It was to be the last summer of our childhood, although at the time we had only the vaguest sense that this incandescent chapter of our lives was finally coming to an end. We were too enraptured in the glorious freedom that our recent graduation from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Grammar School had bestowed upon us that jubilant final day of May.
We had not as yet really started to envision the future, which stretched out before us like some vast incomprehensible ocean of possibilities on which we were reluctant to set sail, so vivid and delightful was the shoreline of the present.
It was 1959, and only much later were we to realize that it was not just our own individual childhood that was passing into the obscure compartments of memory, but the innocence of an entire nation was about to undergo the inevitable metamorphosis that the next decades would witness.
By now it was mid-June, and the summer looked like it was going to go on forever. In the back of our minds, however, we knew that September was just around the corner, and some of our friends had already made final preparations for high school. Eric and I were careful to avoid the topic, since it threatened to mark the end of our friendship as we had known it all these years.
Eric’s father was a butcher at Larry’s Meat Market over in the Sunset District of San Francisco, and could not afford the tuition at the local Catholic High School, and so had enrolled him for the fall semester at Lafayette Public High.
I had determined that the best way to God and sainthood was service through the priesthood, and so had committed to a Catholic Seminary down on the peninsula south of San Francisco, which meant that I would only be home for vacations.
Eric and I had been best friends for most of our lives. We had grown up in houses across the street from each other at the bottom of the hill that led up to St. Thomas Church and Grammar School. We had walked up and down that same old hill together for eight years, in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood known for its large families. Our own respective households were relatively small by comparison – Eric had two sisters and I had two younger brothers and a sister.
On warm summer evenings more than a hundred kids on the block would pour out of their homes after dinner and line up on opposite sides of the street for games of Capture the Flag. It was great fun, but night fell far too soon, and all but the oldest were called back into their homes to settle down and prepare for bed. Television had yet to reduce us all to hypno-zombies, and outside of the few favorite shows that everybody watched, Eric and I were content to sit out on the front stairs with a couple of friends, perhaps listening to a ball game on the transistor radio, talking about cars, or planning on how we were finally going to catch Houdini.
While we were growing up, Golden Gate Park was a magical Emerald Forest just down the block from us, spreading out for miles from Ocean Beach all the way up to Stanyan Street in the middle of the city. It was a magnificent, endless Realm where every boy’s fantasies could be fulfilled, and whose multitude of attractions could take years to explore.
On sunny summer mornings Eric and I would pool our allowances, load up on snacks and sodas for the trip, and set out on our bikes for voyages of discovery that took us through that vast wonderland. Every conceivable adventure awaited us, and there was never enough time, it seemed, to exhaust the full measure of the park’s possibilities.
During that final summer, however, one special area of the park was to capture and dominate our imagination unlike any of the others, and that was Spreckles Lake. Technically not really a lake, Spreckles was a large man-made pond about two blocks long and a block wide, skirted by a gravelly oval asphalt walkway on which mothers strolled their babies and old folks gossiped and reminisced on green wooden benches in the lush shade of the surrounding trees. A wonderful assortment of gnarly Monterey pines, fragrant Eucalyptus, and gently drooping Willows bordered the pond, with a thick grove of Evergreens leading away to the south and down towards the beach a mile away.
A quaint boathouse stood at one end of the pond, from which intricate scale models, some up to five feet in length, of famous sailing ships, were regularly wheeled out by dapper gentlemen to be admired by onlookers and then carefully launched on Spreckle’s placid waters. The owners would follow their ships’ progress by walking along the banks with long poles, which they would occasionally use to steer the boats back out into the pond when they veered too close to the shore.
All the while, colorful schools of oriental carp, called Koi, would dart in and out of view beneath the surface. Some of them had grown to impressive size, and would always elicit excited shouts and finger pointing from children when they glided close to shore, flashing brilliant colors of orange and gold beneath the opaque waters.
The koi shared the lake with more common carp varieties, as well as schools of Blue Gill perch , and the ever-present Cray fish, which we called Crawdaddies, that congregated on the shallow sides of the banks and were fun to catch with a piece of bacon tied to a string.
