Once After a Time when I was a boy of nineteen on a junior year abroad program
in Vienna walking near the Westbahnhof, I found myself across the street from a rough
pyramid of rubble.
Near the top of this ruin, the tail section of a small airplane protruded … as if nobody had noticed it yet and maybe the pilot was still in the cockpit. This was twenty years or more since World War Two had ended.
I stopped short and stared at the plane.
“Waran gooken zee ?” (or something like that) demanded a man with stiffly outstanding yellow hair a suddenly loomed between me and the ruins.
What was I looking at?
I glanced at his grey face, and I didn’t rightly know what I was looking at, so I moved on.
Before that year in Europe I barely knew WW2 from WW1, Austria from Australia, or Vienna from Vietnam.
But I did know the world of fly fishing fairly well: I knew that since the Korean war, the Communists had cut off the export of bamboo from their Bay of Tonkin area, which was important to the world of fly-fishers because the only really suitable bamboo for the crafting of traditional, high-performance fly-rods came from Tonkin, and the solid fiberglass rods of the time did not have the resilience, the spine, and the delicacy of six sections of split Tonkin bamboo wrapped and glued together by a wizard of rods. You don’t need to know all that yourself, but it is the deep context of the story I will tell here: not a story for the weak of stomach, and that is not because any trout were slaughtered in the living of it.
I came to Europe knowing also that the eastern Alps are the native territory of the Brown Trout: the fish which, if trout fishing is a religion, is the sacrament, the symbol, or the god or goddess - depending on your religio-piscatoral sect. As I would learn that year, the most extreme cults of fly fishing, like any religion, can be a cover for something very dark.
If I had not been more or less a member of the cult myself, none of the story I am about to tell would have happened, and I wouldn’t have been able to make this stuff up.
I had been prepared for the fishing vocation by my father who, after he was twelve years old, had no father to guide him, and for whom trout fishing was about family, also by my mother's father, who was never in the military, but for whom fishing was a blood sport as serious as battle itself, and especially by my grandfather’s friend Doctor Waldo Howe, who lost both legs serving as a medic during World War One and had afterwards pretty much forsaken his medical practice in favor of professional fishing with a intense devotion and a technical sophistication that he might otherwise have devoted to medicine, eventually becoming the North American fly casting champion and writing for outdoor magazines.
Doc Howe taught me respect for fish, along with the gospel of Fine and Far Off: long lines, small flies, light leaders, and a stealthy approach - respectful of the fact that trout have an oversized optical lobe to their brains and, aided also by the lens effect of water, have super-human vision, seeing us when we can not see them.
I traveled from the states with my fishing vest containing a box of my home-tied dry, a reel of Cortland 333 double-tapered, floating line and a miniature “spy camera” from the Johnson Smith Novelty Compny with two rolls of film … planning then to buy an Austrian fly rod in Vienna, and to ask the tackle dealer where I should go to find some legendary and hallowed trout water.
What I would later happen into - as I have already suggested and as will become obvious - was unholy to say the least.
Year of the Bear
On the way to Vienna I got to be friends with John Irving - a fellow student who would later publish twelve or maybe seventeen novels none of which would be ghost-written by me, despite what you may have heard or read. Irving knew already that he was THE John Irving, and he knew his literary predecessors, including Hemingway… all the way from trout fishing to bull fighting. I hadn’t read all that stuff. Unhappily, I was a philosophy major.
On that train or bus, the young Irving asked what had been the most interesting year of my life so far. I said it was the year before, when I had been in Alaska … where once I was sleeping in a wilderness cabin and a bear tried to break in. I will tell you about it sometime, or maybe I already did. I often do. Good stories like that don’t happen all that often. Irving may play it down, but everybody knows he has always had a thing for bears. So we talked Bears. And he told me about the very large South American rodent that he and his high-school buddies had mail-ordered on speculation that it could become the school mascot. As you can imagine, the animal got loose and it ended badly, though I don’t remember exactly how. Ask Irving. He has a Facebook page.
By the time February came we had done a lot more traveling together with our friend Eric Ross, and had decided to get motorcycles which we would ride to Pamplona the following summer for the Running of the Bulls, as in The Sun Also Rises, which I had not read.
