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lutefisk memories from childhood


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lutefisk memories from childhood

Mosca | Apr 14, 2004 10:16 PM

I remember the first time my father took me lutefisking, when I was 8 years old. It was the opening day of lutefisk season in Western PA, Feb 11th 1963, lutefiskerfirstday.

I was trembling with excitement; I barely slept at all. We had spent the entire week before tying lutefisk flies and winding our reels with lutewire. I had my lutepole well oiled, and my father had his old BAR loaded with .30 cal tracer rounds.

At 4AM, my father knocked on my bedroom door; my brother and I jumped out of bed! We had slept in our long underwear and overalls, and all we had to do was wolf our breakfasts of grits and johnnycakes as we pulled on our coats and mittens and boots; we helped each other wrap our leggings, and we completed our ensembles with the traditional pink taffeta tutus and honking red clown noses... how we had yearned to don the ceremonial garb of the lutefiskerman, and now the time had finally come!

We carted our equipment and tackle down to Dad's Studebaker Lark wagon, and as Dad hooked up the jumper cables from the Country Squire to the Stude, my brother Jimmy and I secured the acetylene torches and the portable arc welder in the back. Finally the Stude clattered to life, and we drove the backroads to my uncle Aloysius' house. There he stood in his driveway, bald, the ugly red axe scar behind his left ear, holding his Lewis Gun, proudly alert in his pink tutu and clown nose and leggings... and as we drew closer we could see, through the thick cloud of cigar smoke, his rosy red cheek makeup, the mark of a Lutefiskerman First Order!

Aloysius crawled into the rear of the Studey and let out an ear-splitting whistle. Around the corner his lutefiskerdogs came running, Markie and Wilson. The two dogs were known around the patch as expert lutefiskerdogs, not unusual for AKC bred Yorkies; the ony better breed for lutefisking is the Basenji, and Basenji are notoriously skittish in the cold, so for Aloysius it was Yorkie all the way. Markie and Wilson (or Mark and Will, as we affectionately called them) had been raised from pups to go wild in the presence of lutefisk. I'd heard tales of Mark and Will jumping into the water and doing backflips as large schools of lutefisk swam near shore! (Later, a movie was supposedly made about Wilson, called "Good Will Hunting"; I haven't got up the nerve to see it, though, thinking about that little doggie always makes me cry.)

We drove down along the Mighty Monongahela River, laughing and singing lustily along to the radio as it played traditional lutefisk music; "O here we go a lutefisking", and "I love to go, a lutefisking" (these songs were later bastardized into "The Wassail Song" [whatever THAT is, probably something disgusting like spiced fruit and brandy] and the absurd "The Happy Wanderer" [yeah, dude, wander around with your knapsack all you want, you ain't got no lutefisk tho]). We finally got to Dad and Aloysius' secret lutefisking spot, down by the USSteel Clairton Works, where the water from the battery quenchers discharged into the river, next to where the slag barges were moored, where the heat from the acid kept the ice from forming at the outlet tube. It was bitter cold, no more than 8*, but we were so excited that it felt like midsummer. Jimmy almost tore his tutu on the door handle as he raced for the shoreline to set up his pole; Uncle Aloysius tossed his whiskey bottle into the ice and laughed maniacally as he discharged the BAR toward the river, and the tracer shells ricocheted among the barges in the pre-dawn darkness. It was magical. We felt the love, just like real family does.

My Dad and Jim yanked the arc welder and the torches from the car, and they started to work cutting up the nearest barge and welding the pieces into a lutefiskerform (the traditional platform on which all respectable lutefiskerman sit as they lutefisk). Im the gloaming across the river I saw a security guard point at us and shout something; Uncle Al let loose a whoop and a burst of .50 from the Lewis, and we were left alone and in blessed peace. I looked around me then, as the day slowly dawned, and marveled at the beauty of the spot where lutefisk gathered to frolic; the frozen rat carcasses, the globs of coal tar littering the river banks, the old tires and broken glass... I'd never seen such a pastoral marvel. It was like being inside one of those ten thousand piece jigsaw puzzles, you know the ones, with the paintings of the impossibly beautiful scenes from some imaginary world!

So then we hunkered down to lutefisking. Dad always said that if you want to catch a monster you can't use a minnow for bait, so we had tied lutefisk flies the size of bullfrogs, the size of rock cornish game hens (we'd read about those in Look magazine), the size of baseballs, some of the largest lutefiskflies I'd ever seen... until Uncle Al reached down into his pants and pulled out what looked to be a basketball, it was so big! He brought it over to us, giggling madly like the escaped mental patient that he was, and as he got closer we saw that it was a huge lutefly, or better said, luteFLIES! Uncle Al had spent the entire previous year sitting on his back porch staring at the insect strips dangling from the porch ceiling, and now we knew why! As the flies had become trapped by the sticky glue of the strip, Uncle Al had been carefully collecting them with tweezers and putting them in the crisper section of his old Crosley refrigerator, thereby keeping them nice and meaty, just for this day; and now, he had taken one of Aunt Marnie's stockings and carefully crafted an orb of fly carcasses, enmeshed in nylon, for our lutefiskefirstday!

