The fishing pier on the lake where we took our vacation was accessible so Maria and I went fishing. I bought a cheap pole at the local Kmart and some fake bait which, when we took it out of the package, looked like gummy squid.
We got no bites. The fish in this lake aren’t as dumb as they look. They know gummy squid aren’t indigenous to these waters. They were down there laughing at our fake bait.
Maria asked if I’d ever caught a fish. Indeed I did, I said. It was at cripple summer day camp and they took us to some human-made pond and we fished off of foot bridges, using cubes of cheese as bait. Just before it was time to leave, I caught a fish. Every cripple on our field trip caught a fish that day (and had to throw it back). We all went home happy.
But now, as I recounted my fish story for the first time in about 45 years, there was something disturbingly incongruous about it. How was it that every last cripple just happened to catch a fish that day? Did I really catch that fish or was it all a big set-up? Did someone pull a Special Olympics number on me? Suddenly, the whole thing reeked of conspiracy.
Now I wondered if the reason they took us to that particular pond was because it was also stocked with secret scuba divers, each with a bucket of dead fish and a special, waterproof walkie-talkie. And when it became clear that a certain cripple wasn’t going to catch a fish by natural means within the allotted time, central control radioed the nearest diver. The diver then hung a fish on the cripple’s barren hook like a Christmas ornament and gave the line a hearty tug. Is that how I really caught my fish? Is that why they threw it back so quick, so I wouldn’t notice it was dead?
Was the whole fishing trip rigged to assure there would be no losers? I wouldn’t put it past some do-gooders. They do that kind of stuff to cripples all the time. They go to great lengths. At Jerry Lewis summer camp, they always had cripple talent shows. And no matter what a crippled camper got up on stage and did, the ovation was thunderous. You could sing a song and sound like a hyena having a tooth pulled, but everybody acted like you were Pavarotti. There was a young woman (she wasn’t a kid) who believed she was a ballerina. She wore a tutu and tights. She played a cassette on a tinny boom box as she stumbled and spun. Well, one time it almost got way out of hand. They let her dance at one of the ceremonial campfires and she almost spun her way right into the fire. After that, they finally put some limits on her dancing.
Maybe I really and truly caught that fish. But maybe I didn’t. That’s the problem. Those are the scars left on cripples by the hard core do-gooders, the ones who will stop at nothing. When you get wise to them, you feel like a sucker. You never know what and whom to believe any more. You question the legitimacy of all your trophies.
They should have let me go fishless that day. I could have learned the valuable adult coping skill of rationalizing away failure. I could have done like I did today and blamed it all on the crappy bait.