Early in March before I got my motorcycle, Irving got his: a wasp-waisted Yugoslavian Jawa. Irving was no trout fishing cultist, but, knowing the lore, volunteered to drive to the mountain trout stream as an observer.
I used to think I remembered that the Jawa had a side car in which I rode, but old Irving says it had no such feature, and the picture I took of him with my spy camera, sitting on the Jawa doesn’t show it, so I guess he is right.
The truth is in the details, but the details are a cloud around everything. Let’s just try to make it through.
Into the Cloud
One early Spring afternoon we rode the Jawa to a back street somewhere between the inner and outer Ring Strassen of Vienna to “Die Brüdern Forellen Fish Fang Gesellschaft” meaning “The Trout Brothers Fishing Business” as “Fish Fang” is literally “ Fish Catching”……..rather than “Fang of the Fish” as it might seem. I mention that because language eventually became a problem as things went.
The Fish Fang shop sign hung from a three-dimensional wooden trout with a high forehead like that of a whale. It had the remains old paint colors, and watchful eyes on both sides.
We passed under that baroque trout and through the door into a haze of smoke which smelled as much like sausage as like tobacco. Weird sausage. Never will I forget that smell.
Through that haze I saw a few tubular rod cases covered in green felt and hanging by leather straps from chamois-horn racks. I noticed fly reels along with half a dozen meerschaum pipes in the glass cabinet under the counter.
But I did not at first notice the man with a overhanging moustache and braid-trimmed jacket… until he rapped a pipe on the counter: three sharp raps.
At that signal, the twin of his moustash poked through the curtains from the back room .... and the other trout brother stepped into the room.
“Heil Peter”, said one of the invisible mouths.
I knew enough German language and culture by this time to understood that he was not calling either of us Peter or hailing us as their leader : but that “Heil Peter” refers to the proto-baptist fisherman-saint of the Jesus story, and is the traditional Austrian greeting when one fisherman encounters another.
“Guten Tag, Gruss Gott.” I gave them back, speaking German 101 for the two of us boys. My German wasn’t exactly a clear, flowing stream, but my accent was good enough that I was often mistaken for a borderline Hungarian who understood German much better than I really did, so (as in what followed here) people were likely to say things I scarcely understood.
I was able to explain clearly enough, or so I THOUGHT, that I had come to buy a fly rod and to get their recommendation for a place I could lease a leg of trout stream, Leg, ( literally “beim” in German) being, I thought, the equivalent of our “stretch” or “leg” or the more technical British “ “beat”in trout water terms rather than the literal translation of “beat” which would be “shlag”, which as a VERB is literal translation of to beat, but which, as a NOUN, I knew, imeans “whipped cream” in German - as in “cafe mit shlag obers”: Coffee with whipped cream globs; Although in other situations, to make it more confusing “ober” means waiter.
After I tried to say that we wanted to hire or rent or lease a leg on a river somewhere, the Brothers Trout checked their reflections in each other, then unanimously recommended we make the expedition to Waidhoffen an Der Ybbs, which they assured us would be sehr rewarding. They would arrange the booking.
I agreed, and we went on to choosing a rod.
There wasn’t all that much of a choice on the racks...... but I’m sure now that if the Forellen Brudern had actually thought I was serious about fishing instead of something quite other, they could have brought out a decent, pre-war rod, rather than selling me the limpest worm pole I would ever own.
A few days before Irving and I headed off to Waidhoffen a half dozen of us boys gathered in Marco Walshock’s room near the Graben.The Graben, or “Grave” is at the dead center of the old walled city, where thousands of the Great Black Plague dead were buried
… and where in later times a monument to the dead was erected: a stone tower carved in deep relief so that it looked like it consisted only of struggling bodies climbing each other …. and in a story I once wrote Irving stripped naked and climbed the tower. I forget now what was or is at the top, but to make one thing clear: the alleged Irving action just plain did NOT happen, and I am sorry about any confusion or embarrassment I may have caused myself.
So we boys sat and stood around the stove in the room Marco rented in the apartment of a expatriated Hungarian countess whose family hunting trophy mounts lined the hall way. Marco was allowed to use the bathroom in the hall, to make tea in the Graphin’s kitchen, and he could heat his room by feeding coins into the stove there.
