An Eye for an Eye : Fly Vest

An Eye for an Eye

by Capt. Jim Barr on 02/03/20

You may recall in an earlier newsletter I included an article about a practical joke my father played on one of his dearest friends, who like my father, was an avid angler and who worked for my dad in the late 50’s at a paper company in upstate New York. The story was about how my dad and I came upon a large snapping turtle while we were largemouth bass fishing in Fish Creek near Saratoga Springs and how my father instructed me to lasso this beast, bring it back to the house, whereupon he painted his buddies name on the shell, then had me release the turtle a few days later in the same scummy water we found it, only to “discover” it a year later when he surreptitiously took that same friend to the creek in hopes of finding the monogrammed beast. Johnny Haren practically fell out of the boat when he saw his name emblazoned on the turtle's back. To say my father was a practical joker would be an understatement.

Prior to moving to New York, we lived in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. At the time I was about seven years old and my father was an aspiring young executive. My parents would frequently host neighborhood parties where I’m told the liquor flowed on the heavy-ish side, and for the formal parties the men wore suits and their wives or dates wore cocktail dresses.  In preparation for one of those parties my father removed a couple of rather elegant martini glasses from the china cabinet and took them to a jeweler and had the jeweler drill a very small hole just below the rim of each glass (I still have one of those glasses!). At one of the parties, as the evening progressed and the guests became increasingly inebriated, my father would single-out one of the ladies whose husband or date, as the case may be, would go along with the gag. The ideal target was a gal wearing a fairly open-topped dress and who was “well on her way”. Dad would slide into the conversation, make note that her martini was nearly empty and offer to build her a fresh drink. Into the kitchen my father would slither to mix a fresh martini in the altered glass and return to his guest making sure he handed her the glass with the small hole perfectly aligned so that when she sipped the martini, a small amount of the liquid would dribble onto her chin, and then onto her dress. Of course he was immediately at the ready with his handkerchief to assist her with mopping up. She would pardon herself for being sloppy and in short order take another sip, with the same result. Each time my father would take her glass so she could finish tidying up, and then replace the glass into her hand properly oriented for another trickle. When I replay this twisted gag in my mind’s eye, all I can think of is it would have been a perfect Benny Hill burlesque segment!  

My father was a practical joker extraordinaire. So, you may be asking yourself where is this story going and does it have anything to do with fishing, after all this is the Skinny Water Charters newsletter, right?  Please bear with me.

At several of the paper companies that my father worked for in the early years of his career, he was the operations manager and as such had responsibility for production, profitability, quality, human resources, and worker safety. I can recall when I was a little kid, oftentimes he would bring me to the plant on a Saturday morning and I would accompany him on production floor walk-throughs . He would inspect the machines to make sure they were operating correctly, he’d examine the paperboard or folding cartons to make sure the colors were right and the folds exact. He would always shake the hands of the machine operators and tell them they were doing a good job and he would make sure they were wearing their safety glasses. Whenever he spotted an operator who was not wearing his safety glasses, he would turn away and pull from his pocket a glass prosthetic eye and screw it into his eye and squint to hold it in place, come up behind the operator and tap him on the shoulder and give him the Marty Feldman ( freaky eye look. The operator would look in horror and my father would proceed to give the guy a lecture on the importance of wearing his safety glasses to avoid a catastrophic injury. My father always carried that glass eye on those plant tours and many years later, gave it to me along with a bunch of other weird stuff, including the martini glasses.

So, fast backwards a bunch of years to sometime in the late 1980’s. I’ve been invited on a fly fishing trip to a remote lodge in the Quebec wilderness with a good friend and four other guys I knew pretty well as we had all fished together a bunch of times in the Cape Cod trout ponds. Like me, these guys were hard-core fly fishers, loved a good time, were free spirits, loved being in the woods and on boats and a enjoyed a good joke, and for the most part could handle themselves should ever a problem arise… perfect companions for a week of fly fishing at a very remote fly-in lodge on Lac De La Robe Noire. We leased a huge van that with careful packing could carry all of us, our fishing equipment and baggage. The driving portion of the trip was a herculean seventeen hour, one thousand mile push to get to the float plane base at Havre-Sainte-Pierre, Quebec.

The flight into the lodge was via a de Havilland Beaver, the preferred aircraft of bush pilots servicing remote locations in the Canadian north. With a short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability, this beast powered by a Pratt & Whitney radial engine had a cruising speed of 140 mph with a useful payload of 2,100 lbs. and in our case, two 55 gallon drums of gasoline for the lodge’s generator and outboard motors (as far as I was concerned we were a flying bomb). I could see it, on the front page of Le Journal de Quebec…

“Fishing Vacation Turns Tragic…a Bush pilot of a 1950’s era de Haviland Beaver aircraft experienced engine problems on a flight into a remote fishing lodge in Northern Quebec. Despite being able to safely land in a small clearing, a spark ignited 416 liters of 89 octane.”  

