Remembering George Vukelich
When George Vukelich died suddenly of a heart attack in July 1995, just shy of his sixty-eighth birthday, both Madison daily newspapers carried lengthy, appreciative news obituaries, but neither mentioned what endures as perhaps his most distinguished achievement: the 1962 novel Fisherman’s Beach.
It may be that George’s life was just too full to include everything. He was known to his many admiring friends and fans as an outdoorsman, environmentalist, baseball aficionado, radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, husband, father and amiable barroom companion. Five hundred people came to the memorial service, overflowing Madison’s Unitarian Meeting House. “But we expected that,” the pastor said.
George’s signal talent may have been storytelling. Whether on the radio, where as “Papa Hambone” he for many years delighted listeners on Madison’s WIBA, or in print, with his columns in The Capital Times, Isthmus and Madison Magazine, George wove tales that were funny, poignant and occasionally—if he sensed someone with power abusing someone without—indignant.
Some of us were lucky enough to hear the stories over a glass. I think I first met George in the bar of the old Fess Hotel near the Capitol Square. I was working at Madison Magazine at the time, and our offices were on the floor above the bar. Someone once said that there is nothing in the job description of magazine editor that can’t be accomplished in a bar with a working telephone. The small editorial staff at the magazine gave that theory a full vetting. George would bring in his copy each month and we would repair downstairs. There I would hear stories of the old days of Madison newspapering, of people like Bill Evjue and Miles McMillin, and of the time George joined his reporter colleagues in a strike against Madison Newspapers, Inc., during which he helped found the strikers’ paper, the Madison Press Connection.
We had a mutual friend named Ed Teela, a colorful former paratrooper who sold cars in Madison before quitting to open a bait shop. The decision was destined to make Teela a local celebrity of sorts, although not as Ed Teela. He became famous as “Steady Eddy,” the wry, sage bait shop proprietor in innumerable “North Country Notebook” columns written by George Vukelich. “You don’t have to be crazy to go ice fishing,” Steady Eddy said in one column. “But it helps.”
I remember a Madison Magazine column in which George recalled the night he, Steady Eddy and a newspaper reporter friend named Frank Custer attended the last night of a downtown Madison saloon called the 400 Bar. They were almost the only customers. It was a somewhat solemn occasion and at one point Custer shook his head and said he didn’t understand why more people weren’t upset that a great old bar was closing. “That’s right,” somebody said. “But just let them close a school and people show up in droves.”
One thing I don’t recall George talking about much was his fiction, and I’m almost certain he never mentioned that in 1962, at the age of thirty-five, he had published a novel.
There was much to boast about the publication of Fisherman’s Beach, if that had been George’s way. One might start with the prestigious New York publishing house, St. Martin’s Press, that brought out George’s story of a Wisconsin—Two Rivers— commercial fishing family threatened by illness and sibling rivalries and legislators in Madison who think the fishermen are harvesting too many trout from Lake Michigan.
The reviews bordered on the rapturous. The revered Wisconsin author August Derleth called Fisherman’s Beach “a strong, honest novel, beautifully realized.” The noted Nebraska author Mari Sandoz, who taught at UW–Madison, noted that George “has captured the power and beauty of a great inland sea, a tough old fisherman and his sons who worked its waters, and the forces, old and new, that man can only hope to withstand a little while.” George dedicated the novel to Sandoz.
I think I first heard of Fisherman’s Beach in 1990, when George brought out a new edition of the novel under his own North Country Press imprint. For whatever reason, I didn’t read it then. Maybe it’s simply that there is never enough time for all the books you’ve promised yourself to read.
Then one cold weekend afternoon, early in 2012, I settled down in a coffeehouse with a copy of Fisherman’s Beach. Within moments George had me, with his clean description of the great lake’s ice breaking in spring, while inside a fishing family’s patriarch lies dying, furious with his body’s betrayal and with the politicians who want to destroy his way of life. Three hours later, I turned the final page, knowing I would not soon forget the LeMere family or George’s evocation of both the beauty and harshness of the natural world.
It’s a remarkably assured first novel. Sure, George knew what he was writing about—all those hours outdoors bearing fruit in his art—but he also knew the human heart. I loved this passage in which the family’s prodigal son muses on life: Germaine realized then there was no way around trouble in your life. A man going into trouble was like steel going into the flames and if you had the right stuff the flame tempered you and toughened you and made you strong. If you didn’t have the right stuff, you cracked and flawed apart and went back to the slag heap … There was no way around this trouble thing. Sooner or later, a man had to go into the flames.
