By David B. Barnes
My view of the world had changed after years of being disappointed by people who seemed to be focused on hurting anyone they could, for any reason or for no reason. I started wearing a badge to make a difference. I found that those of us who wanted to help our communities hit the wall of the judicial system. This wall was built with money. The more money a person had, the better his or her court outcome would be. It was maddening. I felt the need for a church but not one with people. People were the problem. I needed a way to escape. I needed peace like I felt in church when I was young. The Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains became my cathedral. My stained glass windows were in the contrast of sunlight and shadows in the woods and on a stream. The sounds of wildlife became my choir. I wanted the solitude of the woods, the mountains, and streams.
I taught myself to fly fish in those mountain streams where nature’s power was pure and not duplicitous. I would leave on Friday afternoons, when I could and would return on Sunday evenings. I hoped that eventually I could find the peace of my youth; but it was a work in progress.
I was recently assigned to an FBI Violent Crimes Task Force. It consisted of local detectives, FBI, and BATF agents. I was one of three North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agents assigned. The office was large with cubicles as far as one could see from the front door. A soft buzz of people talking and a spattering of two-way radio traffic were always in the background. The task force was lead by an FBI agent. One of the FBI agents, Salvatore Vincetti (Sal to his friends) became my new partner. Sal had graduated law school before entering the FBI and his prior assignment was on a team investigating frauds. He had yet to develop negative thoughts about people or life’s events. We did stakeout assignments and high-risk arrests nearly every week. Sal was exuberant and a good partner. He was enthusiastic about life in general and our work in particular. I think the Boss hoped he would rub off on me and turn around my attitude. We made a good team. I was intense and moody most days. Sal was never moody and the only time he got even close to intense was at the moments just before an arrest.
One Friday afternoon he asked me, for the hundredth time, what my weekend plans were. Usually I was non-committal and said something like “I’m going fishing.” Sal would invite me to his home for a cookout but I’d decline wanting desperately to go to my church. This Friday he surprised me.
I was hiding in my cubicle with an array of dry flies on my desk. I had decided to use number 10 and 12 Royal Wolff flies because they had a parachute or a white feather on the top that made it easier to watch as they floated in a fast running stream. I had often used other flies but this time I wanted to relax more than try to repair my damaged mind.
“Hey, the wife has gone back to the City to visit her family. I’m batching it and wondered if I could come along to check out what you do back there in the woods.”
Sal button hooked into a chair at the edge of my desk. As he talked he was poking at the flies on my desk, messing them around. I smacked his hand flat with my hand and held it.
“Sal, leave. My. Flies. Alone!”
As always he was completely unfazed. He took his hand back and asked again if he could go fishing with me.
“Sal, you don’t know how to fly fish. I don’t think you even know how to fish period. You can’t just wade around all day tomorrow following me. You’ll scare the fish and I don’t need a puppy dog.”
“Hey, I been reading books on fishing. I bet I can catch as many as you, you hillbilly. Bigger ones too!”
This back and forth went on for at least thirty minutes. Me trying to figure a way to keep Sal from going and Sal either ignoring or countering each thing I said.
Suddenly a new face jumped into the fray. Our boss came in with his suit coat over his shoulder and his tie loose around his neck. The Boss was from New Jersey originally and still had the accent to prove it. He was fair but tough. His name was Robert O’Kelly but to us he was Boss. He started poking around in the flies and Sal said, “Don’t do that Boss. You’ll get your hand smacked.”
The Boss chuckled and said, “Hey hillbilly take this Bronx bozo with you and maybe you can lose him back there in the boonies. It’d be a big help to the team.”
With that, the Boss messed up Sal’s slicked down black hair, walked out of the cubicle, and was gone. We heard the elevator ding and then silence. I looked at Sal, who was combing his hair. I couldn’t find a way out.
“You drive your own car. I’ll give you a map location and if you’re not there by 7:00 in the morning too bad. ‘Cause I’ll be in the stream at 7:05.”
The next morning I was at a pull off on Little Snow Bird. There wasn’t any way that city boy was going to get up, pack his stuff, and drive all the way from Asheville out here. No way.
I sat on the tailgate of my ’96 F-150 and had just finished putting my pipe and tobacco in a pocket inside my fishing vest when I heard a vehicle coming. As I took a swallow of coffee here came Sal in his red Cadillac, windows down, blaring some kind of opera music.
