The Very Cruelest Thing: The Story-Behind-the-Story

Posted on December 3, 2012

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Prelude

I went fishing with a friend who actually reads my short stories, Mark Hoffman,  and we were discussing The Very Cruelest Thing. He thinks it’s a tremendous story. I told him how the story came about and he thought it would be a good story to tell “the story behind the story.” So here I am. If you haven’t read it, you should go read it now. I’ll wait.

No, honest, it’s only 1300 words. This blog won’t make any sense if you don’t read it and, if by some miracle you want to read it after it won’t be any where near as good. I promise. I’ll wait.

I checked the logs, so far 44 people have read this blog entry but only 17 have read the story. If you are going to do one and not the other, read the story!

Post Mortem

One interesting thing about Cruelest Thing, from a writing point of view is the writing point of view. I fantasized about this guy getting his just due without ever having to pull the trigger. How to make this happen? The protagonist does every heroic thing in the story: fishes the guy out, revives him, ensures he has the best possible medical care, and yet because you know his motivation, he’s not a hero at all.  He’s vengeful. He’s cold. He needs therapy. You could tell the story from a different point of view,  and you might think of him as a hero. However, there would be no story there. Who would care?  The exact same plot line, but because of the point of view, it’s a completely different story. That all came because I had a deep-seated need for vengence, but I’m really not such a bad guy.

The Backstory

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The tundra

Okay, so this story actually started a few years ago when my house burned down. While it was a total pain, it was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me. I had always planned on walking before they made me run, but I’m a bit of a procrastinator. It was a good kick in the ass.  The only really sad parts were that Ryan had his life’s possessions in the house, and I had to deal with Farmers Insurance. There are two kinds of insurance companies: those that take your money for years and actually understand that it’s their job to pay up if and when something bad happens, and those who show up after the initial big screwing to continue the job. Farmers is the latter. They flew a guy in the next morning to cover the claim, which I took as a good sign, but it turns out they just like to start their long slow screws without foreplay. (I’m sorry, mom, there is going to be some worse language to follow.)

What followed was a day of good-cop/bad-cop as their private arson investigator tried to trip me up and the adjuster pretended like he cared about anything besides saving the company money. I think they thought that anybody who would get up the morning after his house burned down and go to work was the kind of cold bastard who might have burned the place down. I pointed out that it could also be somebody who had lost everything in life except his dream job and he might want to hold on to that. I also  pointed out that if I was going to burn the house down, I probably would’ve taken my computer(s).  Oh, and not screw my friend Ryan as hard as an insurance adjuster. Because when all is said and done, all I really miss is my intellectual property. The things I created from my mind and my camera. They even called my ex to see if she either did it or thought I might. She explained Yankees to them just a little bit. I think she used the word “stoic” or something.

At the time I was on dial up, and while Carbonite and similar places existed, I chose to just triply back stuff up in the house because, well, when was the last time you ever heard of somebody who actually had a fire?  I was told that the house actually made the cover of Arson Quarterly and they never did figure out the cause, even though I put forth several completely feasible scenarios. In fact, I’m pretty sure I know exactly how it happened. Seems the local chief didn’t care and the private guy was too busy trying to figure out how I did it. After dealing with him, I’m not too sure he was capable of really solving any mysteries.

It didn’t get much better. Suffice it to say that my agent was a drunken lush that I never once was able to contact after the original claim, and that you are very, very much under insured.  Hell, I lost $20,000 of suits in that fire. I know, me in a suit? Right. By the time the house burned down, I was working from home on my 20-acre farm and barely put pants on.  But there was a time I wore 3-piece suits every day and had them tailor-made. Turns out Farmers decided that my 20-year old 500- bottle wine cellar had been depreciating…Never mind it was full of things like Cadence first vintage (winery of the decade) and other assorted goodies. Funny thing was, if they had given me a few simple things I would’ve settled the next day, but because they passed on the lubricant, I dragged it out as long as possible and cost them as much as I could.  I think a little respect is probably the cheapest thing in the world. If any of my 10,000 viewers have Farmers, I’d reconsider.

You know losing everything you have really gives you a chance to determine if what you own is defined by who you are, or if who you are is defined by what you own. Before I went out and replaced my cameras, skis, and fishing gear, I got to really think “Am I still really a photographer, skier, or fisherman?” I mean instead of having piles of crap I felt guilty about not using, I had nothing. The fire was 8 years ago(?) and I still own so little stuff that I went home this summer with one travel bag, one camera bag, and a lap top and was gone for 6 weeks, including 10 days in Europe.  That included my waders, my running gear, all my fly gear, everything  I needed to work, and a suit for a wedding. There is something to be said for catharsis. If you ever need help letting go of old stuff, hire the guy whose house burned down.

