‘Zack has the face of an angel,” declared my mother. “His face is a perfect oval and his complexion is like translucent marble. He has only one defect I can see … that’s the dimple in his chin.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an angel,” I said, hoping to tease Esther, “but what’s a dimple anyway?”
“It’s that little hole or depression right in the middle of his chin.”
“And that’s a sign of … ?”
“Well, it’s a defect after all, isn’t it; a sign of God’s dissatisfaction with us.”
We were almost home and I let the conversation lapse. After all, I didn’t know what God wanted of us, and our meeting had accomplished what was necessary. Our mothers, Esther and Lily, had okayed our friendship, so why risk anything more.
Zack and I had met on the school playground during mandatory recess. The girls could do whatever they wanted; the boys, presumed to require “structure,” had to play baseball. A functional baseball diamond had been carved out of the surrounding potato fields. If an outfield missed a ball, he needed to walk carefully across the raised rows of potatoes to retrieve the ball and then lob it the extra distance home. I had read up on the game, trying to improve my miserable performance. “Keep your eye on the ball” seemed to be the essence of the advice, so I watched the ball carefully, from the second it left the pitcher’s hand. My mental radar zeroed in on the ball’s course toward the plate I was straddling, but I heard only the swish of disturbed air as I swung and then the thwack of the ball as it plowed into the catcher’s mitt. Reading didn’t improve my athletic performance.
Zack had a similar experience. Apparently neither Zack nor I had the necessary reflexes for baseball. Before long we both had discouraging nicknames like “East out Al” and “Zack the Sack.” We agreed to avoid baseball whenever possible and plan our own outings. Both of us were fascinated by living creatures, so natural history seemed a good way to start.
But we knew we would need our parents’ okay. A meeting of families was arranged. My mother, Esther, and Zack’s mother, Lily, hit it off right away, despite the fact that Esther was a careful dresser and an organized person whose habits were reflected in her wardrobe, while Zack’s mother had only a collection of mail-order house dresses. Makeup was foreign to her and combing her hair must have seemed too much effort for a country woman.
I thought maybe I was just seeing poverty up close. Zack’s dad, Frank, was a long-distance trucker and had only part-time employment. He was a tough guy with patched outfit and visored cap. If only he had removed those sun glasses in the house, I would have found him less threatening. And that wide leather belt didn’t help either. Zack had told me about that belt and showed me the welts it caused whenever he forgot his chores or Frank thought he needed some “correction.”
Frank was smart enough to know he wasn’t needed at this meeting. He excused himself, claiming his truck needed some work. The two women chatted on happily while Zack and I planned our first expedition. We agreed to meet at Zack’s house on Saturday and bring interesting specimens. So the next Saturday I set off on the hike to Zack’s house. It was a three-mile walk from the village to Zack’s place on the banks of the Assunpink Creek, the Lenapi Indian name meaning stony wet place. I paced off the route in my mind: about a quarter-mile on the village “sidewalks” — slate slabs once neatly set, but now in disarray due to long usage and invasion by tree roots; then another half-mile on the narrow foot path that cut through the village yards; finally a right turn at the fork for about two miles of quiet blacktop. If there were no bulls in the meadow, just Holstein cows with their amazing piebald color, I could take a shortcut through the pasture. The cows would freeze, eye me in a bored fashion, and then resume their chewing. Despite their size, they were harmless.
At our first meeting I brought a Luna moth, lightly pressed in a large envelope. Its lovely color seemed to suffuse Zack’s room with a green glow. Zack showed me his aquarium full of zipping fairy shrimp that he had scooped from a vernal pool. With a magnifying glass, I could easily see their eyes and their multiple appendages. “They’ve got more extensions than my Swiss Army knife,” Zack said. “Some are for feeding, some for swimming, and some for reproduction.”
We met every Saturday thereafter. On hot days we waded into the creek or floated downstream, drifting with the current, strands of elodea trailing behind us. The current was slow and there were few places where water depth exceeded our height. No one had ever drowned in the Assunpink. We examined a variety of species, mostly invertebrates, but still fascinating to us. We were exploring biodiversity before it became a watchword in biology. Many of the creatures we found were immature larvae of aquatic insects or crustaceans. We retained them until they attained maturity. Metamorphosis amazed us, as did the discovery that many adult forms lived for just days or hours. They mated and then expired, having perpetuated their race.
