January 8th, 2001

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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On Becoming an Aspirinaut

Joseph Heywood, Portage, Michigan

Most trouters endeavor to learn to expect the unexpected and somehow to embrace it. Gazing in the rearview mirror is fine, but when you are immersed in the deep and fecund feces of now, the past can seem pretty useless. The old vets in my USAF squadron always insisted that life's most useless commodities were the runway behind and the altitude above, an analogy that seems to capture the flow and spirit of the now.

Most of my memories have served primarily as warm-ups and when time or desperation warrant, for momentary edification, but more often than not, memory itself is reduced to something stuffed on a wall or into a dusty photo album, an inert testament to what was, and what is only coincidentally a part of what we were, at least at a particular moment sometime in the past. I have always focused less on what was than on what can be.

Time rolls on, and we roll with it, expecting it to last [and knowing it won't] until suddenly the unexpected declares without the slightest subtlety that it's time to reevaluate. Then we adapt. Or not.

In my student navigator days, we were all required to ride the "puke chair,"a sort of barber-dentist rig in which we were spun and expected to perform certain simple maneuvers, such as resting an ear on a lap pad between our knees and lifting our heads from there to a headrest, the idea being to stimulate fluid movement in our inner ears, the insidious plan being to get the fluids in our semicircular canals sloshing about on multiple axes, the normal result being cold sweats, nausea and the holy grail of the undertaking: projectile vomit. Most mortals stumbled directly and shakily from the chair to a nearby door that led to a small lawn outside, there to collapse and puke under the northern California sun. This exercise was contrived to teach us about the real world of vertigo and it was far more memorable than similar exercises in altitude chambers to familiarize us with explosive decompressions and our personal symptoms of hypoxia. I would add that I did not succumb to the puke chair's sirens, but hubris comes around and goes around and I puked at least once in virtually every model of military aircraft I flew about in after that.

Fast forward to a month or so before the millenial rollover and some thirty four years after riding the puke chair in California, Bob Lemieux and I were in his SUV, driving north from Schoolcraft where we had breakfasted. Suddenly I felt cold sweats and major vertigo. My head was still, the road smooth and my ear canals had no good reason for reacting erratically; I knew these were inauspicious signs, especially when my left arm and left leg declared themselves inoperative and refused to obey commands from the cockpit of my brain. At my office I swung my feet down, but my legs wouldn't bear weight, so off we motored to Immediate Care, which led to a sirenless meat wagon ride to the emergency room at a local hospital.

I asked one of the EMTs why no siren and he said, "Because you are stable." I thought that was a pretty poor psychiatric diagnosis.

An admitting nurse asked me if I felt threatened.

"You mean right now?"

"Anytime during your life," she said by way of clarification.

"I was in a war. Does that count?"

She wrote down a yes.

"Who wants to know?"

The nurse shrugged. "The State, I think."

So began my journey, not wading in a river but as a river. Over the next three days I began to imagine strange parallels to fishing. The scrubbies (doctors, nurses, techies, aides, etc.) were like anglers exploring new water: the River Me. Cat scans, X-rays, echocardiograms (outside in and inside out), MRIs, all were taken to read the water, to search for structure, to see if clots were waiting like ripening nymphs to wend their way to the surface.

Like serious trouters with flies, the scrubbies were minimalists in communications while they pursued their quarry.

The scrubbies willingly revealed little, cottoned no small talk and invited few questions. After all, they were fishing and I was merely the riparian ecosystem, the host, if you will; the true quarry dwelt somewhere inside me. The somethings that had hatched inside me were eventually classified as a "series of strokes,"scrubby prospecting having revealed I had had a double brace over a couple of weeks time, one of which I recognized, one which I didn't, another which was diagnosed by doctors as low blood sugar and the neuroscrambler that put me into the hospital.

The neurologist called me on the phone in my room and said, "We want to do another electrocardiogram and by the way, you have diabetes, but you'll have to talk to your own doctor about that." A friend of mine, a former colleague, nurse and writer, assures me that doctors find diabetes "boring." Especially specialists.

