At the conclusion of “My Stroke, (Part IV), my fishing buddy Bob Rowley and I were heading up to Bad Axe River, just south of Westby, Wisconsin, and smack in the heart of the trout-rich Driftless Region. Bob was accompanying me under duress, so to speak, because I had suffered a major stroke the previous day, and I definitely looked the part. I was walking as if I had a club foot, my left arm was bent in a way that made it look as if I were doing a left-handed Pledge of Allegiance, and the left side of my face was drooping in an alarming way.
Bob really had no choice but to accompany me, if for no other reason than to rush me to the nearest emergency room, should the need arise. I had suffered a major stroke the previous day back at the Charleston, S.C. Airport, a reality that I was bullishly refusing to acknowledge. (See My Stroke, Part IV, for a fuller account)
The drive was uneventful. Bob talked about his last days at the ChicagoTribune (He was laid off the same day as was fellow Trib editor, my wife, Suzanne.) He talked about the challenges of his new job as executive director of government and community relations at Elmhurst College. I talked about the never-ending roller-coaster ride that defines the life of a special education teacher in an inner-city alternative high school. This, in turn, was our springboard into the complexities of education, the evolution of the brain, and the comparative virtues of raising boys versus raising girls (Bob has daughters; I have sons).
It was around 3:30 when we arrived at the North Branch of the Bad Axe. I had felt perfectly fine during the drive, but once I got out of the car I realized things were not going to go well. Observing me with both hands on my left leg as I tried to twist it enough to swing it out of the car, Bob asked for about the twentieth time, “Are you okay?”
“My legs are a little stiff,” I glibly replied. Bob studied me the way a state cop might study a motorist unable to produce his driver’s license, while I tried with partial success to impersonate someone whose only problem was minor leg stiffness.
Finally, with a sigh of resignation, Bob said, “Don’t hesitate to ask for help.”
In front of us was a long, broad pool, narrowing to riffles (or what fly fishermen call a “run”) before disappearing around a bend. What we both beheld were the characteristic “dimples” of surface-feeding trout. They were sporadic, but a hatch of some sort or another definitely was on.
“Why don’t you try you’re luck here, and I’ll see what’s going on around the bend,” Bob charitably suggested.
“Nah, Bob. Let’s both work it.” Bob was being too nice.
“I told you on the way up that I’m in the mood to do some exploring,” Bob shot back.”
“Only if you insist, “I responded,” while urging him to return to the pool if his exploration failed to bear fruit.
I watched as Bob headed downstream, walking parallel to the pool, far enough from the bank to avoid spooking the trout I would soon be stalking. Just before reaching the bend, he turned and said, “Give me a holler if you need anything at all. I’ll stay in earshot.”
I gave him a wave of encouragement, and then he was gone. I turned my attention back to the pool. In classic Driftless Region fashion, its seemingly still water shimmered in the sun. Only the sight of a fallen leaf floating slowly but steadily downstream confirmed that this was a stream with a current. Occasionally, small clusters of clouds would pass overhead, at which point, the the opaque water would turn transparent. Even from a distance, I could clearly discern the steamers of watercress undulating in the current. Lush vegetation — asters, clover, water hemlock, burdock, willows — extended all the way to the bank, except where enterprising fishermen had hacked clearings with unobstructed casting lanes.
The pool was about 20 feet away. I assumed it would be an easy walk, even with my cane, but what I didn’t anticipate were the furrows. Whoever farmed this land had planted, harvested and then plowed under alfalfa or some similar nitrogen-fixing crop. In agricultural parlance, the farmer had decided to let this stretch of pastureland “lay farrow” to replenish the soil. All well and good, but the furrows, a byproduct of plowing the field under, were about eight to ten inches high, and I was not able to step over them.
“What a friggin’ joke!” I muttered aloud. (Little did I know that I would be in store for a whole treasure trove of similar nasty surprises now that I was stroke impaired.) No matter how valiant my effort, I could lift my foot no more than six inches. Okay, let’s all relax and strategize, I said to myself and to whatever unseen forces were converging upon me. I came up with the bright idea of lifting my leg as high as I could, planting my left foot into the furrow, and then thrusting myself up and over. I did successfully lift my leg about six inches (henceforth, all future activities involving the elevation of my left leg would be be encompassed by the “six-inch rule”) and even managed to wedge it into the loose clots of dirt constituting the wall of the furrow. That left me standing precariously in the “Crane” position of Karate Kid fame. By contrast, my Crane was a graceless old coot with a one-note repertoire – the flailing of arms in windmill fashion as the hapless Si-Dai tumbles to the ground.
Determined to remain pro-active, I took the opportunity to issue a progress report on myself:. Goal: to surmount those accursed ridge lines of dirt-ball-Mt.Everest wannabes,Progress toward attaining goal: I was right where I started, sitting on my butt.
I turned my gaze to the pool. The feeding activity had slowed, but I could still observe sporadic dimples. It was at that point that I was blessed with a dual revelation: a) What was happening to me probably was not mere “diakaesis.” b) If my goal is to catch brown trout, I should probably seize the moment because I may not be back up this way any time soon.
Very well, I will crawl to the bank of the pool, and crawl to the bank I did, the way a soldier would crawl if bullets were whizzing over his head, or more accurately, the way a one-legged tadpole, abruptly washed ashore, would try to squirm its way back to the water. Oh, and did I mention that I was executing this ridiculous maneuver with my fly rod in my hand, positioning it off to the side each time I had to drag myself up and over a furrow, clearly cognizant of the strong likelihood that the rod’s cruel interaction with the earth was a broken rod tip waiting to happen?
But I soldiered on, surmounting one furrow, then another, and, lo and behold! I was looking at the final furrow. I elbowed my way up its eight-inch elevation, only to notice a landscape feature that wasn’t apparent from my original vantage point — a foot-wide mud slick, pocked with the sunken impressions of cow hooves, that ran parallel to the furrow. Had I been on two feet, I easily could have stepped over it. Unfortunately, my left leg was far too weak to support me as I attempted to get back on my feet. I beg you to try this little exercise in the comfort of your home if you truly desire to appreciate my shock and dismay as I suddenly realized I may never again accomplish the simple task of standing up from a sitting position. Okay, here’s the exercise: First, sit on the floor. Next, stand back up, using only your right arm and right leg for support.
But being pro-active by nature, I was not ready to toss in the towel. I rolled over on my back, propped myself on my right elbow, and finally pushed myself into a sitting position .Feeling almost euphoric, I reached for my rod,. Euphoria quickly turned to perplexity as I looked behind me to observe about fifteen feet of fly line trailing behind it. Holy crap! My fly apparently snagged on something unbeknownst to me, and now what can I possibly do?
“You okay, Tom?
Bob had reappeared.
Next posting (My Stroke, Part VI)