For as long as we remembered, there was the legend of an ancient giant carp that was said to lurk in the deeper regions of Spreckles, out towards the middle of the lake. Supposedly, he had roamed the waters since the pond was first built, frustrating several generations of determined young fishermen who had cast their lines to no avail, eventually retreating to the lesser challenges of daily life, and wistfully regretting the “one that got away”. On rare occasions a roiling ferment would erupt from beneath the wind-blown lapping waves, followed by the bronze glint of some formidable aquatic creature’s back, top fin, and tip of tail as it breached the surface and then dived down and out of view.
Eric and I were peacefully dipping for Crawdads one late June afternoon. The slant of the sun settling just over the trees was casting that soft, hushed, honeyed spell that lingered lovingly over everything it touched, suffusing the world with a serene glow, and imparting an air of blissful, gilded enchantment to the entire park.
Suddenly we were startled out of our reveries by a flop, a splash, and then the golden flash of that carp we were to name “Houdini”, and who was to become our grand and passionate obsession during that final, fleeting summer of 1959. For the rest of June and throughout July we were to ponder the various strategies, both common and arcane, that had been handed down in carp lore around the lake through rumors and conjectures regarding the supreme method with which to capture the beast.
Some swore by live bait, such as worms, large insects, and even smaller fish. Others had devised an assortment of artificial lures with which they hoped to trick the monster. Fly fishers had flung flies to no avail, while fish egg folk had fooled only a few dumb Crawdads with their fish eggs.
Various incantations, prayers, and mental states were suggested as prerequisites for engaging the contest, as if one could somehow tune into the same aquatic wavelength as the fish and thereby gain advantage. No were lucky amulets and charms, such as rabbits’ feet and scapulas of St. Peter the Patron Saint of fishermen, discounted in pursuit of the mini-Moby Dick. All these means and more were ventured, and all had come to naught, and eventually the end of the summer was fast approaching.
It was an elderly Oriental gentleman, cane in hand, who tottered over to us from his park bench one morning where he had been feeding the birds and, in broken English, gave us our first really useful clue. He had been observing us for the past month, he claimed, although we had never taken any notice of him.
“Bread balls” was all he said, but in a manner of such serene confidence that he could have passed for one of the buddhas in the Japanese Tea Garden.
“Bed bowls?” we questioned, at first unable to comprehend his meaning.
“See?” he replied, and reaching into a crumpled brown paper bag, withdrew a slice of white bread. First he tore the bread into smaller pieces, and then proceeded to roll each piece into a ball. He motioned for us to put the balls on our hooks and cast them out into the water.
We looked at each other, shrugged, and followed his instruction. I was the first to get my line out, and Eric’s soon plopped out near mine. The old man retreated to his bench to watch. Within minutes he was rewarded with the sight of his new pupils successfully hauling two fat splashing carp out of the water and up onto the pavement, where they flopped together in wild syncopation like some animal act on Ed Sullivan’s TV show!
This was not Houdini by any means, but as we released the fish back into the pond, we both agreed that we has finally made an important breakthrough. The hunt was on in earnest now. We pooled our meager resources to purchase our first bag of Wonder Bread, certain that Victory was at hand. Eric brought a five gallon plastic bucket, which we planned to fill with water and use to transport Houdini to Eric’s small backyard pond. The pond was about five feet in diameter, and several feet deep, and we imagined that it would be the perfect place for Houdini to live out his life in captivity. It would be a shrine to our triumph, and a lasting reminder of our friendship.
It was not going to be as easy, however, as we had first assumed in the fervor of our recent discovery. Sure, we caught plenty of small carp, and even some perch with our bread balls, but the true object of our desire continued to elude us. Once Eric might have even had him, but the string was pulled from his hands in a sudden vicious tug that caught him off guard while he was daydreaming. We could only watch in stunned dismay as his fishing gear flew out into the water and disappeared beneath the surface. It was just too much for us that day. Bitterly disappointed, we decided to seek diversion in the evergreen groves behind Spreckles. The giant Conifers must have pre-dated the park itself, for some of the more mature specimens had grown to over a hundred feet in height, and offered branches that proved irresistible for climbing. Seated near the top of one of the tallest, you could look down all the way to the ocean a mile away. Swaying in the gentle summer winds, you might even encounter curious hummingbirds face to face.
