When the weather in Portland hits three digit heat, I often think of growing up in Southern California. Everything from Little League games in scorching weather to sitting outside till dark licking popsicles with neighborhood kids comes flooding back. And then the people...the characters, and of course the neighbors.
Today I thought of Fritz. Fritz Ehrler was a father figure for me because he liked to fish and he took me fishing...often. Something I couldn't do with my own father. My dad and I had baseball to share, but Fritz was a real outdoorsman who had the patience and kindness to teach me what he knew. He also had access to a private lake. As a member of something called the Fin and Feather Club, he could bring one or two guests along in his small boat. The lake was located in Palmdale, way out in the desert North of L.A. It took a couple of hours to get there and by the time we'd get his small boat off the trailer and into the water it was a good 3 hours till we could wet a line. This was bait fishing, something I no longer do. Fritz didn't miss an opportunity to succeed. He started the process about 5:00pm the previous evening when he'd ask me along to go to a local market. The Community Market, a small independent San Fernando Valley grocery store was the first stop. They had a modest butcher counter and Fritz would buy a half dozen mackerel. At home, he'd cut them up into chunks, add a little water and then load the stink mess into a large empty mayonnaise jar.
After anchoring the boat, he'd unscrew the lid on a the jar a bit and slowly, when the coast was clear, lower the jar into the water. As it slowly sank under the boat, it let off a stream of mackerel. Chumming at it's finest. Our offerings of salmon eggs or worms had lots of takers lured there by the scent from the jar. Fritz didn't worry about ethics when it came to catching fish because all trout caught on this lake found there way to frying pans.
Fritz was a chain smoker (but not while fishing) He smoked one Camel after another while driving. He had a small Smokey the Bear ash tray mounted on the dash of his Ford station wagon which always contained a cigarette butt. Before lighting a new cigarette, Fritz would transfer the last butt into the car's large ashtray below the dash and ready Smokey for his latest offering. It was ritual.
Much of Fritz remained a mystery to me. He was the second husband of my neighbor Mary who was a single parent other two daughters, one slightly older than me, one slightly younger. I'd know her first husband and the girl's father until their divorce about three years before Fritz first appeared. He was Bob, the Don Draper of this Mad Men world. I see now how many of those folks in my 50s childhood were alcoholics. This launching pad for the post War boomer generation was often much rougher than it appeared behind those suburban doors.
But Fritz reached out and took this kid with him. Maybe I was the son he never had, or maybe he just wanted to talk to someone while he fished. I know how lonely going out alone can be.