Remembering the past on a lake in Canada

KNOX LAKE, Ontario, Canada — There is just one cabin on this massive Canadian shield lake. One drives north of Minneapolis-St. Paul for 12 hours to catch a float plane for the final leg. The lake teems with walleye. The people I’m traveling with have been here before. Five people this trip and they predict 1,500 walleye over seven days, keeping only enough to eat.

I have been invited by a man I’ve known since we were children. However, 46 years have passed since we played on the same small-town basketball team. He was a freshman and I was a senior. His father was the principal of the school. When senior starters snubbed upstart freshmen, I took to him. I saw his raw talent, and the next year he would be running the team and I would be an afterthought, off to college somewhere. We would sit together in the back of the bus on the way to games and we would talk of basketball and girls.

He apparently never forgot. In his high school career he eclipsed anything I had ever done, hastening the speed at which I was forgotten. Except by him. He went on to play college ball, graduated, became a teacher and coach, then more school and more until he became the superintendent of schools. His dad would have been proud of him. His dad was always proud of him.

Along the way, he married and had children. Two of the three kids were fine athletes, one made another path. The oldest girl became all-America in high school and college as a volleyball player, and then walked on as an NCAA Division One basketball player. She is now a college coach. I tell you about her, because she was on the trip with us. If they had such things in the world of fishing, she would be all-America in that, too. Stunning reflexes.

After a long day on the water, in the dim light of the cabin we played euchre. One by one, the sun-drained party threw in the cards and hit the bunks. The two of us, the freshman and the senior, lingered. When the sun and the rocking waves have drained you of any energy, talk comes slowly. A long silence, then I said, “When you and I were playing ball, our fathers were younger than we are right now.”

A new silence engulfed us until the first light of morning. He was already making breakfast at 5:30 a.m. I lumbered to the kitchen and said, “You’re up early.” He said: “I never got to sleep. Kept thinking about what you said. We are older than our fathers.” We shared a reluctant observation, “They always seemed so old.”

Depression syrup
He was flipping pancakes. We had no syrup. So, he took out a pot, threw in some brown sugar, white sugar, vanilla and water and set it to boil. My dad used to make it the same way. Depression syrup. “I never buy syrup,” he said. His dad taught him how to make it. My dad always called it “authentic, imitation maple syrup.” It was a relief when times got good enough bring home a bottle of store-bought syrup. It never tasted as good. We laughed at the mystery of why we still made pancake syrup the way our father’s did. Silence. We were both making mental lists of all the things we did the way our dad’s had done — things that embarrassed us when we were young.

The two other men in the party had also been teammates of the freshman. They were younger than me. But they looked like me. They looked old. The deliberate steps and the care taken while getting in the boat told of old injuries, age and wisdom. One of the guys had been listed as a 6’3″ senior forward in high school. He wasn’t 6’3″ anymore. Bones had settled on bones. But when he was a boy, he was a baseline runner, the key to breaking a zone defense. The freshman said, “We never knew where he was going to pop up.” The other teammate added, “He didn’t even know where he was going to pop up, himself.”

 The other fisherman had been, in his junior year, the leading scorer in the county. The freshman couldn’t stop talking about his shot. He was supple and graceful, he said, “and had the prettiest shot I ever saw. It is hard to remember him ever missing a bucket.”

I was in a boat with him one day and asked, “Did you go on to play in college?”

“No,” he said. “I was needed on my dad’s farm. Then, one day I slipped off a wagon and it ran over my legs. Ruined one of them.”

He walked, still, with an obvious limp and spent the hot hours of midday stretched out on a hard mattress to relieve the pain in his back. Basketball was set aside and he became a social studies teacher. The 6’3″ baseline forward became an organic farmer and owned a jewelry store. All of us had become basketball coaches at one time or another. The experience ran from seventh grade girls traveling basketball to high school and college.

When we got home I introduced them all to my wife, “Coach Mullins, Coach Prow, Coach Stebbins and Coach Stebbins.” She said, “Basketball?” Of course.

In the motor home driving back, the freshman said: “I’ve been fishing with the best shooter and the best passer I ever played with.” The shooter was resting his back. The freshman looked at me. “You were Maravich before Maravich. The guys had to be awake. They never knew whether it was coming from behind the back, the neck, the shoulder. You could look-off a defender better than anyone.”

