Although we lived right on the Ohio River, in Wellsburg, West Virginia, our dad was not a fisherman. He wasn’t a hunter either, but that’s another story. Somehow my brother Mark became a fisherman, of sorts. Maybe he had some friends who fished. Probably they just liked hanging out on the forbidden riverbank, I know I did, but I wouldn’t fish on a bet, and Mom knew it. Anyway in order to fish, Mark needed bait, and worms were the best and cheapest bait available.
On summer evenings after dark, Mark would convince our sister Kay to help him. They’d mix up some soapy water using dish detergent in a scrub bucket, then after dark they’d toss the water in a big circle in the vacant lot between our house and the neighbor’s, away from where Dad planted his garden.
They both would have a flashlight and a “bucket” made from a big baked bean can with a coat hanger wire handle. (Dad always made these for us to take berry picking in the summer.) The soapy water would bring the fat earthworms part way out of their holes, and there they’d lie, easy pickins’ when the flashlight reflected off their wet, slimy bodies. Then SWOOSH! Kay would be on them. She’d pin one down with her left index finger until she could get a hold of it with her right hand, then she’s strip that worm up out of its hole and drop it into her can. Then SWOOSH, she’d swoop down on another, then another, much to Mark’s delight.
I’d sit on the back steps and watch in amazement. Kay was the girly girl of the two of us. She played dolls with her friends or by herself for hours. Not me. I was the tomboy, and I wanted to be outside playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, baseball, tag, anything involving lots of action. On rainy days my friends and I would put on shows in the garage. Kay would be dressing dolls or doing something with her hair. However, when it came to worms, Kay was the queen. I wouldn’t touch a worm, unless some money was involved and my life depended on it. Kay reveled in catching as many as possible before the effects of the soapy water evaporated on those hot evenings.
So Mark went fishing. One time he came home and told us a great fish tale. He and a friend had been fishing off the old wharf all the way down on 6th Street. Today there’s a little gazebo next to a bust of Patrick Gass, marking this wharf as a place where the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery once docked. Mr. Gass, a native of Wellsburg, was recruited by Lewis and Clark, and he made that incredible journey with them. At the time of this great fish tale, there was a four-story building near the wharf that housed The Wellsburg Daily Herald. The Herald was Wellsburg’s error-ridden newspaper. One day a story ran about Miss Laura Calderwood, a local teacher, asserting that Miss Calderwood had “received her Master o fArts degree.” That was one of my favorites.
On this day Mark’s fish was so big that the guy from the Herald came out and took his picture with the leviathan. Mark never brought his fish home. No one we knew would eat fish from the Ohio River, which was pretty polluted at that time. “Besides,” Mark said, “a super nice black guy said he’d really like that ‘sewer bass,’ as it would make ‘good eatin’,” so Mark had given the big catfish to him.
Sure enough in the next edition of the Herald, there was Mark with his big catfish (UGH!) on the front page.
That was the first of two worm incidents. That next spring our garage started to smell something fierce. It was like a dead skunk had exploded in there. It was a horrible smell. Unfortunately I discovered the problem. Mark had left one of those buckets of worms in the garage at the end of the summer, and by spring that can of now-dead worms was rotting and stinking to high heaven.
To this day I wish I had never looked in that can. The smell was enough to turn your stomach, but that mass of dark brown, hard, desiccated, spaghetti-entwined worms gave me nightmares. The idea of threading a helpless worm on a hook and feeding it to a fish didn’t bother me half as much as the thought of those poor, peaceful worms dying as they struggled on top of one another in that death can!
Dad immediately got rid of the can and its contents, but that smell had oozed into the clapboard of the garage and didn’t dissipate for years!