Volume 3, Issue 33: Muzzle of Bees

"Some people get so frightened, of the fences in between."

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My grandfather, William Franklin Leitch, loved to fish. He lived in Toledo, Illinois, spent most of his life working at an asphalt paving company and had eight children, four boys, four girls. My dad says the truck of his Buick always smelled of bait.

He was one of those guys who was always a little bit cantankerous. Our extended family used to go to a family restaurant called Hoots House after church every Sunday. You should know that they do not serve day old pies.

My grandfather had a Hoots House ritual. When we would sit down at the table and the waitress would come over, my grandfather would make a big production of handing me his watch as he finished ordering for the table. “This is my grandson Will, and he’s very good at math,” he’d say to the waitress, inevitably a scared high school girl who quickly realized she’d drawn the wrong table. “Every time the second hand passes the 12, Will is going to announce to the table how many minutes it has been since we ordered. I would like this to be your reminder of how long we have been waiting, one that the entire restaurant will hear. Will, are you ready?” I was always ready. Every 60 seconds: “It’s been 13 minutes!” I loved being useful to my grandfather. Dad says Grandpa always tipped well no matter how long the food took. I sure hope so.

Grandpa was just a little ornery that way. He smoked two packs of unfiltered Pall Malls until the day he died, and he once punched a Space Invaders video game right in front of me, saying, “those things are worse than slot machines. At least with those there’s a chance you’ll get your money back.” There is a sign outside of Toledo that says, “Welcome to Toledo, Population 1200: 1187 Happy Souls, 13 Sore Heads,” and he once showed up at a city council meeting insisting the number of soreheads be increased by one—to account for him.

Like most ornery soreheads, Grandpa had a twinkle in his eye that let you know he was in on the joke, at least if he happened to be your grandfather. (Though I wonder if all eight of those kids always felt that way.) And he always took to me, probably because I was named after him and, at the time at least, I was the only grandson with the last name Leitch. It must have been a little frustrating to have sired eight children and still only end up with one boy to carry on the family name. Particularly when that boy was the nerdy kid who would sit alone at recess reading “Mom, the Wolfman and Me.”

So he always loved to take me fishing. It was a very Bill Leitch thing that we wouldn’t go out to a lake, or a river, or some secluded spot for fly fishing. We’d just go out to the man-made pond next to the interstate, in full view of the Dairy Queen and the Huck’s gas station, row out to the middle and just cast our lines right there. I wouldn’t say hearing the semi trucks blaring down I-70 was the most peaceful fishing activity, but they weren’t louder than Jack Buck and Mike Shannon on the radio, and that was all that mattered.

I never caught any fish with him. But one time, when I was nine, I caught a dog.

We had been out on the pond for a couple of hours, which didn’t seem long at the time but sure does seem nearly infinite now that I live in the same house as a nine-year-old. It was hot, but Grandpa had a beer and a pack of smokes, and I had a 7-Up and the Cardinals game. I don’t remember talking much in the boat; I’m embarrassed to say other than the crack about the Space Invaders I have no memories of any advice my grandfather ever gave me. We just sat there, listening to the ballgame, mostly wordless. Occasionally he’d give me suggestions on how to cast my rod, or which bait to use, but there were no heart-to-hearts. It was just good to be away from everything. It was good to have someone you could just sit next to in silence.

After Grandpa lit his hundredth cigarette, I felt a yank on my line. My inability to catch a fish had become a bit of an irritating subplot to these trips, and we both leapt to our feet. A bite! Excited, panicked, I started to hand him the rod, but he said, no, it’s your fish, he’s yours to reel in. I pulled back lightly on the line, slight short tugs, and then began to reel in my catch. Soft and first, and then more firmly. I’d finally gotten one.

In the distance, a faint yelp, followed by another.

“You must have a big one,” Grandpa said, noticing how our tiny boat actually seemed to be being pulled along by our catch. “Do you want me to help?” I happily handed him the rod. I was nervous about what I was going to do if I caught any fish; a big one was far too much for me to handle. He began to tug, then reel, then tug, then reel.

A louder yelp.

“Where did you cast your line, anyway?” he said. I had no idea. I was just glad the worm hadn’t fallen off.

He put on his glasses and peered out to where he’d followed my line. “Oh,” he said. “Oh.”

I had cast my line, essentially, on the edge of the pond; I think I’d flung it over the water entirely, flying uselessly above the heads of any fist, landing in grass. It then began to slowly wriggle across the ground, where it caught the attention of a beagle from one of the houses nearby, one who had been rolling around near the water on a hot summer’s day. He began to chase the line. It danced away. He chased it some more. Then he pounced.

And now a line cast by a nine-year-old named William Franklin Leitch and reeled in by a 65-year-old named William Franklin Leitch was pulling a dog across the grass and into the water.

“Oh shit!” my grandfather said. He never had any problem with cursing around anybody.

