I've Never Met an Idiot on the River, page 1
Table of Contents
Also by Henry Winkler, with Lin Oliver
Ladies First Stacey Winkler’s Side of the Fish Story
Chapter 1 - Fish Out of Water
Chapter 2 - The River Is a Washing Machine for My Brain
Chapter 3 - Point, Push, and Pray
Chapter 4 - Casting for Joy
Chapter 5 - Going with the Flow
Chapter 6 - Hooked, Soaked, and Happy as a Clam
Also by Henry Winkler, with Lin Oliver
The Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever series
Niagara Falls, or Does It?
I Got a “D” in Salami
Day of the Iguana
The Zippity Zinger
The Night I Flunked My Field Trip
Help! Somebody Get Me Out of Fourth Grade!
Summer School! What Genius Thought Up That?
My Secret Life as a Ping-Pong Wizard
My Dog’s a Scaredy-Cat: A Halloween Tail
The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down
Barfing in the Backseat: How I Survived My Family Road Trip
Who Ordered This Baby? Definitely Not Me!
The Life of Me (Enter at Your Own Risk)
A Tale of Two Tails
Dump Trucks and Dogsleds: I’m on My Way, Mom!
A Brand-New Me!
To Skip Brittenham and in memory of Leonard
Hanzer, for introducing me to a life’s passion.
And, always, to Stacey.
“You are about to enter a lifelong journey into a different world.” —Michael D. Shook, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fly Fishing
“If you will it, it is not a dream.”
—Theodor Herzl, Old New Land
Ladies First Stacey Winkler’s Side of the Fish Story
When I began dating Henry in the 1970s, I was struck, as most people were, by how incredibly kind and good-natured he was. Henry was such a gentleman and so caring and thoughtful. After a few months of his chivalrous treatment, I kept waiting for his darker side to show up. I’d probably still be waiting for a glimpse of it more than thirty years later, if I had not started fly-fishing with my husband.
Honestly, I’ve never seen Henry wake up with anything but a smile and an enthusiastic “GOOD MORNING! HOW ARE YOU?” I hear this from him each and every day, and I have no problem telling you that the man I married is still the most thoughtful, kind, and optimistic person I’ve ever known. Henry’s glass is always half full, and he is always patient and easygoing—except when he is fly-fishing.
It’s odd because Henry is a native New Yorker and we live in Los Angeles. In both of those high-stress places, he is never flustered or overwrought. Only in the serene beauty of fly-fishing country does the crazed and competitive Henry appear.
Now I don’t want to give you the impression that he is on edge the whole time we’re in the wilderness. Henry’s feisty alter ego arises only if someone threatens to cut short his time on the water.
One year in Montana, my calm and loving husband, who has always been shockingly patient with our children, actually threw a wader boot across the room because our daughter, Zoe, then a teenager, was taking too long to prepare for an afternoon of fishing. It didn’t help that Henry had given up his morning on the river to join us for a horseback ride. With half the day gone, he was really eager to get in as much fishing as possible before sunset.
Still, I’d never seen him lose his cool like that. It was as if he had turned into Damien, the evil child in The Omen. After the boot-hurling incident, we told the children that positioning themselves between their father and the trout was courting disaster. If you happen to find yourself on the same river as Henry, my advice to you is this: Do not obstruct his casting, because he truly believes all fish wear tags reading “To Be Caught and Released Only by Henry Winkler.”
It’s hard to describe just how much Henry looks forward to his Montana trips. With his television roles, scores of speaking engagements, constant travel, production meetings, and all his other responsibilities, Henry is a busy, busy man. He loves acting, writing children’s novels, and producing. He is fulfilled and passionate, and he uses up every minute of every working day. That said, Henry covets his fishing time with a capital C.
We head to Montana for our annual fishing trips in August, but Henry will start packing in January. Every year he does a vacation countdown. Beginning long before our scheduled departure, at least once a day he’ll say something like, “Only three months, two days, and ten hours until I’m back on the river in Montana.”
These cherished trips take him away from Los Angeles and New York City and his wonderful but demanding career in the entertainment industry. Sitting in a boat or standing in the river, Henry can relax and enjoy each moment. He is finally offstage and free to be just another guy chasing after trout. Surrounded by mountains, wildflowers, and nature’s own cast and crew, he feels spiritually cleansed and recharged.
Henry relishes every minute on the water, every fish, every reflection and ripple, every beam of sunlight on the shoreline, and even each drop of rain on the river. He basks in the quiet and has no tolerance for anything that distracts from the wilderness experience. Fly-fishing is his bliss. And he fiercely protects his time in that world.
Henry and I had more fights on our first day fishing together than in all our previous years of marriage. Once in the boat, my mild-mannered, loving husband turned into someone else’s aggressive, cranky spouse. Luckily, there was a guide between us, or one of the Winklers might have been tossed overboard.
