Dusk was drawing the curtains of night when, in mid-April, I arrived at the high-shouldered ledges leaning against the South Brewer banks of the Penobscot, where I first dipped smelts a long time ago. “Tide’s got a ways to go yet,” I thought. “Hurry up and wait, as usual.” Gazing, then, at the long fingers of reflected lights extending from the Bangor shore, I recalled how polluted the river was in the early 1950s: “An open sewer, actually. Murky, smelly, and with sediment that made slippery footing on these ledges … but that didn’t stop us kids from swimming in it.”
After several impatient dips that dredged only rocks, my reverie continued: “Funny thing, though, as much as we were warned about diseases we could get from swimming in the river, none of us ever got sick.” And I’m talking about a lot of kids. After quarrelsome games of baseball on the Eastern Ball Flat (now a playground and picnic area) we’d scramble over the riverbank, shed our clothes, dive from the ledges and swim out to the boom logs and adjoining piers where rats scurried and stared at us. “The river’s clean now,” I mused, “but kids don’t swim here anymore. I guess the South Brewer I knew went out with the tide after our generation was grown and gone.”
When another hour or so of dipping produced only a stickleback and a curl of birch bark, I started fishing for excuses: “Water’s cold … Smelting’s spotty here now … Something’s changed.” Remembering when flashlights blinked like fireflies along the ledges I wondered if the Veterans Memorial Bridge abutments had altered the current’s flow. Or if Cianbro Corp.’s dredging and dock installations, where the mill was, caused smelts to bypass the South Brewer shore. It doesn’t take much. Then I got to thinking about the warnings against eating fish from the river, which I’ve done since being weaned off Pablum. And if I ever felt a little sluggish after a meal of salmon or smelts or striped bass, it was because I ate too much. Especially poached salmon smothered with egg gravy.
Later, arm-weary and still smelt-less, I left the river and drove home pondering the cautionary advice regarding practically everything we eat. For instance, leave the flavorful golden-brown skin from a roast turkey or chicken, and stay away from salt, sweets, butter, sour cream, gravy, fatty meat and fried food. In other words, forgo all the good stuff. Sound advice, that, but easier said than done. Imagine being in a camp without having bacon and eggs for breakfast or baked beans with salt pork for supper. In other words, I’m not going to pass up a feed of fried smelts as soon as I’m so blessed. Or a side dish of fiddleheads sprinkled with salt and dabbed with butter.
Tom Hennessey’s columns and artwork can be viewed at www.bangordailynews.com. Tom’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.