Anyway, the fire was in December, by September I was ready for a vacation. A friend of Davey’s, Justin Crump, was starting a fly fishing business out of Dillingham AK. The deal was you fly in, pay all of the transportation costs, hop on a bush plane, go to a lake, drift it to the sea, and hop back to Dillingham and fly out. This way Justin could scout rivers for free, and you could fish Alaska for the minimum price possible. With luck, I might even be able to write about it and sell the story. So I packed up my camera gear and just about everything else I owned, borrowed the rest, and took off.

We spent a day fishing in Dillingham, one of those days where it is raining so hard that it’s hard to tell where the atmosphere stops and the river starts. Kind of day wear nature laughs ate Goretex. We were on the same water as some dudes from a lodge who were pissed to be sitting in the rain because the choppers were grounded and the salmon were not biting. I was pulling in 17″ rainbows, and feeling better than I had in a long time. Every time I caught a fish I would smile and wave at them and you could see the steam billow out from their jackets. Dude, maybe it gets better than this, but this is a hell of a lot better than the place I just left. You’d think they were fishing with Farmers agents or something.

I think we spent another day choosing our river and drinking a little Jack, and then we flew out to Togiak lake. A beautiful place under a bluff where the colors and topography reminded me of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. The first night we caught hammer-handle pickerel, so named because they are a consistent 18-24 inches. These fish will take anything. We were throwing dark streamers against the bank in scant inches of water and picking them up on every cast. They were sitting right in the lake mouth eating the spawned out sockeyes. They ate through my wire leaders and eventually took every wooley bugger I had (like two dozen) before it was time for bed.

Lake Togiak, in Hudson River Pallet

Lake Togiak, in Hudson River Pallet (spots on image explained below)

That night as I lay there, one jumped repeatedly offshore every 42 seconds.  I would doze off and then “Splash!” Finally, around 3AM I got up, waded out waited for the splash, cast to it, picked up the fish, reeled him in and said “Shut the fuck up and go to bed,” and let it go. (Sorry, mom, the language does get worse.)

Anyway, we floated the river, catching mostly ‘ bows up high. Well Crump caught them, I mostly lost them. There is a difference between catching fish and catching big fish, and the reason you need to go to someplace like Alaska is so you can miss a bunch of them all in a row and finally land a few. That way, when you are fishing where the big fish are much rarer and you hook one, you stick it. I had one fish, easily 24″ I lost by the simple expedient of it breaking the hook clean off. Others, I was just stupid. Having Crump stand by my shoulder and coach me every step of the way was worth every penny of the trip.

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Typical Crump Catch

This is not technical. We mostly fished flesh flies, to emulate the rotting salmon runs that were in the river. I would catch the occasional grayling, a beautiful high-dorsaled fish that looks like it belongs in a coral reef, subsurface. One night a school of them was rising right off our campsite. Crump amused himself watching me miss rise after rise on dries until he finally keyed me in to watch the rise pattern. If you look  closely, it’s a figure-8. The fish rise up and take the fly coming down, forming two intersecting circles. I was trying to set the hook and pulling the fly right out of their open mouths. I bet I would’ve spent 6 months figuring that out on my own. That was a very powerful lesson in forgetting everything you think you know and just paying attention whenever you are going after a new species, are in a new place, or just plain not catching fish.

On the tundra rivers, the the only place to camp is in gravel bars in rivers. The waist-high little bushes that cover the tundra are too thick to walk through. The only trails exist because bears smash them down. Thinking about that when you are walking along teh 2′-wide path is like thinking about getting a flat on  your motorcycle when you are doing 100MPH.  There is something about realizing you are not at the top of the food chain. You don’t want to go there.  And realize it you did. We would come across these beaver dams next to the river that were the size of two-storey houses that looked like they had been dynamited or that earth-moving equipment had done it. That was the grizzlies ripping them apart looking for snacks.  In fact, the next morning I woke up and not 3′ from where my head had been was a fresh grizzly track larger than my boot.

Outside my tent 3' from my head. And how did you sleep?

Outside my tent 3′ from my head. And how did you sleep?

You cannot walk through this without using bear trails

You cannot walk through this without using bear trails

We were just a little late for the kings, although I think Crump landed a few. While the bears are a force of nature with obvious implications, it is the salmon who are so numerous and so powerful they change the course of the river by digging their redds. It is really something to see the huge holes a hen can excavate, wearing her fins down to nubs.

