FISH OR CUT BAIT

When I was a toddler my family moved to City Island, a little place in the Bronx, New York. And when I say little, I’m not kidding – 1.5 miles long by 0.5 miles wide. There was one main street and the houses were on the narrow side streets, each with a small beach at the end. Just about every day we would play for hours on the beach at the end of our street. As far as I’m concerned there was no better place for a kid to grow up. 

My Granddad “Pops” was a retired commercial fisherman and he taught us the ropes. We learned how to tie knots, cut bait, fillet a fish and just about everything there was to know about boats. Every weekend we’d row over to Sullivan’s Marina where Pops’ fishing boat “Sea Devil” was docked and spend the day fishing … mostly. I can still remember him scolding us when we dawdled: “Hey, you clowns! Fish or cut bait!” 

When we were first learning how to cast our rods there wasn’t a single time that Pops didn’t get stuck by an errant hook. Our collection of his favorite curse words grew on a weekly basis. So many memories of days on the “Devil” like the time my brother sliced off the tip of his finger while cutting bait or when the anchor chain snapped and we drifted until someone gave us a tow. 

But nothing compared to that Saturday in April. The sun was blazing and it was extremely hot for a Spring morning.  My Dad had the rare Saturday off because it was Easter weekend so he joined us. It was me, my two brothers, Dad and Pops crammed into a rowboat headed for Sea Devil

I don’t know if it was the heat or the dormancy of the day but the fish weren’t biting. We were sweating bullets and out of bait. That’s when Pops noticed the dark clouds in the distance and figured we better just count our losses and head home. 

We climbed into the rowboat, Dad and Pops manning the oars. The sun was obscured by clouds and there was an eerie stillness around us. We heard roars of thunder and Pops and Dad rowed faster. We heard it before we saw it … pouring rain, strong winds and swelling waves. They rowed like madmen but not fast enough. Suddenly we were engulfed in a raging storm and a giant wave crashed into us, picked up the rowboat and flung us into the water. 

The fast-moving rains headed toward shore and the waves quickly subsided. By some miracle we were all alive and the boat was floating upside down. Pops and Dad scooped us up in their arms and swam to the boat. Uprighting it was impossible so they dove under it to find that precious pocket of air.  

Hold onto the seats, boys, and keep your heads above water. Dad and I are going back out and we’ll push this boat to shore” instructed Pops. We clung to the seats for dear life while Pops and Dad struggled with the boat. After what seemed like an eternity they felt the sand beneath their feet and the air pocket became bigger. Eventually we also felt the sand beneath our feet and we all carried the boat to shore … to safety. 

That was almost 65 years ago and I’ve never forgotten that day though it didn’t stop me from going back out to sea. I have a boat and love fishing. And every time I’m cutting bait I’m thinking of Pops. 

NAR © 2020

SPEAKING WORDS OF WISDOM

If there’s such a thing as a “religious mutt” that would be me:

• Born and raised Presbyterian (totally laid back)

• Attended Lutheran school for 12 years (spiritually ardent)

• Married a great Catholic guy and converted to Catholicism (not a huge leap from Lutheran but a billion light years from Presbyterian)

Though diverse in many ways one basic tenet these three religions sanction is the existence of heaven and hell. 

As a teenager at our quaint Presbyterian church I taught Sunday School to kindergarteners. We read Bible stories, watched animated videos about Jesus, sang songs, did religious arts and crafts. It was uncomplicated – until one of the children asked what happens when we die. 

“You go to heaven, unless you’ve been really bad. Then you go to H-E-L-L!” another kid chimed in. 

“Thats right but only the girls get turned into angels and then God tries to do the best he can with the boys” claimed an intrepid little girl.

That’s not true” yelled the boys.”Everybody in heaven is an angel and God is the head angel!” 

Suppressing a laugh I figured I better take back control of my class and start asking some questions.

“Who thinks they know what heaven is like?” I asked.

The girls all agreed that “there’s lots of singing and dancing to harp music and everyone wears flowers in their hair.” 

But the boys had different opinions, especially about wearing flowers in their hair. “Boys have halos just like Jesus and they help feed the animals in heaven.” 

One boy raised his hand and answered very seriously “There are no doctors or lawyers in heaven because God does all the healing and all arguments are against the law.”

“There’s always angel food cake – not devil’s food cake” giggled a blue-eyed tyke. 

A little girl was next to answer the question. “God sits in heaven but he isn’t on a throne or anything like that. He sits in a garden playing with the children, puppies and kittens and lets them climb on him. And the grownups just do stuff like they used to do at home.” 

I asked another question: “How did heaven begin?” 

Silence. 

Then one timid diminutive girl answered quietly “A really long time ago a lot of kids were crying because their grandmas and grandpas were dying so God said ‘Don’t cry. I’m going to make a beautiful place way above the clouds where all the grandparents and parents and pets can stay forever’. And so he made heaven.” 

I felt a lump in my throat, perhaps thinking of my own grandparents, but in all honesty I’m sure it was the simple yet pithy answer of that sweet girl. I coughed a bit to mask the emotion in my voice and asked another question. 

“Is there a special test to get into heaven?” 

I was rewarded with a resounding “NO!”

I countered with “No? Well if there’s no test how do we get into heaven?” 

An adorable red haired boy covered with freckles quickly raised his hand and said “When you get to heaven God whispers one question in your ear.” 

“He does? What’s the question?” I asked

 “He asks ‘Do you love me?’ It’s really not a hard question. And when you say ‘Yes’, God kisses you and says ‘Come on in!’” 

Intrigued by that answer I asked “And how do you know this?” 

Displaying a toothless grin he declared “My grandpa reminds me every time I talk to him. That’s what God asked my grandpa when he got to heaven and he said ‘YES!’” 

