The Northern Michigan JournalPREVIOUSFall Story IndexNEXT

A Life Half Lived by Chuck Sams
The wheels squelched a little as the car snapped to a stop on the blacktop of the parking lot. Smokey and the Miracles were blasting from inside. Their voices sounding as sweet as they ever had.

"Ohhhhhhhhhh baby, baby."

Willie got out and slammed the door behind him and walked over to where I was leaning against the wall of the factory, waiting with the rest of the guys for our shift to start.

"What's up Willie?" I asked.

"Damn hot out here that's what's up. I don't know how you city folks can stand this heat."

I guess it was cooler up north in Grayling, where Willie was from, in the woods under all of those trees. Willie leaned against the wall next to me and lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke out with what seemed like a lot of effort. The smoke hung thick around his head as he squinted up through it, toward the sun. Then he turned his head and stared to the north at nothing in particular, but probably home.

"Look at that smoke. It's hot, humid; there's no wind to move it around. There would be a wind up there you know, on the AuSable there is always a wind and there would be shade in the hardwoods and the pines. Ever been to Grayling, Slim?"

My tall slender build subjected me to the nickname Slim.

"I passed through there before on my to the upper," I answered plainly.

"Ever been to the AuSable?"

"If passing over it on I-75 constitutes being there, then yes, I have been to the Ausable."

"Oh no, you ain't been to no AuSable, Slim. If you had you would remember more than a concrete overpass on a dirty freeway. You would remember the cedar lined banks, the way the long strands of grass sway back and forth in the current, the way she bends and curves like the hips of a sexy woman, and the trout. The way the trout sit there in the deep slots just lazing away the day, never having to leave that spot except maybe to rise to a hatch or to a fisherman's imitation to eat. Fly-fishing, if I were at home right now I would be on the river fishing, good time to fish ants and hoppers. If it were nighttime I would fish the Hex; it's just about the right time of year for the Hex. Probably going be a big hatch tonight as a matter of fact."

"I fished the AuSable before," one of the guys spoke up from somewhere along the wall. "For Salmon in the fall. Caught a bunch of them we sure did."

"You didn't fish no AuSable. You snagged the AuSable. Real men fish the holy water and cast dry flies to the big browns and rainbows, and after they catch them they turn them back to fight another day."

Willie spoke like a man who missed his home, a man that had been away to long. I could see the cold clear water flowing in his eyes, the bends and curves, and the rising trout. The shift horn went off before I could put much more thought into Willie's speech, and we all shuffled into the plant.

"This factory, well, this factory sure ain't no AuSable," Willie took one last drag from his cigarette, flicked it to the floor, and smashed the butt with the sole of his shoe. He never broke stride on his way to the assembly line.

I hated going in that plant, it killed me every time I walked into it. It was dark and dirty; it reeked of grease, oil, and body odor. It was like a little ghetto within the ghetto and if they never let you outside you would never know that anything else existed because everything a body needed was right there. Even though I was a supervisor and had it a little easier than the rest of the guys I still hated the place. During the first break I walked outside. The bright sun blinded me and it took me a moment to get my bearings, I leaned against the wall until the temporary blindness wore off. When I could see I noticed Willie sitting all by himself on a picnic table over on the grass under a tree as far away from the plant as you could probably get and still make it back from break on time.

"There's something wrong with him, Charlie," said one of the hi-lo drivers as he leaned forward to bum a light off of me.

"Ya, it ain't good. I've seen it before; he can't take it in there, the walls, the dirt, the noise, and the assholes. He'd rather be back on that river huntin and fishin." I took a long draw on my pipe and thought about it some more. "His eyes are desperate, and that ain't good."

The horn went off ending the break and Willie got up and walked back toward where I was leaning on the wall. I tapped my pipe bowl on the bottom of my shoe, lingered for a moment, and slid in the door before him. I was blinded again as I went from the bright sun light into the dingy plant; I stood near the door while the white and black spots disappeared from in front of my eyes.

