Fish caught out of waters beyond the Juniata River watershed tasted better to Bill Miller’s children than the catfish snagged from the muddy creek that ran on the outskirts of the family property. There is but one method for preparing whiskered catfish for consumption, but freshwater farm-raised trout can be filleted into strips as thin as venison tenderloin and if dipped in an egg and rolled in cornmeal, the dish is as popular as pork, sauerkraut and dumplings on New Year’s Day. Bill Miller’s cast ironed trout were as delicious as his bacon baked beans.
To kill two birds with one stone or to catch one’s limit of seven trout from one fishing spot in one day required a trip to freshwater mountain lakes, like that of Whipple Dam. The creek down back didn’t have trout, just warmer water creatures like carp, catfish, fallfish and bluegill. To satisfy his family’s hunger for water recreational activities and rainbow trout fishing, Bill packed up the Plymouth LTD almost every Sunday and prepared the entire picnic meal himself, after digging his own fishing bait.
Not a drop of grease from two pounds of mostly white, non-lean bacon was wasted from the cast iron skillet in which the fatty strips were seared upon. Chop – chop –chop—Bill diced the crisp bacon pieces, creating slug-like morsels that slid down one’s throat like a greenie. The brown sugar and Campbell’s baked bean concoction was a meal within itself, but only a side-dish on Miller picnic standards.
Long panels of yellow Styrofoam were emptied of fleshy contents into the kitchen sink—how far man had progressed Bill realized, cleaning the chicken parts under gushing, ice-cold tap water. Bill noticed how very few feathers there were on the chicken, requiring a burning from his metal cigarette lighter that seemed never to go out, even when wet. There was a time when there was no time for fishing—only work on the railroads, but now, chickens were slaughtered with corporate axes—no more watching them flop around in the front yard, headless, bumping into things as they attempted one last time in their lives to take flight.
Thanks to the Weis supermarket in Huntingdon, a seemingly endless supply of food stamps, freshwater streams that were stocked weekly with trout and Bill Miller’s expertise as a cook for a poor family, there was always time to picnic at Whipple Dam.
Bill blanched the chicken parts for at least twenty minutes in a large pot of boiling water, refusing to remove much of the golden, nutritional, fatty skin that enveloped the plump, pink pieces of legs, thighs and back. The kids, like Bill, liked the dark meat. Only Liz, wife and mother, demanded a tender breast at Whipple Dam. The skin would be charred to crackling consistency over Kingston charcoal briquettes dowsed heavily with dangerous amounts of starter fluid.
As soon as the chicken parts were removed as lobsters from the boiling water, Bill covered it with splatters of hot bacon grease—that not used to keep the baked beans moist— and sealed the contents in exorbitant ribbons of tinfoil and packed the surplus of meal neatly in a snowy Styrofoam cooler next to several six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer—often stopping his busy hands to check his long-sleeved flannel shirt to ensure he had enough cigarettes for a day of picnicking and fishing at Whipple Dam.
Uncle Dave, a skinny, snuff chewing prankster with greasy hair parted over his right eye was the oldest child still living at home and was granted front seat riding rights, sitting between his dad and mom just to ensure tranquility during the journey. Following the departure of Uncle Pete from one of the beds upstairs in the wooden house, Uncle Dave assumed the title of best fisherman, next to Bill, in a family that was born near the water.
Uncle Pete, a curly blonde with humungous blue eyes, unbelievably big ears and a nose so huge that he could sniff out trout underwater like a hound dog seeking rabbit in a thick brier patch, married Aunt Pat when he was just eighteen. Although he no longer lived at home, he and Aunt Pat attended all of Bill Miller’s outings. He inherited his father’s good fortune when it came to fishing. It was suggested by his mom Liz that Uncle Pete’s saliva contained the same enzymes found on the skin of the earthworm, and thus, the boy could catch fish without even trying—just like he did to poor Aunt Pat.
“Uncle Pete, why do you spit on your worm like that?” I asked one Sunday along the chilly, cold waters of Whipple Dam, trying to secure a piece of golden can corn on a hook that Uncle Pete helped me to tie securely.
“Go ask your Aunt Pat,” he said.
Aunt Pat had no interest in the Miller family’s obsession with fishing or Uncle Pete spitting on his bait. She stayed far from the water’s edge and fussed over flies around the picnic tables, ants, and deviled eggs.
The couple chose me as the ring bearer at their wedding. I remember standing next to Uncle Pete with a pillow in my arms—dressed in a fancy, checkered vest with puffy sleeves which accented my huge cowlick perfectly. I couldn’t understand why they cried while kneeled before the pastor.
“I do,” Uncle Pete said with tears rolling like rapids down his big, red nose. I asked my grandmother, Liz, why Uncle Pete turned into a crybaby at the wedding—
“That happens sometimes,” Mal Mal explained. “I think Pat’s ass is lined with gold.” …