Don’t ever believe the prairie is what the first discoverers professed it was, a great desert. The Flint Hills, for instance, have abundant natural springs, are crisscrossed by scores of watersheds of some importance and thousands of minor draws (which would be called washes or arroyos in New Mexico), and they present a pond, a small reservoir with an earthen dam, or a larger lake every so many miles. Spring water to which abundant raindrops are added keeps the prairie grasses and animals alive. The cattle find plenty to drink and in the summer cool bathing ponds wherever they go. They have never to go thirsty; or almost never, for, as recently as in 2011, Kansas sometimes experiences long periods of extreme drought.
Where there is fresh water, there are fish. When living in New Mexico, I had a distant neighbor, Gil Larochelle (Gilles, descendent from French lesser nobility), who loved to hunt and to fish. A couple of times a week, after work (he was a traveling handyman), he could be located somewhere along the Chama River where he went to find solace as well as a great meal. He would catch a few and on his way home drop off two or three fresh trout, cleaned and all, on our doorstep. Late in the fall, he would shoot us a Canada goose, a lean bird with beautiful, strong meat. I miss those deliveries. Even if there is a healthy river 300 steps from my home in Matfield Green –the South Fork of the Cottonwood River, which offers swimming holes, all kinds of small fish, frogs, water snakes, whatnot–, trout are absent, and home delivery by a fisherman-neighbor of a part of his catch from a distant lake is not yet arranged. I miss my fresh trout.
I checked out the nearest, Chase State, fishing lake west of Cottonwood Falls, and the falls themselves. “No trout,” is what the fishermen told me at the falls, “and none in the lake neither.” The clearwater lake has a steep to shallow rocky shoreline. “Excellent populations of channel cats, crappie, bluegill, saugeye, white bass, largemouth bass, and flathead catfish are found,” a Wildlife Parks Ranger told me, “But no trout.” Then he got agitated and turned purple and bone white and purple again because he detected a swimmer at the far end of the lake. “No swimming, this is a fishing lake! If something happens, I will be held responsible!” He was ready to call out a boat to save the swimmer.
“No need,” I told him. “That there is my nephew Michael, he is an experienced swimmer and surfer.” Mike had just spent more than a year surfing all the waves rolling in from the Pacific Ocean to the beaches from Mexico down to Panama. No excuse, he was to be saved. “But he was a surfing instructor in the Netherlands,” I explained. “He himself saved a man from drowning in the North Sea. And two years ago he saved a drunk who had fallen from his jet ski way out in Abiquiu Lake. He had swum out before the Rangers could find their cell phones. Today, he’s wearing a wetsuit to boot.” No arguing. So, I waved Mike in, who crawled back at leisure. He had to listen to threats of fines of $300 and up, he had to show his driver’s license and when he couldn’t produce any ID papers –Mike goes a little easy on many things– I had to produce mine and swear to heaven and earth Mike was a legal tourist and such. Note was taken of all the information I provided, some of which was cleverly double-checked with Mike — this Parks Ranger, he was no dummy. Two Dutch guys in Kansas, one without legal documents, breaking the law, swimming! This was serious business. Okay, we didn’t have to pay the fine. But warnings were written, and we were told the information would be passed on to other state and county lakes and that if we were to be caught again … And no, he didn’t know of any lakes where one could go for a serious swim. He called headquarters for information and got advised of one spot, 35 miles to the north, near Council Groves, where one area … “but make sure you first stop and sign in at the Park headquarters …” By that time Mike wasn’t so eager to go swimming in Kansas after all. Too much trouble. He would wait — was bound to fly to South-America next and surf the incoming waves in Equador, Peru and finally Chile all the way to Patagonia. His conclusion was: Kansans don’t swim; they fish, they ride their boats, they barbecue on shore, but they are afraid of any serious water.
So, with time on our hands, we decided to have a beer on the way back in the Grand Central Hotel & Grill in Cottonwood Falls (by the way, never, nowhere in the world, was I served a better steak than they have on their menu, and I am serious; try their ‘Silver and Blue’, delicious). “May I see your ID?” the waitress asked Mike, who was 24 at that time. Who, as said, didn’t carry any identification. We had a few beers there before (with and without the steak), they must have noticed Mike (a sun-bleached blond, sun-burned surfer boy, how many show up in Kansas?) but that did not convince the waitress. I could get a beer, Mike could not. No ID proving he was over 21, no beer. This was clearly not one of Mike’s days. From then on, he made sure he carried his ID. Most times.
