Friday, August 6, 2021

Fishing At Old Bahia Honda

C N Beattie, QC.
My father was a tax lawyer in London, after World War Two interrupted his legal career. He enjoyed tax law, giving tax advice to the rich and famous on the one hand while helping the government prosecute tax cases on the other. In Britain, Queen's Counsel (senior lawyers) are for hire by anyone who pays, from either side of a case. In his spare time he wrote tax law text books for lucky students to study and worry over. I thought his life of endless commuting by train, hours spent smoking in an office followed by appearances in court under a ghastly hot horsehair wig which came over my youthful eyes when I tried it on, was not, in sum, a life for me. I went to the Old Bailey when I was in town and watched him nail some tax pervert for the Inland Revenue Service and his level of excitement at another successful outcome didn't match that of his thirteen year old son -"Did you win Daddy?"  "Humph." However his plan to avoid paying taxes himself, and his fees were huge I later discovered taxed up to 90%, was of far more interest  to the young me. "We're off to Scotland" he would say on some few winter holidays in the years before he divorced my Italian mother, which divorce stopped all trips to Leckmelm. He and I would take the Rolls Royce and ride up the Great North Road to another world of heather and hillsides and squawking seagulls and weird voices mumbling Scottish, such that Sassenachs (an impolite term for people from England) like me had no chance to understand a sentence as simple as being offered more potatoes with my dinner. Going fishing with a Scotsman as an  instructor was a whole new level of difficulty.
Fishing in the Keys is an entirely different affair, because quite aside from language issues, warm water, warm air and plenty of sunshine, it's not at all like the Scottish fishing style where mist and drizzle and biting gnats are the order of the day. Commercial fisherman in the Keys may speak Spanish but that for me is much easier to decipher than a Scottish brogue. 
If I were a fishing kind of person I tell myself I could enjoy standing around the Keys staring at the water failing to do anything much. I wouldn't get frostbite or snow melting in my hair.  
However I am not interested in angling, as I fear pitting my wits against those of a fish and coming out second best.   I am not smart enough to bait a barb or lure a fish, I lack the self confidence to believe they would find my hook attractive. I quit fishing when I got ahead many decades ago in Ullapool, Scotland.
Rusty has his own interests, and he follows his nose wherever it takes him. We had what was called a wire haired dachshund, the runt of the litter scheduled for euthanasia as he was too unattractive to sell. So we got him and saved him for a very long life.  When I was growing up Bobby was a bloody minded stubborn brute who mauled the milkman and terrified the letter carrier and never had any doubt at all he was the leader of the pack when it came to hanging out with myself or my sisters. He was not able to come on vacation in Italy with us when we spent summers at my mother's home. That was because dogs weren't allowed into England in those days without a six month quarantine to prevent rabies arriving in the sceptered isle, so he stayed with our housekeeper. But Bobby could and did come to Scotland from time to time. He was not there the day I caught a trout for the first and last time in my life and ate it fried for breakfast. Had he been I'd have shared it with him as I did everything else.
Check out the couple at the top of the hill they are looking at the sunrise at Old Bahia Honda. Rusty as usual was looking for unfathomable things where fish bait was discarded overnight. I was looking for a picture. Silence reigned between us.
My father's place in Scotland is situated on the north shore of Loch Broom. This loch is an inlet from the sea like a flooded valley with hills on either shore. The sun rises out of the eastern end of the fiord and sets over the open ocean in the direction of the Isles of Lewis and Harris, the last lumps of rock in the Atlantic before Newfoundland. The sun, when visible can be quite spectacular in the damp air of northern Scotland. 

My father bought farm land when he started to become well know in his law practice, and because he was a tax law specialist he knew how to reduce his tax liability legally, if not profitably, and farm land is apparently excellent for just that purpose. I should not have minded if he had increased my rather meager allowance of ten dollars a term at my boarding school. He had the idea I was not his son owing to the disagreeable state of his marriage so he was not fond of me and he barely tolerated me around my mother. Eventually I discovered he thought I was the product of a family scandal involving my mother and the man she really loved but when you are ten years old these nuances tend to escape your attention. All I knew was that he was his nicest when we went to Leckmelm where I suspect he kept one or more of his favorite hotel staff for his occasional visits. My family was a womanizing mess which goes a long way to explaining why I fled to the New World as soon as I decently could.
A byproduct of all this adult scheming was that the lawyer's son got to spend the occasional winter vacation learning to do outdoor things. I stalked and shot a deer which experience induced me to swear off killing for the rest of my life. I enjoyed the walk over the treeless hillsides while following the deer through the bracken, watching Ian McDonald, my father's gamekeeper crawling and peering through his binoculars tracking and anticipating where they would go. It was only at the moment of pulling out the rifle and actually planning to take the animal's life that inside I revolted. I did it once and knew what it felt like and never did it again. I still regret that shot.

