Fishing For Forgiveness

That mournful flute was entrancing, spooky.

Its deep, hollow, haunting moans filled the bright, airy, riverside chamber called Great Hall and pierced a private internal sanctuary in me that few can penetrate, entering through a slim wound that oozed grief, gushed guilt. The handsome wooden instrument still resonated the next morning, like a spiritual echo you’d feel standing deep and very small on a vast canyon’s floor, the reverberations circling, deflecting from one jagged outcropping to another, refusing to fade, only intensifying.

With Great Falls Discovery Center’s southern doorway wide open to gray Powertown skies, that doleful, forlorn flute wailed from the darkest depths of tall, pony-tailed Barry Higgins’ soul and hovered over an infamous elbow of New England’s largest river at a place named for a war criminal. I listened, wept internally and stared outside, wondering what nesting birds, flying insects, crawling worms, migrating fish and human passersby, maybe even the spirit of Greenfield’s last Indian at Bull Head Pond thought when those sad notes found them. Who knows? Maybe they even reached the ghosts of Captains Turner and Holyoke — colonial heroes to some, butchers to others — driving out hot guilty tears, perhaps pleas for forgiveness.

I’m not sure what it was, but that flute touched me deeply and clung. The next day, taking my daily morning walk with the dogs through a tranquil place, I could still hear it, couldn’t shake it, didn’t want to. When I returned home, midday, sticky, the sweet scent of lilacs strong, grass green as green can be, I walked through the front parlor, where an overwhelming smell of fireplaces greeted me; one of those days, Memorial Day approaching, shad migrating up the Connecticut River in annual spring spawning runs dating back before the Mayflower.

I sometimes purge random thoughts entertained on my solitary morning walks with the dogs. Not today. The previous day’s Nolumbeka Project event still fresh in my memory with a dreaded deadline looming, my cranial wheels were spinning freely, wandering off course and probing deep as I climbed that last hill up a double-rutted earthen farm road leading to my truck, it parked a couple hundred yards away behind an old farmer friend’s last greenhouse. As I skirted the familiar galvanized gate through a thin sumac strip overlooking the Green River atop the short, gentle climb to the upper level, I stopped for a moment to search as I often do for fish, saw none and continued on. For some strange reason, that birds-eye view of the river known to Natives as Picomegan brought me back to the days when I’d meet old friend “Indian Al” Niemiec for shad-fishing adventures below South Hadley Falls, one of many prehistoric Connecticut River fishing places. Niemiec, among the best fishermen I ever met, made his living tying flies and answering to no one. If memory serves me, his Chicopee business was first named Indian Nymphs; then he caught the dangerous political-correctness virus and renamed it Native American Nymphs and Flies. I guess he didn’t want to, um, no pun intended, ruffle feathers.

Although I haven’t spoken to Niemiec for more than 20 years, he’s still with me every day, right there with those three wooden-framed, glass-covered shadow boxes displaying his colorful hackle creations individually labeled by a calligrapher. Those flies are not lonely reminders of fishing days past around my home. If you did a little digging, opening a drawer here, a closet there, looking through nooks and crannies, high and low, damp and dry, you’d be apt to find much more, all of it fair game for my grandsons someday. I’m sure they’ll soon find the equipment and apparel scattered about — rods here, vest there, large, plastic Plano tackle box containing hooks and swivels and lures and spools of line and piles of my own willow-leaf lures. There’s plenty more to be found elsewhere, stuff like willow creels, zipper-cased fly reels, fly boxes, spinning rods of graphite, fly rods of the same material and others of split bamboo, the Ferrari of fishing rods, many of them made by local artisans. I hope the kids will be curious and want to learn how to use all of it, plus study fish and their habits, what they eat, how to present bait and catch them. If so, I’ll help. If not, so be it. We’ll just explore something else.

People who know me best have often asked how a man who enjoyed fishing so can just pull the plug. When I respond philosophically with an answer like, “How many trout must a man catch to prove he’s a fisherman?” they just look bemused — like, “Huh?” But that’s where I’m at with fishing. When it stopped being a challenge, I moved onto something else, maybe studying fish habitat and history, which led to questioning the salmon-restoration project’s feasibility based on what I’d read. That research led to a familiar old topic that’s fascinated me since a boy skating my grandfather’s snow shovel up and down Bloody Brook like a plow to clear paths for me and my South Deerfield pals, the same fellas who in summer months fished for suckers hugging the mucky stream bed of the pool below a concrete wall bordering Kelleher’s yard, the stately home fronted by Bloody Brook Monument. We also fished by the Pleasant Street bridge, between Sadoski’s and the old plastic shop, now Cowan’s Auto Supply, years earlier my Arms relatives’ pocketbook factory. Those were the good old days when South Deerfield was a two-cop town. The officers, both proud World War II vets, were a different breed of law-and-order cat than today’s, fathers of friends and classmates, their goal to let kids to be kids, mischief and all, no court intervention unless absolutely necessary. My oh my how times have changed. Some say for the better. Not me. But let us not digress. Back to Bloody Brook.