Earlier that summer I had scaled one of these giants by myself — right up to the very top. While perched in the thinning branches, swaying in the glorious freshness of intoxicating sea breezes streaming over the forest, two bright and multicolored hummingbirds zoomed into view and paused mid-air a foot from my astonished face. Instantly I felt my attention gather at a point above my eyes and then, remarkably, just rush out of me and link with the tiny birds as we darted together from tree top to tree top, ecstatic in an enormous thrill of Being! The overwhelming heartthrob of Vitality propelling us was nearly too much to contain, and I starkly intuited that unconditional surrender to this…Feeling… would mean the end of “me”. A buried memory from earlier years swam briefly into consciousness, catalyzing a rude return to normal embodiment and, still dizzy from the shock of that fleeting remembrance, I nearly lost my grasp and fell.
Nevertheless, Eric and I picked one of those giants to climb that day, and had almost made it to the top when we heard voices rising from the ground below us. Peering down through the thick branches, we spotted two park police mounted on horseback at the very base of our tree, apparently unaware of us as they chatted and passed a cigarette back and forth. Obviously one of them didn’t know how to smoke, since he kept coughing every time he inhaled.
When I looked over to Eric, he placed his index finger to his lips, motioning for silence. Then he smilingly proceeded to unzip his fly, and to my horror, commenced to drizzle a stream of urine down through the branches and onto the waiting helmets below. I was flabbergasted, and almost lost my footing on the limb.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING! I glared at Eric, who whispered back that they couldn’t see us from down there.
“You moron!” I muttered beneath my breath, but it was true. We were actually invisible from our high nesting point. I heard one of the cops exclaim “What the hell?”, and we could both now barely keep from cracking up.
When they finally sauntered off, we burst out into hysterical fits of laughter, and when we eventually clambered back down, we were so revved up that we decided to head over to the Buffalo Compound for some more fun.
Not far away from the lake and the forest grove a herd of real buffalo grazed on a few acres of penned-in land, right in the middle of the park. Most of the time we took them for granted, but today was going to be different. The earlier event in the tree had left us feeling bold and invincible, and we were ready to try something really wild.
When we reached the chain link fence, we spotted three adult buffalo and a calf not far from us, peacefully chewing their cuds (or whatever they chew), their tails occasionally flicking up to swat flies, appearing for all intents and purposes to be about as tame and benign as a bunch of furry cows.
We glanced at each other, and then, without pausing to consider the wisdom of what we were about to do, scaled the fence and jumped over into the compound. Eric, the crazier of the two of us that day, headed straight for the calf, intending I supposed to try and pet it. I was mistaken. His plan, impromptu though it may have been, was to hop onto the young animal’s back and try to ride it.
“No, Eric!” I screamed, but it was already too late. As he began to climb the calf, one of the older buffalo (probably the mother) became understandably alarmed at Eric’s behavior, determining that he now represented an unacceptable threat. There was none of the expected hoof pawing of the ground and snorting like we had seen on TV westerns. Rather, the beast simply lowered its head and began a gallop that quickly turned into a full charge.
Eric was now in a sprint for his life. I was already half way up the fence when I saw him go flying headlong to the ground, his arms outstretched before him as if he was diving for home plate. In fact, he had slipped on a big fresh buffalo patty, and was now in imminent danger of becoming an Ericburger himself.
Without stopping to ponder the pros and cons I leapt from the fence and began jumping up and down on the ground, waving my arms wildly and shouting at the charging animal to distract its attention from my prone and hapless friend. For some inane reason, the only words I could summon came from the current pop song “My Friend the Witchdoctor”.
“Ooh Eee Ooh ah ah, ting tang walla walla bing bang!” I screamed at the top of my voice. Eric shot me a bewildered glance, but the words and actions somehow had the desired effect. The buffalo stopped dead in its tracks, and was now considering me with a wide-eyed stare approximating both surprise and confusion.
This stalemate lasted just long enough for Eric to scamper back to the fence, but then the buffalo resumed its charge, only this time it was coming for me.