Towards the bottom of the river we hit pinks. Here the river was deeper, and you could sit in a hole 30′ deep and see thousands of fish all the way to the bottom where occasionally you would see a silver salmon flash. At first it is fun to catch fish on every cast, but apparently I shouldn’t be enjoying the  pinks so much as it is really the silvers we were after. On this, last day, we really needed to cover a lot of water. Lower down the gravel bars are fewer and the land on either side is owned by the tribes and so off-limits. Since Crump had never been here before we needed to pull all the way to town and perhaps camp on the beach so we could make our flight in the morning.

This low down the river was tidal and brackish, which meant the salmon were still eating. We met several locals and guides from a local lodge. I was trolling Spey flies between runs, which Crump labeled “not fishing” but I lost my Spey rod (a 13-19′ rod you fish with two hands on the big rivers around here) in the fire and didn’t know if I was ever going to get another one. Spey flies are almost too pretty to waste on fish, but I did catch my biggest fish of the trip, actually of my life still to date, a 28″ Dolly Varden trolling one. Every time I look at the picture I still think is a silver salmon.  (A Dolly is ~sea run bull trout, I say approximately because the folks who count fish ear bones and other arcane ichthyological stuff argue that all day long. And yes, fish have ear bones.)

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Hello Dolly!

Eventually, we found a beautiful seam, got out and lined up Justin’s Spey rods. We started catching silvers on every cast. If you felt the bump and missed the hook set, you just left the line in the water and let it keep swinging, you were guaranteed to pick up another fish, or two, or three. So many fish, Justin convinced me to harvest a dozen to take back as I was flying out the next day, even though killing things is anathema to me. The run stopped almost as quickly as it started and we boated up to find a camp spot. In a few miles we came to the mouth of the bay and we could see Togiak about two miles away. There was a small island and Crump’s software said the tide would not cover it by at least a couple of feet, which made sense as it was well-vegetated. Nevertheless, we tied the boat up with 3 ropes and kept most of our gear in it, just in case we had to bug out. All we kept was our waders, and I kept my camera gear as I was up until 1AM or so shooting the everlasting sunset.

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The last thing that camera ever saw….

For some reason, despite having the absolute newest and best gear, I had not been sleeping well all week. I went to bed and fell asleep, only to be awakened by Crump telling me somebody was stealing out boat. No wonder I was sleeping so well, my tent was floating. I got up and put my waders on, but I was already wet.  We stumbled around in the dark while I retrieved my head lamp, then went down to where we left the boat. Sure enough, no boat, no ropes, nothing. Crump said he knew what was happening because he heard two people speaking English. Only he, I, and any clients from the camp up river would be speaking English.

This was, as they say, a bad situation. In Alaska the tides are diurnal, only twice a day, so they come in slowly, but they go out slowly too. The water was already 4 or 5 feet deeper than we thought it would ever get. We were in waders, but I was wet. Standing around in waist deep ocean water, even if it has been warmed in a shallow bay and you have waders on is not the best plan. Especially if one of you is wet and you don’t know how much deeper it’s going to get. I was reminded of  short story I read in 7th grade about a guy who takes his son duck hunting off the coast of Maine. They tie up to a rock, but the son loses the boat and the father wedges himself in the rocks holding his son on his shoulders as the tide comes in. Or the Cold Equation, another fantastic story.

Look, we’d planned for every eventuality, because that’s what you do,  except the thieves. And Crump was performing with a cool head. But I won’t lie, I was scared. We had a mile of open water, best as I could estimate on open water which is tough at any time, between us and shore. We were debating: hold still and wait it out, or tie the tents, which were floating in a sad little pile, but floating, into a raft and kick for shore. Or strip down and swim it. And of course, worst case you are going to die. I mean I don’t want to over dramatize it, but at the very least it was going to be one hell of a long night. On top of that, being wet, and a head shorter, I was a definite liability to my friend. Together, we might have to make decisions he might not. Fuck. Well, the one thing I did know was that I didn’t want to die whining. I mean really, you can live your whole life a certain way, but when the chips are down, Gunga Din, that’s what they will remember you for. I was scared more that I was going to die unmanly than that I was going to die. Drowning and freezing are slow deaths you get to see coming a long way off, with lots of chances to fold.

We went through contingency plans while Crump used a satellite phone to call a friend back in Dillingham. That defines a true friend: somebody who will get his ass out of bed at 3:30 AM on the off chance  you might have a real reason to be calling. His friend, in turn, somehow managed to get the Indian Agent in Togiak. In an hour or so he and the Police Chief had a boat in the water and were coming across to us, signalling them in with my headlamp, his friend on the phone keeping it all together.  By then, the water was about up to my waist. By the time we got in the boat and the wind was drying us out I was shaking pretty good. I was very, very glad Plan A had worked. Because it was the only one where success was guaranteed. Or so I thought. We beached the boat put us and our gear in the back of a truck and rode into town to the only place they had to put us up: the jail.

