I find as I get older at times I reflect back on experiences that at the time did not seem particularly significant but on hindsight appear remarkable. The Angel Story is one of them. Here is another.
In the early spring of 1970 Embry and I were living in the Clay Street neighborhood outside Washington where I was doing “participant observation” work, which a couple of years later resulted in the publication of Hard Living on Clay Street. Part of the assignment involved belonging to a fishing club. (Yes, the research contract paid for the dues along with the weekly fees for the bowling league we belonged to.) I loved fishing and being part of this club even though at times I felt that I did not really fit in. This was the big spring trip, and I was really looking forward to it. The club was going to the Chester River to fish for perch. I had no idea where the Chester River was, but everyone–usually around 20-25 guys, all part of the “white working class” I was studying — was supposed to meet in the parking lot behind city hall and drive out together caravan style. The departure time was 6:00 am.
An eager beaver with a new fishing rod and all sorts of fancy new equipment, I arrived at the designated spot at 6:01. The lot was empty. They had left me. My immediate reaction was, those bastards, they knew I was coming. They did not wait for me. My next reaction was, I am going to catch up with them.
So here was the challenge. I had only two pieces of information to work with. The first was the name of the river. The second was that I remembered hearing that the drive there would take about an hour and a half. That was it. What would you consider the odds of my finding them before they set off in their fishing boats?
My first task was to locate the Chester River. This was well before GPS days, and people used maps to find their way from point A to point B. I immediately drove to a gas station and purchased road maps of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. (Since I knew of a town called Chester, Pennsylvania, I figured the town could well be on “the Chester River.”) I spread the maps out on the hood of my old Volkswagen bug and poured over them with feverish intensity. Every minute lost was precious time. No luck in Pennsylvania. On to the Virginia map. I first looked at the map showing the western part of the state with all the mountain streams and rivers. Many rivers but none named Chester. More precious time lost. The last shot was Maryland, but I was not aware of any big rivers or streams in Maryland; and as my eyes scanned the map showing the western part of the state, my fears were confirmed. Just as I was about to give up, my eyes wandered to the eastern part of the state and the Chesapeake Bay. Resigned to defeat, with a sigh I glanced at the various tributaries emptying into the bay—the Severn, the South River, West River, Rhode River, Patuxent, Patapsco , Choptank, Miles, Tred Avon…. So many rivers.
Then I saw it, “The Chester River.” Bingo! There it was, a massive estuary on the eastern shore of the bay, with a width of a mile or two where it emptied into the bay just north of the Bay Bridge. My eyes followed the river on the map to its source about 30 or 40 miles to the north, originating somewhere near the Delaware border. I now knew where they were: somewhere along the banks of a river at least 30 miles long. And they could be on either side.
I glanced at my watch. It was 6:30. I also estimated the distance to the closest part of the Chester River to the Washington area. It was about 60 miles or about an hour’s drive. What to do?
Here was my plan: I would drive as fast as I could toward the Chester River. Route 50, a major highway, was only minutes away from where I was parked and lead directly toward the Chesapeake Bay, passing by Annapolis and then over the Bay Bridge. Since I remembered the entire drive was supposed to take an hour and a half, I would drive for approximately one hour and 15 minutes and then take the first road intersecting with the major highway and that lead in the direction of the Chester River. Bound and determined, I revved up the motor and screeched out of the parking lot.
At exactly 7:45 –one hour and 15 minutes of frantically driving like a mad man –I started looking for roads on the left side of the highway and at 7:50 spotted one, an unpretentious, narrow, dirt road with a name I could not even read because the sign was so rusted. Could this be it? My heart started to pound as I turned off. The old VW lurched along, dodging big puddles and huge mud bumps in the road. The bumpy ride seemed to take hours, but the actual time was probably more like 15 or 20 minutes. The road got narrower and narrower, but there was one sign of hope. Ruts were in the mud, and they looked fresh. Could this really be it? My heart was racing even faster. Something inside me said yes, you got it, and you are going to catch them.Suddenly the mud-splattered car reached a small meadow, then I drove down a steep decline leading to a stream.
And there they were! Yes, yes! I did it! There were about six or seven boats with outboard motors with three men to a boat, and the boats had just cast off, motoring down a small creek. One boat was left, tied up at the small dock, and in it was the owner/guide of the fishing camp. “Come on. Hop in. I am just casting off. I was about to give up on you.” I had made it with less than a minute to spare.
I waved at the guys in the other boats, and a couple of them waved back. I gave them a big smile and mumbled under my breath, you bastards.
We fished for several hours; and since I was with the owner, a real pro, the two of us caught more perch than any of the other boats —around 25 for him and 15 or so for me.
When everyone returned to the dock for the traditional beer together, I beamed when several guys came over and marveled at how many fish I had caught. One guy even wanted to shake my hand. It was pretty clear that the reason for my success was my being with the guide, but the guys seemed impressed anyway. One person pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, asking how with no directions I found this god-forsaken location in the first place. I told him I had no idea.
“Well, next time,” he said, “You should try to get to the rendezvous spot at least 15 minutes early. Club tradition. We always leave on time. No exceptions.”
I ended up giving most of my fish away, saving only a few for the dinner meal with Embry when I returned home. Several of the guys had caught only a few, and one who came away empty handed was especially grateful.
“You know,” he said, “If I had come home with no fish to fry tonight, my wife would have killed me. Got laid off a couple of weeks ago, and you know, you gotta eat.”
The departure home was very different from the dismal start of the day. A couple of people said they hoped I would make it on the next big trip, which would be to fish for flounder off the barrier islands in Virginia. This day had been my fourth trip with the fishing club, and for the first time I felt like I was beginning to fit in. It felt a little like a rite of passage.
The drive back was uneventful, and I recall smiling the whole time.
And as I think back on it now, I can’t help asking, what were the odds. How could I have found this place? How could I have found it with less than one minute to spare? You hear the term “following your nose” every now and then. Do we humans have some of the instincts that birds have as they migrate thousands of miles from Alaska to South America or as turtles or salmon have who return hundreds or even thousands of miles to the area where they were born? Our first cat was lost on the streets of New York for over a week and somehow found her way back to our apartment. The most amazing thing is that deep down as I sped along the highway and then crept along the dirt road, I felt I was on the right track, like a dog following a scent.
This particular event was trivial and by most standards insignificant. But then again on another level it was not. As important as science and reason and technology are, occasionally we are reminded of the mystery of life and that there still remains so much that is unexplained.
Someone once observed that “Luck and coincidence are God’s way of remaining anonymous.” I think that pretty much sums it up.
Post Script: I did make it to the Virginia barrier islands where the club participated in an annual flounder fishing derby with several hundred serious anglers. On the second day I landed a 12-pound flounder, which missed winning the first place trophy by only 3 ounces. One of the great thrills of my life. But by this time my work on Clay Street was winding down, and the flounder trip turned out to be my last event with the guys.