The Beaver is the perfect platform for flying into wilderness lakes, most of which are quite small and teeming with native brook trout, our target species. The flight in was quick and uneventful and because we were at a fairly low level we were able to get a good look at the numerous lakes and rivers and the absolute wilderness below, but the plane vibrated considerably, was noisy and a bit unsettling. In those days, navigation did not include the luxury of Ground Positioning Satellites (GPS), but was a matter of setting a compass course to the target lake, adjusting for wind direction and speed, and the whole time basically dead reckoning via a network of familiar lakes and hills from having taken innumerable trips into the lodge.

We landed without incident and proceeded to have a wonderful week of brook trout catching, spectacular boat rides to fertile waters, great food by the very capable camp chefs, lots of cocktails, sound sleeps, numerous stories and laughter, while nearly contracting blood poisoning from untold bottles of DEET required to keep from getting eaten alive by black flies In the evenings following dinner when we really got to laughing and carrying on with the camp staff joining in (most who couldn’t speak much English), I would look away from the group and insert my father’s glass eye which I brought along for the trip. No one ever got tired of dumb glass eye antics and lousy jokes (some of which were only humorous when I resorted to the Marty Feldman goofy eye look).

After five days of fishing, the morning came for our planned departure, however the weather had turned rainy with a low cloud ceiling accompanied by a very heavy fog. The camp manager broke the news that he had received word via radio from the float plane base that we would have to stay another night, that with essentially no visibility conditions were too dangerous to fly. The following morning the fog had mostly lifted with breaks in the low clouds, enough so that we would be able to leave. The Beaver arrived a bit late due to having to navigate around cloud cover, but we were able to load our gear and bid adieu to our new friends, and our little piece of perfect wilderness… or so we thought.

I sat in the co-pilot’s seat enjoying the ride from an entirely different perspective, and following about thirty miles into the flight, watched the dry windshield become wet and the clear sky ahead, turn to fog. The pilot adjusted the controls and lowered our elevation clearing the heaviest of the fog. He reached behind my seat for a topographical map that he used to attempt pinpointing our location. He banked the plane to the left- looked out his open window to the area below, then turned to the right, each time simultaneously studing the map. Without my asking, it became apparent he was looking for a lake on which to land. In broken English he announced to the guys what was already obvious to me, we had an unscheduled landing coming up with no word of how long we’d be delayed. (I was already wondering if he stowed any sleeping bags and food- this could be an overnight stay or perhaps even longer.)

In fairly short order he spotted a lake where we could possibly land. He made a few more turns to confirm wind direction and speed, cross referenced his topo map, dropped elevation again, radioed our location and plan to the float plane base, and took a final low level look at the stretch of water that was to be our runway to make sure there were no rocks, floating logs, or sand bars in the way. There was only one cabin on the lake with a short dock that was to be our “terminal”. I asked him if he knew anything about the cabin and with a raised eyebrow and a smirk he said he had no clue. We lined up and barely cleared the trees at one end of the lake. The pilot pushed in the steering yoke and set the plane down for what was a smooth landing, losing speed way before the advancing shoreline. In short order he taxied over to the dilapidated dock that was in front of the cabin we had seen from the air.

Following his instruction, a couple of us jumped out of the plane and tied the Beaver to the dock as the pilot shut down the engine and made a final call to the float plane base confirming a safe landing, our location and requesting he be kept informed when the weather looked to be clearing. He directed us to go up to the cabin to see if there was any sign of life. I found the cabin door unlocked, took a quick peek around and noted a few cigarette butts and wet dirty dishes in the sink. As I returned to the front deck I could faintly hear in the distance what sounded like an outboard motor. Sure enough, in ten minutes a fishing boat with two anglers aboard was approaching the dock. I remarked to the guys that this was going to get interesting… a huge plane just landed on their lake, it’s now tied to their dock and there are six strangers standing on their cabin’s deck!  The pilot helped the anglers secure their boat to what little room remained on the dock. These guys were clearly agitated as evidenced by their hand and arm movements and elevated voices, which of course suggested we might be in store for a confrontation. None of us spoke French so we had no idea how the pilot was positioning the situation, but after a few tense minutes it appeared that the anglers had settled down as they made their way to cabin. As they joined us on the deck they were smiling and began to shake our hands and jibber-jabbered in a mix of French and rudimentary English. (trade is an amazing thing... the promise of a few beaver pelts, a wool blanket and beads settled down the natives.)

In short order Henri and Marcel invited us into their cabin, pulled up extra chairs surrounding their retro formica-top kitchen table, quickly distributed a collection of dissimilar coffee cups and pulled two bottles of Canadian Club whisky from the cupboard!  I thought to myself, my how things have changed! I might add that our hosts were already half in the bag from what was probably a slow morning of fishing, but it appeared they were receptive to having temporary house guests and wanted to make us comfortable for what they probably hoped was a short stay. As the whisky flowed to and through all of us (with the exception of the pilot, thank god) so did the laughter and back slapping, with the pilot interpreting the two-way conversations as nimbly as he could.