The stay in the hospital was filled with weird moments. There being no MRI in the main building, I had to be taken by ambulance to the building where the equipment was housed and the ambulance attendant got my foot caught in the handicap lift of the ambulavan; I was bed-bound and not bathed in three days. Never mind the details on this one. I was examined by Occupational Therapy and informed I did not need in-patient therapy. The next day people from the same organization came to move me to another floor for in-patient therapy. I told them their own people had declared the day before that this wasn't needed. They did? That would be a roger, folks. In the middle of the night for a blood draw, my vampire had problems and I bled all over myself. I also watched him with bare hands and no rubber cloves dip a sample of my urine out of a container. I felt like I was down the rabbit hole. On the day of my release my doctor did not show until nearly five p.m. and then spoke with one foot pointed at the door. I said I had left word in the morning that I wanted to talk to him (about needs at home etc.) and, I added, I had heard his voice several times in the hall way and that it was my impression he was avoiding me. He hauled a list out of his pocket and said with a whine, "I had seven patients to see." Maybe he ought to drop his patient load to a more manageable number.

I did not go back to see him. Instead, I got the name of a neurologist fifty miles north in Grand Rapids and went to see him. He took a lot of time and answered all the questions the first guy had not and said, Enjoy your new life. I worry some if I end up back in the local hospital, but I also figure I fish up north a lot and most stroke patients get helicoptered down to Grand Rapids, so I hope it's covered. I carry Dr. Herman Sullivan's card in my fishing vest.

Having been a river, I suddenly became an aspirinaut, one of that proliferating legion of people my age now taking plain old aspirin every day to prevent platelets from clumping like gawkers at a traffic accident, this practice intended (hoped?) to stop or reduce the severity of another stroke or perhaps some other form of cardiovascular crapout.

My roommate during my Joe-is-a-river phase was named Waldo. Snow-haired and German-born, his stroke having taken two languages from him. I tried to comfort him in the middle of the night, when it was just the two of us against our demons and the hospitrouters were busy plumbing other rivers. I learned later that Waldo had designed the legs of the lunar lander and that he had been through this before, which only added to his frustration. I didn't like contemplating return engagements.

My friends came to visit and I knew Robochef Bob Peterson was wondering if the stroke would erode my poker-playing accumen, so I unashamedly announced [lying brazenly] that the doctor had said I should be even more adept at the game.

After three days as a river, I was freed to be an angler again, navigating with less than my customary coordination. I suddenly had trouble with sleeves and socks, coordinating knives and forks, turning pages, picking things up, two-handed typing, riding in vehicles, remembering events of a minute before, standing up in a shower, acting normal, feeling normal. After a stroke, there is a tendency to feel like you are walking around with your own dedicated stalker-sniper inside you. The heat of showers made me dizzy and left my head reeling. Sitting on a dining room chair and riding in a car had the same effect.

All through this I was filled with bizarre thoughts, remnants of AF Survival Training: stay with the bird, make a signal, stay calm. I wondered whether I would be able to wade again, tie one of my already inept knots, do any of my flawed trouting again. The idea of picking up a size 20 fly, much less affixing one to a 6X leader seemed daunting. Was I done winder-wandering solo in Michigan's rivers and streams?

Was I done writing, living the way I had for so long?

All my life I thought of myself as a true nomad. Over my fifty six years, most of the houses I had lived in had pretty much disappeared. Even the corporation that employed me for nearly three decades had been largely and unceremoniously subsumed in mergers, its headquarters moved to New Jersey under the tutelage of a new CEO with a personal (and armed) bodyguard, while making ludicrous public pronouncements that declared Jersey the epicenter of world pharmaceuticals. Normally people die and don't suffer the inevitable changes and erasures behind them, but I have lived to see a lot of my tracks eroded, smoothed over, rendered nothings.

Macabre thoughts continually assailed me.

As I lay in the hospital bed I felt overwhelmed by the need to be alone outdoors, neither lost nor specifically located; rather, on a journey with no timetable, no specific route, ETD or ETA. Winder-wandering to avoid the snicker-snack of the Big Bye-Bye.

I began to summon memories rarely thought of.

As I took refuge in memories, I was reminded of poet Bob Hicok's line, "Tests show within seconds, recall's fiction that we create more than remember."

I decided then that it was time to write down what I could remember and, out of fairness, call it a factitional memoir, those facts and events as I could or chose to remember them, not necessarily as they were or are. I also know that having considered embarking on such a journey, I first had to confer with God.

Lest you panic, this god is not the eternal diety of churchaholic churchdom; he's my trouting partner. For real. Which, let me assure you this has this absolutely nothing to do with religion (not counting the worshipful adoration of trout).

