By Marty Duncan
The Pilot's Mate
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Shin'ar, My Love
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Gold...then Iron
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Iron Lake Burning
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Black Powder, Gray Hope:

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Black Powder, Gray Hope:
A Civil War Romance

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Black Powder, Gray Hope:
New Americans

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     Solitary …the man stood …alone with his back to the wind while ice crystals swarmed past his boots and across the ice. He stood near a small shack while his three companions mounted an ice bus. He was staring at the far horizon where a last ounce of pink light was about to surrender the day to a black dome of white pinpoints. He was enjoying the last of the light, as darkness descended upon Lake of the Woods. To his right stood an empty ice fishing house. The ice bus stood nearby, waiting for Dave to join his companions. Distant booms signaled the ice on the lake talking to itself.
      “How in the world,” he thought out loud, “could I spend twelve hours sitting on a hard metal chair?” They were about one block from a wooded shoreline but 20 miles from their lodge and a home-cooked meal.
      The ice bus was a wooden box with a door, mounted on back of a two-tracked Toyota truck. Dave knew it was a bumpy ride. Passengers inside the bus were forced to hold onto a wooden bench while the vehicle worked to inflict more pain upon the seat-weary. Outside it was twenty degrees below Zero, while inside the box a propane heater tried to pan-fry the tired fisher-people. The ride back to the lodge over 20 miles of ice ridges and snowdrifts was bound to be loud and raucous. The ‘box’ was furnished with a $3 speaker and the driver insisted on playing “LaBomba” over and over ad nauseam.
      Little wonder, then, that Dave was reluctant to step into the box. When he did, he found his wife Barb sitting next to Crystal, the wife of Tom Harant, the Iron Lake Superintendent of Schools. Dave sat on the opposite bench, next to Tom.
      “Are we ready …for more of that song?”
      There was dead silence. Tom groaned. The two women in their parkas and stocking caps raised their eyebrows. They both looked like they would be ready for more ‘ice fishing’ in two years, or four years, or never. Their eye-shadow was smudged, make-up gone, and sweaty curls drooped the hairs around their necks. In short, Barb and Crystal looked like any other two women who just spent twelve boring hours in an ice fishing house …it was not their ‘cup of tea’.
      “Tell that jerk driver to get a move on,” Barb shouted into the silence. Tom reacted by twice slamming a hand on the forward wall of the ‘wooden box’. The engine growled to life and the four passengers sat in silence, waiting for the ‘ice bus’ to slam them first upward, then downward.
      It had been a ‘glorious’ day of fishing in an over-heated house, sitting on hard metal chairs. When they planned this expedition, Tom told them about ‘really cool’ houses with couches and bunk beds and room to stretch out. The reality was crowded, the chairs were hard, and with six holes in the ice the fishermen had to be careful not to step into a hole.
     Where were they? They were close to the edge of the world. Lake of the Woods is hundreds of miles of lakes in Canada and Minnesota. “So close to the edge, that radio station feels compelled to play Country Western music all day,” as Crystal put it.
      Dave couldn’t tell if Crystal was making an observation or complaining. Two hours later, when she kicked the radio, he decided she didn’t like Country Western music.


     In Crystal’s defense, it was Barb who quickly pointed out that Crystal taught choral music. She had participated with church choirs, community choirs and high school choirs. She was known as a demanding director who held high expectations for her students. At the age of 55 she was simply not going to pretend to like the ‘twang’ in Country Western music.
     Barb, on the other hand, was indifferent. Barb had spent her working years in a dental office while her husband Dave sold tobacco. She enjoyed whatever was on the radio. Both of the women were tolerant of their husband’s hobbies, including fishing. But neither of them could be described as ardent fishermen.


     The sun was not due for another hour at 7:00 a.m. when they first saw the isolated fishing ‘shack’, a quarter-mile from the next shack. Their house had four walls with no windows …good for spear fishing …confining if you enjoy seeing the outside world. The house featured one bucket of minnows and four folding chairs.
      “And this is where we’re going to spend the next twelve hours?” asked Tom. In his mind he could see visions of two unhappy women.
      “We do have heat,” noted Dave quietly. A propane heater was blasting the inside of the shack. Room temperature was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
      “And first class nails to hang our coats on,” added Barb, as she quickly peeled out of her snowmobile suit.
      “Let’s not be too critical of Dave’s planning, or he’ll pout,” remarked Tom with extra emphasis. He was always the quickest to find a joke.
     Dave, who was nervous, laughed hysterically. Barb and Crystal, the ever-suffering wives, groaned loudly. Back in September, when Dave planned this weekend, they had two choices …the Eelpout Festival on Iron Lake (two miles from home) or the Baudette Lodge on Lake of the Woods. But no respectable fisherman would make his wife stand outside in the wind, on the ice, to catch the ugliest fish in the world. Dave had declared they were going to fish for walleye.
     And so they found themselves, at 6:00 o’clock in the morning, looking at a crystal clear sky with millions of stars. They were told they were twenty miles onto the lake and they felt the isolation. Later, they would feel the bumps and grinds when the lake-ice shifted. If they had to walk out, they couldn’t guess in which direction.


