Bill Miller drank beer like a wide-mouthed bass when he fished the Juniata River. Six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon were secured with trout and catfish on a stringer and kept cool and fresh in the water. He tossed his catch back to the river, after each beverage, as a woman laundering there, generations before, may have tossed a pair of overalls or a simple dress made from sackcloth.
Gradually, the load decreased in weight due to consumed cans of beer and a lack of biting fish. The sun was hot. The river drained his hope, but the beer was good.
Bill Miller was raised along the murky waters of the Juniata. He knew every bend and rapid. His fisher- heart remembered what it was like during the Depression when, with this muddy creek, his family was fed like multitudes of Christ, nourished in the wilderness by a simple act of faith– praying with line and bait.
Now there was no sense praying for the fish bite. It seemed Jesus was dead, and besides, Bill’s family got food stamps and kids didn’t eat fish from the Juniata, despite what the good book had to say about miracles and bread.
His own offspring didn’t like the catches he brought home. Bread was fifty-cents a loaf. Bluegill and sunfish were ignored as insects. By the 1970, most of what Bill caught while drinking beer was fed to the dog– a Siberian Husky named Sam. His children said fish from the Juniata River were smelly. The three girls and four boys– Florence, Roxie, Pete, Dave, Francis, Steve and Marg had only a taste for the eggs from bottom scouring catfish that Bill rolled in flour and fried into crispy hash-brown pellets in a cast-iron skillet. Many of the catfish from the Juniata weighed over ten pounds. Such a waste of fish, but lots of cat fish eggs. He called the caviar ‘scrambled cat eggs’ just to kid the kids to consume them. They were good with ketchup!
Bill cooked for his children mornings before school, frying everything in Crisco. It was hard cereal they preferred now– not like the perch with spiny fins that sustained Bill when he was a lad and school wasn’t an option and fishing was the way that a boy learned to read, after milkin’ the cows.
Food stamps now– Booberries and Cheerios.
The seven children wouldn’t eat fish from the Junitata River if it came in a box with a prize inside. They smelled that river every day when they awoke, squeezed tight next to each other, tangled in layers of electric blankets and sheets over-perfumed in inexpensive laundry fabric softeners. They slept soundly, wrapped as worms on hooks in upstairs beds. Their blonde heads housing blue eyes tossed gently on shared pillows as the orange sun of yesterday came back over the ridges that surround Petersburg, seemingly warmer than ever– full of hope and promise every day.
Somehow they lived through it.
They rattled to life each day as hooting whistles of locomotive trains passed through town at precisely 6 a.m.
The whistles were as much a part of life as the calls of bluejay birds that are abundant there. The trains were headed to large cities East– places where the work was. Those trains rolled by every day on tracks that Bill helped to lay when he was still young and working. Now the only industry in Petersburg was fishing in the river that the train tracks followed through Pennsylvania.
The railroad industry was gone. Bill fished days between jobs laying brick. Work was rare. It was all he had to do to pass long summer days when hunting season had lapsed. He needed to fish to keep his head straight. He wanted to shoot the bastards ruining the world economic system and sending all the simple work to China and Japan.
Bill thanked God for his fishing pole and for being born in a time and place that taught a man how to be thankful and not greedy like most in the cities had become.
The beer came in convenient cans now, although one could not use food stamps to buy it. Bill fixed lawn mowers and small motors on lawn appliances like rota-tillers and used the cash to purchase a lure for life– Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.
He strung the six-packs like fish, unlike the un-pressurized, stunning intoxications offered in home-brewed moonshine of the 1940s. They drank warm then. Booze came in jugs and could not be kept cool in the river. Things were bad, but this was all he ever wanted in life– to fish, drink and enjoy the peace and quiet when the kids were at school and that river was still flowin’.
Life was about fishing, not wealth he thought as he finished another six pack.
Others in Petersburg who worked at the bank in town or traveled far off to work jack hammers on long stretches of interstate highway complained that there was never enough time to fish. They ate fast food all the time and always accepted the fish that Bill’s family had lost a taste for– in trade for a six-pack or two– just to get Bill through the currents of the simple life on food stamps.