore between the second-tallest white pine and a granitic outcrop projecting from Ann's island. As I was getting back into the story, again speaking aloud in the renewed privacy of the hospital room, I mentioned that I had been fishing The Patch that last morning with my father's bamboo rod, and it felt a bit heavy in the hand, but since the day he had turned it over to me I had taken it with my other rods on fishing trips, and had used it, on occasion, to keep it active because it was his. Now — just a couple of days ago — time was more than close to running out. Yolanda was calling from the island: "John, we must go! John, stop fishing! John!" It was time to load the canoe and paddle west around some islands to the car, time to depart for home, yes; but I meant to have one more drift through The Patch. From the northwest, a light breeze was coming down over the sedge fen. I called to Yolanda that I'd "be right there," then swept the bow around and headed for the fen. Since I had failed and failed again while anchored near that fish, I would let the light breeze carry me this time, freelance, free-form, moving down The Patch like the slow shadow of a cloud. Which is just what happened — a quiet slide, the light rustle on the hull, Yolanda calling twice more before she gave up. Two touches with the paddle were all that was needed to perfect the aim. Standing now, closing in, I waved the bamboo rod like a semaphore — backcasting once, twice — and then threw the line. Dropping a little short, the muddler landed on the near side of the gap. The pickerel scored the surface in crossing it, swirled, made a solid hit, and took the tight line down, wrapping it around the stems of the plants.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Patch"
Copyright © 2018 John McPhee.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of ContentsCONTENTS
Part I: The Sporting Scene
The Patch 3
Phi Beta Football 13
The Orange Trapper 23
Linksland and Bottle 41
Direct Eye Contact 87
Part II: An Album Quilt
An Album Quilt 99