The police chief showed us the one working dryer. The other was full of confiscated booze. It was like being in a war zone. He was the only white man in town, and although he knew exactly who had taken our boat, the elders had told him that if he ever left the town proper, they would disappear him, so he couldn’t follow it up. Not an empty threat as I guess the elders disappeared each other with fair regularity. In addition to being the Police Chief, he was also the Fire Marshall, which was moot because the locals had broken into the police/fire station and stripped the brand new fire truck within days of getting it. This proved to be an unfortunate choice when half the town burned down soon after. His job seemed to largely consist of confiscating booze from the locals and them breaking into the jail to get it back. And, he knew the guides were bringing it in. It was a vicious, unbreakable cycle. In the winter the locals would take snowmobiles 80 miles across the tundra to Dillingham buy booze, and fall off on the way back to freeze to death.

The metal doors of the station were full of bullet holes and freshly welded plates to replace the locks that had been torched out. He left us there, running our soaking tents and sleeping bags through the dryer time after time to make the fly out weight in the morning. We were offered mattresses in the cells, but slept on the hard tile floor between loads to escape the smells of urine and vomit. Plus, I never like the idea of being in a place somebody could come along and lock you in. At one point somebody tried to break in and we had to pound on our side of the door to scare them off. Probably part of a select set of very few people who ever stopped anybody from breaking them out of a jail, but in a night of bad choices, it was the best one we had.

In the morning, the Police Chief came to get us. My new cameras were all trashed with salt water and I didn’t know enough then to flood the film with water, so most of that got lost, too. You can see spots on the ones posted below. My lenses looked like they should have sea monkeys in them or something.  Our gear was almost dry and repacked to fly out. In the daylight, the town looked like something from the third world. The natives looked at us with outright animosity as we drove by the shotgun shacks and burned-out debris while avoiding 13-year old alcoholics driving pick ups going the other way. This is not America, I don’t care what flag  you plant. The only English I heard all day was spoken among us. It’s another reason to go to Alaska – hubris reduction. Once you see how we treat “Americans” you can be a little more sympathetic to people who might not welcome us to their soil. I wonder how often the Alaska natives say “Yeah, but they brought Democracy.”

I came home, filed yet another insurance claim with my friends, and heard from Crump about two weeks later. His boat had floated back down to the bay, full of two-week old fish and no rods.  It definitely had not floated away on its own.

So, that’s the rest of the story. Everybody whom I’ve ever told that story to  who fished in Alaska knew exactly who took our boat. Hell, if you look at the map of  Togiak on Google the fishing camp is on it. Hell, if you type Togiak into FaceBook in a post it tries to take you to their page!  It takes a cold-hearted cocksucker (sorry mom) to leave you on an island that is flooding in the middle of the night over fish of which we took so few in a river of so many. He doesn’t even live off them. He sells them to dudes who catch them with bait from power boats.  There have been any number of times where I’ve had close calls, bad accidents, or could’ve died. But I never got to stand around and plan for it to happen like I did that night.  I took this incredibly impersonal act  incredibly personally and I fretted upon it. And so for a long time I fantasized my revenge. It would be a simple matter to fly back, get a boat, go up river, sugar the tanks of all of his boats and ruin a season. Maybe make it an annual trip. Probably best to go armed, just in case. I’m sure they didn’t float down river 5 miles empty handed looking for us, after all. I stuck pins and dolls, dipped them in blood, burned and ate them. That kind of stuff. You have to understand, they didn’t just strand me on an island over night in dire circumstances, taking my life’s possessions, I had to find another drunken Farmers agent to file another claim with. This was bad shit.

It turns out hate is bad for your fishing, though. It eats into that quiet time on the water and erodes that precious peace we work like slaves to earn. Ultimately, it was just one bad night at the end of a great week where we caught 3 species of salmon, 2 of trout, grayling, and pike.  I mean, get over it. So I wrote The Very Cruelest Thing and virtually forgot about it. The woman I was dating at the time read it and said I needed therapy. We are a strange society. Despite worshiping violence more than Roman gladiator spectators, if you ever contemplate the act, somehow we are supposed to be above that. Watching violence on TV is some secret sin that everybody does, a daily act we do with our children without compunction, but actually reacting to violence with violence, reacting to attempts on your life,  somehow that just marks you as broken. So the fact that I got her to feel that, to get inside the protagonist’s mind, well that was the best feedback I ever got on a story.  Of course, the story was my therapy.  Catharsis. Turns out it works for a multitude of sins.

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