There was a stream running through the farm where trout fishing was a sport that guests could participate in. My father's modest farm had grown into a  modest hotel which like the farm also lost money over the years. I never understood the point of losing money simply to avoid paying taxes. Paying taxes seemed a much easier way to live with none of these emotional and financial complexities of operating businesses 600 miles from home and which you visited less often as the owner than  you would as a simple holidaymaker. It made him happy though and I got to take road trips from time to time. And Ian MacDonald had a job.
He took me trout fishing, sitting on the banks of the fast flowing stream running through the farm, threading artificial flies on a hook and then standing there waiting for something to happen. The stream looked much the same in 2018 when last I was there, with perhaps less water that Spring than when I was fishing all those years ago:
I have no idea how I pulled it off but I caught my breakfast that morning. Many years after I saw a movie that briefly created a fad about casting flies. It was called A River Runs Through It and I went to see it at the Aptos Twin theater in Santa Cruz County.  After we came out my girlfriend and I overheard two women in front of us and one said to the other: "I wish I could find a man who would enjoy watching that with me." The relationship failed as I sabotaged everything but that evening I got kudos.  I noticed in the film they made a complex fiddle faddle about how to go fly fishing. I went out with Ian for an hour and came back with a  trout to fry and it didn't seem like a big deal, fly fishing. I liked the trout but I didn't like the process, even though it was much less bloody and stark than shooting a buck.
I don't know why it never took, but the outdoor life never did. Hunting shooting and fishing never stirred my blood.  I like being outdoors walking with my dog and my camera but I don't like killing things. I can't even bring myself to run over an iguana. And I don't like iguanas very much as they carry disease are destructive and almost impossible to wipe out once embedded in a tropical environment.
All this preamble to avoid the main point I suppose: why was it such a treat to go north with my father?  He set the mood of course but he was always happy to drive to Leckmelm, an 18 hour journey when roads were narrow and winding, indeed the last section north of Inverness was mostly one lane road, paved with passing places like this:
My father was neither creative nor musical so the radio was out. He talked and I listened and though he never did share himself or his feelings much, other than to display his racist and rather bigoted side, he talked of the places he had seen and the journeys he had made. He was born in 1912 and remembered a Zeppelin blimp hanging over Shepherds Bush bombing London in World War One. 
He was poor between the wars and took his vacations by bicycle and he rode across Europe to visit the Spanish Civil War and I have no doubt he supported the rebels taking down the Socialist government. He also rode across Germany to Poland and he wasn't particularly informative about that ride either. I was too young to ask pointed questions about the Nazis in pre-war Germany but his stories were still inspiring and in a way bonding even though he was an emotionally frigid man to his family. I spent hours on the front seat of the Rolls Royce, a child of privilege with no idea of my good fortune, listening to stories. He led convoys across the Western Desert navigating by sextant, crashing over sand dunes and being bombed by Italian aircraft patrols. It sounded all terribly romantic, free of feelings and pain and loneliness the way he told it.
He parachuted into Yugoslavia to fight with the partisans of Tito's guerrillas, places of war I looked at from our rental car as we drove across those arid mountains and deep dark clefts on our simple modern vacation after even the Yugoslav civil war had pock marked buildings and wrecked populations. I re-read Fitzroy MacLeans' Eastern Approaches, a memoir that included some of the same theater of travel and war. Oddly enough there was more emotion in the book than in the stories I heard on the Great North Road.
I still recall with clarity the long drives, the stories, the snow, the hotels and the camaraderie that never came back or was replicated anywhere else our lives intersected. And all it takes is watching some men fish half a world away to remind me of those long lost days of driving through the snow.