Note: A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
There’s Always That One Guy.
Every crowd of teenagers has at least one misfit. The group of woods bums I hung around with in high school was no exception; our misfit was Iggy “Zode” Winkel.
Nobody was quite sure how Ignatius Aloysius Winkel got his nickname. Granted his given names were a mouthful and not amenable to abbreviation. But how the local guys derived “Zode” from that, an incident that happened around the second grade, was something of a mystery. I once asked my buddy Dave about it, and he shrugged and said, “because he’s a zode.” None of us were quite sure what a zode was, other than that Zode was one.
Zode smoked, drank, chased girls, flirted with truck stop waitresses, frequently stayed out all night fishing, skipped school to hunt pheasants, and had not been known to engage in any productive paying work in anyone’s memory. Despite this, Zode also had some negative personality traits, one of which stood out like a supernova.
That one negative trait was a propensity to assert infallible knowledge on any topic, at any time, under any circumstance, with great and unwavering certainty – whether he actually knew anything about the topic or not.
In short, Zode was a know-it-all.
Now all teenagers exhibit this trait to some extent; ask any parent of a teenager. The teen always knows more on any given subject than any adult – just ask any teen, they’ll tell you. But Zode developed the know-it-all trait to an extreme hitherto unknown in the annals of human history. The problem with Zode’s know-it-all-ism was that Zode was rarely, if ever, right about anything.
Take fishing, for example. Zode knew more ways to catch fish than possibly any other person alive. Indeed, Zode was an expert on all fishing, not just our homegrown varieties; deep-sea fishing, saltwater, freshwater, you name it. What’s worse, he frequently insisted on holding forth on these subjects for hours on end.
One beautiful August afternoon, Zode was part of a group of us boys who set off for an Upper Iowa river bass fishing expedition. When the local smallmouths proved uncooperative, we stopped by a big pool above a bend in the river that we knew could produce a few big channel cats.
“The trick to catfishing,” Zode expounded, “is to get the bait right out in the channel. That’s where the really big ones are, right in the stream. The current brings food right to them.” With that, Zode grabbed his old bait-casting rod and reached to unhook the big treble-hooked popper from where it was hung on the bottom guide loop, promptly getting a treble hook caught in the web of his hand.
“AYOWWWW!!!” Zode yelped in pain. My buddy Jon, while unsheathing a wickedly sharp fillet knife roughly the size of a Saracen scimitar, replied “Aw, don’t worry, Zode, I’ll pop that ol’ hook right outta your thumb.”
After three complete circuits of the island at a dead run, we managed to pin Zode long enough to wrestle the hook loose. But Zode wasn’t finished yet.
“You guys don’t know anything about fishhooks,” he sniffed, “you’re supposed to push them through and cut off the barb, not back them out.” A little blood was still seeping through his fingers where they were clamped on his hand.
“Maybe we should have pushed it right through your head, Zode” grumped Jon, brushing sand from his shirt.
The day progressed from there with more pearls of wisdom from the mind of Zode.
“You shouldn’t pull the canoe that far up on the bank.”
“Your reel shouldn’t be making that clicking noise. Here, let me have a look at it.”
“Are you sure that you’ve aged that catfish bait long enough? It doesn’t smell strong enough.” And that comment was directed at some of Jon’s custom deluxe catfish formula, which caused eyes to water and curled nose hairs at fifty paces and prompted dogs to howl in agony a good hundred yards downwind.
I’m still not certain how we got through the afternoon without tossing Zode right into the Upper Iowa, but we did. In fact, I’m still not certain why Zode was a part of the group on as many of our outings as he was. And yet, whenever three or more of us got together to run a trapline, catch some trout, or shoot a few rabbits, there would be Zode. With the unerring instinct of a bloodhound homing in on a fleeing felon, Zode could sniff out any group of boys intent on an outdoor activity.
This One Time…
The final straw came on a bitter-cold late-season pheasant hunt. Four of us – Jon, Zode, Albert Hedley, and I, had cut a morning of school to pick up a few birds.
Jon had standing permission to hunt the old Duffey place, a couple hundred acres of cornfield and woodlot. The minus–30 degree wind was blasting tiny ice pellets across a skin of hard crusted snow as we piled out of Jon’s ancient, cantankerous Dodge van on the side of the road near a section of cornfield that was “up top,” or on the top of the big rolling hills that make up much of northeast Iowa. The old red oak that arched over the parking place rattled its last few dry leaves at us. The world was bitterly cold and seemingly still, with only a lonely hawk wheeling high overhead in a sky as pale blue as only a frigid Iowa January could produce. But as we tightened parka hoods and scarves, and pulled on mittens, we knew the birds were out there. The old Duffy place never failed to produce. The four of us set off along a line of sumac towards the first big slough.