We had cognac in our tea and we smoked up a thick smudge with Austrian national brand cigarettes. We were bored AND excited.
Being bored and excited at the same time is hard to endure without help, but in those days drugs other than booze and tobacco were not so common among college kids. That doesn’t mean we were resistant to self-harm for higher purposes. We had our ways.
That particular evening somebody suggested we try the hyperventilation thing: You bend over with hands on knees, breathe way too much and too fast for a minute or so, then stand up and hold your breath while someone wraps his arms around your chest from behind and squeezes ..........until you pass out, maybe have a dream or a near death experience,or maybe just fall and hit your head on the stove. .
I can’t remember how it went for me. The other guy is supposed to let you down easy. Could be I’m the one who hit his head on the stove. I don’t remember who was my hugger nor do I recall any visions or dreams, but I do remember that before or after me, it was Eric Ross who gave John the big squeeze and eased him to the floor….where John flopped like a carp a couple of times then stood up and said something that sounded like “French Fries”, but could I suppose have been Fish Fang.... or pretty much anything... then he went to the door.
By the time we asked where he was going, the door had already closed behind him.
A half hour or so later John came back with a cut over one eye-brow.
His upper lip was swollen stiff.
Talking from only the lower part of his face, he seemed to be saying he had been set upon by a bunch of people who had stolen his leg....... and he insisted that we had to go back with him to wherever and deal with those guys.
The leg allegation didn’t make much sense, and we were not really aching for a fight, but several of us went along with Irving, hoping not to find the guys who had assaulted him.
Luckily we didn’t.
We went home to each his own; and I didn’t hear anything more about the events of that night until after our trip to Waidhofen.
Saddle the Chickens
We’re Riding Out !
So as we used to say, saddle the chickens, Wir ritten aus!
The two of us in G.I. surplus field-jackets, me on the rear saddle, sling-bag and rod case over my shoulder; we invaded Neider Ostereich. Here on the page you see the photo I took with the“spy camera” that I had brought along to Europe, something from the Johnson Smith novelty catalog that made everything look like a grainy still from an old documentary movie. I wish I had brought along a few more rolls of tiny film.
If I had taken more pictures on that trip they would not show that Lower Austria hadn’t suffered a lot of war damage.
Old men with scythes mowed the road-side ditches. They or someone, had already cleared brush and picked up all the sticks from under the well spaced forest trees, where the grass grew and was now being cropped by rust-colored deer.
The village of Waidhoffen at that time was much smaller than it appears to be from a current Google Earth fly- over. A town square, a few onion domes, the small castle inn where we had reservations.
We checked into the castle and slept in a stone chamber beside the river without vowels: the chyrglng Ybbs.
The next morning we followed directions given us by the Fish Fang Brüdern to the home of the fellow they had referred to as the Mayor (or maybe they said “Major”) from whom we were to pick up the Fish Fang permit.
The man who opened the mayor’s door had a moustache so much like the Fang Bruder’s moustaches that I didn’t know whether he was actually one of them, or a third man related only by moustache. It seemed all very cartoonish. Still does.
“Nur Ein Rod?” Only one rod? he says. I supposed he wanted to emphasize that we had a permit for only one rod. He scowled at the two of us and gave me a map showing our leg, or beat, or stretch of the river that day: from a bridge right in the center of town, to a country Inn a dozen bends and maybe a kilometer upstream.
From the bridge, we could see the ringed dimples made by several trout rising out in the main drift and, directly under us, two grayling rippling in the bridge shadow. I had never seen a grayling before. They are related to trout and but look like a flying fish or a Disney invention. Holy Trout !
It was shining, it was lovely; and to the sound of music unheard, I rigged up with a Light Hendrickson dry fly, then, flipping line off my reel, walked right into the water up to my knees....no hip boots or waders. I didn’t use waders or hip boots back in the U. S either, but the streams back in the upstate New York were not fifty percent glacial melt water either. No fish flew at my fly in that bridge pool, where they were probably made shy by the clumsy approaches of casual tourist-fishers.