We stared slackjawed as he jammed the lutelure over the barbs on the grappling hook. "Dis be how da pros do dis," he said sagely, with a raised eyebrow and a hiccup. Jim and I couldn't even speak, we were so in awe of the power of my uncle. Dad, meanwhile, was so proud, his boys lutefisking, with him, on lutefiskerfirstday! He opened his flask and took another long hit of whatever it was that made him so happy on those days that we could get him out of bed before 3 in the afternoon.

Uncle Aloysius finished securing the lutefiskeflyball to the grappling hook, and then hitched the hook to the wire rope with the 4-bolt clamp; he looked at it for a minute, then spat, and let out about 50 yards of slack from the winch next to the long metal lutepole holding the line. He took the lure over to the Stude, and jammed in inside the back window; then he rolled the window up until the wire was trapped inbetween the window and the frame. "Watch this,", my Dad whispered, quivering himself with excitement. "Al figgered this'n out all by hissef."

Al got in the Studebaker and put it in gear, and started driving sloooowwwwwwwly away from the river. As he drove, the slack came out of the line. He drove a little farther, and the lutefly came up snug against the back window of the Stude. He drove a little farther, and the lutepole started to bend. He drove a little farther, and the lutewire started to stretch. He drove a little farther, and the wire streeeeeeetched a little bit more, and my Dad started to snicker, and then started to laugh uncontrollably, because he knew what... BANGZZZZSZZZZIP! The back window BLEW out of the Stude, the pole snapped upright, the wire SHOT out across the frozen river, and the lutefiskefly went SOARING in a great big beautiful arc across the rising sun, landing right smack dab in the middle of the biggest ice floe on the mighty Monongahela, almost a hundred yards away!

Uncle Al staggered out of the car, laughing so hard I thought he was going to die, he was turning almost black with laughter then breathing in HUGE amounts of air with that asthmatic wheeze of his; my dad couldn't keep it anymore, he was crying and laughing and rolling on the ground. You'da thought both Uncle Al AND he were certifiably insane, and maybe they were, y'know, maybe they were; after all, they were lutefiskermen, teaching kids to be lutefiskermen!

"Oh aitch ee double hockey sticks, Aloysius, let's set up the artillery; you don't want these little minnows thinking that lutefisking is like a circus, do ya?" Dad said, as he reattached his rubber nose that had fallen off, and he and Uncle Aloysius set up the .50 Lewis gun and the BAR to wait. I started to say something, and the grownups SSSSSShhhh'd me, so we sat there and waited in the 8* cold dawn, in our tutus and clown noses and mittens, the glass from the back window of the Stude sparkling among the rat carcasses as the ice floes in the river moaned and groaned as they shifted. And we sat. And we sat. And we sat....

Suddenly Markie's ears perked up. Will started barking. I'd never seen them like that! They both were jumping up and down, turning in circles, whimpering, running up to the water and running back to us! Dad and Al looked at us, at the dogs, and then at each other. They smiled, and Al said, "You ready, Felton?" (My dad's name was Felton. He invented felt, and the past tense of the word "feel", but you probably figured that out from his name.) And Dad answered, "Shut up and lutefisk, Al..." and just then, the biggest... the biggest THING I ever saw, before or since, came SMASHING up through the ice! I had to invent the word LEVIATHAN to describe it! It was huge, and it was gray, and it quivered like jelly! It had thousands of tiny little bones all through it, and it had no eyes and no mouth, no discernable features at all, really! It lunged toward the lutefiskfly sitting on the ice floe!

I instinctively reached for the lutefiskpole, figuring to egg the monster on, then hook it and reel it in to us, thus capturing the first lutefisk of the season; but Uncle Al shoved me down and out of the way, as he and Dad opened fire on it. They raked the lutefiskeflesh mercilessly, the rounds whacking into it like bbs into jello, and pieces of lutefiskemeat tore off and littered the ice like in a bad slasher movie. A deafening roar rent the sky as the lutefisk flopped about, writhing, looking for safety. Suddenly I felt sick; this wasn't what I had expected! This wasn't sporting at all! The firing stopped, and the air was full of the smell of cordite and lutefiskeflesh. I wanted to run somewhere; I wanted to go home, to my bed and my dimestore comics, anywhere but this, this lutefiskekillingfield! I looked around; Jimmy was in the car, crying. I stood there, transfixed, as Dad and Uncle Al shouldered their weapons, and started moving towards the river with their lutefiskesacks, to harvest the rewards of their spree. My dad walked over and put his arm around me, and straightened out my tutu.

"So, son, now you know. Or, at least now you THINK you know." I looked at him. His eyes were watery, and glazed over. "Son, you think this is bad. But now... now we have to EAT it."

Mosca, veteran lutefiskerman

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