The year sense & sensibility forgot

Published: March 7th 2017
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A brutally crisp Sunday morning in early January was greeted with a phone call from Kurt - surely I fancied some ice fishing? Hardly enthusiastic, but half asleep, I had no excuse to hand. An hour later saw us skirting Bald Eagle State Park, the lake’s surface dotted with micro-tented communities of similarly twisted individuals. Following Kurt’s lead we – tentatively on my part - skated out to our target spot. The ice held and the obscenely large auger was deployed to seek liquid water. Beneath us the pan fish gave up their lives in moderate number, although not with enough enthusiasm to provide the envisaged feast. Thus with the beers consumed Kurt returned for a solo fry up whilst I merely retired to a hot bath.

A few weeks later he offered up an alternative sporting venture: their pool team required an extra player. This was a far more appealing proposition and presumably one that was less imminently life threatening. Sharky’s bar and pool hall is a locals’ haunt and a very friendly one at that. A dimly lit ground floor and smoky basement harbor illuminated oases around which hover the teams, some twenty four in total. And this is a serious endeavour with individual and team rankings evolving week-on-week alongside corresponding handicaps, and, ultimately, weighty prizes. Our intrepid team of four was completed by tobacco-chewing captain Bob and aluminium cue equipped Troy. Serious it is, but that didn’t stop our – apparently traditional – shot of whiskey, additional to on-going drinks, following every frame. We didn’t win the league but we did finish a creditable seventh and I was personally chuffed with my own 69% win ratio.

Late February necessitated a return to Blighty for a visa run. Catching up with family and friends these are of course – visit to the US Embassy aside - a pleasure, but they are also exhausting. A semi-circumnavigation of mainland Britain saw us arrive in London, head northeast to Suffolk, return briefly to London for the visas, then onto Stroud, Cornwall, Manchester, Leeds, central Scotland, Manchester again before a last minute dash back to London to fly out: phew. It was fantastic to see Phoebs and to meet Scarlet, Bryony whom we last saw in Queensland long before she had even considered becoming a veterinarian, Wills (Compo) and Clare at their wonderful if money-guzzling historical new home, JP, Tim and families, the Douglases, Di, and… the massed ranks of our families. However, it was, as always, disappointing to miss out on seeing a whole bunch of other dear friends that time simply didn’t allow us to meet up with.

Re-entry to the States – and this was still Obama time - saw us facing an additional screening post-immigration. My Ali-G stolen questioning of this nonsense: “Is it coz I is black?” was met without mirth. And I have repeatedly told Ali – the attention seeking minx that she is - not to burka-up just for effect on these re-admittances. Fortunately though this time she didn’t, in addition, have a string of illicit black puddings strapped around her waist.

Spring in Pennsylvania inevitably saw us descending, like Trumpites (all 100 billion of them) to a clan meeting presidential primary, to clear the supermarkets of sweetcorn and budget birdseed: fishing season beckoned. We were assured that this was very good sweetcorn, the very best sweetcorn, that bad sweetcorn would soon no longer persist in this (obviously not our) fair country and that, indeed, the birdseed would forever hence be free from unwanted foreign impediments… No. Of course all of the latter is crap, twisted nonsense twaddle. There again, as we are told here these days, maybe those statements were simply “alternative facts”. However, I get ahead of myself….

Whilst the little handed orange boy child with candy flossed hair whined like a bitch and insulted two thirds of the populace (here I personally apologize for any offense I may have caused to those with conditions that manifest in diminished- sized limbs or tangerine coloured skins; oh, and to female dogs) we did actually try to get on with our lives. Yeah, we went fishing.

The first real outing saw Ali and I hit a new venue: a lake with bankside camping. It didn’t disappoint, although the best of the weekend at 29lb was to stubbornly remain my biggest of the season. Hell, given our (Simon and my) lack of commitment this year we didn’t do that badly: more big twenties than ever before, but, for the first time in two years, no thirties; and in a year when our State record was broken with a mighty 54lb beast… Anyone would think we were amateurs…

Indeed Ali herself has been known to wet a line. Admittedly certain climatic conditions need to be met for such an eventuality. If a bikini can be worn then a rod can be cast. Her PB may be a modest sixteen pounds, but she specialises in catching those of an edible size. And on this point we are all agreed: those eastern Europeans know a thing or two - these carp really are rather good to eat; plus John is a jolly fine filleter. On other occasions Ali’s angling participation has been less of a personal choice, and here I’m reminded of her and Mrs. Simons’ article in Carpology’s July edition of Carp Letter from America 2.