Having fished around a few bends… after an hour, or maybe it was three… I was in my usual deep state of concentration when fishing, now well over my knees in a long slow run, occasionally bringing in and releasing a nine or ten inch Brown Trout … more often an American Rainbow Trout…. a surprise to me, not knowing at the time that Ernest Hemingway had introduced Rainbow Trout to almost every suitable territory he visited, from Kilimanjaro to Australia and Europe.
From shore, using the spy camera, John photographed me casting. The photos are lost, but anyway, the poor resolution and my distance from the camera make it so you couldn’t tell whether I was standing in a river casting or kneeling on a road, trying to wave down a ride.
The last of the pictures showed me in the water nearly up to my boneless parts. Numb in the legs as I was....you could just about have amputated one of them without me noticing.
I do remember the mayor - or the major - as he passed us on the other side of the stream. Scowling still.
I don’t remember old Irving calling from behind me.
He says that finally got my attention by catching my backcast and holding on until I turned and then he pulled me in. I barely remember that at all.
I know I was dumb and stiff, standing there. He says he had to take the rod and wind the line back on the reel for me. I remember being momentarily puzzled by the question of why he was handing me the rod, but I did manage to slog after him across a meadow to the Inn beside the road. We sat at a table in the afternoon sun.
We probably ordered coffee and something to eat. Irving has said we gave them some trout I had caught and they fried them up us. Might be a fish story. I didn’t even have a creel, and would not have been bringing fish back to the castle for the night. I hope we had hot goulash, because my pants were wet and I couild use some right now, with lots ofd smoked paprika.
Back at the castle I changed into dry clothes, wrapped myseldf in one of those foot-thick down comforters then passed out in a chair..
Next day, we headed back to Vienna by an improvised, upstream route, cutting over a high pass to get to the Danube valley.
A half an hour out we asked directions of some guys fishing at a bridge. They pointed toward the pass, but invited us to climb off and go at the stream, because the owner was gone and would be away for three days. We thanked them for the information, but continued on and up.
Before topping the pass we drove through a village where most of the people, (or at least a good percentage of those walking along the road) were blind or leading the blind, or both.
Irving brought up the village of the blind and the night of the hyperventilations, one Friday a week or two after the Waidhoffen trip, we went (as we often did) to the Deutches Weinhaus for steak and eggs.
Das Deutches Weinhaus
The Detuches Weinhaus had more stories below ground than it did above: basements under wine kellers, over root cellars over dungeons, over graves……lined with the stones abandoned city walls. Eric Ross, Mr. Irving, and I went there regularly on Fridays for the closest we could get to an American truck driver special diner breakfast, for supper. Steak and eggs. “Steak mit eier.” On the Friday after our return from Waidhoffen, we finished our Steak mit eier on the street level of the Weinhaus, and then went down to drink beer in the first kellar down.
We sat a few benches away from a man talking to his beer mug. He had spiky blond hair and a starkly grey face. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest he was the same man who had loomed up in front of me out by the West Bahnofff, but he was a dead ringer.
After a couple of chugs from his mug Eric popped back up and went off to piss, or worse. We were both of us frequent shitters, ever since that bad meal aboard the Orient Express. Irving had contracted the same weird bug at the same time, but was apparently cured of it by nearly dying of typhus in Greece. Or was it Typhoid Fever?
Eric was gone for longer than whatever he did in the bathroom usually took.....but Eric seldom went anywhere at all without taking a side-trip.
When Irving and I had just about finished the pitcher of beer, Eric reappeared: face flushed and nostrils flaring.
He had gone all the way to the last basement, he said....and down there he saw a bar boy sitting in the corner and YANKING HIS WANGER! Eric pronounced that very loudly, as you can see.
I looked around a bit embarrassed, and the grey face man straightened up, yelling: “STOP LOOKING AT MEINE MUTTER”.
We didn’t want to look at his invisible mother anyway, and John said that since Eric couldn’t even go to the bathroom without ending up in the fucking sewer... he himself would go get the pitcher filled.....but we went with him...... and so we got up, got that next pitcher, and took it down another level into the deep Deutches Winehouse digs.
Damn, it was loud down there with the stone echoing voices and the thump of mugs on oak.
At some point John wondered loudly if I remembered the VILLAGE OF THE BLIND we had driven throughon our way home from Waidhofen? And of course I did.