The festivity continued as the levels of whisky in the bottles continued to drop. I thought to myself, although it was festive, there was an increasing kind of weirdness to the scene with some drama starting to unfold. Shortly my uneasiness manifested as things took a surreal turn. Our hosts were now downright shitfaced and their demeanor started to shift from being jovial, to becoming edgy and a bit combative. Henri fell off his chair and as he attempted to get up using the table as support, pulled onto the floor several coffee cups of whisky and an ashtray. Marcel got up and staggered to help his friend offering a hand and in so doing slipped on the puddle of booze also falling to the floor, and the two of them let out a rant of expletives that required no translation. The six of us and the pilot quickly glanced at one another, all of us thinking… now this is goddamned weird. 

Our hosts got to their feet and with hysterical “hyena-type” laughter, and in concert with one another, began pulling coffee cups, silverware, dishes and saucers from the cupboards and drawers, and stumbling to the deck began throwing the kitchen contents into the woods. These guys had transitioned from happy hosts to dangerous drunks and it was immediately apparent to me we needed a plan “stat”, to manage what could become a dangerous situation. As our hosts were occupied on the front deck emptying the kitchen, I quickly devised a plan and made the rounds with my friends instructing them as follows…

If need be:

Jimmy – “if pandemonium breaks out your job is to protect the pilot and get him to the plane”

Ed – “you’re good with guns, grab that double-barrel shotgun propped in the corner, make sure it’s empty and slide it under the couch”

Mike- “you and I we’ll take down Marcel���

Chris and Carl- “you guys take down Henri”

I can recall as if it were yesterday, looking out the door to the deck and watching our hosts throw their dinner plates and saucers into the  woods as if they were Frisbees, many exploding on the tall pine tree trunks. On one hand it was hilarious, while at the same time I was concerned what might happen once they returned inside the cabin… but we were prepared should things have gotten ugly.

Marcel and Henri ran out of ammunition and came back into the cabin now looking to throw chairs off the deck! (Sure I can recall a certain level of frustration on bad fishing days, and rounds of golf where I was tempted to throw my rod into the drink or my clubs into the pond on #4, but plates, saucers, and chairs, from your cabin and in front of complete strangers!… we were indeed in uncharted territory.)

If it were to occur that our hosts would start pushing and swinging, we were prepared to launch our plan. If you were ever in a bar fight, and I’ve been in a few, you know how quickly things can go south- but so far, cooler heads were (barely) prevailing. During our time in their cabin I had studied both guys closely and had noticed that Henri had evidence of a broken nose that occurred sometime in his past- maybe he was a fighter or more likely, he fell down or drove his snowmobile into a tree, both guys had scarred knuckles and Marcel seemed to have a problem with looking at you straight. 

So, as we were all on edge, standing up and looking at these guys, wondering what was next, I remembered that I had in my pocket my father’s prosthetic glass eye. (As I noted earlier I had used it several times during the week at our fishing lodge, and as always it got lots of laughs… and magically here it was in my jeans pocket- such luck!) I thought… man, if there was ever a time when we needed to lighten the mood… it was now!

I turned to the pilot and told him to tell Marcel, quote “Jim here is keeping an eye on you!”, and as the pilot with some hesitation did the translation, I turned away, pulled the glass eye from my pocket, quickly screwed it into my right eye and turned back and looked directly at Marcel, and gave him the Marty Feldman look. 

For a moment you could have heard a pin drop and in the next breath Marcel doubled over in laughter nearly dropping to the floor- (again), but this time from laughter.  Henri’s face lit up like a drunken Canuck (he was) at a festive Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebration, and he likewise went into hysteria…and then began hugging Marcel (strange dudes these French Canadians). My friends and the pilot likewise erupted in unrestrained laughter. It was a sight to behold.

As we were all catching our breath, Marcel, with a semi-sober demeanor, not unlike an experienced poker player holding a winning hand…“saw my bet and raised me one”, and proceeded to remove his glass eye!  Holy Shit Batman, Marcel was now staring at me with one good eye and one white muscle! The cabin absolutely exploded- I mean exploded in laughter. We slapped each other’s backs, we did man hugs and high fives. (Did you ever hug a man with one good eye and one flesh eye…I have!)

After the craziness settled and Marcel reinserted his prosthetic eye and I returned mine to my jeans pocket, we seemed to all sober up for a minute, shake hands and wish one another well. We then went about helping our hosts clean up the cabin and salvage their dinnerware from the woods. In short order we heard the airplane radio crackle, and our pilot motioned to us to get a move on as the base station had radioed an "all clear " weather report. We bid adieu to our new friends, thanked them for the respite and whisky party and climbed into the Beaver for the balance of our flight to the base. It was a bizarre but fitting end to a wonderful fly fishing trip to a great wilderness location, with good friends, old and new.

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