“”You might remember from May’s missive that the first trip of the season to The Other Lake found the carp carnally occupied with a distinct disinterest in feeding. Nonplused the Simons departed leaving the Andys to the dubious buzzer-free silence. Several hours later a restless Andy decided to kayak over to the spawning grounds and snap some pictures for the blog. “Don’t worry about the rods” he assured, “if one goes off it’ll be a miracle”. Away he paddled and back to her book went Mrs. Andy. Ten minutes later a solitary bleep. Mrs. Andy sat up and eyed the offending buzzer suspiciously. Thankfully nothing materialized. She lay down again just as the constant screech initiated. Jumping up she reached the rod and tightened the clutch (rather pleased with herself for having remembered this little necessity); she raised the rod and felt the fish pulling firmly. It was big. Where was the net? Ha, she’d have it played, landed, unhooked, weighed and sacked all before his return. Back in her chair she’d nonchalantly bring his attention to the rather full sack and enquire if he could take some photos of her fish …. a big fish. It was all going swimmingly, until the fish began to power towards the lilies. Too late, it was among them. Then another bleep that quickly became a series of bleeps. The fish was nowhere near the other lines. Oh surely not, another frigging fish. The first was stuck. What to do? Loosen the clutch, put the first rod back on its rests and grab the other offender. Christ! This fish had panned right and crossed the third line whose buzzer was now adding to the mayhem. She thought of crying out, maybe another camper could come to her rescue, offer some advice? Mrs. Andy pulled herself together and tightened into the second fish, it too was now deep in the pads. However, several hundred yards away an orange kayak – Andy – was approaching. She waved furiously with her free arm, but he was oblivious scouring distant bays for signs of activity when all the bloody activity was here, the numpty. At a loss she loosened the other two clutches, replaced the rods and sought out a beer from the cooler - bloody miracle indeed.””

Fishing stress aside Ali was busy improving her times at the running club whilst my poor old decrepit knee was enabling anything but with some visible marble-sized body flitting around and periodically darting inside to jam-up the joint. Yes, a third knee operation was called for to remove said shrapnel. Apparently the procedure went without a hitch, it was a total success. That was until the bugger miraculously returned. I was a tad pissed when the surgeon – finally, with much evidence-based prompting – admitted that what he had removed obviously wasn’t what he’d gone in there for (did I still have two kidneys?)… And that yet another op would be required. There would be no charge for this. No charge, he was lucky I wasn’t suing his incompetent arse.

On the 23rd of June Simon and I set off on an all-nighter. It was a day that slowly, unseasonably and grimly given the dearth of fish to keep us busy, developed into a very chilly night. Regardless, Simon, even with his comfy bed-chair, wasn’t sleeping. He was glued to his phone following the returning counts, his mood darkening by the hour. And sure enough some time pre-dawn we were informed that the UK (OK, England and Wales) had gone quite mad: we would be leaving the European Union. That, to us, seemed rather foolish.

Di, bless her heart, came out to see us in September with the usual drunken results. She was closely followed by a flying visit from one of Ali's oldest friends (i.e. from her school days when teachers wore mortar boards and the girls regulation knickers) Carole, and her youngest George.

The same month saw us succumb to age-demanded colonoscopies. Our respective spelunkers reported that neither dark zone nurtured anything untoward and indeed I was personally informed that rarely have they encountered a passage in such pristine condition.

We also had a weekend away with friends at their rather grand cabin in some remote corner of the State. This is idyllically situated on a grassy glade in woodlands, encircled by a shallow brook. Amidst the peace, relaxation and now chillier nights spent round the fire pit, we went for a bracing walk up a nearby fold in the Appalachians. On the descent one of our number stumbled over a boulder dislocating her toe (that she adamantly refused to let Ali realign) and I was commandeered as pack mule, a duty that nearly killed me.

