A WIDE brown dirt road lay straight out beyond the Thunder-chicken Ford hood ornament. Two young men in the car had left their barracks on Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. They were traveling fast in the rising sun, casting for a few days of walleye fishing. Andy and Bart drove across the prairie quickly toward Devil’s Lake. The first hour had sprinted them in missile-like fashion across miles of smooth, recently-scraped and firmly packed dirt road. They were almost halfway to their destination.
Andy had a home-spun theory about traveling fast on straight gravel roads. As he taught it, Bart.., a California boy, did not argue the point. Not being from a Midwest prairie state, he did not fault his friend’s prairie logic. Andy’s strategy seemed to work. The driver said, “When you drive a dry prairie gravel road, you’ve got to play around until you find a speed that won’t pick up stones.”
Andy’s strategy was well-planned. At too-low speeds the car would fill with dust. So he said they needed to go a bit faster. Then gravel started to bounce from the tires toward the floor board and rockers, but the dust in the car lessened. As he increased speed, they heard fewer “clinks” and “chinks” as gravel missed the bottom of Andy’s ’56 Ford hardtop.
Thus, varying speed a bit according to the humidity and other natural wheat field factors that only Andy could talk about at length, they sped up... and the noise stopped. On that morning at precisely 62 mph, Bart noted that relative quiet settled into what had been a dust-raising drill. No longer was dirt coming in, but was seen curling up far behind. He became very glad that there was no oncoming traffic. They would make the two men slow enough to keep stones from hitting windshields.
Andy explained to Bart that the centrifugal force of the tires overcame any “stickiness” of small pebbles clamped in the tread. The ideal speed threshold was therefore detected only by the relative quiet. With just a slight rumble of rolling wheels, they could then listen to Hank Williams on the radio, and talk to one another at a normal fish-monger's volume.
Once the two young men achieved that ideal speed with the wide smooth gravel road still allowing safety, Andy maintained a rate just a few mph above the “quiet” speed zone. This took a bit of old-fashioned, astute mid-western throttle play that could make many modern, electronic cruise control envious.
Andy had sought to get them right up to that ideal speed quickly. He had just paid a body man big bucks to refinish the lower panels of the Ford with the original salmon-like, coral color he liked so much. After the paint restoration was so ably completed and dried for a time at the base hobby shop, he’d attached small rubber mud flaps on the front wheel wells. Andy topped off his work with a bug screen bought at the Western Auto. The screen graced the front of the car to protect the grille. Though Bart had not said so, he thought Andy’s bug catcher a bit much for the beautifully-kept Ford hardtop. However, the bug screen was not just to protect the grill. The screen helped to keep the radiator from being clogged by a bumper crop of grasshoppers. While the overhead valve Ford V-8 did run clean and cool thanks to the regularly washed screen.
On that day, Andy had more in mind. His prairie practicalities were at work. You see, Andy hailed from South Dakota. He was raised in Mobridge. In his youth he had learned to fish for pike prairie-style. Given that history, he knew exactly what he was doing with his bug screen. While Bart had wondered why they weren’t taking a paved road toward the east that morning, Andy had acquiring bait in his mind.
Bart was to learn that almost every prairie dusty road they traveled had wide ditches on both sides. In winter, drifted snow would fill them. Those wide, shallow areas Andy used as a resource. Bart discovered his strategy when they drew up to a lonely stop sign.
The two men sat there for a moment idling at a prairie intersection. There was not a house or barn anywhere in sight. Andy then drove slowly across the rural intersection, and went down the gradual slope into the wide ditch paralleling the road. He started to drive slowly along in the very bottom of the ditch. He picked up a little speed through the still wet grass. Soon minor taps on the front of the car and the splats on the windshield told the tale.
You see, Andy had picked the right road, the right ditch, and had the right height to the rising sun. After a quarter mile or so of ditch running, at the field’s next tractor access road, Andy pulled up out of the ditch and stopped. He quickly jumped out with the keys in his hand. He opened the trunk lid and handed Bart two big empty coffee cans and a pair of gloves. They went to the front grill’s bug screen and started picking live bait! Live, stunned and splattered grasshoppers, beetles, moths and bugs were there! Some of those nasties Bart still can’t describe or identify. Andy grinned, and said, “Now we’ve got bait!”
I remembered this scene described from Bart many years ago as I strolled through a car show. The show was held next to a little lake in the town where I now live. There I saw a Ford hardtop of the same color as my friend’s former ride. The hardtop sparkled in the morning sun. Beautifully preserved, the Ford Victoria lured both my attention and the focus of my camera lens. I was not, however, the only person gathered by the sight.
Though it did not have the stone deflecting mud flaps, nor a massive bug screen attached to its grille… the car was a magnet. It worked quite like a bug zapper lit up at night. People gathered around the car. Amid them was a man passing out Christian pamphlets.
As a minister, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that witness method. I thought of my Air Force buddies and those prairie fishing methods. So I asked the man with the Christian gospel tracts, “What kind of fishing bait did the disciples use?
He said, “Lord knows…”
Andy had taught me, “Find a ditch on a lightly traveled road; move at just the right speed, and the bait gathered will be right.”
Those words tapped into my mind like the bait on his bug screen. I thought about them again as I later unfolded my lawn chair next to the lake. I opened my fishing box after casting out a tasty bug as bait. I looked at the tract the man had given.
The booklet he was passing to others told about Jesus teaching folks down at the lakeshore. I read a few lessons taught about faith.
Oddly, only now I remember that Andy had taken that road for a reason. I remembered that I knew him after meeting him in a Lutheran church in Mohall, ND. I realize now that those two young servicemen carried on long conversations about fishing, faith and God’s love supplied. It was three-hook bait given freely by God like bugs in a ditch, but far more profound.
You see, during many excursions in North Dakota for land-locked salmon, pike, muskies, pickerel and more, Andy had been instrumental in laying the foundation for faith understanding in many people. In quiet trips to Devil’s Lake my fisherman friend shared his faith on more than one occasion, with Bart and others.
Andy, in somewhat regular practice grown of his mid-western Norwegian Lutheran roots, showed that he lived a baptized life of hooked Christian freedom every day. Whenever possible, he’d gone about prayerfully fishing, hunting and harvesting… gathering the sinful and un-nameable bugs that God had laid out before him. They were like the manna bread given by God to the people of Israel in the desert so long ago.
I do remember that conversations about Jesus as Lord were spoken easily by Andy. They certainly became part of the day for anyone who sat in a boat with him on a farm pond. The story of Jesus calming the seas seemed fit to be laughed about as he would row hard to beat a rain storm sweeping across the Garrison Reservoir. Through all his witness, Andy would find that a fishing buddy would slowly be brought to know the grace of God.
I wonder now, “What does the Holy Trinity have in common with a treble hook?” Maybe very little, but it makes for great debate as we might sit alongside each other on the banks of a cold Dakota lake. I think of this after my many years in the pulpit. Andy taught me that it’s amazing who you can catch just by driving slowly through the ditches of life... trolling along... catching devilish bugs maimed… and using them as bait.
Here's a video for those who like to try fishing for people...
About Liking Fish!
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