God was born and raised in Baton Rouge in the 1930s. He keeps his waders up with straps jury-rigged with baling wire, the same gauge most people use to hang their favorite Elvis-on-velvet next to a small, faded rebel flag and the ratty head of a mosshead buck gotten in the way-back of a favorite bayou. As eloquent as he is frugal, God in one of his former lives was a professor of English and in those days pay for untenured academics was just slightly better than for indentured servants; baling wire was the all-around fix-it-up material that Super Glue and duct tape later became. Habits learned early tend to persist, even for God.

Godfrey Grant (a.k.a. God or G2) is retired from corporate existence, still teaches non-trout season classes at Western Michigan University, and operates as a freelance technomedical writing consultant under the rubric of "The Word of God."

"You want to write a book about not catching trout?" God asked.

"I figure I should write about what I know best."

God is the sort of trouter who likes to cover a lot of fast water quickly. I'm more a product of the Lugubrious School of the Interminable Gawk and Slow Mosey. He fishes so hard and with such singular focus that by dark he's often lost; I get temporarily disoriented once in awhile, but rarely lost. I can walk back to a spot where I dropped a dime five hundred miles from here in 1961; G2 has difficulty finding his car in an empty parking lot. Away from the river G2 cooks brilliantly, eats slowly, keeps two cats and Tipper the Dog, is married to the Lovely Laurie (I was God's best man), lives well and likes to mull things over. I used to eat like a logger with an anxiolytic tapeworm, dress like I was suited up by a haberdasher to hobos and think my way through things, right or wrong, in nanoseconds. Opposites attract.

"Who you think's gonna wanna read this book?" he asked.

"Most trouters. If it's true that five percent of the fishermen catch ninety percent of the fish, then I have something to say to the ninety five percent of us who subsist on the ten percent. Near as I can tell nobody ever writes about or to this group. We're the forgotten trouters."

God briefly mulled this over. "Doesn't sound like a bestseller."

"Art's not about money."

"Art?"

"Defined as making something out of nothing." Which coincidentally described the quality of fishing I knew best.

"I suppose you'd rather read about some jamoke with a creel filled with twenty two-inch browns?"

Extended mull mode was followed by a slow twitch of a gray bearded jaw. "All I'd wanna know is where this alleged jerk caught 'em and maybe on what." With this, God paused like a timberdoodle preparing for a vertical takeoff from a popple stand and started splashing purposefully up the creek.

Some people pray to God while they fish. I get to fish with him and hear him pray to himself. And despite such prayers, I even sometimes outfish him.

"Let's fish," he chanted over his shoulder. "We got us a bunch of water to cover."

Which is what this little book is all about. Covered Waters.

There is an apocryphal story of a farmer whose pumpkin patch kept being raided by neighbor kids and he was desperate to put a stop to it. After pondering long, he knew what to do.

The next time the boys came during the night to raid they found a sign with a lantern beside it. The sign read, "One of them punkins out there is poisoned."

This factitional memoir is a bit like that pumpkin patch. It will be up to the reader to decide which parts are true for them; they are all true for me. If you take exception, talk to God, but don't look for him when the trout are rising to gray drakes or the hex hatch is on. ~ Joseph Heywood


About Joseph:

Joseph Heywood "Born in Rhinebeck New York, grew up in a USAF family, living all over U.S. and in Italy as well. First year of high school in Norman, Oklahoma and final three in Rudyard, Michigan in the eastern Upper Peninsula. I graduated from Michigan State University in 1965 with BA in journalism. There I played lacrosse on the univesity club team and was one of the tri-captains in my senior year. After five years in the AF where I was a navigator in a KC-135 tanker. Vietnam vet. After the AF I joined The Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo in 1970; I retired in 1999 as Vice President of Worldwide Public Relations. I have fished in Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming, but in none of the hallowed places in those states. Most of my trouting has been confined to Michigan, where there is ample opportunity and plenty of stubborn and wily fish. I wrote and published three novels while working in the corporate world and now write fiction full time. My fourth novel was published earlier this month by Lyons Press and my next novel will also be published by Lyons sometime next spring. I am not a great fisherman, but I continue to learn, which makes it a wonderful passion. My other passion is ice hockey, namely the Detroit Red Wings."

His latest novel is The Snowfly. He lives in Portage, Michigan, and claims the Pere Marquette as his 'home water.' You may find him in the Chat Room as 'Joe' or 'Joe H'.


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