As a youngster, my parents would often go on summer church outings. A few commuter busses were rented, and the church parish would visit shrines or cathedrals outside of New York City.
One place we visited had a park where families gathered to picnic and have some fun. There were softball and basketball games, frisbee tossing with friends and even kite flying. At some point during our visit, my father and I would sneak off to go fishing. We would grab our gear and make our way to the pond. The walk lead us through a field of tall grass where the buzzing and flitting of insects replaced the joyous shrieks of kids having fun. We walked for a long time, but I knew we were close by the humming sounds of car tires on the road ahead. We approached the fence on the other side of the road, there were trees, tall bushes and shrubs blocked the view on the other side. My father led me to a spot in the fence where there was an opening narrow enough for us to pass through. After a very short walk past the thick shrubs, everything suddenly opened up, revealing the pond. There was a small clearing with just enough space for two people, their fishing gear, and a picnic. The rest of the pond was surrounded by overhanging tree branches and thick bushes. To my immediate right was a stream that fed the pond. The stream wasn’t deep, but the smooth stones made wading in it dangerous.
We would prepare our rods and begin fishing. If the fish weren’t biting, I would take off my sneakers and socks and wade into the stream. I would look around, turn over stones and search underneath. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something small and dark dart under a rock. Thinking that it might be a crawfish, I eased over to catch it. Knelling down in front of the stone, I prepared to pounce on it. Bracing myself, I took a breath, and tried to lift the stone with my left hand. It was heavier than I thought, and it came right back down. Bracing myself again and with more effort, I moved the stone away. Looking down, I saw a small dark shape trying to swim away, so I quickly grab it with my right hand. I knew I had caught it because I could feel it wriggling around in my closed hand. I stood up, made my way to the catch bucket, and placed my hand inside to release it. My father, who had been watching me, walked over to see what I was up to. I opened my hand and saw it swim out. It swam around in circles, following the edge of the bucket. My father chuckled when he saw it was a baby catfish. It was about two inches long and the color of the muddy pond bottom.
My father told me it was okay to keep it for a while, but I would need to put it back into the pond. I understood. We always released the babies so they would grow bigger. Just then, my father hooked onto a small bass. Excited, I picked up the bucket and carried it over to the stream, ready to release the catfish. I slowly let the water pour out, catching the catfish in my cupped hand. For the first time, I got a close look at it. It was a perfect miniature of a catfish, with its little black eyes, slimy skin, and whiskers. I walked over to where I had caught it, placed my hand in the water and watched as it swim under a large smooth stone. Feeling satisfied with myself, I went back and watched my father bring in the bass.
Three, maybe four years had passed, before the church planned another trip to the same location. As before, my father and I snuck away, crossed the grassy field, crossed the road, and found the hole in the fence. We did our usual routine of setting up the rods, and casting out, but since the fish weren’t biting, once again I walked toward the stream. I was wishfully hoping to see if there were any small fish there. Before I could take my sneakers off, my father called to me. As I turned around, I saw an older gentleman standing next to my father with a stern look on his face. I walked over and heard the man tell my father that were on private property. I thought we were in serious trouble. My father apologized and said we would leave. The older man asked us to wait a moment, and I thought the police were coming for sure, but he turned to my father and said, “You can stay but please clean up after yourselves before you leave. If I come back and see any garbage, I’ll know it was yours.” My father thanked him, nodded to me, and I put the bucket down. Feeling like I had to say something, I said, “Thank you, mister. I promise to clean up before we go.” I thought he would be appreciative, but he replied, “I’ll be back to check.” We fished for another half an hour and my father said we should get back. It was a lot earlier than usual, but I could sense that his mood had changed. I took a plastic bag out of the bucket and cleaned up as I had promised to do.
As we walked back, I asked my father if he knew it was private property. He said he knew because it was the old man’s son who had told him about the hole in the fence. The son had seen us unloading our fishing gear in the parking lot and struck up a conversation with my father. When my father told the old man that he knew about the hole in the fence, because his son had told him, the old man settled down. He confided that he had been having trouble with local kids sneaking in at night to smoke and drink. Trying to keep the kids out, he had wired the opening in the fence shut, but the kids kept undoing it, so he stopped. He had found us fishing there while he was doing his daily check of the property and thought we might be the kids.
We didn’t return to the pond for about another four years. As we made our way there, the usual grass field had been mowed down, and a baseball field was now there. We crossed the field and came to the road. I saw the fence and asked my father, “Do you think it’s wired shut?” He replied, “Only one way to find out.” When we found the opening and it was a lot larger now. Following my father in, I was surprised when he stopped short. I walked around him and was devastated by what I saw. There were beer cans and bottles strewn on the shore. Some were also floating in the pond. The water on the surface of the pond was slick with oil and there were dead fish floating all around.
The usual pristine grassy areas surrounding the pond had been torn up too. There was a partly submerged shopping cart and on the opposite side, a sunken metal canoe was protruding out of the water. From where we were standing, I could see the hole in the side of it. Turning to my right, I was surprised to see that the stream had completely dried up. We did not speak. We just stared. That day left a mark on my soul. Suddenly, from behind, we heard the bushes stir and there we saw the familiar face of the old man. He carefully stepped forward and looked at us with an angry glare. After a moment, his expression softened as he said, “I remember you!” My father smiled, stuck out his hand, and the old man shook it. The old man said, “See what they’ve done to my pond! There’s nothing left alive in there. No sense fishing here.” He turned, looked at me and said, “You shot up! Taller than your dad now, huh?” I just nodded my head in agreement. Turning back to my father, he said, “You should go. Nothing here for you do.” My father nodded in agreement. At that moment, I reached down into my bucket. They both watched as I took out a garbage bag and started picking up scattered bottles and cans. The old man said, “You don’t have to clean that up.” I replied, “I know, but a long time ago, I promised you I would clean up before I left and I’m keeping that promise.”
It didn’t take long for me to finish. The old man said, “Thank you. Maybe if we had more kids that cared…” His voice trailed off as he slowly walked away. I grabbed my bucket, left, and we never looked back. As my father and I made our way back to park, no words were spoken. There was nothing we could say that would ease our grief.
Now even after all these years, my heart still gets heavy when I think of the pond. My father has since passed on and when I think of him, I see him at the pond, just like in my memories. He is fishing and next to him is a second rod, waiting for me. And next to my father, the old man stands, smiling.