Meanwhile, I was none the wiser about where to catch trout. I found them later at the Walnut River end of El Dorado State Park, 30 minutes to the south-west. I also learned there are no lustily free-roaming trout exploring the Kansas streams at all. They are in stocking locations only, in Sedgwick County Park, Kanopolis Seep Stream, Lakewood (Salina), and other faraway and well-managed locations. And they can be bought by the pound in the better supermarkets. Sometimes. A dream shattered.
Now that I am talking about trout … one of the most remarkable opening sentences I have ever read was: “My first full-time paid job was as a trout masturbator.”
The line can be found in Kevin Sinclair’s memoir ‘Tell Me A Story’, published in 2007 just two years before his death of cancer. Sinclair, a Kiwi, worked in Hong Kong for forty years and notwithstanding the loss of his voice from throat cancer when he was 33, and having to “control the big C” five more times before the final savage attack, became its most famous journalist. “Funny thing, cancer,” he wrote, “When you get it you meet the nicest people.” His memoir is a great read. Sinclair loved the multi-ethnic, overcrowded circus Hong Kong is, and has indeed amazing stories to tell. He made uncountable friends in all circles, and more than a few enemies too, of course. When the moment came for his first cancer operation, his surgeon sharpened his knives, grinned maliciously and said, “Ah, Mr. Sinclair. I’ve been long awaiting this opportunity …”
But back to trout. Sinclair was 17 when he became a glorified laborer with the New Zealand Forestry Service. He ended up at Turangi trout hatchery, a breeding place for billions of freshwater brown and rainbow trout to stock the streams of the world with. They put him in rubber waders that came up to just under his chin and told him to pick up fifteen female browns and fifteen female rainbows, but only ones with huge laden stomachs. Then he had to catch a bunch of horny male trout, which was less easy; every time Sinclair stooped to try and grab one gallons of icy water would cascade into his waders.
Next came a delicate operation. Holding the fat females aloft, Sinclair had to slide a hand down their length and a stream of orange roe would jet into a bucket. “Venting roe from the females was easy, like squeezing cream out of a cake-decorating tube.” The hard part, though, was “persuading each slick, violently struggling gentleman trout to deposit sperm on the eggs waiting in the buckets (…) It was slightly technical. You must not aim the brown trout sperm into the rainbow eggs. That would be social disaster.” Sinclair had “to frantically jiggle and pray that the fish would ejaculate before it gasped its last breath,” this accompanied by cries of disparagement from his boss — “Can’t you even wank a trout?” That’s when he decided to become a journalist. Sinclair also wrote a score of books about Hong Kong, China, and Chinese cuisine, and was rewarded with an MBE pinned to his chest by Queen Elizabeth II herself, and with an astonishingly fascinating life.
Talking about trout and journalism … I remember that one day Ans and I, then still living in the Netherlands, were on our way to Los Angeles in a practically empty KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 7something7 (those were the days …) and met an old acquaintance of mine on the plane. Link van Bruggen was the prototype war correspondent, a huge man with enormous hands and roughly cut blond-grayish hair and always dressed in a roughly cut (in Hong Kong?) linen suit of undetermined color, and wearing weary suede boots. He was foremost a dedicated radio journalist, I believe because he was too lazy to write much. He had covered Indonesia, the Congo, Prague in 1968, Vietnam.
Like Sinclair, Van Bruggen was an old-fashioned journalist, of a very professional race that, alas, was practically exterminated by the big media and replaced by self-congratulating, self-promoting “earnocrats” who travel in private planes, sometimes, like Christiane Amanpour, accompanied by their kids and their kids’ nannies. Not many real journalists are around; they work for the few remaining outstanding printed media such as ‘The Guardian’, ‘Der Spiegel’, or ‘Asia Times’, or for their own Internet sites. Yet most, like Van Bruggen, became history themselves. Been everywhere, seen everything. Living out of a suitcase, but on principle spending the nights in the most expensive hotels, with a bottle of this or that and a box of cigars within easy reach. I can still hear his strong voice — his colleagues joked, “This is Link van Bruggen, for AVRO Radio in … shit, where am I again?”