Once we perfected catching suckers and hornpout on nightcrawlers and worms dug from rich, black backyard loam out by the chicken coop, we learned to treble-hook big stubborn fish that refused to bite. When we got bored with that game, we moved to trout-fishing, starting on the Mill River between Pekarski’s and Warchol’s, when that part of town felt so much closer before the Interstate 91 barrier. As we matured and could be trusted (yeah right!) farther away, our mothers would drop us off at West Brook in Whately and pick us up a mile or two downstream hours later, our creels bulging with brookies, their gills exposed, necks broken to spare them slow painful suffocation. Little did I know then what I have since learned about the streamside ruins that were once the property of my family, tanners who made shoes and buckskins of James Fennimore Cooper fame from the cured hides of animals killed for meat. Had I focused strictly on fishing all these years, well, what a shame that would have been. I’d probably still be passing those ancient mill foundations without understanding why they’re there or who ran them.

The same could be said of American shad, migratory fish that served as the impetus for the annual spring pilgrimage of Northeastern indigenous tribes traveling from all points of the compass to Peskeomskut, said to be a sacred place of high spirit, not to mention the greatest of all New England waterfalls. I learned to catch these anadromous fish swimming upstream on the most carnal of missions by the prevailing method of spinning tackle and shad darts. We gradually made the transition to fly rods and colorful flies, then, better still, yet further from purist, moved to homemade willow-leafs with sink-tip line and bead-chain trolling sinkers, a cumbersome method that outproduced all others. Yes, Indian Al and I were soon catching shad hand over fist in channels along the east bank of Holyoke’s tailrace, attracting many curiosity-seekers in fishing boats. They’d cozy up close, watch in admiration and ask how we were catching so many. Then, once the game was mastered, we just sort of moved on, Al switching to smallmouth bass and me, well, I guess I just decided to study the fish, the habitat and history of the ancient tribes who migrated with them to the river before Christian governments annihilated them and drove survivors fleeing in mass exodus, seeking shelter from the storm.

I suppose I could have just buried these private thoughts borne of that solitary trek to the gate overlooking the Green River, but for some reason I couldn’t. In fact, I even seized and enhanced the introspective moment by pulling out an old CD I hadn’t played for many years. It was a Vanguard disc by late finger-pickin’ Delta blues legend Mississippi John Hurt. I can’t recall how I discovered old Mississippi John, but it was probably from listening to Doc Watson. Does it really matter? All I can say is that I found Hurt the same way I always find stuff, and it ain’t by pushing a broom or bossing people around in Walmart isles. No, this temporary state of heightened consciousness was opened by that mournful Sunday flute singing in the gloomy mist of Turners Falls’ dam. I was there by invitation to recognize the 337th anniversary of the infamous Falls Fight. History books call it the turning point of King Philip’s War, and there’s no denying it was that. But what those schoolbooks don’t tell you is that it and similar slaughters of unsuspecting indigenous Northeastern tribes set the stage for two blood-soaked centuries of government policy that ended with shameful Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. It’s called genocide and it started right here in Puritan New England, beginning with the Pequot War (1637), then King Philip’s (1676), both of which put women and children to the sword for the “greater good.”

Native flutist Higgins of Pennacook/Abenaki roots knows the unvarnished truth. The wooden instrument he created sang the funeral song that punctured my soul, opening a wound that released my deepest sorrows for the cruel deeds of ancestors who marched alongside Capt. Turner on that dreadful day. Like many before and after them, those soldiers bought in to a cause and sold out, were perpetrators of cruel, sadistic wartime acts.

How could any man of conscience deny guilt for the behavior of such ancestors? Members of a misguided, racist rabble, some of them undoubtedly harbored deep emotional scars till the day they died tormented.

Called PTSD today, there was no word for it then. I can still feel it, the tortured groans of that wooden flute soothing my solemn, suffering soul.

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