When he said that, the years began to melt away. I saw, as clearly as a film, the plays, the passes, the boys, now old men. For a long period, lying on the couch in the motor home, I was 17. I was not a senior citizen. I was a senior in high school, and all that mattered were the games, the tournaments, the plays and teammates equally lost in the innocent belief that the most important thing in the world was winning a high school basketball game. It was a heavenly existence. There were no wars, no racism, no injustice, no death of friends and parents.

‘It’s Coach’
As we approached the Twin Cities, the freshman picked up his cellphone and dialed a number. He handed it to me after a short conversation. “It’s Coach,” he said.

It was my secret that I had never made an adult decision in my life without thinking about Coach. “Hi, Shelb,” Coach said. His voice was just slightly weaker at the age of 77. His wife Nancy got on the phone. “How’s the best guard who ever played for us?” I knew she was kidding, but I’ll take her words to my grave.

Coach said he would like to make the trip next year. He had only been 13 years older than me when I thought of him as a god, and as an old man. Then I thought of the freshman’s daughter along on this trip. Did she see us as a bunch of old men? But she’s a coach, and heard the stories for a week. I hope she could see through the mists of time that we had been boys, once. She had brought a picture of that high school team. There was her dad, a freshman, fresh-faced standing next to me. Our jaws set — no smiles. Coach didn’t allow smiling.

Before we left the lake, another picture was taken with the two of us standing together as we had in 1965. The photo reveals an indisputable fact. We looked exactly like our fathers. But appearances are often deceiving. We might have looked old, but for a week on a lake in northern Canada, we were boys again.

During the trip the freshman had said that he could never repay me for taking him, a kid, under wing and introducing him the world of the point guard and the ways of women. The debt is paid. He gave me something more precious. He gave me back a time I thought had been lost.
Next year, for one week, you will find me on a lake in Canada, with the boys.

Note: Don’s book of basketball stories, “The Season Never Ends,” will be in bookstores and available on the Internet soon.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/12/2011 - 09:56 am.

    Never an athlete myself, I was a high school head coach for 15 seasons. I didn’t really care about the sport. It was merely a vehicle for nudging the kids toward learning to get along with others, to use their skills, or acquire new ones, though it wasn’t often that what happened on the field was easily translatable to something they could use in one of my history classes. In that context, too, it wasn’t so much about the history as it was a chance to watch them emerge as people, to show them that they had, or could acquire, intellectual capabilities that would stand them in good stead later on in life.

    I wouldn’t cross the street to watch a basketball game, and I don’t care about fishing, either, Don, but this was a wonderful piece. As many a philosopher or writer more talented than I has likely said in various ways over the centuries, it’s too bad we can’t bring the experience and perspective of age to the energy and physical ability of youth. I loved the film analogy – I’ve had similar thoughts.

  2. Submitted by will lynott on 07/12/2011 - 11:31 am.

    Don, sorry to be off topic but I haven’t heard about the promised global warming debate between Sen. Jungbauer and Professor Abraham. My recollection is that Jungbauer agreed to it “any time, anywhere,” but needed to do some remedial reading. He’s surely had time to do that by now. Have you pressed him on it? I’d really like to see that debate.

  3. Submitted by Patrick Seeb on 07/12/2011 - 04:06 pm.

    This is all well and good, but how was the fishing?

  4. Submitted by Don Shelby on 07/12/2011 - 08:55 pm.

    Dear Patrick,
    The rough count was 2000 walleyes over seven days. Bought four back for eating. Had walleye for breakfast, lunch and dinner the whole trip. Glad you were moved by the story. You are a youth. One day you will feel old. May that day be a long time off.

    And, to Ray,
    Thanks for wading through a memory. Basketball and fishing had little to do with the memory. You got that.

    Patrick – 2000 walleye. Now, I’m sorry I gave he name of the lake. I suppose you’ll want to go next time.

  5. Submitted by steve piragis on 07/12/2011 - 09:33 pm.

    You got me thinkin Don; I need to get my high school buddies out to Ely for a canoe trip before they get too old to portage and I have to carry the food packs. Thanks for a great story.

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