"Goddamn dark," I heard Willies voice say. "A man ain't meant to be subjected to this. The extremes of light and dark, the cutting oil in the air, the dirt and grease, goddamn it all."

On the line that afternoon I started to get complaints about Willie's productivity. He was slowing the whole line down. I went to his station to talk to him.

"Willie, you're slowing down the line. I'm starting to get complaints. You've got to pick it up a little."

"Pick it up a little," Willie, said, never raising his eyes from the lug nuts he was tightening. "I tighten the same damn eight lug nuts for ten hours a day and you want me to "pick it up a little!" This plant has made you crazy Slim, nuts in the head!"

Willie turned toward me with a big wrench in his hand just as three or four company men walked up behind me. When he saw the other men he backed down a little.

"You people make me sick!" he shouted. As he looked us all in the eye, one by one.

"Come on Willie, you're gonna force me to write you up and send you home."

"You can't send me home. I would enjoy home too much. Your gonna send me back to that stinking boarding house for three days."

Willie turned and threw the wrench through the windshield of the next car that was rolling down the line. The company men tackled him from behind and I jumped in the middle to break it up. The company men have been known to beat a man to death. I grabbed Willie by the collar with one hand and held off the company men with the other.

"He works for me, I'll take care of him!" The company boys wanted blood and I could see it in their faces. I had no choice now but to write Willie up and send him home to allow tempers to cool but I knew that it would take more than a few days off to fix Willie up.

In the office I sat Willie in a chair and explained to him that he couldn't work here anymore. I demanded that he quite or I would fire him. He didn't say anything he just sat there for a few moments. Then he spoke.

"Charlie, did you ever feel that for everyday you missed on the stream or in the woods was a day wasted? That if you were to spend your life like this instead of among the fields and hills and woods that it would be a life half lived?" He looked at me with sad eyes and I knew he had to go.

"Go back to Grayling, Willie. It's where you belong," I told him.

I took out my checkbook from the drawer and wrote him a check for $2000.

"This should hold you for a while. Look for me in a couple of weeks. I have some vacation time coming and I'll be up to check on you."

I slid the check across the table and he stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He stood up and silently turned his back to me and started to walk out of the office. It's tough for a man to admit failure at any task.

"Willie," he turned and looked at me from the doorway. "You tried, it just didn't work out down here. There's no shame in that."

He turned and walked out into the plant for the last time and I thought about how much of a bargain $2000 was for a man's life.

•     •     •


I stopped along the trail to have a look around and light my pipe. In the distance I could hear the river flowing and a crow called from somewhere in the hardwood canopy. I started toward the river again. I was preoccupied with trying to pick up the river through the trees and my fly rod hung up in the brush. It bowed up like the last time I had a steelhead on and I caught it just in time before the tip broke off.

"That's no way to treat a fly rod," a voice said from somewhere up ahead in the thick summer underbrush.

"Willie?" I asked the brush.

Willie burst from the brush and gave me a big hug, a hug indicative of two people who were closer than we were. He was dressed in a tee shirt, a vest, and a pair rubber chest waders. In his hand he carried his fly rod and his felt hat was dotted with flies, some of them he had no doubt just been using because they left little black wet spots on his hat. He asked how I had found him and I told him that I had happened upon the fellow that owned the lodge where he had been working as a handyman. He explained how much happier he was here at home. The lodge owner let him leave everyday as soon as the work was done and paid him the same everyday no matter if it took one hour or ten to do the work. Sometimes there were days when he didn't work at all he said, he just went fishing or lazed about the river bank scouting animals for hunting in the fall. He didn't ask about me at all the talk was only of him and how he was doing. After all it was only a short month ago when I had to save him from himself in the plant.

"Come on," he said turning back toward the river. "I'll show you some of the good spots."

"How long you up for?" He asked as we walked single file along the riverbank.

"Couple of weeks."

"You can stay with me. We'll leave here before dark so that you know how to find your way to and from the cabin and can get your gear stored."

