Lately, I’ve been thinking back a bit. I’ve been letting memories come and go, and often, it’s not the big personal historical events that hold me so close, but rather small comments made by friends on the spur of the moment, in the most innocent of moments. Some of those off the cuff words sink very deep indeed, and many linger forever. I’m sure you have some of these experiences as well. Especially now, in the age of COVID-19 and all the other bullshit, when we can’t stay close, and what we may have taken for granted for so many years, may never be here again. Let me tell you about one of those comments, made some years ago by my friend Ken Aretsky, as we walked a forest trail alongside an historic river in the Catskills.
A little set up is in order here. Like me, Ken is an old guy. Ken is not old school at all. Ken is ancient antiquities school. He’s what comes to mind when I think of words like manners, discretion, kindness, style, poise, presence and grace. He’s been featured in the NY Times a number of times over the years. A recent story said we could find his picture in the dictionary right next to the word “dapper”. He’s like an old wood-paneled den, maybe overlooking a rose garden, with fly rods and dusty books on fly fishing strewn about, a vanilla scent from Kentucky bourbon in the air, and quality cigar smoke hanging in the curtains. That kind of guy. Smooth. He’s been in the restaurant business, right in the middle of Manhattan, for about 45 years. For many years he’s been running one of the great Grande Dames of old New York restaurants called Patroon, a couple of blocks from Grand Central Station. It was something. You didn’t dare walk in there without at least a sport coat, just out of respect for the ritual if nothing else. It was everything you would imagine it to be, right down to the truffles and Cuban cigars. He had to close Patroon recently because of the virus, and at this writing, I don’t know if he’ll re-open it. Gotta be tearing him apart.
Ken and his wife Diana have an old farmhouse near the Beaverkill River, in the Catskills of New York State. He actually "modeled" for me one morning as I was shooting assignment photographs of fly fishing on the Beaverkill. The man knows how to cast a fly rod, which I needed, and he had the required attitude to be a good model - he could easily ignore me and forget I’m even around. Just after sunrise, we got to a spot on the river I knew about and researched for time of day.
The Beaverkill at this specific location is nothing if not historic. In the late 1800s, this is where the legendary Theodore Gordon fished as he led the introduction of dry fly fishing to America. This is where Lee Wulff first considered the idea of “catch and release”, and Joan Salvato Wulff currently holds a most gracious court. Right here is where the writer Sparce Grey Hackle said of the trout: ”This is where they painted spots on him and taught him how to swim.” For many serious fly fishermen all over the world and students of this “religion”, this isn’t just trout water - this is baptismal water.
We caught the sun just coming over the trees. You photographers out there know the routine. I had him cast over and over and over again to the same general spot. Trying to get the photo speaking clearly, looking good, looking clean. While I was doing that, Ken just got lost in the casting. I'd say something to him in the way of a move I wanted him to make, and often he wouldn't even hear me. He was just drifting in the graceful and fluid repetition of the art. Fly fishermen know about this stuff. The fish are good for certain, but it’s not the fish that tell the tale. It’s those transcendent moments that frame the landscape of the fly-fishing life. Both of us were lost in what both of us do best. For me, as a shooter, it was one of those perfectly elongated elliptical moments, when everything fits, and we’re carried along by events rather than in control of them. An absolutely gorgeous moment. After a while, a calm settled in, and I felt sure we had something, so we finished the shoot. We were walking back to the car, along an old well-worn trail on the riverbank - the exact same way, for countless generations, any two fishermen friends have walked back to the put-in alongside the rivers of the world. It really wasn’t and never has been a walk as such. A walk is actually more intentional and pedestrian. This was much more a drag-free drift downstream for two delicately placed and perfectly balanced dry flies, but sure, we can call it a walk. As it was still sort of early, the light remained pretty low in the trees, and it was starting to warm up on our backs. We didn't talk - just walked - nothing generally to say that would add anything to the moment. We got about two-thirds of the way back to the car, when he kind of glanced over to me and softly said: "Walter if you ever find it gets any better than this, would you please call me?" I chuckled quietly, as though we were walking through the middle of an old library, kept walking, looked downstream a bit then down to the trail, nodded my head in agreement, smiled, and said, “I’ll do that Ken. I’ll call you.”
It was just a quick comment on a riverbank. Those words were so linearly perfect, the benign cynic in me is guessing he’d used the line before when there was good reason to do so, and I just don’t care one way or the other. For me, it was the first and so far, only time I’ve heard it, and it resonated permanently. God, I'll never forget that. Not ever. “Would you please call me?” Boy, that was good. Really good.
Many of us are truly blessed to be able to look back, knowing we’ve had a few moments in our lives when, if we truly consider all the possibilities, it would be tough to do better than that particular moment we found ourselves living in. Another perfect moment might be different, but certainly not better. At any given moment, surely no one wants to die, but if we were challenged and truly had no choice at that one instant, everything considered, if we had to die right then, we could live with it. As I sit here in a 2020 quarantine, like everyone, I’d at least like to have another couple shots at those unique moments, and somewhere down the road here, I’m kind of hoping to at least try and see if I can make that call to Ken. It could be a hell of a lot of fun to at least give it a go and make a solid run at the idea. I’m sitting here in Central Mexico watching the sun go down, sipping on a mezcal again. I’m thinking about a call I want to try to make, and a small comment on a riverbank from years ago. Ken, give me another minute or two if you would please. If I find something with some substance to it, I’ll call you right away. I promise you that my friend. I promise.