Not satisfied with the hike’s effect on my heart our hosts subsequently thought it a fine idea to let Ali loose with an assault rifle. Rattling through a whole magazine in a couple of seconds Ali rapidly learned not to keep her finger on the trigger. It does have to be said though that she isn’t a bad shot, the body-shaped target receiving such a strafing that the yellow straw wig (added for inspiration) had disintegrated even before she reloaded.

2016 was – and here I’m sure her majesty would concur, even without her house burning down – an annus horribilis. There were notable individual deaths: Muhammad Ali, Bowie, Castro, Peres, Cruyff, Howard Marks, Wogan, Corbett (the latter two dear to, and indeed probably only known to, us Brits and Irish), Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden, god bless her curlers – OK, here you not only have to be a Brit but also one of a certain age).

We had, as already mentioned, initiated our retreat from Europe; one that I suspect will end only marginally better than Napoleon’s from Moscow. And then just when you thought it could get no bleaker, it did. From the perspective of mankind, the grimmest event of all: we had the ascent of the bigoted ghoul that terminated in an American president-elect that the rest of the world (and most of America) thought/thinks a mere sick joke.

And so on a rather more upbeat genteel note the end of the year saw us heading to the Caribbean to stay with our long suffering friends, Mark and Anke (they of our old bolt-hole in Kuala Lumpur), on St. Kitts. This island is, it has to be said, not a backpackers’ destination having little (more likely no) budget accommodation being, locals aside, inhabited only by working expats (most associated with the university or vet school) and graced by fleeting visits from cruise liner passengers. It is however a charming little drumstick-shaped island, lush and green with two very different coasts, the sea’s nature – wild on the north (beautiful rollers, but serious undertows), docile on the south - dependent on its abutting ocean. Regardless, the beaches are picturesque with fine sands (pale in the east, volcanic black in the west) and are mostly deserted - the rich hoards (mainly interested in the duty free enclaves), descending for but a few hours twice a week, are easily avoided.

Our friends were living in a rather swanky two-story penthouse apartment with their balcony overlooking the surf crashing on north Frigate Bay, its namesake birds hanging lazily high above with their faces into the stiff constant seasonal wind. Our first full day saw Ali and I playing tag with the kids. Dodging a swipe I sprinted forward, a maneuver that was accompanied by an inaudible twang that left me crumpled on the ground clutching the back of my thigh. A few minutes later, now able to hobble onto my feet, I discovered that my right lateral hamstring tendon was no more. A torn hamstring… Presumably the tendon was still attached but now simply slack given the muscle tear? It seemed the next few weeks would be rather more sedate than initially planned.

Of course we ate very well at the hands of Mark; discovered that because we had onward tickets we could buy wine – in seemingly limitless supplies - from the duty free shops; Louie soon had us experts at Top Trumps; and most days saw us at some point splashing around (gingerly myself) in the sea. We drove around the entirety of the island and discovered a great ramshackle eatery at Dieppe on its northern tip where Mugsie cooks up his catch of the day. A note here: garfish (delicious) have turquoise bones…

Basseterre, the Capital, is understated (away from the liner harbor/duty-free bazar) with predominantly low-rise pastel painted wooden dwellings, several reasonably priced local-targeted restaurants, hole-in-the-wall boozers, a couple of old colonial churches, and an abundance of local characters. There are, of course, more tourist directed establishments but we didn’t investigate those. I say understated, around New Year carnival starts and the locals certainly enjoy themselves. We didn’t –sadly - make the big debauched day that starts pre-dawn and continues until the revelers are spent, but what we did see of it was a colourful event. Apparently St Kitts is not the safest of islands: when our friends arrived it boasted some crazy statistic in terms of murders per capita. That certainly never seemed realistic to us: the locals were friendly, inquisitive and engaging; the whole island simply exuding a chilled and laid back air.

