Group Of Pillocks?

Published: January 12th 2016
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And so a further year passes. Really?

Our Swiss landlords that were are not millionaires... yet. They returned from California's Palo Alto in December 2014 - their failed start-up jettisoned. It won't be their last. We handed back their abode that still retained the majority of its wine cellar, bade farewell to Wilson the cat, whom we still miss, and headed across town.

Our new home is, by State College standards, an ancient old dwelling: a cabin-like house whose spacious pine and spruce lined plot - complete with a multitude of squirrels (grey and red), chipmunks and rabbits, a groundhog and a skunk who vie for dominance of shed-side, and one witnessed (Ali really was sober) passing bear - belies its diminutive size and convenient proximity to town. Indeed it was built by our basement-dweller's grandfather.

Yes, we were also slightly unnerved to hear that we had a neighbour - living beneath us: his troglodyte man-cave spliced into our basement. More than that, he, John, is our landlady's student son. Surely this was a recipe for disaster...

A year on and, miraculously, that has proved not to be the case.

It was one hell of a winter, again. Whilst we were delighted to leave the house of eccentric (electricity-guzzling) heating and be snug in our quaint quirky new dwelling, a leisurely twenty minutes stroll from downtown, we did have to up our shoveling. Because snow it did, regularly and accumulatively, with great packed banks persisting through to spring. Worse was the ice rain that accompanied the wondrously named, but poorly received, Polar Vortex weather system. This, if not dealt with immediately - and few did - converted the sidewalks (pavements) into treacherous ice slides. The walk to university became a hazardous endeavour and one that necessitated walking in the middle of the well salted roads.

Occasionally we really were marooned but, regardless, John and I found endless excuses to sit up all night seeking dominance over the backgammon, dart and cribbage boards. And that was before we decided it a sensible (economical) plan to keep a keg of beer in the cellar. OK, so the co-inhabitant was a hepatic disaster, but in the nicest, most social of ways. Ali, bless her, tried her very best to keep us both in line. But in largely failing, joined us. It proved to be a rather warm winter.

With the ice still thick over Pennsylvania I was invited to participate in the bizarre practice that is ice fishing: boldly stroll (slide uncontrollably) out to the middle of a lake, take a monstrous drilling tool and penetrate twelve inches (hopefully) of said ice, excavate further, reveal your embarrassingly short rod (eighteen inches: really?), and dangle your bait into the hole (aperture to be maintained by periodic scooping with an ice ladle) whilst guzzling anything of sufficient degrees proof to avoid hypothermia. I survived, maybe because - socks on a polished wooden floor and too many revisits to the keg - I slipped, broke a couple of ribs, and really couldn't contemplate the shivering ordeal. Simon, my sensible sensible-temperature fishing companion, who was also due to partake, was later to relate that we'd almost been forced to "commit ice fishing". God help us. As I write this the lakes are once again solidifying and Kurt now through with ducks and salmon for the year (though excited at the onset of deer season) will expect a rather more robust showing from the Brits this winter.

However; slowly, too slowly, spring did finally push forth. And the still
Amish childrenAmish childrenAmish children

Photo taken by Michael Cooke
chill pastel blue skies of March saw Simon and myself begin on what was to be our first serious campaign targeting the carp of Pennsylvania. Not only that but we had been charged with blogging about our exploits for the carping magazine "CARPology". Although we were certainly novices (pretty incompetent ones at that) and the great expanses of water available to us unknown incredibly our blogs got hits, thousands of hits. Indeed if I total the sum views of my 35 missives to Travelblog (some eighteen thousand odd) they fall well short of those for our first "Carp Letter From America" submission. OK, so carp anglers will, seemingly, read anything. Nuff said.

It may have become apparent through my two previous PA blogs that this town isn't my (our) idea of paradise. That said, even the Americans haven't totally fracked up their wilderness just yet and being part of it makes you forgive a lot because it is still rather special.

Ali and I, Simon and I, Bells and Blanfords, Bells and visitors or friends (bless), have spent many weeks this year in woods, forests and fields, never far from the lakes and rivers in which our pursuits lurk. And we have had some success with almost fifty twenty pound-plus fish finding their way into our nets - obviously to be released unscathed. The UK carp-heads are much amused to see us utilising a padded baby's changing mat - complete with teddy bear motif - as a fish-friendly unhooking platform. Such a happy resolution is not necessarily guaranteed in the US for here you may also "fish" for the majestic carp by bow and arrow. Seriously. Simon and I are now part of a study group that is largely concerned with raising the status of the humble carp to that of other more revered American piscine species and, in so doing, educate the locals to appreciate the truly magnificent sporting fish that it is.