I quickly turned and jumped towards the fence, scaling it as fast as my trembling limbs could manage. I was near the top when the full impact of the animals’ momentum combined with the give of the linked fence to create a whipsaw effect that flung me back over its head and body and back into the pen again. I landed flat on my back, and thousands of tiny twinkling dots swarmed before my eyes. My vision cleared in a moment, and though I was basically undamaged, the spreading liquid in my jeans revealed my bladder’s surrender.
Strangely, the buffalo now stood motionless, its huge head pressed against the fence as if in the thrall of some mystic revelation. I looked at Eric, who now stood on the other side of the fence, one finger tapping his lips for quiet while his other hand waved me over. I didn’t need an invitation as I carefully arose and tip-toed away from the beast, circling to his left and towards the fence.
As I began to scramble back up the chain links, the buffalo gave a sharp snort, slowly backed up, turned, and nonchalantly ambled back to his friends, who must have been quite amused by the whole spectacle.
Eric was waiting for me when I hit the ground to safety. Wow, that was really cool!” he blurted, unable to contain his manic glee.
“You idiot! You stupid moron! Look at you, covered in Buffalo doo! You almost got us both killed!” I blared back at him.
“Yeah, but hey, it was really great the way you saved my life and everything!” he replied, unfazed by my accusations. “Oooh Eee Oooh ah ah…how did you come up with that one?”
We stared at each other for a long moment, and then simultaneously broke out in laughter. Never had we felt more alive than at this very moment, and we were flooded with such joyous unbridled emotion that it seemed as if we would burst.
Eventually we cleaned ourselves up in the public facilities near the Polo Field, and then wandered through the horse stables to the grounds themselves. We sang bits and pieces of our favorite current pop songs in ragged unison: “The Battle of New Orleans”, “Sink the Bismark”, “John Henry”, “Purple People Eater”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Surfin’ Safari”, and others long since forgotten.
The wide gravel racetrack that encircled the stadium formed an oval mile, bordering an Olympian expanse of grass that could have contained four football fields. We wandered out onto the green and flopped down somewhere in the middle of the vast field. The immense blue dome of sky above us was dotted with occasional white puffs of clouds, and we spent some time just lying there, concentrating our combined psychic energies on evaporating them one at a time.
This was amusing for awhile, but soon our conversation drifted back to the subject of Houdini. We had to admit that time was growing short, and we had yet to fulfill our summer’s vow of capturing the King of Carp. Although we had had some great fun that day, it sobered us to recall that the morning had started with the loss of Eric’s fishing tackle to what might have been Houdini himself.
“What now?” I wondered aloud.
“Let’s get some candy bars” was Eric’s reply. When in doubt or need of inspiration, we like most kids, had come to rely on the trusty boost of sugar.
Suddenly it hit me – SUGAR! That’s it!
“Eric” I began, “what if Houdini was just like us, and really liked candy and sweets, you know, like for dessert?”
So what do you mean” Eric snickered, “like we should use Milky Ways or Three Musketeers for bait?”
“No, no” I replied, “but how about if we were to roll some bread balls up with sugar?”
“Hey, it’s worth a try. After all, we only have a couple of days left” Eric shrugged, and with that the subject which we had been avoiding so carefully the last few weeks was finally broached. Our summer was indeed almost gone, and our lives were about to change in ways we couldn’t even imagine. In our hearts we were clinging to these last few precious days, as if somehow we knew instinctively that they marked the conclusion of a glorious time that would never come again. As we lay there on our backs at the Polo Field, with the passing clouds now starting to fill with the light of the lowering sun, we felt suddenly, and acutely, the poignant inevitability of change. Time itself was beginning to seem a bit less friendly, and we did not really want to ponder the implication.
“What about your fishing gear?” I asked, anxious to change the subject after a long minute of silence.
“Let’s just use yours, and I’ll hold the net. That’s if your idea really works, which I doubt,” Eric replied, unless our luck changes.”
“It will!” I vowed, with all the determination I could muster.
At that we rose and headed home. On the way we stopped off at Spreckles Lake, and were rewarded with the sight of something huge lazily breaking the surface right near the spot where we had first sighted Houdini. As we stood there on the edge of the pond in speechless awe, it was unmistakably obvious to us that we had just been challenged. We excitedly promised that we would be back the next day – no matter what – but Nature had other plans in store, and our contest would have to wait until a rainstorm cleared two days later.
It was now the final Saturday of our summer, and the early fog quickly gave way to a warm and brilliant morning. Eric met me with his net and bucket at our usual entrance to the park, and together we wordlessly hurried on to our unique rendezvous with destiny. I carried the bag of bread and a small box of sugar, along with my fishing gear, which included a hook that I had secretly dipped in the Holy Water fount at St. Thomas Church the day before. I figured that we needed all the help we could get. This day was probably going to be our last chance, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a little supernatural support as we mounted our final assault on that devilish creature.
When we reached the lake we carefully rolled the bread and sugar into small neat balls, and after a fervent prayer for victory, I cast my line out into the water and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Several hours of casts and retrievals followed, with soggy bread replaced by fresh balls, but we had yet to get so much as a nibble. We had begun to despair when the old Chinese man took his place on the bench near us. He beckoned us over and, reaching into his paper bag, pulled out some stale sourdough bread and said: Here. You try.”
“OK” we readily agreed this time, but I was still committed to my sugar strategy, and as we hollowed out the white inner core of the bread from the crust, I poured a little sugar over the spongy balls after moistening them with water. Once they had dried, I chose one of the larger ones to set on my hook, and then flung my line as far out as I could manage.
The first tug startled me, but I was careful not to yank the line prematurely. I leaned over and whispered to Eric that I was getting something when the line snapped taut in my hand, my heart skipped a beat, and I knew the battle was finally on. I was confident that the hook was set when the great head breached the surface, and when the rest of the body rolled and swished I heard Eric scream “It’s Houdini, it’s Houdini!”
The old Chinese was merrily chirping from his bench “Big fish, big fish! Oh, very big fish!”, but I had no time to reply. I was completely focused on the struggle now, and the whole wide world had been narrowly reduced to just this dance of the fisher and the fish.
Sensing that the line was perilously close to breaking, I slowly unwound my hand-held assembly, feeding more string into the water until the full hundred feet stretched out from me to the creature. I was already drenched in sweat when the fish headed off to the right in a terrific dash for freedom. I followed along the bank, trying to keep pace and holding on for dear life.
After dragging me several hundred feet in that direction, the carp abruptly reversed course, and now we were moving back to the left, passing our initial starting point and eventually nearly reaching the southernmost end of the pond. It was there that Houdini rallied with such a ferocious tug that I was toppled into the lake itself, though I stubbornly held fast to the line, winding it around my wrist with one arm while hauling myself back up onto the bank with the other.
Suddenly the line went slack. In a panic I thought I’d lost him. My heart stuck in my throat and I grew dizzy, verging on collapse. “No, noooo…!” I shouted at the lake, until I noticed that the line was still moving, arcing back around to the right and heading straight for the shore! This fish was full of tricks! I wound the slack as fast as I could, until a mere twenty feet separated me from him. He was now partially visible just beneath the surface in the shallows, his bronze scales reflecting the sunlight in a maddening tease that still failed to reveal his full dimensions.
In the meantime, Eric had filled his bucket to three quarters’ capacity and was sticking close by with his net. “Hang in there, buddy!” he grinned with encouragement.
“I’m hanging in. I’m hanging in!” I replied, but I was beginning to feel the effects of the exhausting struggle throughout my body – my mouth was parched, my limbs were quivering, and I really needed to pee.
“Take it for a minute” I pleaded to Eric, thrusting the line to him before he could argue and then dashing off into the bushes where I could barely unzip my wet fly, so numb and shaky were my fingers.
When I returned, Eric was halfway back to the original spot, dragged by the beast that was still in no mood to surrender. I snatched up the net and pail and raced to catch up. A small group of bystanders were beginning to crowd around us, and after Eric returned the line to me he spread his arms and waved them back.
The stalemate continued for what seemed like hours. Houdini was relentless and showed no signs of tiring. Eric and I took turns with the line, and by mid-afternoon we were both worn out. Time and again we would get the fish within sight, only to have him dive back and away. I was holding the line while Eric took his turn to rest when I first felt a change in the tension.
“Eric” I said, “I think he’s getting ready to give up.” Slowly, cautiously, I began to wind him in, one foot at a time. He now seemed sluggish, almost docile, perhaps at last ready to submit to the inevitable. My exhilaration mounted as I pulled him into full view, just a yard and a half now from the bank. Murmurs of awe arose from the onlookers, and Eric readied his net. I couldn’t believe the size of him! He looked to be over thirty pounds!
Perhaps it was the sight of the net that startled him, but just as Eric was dipping it into the water Houdini abruptly surged, splashed, and burned my fingers with the line as he tore back to open waters. Despite the blood and pain in my hands I refused to let go, and with all of my remaining strength I pulled him back, one length at a time, towards Eric’s waiting net. He was nearly within our grasp, at last, but getting him out of the water and onto land was going to pose a problem we had not anticipated.
Eric’s net was designed to accommodate much smaller fish, and Houdini’s massive bulk was going to render it useless. As I maneuvered the fish up to the shore, Eric slowly reached into the water with both arms and gingerly scooped him up, falling over backwards from his squatting position in the effort. The momentum of the fall carried Houdini over the bank, where he first landed smack in Eric’s face, and then squirted over onto the pavement, flapping and flailing spasmodically, lurching for the lake which would be his home no more. I dived down on top of him in a desperate embrace, while Eric removed the hook from his rubbery lip.
For a sudden, immense moment my eyes met Houdini’s, and they seemed so utterly forlorn, vulnerable, and vanquished that I almost lost my breath. My hummingbird heart fell dead in my chest, and in that timeless moment of crystalline truth, I knew with stark certainty that everything had already been lost.
Now Eric was grabbing him carefully by the gills, and I held the rest of him as we lifted him into the bucket. The five-gallon container was woefully inadequate for his size as we tried to coil him in and keep his head submerged in water. It was all happening so fast that we barely stopped to congratulate each other. Adrenaline competed with exhaustion as we gathered up our gear and prepared to race over to Eric’s backyard pond with our prize.
I turned to look for the old Chinese gentleman, hoping to spot him in the crowd that had gathered and thank him for his help, but he had somehow inexplicably vanished. Eric was tugging at my arm, and so we made our way around the pond, through the park, and back up our street to his house.
Once in his backyard, we carefully lifted the fish out of the container and gently lowered him into the water. For a minute he just floated on his side, and the terrible realization struck us that maybe it was too late. His gills were still moving, however, and he finally snapped out of his stupor, righted himself, and slowly began to explore his new home.
We breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief, and then Eric ran into the house to get some cokes to celebrate. “To Victory!” Eric exclaimed as we clicked our bottles together. I took a long thirsty swig, and then added: “You know, I heard that carp live really long lives. No matter what happens from now on, we can always meet here together, and remember all the great times we had, and we’ll always have Houdini to remind us!”
Then we toasted to our friendship, and to the future, which we were now at last ready to face, and especially to Houdini, who had by now settled quietly into the small pond. We tossed him the rest of the bread balls, but he didn’t seem too hungry, and they floated, untouched, to the bottom.
The next day, Sunday, was my last day of “freedom”, and I was reluctantly packing for my trip on Monday to the Seminary, which was going to be my new home for the next seven years. All sorts of conflicting emotions were bubbling and churning within me when I got the call from Eric. He sounded miserable, and said that I had better come over right away.
I raced over to his house, where he met me and immediately led me into the backyard. There, by the edge of the pond, lay the partially eaten remains of our magnificent Houdini. Some animal, maybe a raccoon, had gotten into the uncovered pond during the night and feasted on our fish. Tears welled up in my eyes, and we were speechless with horror and dismay. Our summer was over, Houdini was dead, and no magic existed that could bring any of it back.
We buried the corpse in Golden Gate Park, and with it our childhood. Little was spoken.
What could we say?
When we finished, we took a last long melancholy walk through the evergreen groves, so filled with boyhood memories amidst the filtered shards of sunlight.
We stopped at the pond, which seemed somehow so much smaller now.
“It will never be the same, will it, Eric?” I asked, but it was more of a statement than a question.
“No,” he replied, “it will never be the same.”