Zack had trained himself to hold his breath for long periods of time. He would don his goggles and submerge, quietly observing aquatic life. He reminded me of the manatees that lolled in warm waters, from time to time releasing strands of silvery bubbles. Sometimes I had to nudge Zack to remind him that his true provenance was air, not water. Then he would surface in an explosion of foam and froth.
It was fishing, not the Assunpink, that ended our friendship. Fishing was a popular pastime in those days. Every boy tried it and some stuck with it for years, acquiring skills and sophisticated equipment as they matured. But most had very simple equipment to start with: a rod or even a long pole, a simple reel and line, and a cork bobber. Bait was usually a hapless invertebrate or small minnow pierced with a barbed hook. Equipment was kept in metal tackle boxes. The contents of these boxes varied but most had hooks, lines, lured, and various sharp tools as well as coils of small chains. Zack’s tackle box looked like a weekend kit for an inquisition.
We had arranged to meet at a local pond for a change. Esther deposited me there and then we went to fetch Zack. I baited my hook and cast it in with its cork bobber. For me the excitement of fishing lay in the line’s tug and the vanishing bobber. Of course it was just a fish doing what came naturally. But imagination ranged free as my eyes searched an abode of light and shadow, a place of lunging movements and unforgiving predators. I hated to kill the fish I caught and released them whenever possible. Good intentions aside, this was difficult to do with live bait and barbed hooks.
Zack felt differently. He was a “meat fisherman.” Everything he caught was dispatched as quickly as possible. Heads, tails, and finds were removed and the body was gutted and scaled. Lily accepted his catch and agreed to cook fish so rendered. Esther didn’t want anything to do with my catch, so I either released it or gave it to Zack. Zack made a real contribution to the family economy and I think he believed that would establish him as a provider and help free him from Frank’s regimen of punishments.
I hadn’t been fishing for long when I felt a pull on my line and saw my bobber disappear. In a few minutes I reeled in a fish that I recognized from pictures as a calico bass. It had the pumpkinseed shape of the sunfish family and bicolor scales that sparkled. I kept it in the water because I intended to release it. It was far too beautiful to kill.
Suddenly my calico was hoisted out of the water and smashed on a rock. It was Zack who had caught me unawares. “Don’t!” I cried, but too late. The eyes of the calico glazed over and the stunning sapphire scales dulled. “Damn you Zack” I cried as I hurled first his, and then my tackle box into the pond. Without another word I set off for home on foot. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” Zack shouted after me as I marched homeward.
Our mothers tried to smooth things over, but without much success. A reconciliation was complicated by the fact that Frank moved his family to another town. I was terribly lonesome for a while, but I found a new interest in my school work. For the first time in my life, I was interested in what was happening in the class, as well as the world at large. Our teacher announced that it was time to elect a class president who would also be editor of the school paper. I was so enthused I voted for myself. When the votes were counted, I was the new class president and editor-in-chief.
Because of my special status and duties I was excused from recess and hence from baseball. It was 1947 and the news was all about the dangers of a nuclear world and the new Marshall Plan. The problems of the world were way beyond me, as they appeared to be for the adults in charge, but I crafted a bold editorial, and since I was editor-in-chief, I published it in the school paper.
As I walked home from school several days later, the son of a local dairy farmer hailed me. We had never spoken, except once when he was umpiring a ballgame and declared me decisively “out.” “Okay,” I had admitted glumly. Now he approached me with a copy of the school paper in hand. “Did you write this?” he asked, pointing to my editorial.
“Yes, that’s mine,” I answered. “I wish I could have written that,” he confessed. I thought modesty was the wisest course. “Well,” I said, “everybody has their own strong points. I wish I could milk cows.” “Do you?” he said. “Follow me.” He opened the door to the milking shed. The cows stared at us with dark bulging eyes wondering, as we were wondering, what would come next.
Owen Shteir is a retired dermatologist who has lived within five miles of Princeton for nearly all of his 82 years. He is married with two children: a son who is an environmentalist and accomplished angler; and a daughter who teaches dramatic arts.