Bill Miller drank beer like a wide-mouthed bass when he fished in the Juniata River. Six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon were secured with trout and catfish on a stringer and kept cool in the creek. He tossed his catch back into the river, after retrieving each new 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 and one could still throw the empty cans in the weed patch behind a fallen maple tree.
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 by a simple act of faith– praying with line and good bait.
There was no sense praying for the fish bite now. Even if Jesus showed up along the crick and told Bill to “cast your line over there”, he probably would not, because fishing had now become a hobby. It seemed Jesus was dead in America anyway, and besides, Bill’s family got food stamps and kids back then did not eat fish from the Juniata River, despite what the good book had to say about miracles and bread.
His own offspring did not like the catches he brought home. Bread was fifty-cents a loaf. Bluegill and sunfish were ignored as a type of pest, like 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 had only a taste for the eggs from bottom- scouring catfish. Bill rolled his catfish eggs in flour and fried them into crispy hash-brown pellets in his well-greased 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 was still 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 would not 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.
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 odd 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 bastards like Jimmy Carter who ruined the world economic system.They were sending all the work that men like Bill did to China and Japan.
Bill thanked God for his fishing pole and for being born in a time and place where China was still something to eat off of.
The beer came in convenient cans now, although one could not use food stamps to buy it. Bill fixed lawn mowers and rota-tillers and used the cash to purchase a lure for life– Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer– and the funny thing was, there were enough broken lawn mowers in Petersburg that one did not have to go to church to pray for more wine.