The Judge's Camp by Mark Usyk
Like most people’s childhood memories, a great amount of mine involve my Grandparents. While I spent a lot of time with both sets, my Grandfather on my Father’s side is where I dig back to my earliest fishing memories. Digging being used mostly as a figure of speech though, as I really don’t have to try and remember them. They stay readily available, like a DVD loaded into the player ready to be watched with the touch of a button. And just like a DVD, no matter how many times I replay them, they never wear out.
Most of my stories of fishing with my Father’s father usually take place on a small private reservoir on a family farm down in Cobleskill. I can recall so many trips in his truck. The smell of gear oil and diesel strong in the truck cab, and the piles of tools, parts, nuts and bolts, cigarette lighters, parts receipts, pocket knives, and various other “things” that covered his dash from one end to the other. The sheets that covered the bench seat, his attempt to keep the oil and grease that clung to the mechanics pants and shirts he wore 24 hours a day from soaking into the seats fabric. Polka music and static found on the AM radio stations. The drives to the farm and back seem just as fresh today as the fishing itself. But the farm trips aren’t the earliest I have with him. Before the farm, there was the judge’s camp.
Where ever it was, I couldn’t tell you, but I don’t believe it was far. These were the earliest years, most likely the test years. How far could he take his grandson, and how long could he keep his interest before rocks splashed down and fish retreated, before it was time to go back home, the young boys interest in fishing lost to boredom. Only I don’t remember ever being bored, ever asking when it was time to go home. I’m sure I must have, but I just don’t remember it. What I do remember is almost everything else about the place. We’d park next to the camp house, climb a couple steps, open a screen door, and visit with “the Judge” for a while. I’d get handed a soda or some kind of treat while the two old friends visited, and before long, we’d be back outside, walking away from the truck with fishing poles in hand.
We’d stop at a fence next to a barn, and on the other side of the fence was a muddy little stream, and this is the spot that we’d sometimes stop with a coffee can and dig up some worms. We’d move on to the pond, but before the fishing began many times my Grandfather would set down the tackle box and fishing rod, remove a brown paper bag from his pocket, and pick mushrooms under some pine trees. I’d point to some and ask “How about this one?” to which the answer seemed always “No, not that one.” They all looked the same to me.
And then there was the dock. It was probably pretty short, but looking back it seemed like a big dock at the time. The pond as I remember it was a good sized pond too, although that also may be inflated by the memory coming from the mind of a small child, to which everything in the world seemed enormous and overwhelming at such a young age. Ahh, the dock. We’d sit on the end of the dock, and watch bobbers float. Grandpa would cast and let it set there for what seemed all day, while I would cast, watch impatiently, then reel it in to make sure the worm was still there and cast it out to a better spot. A better spot might be way over there, or it might be two feet to the left of where it just was. And then there was the goat.
I can still hear the solid clop of hooves on wood and feel each step resonate through the seat of my pants as the goat would sometimes walk, and sometimes trot. Up behind us it would approach, and I hear the gruff laugh of my Grandfather as he’d place a forearm across my chest too. Next came the feel of the goats head pressing into my back. That damn goat was always trying to push me off the dock. I thought it was funny, my Grandfather’s laugh probably helped to make me feel more comfortable about the whole situation. But in reality, had I ever been head butted off the dock, I probably would have been traumatized. I didn’t learn to swim until the fourth grade.
At some point Grandpa would pick up the tackle box and we’d walk the side of the pond. I’d search for the massive Bull Frogs that hid in plain sight along the edges, and I can remember the ponds bottom along the outside being lined with chain link fence. I can only assume today that it was there to keep Muskrats from eroding away the ponds edge with their destructive tunneling. The path we walked eventually left the pond in the back corner and led through the woods to a creek with some type of manmade dam or something. Grandpa would cast directly into the white water rushing over and hook Trout after Trout. Sometimes he’d rig two hooks on his line and land two Trout, laughing that gruff laugh the whole time.
Here’s the thing about the memories of “the Judge’s” camp. Thinking back, I don’t remember the drives there and back like when I think about the Cobleskill farm trips, and I don’t remember what we caught in the pond. But I do remember him pointing out the Kingfishers that would swoop down from the trees on the far side of it. The creek outback I know held Trout of some kind, only because I remember I couldn’t ever catch them…But Grandpa always could. It’s just the place and the experience as a whole that I can recall, with such great detail, except for the fish in the pond.
This can only support the idea that the fish are the excuse, and that it’s something beyond them we’re searching for...