Wednesday, June 4, 2008



Early in May I made the first of two flights to Omaha for a visit with my Pat and Jo, my sisters. After hugs and more hugs at the airport, we drove home through a downtown much changed since we'd grown up there and had a choice between walking home or taking the bus. The bus cost a dime and the trudge was only a couple of miles, so we usually trudged. Omaha's a genuine city now with its share of glass buildings that reflect the rose and blue and gold of corporate success. But in only minutes were in full-blown spring with small and large clusters of flowers and trees ... trees ... trees, spectacular in purples and pinks and whites. But we hadn't grown up in that neighborhood that never lost its pride, and Warren Buffet—that very one—still makes his home there only minutes from the heart of the city where, from the grand, old, tiny McMansions, long, sloping lawns flow into the winding boulevards that make for slow driving and time enough to appreciate.

One day we three were joined by two true and actually old friends. We drove to a not-far state park that boasted such a handsome lodge we anticipated dining à la Christiana. Instead, we joined the line for a less-than-mediocre buffet more than compensated by not only our non-stop recollections of good times, but by watching the railing on the big deck where an assortment of feeders enticed birds to give that buffet a try—cardinals, finches, hummingbirds alongside species lacking the nametags that pilgrims of a certain age rely on.

A short five days after I returned from that special-gift trip I went back once more, this time because of the sudden death of Jo, the youngest of we three. So rather than anticipation, this time on the final descent to the airport over the Missouri River, the river loosed a flood of remembrances of "our" river—Pat's and Jo's and mine. Ours was the Platte, about 30 miles from home, where our family had a cabin on a fat-cigar island overgrown with cottonwoods and willows and brush, our personal wholly un-scary jungle.

On the side of the island where we had the cabin the river channel was deep, but through the jungle to the other side the river meandered in many channels, few deep enough to drown in. In the last-forever days of kids we splash-waded from sandbar to sandbar where we dug our own meandering channels and laboriously build elaborate sand cities, no matter that by the next day the sandbar would likely pop up someplace else entirely. On the day that rates the clearest memory, suddenly before us were thousands—at least 20—itsy-bitsy snakes slithering every which way all around us, every head raised in an obvious search for prey. We made the splash-dash back to the island in Olympic trial time.

Dad's thing was fishing, but don't picture an L.L. Beaner skillfully unfurling a long line to which is invisibly affixed a faux fly intended to be a fish's idea of gourmet dining. Dad was a catfish fisherman, and here's how it was done:

We'd drive to the cabin on Friday afternoons, we kids in back with the groceries and the catfish bait which was beyond ripe chicken guts wrapped in newspaper that was sure to ooze before we'd get there. The first one to retch set off the other two.

At the cabin, Dad took the bait to his rickety fish table and wormed pieces onto several hooks attached to several lines. He would retch too, and then take the lines and at intervals heave them into the river, stake them to the shore, and leave them until morning, for reasons inexplicable, when he'd check his catch. We'd nearly always tag along. On good days there'd be four or more fish pulled up to flop on shore that were the stuff-of-nightmares. They expired sluggishly, their broad heads flaying pairs of long, spiny "horns" ever more slowly.

There are those who look upon catfish as a treat. I have no idea what they taste like. Today, if I see catfish on the menu my gut still knots up like a touched worm.

As teens, we played fiercely competitive tennis that later became fiercely competitive golf, but fiercely competitive turned to the pleasure of simply being there as gradually turning away from the ball and swinging through it became the major challenge.

Jo was always our best athlete. It was a title she never claimed and one we never bestowed on her, an omission that didn't put a bit of stress on our bond going way back there to our catfish days.

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