The Oak Tree by the Lake


I used to go fishing at Miller Lake, not too far from the cornfields. There was a large mud hole near the main road that guarded a dirt path to the lake. It seemed to always be muddy, no matter what the weather was like. After I hopped it, either on foot or on my bike, there would be rows of willow trees along the path, followed by the cornfields that told me I was close to the lake, and far from the rest of town.

Mr. Joman was always in those fields, it seemed. I’d sit for hours with my pole in the water, usually not catching a thing, and Mr. Joman would sometimes bring me a lemonade. A few times, on the really hot days, he’d bring me ice cream. That was a long walk for him, but I don’t think he minded on account of him being alone. His wife passed on years ago, and his son moved away before I was born. I don’t know what happened to his son, but I think he works in a big city. That would explain why Mr. Joman never saw him. I could see the two of them getting into fights about whether or not a city job is suitable for a “country boy.”

I remember catching a fish once. I remember it because it was probably one of four times during my childhood where I actually caught one. I pulled it out of the water and was going to yell for Mr. Joman to come see it. It wasn’t very big, but to me it was a whale. I turned to see if he was nearby and saw him cutting his corn. He was doing it by hand. That was the first time I saw corn being harvested. Before that, it was always tall and thick, shading me from the summer sun as I passed it on the way to the lake.

I put the fish in my bucket, placing my pole beside the oak tree, and just sat and watched him with his sickle. For a man as old as he was, he was very strong. I used to imagine that he was the strongest man in the world. Seeing him work like that, I didn’t want to bother him with my small victory. Instead, I looked at him, and then at the vast, almost endless field before him. Suddenly, my whale wasn’t so big anymore. I can’t recall precisely, but I think I threw it back. There would be more fishing days ahead.

A loud noise woke me one morning. It sounded like an airplane passing overhead, only it didn’t fade away like you’d expect. It was constant, and I wondered what could generate such power. As I changed clothes, I noticed that it sounded distant, yet within reach. So after changing, having breakfast, and skipping brushing my teeth, I rode my bike about six houses worth before stashing it in the mile-high oleander bushes on the side of the road. That was quite a length to ride considering every house had scores of acres around them.

I imagined walking to a point where the sound grew so loud that I couldn’t hear myself breath unless I concentrated. But when I arrived at that point, it wasn’t as loud as I had predicted. That spot was in front of the Peabody farm. Those folks were rich. They weren’t millionaires, but they had more going for them than most other families who farmed that town.

I walked around the house, careful not to give myself away if someone was near an open window. I was a sneaky little one, or so I prided myself in thinking. When I got to where I managed to get a good view, I saw something I couldn’t describe at the time. It was a car, I first thought. It was a big truck, like the one I sometimes saw delivering thing to the stores downtown, only this one had teeth. They were saw blades, like the one my father had on his workbench. The truck had maybe a hundred of them, being dragged behind it, and wherever they went they cut a road out of the Peabodys’ cornfield.

I remember thinking that I had to tell Mr. Joman about that as soon as I saw him. If he had one of those trucks, he could get much more work done. He already a big pickup truck, all he would have to do was put the blades on the back, and then he could cut his entire cornfield in a week. I ran off to inform of my discovery, hopping my bike over the great mud hole in excitement.

I told him to no avail. He listened to what I saw saying, but acted like he didn’t care. He was polite about it, but I guess the idea of a truck cutting corn wasn’t appealing. I’d keep describing how it had a hundred blades as opposed to his one, and he’d just smile, even laugh, and offer me a Coca-Cola. I would then immediately stop my talking and accept the drink right away, because a Coke was priceless to me then. Drinking one with Mr. Joman made it even more so.

When the Cokes were done, before I could resume my truck story, he picked up his sickle and offered to walk me out to the lake, seeing that I had my pole with me. I got the feeling that he had a lot of work to do in his huge field, so I tried to forget my story and went fishing.

As time went on, I fished less and less with every summer afternoon. The following summer would prove to be likewise. I’d still go out to Miller sometimes, but not always to fish. Sometimes I’d just go out there to sit under the oak tree and watch Mr. Joman cut his corn. Even when I brought my pole with me, I found myself casting the line into the water, and then ignoring it to watch him harvest the field. I used to imagine all the fish I let get away whenever I didn’t pat attention to my pole. It made me feel like a great fisherman, or at least a great potential.

