Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays


Here’s the third installment of my ongoing autobiography project, where I post chapters from my life’s story every Friday.

Fishing and swimming—those were my summer joys at Lake Hopatcong. Swimming required only a bathing suit. Fishing, some basic gear. A line, bobber, hook and, of course, the bait.

On those long-ago summer days when I was four or five, sunfish were my specialty game. The flat, bony swimmers are carnivores. They require live animal bait that, after being pierced by the hook in a non-fatal way, twist and turn in their agony to escape, providing irresistible allure.

For me, young and eager to catch any fish I could, bait animals came down to two species: grasshoppers and worms. There were two types of grasshoppers that were local, plentiful, and catchable by a hunter killer such as me. Camouflaged green ones that hopped from one blade of greenery to another, and those that were dull brownish in color and had adapted the means to fly. The brownish ones hung out on brownish dirt patches where their excellent camouflage thwarted detection. When fearing their camouflage had failed, those brown hoppers propelled themselves into the air with a snapping sound. Then they spread their wings—that for no seemingly good reason were colored black and yellow. Off they flew, erratically darting this way and that. Chasing them down was dizzying. Those fliers were the hardest to catch, as there was hardly any way to sneak up on them. With sharp eyes, quick hands, and a cat’s hunting fervor, I learned to track down the flying grasshoppers where they landed and pounce without squashing them, thus rendering them useful as bait. Struggle as they might, I would single-handedly pierce the insect’s exoskeleton with the sharp hook—just past their head in the thorax area—and soon I was ready to fish with a wiggling bait.

Hunting worms was a much greater challenge than hunting grasshoppers, especially the brand of worms that I targeted, the mighty nightcrawler (lumbricus terrestris). Nightcrawlers only rise to the surface of the earth after the noxious sun has set. Their purpose in doing so? Sex! The worms are hermaphrodites and so, to them, sex is a double-edged pleasure. Once out of their holes and slithering about in the evening grass, they seek out one another and, when successful, they match their male to female and female to male sex organs head to tail, tail to head, and proceed to copulate. Double the pleasure. I wasn’t allowed out late at night and so was never able to take advantage of nature’s zest for procreation in order to capture nightcrawlers during their nocturnal debaucheries.

Instead, a fellow Briefite, two years my elder, unveiled to me the secret method used to coax nightcrawlers to come to the surface during the rule of the sun.

Step 1: concoct a caustic brew to be poured down the nightcrawler’s hole. This brew would make the worm seek relief by rapidly coming to the surface, whether it was day or night. To make the offensive liquid, I would covertly borrow the tin of Coleman’s Dry English Mustard from my mother’s pantry. I then mixed the powder with water in an empty quart milk container with its most utilitarian spout. The brew was ready when it took on a bright yellow color and tangy smell.

Step 2: the art of locating the nightcrawlers’ home and preparing it for the delivery of the liquid mustard preparation. To find the holes, we crawled on all fours in the thick grass, searching with our hands for the mounds of worm poop that covered the creature’s hole. The trick was to uncover the hole without letting any poop fall in it, clogging it up. The worm poop was then used to carefully build a funnel around the hole, making sure none of the poop clogged it, to direct the liquid. Down the yellow liquid heat would rush, and in twenty anticipatory seconds, the stillness would explode. Out of the mouth of the hole came this large, pinkish-brown, fleshy, pointed, herded, faceless thing, writhing with mustard burn. When the inflamed beast was halfway out of his tunnel, he would hesitate, offended by the sunlight.

This was the most crucial moment of the hunt, for it required all the discipline a four-year-old could muster. When to strike! Too early and the nightcrawler would seize up so that half his body would be stuck in the tunnel—a hard pull would tear him apart. So my friend taught me to have patience, to wait. Patience paid off, because inevitably the nightcrawler’s pain overcame his distaste for sunlight and he’d slither out of his hole and become easy pickings. Sometimes, the nightcrawler would get stuck, half in and half out, so it took a keen eye to judge when he relaxed his powerful muscles. Then with a quick grasp at his protruding half, before he could tense up again, he could be plucked whole and put into the can of water used to wash off the offending mustard, and then into the dirt holding pen, ready to be sold for bait.

My sister, Bernice, four years older than me, handled the bookkeeping. We sold a dozen nightcrawlers for $.10 and by summer’s end, our tin can bank was full of dimes to the tune of $9.00.

Every now and then, I think back to my nightcrawler hunting days and how exciting it was. Do I have nightmares where giant nightcrawlers are threatening to avenge the mayhem and murder my sister and I perpetrated against their brethren? No! But, as of recently, I began to think of nightcrawlers, those faceless creatures, as having feelings, a soul, especially now that I have come to contemplate my own demise. Even without Darwin, it is now intuitively obvious that all living creatures are my brethren.

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