Sal jumped out of the car wearing a light blue Member’s Only jacket, blue jeans, and sneakers. Just before he got out he put on a New York Yankee’s ball cap. Sal waved and did his usual, “Yo!” and disappeared behind his Caddy. The trunk popped open and in a few minutes he came to where I was sitting. He was carrying a spinning rod and reel, a small plastic box, and a brand new bag of Red Man.
I took it all in and asked him, “You’re going to use that fishing rig out here, huh? When did you start chewing tobacco?”
Sal drew up his already tall frame a bit taller and held up the Red Man.
“Today is the first day of my new life as a backwoods redneck. Just like you buddy.”
“Sal, I don’t chew. Never have. I’ll ask again, are you going to use that rig out here in this stream?”
“Dude, I told you I’ve been reading up on this fishing stuff. It’s going to be all good and when I haul in the biggest fish today you’ll be begging me for tips!”
I took a sip of coffee and didn’t say anything else right then. As he stood there I put on my vest and tied my fishing boots tight. I took another look at him, up and down, and asked,
“Where are your felt-bottom fishing boots? Didn’t that book say anything about that?”
Sal shook his head, “These here sneakers are all I need.”
My eyebrows went up. “Sal, here’s what we’re going to do. See that trail next to the stream?”
I pointed with the end of my fly rod. He turned to look then nodded that he did.
“I’m going up that trail for about a mile. You start here and I’ll be waiting for you to catch up in a couple of hours. Then we’ll rest a bit and see where else we want to go. OK?”
He gave me a thumb’s up and I started out. After a hundred yards or so I doubled back to see how he was doing. I went up into the woods just a bit so he wouldn’t see me and watched as Sal fought through a rhododendron thicket to find a place to begin. I sat down and watched him for a few minutes. I had to look through some laurel and small white pines. The woods smell I so enjoy almost derailed me; this was going to be a terrible mistake. Sal wasn’t going in the water; he was casting from the bank, down stream. I shook my head and wondered what book he’d been reading. I started to go tell him he had to cast up stream and let the lure float back, keeping the line tight. I started to tell him he had to get into the water so he could fish both sides and the middle. But knowing Sal he’d just ignore me so I quietly went on my way.
I fished up to a really nice place to wait and crossed the stream so I was on the side opposite the trail. This would give me a great view of him as he came to where I waited. I’d had really good luck catching and releasing three nice rainbows and a hard fighting brown. It was a good day.
Sal didn’t show up. I began to have visions of him having fallen and hit his head or having been bitten by a copperhead. I shook my head in mild aggravation and stood to go back to see if I could find him. I began to hear faint sounds of a voice. I couldn’t make out exactly what was being said but it seemed to be Sal and only Sal talking…yelling really. I rounded a bend above the stream and caught a glimpse of Sal at the edge of another rhododendron patch. He was all tangled and so was his rig. I couldn’t tell which one was messed up worse. He was trying to get free of the patch but he couldn’t. Either his legs got caught up in the branches or his head or shoulders got tangled when one or the other got free. At the same time his rod was getting stuck in other branches and I couldn’t tell where his line was. It had floated across the stream and looked like it was caught in a bunch of sticks that had been washed together during a rainstorm. It was a mess. Well, I couldn’t leave him there so I stood up and started walking parallel to the stream.
When I got nearly opposite Sal I started down the bank. A rock hit the back of my leg. I stopped and looked around. Nothing. I started again. Another rock hit the back of my leg. This time I turned full around and bent forward to look into the underbrush that sparsely populated the area. It was then I saw what I thought was the right side of a man’s face. He was looking around the trunk of a pretty good-sized white pine. I bent left and the face came into view. He was sitting and had a walking stick next to him. He was thin as a rail and had a brown beard. He was wearing denim bibbed overalls, an off white T-shirt, and was holding an unlit pipe. He motioned for me to come up to his location but put his finger to his lips. He wanted me to come up but to do so quietly.
I took another look at Sal and saw that other than the tangle he was involved with he wasn’t paying attention to any other part of planet Earth. As I picked my way up the ridge I would stop momentarily to look at Sal. His predicament wasn’t getting any better. The cuss words were getting louder and much more frequent though.