I was stunned at this development because that first day began peacefully enough with a nice breakfast and quiet preparations. Then, when we arrived at the put-in point, Henry, without a word, commandeered the front seat of our boat. I was taken aback by this power play. The bow seat on the boat is considered the best in the house because it puts you in position to be the first to cast into undisturbed waters populated by unwary fish. I would have gladly given up that coveted seat to my husband, but he didn’t ask. He just seized it.
Even worse, once we were on the river and ready to fish, Henry proceeded to completely disregard fly-fishing etiquette by madly casting into my waters as well as his own. His fly invaded my fishing space time and time again. He tangled my line, disturbed my fish, and slapped the water loudly.
I was shocked. My husband is normally one of those rare men who opens and holds every door and always pulls out my chair at dinner. He is a perfect gentleman in every social situation. But, as I discovered, these rules of etiquette do not apply on the river.
Henry was so crazed on that day we spent in the same boat—seven long hours—that ever since then, we have fished in separate boats with separate guides, in separate places on the river. We do sometimes meet for a picnic lunch, but Henry views these breaks as interruptions from his time with the fish.
The guides usually caution other people to stay clear of Mr. Winkler’s boat, especially if he has just arrived at freshwater. It’s very hard for Henry when people recognize him on the river and want to chat. They spot him, even with a hat, glasses, and his nose covered with zinc oxide. He is always too nice to say “Please keep moving,” but believe me, that—or worse!—is what he’s thinking.
Henry becomes very territorial on the river. He recently admitted that when he sees water that looks “fishy,” a strange spirit comes over him and demands that he cast his fly into that area. He claims it is an unconscious and overwhelming urge beyond his control, and he doesn’t want anyone else f
There are other odd Henry behaviors unique to our Montana fishing trips. We usually stay at beautiful Firehole Ranch, where it is customary to dine with other guests. Breakfast conversation often includes sharing where each person plans to fish that day. Not so for Henry. He keeps his plans to himself because he wants to catch all the trout in Montana and contiguous states.
Other quirks appear during dinner each night in the lodge. The Zen of fly-fishing is all about the experience of being engaged and alive in the moment. You catch and release. You don’t keep score. So in keeping with that spirit, most of the fly-fishermen and fisher-women don’t boast about how many trout they’ve caught, or how big their catches were, down to the exact pounds and length. Instead, they reflect on the beauty of the day and the joys of being in the mountains and on the river. In truth, they’re a competitive bunch, but they hide it well.
Not my Henry. He will gladly provide a catch count, and he brings visual aids! Henry photographs each and every fish he’s hooked, often from several angles. He proudly exhibits these daily pictorials at the dinner table, reciting the length and weight of each trout from memory. Henry compiles this information methodically in his leather-bound Fishing Journal. Every night he notes in tiny little handwriting all the fish caught during the day. No fish fact goes unrecorded. (I think he pads his numbers just a little bit.)
Like most spouses, I have learned to adjust to my husband’s quirks, although I do chide him just a little for sleeping in his waders and heading to the river at dawn in thirty-seven layers of Orvis, J. Crew, and L.L.Bean. He is so organized and methodical with his fishing outfit that he lays out each day’s multilayered ensemble the night before.
This is like a religious ceremony—the arranging of the vestments. First the long underwear, then a T-shirt, then a big old flannel shirt, fishing pants, rain suit, parka, a fishing hat, socks, and waders, not to mention his lip balm, sunblock, scissors, and fishing knives. He often takes a backup set of clothes because, frankly, he tends to fall in the river a lot.
Try as I might, I can’t fully explain his strange behavior. But that is my Henry, and it’s his world you are about to enter. I love Henry for his amazing good nature and for his Montana mania, too. When we have our minor meltdowns, he always looks at me and says, “Through thick and thin.” And I think, If this is the only insanity in an otherwise thoughtful, wonderful man, we’ll be just fine.
Fly-fishing makes Henry happy, and those of us who love him are overjoyed that he loves it so much. We want him to be happy and fulfilled, and as you are about to discover, it is always a pleasure to be with Henry, even when he is an absolute maniac on the water.
Fish Out of Water
This wondrous book in your hands is a dream I thought would never happen, and it is the result of my late-blooming passions for fly-fishing and nature photography. I have the enthusiasm of a convert because nature and I did not mingle much in my childhood. I grew up in the great indoors of New York City, which included our family apartment at Seventy-Eighth and Broadway. My only hikes were to the bus stop or subway, with occasional forays into Riverside Park, where my first Schwinn bike was stolen.
We did have a summer home on beautiful Lake Mahopac, but even there, in upstate New York, I was a shut-in. My parents, Harry Irving and Ilse Anna Maria Winkler, sentenced me to summer school for life, or so it seemed. For four straight summers, I was chained to the same basic geometry course—all to no avail. I was lost in the Pythagorean wilderness. To this day, I can’t tell a polygon from polyester. (I do know that you can’t wear a hypothesis.)
