We’ll get to the urine in a moment, but, first, a little detour.
Driving into the little town of Chiloquin, Oregon (pop. 720) – a town of shuttered gas stations, stray dogs, and old pick up trucks parked in weed filled yards – my first instinct was to hum “Dueling Banjos” and make redneck wisecracks.
That’s before we went to Kircher’s Hardware Store and met Alex Piper.
We were in rural Oregon recently for a family vacation. We rented a cabin on a river, and that, my friends, is as close to a tent and camping as I’m going to get. My 12 year old son Gabriel and I had come to Kircher’s on the advice of a man who sold only one or two types of fishing lure at a local RV park market, and felt he would be doing us a disservice if we settled for what he had to offer. This alone was already unthinkable to an urbanite like me: turning away business because you think someone else would be a better fit?!
We had brought Gabriel’s fishing pole with us from home, and it was a mess: the line was tangled, the spool was locked up, and we had no idea what to do about it.
As we were getting out of the car in front of Kircher’s, Gabriel said to me, “We don’t need to bring it in.” He was embarrassed at how little we knew about the workings of a rod and reel. I knew what he was feeling, but I’m also old enough to push aside my pride and know when it’s time to ask someone for help.
The cashier called Alex over. One of the first things he said as he was taking apart the spool and drag adjustment was, “I’m better at fixing fishing poles than I am at fishing.”
He was being modest.
Half an hour later he was showing Gabriel how to cast his line with a practice bobber out back. We were standing just beyond the large metal roll up door that allows for deliveries. Alex took the pole and demonstrated. “I keep my thumb on the line, right here, just enough to get a little tension, then I let go.” He cast it perfectly into the dirt parking lot, reeled it in, then handed it to Gabriel.
“Just put the handle in your gut when you reel it in,” he advised. “Some guys don’t like it poking their gut, but that makes it easier.”
Gabriel tried it, the end of the pole pressed into his stomach, and reeled the bobber back in.
Alex spent 40 minutes with us, taking apart Gabriel’s fishing pole, repairing it, and offering this little fishing lesson.
At the register our purchases – fly lures, marshmallow bait, little tackle box – totaled $14.59. $14.59 for 40 minutes of the man’s time.
A mere 36 cents/minute. Cheaper than most liquor store calling cards. Gabriel hinted that I should tip Alex, and I agreed. I pulled out my wallet and asked if he accepted tips. “No, a smile is fine,” he said. And the way he said it – the tone in his voice and the look in his eye – told me that he had read my beads perfectly. He knew that I was a city boy who had come into this small town, with my little stereotypes of “crackers” and “hicks,” and he had just shown me and my son a degree of kindness and generosity that left us flabbergasted and wanting to tip.
Earlier, before the fishing lesson, while he was dismantling the pole, I wandered through the store and took snapshots of the kinds of things that would never show up at an Oakland Home Depot. I confess I did it with a silent titter, thinking of how “funny” all these variations of hunting urine and animal heads would appear in a blog, but by the end of it all, I just thought, “Who am I to laugh at these people?”
When the apocalypse comes, I don’t want to be stuck with some hipster who rolls his own cigarettes, wears a goatee, and spouts off about the latest short fiction in The New Yorker magazine. I want the Alex’s of the world at my side.
But I took the pictures…and I have to say, I had no idea how useful urine is.
(not pee, I know, but stinky, so, close enough)
(again, not pee, not even stinky, but with a name like “mega grunt tube,” I could not not take a picture)
The animal heads, well, they speak for themselves (or would if they could).
The store’s phone rang. The cashier who answered it cupped the mouthpiece and yelled, “Alex, is your brain free?” He answered, “What’s it worth to ya?” Someone was calling with a question about how best to recharge a dead lawn mower battery. Alex, of course, had the answer.
I asked him what he recommended in the way of lures.
“Asking what people are using is like asking if there’s a traffic jam in San Francisco. Well, sure there is,” he continued, answering his own rhetorical question, “but when?” Time of day and the exact tributary you’re fishing on make a difference.
I told him we were on the Williamson River.
“These can get a little costy,” he said, showing us some lures made to look like baby trout, “so some guys do the 49 cent hooks with the marshmallow baits.” We bought both. We were only going to be in Oregon for another day, so it seemed silly to drive 6 hours, rent a nice cabin, then cheap out on a two dollar lure. Plus anything that put more money into Kircher’s kitty was a good thing.
Before we left, Alex asked me if I had my fishing license. I lied and said I did. I don’t know whether Gabriel heard me. If he did, he’s already savvy enough – sadly – to know when to play along with a little lie.
I thought of asking Alex if I could take his picture standing alongside Gabriel, but in my dumb overthinking way, I thought he might think that I was somehow “slumming,” – y’know, taking a picture of the “local types” that I could snicker about back home later. But that was just me and my baggage, my own shame over the stereotypes I haul around.
I’m sure Alex wouldn’t have minded in the least, and I regret that I didn’t ask him.
Back at the cabin, on the little wooden dock which extends about ten feet into the Williamson River, Gabriel cast his line. Somehow, on that first reel back in, he got it so tangled up that the whole rod became useless again. After that, he just tried standing at the edge and lowering the line into the water with his bare hands. When that didn’t work, we climbed in a row boat, set anchor in the middle of the river, and tried dropping the line straight down again. After about half an hour, it was clear the only things Gabriel would be catching were clumps of moss.
He was, of course, disappointed, but for me, and perhaps even for him at some point, when he looks back on this trip years from now, the real highlight of our fishing expedition will have had nothing to do with whether we caught a trout or not and everything to do with the dirt parking lot out behind Kircher’s Hardware in Chiloquin, Oregon, where some guy named Alex showed him how to reel in a fish with the pole planted in his gut.