Oh, and in spending so long in them there woods, I managed to add to my tally of exotic maladies: Lyme disease - a deer tick borne virus that you do not want to ignore or untreat and one which is becoming ever more of an issue in less rugged locations. Indeed its prevalence in the UK has soared in recent years. Contract a strange target-like rash a week or so after having been in a rural setting, feel a bit flu-like with it, then get yourself to the docs and on some doxycycline as soon as because the long-term effects can be severe indeed.

Meanwhile Ali contracted shingles.

We did have the pleasure this year of hosting nephew no. 2, Michael, and his girlfriend Zoe as they embarked on a first backpacking venture to Central America: bastards. Young and naive, full of trepidation and expectation: oh, to be in their fledgling shoes once again. Why they wanted to squander two weeks of their limited three month travelling window in our company beat us. Nevertheless, we fed them up, imparted as much backpackerly wisdom as we were able (dental floss is your best friend), taught them some essential skills (Shithead and Yaniv) and several of lesser import (shooting a recurved Mongolian bow, kayaking and... carping) before sending them onwards.

Unfortunately we'll not be following their trail for at least another year. Ali continues to educate the caring profession and I to stumble through mine: our stasis the result of attempting to balance yearning with earning.

Late summer saw an old nursing friend of Ali's, Diane, visit from bonny Scotland. Ever indulgent I reasoned that a few days away in the countryside would be just what our guest needed to unwind. The forecast was, afterall, for unseasonably great weather and, regardless, we'd rent a cabin. Hell, we'd even take wine and invite some other guests.

On arrival the girls were mightily impressed that the cabin did indeed represent more than a decrepit shack... with a roofed veranda overlooking the lake no less. Plus there was electricity, beds, lights and even a spanking shower block within walking distance.

Unpacked and with a wood pile for the firepit assembled the hammocks were rapidly hung, the girls entrenched and provisioned with chilled sauvignon. Thus I donned my swimmers and set about clearing some fishable swims, a process that resulted in great bankside mounds of vegetation. The first rod was cast and before I could refill the girls' glasses, much less consider a hoppy one for myself, it was away. Shortly thereafter a chunky twenty four pound common carp lay glinting on the unhooking mat. This was one o’clock in the afternoon. An unheard of capture as my last visit with Simon had produced almost nothing through the
middle of the day. This time though, the carp continued to buck the trend. By the time John arrived that evening another three big doubles had been netted. John is, I should remind you, an American. A good version of the kind it has to be said but one nevertheless afflicted with the desire for vertically challenged rods. He produced an array of 4ft toothpicks, which he seriously considered using. Fortunately for me he came bearing other gifts: a case and a half of serious IPA. I greeted him warmly.

Dusk descended, the barbeque sizzled and Ali called for us to come and eat. As if this was a signal one of our bite alarms screeched. Mid-play I had a snap-off: not the line, the rod. It had seen the dark side of a moving 4x4’s tyres a while back and apart from the rings being a bit mangled no other damage had previously been apparent. Not correct. Picking out carbon shrapnel from my chest hairs, I found that hand-lining a sixteen pounder was interesting, and painful, and not to be recommended.

By the time Ali and Di had retired and the fire had ebbed low
another seven fish including a twenty for John (not on one of his rods, thankfully) had graced the bank. John and I continued to chat and booze through the night interrupted at regular intervals by a further four portly carp and two untargeted catfish. John departed early the next morning for somewhere more civilized and I promptly retired to bed.

Emerging at three that afternoon with the heady aroma of a full English egging me on I had my rigs back in and fishing in a short space of time. Once again, as if the fish had been waiting, I had an instant run, a slogging battle and was eventually joined by a majestic pale slab of gold. At just over thirty-one pounds my best of the season.

A few hours later an almighty unsighted splash jolted me from my reverie. As I mused on what a monstrous-sized beast it must have been Ali reappeared with a bedraggled Di who had - in her alcoholled haze - toppled in off the jetty.

The other catching continued and after another eight fish including a twenty by twilight I was persuaded to be sociable, reeled in and set about losing my clothes to the women folk at cards.

Waking with a jolt the next morning I was quickly down to the dewy bank. The sun was still climbing through the mustard coloured trees and the mist steamed low on the lake's granite surface. The odd string of bubbles percolated up from behind the lilly pads and a merganser was ahead of me, already busy fishing. It was an idyllic start to the day.