Many casts and many Cokes later, a winter came that froze the lake, which apparently didn’t happen very often. My folks let me play with my soccer ball in the front yard, but they didn’t allow me near Miller. They were afraid I’d fall in and freeze to death. They were probably right. I always did have an urge to do a running slide across the lake, even when I knew the ice was very thin.

Over that winter, I managed to make a couple of friends at school, and went to their houses on weekends. They had different things to play with, so I was very occupied when it came to amusement. I even got those rare Cokes from one kid’s mom every now and then. At first, they reminded me of Mr. Joman, but after a while, I didn’t think of him. In fact, it would be safe to say that I completely forgot about him when my new friends enter my young life.

I spent about half of a spring ignoring my friends and trying to court a certain young lady. For a while, I thought that something would come of that, but my expectations were not met, as I would find happen much throughout my life. She started seeing one of the guys I began ignoring for her. To make sting more, it was a guy I really didn’t like much. I certainly didn’t like him much after that.

I recall being in my room when my mother was going through a bunch of our things, looking for items to give to a local charity function. She gathered old clothes and knick-knacks, and approached me with my fishing pole in her hand, asking if I still wanted it. She saw that her only child had new friends for the first time in his life, and thought I didn’t have call to sit alone next to a lake pretending I was going to catch something. Truth was, I didn’t want the pole anymore, or to go fishing. But I did want to see Mr. Joman again, and for some reason, I felt like I needed the pole as an excuse to go down to the lake to see him.

That weekend, I biked to the lake as I had done many times before, hopping the mud hole along the way. Only this time, it wasn’t as quiet a ride as I was used to. I heard the sound of the truck with the blades on it. I heard it many times. In fact, I pretty much heard one for every farm that lied between my house and the lake. It seemed every farmer managed to get a Peabody truck over the winter. For the spring harvest, I imagine. They probably got their trucks over time, but my absence from the lake during that winter made it a sudden sound to hear them all.

I got to the fishing spot and cast my pole right away, probably to get that part of ritual over with. Like a fool, I accidentally threw the entire pole into the lake. At first, I was angry with myself. But after a minute, I didn’t care. I didn’t come to fish. I came to see Mr. Joman.

I don’t know why I didn’t just go up to him. I always needed my fishing to bring us to drinking cokes on hot days. However, that day I didn’t. He saw my foolish maneuver and laughed out loud. I liked to see him laugh. It was quite a contrast to his worn, leathery appearance.

When he finished laughing, I heard the faint noise of a Peabody truck and pointed it out to him. He told me that those trucks were for farmer who wanted to get either more sleep or more money, and that he had enough of both. He didn’t believe in letting a big machine to his work for him. He wanted to sweat for his corn, the way his father did. He said that it paid honored him.

We both turned to the water to watch my pole float away into the middle of Miller Lake.

“I’ll do one of two things,” he said in his grizzled voice. “I can swim out there and get your pole back, or you and me can go back to the house, get us a couple of sodas, and I’ll make you a new one. Jus’ like the one I used to use.”

I chose the latter, not so much for the idea of the homemade fishing pole, but for the coca-Cola which I so desperately wanted on that hot day. As I sat on his back porch drinking my Coke, I watched him fashion one of the crudest fishing poles I have and will ever see. All it consisted of was a huge stick with big grooves cut into it, and a spool of line stuck onto one of the ends.

Just like before, when our Cokes were finished, he walked over to the barn and picked up his sickle, which told me to try out my new pole while he cut his corn. I reluctantly did, planning on drinking my soda much slower next time.

As I sat beside the oak tree with my new pole in hand, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Mr. Joman. In times past, everyone seemed to be cutting much the same way he did, by hand. Even then, the other farmers always had their children or farm hands helping out. Now, not only was Mr. Joman alone and working with a blade, but the other farmers had huge machines to help them. They did a hundred time the work of any one man. Without losing any of my respect, Mr. Joman didn’t seem so strong to me all of a sudden.

*****

As I looked forward to summer, I never would have been prepared for Mr. Joman’s death. I saw the hottest of days filled with cold drinks, talks of school, and making corn husk sailboats. I saw myself actually catching a fish with the pole he made for me, and then running to him to tell him how his pole really worked. I saw him finally finishing his harvest and joining me by the lake with a pole fashioned just like mine, giving me pointers on how to use it. I saw so much for that summer, but it just gave me so much more to come crashing down when my father told me the news. I don’t remember crying like that at any other time in my childhood.