Or this, much later in the novel, when a woman, battered by life, explains to a priest why she is going ahead with a
marriage even though the man she loves is not a Catholic: “I don’t think God will punish me for being a little happy during my life, Father.”
I couldn’t be happier that on this, the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Fisherman’s Beach, Cambridge Book Review Press is bringing it to a new generation of readers.
Not long ago one of George’s daughters, Martha Vukelich-Austin, shared with me the story of the launch party for Fisherman’s Beach half a century ago in Madison. At age five, Martha was too young to attend. But she was still awake when her dad, mom and older sister came back to the house on Plymouth Circle and broke out a six-pack of Coca-Cola to celebrate and relive the evening. “Dad’s book was exciting for all of us,” Martha noted.
They spent half an hour getting the tug ready for the run out to the fish grounds. Out of the shanty gear shack came the empty fish boxes they hoped to fill by noon. Raphael and Gabriel lugged these aboard while Roger gassed up the tug and Germaine carried out the foul-weather gear. They moved quickly, quietly, anxious to have the joework over with and be underway. Once they cleared the dock, they could relax and smoke during the seven-mile run back up the coast to the nets. Now there were hundreds of pounds of ice to be put aboard and steel oil drums into which they could fling the trout guts when they cleaned them on the way back. The offal would be sold to the area farmers. It wasn’t much but every little penny helped now. “Anything you get out of the lake these days,” Roger said, “you keep out of the lake.”
“How many gut barrels you want?” Raphael asked.
“Take two,” Roger said.
“Christ, we didn’t fill two all last season.”
“I got a feeling it’s going to be good today.”
“Roger, Roger,” Raphael said. He carried the second drum down to the tug.
“Jesus, what’s two barrels for?” Gabriel asked as they passed.
“I dunno,” Raphael said. “Maybe Roger’s gonna wee-wee in one of ’em.”
Roger started the engine and the twins cast off the bow and stern lines. The fish tug Ione backed tentatively into midstream.
As they cleared the harbor breakwater, the powerful swells of the open lake caught them full force and the stubby tug began its wallowing fight up the coast. The tug smashed ahead heavily, like an icebreaker, the waves exploding over the bow and whipping down the deck in stinging shrapnel-like bursts. Gabriel and Raphael struggled into their foul-weather gear and huddled together in the hold to smoke. Off to the eastward where the sky was reddening a little, the heaving waters to the horizon took on the shadowy cast of flowing lava. The wind was fresh and smelled of fish. Germaine squeezed into the tiny pilothouse where Roger was squinting out over the wheel. The windshield streamed with driven spray.
“Just like old times, huh?” Roger said loudly.
The tug went crashing down into a trough and Germaine had a brief gagging aftertaste of coffee. He took a deep breath as the tug labored and skidded greasily. He had shared this pilothouse with the Old Man on a thousand rolling mornings and he knew that those days were dead and gone and finished forever.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just like old times.”
Roger reached for a cigarette.
“About Ginny,” he said.
Germaine braced himself as another rush of water boomed into them.
“We might even get married,” Roger said. “I been thinkin’ about it.”
Germaine didn’t say anything. His days with Ginny Dussault were as dead as his days with the Old Man in the pilothouse. They floated in a meaningless limbo of memory, without flesh, without blood. It was as though a stranger named Roger LeMere had said he was going to marry a stranger named Ginny Dussault. And yet Germaine felt a twinge, a pang. A feeling for what might have been when the questions were simple and the answers were simple. Once he might have married Ginny Dussault. They had grown up together and gone together and it was a habit. Like the church you went to or the paper you read or the way your family voted. They might have married then and by now they would all know what he had known all the time. He had been in the wrong nest, the wrong pew, he thought. College had started it and the war had finished it. He was a fallen-away Catholic and as Sister Justa had told him back in grade school, that was the worst kind. A fallen-away Catholic became the enemy of Holy Mother Church. Amen, Sister. Only in grade school he didn’t realize the injustice of branding a baby guilty of Original Sin the moment it left the womb. In grade school he didn’t realize that Holy Communion was as symbolic of cannibalism as African juju. In grade school he didn’t realize that his generation of American Catholics was going to kill and be killed by a generation of German Catholics. To break with the Church was to break with his family and he had done it and stayed away.
The marriage would have been a foolish, terrible mistake.
Roger looked at him, his tongue flicking the hard sensuous lips.
“Old Man Dussault thinks it might be a good idea,” he said. “He seems to be happy about the idea.”
“Actually,” Roger said, “there’s no date set or anything like that. Christ, we aren’t even engaged officially.” He gave Germaine a sly wink. “We just go together. Coupla years now.”
