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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

A Scout Angling for a Few Good Trout

July 08, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

And so, finally, we are sending the boy away, off into the wilderness with a 45-pound backpack containing a sleeping bag and little cans of Vienna sausage and processed mashed potatoes that come alive when he adds hot water, all the things a kid needs for three days in the great outdoors.

"We're going to miss you," I say as he prepares for the first backpacking trip of his life.

"It's only three days, Dad," the boy says.

"Three days?" asks his lovely and patient older sister, beaming like someone who just won a house. "Three days!"

He is not even gone and already there is this great sadness settling over our home.

For three days, there will be no boy to torment his sisters. For three days, there will be no boy singing along with Taco Bell commercials or mimicking the way his sisters eat artichokes. For three entire days, their brother will be gone.

"I'm really going to miss him," his older sister says with a smirk.

"Me too," says the little red-haired girl, actually meaning what she says. Because her brother is a big pain sometimes, but he's the only brother she's got.

"I'll bring you a fish," the boy tells her, stuffing his fishing reel into the backpack. "Maybe a trout."

This makes the little girl feel better, that in a few days she might have some fresh trout, caught by her own brother with a piece of those Vienna sausages, the boy dangling the hook over some state-stocked trout stream in the Santa Barbara hills.

"And maybe a bass," he says, really on a roll.

Like his grandfather, the boy loves to fish. He's not very good at it yet, but he loves it.

I tell him how his grandfather used to head off to northern Wisconsin in search of walleye or even the mighty muskie, returning only when he had purchased enough cheese to fill the trunk of his car.

Swiss. Cheddar. Muenster. Great bars of cheese, stacked like gold in the trunk of his Pontiac. Sometimes, he'd even bring home a few fish. But it was the cheese he was famous for.

"Maybe I'll catch a muskie," the boy says.

"Yeah, maybe," I say.

He and his fellow Boy Scouts have their trip well mapped. It will take them through the Santa Ynez Valley, up past a junior college and then into the hills, crossing trout streams and passing places called Cachuma Saddle and Sunset Valley, where the Boy Scout leaders will teach them about rattlesnakes and poison oak and how to start a fire on a rainy morning.

For days, the boy has been packing for the trip. Like Tom Sawyer, he packs. First, the fish hooks, then the other stuff, organizing so that it will be weighted properly, the heavy stuff up close to the body, which is easier on the back muscles.

When he is done, he slings the backpack over his shoulders and parades around the house.

"You're not leaving yet," his big sister reminds him.

"I'm practicing," he says.

For nearly two days, he wears the backpack around the house--at meals, while watching TV, even when lying on the floor for a quick nap.

"I'm stuck," he says when he awakens from the nap. "I'm really stuck."

He wobbles on his back the way giant sea turtles do, unable to flip himself over and get to his feet.

At first, his sisters suspect it is another of his pranks, like when he gives them valentines.

They stand around him for a couple of minutes, poking him with their toes, making sure it's not some sort of ambush.

"I'm really stuck," he tells them.

"I think he's faking," his older sister warns.

"Somebody help me!" he yells.

By now the whole family has rushed to his side, not to help, but to stare down at him floundering on the floor, wondering if the wilderness is really ready for this.

"I'm worried about the wilderness," his mother says.

"The wilderness has been through a lot," I assure her.

"But not him," she says.

"The wilderness will be fine," I say.

The boy is laughing now, actually stuck on his back, but sort of enjoying it, especially the attention. Like most 12-year-olds, he thrives on attention.

And cash.

"We need to give him money," his mother says.

"Why?"

"For pizza," the boy says.

"There's no pizza in the wilderness," his older sister says. "Just wolves."

"Wolves?" asks the little red-haired girl.

"And trout," says the boy. "Giant trout."

"Here," I say, handing him 10 bucks. "Bring back some fish."

"What kind do you want?" he asks, stuffing the money into his T-shirt pocket.

"Cheddar," I say.

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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