I can hear his voice coming from Nha Trang, or Bien Hoa, to report a major firefight and I swear I heard the bullets whistling and the artillery booming and the fighter jets screaming in the background. So commanding was his voice and so staccato came his information, in efficient sentences delivered without emotion (although you could always detect that even his hardened soul was deeply touched), that I and everyone else believed Van Bruggen himself was under heavy attack, risking his life for me and for them because it was important to get the truth out to the folks back home. The truth was, he was sitting in a bar in Saigon having his sixth whiskey while phoning in his report, skillfully combining hard information he had picked up in another bar with rumor from a third bar and intuitive conclusions coming from long experience. “Boy,” he would say, “Boy, I knew what a house looks like after being hit, I knew that after an earthquake the skinny arm of a little boy has to reach out from the rubble.”
I had first met Link van Bruggen in person in the early 1970s, when another journalist included him and me in his team to give media training to Dutch politicians and industrialists, to anyone who wanted to be prepared for appearing and being questioned on that then still so new yet fast growing phenomenon, television. I don’t know exactly why I was involved, fact is that neither of us knew much about television other than what we’d picked up by watching it, in those days of the ‘Flintstones’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels’, and by noticing how confused, and how scared, even important and intelligent people could become on camera, and how their message or their stature could be wrecked in little over a second. The Watergate Hearings in the US, televised live in the Netherlands, I remember as being eye opening too.
Media training. We moonlighting amateurs were among the first in the Netherlands to offer this great service to mankind. The three of us hired camera and sound people, rented a suite in an expensive hotel, and with two of us preparing dirty questions for Van Bruggen, who of course conducted the interviews or discussions, soon created a booming and lucrative side business. The news spread and until we got bored we had quite a few good laughs. Some clients were natural performers who intuitively knew how to behave and what to say, others –sometimes quite heavy-weight career makers– fell completely apart during our sessions, with their sweat running freely, their lips trembling. They knew they had failed miserably. We would play the video and we didn’t have to say a word, only look into eyes that were trying to escape eye contact. Then we would give some advice, provide them with better sentences, point out escape routes, tell them to wear a different suit, things like that. In fact, anyone could do this, it was easy money in the bank, and very fulfilling especially to see top honchos we didn’t like much become humble.
Years later, in that half empty plane, Van Bruggen came to sit behind Ans and me and, leaning on the back of our seats, from habit started talking about the past, the present and the future. Before the plane was over Iceland, he had consumed a half dozen whiskeys, because talking makes thirsty and in those days the airlines still supplied all drinks on request and gratis. He would raise his huge arm and call, “Miss? Miss! Fill it up, please,” and no, he didn’t yell, he spoke with his radio voice and was heard in the farthest corner of the plane, and the whiskey kept coming. Over Greenland we both deserved a siesta (Ans had retracted into a cocoon a few hours earlier). When we entered Canadian airspace, Van Bruggen woke up, stretched, and barked “Miss? Miss! Whiskey! And a beer for my boy,” and so on and so on.
Van Bruggen died in 2001 age 77 in Strasbourg where, after retirement, he had kept on reporting, now as an old freelance hack covering the European Parliament. His latest and last wife was a high-ranking political analyst involved with the EU. Rumor had it that in their apartment across from the parliament buildings many a political agreement was reached between adversaries. Van Bruggen just drank any opponents under the table.
Why the heck am I talking about Link van Bruggen? Oh yeah … when we met that last time, he was on his way to California to join his brother who had become a US citizen. Another brother would also fly to LAX, but from Australia. The three of them were headed for their yearly trout fishing party in the Rocky Mountains. Or in the Sierra Nevada, I’m not sure.
I guess I got a little distracted. I will tell more about fishing in Kansas some other time. Yet one more thing for now: in the medieval monastery in Cluny, France, the monks did not talk, they used sign language. The gesture for “trout” was the same as for “woman.” This could have led to ghastly misunderstandings. However, since the monks were not allowed to catch, gut and fry women, confusion was kept to a happy minimum.
Matfield Green, KS, January 2011
Kevin Sinclair, ‘Tell Me A Story – Forty years newspapering in Hong Kong and China’, Hong Kong, 2007