Germaine reached for his cigarette and stared out at the deck. In the hold he could see the wet, slickered figures of Gabriel and Raphael huddled together. They could get in a little cat nap by the time the tug reached the fish grounds. Germaine smiled. What the hell, when you were young the questions were simple, the answers were simple, and you could cat-nap in a fish tug or a bomber or a hole in the ground. It was all the same.
“You see,” Roger was saying earnestly, “this is all I know. I’m a fisherman. Just like the Old Man.”
Yes and no, Germaine thought. Yes, this is all you know and yes, you are a fisherman. But like the Old Man? No, my pushy little brother, you are not like the Old Man. There is no one like the Old Man and there will never be anyone like him again. He passes this way only once.
“The thing is,” Roger said, “I’m pretty sure Old Man Dussault would like to get out of the fishing business. He’s getting up there and without any sons in the family …” His voice trailed off and he half-turned, leaning on the wheel.
“Both Dussault boys,” Roger said, “they got it at Iwo Jima. They were Marines.”
“Well, so there Old Man Dussault is, all alone, running his tug. There’s nobody to pass on the business to.”
Germaine looked at Roger, the powerful slouch, the determined eyes, the hands tight and strong on the tiny wheel.
“That’s where I come in,” he said. “As a son-in-law I’m right in the family. In like Flynn.”
“You don’t mean buy in?”
“Hell, no, I don’t mean buy in. Where the hell would I have the money to buy in? I mean after I marry Ginny, Old Man Dussault makes me a partner in his business. That’s natural, ain’t it?”
Yes, Germaine thought. That’s natural. Christ yes, if it was anything, it was natural.
“What about Pa?” he asked softly.
Roger looked at him harshly.
“What about Pa? I got my own life to live. He don’t own me. I’m getting pretty goddamn fed up with him acting like he does. Don’t you pull that what about Pa stuff with me. What about Roger?” He flushed, his teeth showing white and strong like an animal at bay. “I get the picture with Pa all right. He doesn’t have to hit me over the head. All these goddamn years I fish for him and do all the friggin’ dirty work and break my ass for his business and what happens? Nothin’ happens, that’s what. He’s still got me on salary. He won’t make me a partner, screw him. I can run Dussault’s operation. And I can own it.”
Roger subsided as a heavy wave caught them broadside, its unleashed flowing strength slamming full into the rudder, pulling against the wheel like a waterfall. Roger’s booted legs were wide stanced, braced and straining. The tug shuddered, the wave lifted them dizzily and gushed past. Roger relaxed and draped his arms over the wheel.
“Why won’t Pa make you a partner?” Germaine asked.
Roger snorted and dropped his cigarette butt to the flooring.
“Why?” He turned and Germaine saw the defeated look in his eyes. “Because of you, that’s why.”
“Yeah, you. He’s saving the whole shebang for you.”
Germaine heard the words and he felt a genuine sorrow for Roger. Roger was trapped and he didn’t deserve that.
“That’s ridiculous,” Germaine said.
“You goddamn right it’s ridiculous. When you were here I didn’t say boo, not one friggin’ word about the setup because you were the number one boy and I was a punk kid. But goddamn it, Germaine. You went away and I stayed and by Christ, I’ve got more time on this tug than you ever had. And with all that, he still won’t make me a partner. You goddamn right, it’s ridiculous. I’m taking a screwing.”
“I told him I didn’t want it,” Germaine said quietly.
“You know how he is,” Roger said. “He’s so goddamn hard-nosed. He believes what he wants to believe.”
It was lighter now. A quarter-mile to portside the sun rays were running through the pine tops like a crown fire. With the dawn the water changed too. Around the tug, it was a clean waxy green; to the shoreward it was a hard deep blue that exploded into the white wavering line of the breakers foaming onto the yellow beach. They were off the Point Beach Forest now, the Old Man’s house would be coming up soon.
“You want me to take the wheel for a while?” Germaine asked.
“All right,” Roger said. “Sure. I could use some coffee.”
They exchanged places. Roger got out a thermos bottle.
“You want some?”
He opened the bottle and sloshed it into the cover cup. He sipped it carefully and smacked his lips.
“Goddamn working for a living,” he said. “It’s a bitch.”
Germaine nodded sympathetically but with the wheel in his hands and the clean wild look of this beautiful morning it actually felt like a holiday.
“It’s no fun,” he said.
“What I need,” Roger said, “is some of that flight pay. Whattaya get? Fifty percent of your base pay?”
“And overseas pay on top of that?”