Simon was due to arrive around lunchtime and I was keen to further fill my boots before having to play nicely. Although there were signs of fish in the vicinity they stubbornly refused to get their heads down. Several pounds of seed/corn mix were introduced as the sky clouded and what was to become a persistent drizzle fell. The mildly inclement weather was forgiven because the feeding switch had been flipped. A dark, deep, twenty-seven pounder was followed by two smaller brethren and then, as Simon's car drew up, another twenty lay eyeing me on the unhooking mat.

Simon approached cradling a new stock of beer. I greeted him warmly. "Been catching?" inquired Simon. "I think you're going to have fun,"
Banjo or hand gun?Banjo or hand gun?Banjo or hand gun?

Photo taken by Michael Cooke
I replied.

And the catching continued at a ridiculous rate. Sixteen more fish came to the bank with a further three twenties topped by a twenty-five Simon snaffled on a float ledger – a tactic used in an attempt to defy the weed. Darkness fell and I, exhausted, toddled off to bed. Simon stayed up but needn’t have bothered. A cooler night saw nothing happening until four in the morning when two doubles came his way. By six I was up again and fortuitously continued from where I'd left off picking up a further four fish including yet another twenty.

Simon, to his great annoyance given the number of fish feeding, had a series of runs all of which popped the hook after brief pressure. Still this was a vanishingly minor blip at the end of an otherwise incredible session.

Fifty-one fish had been landed of which well over half were better than fifteen pounds, ten were over twenty pounds and all were topped by that type specimen of a common carp at thirty-one pounds. We knew that carping in the States could be prolific but this was something special.

Whilst I constantly deride
the United States - well, Pennsylvania in particular - as being antiquated, insular, self-focused and just plain ignorant of pertinent matters, I do feel compelled occasionally to relate certain Americana that overwhelms me on a quite different level. Ali is now, predominantly, looking after a young woman with special needs and they spend a lot of their days together at the gym, swimming, and volunteering in ways that her charge is able. Of course they are extremely recognisable by other users of these facilities and as thanksgiving drew close Ali was, on numerous occasions, approached by members of the public who inquired as to what agency she works for and does it accept donations. Why? Because at this time of year they, being privileged in their own lives, want to give to a deserving cause. And they do. Americans certainly are strange, but there are many with very big hearts.

Strange indeed. The three front runners for the GOP's (apparently the "Grand Old Party", although I prefer "Group Of Pillocks") presidential nomination are a thieving xenophobic egotist, another bigot but with better Barnet, and an only slightly less distasteful religious nut with a dodgy recollection of his past. One (of many) Republican views I dispare at is gun control laws and yet.... We were recently at a party where, in its latter barely pre-dawn stages, we got chatting to a spinal surgeon who duly invited us to go shooting with him, target shooting mind, but with a couple of his own AK-47s. Sadly, hypocritically, we'll be taking him up on the offer.

And whilst I'm reminded of that party... and American weirdness... Our hostess, the mini dynamo, cycling supremo, Vicki, elaborated on an aspect of her lucrative job selling surgical equipment. Apparently she is required to actually be present in operating theatres during operations. Why? To provide advice and guidance on the appropriate selection and best usage of said brackets, clamps, drills and screws. "No, not the six inch you baffoon". And indeed how many other reps must also be present debating procedure and berating the surgical team? I seem to remember an article in Time Magazine stating that something like 50% of all US operations manage to incorporate a cock-up; although not to worry, most are non-terminal.

Oh, since my return to these - and here I quote Eminem - "divided States of embarrassment" there has been an addition to our annual medical insurance questionaire: "Are you a smoker?" An answer of "yes" inflicts a serious immediate surcharge to your monthly contribution. Well, that was in year one. Year two saw an alternative option to "yes" or "no", that being "I refuse to answer that question". Provide the latter response and no additional premium will -supposedly - be charged. Obviously there were some dodgy legal issues here. Why no one recognises the fact that smokers die earlier, thereby saving a bundle for MediCare (pensioners health coverage that you contribute to throughout your working life), or the fact that smokers also pay huge tobacco taxes to fund their imminent demise, grates on me. Personally I don't see why they are not equally targeting obese individuals (again, mostly, a self-choice deathwish) or, for that matter, sugar-addicts for this liability payment. All that being the case, all the smokers I know still - through fear of possible repercussions - answer "no" and where will this lead in terms of informed medical practice?