Did I remember that one bunch of blinden being led by a one-legged man? THE FUCKING HALT LEADING THE FUCKING BLIND?
No, I didn’t remember that, though maybe I do now.
.......and I then that or something caused me myself to wonder aloud..... what was had he been mumbling that night at Marco’s...... about some guys STEALING HIS LEG ?
He didn’t remember then what he had been mumbling on that other muddled evening, but from what he shouted out that night deep in the Deutches Weinhaus, I managed to gather a fairly detailed account.
So the first thing he recalled of that adventure: he was standing under the Forellen Brüdern shop sign with its wooden fish, dangling.
The shop lights were on low and Irving could not see inside very well, but he could have noticed the faintest white, near glow, of the meerschaum pipes on the counter.
He stood for a moment under the sign looking all around, down, and up, wondering how he got there.
While looking up, Irving noticed the hairline crack outlining a door on the back of the wooden fish, and a small hole that a finger or something like a cane tip would fit.
Irving had a finger, but the hole was eight feet up, and he had no cane.
In the wounded city of Vienna at that time it was not difficult to find a cane or a crutch.
Irving ran into a Bier Haus he had passed down the street and found a guy sitting with his cane and a mug of beer. Approaching the table with a pretend limp, he put five bucks or so worth of loose groshen on the table and asked if he could rent the cane for fumpf minuten, in order zum Wasser Kloset um to farhen. Something like that. Sure it was a lie, if it was even comprehensible to a German speaker. After Irving agreed to first use the cane to fetch the man another beer, he did that and went back to the shop.
The door was easy enough to open using the slightly crooked handle of the rental cane. A large key hung on the inside of the door itself.
He flipped it off, caught it, closed the fish door, and let himself into the shop … still not knowing why he was there, and with no intention he could identify, but with nothing more than a sort of bodily knowledge, or maybe it was just narrative sense - he entered.
The air was thick as if that peculiar sausage tobacco smell were visible. Something compelled him past the pipe-laden counter, and under the chamois horn racks, through the curtain to the back room, where there was only a night light. He felt his way along the wall to a closet where he found two wooden legs, both of them left legs with a knee joint. When he bent the leg, he could look into the hollow of the lower leg, or he could if he had a lighter or something, and maybe he did, but just then he heard the front door open and close. Going to the curtain, still holding the leg, he saw that one of the brothers, and that he was going to come right through to the back no doubt already suspicious since Irving had left the key in the door, as Old Irving then realized..so he waited until the last moment, and, head down so he would not be recognized, burst low through the curtains, leg and cane under one arm, bowling past the Fish Fang Brüdern.
He ran for a few blocks and ducked into the bier haus where he had rented the cane. He returned the cane with dankes, then sat at a rear table trying to hide the stolen leg between his own two.
But of course you can’t run into a bar carrying an extra leg without being noticed … in this case by two drunks who had been sitting at the bar and facing the door when he dodged in .
After some discussion they went to Irving’s table and demanded to see his third leg. .
“ Only meine Frau mienem third leg sehen kan” he once told me that he said to those guys, although recently he asked me if he had ever said that. How do I know?
Maybe he DID say that and maybe he should have avoided the wisecrack, because the drunks were not amused. and they convinced themselves that he had stolen the leg off a poor organ grinder.
One of them tried to wrestle the leg away from Irving, so John dropped the leg and threw that guy on his back, but then the other guy was on him and while Irving dealt with him, the first guy ran off with the leg, then some more guys came off the bar...... so that’s when he got out of there ..... made his way back to Marco’s place on the Graben to collect us. And you know how THAT went.
Enough About Sausage
Irving never got to see what was in either of the hollow legs at the Fish Fang shop, but it was clear enough to him already, if not also to you, that the whole Fang Bruders business was a smuggling operation based on the sympathy people have for obvious war veterans and the resulting lack of scrutiny they got in customs. It seems that by that time … the early sixties … there was getting to be a shortage of one-legged war vets. So … gratuitous amputations.