     Early on, Tom caught a monster fish …but the day turned into tedium …baiting empty hooks for the women and catching six-inch whitefish. Like the hope for eternal salvation, there was hope for a large walleyed pike …but no results. The men entertained themselves by repeating ‘dumb blonde’ jokes, like
      “How do you keep a blond in suspense?”
      “I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
      “How did the blonde burn her nose?”
      “By bobbing for French fries.”
      These jokes occupied their minds until Crystal, who is a blond, remarked that blonde jokes are short so men can understand them. She smiled, and Barb joined her.
      The long morning was broken with the arrival of their box lunches. But the afternoon dragged. Tom tried to relieve the tedium by reciting ‘P’ words and the others joined him. They were busy with ‘pusillanimous’ and ‘persnickety’ but became quite tired of the game after sixty minutes. They resorted to spending short stints outside in the sunshine. The temperature had risen to zero degrees and there was no wind. Barb especially enjoyed the fresh air, ‘sneaking’ out for an occasional cigarette.
      In quiet moments, the cracking and shifting of the ice could be heard. There was an occasional ‘boom’ and what sounded like the breaking of ice under your feet.
      “This is my first time on the ice,” Crystal admitted. She seemed nervous. “And I can see the lake opening up and swallowing this house.” Tom assured her it wouldn’t happen, but she remained convinced that it could.


     “I’ve got a hit,” said Tom quietly, as if the fish in the water could hear him. They had been fishing for ten minutes with four lines in the water. Tom’s bobber disappeared down the hole in the ice. He waited and waited, letting the fish take the line. Then he pulled hard on the line, and began to pull it in.
      He looked surprised. “It’s big,” he stammered with excitement, just before Dave’s bobber went down, followed by Crystal’s and then Barb’s. There was pandemonium. That’s how a casual, non-involved observer would have described the four adults trying simultaneously to pull in four lines. But Tom was pulling harder. His monster fish had circled the other three lines, and all four lines were tangled.
      “Keep pulling,” shouted Dave. “At least, get your fish in.” Tom was now pulling in three lines tangled with his own. He suddenly saw his fish and stopped moving. He stared at it, and did nothing.
      “It’s ugly. Definitely not a walleye. And it’s not a northern and it ain’t a dogfish.” He pulled it up through the ice-hole and flopped it onto the floor. It was thirty-six inches long, weighing at least ten pounds, with a blunt snout, darkish brown sides and a putrid yellow belly. Its brown eyes held a tint of evil intent, thought Tom.
      “Damn,” said Dave.
      “Well, hell,” said Tom. “If we were on Iron Lake this afternoon in their fishing tourney, this monster would win me a fishing boat and maybe a motor, too.”
      “But we aren’t,” added Crystal. “Get it out of here.” Tom’s monster had swallowed the hook, so Tom cut the line. He threw the ugliest fish ‘in the world’ out the door onto the ice.


     That evening four weary ‘fishermen’ sat down to steak and fries in the lodge. The faces of the women were newly minted. Tom and Dave had taken ten-minute naps, but only succeeded in becoming groggier and goofier. All four were drinking coffee, trying to find a reason to celebrate their day on the ice.
      “Looking back, I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday,” said Crystal.
      “Like shopping, or getting my hair done,” added Barb with dripping sarcasm. Both women, it appeared, had washed their hair. A little fluff and a moderate amount of curl were on display.
      Tom wore a flannel shirt and looked like a veteran fisherman, but said nothing. His face fit the definition of haggard. There were rings under his eyes. Even his straight, proud nose sagged. Only Dave seemed to be cheerful.
      We came to avoid the Eelpout festival. And then Tom caught his monster, an ugly …but we made a contribution.”
      “Yeah, sure we did. This lodge is richer,” said Tom from inside his funk.
      “No, I mean we helped the wildlife. After he picked us up, we went further out to pick up four more men. When we came past our house the second time, I stood and looked out the rear door. In a flash from the Toyota’s headlights I saw something brown …a coyote or a ferret …eating Tom’s fish.”
      “That’s what we did, today. One fish to feed a ferret,” said Tom bitterly. He wanted to catch walleye, but a truly evil fish cast a miasma over the four of them. It was as if a curse had driven the walleye away. Among the other fishermen, all the groups returned with their limit of walleyes.
      “One lousy fish,” added Tom for emphasis.
      “But we had a great day,” Dave said quietly. He did not smile and no one laughed. The four of them looked at each other for a moment. Crystal began to laugh. “Where does it say ice fishing is easy? We all worked darn hard so a ferret could eat fish. We’ll stop at Morrie’s Fish House on the way home. We’re just not going to say ‘word one’ to anyone about that fish of Tom’s.”


© Marty Duncan 11/01

Iron Lake, Minnesota is a fictional town, “somewhere southwest of the Twin Cities, on the great prairie” and is the site of Duncan’s second novel, Iron Lake Burning. This short story actually happened, ‘almost’ as written, says Marty Duncan. Mr. Duncan is a veteran school superintendent, teacher of English and Journalism, who currently writes a weekly column O’magadh® for the Northland Reader Weekly, Duluth.


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