“Christ.” Roger stared ahead glumly, his face a dark inscrutable silhouette against the eastern sky. The throbbing of the engine filled the tiny pilothouse; the lake swished and gurgled under the hull.
“That’s the whole goddamn trouble,” he said. “I got nothing to show for it. Not a goddamn thing. It’s the Old Man’s boat. The Old Man’s beach. His nets. His fish.”
Germaine was watching Raphael and Gabriel. They stirred as the sunlight caught their faces. They burrowed closer to the gunwale and slept on. What were their dreams, their hopes? Did they want something more than straight salary too? Did they want to be full partners with the Old Man? Everybody a chief and nobody an Indian? Why not, what was in it for them?
The Old Man built his beach for his family, his sons, and yet it was the Old Man’s beach. Germaine had never questioned it before but he realized now that it would be the Old Man’s beach as long as the Old Man lived. He didn’t know if it was right or wrong. It was simply the way the Old Man was. If Roger was concerned about title and deeds and property he would have to wait until the Old Man died. That’s the way things were. That’s the way the Old Man was. He sneaked a look at Roger. You’re not so bad off as you think, he thought. You want title and deeds and property, wait a little. You’ve waited this long. Wait a little more. Be patient. The Old Man won’t live forever. When he dies, the Old Man’s beach will be yours. It will be yours and welcome to it. Until then, keep the deathwatch. Watch and be patient.
Roger was screwing the cup back on the thermos.
“You know what I’m afraid of,” he said, “is maybe it’s too late already.”
“Too late for what?”
“The fishing. For lake trout.” Roger lighted a cigarette and leaned against the bulkhead. “You know the trout have been falling off the last coupla seasons. Nobody knew what was wrong at first but we got it pretty well pinned down now. It’s the lamprey—goddamned saltwater eel from the Atlantic. They hang on the trout like bloodsuckers and kill them.” The smoke came angrily from his nostrils. “And that friggin’ chief of the Conservation Department says, ‘Oh, no, it can’t be anything like that. You commercial fishermen are just taking too many trout and we’ll have to control you a little closer.’ Too many trout, my ass!”
“Can’t they control the lampreys?”
“I dunno. But right now all they’re thinking about is controlling the commercial fishermen. That’s why I said maybe it’s too late already. If the trout go—” He clamped his left hand on his right biceps and brought up his arm slowly. “It won’t make much difference whether I’m on this rig or on Dussault’s rig. Both are gonna be worth shit.”
“Now, come on,” Germaine said. “It can’t be that bad. This is the greatest lake-trout water in the world.”
“Well, this season is gonna tell the story. If the trout don’t come back this season—I dunno. We’re screwed.”
“The Conservation Department always seemed to know what was going on.”
“Crap,” Roger said. “They don’t know their ass.”
In the distance now, Germaine could see the spile tops that anchored their pot nets sticking up like thin fence posts. Above them, gulls were rising and falling like sail planes. He looked off to the left and there against the dark forest was the Old Man’s house, proud and white above the boiling surf.
“You can head us for the nets,” Roger said. “I’ll get the boys up.”
* * *
They were snubbed up broadside against the spiles of the pot net. A pot or pound net differed from a gill net in that it could be compared to a huge rope cage from which fine-meshed lead nets were strung like fences along the bottom. The theory was simply that fish confronted by the lead nets would follow them along seeking the end and would be channeled into the narrow funnel of the pot. As the sides of the pot rose on the spiles high out of the water, the fish couldn’t swim out over the top of the trap and they couldn’t swim through the cable-like mesh of the sides. They swam in a watery prison that extended from bottom to surface and very few ever retraced their entrance routes and escaped through the funnel. The simplest of funneled minnow traps operated on the same principle. Once the lead side of the pot net was lifted, the funnel was sealed and the fish inside were forced to the surface as the net rose under them like a floor. At the surface they were scooped out and flung into the hold of the fishing tug.
A gill net, on the other hand, was a less sophisticated device. This was simply bottom-weighted with lead sinkers and held relatively perpendicular in the water by cork floats along the upper edge. Fish attempting to swim through the mesh were caught and hung up by their raky gills.
Old Man LeMere fished with nets of both types. The pot nets, or course, were stationary and barring disaster their locations were not changed during the season. The gill nets offered more mobility, could be picked up easily and could be shifted if their sites were unproductive.
In the old days when Germaine had fished with the Old Man the pot nets and the gill nets bulged and sagged with big lake trout and he remembered that the catches had run into thousands of pounds for a single lift.