It is chillingly to think that if Irving had not hauled me out of the Ybbs that day when I had been standing numbed up to my nuts in the river... if I had instead followed the “Mayor” up the Ybbs, or stopped in at Blindenstadt maybe, I would have been on my way to a hollow leg, and a whole other career. I Could have written a whole book about it.
But my strongest memory of all this … more than the trout of the Ybbs or or even the airplane embedded in the pyramid of rubble, is not even an image so to speak, but a smell: the very strange sausage smell in that Fish Fang shop. I suppose hashish is what was smuggling from the east but
I cannot help but think about what
went in the other direction ….
and how they disposed
of the amputated legs?
But you know what I am thinking,
so that is enough about sausage.
IN THIS ISSUE–––
• DAVID S. WARREN
• MICHAEL CHAPPELL
• GEORGIA E. WARREN
The Woman Who Wore My Hat
• DAVID S. WARREN
The Third Leg
• FRANKLIN CRAWFORD
Dear Diary, 10,000 B.C.
• DANIEL LOVELL
• DAVID ROLLOW
Glad To Be Unhappy
• RHIAN ELLIS
•NANCY VIEIRA COUTO
Lily, Mister Bluebird, and the Beginning and End of My Singing Career
• GABRIEL ORGREASE
Stormy Daniels, Full Disclosure
• DYLAN THOMAS Before I Knocked
• MARY GILLILAND Vertical Before Dawn Strips the East
• FRANKLIN CRAWFORD
Burn the Timeline
• CHRIS MACCORMICK Disremembrances of the Russian Twilight
• PETER FORTUNATO
• MEMORY NUTS
OREN PIERCE Memory Nuts
R. Saminora, - Paris
Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was as shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter
And sister to the fathering worm.
I who was deaf to spring and summer,
Who knew not sun nor moon by name,
Felt thud beneath my flesh's armour,
As yet was in a molten form
The leaden stars, the rainy hammer
Swung by my father from his dome.
(the entire poem)
by Nancy Vieira Couto
"Nancy, I want to ask you something," my cousin Lily said. By the look on her face, I could tell it was important. "How would you like to be a flower girl at my wedding?" she continued. I didn't know what a flower girl was. I had heard people talking about sweater girls, and I sort of knew what they looked like, but I didn't think I could look like that. I was only four years old. "You would wear a pretty gown," Lily said, as if she were reading my mind, "and you would carry a bouquet of flowers." I was still worried about the sweater, but I liked Lily. So I said OK.
(go to story)
by Steve Katz
I was fifteen when my father died. He’d been sick for seven years already, was rarely home, usually bed-ridden in some dreary hospital in the Bronx, or upstate at some rest home. That was treatment for a heart condition at the time — stay in bed! Had my father been around, my fate might have been different. Without a father to slap me into the future I felt like upcoming life had been placed on the far side of a high slick wall. I couldn’t bust through it, nor could I scale it, but against its unyielding concrete I constantly slammed the enigmas of my adolescence.
(go to story)
by David Rollow
The writer sulked. She wasn’t wrong. In the flush of inspiration he’d typed up a report of her most recent visit, while still at the office (he had a day job to support himself), and he had unthinkingly left by the typewriter a second sheet for all to see. He didn’t use a carbon, so to anyone not overwhelmed by curiosity it would have seemed to be only a blank sheet of rough yellow paper. (go to story)
by Annie Campbell
I had gained only five pounds during my pregnancy, but walking in that oven-like heat made me feel like I had gained two hundred. My toes were so hot and swollen they looked like red potatoes and felt like they might explode. I could hardly wait for the heat wave to be over and my mysterious baby top reveal itself.
(go to story)
Review by Gabreal Orgrease
(go to review)
Before I Knocked (go to)
Vertical Before Dawn
Strips the East (go to)
Burn the Timeline (go to)
CHRIS MACCORMICK Disremembrances of the
Russian Twilight (go to)
1984 (go to)
I’d already been in bed four hours before I found out what the mattress pad was for. You don’t ask too many questions about hospital beds, in general, and I didn’t ask any about this one. They let me have a laptop, and the hospital has free wifi. My assumption is those things are supposed to make up for the horror I’m sitting on right now, just barely covered by the ratty mattress pad. (go to story)
The focus of our next Metaphysical Times will be
"Weird Tales" (see full size)
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