Updated: Jan 13, 2019
For a kid growing up in Maine, the possibilities for outdoor fun were nearly endless. After my parents were divorced when I was six, I moved away from Crockertown (yes, it’s a real place – just google it), and lived with my sisters, my mother and eventually Bill, my stepfather, in Lincoln, on the shores of Mattanawcook Lake. In the early seventies paper was still king in Maine, and while the sharp, rotten smell that hung over the town, especially on calm days when there was no breeze to push the odor west where fewer noses lived, was derided by people “from away”, it was tolerated by the folks that lived under that aromatic blanket.
Whenever we had relatives from out of state visit, which in truth was a constant comforting stream of aunts and uncles and cousins, they would always complain on especially smelly days. The youngsters, especially those perhaps making their first trip to Lincoln, would always ask my stepfather what was making that awful smell. Bill would cock his head, sniff the air a bit, then declare solemnly, “That? Oh, that’s the smell of money”, then say no more, leaving the asker puzzled and confused.
Despite the smell on those still, warm days, or perhaps because of it, the kids would always gravitate to the water. It was not unusual at all for the kids in the neighborhood to spread out over the back lawn of my mother’s house, Frances’ house next door, and sometimes even sneak over the fence into the wide, well—groomed lawn of the Smart’s house. We didn’t go over there very often. I don’t recall ever being told not to, but they kept their yard so pristine – lawn always neatly mowed (and clippings were always raked up!), fruit and flowering trees well pruned, the shorefront always devoid of the weeds and brambles that popped up on the shore of the lake behind every other house on the street, that I always just felt that they must not want kids in the yard.
When the water was low, we would creep along the shore, looking for frogs and crayfish by flipping over rocks and the occasional brick or bottle or other low-water debris that was
abundant in those days before the Clean Water Act. If you were lucky enough to have a fishing pole, or ambitious enough to make one from a maple whip and a few feet of monofilament pilfered from an unattended tackle box as I had done, sunfish and yellow perch were easy to catch among the pickerel weed and lily pads.
On rare occasions, someone would hook, and sometimes, even more rarely, actually catch something bigger. Small mouth bass, or more likely a pickerel, would be flopped onto the grass with a hoop and a holler, and every kid in ear shot would drop their gear and race to see who caught it and how big it was. On one memorable occasion, Timmy from next door gave a shout and by the time I raced to him, he had dropped a huge, squirming mass at his feet.
In that first full summer in Lincoln, Timmy had quickly become my best friend. His house was just up the street from mine and he too lived with his mother and older sisters. As the only two boys into our respective houses, the last two houses on a short dead end, we found ourselves outside together a lot, seeking refuge from the girls; not that we didn’t like our sisters – I adored mine, and in the first few months after moving to Lincoln, my sisters and I formed a bond forged from confusion, pain and anger that can never be unmade. And, I know Timmy liked his sisters too, because they doted on him as the baby brother, and I could tell he loved their attention.
But no matter how much we both liked our sisters, we were two boys, eight and nine years old, and we needed “man time” away from the girls. So, we did what most young boys did in the age before cable tv and Atari in that brief hungry time when our independence was limited mostly to being within eyesight or earshot of my mother or his. We built ‘forts’ with scraps of lumber from his back yard, played kickball in the street in front of our houses, belly-crawled through the tall grass in the field between our street and Taylor Street, evading Indians or Germans depending on whether we had decided to be cowboys or GI Joes. And of course, we spent hour upon hour trying to catch fish from the rusty brown water that was Mattanawcook Lake. He was, that summer, my very best friend and I would have done anything for Timmy, and I like to think he would have done anything for me.
So, when I heard his victory whoop “Got one!” indicating he had landed something big, I sprinted towards him to share in the excitement and joy of my best friend’s success. But as I got closer, his shouts of joy quickly turned to yells of panic as a slippery eel, well over two feet long, first flopped onto Timmy’s bare feet, then wrapped itself clingingly around his left ankle.
As I got to Timmy, his shouts had eroded into whimpers. He was looking in turns down at the fat, slimy attacker, then to me with pleading, wet eyes. I had never seen an eel before, had certainly never caught one, and from the terrified reaction he was having, neither had he. But we had both seen enough Tarzan movies to know about snakes. We had encountered enough small, slim garter snakes in the Corro’s field to quickly realize that this fat, slimy thing wrapped and pulsating around his leg was not harmless. No, this was different. This was wrong. This was evil.
Timmy had dropped his fishing pole, but the eel, as eels usually do, had taken the hook and nightcrawler all the way down. When the eel had first started flopping, Timmy had jumped and thrashed to get it away from his feet, but through a stroke of misfortune had gotten his foot snarled in a loose loop of fishing line. With every kick and thrash Timmy made, the fishing line pulled tighter around his ankle and calf - effectively trapping the eel’s mouth and head firmly against Timmy’s bare skin. What was in reality simply bad luck was being interpreted by a set of nine-year-old eyes, some three feet above the monstrosity happening below, as a vicious and relentless attack.