Carib is the local beer as it is on most of the Eastern Isles. It isn’t a great beverage but it does the job. Most places will charge you 5 EC (Eastern Caribbean dollars) or 2 US dollars for a bottle (the former being the chosen currency as the exchange rate is pretty fixed at 2.7:1 - banks or locals will happily swap). There again if you’re around for a while, and we were, 24 bottles can be bought from the brewery for 52 EC that works out at a far more thirst quenching 80c or so per bottle.

“The strip” on south Frigate bay – soft sand leading to a calm gently shelving sea - comprises low key eateries and rum shacks right on the beach. Ah, rum shacks, now we are starting to talk alcohol – the ubiquitous rum punches are dynamite. These are typically run by Rasta, who invariably appear to be hard-working, welcoming, family-orientated individuals. Don’t expect them to share their personal joint with you though as this, apparently, is a big no-no. Kindly and affable they may well roll one for you if you ask nicely and a discrete tip would then not be unwelcome. But, Rasta do not sell ‘erb. Anyway, each shack has its own subtle variation on a rum punch. The best include two rums (a base and a golden – stronger – topper), the fruit punch itself (a passion fruit base is particularly good), bitters, an extra squeeze of lime and then the crowning grating of nutmeg. Reggae on Cockleshell bay (a good spot for some snorkeling: we harvested a dozen sea urchins - from among the many hundreds present - whose gonads made for an excellent pasta sauce) at the southern tip of the island knock up a mean one, although maybe the ultimate is served up by Morsi at his shack on South Friars bay. The latter is particularly true if you happen to luck out and he has a vat of pre-prepared super-strength going begging, such a concoction being used as a first drink to wow – and retain – passing cruise liner clientele. Indeed Morsi is also a dab hand in the kitchen. He runs the place by himself although he may be helped out by his daughter or a friend named – unimaginatively – Rasta. Morsi will also set up a tent for you (he only has one) on his stretch of beach and thus we stayed there one night which made for spectacular star gazing - just us, Morsi’s playful American pitbull Dynamite and an endless succession of rum punches: heaven.

Meanwhile poor little Lola had come down with some strange flu-like bug.... that she kindly passed on to me.

On leaving St. Kitts we had a rather long stop over in Puerto Rico. This was fortuitous as we very much wanted to at least visit San Juan, although - as it turned out - it was not as pleasant as we had hoped: I felt like crap. Nevertheless (with the aid of a delightful lady at the airport's hotel who stored our rucksacks - for free: she was simply delighted we wanted to go see) we did make it into town (there's a good local - very cheap - bus service) and manged to have a decent wander (very pretty cobbled streets in the old quarter), grab a few cocktails and even consume mofongo (a local speciality somewhat akin to a savory steamed pudding, but one whose "crust" is made from green bananas... or plantains?).

Many, many, thanks to Mark, Anke, Lou and Lo for looking after us. It was particularly special to catch up again with the youngsters. Oh, and to meet the newest member of the family, adopted island dog Juno - even if she is blessed with a gift for attracting ticks.

And so we arrived at 2017. Surely this could only be better than its predecessor? Hmmm, cue Trump’s inauguration – the inspired directives - and my university cautioning against anyone (anyone), even us pallid European Caucasians, debating a trip abroad. Well, Ali goes home for a visit this Spring; you can only hope that Trump ups the ante…

On a last cheery note: Oklahoma, once one of the most seismically docile of US states, now has more earthquakes than California (623 greater than 3 on the Richter scale in 2016): god-bless fracking… We, here in Pennsylvania, now also in the fracking business, have recently had our first. Here’s to many more….

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12th March 2017
An early season large twenty

Fishing stories
I have noticed in some of your blogs Andy that your skill with the rod is legendary. What a whopper! Do you have legendary stories of ones that have got away?
13th March 2017
An early season large twenty

Ones that got away...
Hi Dave, only too many unfortunately - although you rarely see the big fellas for the first ten minutes of the fight and most of the stories relate merely to the amount of line stripped/force felt before the loss... That said, all we catch here (up to mid-30lbers) are babies compared to some of those in Europe (up to 100lb+) and other US states (US record broken several months ago in California at 64lb). Cheers, Andy

Tot: 3.284s; Tpl: 0.177s; cc: 13; qc: 26; dbt: 0.0821s; 3; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb