Sense and Nonsense: On Fishing and Things

The “Bay-To-Breakers” foot race in San Francisco was something I figured that I should not miss — watching it, that is. So I walked down to the Four Mile Marker just in-side Golden Gate Park, off the Stanyon Street corner on Kennedy Drive. The leading runners came by me about five minutes after I arrived there at 8:15 or so. They were so far ahead of the massed pack — some 70,000 they say — that to call it a “race” was an exaggeration. But I confess, never having been in the city before for the darn thing, I was not prepared for the effect of thousands of oddly shaped and garbed folks who eventually passed by, running, trudging, jogging, crawling, limping, and otherwise ambling by, evidently enjoying themselves immensely. But I did not weaken. I did not decide-to run next year. So relax, Ibrahim Hussain, there in Kenya, the winner!

They call this race from the Bay to Ocean Beach an annual “event,” and so it is. A nice lady standing next to me told me that she had let her husband off at the beginning, and she would join him when he reached the four mile mark. He finally showed up, not exactly last, but about number 45,894 or so. I knew Fathers Joe Fessio and Paul Comiskey were out there giving their all, but they never surfaced in the mass of humanity. Sister Mary Brian, however, trotted by to say “Hello” and in a very creditable position not far from the front.

Another evening, a Wednesday, when it was free, I went over after supper at Xavier Hall at the University of San Francisco to see the Grant Wood Exhibit at the de Young Museum. Actually, after talking to Father Vernon Ruland about it, I had gone over on Tuesday afternoon, only to find it closed. What! Aren’t museums supposed to be open all the time? Fr. Ruland was right, the normal $2 fee at a museum changes its character for the average man and woman. You no longer, as in the old days, just “drop in” to see something special or at random. You feel, when you pay, like you have to see everything. Painting especially, I think, needs not to be rushed, needs not to be seen in crowds. “Don’t you pay for everything else?” someone logically asked me. Someone has to pay for it, I guess, and paying in taxes is perhaps the world’s most expensive way to pay for anything. But still, the human spirit is a delicate thing.

Not too long ago, (May, 84) my article on “War and Poverty” was in Catholicism in Crisis. It began with the following peculiar sentence: “Glancing through some current newspapers stacked haphazardly on a grand piano where I am currently living in San Francisco …” About a month later, I received an unexpected letter from Professor Edward Capestany at the University of Scranton, whom I had met about a year ago when I was there for a lecture. Bemused, he wrote a brief, sympathetic parody on that particular sentence, one worthy of the New Yorker end-of-column files. Professor Capestany wondered how life in San Francisco was going, what with me living there on that grand piano. I mentioned this to Father C.M. Buckley, obviously a mistake. I had excused myself by saying that I had evidently placed my modifiers in the wrong place. He dryly commented that this was one of my problems, putting my modifiers in the wrong places.

My brother from Aptos and his neighbor Jerry Harris bit the bullet and took me fishing with them in the Sacramento River Delta, up along Frank’s Tract. It was a spectacular day. We got up at 5 a.m., had a truckers’ breakfast at Brentwood, rented a boat, found a store to sell me a license ($17 a crack now!), bait, and headed up the channel from Sandpiper Slough. One forgets how many inland waterways there are in the Delta above the Bay Area. My other brother used to have a boat up by Pittsburg, so we had been in the area before. We got the boat, with a 6 horsepower Johnson outboard that never missed a beat, at a place called Sam’s Boat House. Sam told us where to fish. (We had bought a map of the area, on the back of which it said that for the best fishing spots, always ask the people who rent boats.) It was pretty windy. We tied up to some rushes and got no bites all morning, though the view of Mt. Diablo was very lovely. We were fishing with sardines. Finally for lunch, we found a place called Carol’s. There, my brother, who was beginning to think he should have gone to the horse races at Golden Gate Fields, found out about a place where at least catfish were said to be biting. No striped bass were being caught yet. So Jerry Harris piloted us to the spot, which, according to the map, had deep water.

Sure enough, I caught a rather nice catfish, though Jerry Harris had previously got one as far as the boat. My brother, also a Jerry, who does not hold my fishing abilities, to mention no others, in the highest esteem, was rather astonished at my performance with his good fishing pole. I believe I caught another before the other two Jerrys began to get some visible action. We caught about a dozen catfish and headed back, immediately taking a wrong turn to go half-an-hour the wrong way in the Delta maze. We finally got back to Sam’s Boat House, rather, I believe, to the surprise of Sam. We cleaned the catfish — something I used to do as a boy in Iowa, but then had to relearn. We drove home by a beautiful back road — Walnut-Vargas? — through Livermore.

When I go fishing, I often recall the passage in the Gospels about fishing. The Apostles themselves, except for Matthew, I believe, were fishermen, told to become “fishers of men.” What does this mean? A friend of mine in St. Louis calls fishing “basically boring,” which I suppose it usually is. Yet, if we assume that we never quite know just when, whether, or what will strike our lines, fishing seems the most apt description of how the Lord works. I guess He figured that most men and women for most of mankind’s history would know enough about fishing to get the point. And it is also some comfort, somehow, to know that the Son of God knew about fishing. I wonder if they had catfish in the Sea of Galilee?

Meanwhile, we froze our catfish, not without calculating that, with license and all, they were probably more expensive than any fish course available on Fisherman’s Wharf. Jerry Harris promised to fry them up like they used to do it in Stockton, Missouri, the next time I get to Aptos. And come to think of it, no one in the “Bay-to-Breakers” was dressed as a catfish, or a grand piano, though one man was a giraffe and another an airplane.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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