He frantically rowed the boat to the shore, being careful to hold the fishing rod out in front of him after he’d loosened the slack so the dog would not be dragged into the water and also not be tortured any more than he already was. As we drew closer, we saw the beagle flipping his head back and forth, furiously, trying to dislodge the hook from his mouth, eyes wide, baffled by what in the world was happening to him.

When we got close enough, Grandpa, muttering and more alarmed than I’d ever seen him, got out of the boat and sloshed over to the dog. Then—and I swear to God this happened—the dog looked up at him and, slowly, methodically … opened his mouth wide. Help me. Please.

Grandpa pulled the hook out the dog’s mouth—and that dog took off away from that pond like he was being chased by firecrackers. Grandpa took off his hat and wiped his brow. He really was sweating quite a lot.

We came back home and told my dad that story. He didn’t believe either one of us. Four years later, my grandfather would die at home in his bed. Thirty-five years later, my father still doesn’t believe that story. But it’s true. I swear it’s true.

I have no real news peg for this story about fishing with my grandfather. I am just looking around the world at this particular moment, and I am scared and anxious and uncertain about what is to come. It seemed the right time to float back to a time long ago, when I was just a boy in a boat with his grandfather, listening to baseball, waiting for the fish to bite and ending up getting a story that I’d be telling when I had a nine-year-old of my own, named after his grandfather. Maybe they’ll go fishing together someday. Maybe they’ll have their own story that I won’t believe. But I am finding comfort today, in stories that have come before, that have been passed down to today, that may someday be passed down again. I am finding comfort in times that were perilous but were still survived. And I am finding comfort in the peace of a calm pond, a cold brew and the distant hum of rumbling trucks on the interstate, a world that rages on, but out beyond, away, a place that is not here.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. A Long Q&A With Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, GQ. I’d teased this the last few weeks, and here it is. I was very happy with how it turned out.

  2. Looking Back on Election Night 2000, Which Was Not Very Funny But Sure Seemed So at the Time, Medium. It is helpful when nostalgia feels useful and applicable to the current circumstances.

  3. Hey, What’s With All Those Fans in the Stands? New York. There sure are a lot of them, aren’t there?

  4. It Is Apparently Far More Difficult to Figure Out How to Wear a Mask Than One Might Have Previously Thought, Medium. Southern football coaches really struggle with this.

  5. Going To A Sporting Event: Is It Safe?, Medium. Attempting to answer last week’s question. This is a new Friday rubric over there.

  6. Burning NLCS and ALCS Questions: Friday, MLB.com. So one of the weird things about doing this newsletter, which looks back on pieces I wrote in the last week, is that every MLB piece I wrote this week previewed something that, by the time you read this, has already happened. So, to describe the next four stories, I will give you the names of pets who have been a part of my family. Daisy.

  7. Burning NLCS and ALCS Questions: Thursday, MLB.com. Molly.

  8. Wednesday Morning NLCS and ALCS Storylines, MLB.com. Pooker.

  9. Tuesday Morning NLCS and ALCS Storylines, MLB.com. Piggy.

  10. Monday Morning NLCS and ALCS Storylines, MLB.com. Toast.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we discuss the new film from Don Hertzfeldt (on whom I have a piece in GQ next week), “World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime,” along with “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Time” and “Rad.” You should pause what you’re doing and watch all of those right now.

Part One. (16 minutes)
Part Two. (22 minutes)
Part Three. (34 minutes)

People Still Read Books, with RJ Young, author of “Let It Bang: A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey Into Guns.”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, previewing the suddenly crazy Alabama game, and recapping the Tennessee game.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“My Mustache, Myself,” Wesley Morris, The New York Times Magazine. Wesley Morris is one of the best writers I know, and this piece is the perfect example of why. Also, I’m envious, because I am 45 years old and still cannot grow even one whit of legitimate facial hair, let alone enough of a mustache to write about it.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

States I’ve Not Visited, in the Order of Desire to Visit Them***

  1. Alaska

  2. Vermont

  3. Utah

  4. Montana

  5. New Hampshire

  6. South Dakota

  7. Wyoming

  8. North Dakota

  9. Idaho

  10. West Virginia

*** as previously established in this newsletter, to “visit” a state is defined as “having spent one night sleeping in the state, or doing some sort of substantial activity, like going to a sporting event, attending a wedding or even having a long sit-down dinner at a restaurant, back when you could do any of those things.”

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Send your mail-in ballot first. But then write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Find the River,” R.E.M. I haven’t had any R.E.M. songs in a while, and during a period of time in my life, and in all our lives, when I could use a little peace, perspective and comfort, I’ll go with a song that has calmed me down since I was in high school. I do not know why, but this song always makes me feel like it’s all going to be all right.

As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, I did my job this week.

Get out there and do the same whenever you can. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Best,
Will