Being the quite one, the shy, loner child for so long a time, he was really the first friend I had. He treated me with unconditional kindness that one rarely sees. I knew, even back then, that I would never meet a man like him again.

Many years passed, and I made more friends. In school I was isolated by my shyness at first, but then I grew accustomed to people being in my life. Shortly before the year of my high school graduation, my family moved to a house closer to downtown. This was nice because it saved me time biking from home to my job at the feed store. Later, I bought a little truck with money I saved from that.

Two month after graduation, I was accepted by a college in a city not too far away from my family. So I moved there, where I met Marie, the woman who would eventually become my wife. Occasionally, I would pause to notice how quickly things were moving, but I regretfully did not make these pauses frequently enough. I worked my way to a position with suck rank and stature, that the times between these pauses, as well as visits with my parents, became longer each year.

My daughter tugged on my pant leg one day and asked me if we could go fishing sometime. Her friend had told her about his fishing trip with his father, so naturally, my daughter was curious. She asked if it was only for boys, and if that why we never had our own trip. I told her that the fish don’t care whether or not you’re a boy or girl, and that we’d have our trip soon enough. My vacation was within a matter of weeks, so we could start planning a trip to somewhere like Alaska. I had always wanted to go fishing in Alaska with the boat I just bought, and my young daughter was never more excited.

Marie, who despised fish, pleaded with me not to go there, because she had heard that people die of pneumonia there all the time. She wasn’t so much worried for me, as for out little Alex. There really wasn’t another good place in my mind to fish, except for Miller Lake. I promised my daughter fishing, so fishing it would be.

On a hot Saturday morning, we arrived at the mud hole that I once enjoyed hopping over. The farmhouses along the main road were gone, leaving just lonely oleanders. In place of the houses were flat, leveled plots of land with no distinction of the families that used to live there. Stabbed into these plots were big signs that proudly announced the upcoming of track housing, shopping centers, liquor stores, and highways.

It saddened me to see my old house gone, but it somehow saddened me more to see everything I grew up with gone. All of my friends’ houses were vacant fields. My old front yard, where I used to kick a soccer ball around by myself, had a sign on it that said “No Trespassing.” Everything wasn’t just different, everything was lost forever.

Alex then got out of the car and, upon seeing the great mud hole, made a running start and promptly jumped over it. Her happiness from that jump made me laugh. It also made me take a second look at it, and realize that mud hole had been there for as long as I’ve been alive, perhaps longer. The very same mud hole that started the long dirt path to the lake was still there, still muddy, despite everything else becoming so dry and lifeless. Even its size seemed to be the same as I remembered.

I gathered my things and walked with my daughter past the beautiful willows to Miller Lake. There, everything was also the same. The oak tree was still there to give us shade, my pole was probably still in the lake somewhere, and in the distance, across a barren field of hardpan dirt, was Mr. Joman’s house. There were boards on the windows, and the barn that used to stand next to it was torn down.

As I stood there staring at my childhood, Alex tugged at my shirt and asked where the fishing poles were. I left them in the car. She offered to get them, but it was a long walk, so I told her to get a couple of good sticks instead. I reached into my tackle box and pulled out some fishing line and a knife.

“Are you going to make us fishing poles, dad?” she asked, always thinking.

“It was something I learned when I was younger,” I told her. I had only finished one pole when she wanted to fish to a point where she couldn’t contain herself anymore. I handed her the pole, briefly coaching her on casting, and before I could start on mine, I realized that I didn’t come there to fish. I came to see Mr. Joman.

“Dad, did you catch lots of fish?” Alex asked me.

“A couple of times,” I said, Just then, her pole gave a yank. I helped her pull in the line, winding it around an empty pop bottle I substituted for the spool, and on the other end of it was a little fish. It couldn’t have been any bigger than the palm of my hand.

“Dad! Look how big it is! It’s huge!”

She was right. It was huge. It was her whale. I looked to Mr. Joman’s house and said in my mind, “It really does work.”

My daughter put the little fish in her bucket and clumsily recast her pole. As I saw her sitting beside the oak tree with her homemade pole in her hand, I couldn’t help but feel happy again. The kindness, the pure feelings I thought I would never find again, I found in my little girl.

I sat beside her under the shade of the oak tree, put my arm around her, and opened a couple of Coca-Colas. This time, I remembered to drink slow.

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