Timmy’s wide eyes, now bulging a bit, met mine. He was whimpering no words that I could understand, but his eyes spoke loud and clear. “Help me! Please help me!” I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to reach down and wrench the evilness away from his skin. He wanted me to touch this vileness myself to spare him from feeling it on himself anymore.
Sad to say, friendship, even best friendship, has its limits when confronted with a crisis of this magnitude. My own eyes, while a bit further from the scene (I was keeping a safe distance – No need for both of us to get attacked!) were reaching the same incorrect conclusion as Timmy's already had. Since I hadn’t seen Timmy flip his pole aside, hadn’t seen him get tangled in the line, hadn’t seen the line tightening with each kick drawing the eel’s mouth to press against Timmy’s leg, and in fact couldn’t see the line at all in the bright sunshine, all I knew was that he had been bitten! The attacker was latched on by its fangs, had coiled around his leg, and it was starting to squeeze.
The whimpering got disturbingly louder, until I realized my own whimpering had joined Timmy’s. I’m not sure how long I stood frozen, whimpering along with Timmy, eyes locked, until friendship overcame fear. I had to help! I had to save him! But I wasn’t going to touch it!
My own fishing pole, a stout six-foot maple sapling, was still gripped in my hand, nearly forgotten in the chaos. I quickly looped the line around the two nail hooks that constituted a reel, stuck the point of the hook into the bark, and began to poke at the eel with the small end of the pole. It simply writhed a bit in response. I poked a bit harder and it squirmed and pulsed but didn’t appear to loosen its grip.
I glanced at Timmy. I could tell he was grateful that I was trying to help, but his eyes still had a sad, pleading look. From somewhere deep in the back of his throat, I heard Timmy’s first actual words since his last joyous shout as he groan-grunted, “Hurry, get it off me”. This verbal plea broke my timidity. Time for more aggressive action. But I still didn’t plan to touch this beast with my bare hands.
I gripped the handle of my maple pole in both hands, raised it to shoulder height, and whacked down on the eel. While it didn’t release its grip on Timmy’s leg, the violence of the strike did seem to have more impact than a simple poke, and it felt good to exact some pain on the creature. I raised the pole higher and struck harder, once, twice, three more times. The eel flexed and twisted but didn’t drop off.
Sure that my attack was working, I doubled my effort. I struck harder and harder, over and over. At some point however, the hook had come undone from the bark where I had secured it. The line had unwound itself during the flaying of my swings. I wasn’t aware of it, but eight feet of 10lb monofilament, two split shot sinkers, and a barbed number 6 hook was now whipping back and forth through the air with every stroke I made. I was focused on the eel, totally engrossed in the fury of my attack, so didn’t notice when, on my penultimate downstroke, the hook flipped up, stuck point first in the skin inside of Timmy’s left leg just above the knee and held fast.
I yanked the tip of the pole skyward for another strike. I didn’t hear the hook unzip the skin on Timmy’s thigh, but horribly enough, I saw it in perfect clarity. An invisible hand holding an invisible marker drew a vivid line, six or seven inches long, in an instant. Timmy screamed. A loud, ear-piercing, sickening scream of pain. He doubled over, clapped his hands over the razor thin wound, then moved his hands to inspect. Blood covered his hands and was in a thick bright line on his leg. He stared. I stared. Then Timmy spun, eel forgotten, and began to run toward his house screaming with each step. I followed close, for the first time realizing that he was attached to his own fishing pole.
The same action that had unfortunately entangled the eel to his leg in the first place worked in reverse as he sped for home. The pole clanked and clattered, first over the gravel of my driveway, then over the pavement of the street, and each time it clanked the line and the eel lost more grip on Timmy’s leg. By the time we got to his front door to be met by his mother, face full of concern, the eel and pole were behind us and forgotten.
Frances, as soon as she could get the wailing (both his and mine) under control, cleaned up the wound. Once the blood was wiped away it didn’t look nearly as bad, but it was still an angry enough wound that, despite the guilt I felt over inflicting it, I was privately relieved that it was on his thigh not mine. Frances listened to the whole story, told in turns by Timmy and me between bites of oatmeal raisin cookies and grape Kool-Aid. The more we talked, the broader her smile got, and by the time we got to the part of the great unzipping, she was laughing the big belly laughs I remember of her so fondly. She eventually sent me home with a pat on the head and a fairly stern look on her face. “Best you don’t tell you mother about this. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.” Frances knew boys would be boys, and she knew my mother would not have found the eel and the blood the least bit funny. I don’t think she ever did tell my mother. Another thing I remember about her fondly.
Timmy and I fished together a lot more that summer once he could walk without wincing. And nothing really changed about our friendship after that either. Well, I take that back. One thing changed. As I recall now, he never fished with me after that without wearing shoes and long pants.