He abruptly stopped dead in his tracks and bent low at the waist. He pointed across the river with his fly rod. All that I could see were the rings from something that had broken the water in a slow moving, deep, green pool. We stood silent for what seemed like an hour and finally Willie pointed again with his rod, this time toward the sky.

"Hatch starting to come off," he said in whispered excitement. "Probably stone flies."

We walked to the edge of the water just down stream from where the trout was feeding. The trout rose slow and methodically to the flies that floated on the surface of the river, letting some of them slip through his slow pace as big fish often did. He slurped them in one at a time as they drifted through his feeding lane. Willie motioned for me to cast to the trout and I quickly stripped some line from my reel sending a zipping noise up and down the river from our position. The trout didn't seem to mind though and rose again even before the sound had faded. When I thought I had the trout's rises timed I cast my fly just up stream of him and let it drift down. The first cast wasn't quite right and the fly drifted by without incident. I lifted it from the water when it was well downstream and cast again. This time the trout took it, slurping it in as he had all of the victims before. This fly had a hook though and the trout did not like being poked in the lip one bit. He raced down stream from his deep green hide and line stripped from the reel without effort sending the familiar zipping noise out from it once again. It was all I could do to turn the fishes head and the little 4 weight rod strained against the fishes jaw, bending and throbbing with every shake of the trout's head. I couldn't hold the fish off any longer and finally I had to follow it down stream. I moved as fast as I could through the water being careful not to let the current sweep my feet out from under me.

"Stay with her Slim," I heard Willie yell as I ran around a bend trying to keep up with the fish.

Three bends later and a short swim through a deep hole that was over the top of my chest waders, I had turned the fish and worked it up onto the gravel near shore. Willed came running through the brush and slapped me on the back sending a cool spray of water onto my neck and into his own face. He ran his sleeve over his face as we stood looking down at the fish, admiring its size, fight, colors, and most of all simply his presence. I bent down and removed the hook form the trout's mouth and gently pushed it by the tail, back into the river. The trout disappeared into the first deep dark hole and I rinsed my hands in the holy water that was the AuSable. I stood up and Willie shook my hand.

"I never did thank you Charlie," a long pause followed as he still held my hand firmly in his. "For that day at the factory. I don't think that I could have made it through another day in that place and the money that you loaned me, well I probably won't be able to pay it back for some time."

It was the first time that I had thought about the money since I had written the check that day in the office at the factory. I didn't say anything right away I just nodded my approval of his comments and he smiled back. The river had calmed from the fight with the trout by then and fish were beginning to rise again on the far side. I rinsed my fly in the water and picked it over with my fingers, spraying some floatent on it when I was satisfied it was back in order. Willie had already waded out and was casting to the risers so I walked out to the middle of the river and stood next to him.

"Remember what you said to me in the office at the factory about a life half lived?" Willie stopped in mid back cast and looked at me. "We're all different. For you it's a half-life to not be here on this river and live in this town. For me, though, the half-life would be if I had never fired you, if I had never written that check, If I had never hooked that tout, and If I wasn't standing here right now in the AuSable. I'll go back to the factory in a few weeks. Do me a favor Willie? Just be here when I come back again to fish."

Willie didn't say anything this time and I turned and waded back to the shore. I walked along the river edge looking for risers and thinking. About what a bargain $2000 was for a man's life but mostly about how to catch the next riser once I found him and how nice it was going to be not having to go to the factory for two weeks.

Chuck Sams has been published in Woods-N-Water News and his work be included in Voices of Michigan Vol. II which is due out sometime this spring. He can be reached by email to charles.sams@valeo.com.

Copyright 2000 Manitou Publishing Co. & Chuck Sams &• All Rights Reserved.

The Northern Michigan JournalPREVIOUSFall Story IndexNEXT


Leelanau Forum NMJ's Bookshelf
Mail to NMJNMJ Home Page
Absolute Michigan: Michigan Articles & Links!

webdesign by leelanau.com