Not a smoker given his supreme fitness, Ali has a new admirer. This septegenarian's sculpted physique is quite something to behold so I'm told and he cuts a dashing figure in his mini speedos... He's a swimmer. And he has already stated that had she been single then he would have hit on her: the cunning old devil obviously has an attritional plan. This brings me back to something else positive (hurrah) about our environ because, like Ali, he regularly works out at the "Y" (YMCA). And whereas fishing helps to keep me sane in this dull town, in addition to running, Ali tempers the boredom by swimming and spinning at the "Y". Ali raves about the "Y". It is a community in its own right with delightful staff and patrons alike. And then there's Josh: another super fit - though in this case very young - man who has taken it upon himself to run with Ali's wheelchair-bound charge (in a made-for-purpose chair). So, Ali gets to partake in fun runs - and she is no slouch - whilst he pushes our friend as he runs.... and he still clocks 7 minute miles. They are all starting a training regime for next year's Boston marathon.

The Summer also saw us house/dog-sitting for a month. The house in question is a gem: isolated part way up a forested fold in the upper Appallacians amidst a good few, mostly wild, acres of land complete with pool and hot tub. It belongs to my boss. All we had to do was look after the dog, maintain the pool, cut the grass and keep the place tidy. Bucolic bliss; what could possibly go wrong? Even the grass maintainence should be fun as this was to be performed with the aid of a vast industrial ride-on mower, a mower than can maybe hit 8mph and can, once the operating levers are mastered, turn on a sixpence. On the second morning I was checking for frogs in the pool's filtration reservoirs - catch them early and the poor souls don't drown. You just need to be wary of similarly trapped snakes. Oeeerrr, the flow rate was almost non-existent. That called for a back-flush. Mid-performance the pump died and there was no coaxing it back to life. This wasn't a great start but phone calls, text messages and pool-people visitations led to hopeful repairs. The transiency of said repairs necessitated a re-run of panicked communications and ultimately a new pump. Well, at least it was sorted. Time to cut the grass. No, I did not run over the Jack Russel; although the possibility had occurred to me and she was kept inside during proceedings. The first cutting that, once all the lawns, glades and meandering corridors through waist-high wilderness had been completed, took a not inconsiderable seven hours and was masterful. As a novice on the beast I had been extremely careful. Predictably with each successive mow my confidence, ability and speed of motility increased. Finally the boss was due to return and I decided that one last trim was in order. No, the Jack Russel did not get minced. However, with my new found boldness I attempted to mow a rather unkempt and, with hindsight, rather steep-sided ditch on the edge of the property. A misjudgement and subsequent rash overcompensation on the controls found the tank straddling said ditch, me on all-fours assessing potential damage to its nether regions and then sickly contemplating my next move. Could I get a bunch of friends round and attempt to carry it out? At that moment a neighbour passed by on the shared lane, a neighbour in a hulking 4x4. Introductions and explanations made he kindly offered to help me and
on the third attempt, after snapping two tow ropes, finally out it slid: free from damage. On the boss's return I did - finally - come clean. At least it wasn't the dog...

Late summer also saw an increase in our household's numbers with an additional subterranean student joining our fold. Like his friend, Jake is a drunken pleasure whilst also being the font of all cinematic knowledge. Obviously we warmed to him immediately when he announced that he'd only ever watched the British version of The Office...

Over Christmas at their family's hunting cabin John's father nabbed a deer (with a crossbow - cheating according to John) so venison is becoming a common addition to the house's menu. Indeed John recently made me a bow, although I'll not be pointing it at any wildlife. In fact standard (prudent) protocol is to stand some ten yards directly behind me when it is in use.

And that pretty much brings us to the present. Finally, after two years of endurance, we get to exit the States in February for a much needed break back in the UK. Of course getting back in will require a new visa and all the joys obtaining one entails. No doubt - if we are readmitted - this year will see further fishing exploits, although we also have plans for a mega road trip across the whole continent and back (all the way to Oregon and Washington State), before a rather more leisurely sojourn with friends next Christmas in St. Kitts.

It hasn't been a year of wild highs, but it has served a purpose. 2016 is election year here and that, given the current circus, should add to the amusement...

Additional photos below
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13th January 2016

Thanks for the update...
My father in law was a Pennsylvanian fisherman...I'm being redundant as to be the first means you are also the second. I'm pleased to hear that your views of Americans in general and Pennsylvanians specifically is warming up. Give you another year and soon you will want to become a citizen!

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