To say I struggled in school is an understatement. My parents and teachers labeled me as lazy, a slow learner, and an underachiever. My mother and father, both German immigrants, saw their high expectations for me laid low. They lost patience early on and made no effort to hide it, becoming very critical of me, and sometimes cruel. Their pet name for me was “dumb dog.” They, of course, said it in German, which made it sound even meaner: dumm Hund.
Thanks to their delightful scorn and my own feelings, I spent most of my childhood with my self-esteem down around my ankles. But I was not dumb or lazy. I had undiagnosed dyslexia, a neurological disorder that affects your ability to read and write and learn word pronunciations. Dyslexia is a learning disability, and because of it, I was stuck, academically speaking, in the bottom 3 percent of American schoolkids.
I was really only bad in a few subjects, like math, spelling, history, reading, geography, geology, biology, chemistry, art, and usually gym, if it involved a ball. All right, so I was bad at every subject except lunch. (I had extraordinary tuna fish sandwich–eating abilities.) Along with my learning disability, I had trouble with hand-eye coordination. My eyes and my hands were not and are not great friends. So whatever the playground sport, I was usually among the last picked—if I was picked at all. Otherwise I was a cheerleader, complete with megaphone.
The dyslexia impacted so many things in my life, especially my self-confidence. Like I said, I had zilch. Feelings of inferiority pervaded everything I did, affecting my social life, my participation in sports, and how I viewed the world and, most importantly, my place in it.
Humor was my weapon against all these challenges. I became the class clown, the limbo dance king, and a master of improvisation and impersonations. Somehow, Henry the Underachiever managed to graduate McBurney School for boys and get into Emerson College, a very wonderful institution of higher learning, but only after taking geometry four times.
Yet I still wrestled with insecurities, even after I’d earned a bachelor’s degree at Emerson and a master’s from Yale School of Drama and had experienced a bit of success as a young actor on Happy Days. You wouldn’t believe, for example, what a big deal it was for me to join the Happy Days softball team. I’d never been part of an organized sports team as a kid. I was on the swimming team in high school for about a week. Unfortunately, I ate breakfast before a practice and vomited in the pool. I don’t know why, but I was immediately asked to leave.
To my surprise, I became the Happy Days team’s star pitcher and a decent hitter, though never really much of a fielder. My fielding strategy went like this: If the ball was hit in my direction, I didn’t put my glove out. Instead, I threw my whole self at it. For years, my entire left side was black and blue with ball-sized bruises. As a matter of fact, there were times you could see the baseball stitches imprinted in my skin. I’m not kidding.
Still, I loved being on the team with our other cast members, all of whom were good athletes. (Even Mrs. C—Marion Ross—who always found a way to get on base. She was very scrappy.) Our Happy Days version of the Bad News Bears traveled all over the world, and we had so many wonderful and unusual experiences.
My son Jed was our team’s ball boy, so he accompanied us in 1983 to Japan, where we played a series of games against our American troops. It was my first trip there. Jed and I were sipping green tea on the bullet train speeding between Tokyo and Kyoto one fall day, when Anson “Potsie” Williams came running into our car and said, “Come with me. You’ve got to see this!”
Jed and I followed him through one car after another until we reached one filled with Japanese college students. They were a choral group headed for a competition, and they were singing away on the train. When they saw three Americans in the doorway of their car, the choir spontaneously broke out into “She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes.”
They serenaded us as the bullet train sped through the beautiful countryside. Brilliant yellow ginkgo tree leaves rained down on the tracks as we sped past them. What a moment! I’ve never applauded a performance with more enthusiasm. Not even my own.
Playing on the Happy Days softball team was a special joy for me because I’d always a
Happy Days really described my life during that time. With my acting and sporting successes, my self-esteem rose from down around my ankles to where it is now, somewhere around my sternum. Another major boost came when, at the age of thirty-one, I discovered why reading and writing had always been so difficult for me.
Jed was having trouble in school. Stacey and I took him in for tests to determine why this very bright and verbal kid couldn’t seem to put his thoughts on paper. After a series of interviews and tests, the learning specialists diagnosed Jed with dyslexia. When they described the symptoms and causes to us, I thought, Wow that really sounds like me, too!
I was so relieved to finally find an explanation for my reading and writing and softball-catching challenges. But while this was very liberating news, it was not an instant fix. To my surprise, many old insecurities and fears lingered for years. Until just recently, for example, every time I was offered a new acting role, instead of feeling good about the opportunity, I’d be hit with nagging self-doubts, the same fears and insecurities: Oh my God, why did I say yes? I don’t think I know how to act anymore!
Baggage. I had some baggage. All of my life, I had assumed certain things were beyond my capabilities, mentally and physically. Not in my wheelhouse, I’d think. Rather than risk failing or looking foolish when trying something new, I’d retreat or use humor to avoid it. I was an escape artist, until I finally figured out that if I just took on new things one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, conquering first one detail then the next, I could accomplish what I’d assumed was impossible.
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