And all the kids shouted “YES!!” 

NAR © 2020

THE PROMISE

Say, God! We your children, the citizens of the world, the people you created in your own image – Father, we have some questions for you. 

Did you create this deadly, horrendous virus or did you give man the ability to cultivate it in a laboratory? Did you decide one day that you’ve had enough of this amoral world and it was time to start anew or perhaps not restart at all? 

Or is it the handiwork of the devil? After all, how many times did he tempt your beloved Son during his 40 days in the desert? Turning stones into bread to relieve Jesus’ hunger while he fasted; daring Jesus to throw himself off a mountain by offering him dominion over all earthly kingdoms; demanding Jesus kneel before him, again for all the empires of the world. The temptations of hedonism, egoism and materialism – not unlike the world of 2020. 

So what is this hideous evil we are facing now – this demon bug which does not discriminate between those people who are right and good and just or the ones who are evil and sadistic and selfish? It doesn’t care if the victim is a person of power and influence or a homeless man huddled in a cardboard box under a bridge. 

Just recently people were going about their everyday lives – shopping in malls, attending concerts, catching a hockey game, dining out, getting married, hopping a plane to Rome. Kids went to school. People went to work. We went to church – your house where we gathered with our brothers and sisters, clasping hands in a sign of peace. Now your holy houses are closed. 

Grandparents were welcoming their newborn grandchildren only to be snatched from their lives. Kids were gleeful to be home from school until they began missing their friends. They couldn’t have play dates or go to Cub Scouts or music lessons or the toy store. Jobs were lost, restaurants shut down, playgrounds deserted with only empty swings swaying in the wind. 

Wearing rubber gloves while shopping became necessary, scared and wary eyes visible above our ubiquitous masks. People stowed bread and milk and eggs in their shopping bags and hoarded sanitizers and toilet paper. Some became greedy, leaving little on the shelves for others. 

How many of your children will die? How many doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and truckers put their lives on the line without a second thought, most unable to go home at night to their families? The elderly – confused, frightened and lonely in nursing homes – separated from their families because visits are forbidden. The women in the throes of childbirth afraid to go to the hospital, perhaps not even allowed to go to the hospital. 

We have new words and phrases in our vocabulary – self-isolation, flatten the curve, shelter in place, social-distancing. Yet there are comforting and familiar words such as hope, peace, love, family, faith and health. Those are the words we cling to every day. Those are the words that are stronger than anxiety, depression, helplessness, solitude and fear. 

Eons ago you destroyed the earth by water. Only eight righteous people and every kind of animal were spared. You made this promise: “Never again will I curse the earth; neither will I again smite every thing living, as I have done”.       

No, Father! We your children refuse to believe that you have abandoned us. We know you are a loving and compassionate God. You will end this vile curse, freeing us to once again walk arm in arm, our faces basking in the glow of your never-ending love. 

NAR © 2020

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE

“Say the name of the party you are trying to reach. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it directly. Press the pound sign at any time to hear a listing of the company directory” the robotic voice of the automated answering system at Titan Industries politely instructed me. 

Neville Carter” I replied. For some reason I always felt silly talking to robo machines. 

“Devil Carter. One moment please.” 

Before I could repeat the correct name I heard a click and the on-hold background music started – a dramatic instrumental arrangement of Climb Every Mountain. About two minutes later the music stopped. 

Click.

“I’m sorry. There is no listing for a Devil Carter. Say the name of the party you are trying to reach. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it directly. Press the pound sign at any time to hear a listing of the company directory.” 

I cleared my throat. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t quite get that. Say the same of the party you are trying to reach. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it directly. Press the pound sign at any time to hear a listing of the company directory.” 

NEVILLE CARTER” I annunciated as clearly as possible.

“One moment while I try that party.” 

Click. Classical music.

Ok” I said to myself. “Hopefully we’ll get it right this time.” 

“I’m sorry. There is no listing for a Neville Carver. Say the name of the party you are trying to reach. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it directly. Press the pound sign at any time to hear a listing of the company directory.” 

CARTER. NOT CARVER” I said slowly and loudly. I was getting impatient. 

“One moment please. 

Click. Jazz music. 

“I’m sorry. There is no listing for a Carter Not Carver. Say the name of the party you are trying to reach. If you know your party’s extension you may dial it directly. Press the pound sign at any time to hear a listing of the company directory.” 

“What the freaking hell! This is ridiculous!” I bellowed into the phone, all the while hearing the same monotonous speech in the background. In complete exasperation I hung up. Then I had an idea: if I call back and press “O” for operator I might actually get a real live person. 

Here goes nothing” I thought as I dialed the number. One ring, two rings. 

Upon connecting I immediately pushed “O” while gleefully shouting “Take that, you robotic bitch!” 

Then I heard the most beautiful words ever – “Titan Industries. How may I help you?”  

“Neville Carter, please” I requested. 

“Right away, sir.” 

One ring. Two. Three. I started feeling nervous. Finally my call was answered: “You have reached the office of Neville Carter. Your call is very important to us. We are experiencing extremely high caller volume. You are currently caller number 17. Your wait time is approximately 90 minutes. You may continue to wait or call back at a more convenient time.” 

Click. Country music. 

Damn insufferable machines! I decided to go to Titan Industries in person. I stowed my dog eared copy of How To Make Friends and Influence People into my backpack and headed for the train. 

Finding a seat, I took out my beloved book. The train started then stopped. The lights went out and a recorded message crackled through the speakers: 

“Attention passengers. Due to mechanical difficulties all service is indefinitely delayed. We apologize for this inconvenience. Thank you for your patience.” 

“WONDERFUL!! JUST FUCKING BLOODY WONDERFUL!!” I screamed into the darkness. 

NAR © 2020