We paused at the edge of the field to plan strategy. While Jon laid out his plan, I was contentedly watching a white-throated sparrow braving the bitter wind to search for grass seeds. It didn’t take Zode long to get his two cents in.
“We shouldn’t cut up the slough.” Zode postulated. “We should work along the fencerow over here and cut over to the slough at the top.” Never mind that this thickly overgrown slough always produced birds, and that the fencerow was visibly bare and barren of life. Never mind that Zode’s plan would allow the birds to slip down to the ditch and away. Zode always had The Plan.
“Oh, clam up, Zode” Jon snorted. With Zode protesting all the way, we started up the slough.
About halfway up the slough, a rooster thrashed up out of the weeds and beat past Albert, who dropped him neatly with a single shot.
“You should hold your hand farther ahead on your gun, Albert” Zode offered. “And I think you stopped your swing when you shot. That’s a miss every time.”
Retrieving his dead rooster, Albert just smiled. “This one wasn’t a miss, Zode” Albert answered, holding up the bird. Zode was undeterred. “I know what I’m talking about, I tell ya.”
The next bird came up right in front of Zode. He fired three shots from his old pump gun, for three clean misses. Jon dropped the bird with his 16-gauge Remington 11.
“What was that about stopping your swing, Zode?” Jon was not one to pass up an opportunity to gloat. Zode looked the other way. “I bet there’s birds in the field on the other side of the ridge” he evaded.
For once Zode might have a point, I thought. “That’s a good idea. I think we ought to cut through the woods and try the north fields. We might pick up a couple grouse in the woods on the way over.”
So, through the woods we went, struggling through tangles of raspberry and blackberry thickets, and climbing over limestone outcrops. Along the top of a small ridgeline, we walked under majestic white oaks, bare now, branches rattling in the wind. The temperature seemed to be dropping. I pulled my parka hood tighter.
“Let’s cut down through the woods and hunt the cornfields down in the bottoms,” Jon offered. “Might see a grouse yet, or maybe a few squirrels.”
“Why not go down the power line cut?” Zode wanted to know. “It’s right here, and we wouldn’t have to fight through the brush. You should know that you never find grouse on north-facing slopes anyway.”
We looked at the power line cut. Some years earlier, the power company had cut a swath through the forest to run a power line down to the Duffey farm. That cut now stood bare, sheathed in snow, with only weeds and a few sumacs grown up in its path. The power line crossed the ridge just to our left, and the line and its cut dropped down a precipitous slope to the valley below. And the valley was a big one even for the hilly, driftless country of Allamakee County; a good mile across, several hundred feet deep at this point. The hill dropped off precipitously down the power line cut, a steep, rocky slope that was difficult to negotiate on a warm, dry summer day.
Now, in the winter, with a good foot of snow on the ground?
“I’m not gonna try it.” Albert stated. “Me neither.” Jon and I chorused.
“You guys are such wimps. Go down through the woods, then, I’ll see you at the bottom.” Zode set off with confidence, striding off towards the power line.
The rest of us started down through the woods. We were fighting our way through a blackberry thicket when we heard the strange noise, something like a steam whistle. It seemed to be getting louder.
“I think it’s coming from the power line cut” Jon said, his eyes wide. The eerie shriek was getting louder still.
We were about fifty yards from the power line cut, so we broke loose from the thicket and trotted to the treeline. The shrieking object turned out to be Zode, tobogganing down the slope at an incredible clip. He was sliding, feet-first, shotgun held in the air, surrounded by a cloud of fine, gritty snow. The shriek followed him as he passed us, Dopplering off as he continued his shrieking descent. The wind of his passage bent tree branches over and nearly whipped off Albert’s stocking cap. We stood open-mouthed, watching as Zode plummeted to the bottom of the slope, only to disappear over the creek bank far below.
The screech stopped suddenly. A faint “thump” came back up to us from the direction of the creek.
We found Zode facedown on a gravel bar at the edge of the creek, moaning softly. After hoisting him to his feet, we discovered he’d escaped his harrowing ride with nothing more than bumps, bruises and a broken nose. His enthusiasm for bird hunting had abated somewhat, and so we trudged back to Jon’s’ van, walking through the woods this time. The three grouse we dropped on the way back didn’t help his discomfiture.
As we were climbing into Jon’s van, Albert held up his two birds and noted, “You know, we ought to come back out on Saturday and get a few more birds. We could try going over to the state forest for grouse.”
A moment of silence, the moment during which we were accustomed to Zode’s interjection with another pearl of infinite wisdom. Our heads all turned towards Zode, expectant for the inevitable.
Instead, Zode just looked down at his boots.
“Whatever you guys think.” he muttered. “I guess maybe you guys know more about bird hunting than I do.”
Maybe there was hope for Zode yet!