Now as he watched Gabriel and Raphael crank the pot net on the hand windlasses, Germaine knew that it was a poor haul. A few dozen fish were boiling around, thrashing. They were lake trout but it was a poor haul. Germaine knew it would not weigh more than a couple of hundred pounds once the fish were gilled and gutted.
Gabriel held the net; Raphael shoveled out the fish with a long-handled scoop and dropped them into the tug’s fish hold.
Roger came up to him then, shaking his head and getting out his cigarettes.
“We might as well rest and smoke,” he said. “Rafe can get them.”
Germaine wiped his wet hands on his woolen navy cap. He picked out a cigarette.
“Two hundred pounds,” Roger said, “if we’re lucky. That pays for gas, but not for us.”
They smoked and watched their brothers silently.
“What’s the matter?” Germaine asked. “These waters used to be jammed with lake trout. Big big schools.”
“The snakes from the sea,” he said. “The goddamn snakes from the sea.”
He leaned forward and yelled to Raphael who was turning with the scoop net.
“You got one, Rafe?”
“Yeah,” came the answer.
“Come on,” Roger said, and they clambered over to the scoop net. In the bagging depression a small lake trout was gasping out its life and as it flipped and flopped Germaine saw a dark foot-long eel streaming from the fish’s underbelly. He bent closer to see and he saw that the eel was actually fastened to the fish like a leech or bloodsucker.
“That’s a lamprey eel,” Roger said.
Germaine shook his head in disbelief.
“They hit the trout in the open lake and then just attach themselves and bleed the fish to death.”
The water washed heavily into their gunwales and the gulls wheeled over the fish ground and sat on the spile tops and the four fishermen stared down at the little scoop net.
Roger got out his small gill knife and half cut, half pried the lamprey loose from the trout. “That’s the business end,” he said.
Germaine saw a scar hole the size of a half-dollar rasped right into the fish’s body. Fresh blood and gore were still coursing out of two nail-like holes.
“That,” said Gabriel, “was caused by this.” He had picked up the lamprey and had forced the sucker-like mouth open and Germaine saw the lethal rows of teeth.
“In all the years I fished with the Old Man,” Germaine said, “I never saw an eel like this.”
“You goddamn right you didn’t,” Roger said. “Because it’s not fresh water. It’s a salt-water eel. From the Atlantic. The Atlantic Ocean.”
He nodded to Gabriel and his brother dropped the lamprey; Roger threw down the knife and pinned the eel to the deck. In an instant he had cut this way and that and the eel lay in a dozen different bloody pieces. He picked up the cuttings and flung them into the water and the gulls wheeled down from their spile tops and after the water boiled briefly the pieces were gone and the water was empty.
“It doesn’t do any good,” Roger said, wiping his knife. “But I feel better. They’re snakes from the sea and I hate every goddamn one of them.”
He lit a fresh cigarette on the stub of the old and waved his hand.
“All this water. The Great Lakes. Ontario, Erie, Huron, now Michigan and soon Superior. All this water filling up with the goddamn snakes and not a man on earth can stop them now.”
They picked up their pot nets and they reset them and strung them tight and secured them. Then Germaine turned the tug southward for the Two Rivers harbor and from the wheelhouse he watched his brothers gilling and gutting out the fish in the hold and throwing the offal into an oil drum and his mind was on the scar holes in the trout bodies and the lamprey eel and its sucker-like mouth and the raspy rows of lethal teeth.
All this water, filling up with the goddamn snakes and not a man on earth can stop them now.
Germaine couldn’t keep his mind off the Old Man. Michigan was always the Old Man’s lake. He worked the fish grounds off this shore. He built up on this beach with his own two hands.
At the dinner meal the talk would be of fish, of the disappearing lake trout. It will be a hard season. It is not only here. All along and down the beach the talk would be the same. No fisherman is safe from the snakes from the sea. The trout fisherman will end on the beach. Some of them soon … this season. Ontario, Erie, Huron. This season they are farmers. They are beached. Sold out. Moved. Working in the cities.
The old days are gone. The fish are lost. This morning a few hundred pounds. The Old Man will not catch his weight in fish.
The Old Man LeMere and the lifeblood of his business going into the bellies of eels. On the deck, the brothers put away their pocket stones and knives.
The Old Man will end on the beach so very soon. There is no fighting the snakes from the sea. They will drive him high onto his own beach. They will drive him even as they drove the trout before. They will kill him, the Old Man. Even as they killed the trout.
In the pilothouse, Germaine kept the bow, like a knife, into the Two Rivers Point.
– From Fisherman’s Beach by George Vukelich. Reprinted by permission of Vince Vukelich and the Vukelich estate.