When I got to the old man he motioned for me to sit. After I got comfortable he leaned into me and asked, “That down there.” He pointed with the stem of his pipe. “That belong to you?”
“No, he doesn’t belong to me but we did start off together this morning. We work together. Did I miss anything good?”
“He ever been fishin’ before?”
“Don’t know but I’m pretty sure he’s never been in a mountain stream before.”
“Well when I first heard him he was thrashing through that rhododendron and had made it to the stream yonder. He took one step into the water and flipped upside down. Didn’t he know he couldn’t walk on them slick rocks with tennis shoes?”
I looked down at my boots, then across the stream, and shrugged my shoulders.
The old guy pulled a worn pouch of Half and Half tobacco out of the top zipper pocket in his overalls and began packing it. I took out my pipe and he offered the pouch to me. I took it and nodded appreciation. As I packed my pipe I looked down at Sal’s worsening issue.
“He always yell like that?” The old man asked me but never took his eyes off Sal.
“Well, he’s from New York City, so…” No need to finish that statement.
“What’s your name old timer?” I asked.
“My friends call me Tommy but you can call me Mr. Tom.” He said it with a grin.
“You out here just hiking around?”
“I live out here.” Mr. Tom replied.
I looked up the ridge just a bit from where we were sitting and saw a couple of light blue five gallon buckets half hidden at the start of a dog hobble thicket.
“Whatcha doing with those pails Mr. Tom?”
“Not my pails, son.”
I looked at the old guy and his demeanor had changed just a bit so I dropped that line of conversation quickly. Rule one in the woods was mind your own business. I turned back to Sal and pulled my lighter out.
“Let’s not light up right this minute. He’ll notice we’re up here and all this entertainment will get spoiled.”
The old guy had a point so I put the lighter back in my pocket. When I looked back at Sal he was getting more tangled by the minute and more vocal too. It was as if he thought all the yelling would help matters.
We heard threats to every part of the woods. Sal wasn’t going to take any prisoners this time. Every bush and plant that prevented his escape would be burned or stomped…just as soon as Sal got free. There wasn’t more than a second or two of quiet. I couldn’t help but smile. All he had to do was calm down and take one step after the other and he’d be out in a few minutes. The way he was going he’d die of starvation before he ever put that patch of stream in his rear view. When I looked at the old guy he was grinning too. Strange how peaceful things can get if you just let them be.
Mr. Tom said, “You know, I’m going to remember this for a while. “ He pointed to Sal. “This doesn’t happen too often out here.”
I thought about that and nodded in agreement.
The old guy looked at me and back at Sal. He pointed with his pipe again.
“You gonna bring him back out with you again?”
I thought for a minute and replied, “Most likely; but I think I’ll stay closer to him when I do.”
We both looked down at Sal and realized he’d quit cussing. He was slowly picking his way out. The old man looked at me and asked, “You come out here alone mostly don’t you?”
I allowed as I did.
“The woods can be good for a man.” The old man looked around where we were sitting.
We just sat there for a bit watching Sal. He was nearly back to the path when the old man lit his pipe with a stick match. I did the same.
“You better get going and don’t let him know we watched him.” With that he stood up and began walking up the ridge.
I watched him and thought about saying goodbye but let it go. I turned back to see that Sal had made it to the path and was walking toward the car. Guess he’d had enough for one day.
Just as I stood a rock hit my foot. I looked up the hill. The old guy had the blue pails and was beginning to walk away from me and Sal. He was grinning at me just before he turned around to walk off. I went back to where we’d parked and Sal was there calm as everything. He was wet from his shirt all the way to his shoes. I decided there wasn’t any point in asking him what had happened.
“How’d it go Sal?”
“Not too bad you hillbilly. Not too bad.” Sal went to his car and opened the trunk. He pulled a couple of beers out of a cooler and gave me one. We sat there on my tailgate for a few minutes not talking. We just looked around the woods enjoying the quiet.
“Well.” I said. “ Did you chew much of that Red Man?”
“Nah, never had time. You want some?” He reached into a back pocket and came out with a completely drowned pouch, water dripping.
“ I told you I don’t chew that nasty stuff.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Let’s go home. And Sal? Thanks for coming.”
Sal drank the last of his beer and said, “Yep.”
As he started back to his car he stopped and turned around, “You think you could teach me to fly fish?”