As fish stories go, it was way better than average, and, best of all, it was true.
My brand-new stepfather, Earl Stoner, was a fisherman. He taught me all about fishing, and although -- over the long haul -- the lessons didn't really take, it started out as a way for the two of us to bond. (We didn't know about "bonding," in 1947, but looking back, I recognize that bonding was what we were doing. And it was good.)
Earl taught me to fish in the creeks outside his Pennsylvania hometown, but this particular fish story took place in Northern Michigan. That's where my mother's family came from, and we were visiting up there, with all those old Swedes.
My Uncle Oscar Victorson (one of the old Swedes) and my stepfather didn't have a lot in common. Earl was fresh out of the Army -- a small-town boy from the coal country. Oscar was a farmer, born and raised right there in Upper Michigan. But Oscar spoke English as if he'd gotten off the boat from Malmo just last Wednesday. His Swedish accent had stayed thick for all his 60-odd years. And why not? His neighbors were all Swedes too (or else Finns), and pretty much the only folks they talked to were each other.
The contrasts between Earl and Oscar could have given rise to real problems, too, because of a bad habit Earl had. He would unconsciously adopt the speech patterns of any person with whom he was conversing. In no time at all, Earl was responding to Oscar's words in that same sing-song voice that comes naturally to genuine Scandinavians, like Uncle Oscar.
People who noticed Earl doing this were often quick to take offense. He wasn't mocking them on purpose, but his innocent intentions weren't always clear.
So, Uncle Oscar looked at Earl a little funny for awhile. He either decided to ignore Earl's unaccountable Swedish accent, or else he just forgot about it when he found out the most important thing about my stepfather: Earl was a fellow angler.
Which brings us to the point of this fish story, which is the fishing part. Northern Michigan is a gorgeous corner of the world, filled with ice-blue lakes and rushing mountain streams. These streams frequently are the homes of industrious beavers who build beautifully engineered dams, creating ponds where the river's progress has been impeded. And these ponds tend to be brimful of trout.
Oscar and Earl made plans to visit Oscar's favorite fishing hole — next to a beaver dam — and I was invited to go along. (Truth is, I already had decided that fishing really wasn't my idea of a good time; but when you're ten years old and the men invite you along — for any manly activity — you're more than pleased to go.)
That's how I became principal witness to Earl and Oscar's fish story. You see, the two of them caught the same fish — at the same time! My stepdad's line was the one the fish actually bit on, but Oscar's line was close by, and the trout, fighting Earl's attempts to reel him in, got his tail caught on Uncle Oscar's hook! Oscar felt the pull and started reeling in too, and, sure enough, the two men simultaneously brought up that same trout -- just as pretty as you please!
Talk about your male bonding! It's a shame the two men lived far apart and wouldn't see each other again for years. They had become friends for life! (It's too bad this sort of thing can't somehow be arranged as a means of bringing disparate elements of the world together. Imagine: The Prime Minister of Israel and the leader of Hamas — catching the same fish. Peace in our time!)
Anyway, it was a good little fish story and it didn't take that long to tell it. Most folks think it's kind of interesting. Through the years, Earl would tell the story often.
The problem was, he couldn't tell it straight. The trout that Earl and Oscar had jointly caught was a pidd'ly little thing — no more than seven inches long and maybe weighing in at 16 ounces, tops. It wasn't a throw-back. It was legal — but just barely.
Now, to me, that fish's diminutive dimensions made for an even better story: After all, the skinnier the fish, the less likely it was to get snared on two hooks. That's simple physics.