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We called him Fritz.  He was new on the scene, having married my next-door neighbor Mary, a few years after her divorce was final.  Mary, the West Texas housewife who landed in Southern California and found herself a postwar single parent with a beauty shop converted from her garage. Along came Fritz Erler, the very German multi-skilled, chain-smoker who would help her raise two teen-age daughters and reinstate their amended version of the American Dream.

Fritz. The word is abrupt.  It starts soft enough and then just ends.  Its movement is sharp and sudden, just like my neighbor.  Fritz was lean and constantly on the move.  Pack of Camels in his shirt pocket, tools hanging from his belt, Fritz always had work to do.  His was a masculine world steeped in the values and virtues of the post-war San Fernando Valley.  Fritz was capable and occasionally empathetic.  He rarely raised his voice.  He was smooth as the black hair slicked back on his head.

Fritz was present for his step-daughters but they rarely indulged his interests. I couldn’t tell if he regretted not having a son or simply wanted a fishing partner, but he took a heartfelt interest in me about the time I was 14.  When he began re-modeling Mary’s backyard beauty shop, he’d ask me to help unload lumber or hold something while he sawed, hammered, or measured.  He came to the rescue the night of the first Liston-Clay Heavyweight title fight.  It seems a small plane had crashed into some electric wires and we lost power an hour before the fight was to begin.  My transistor radio battery soon ran low so my dad and I sat in the dark hoping the power would come on any minute. It didn’t. But there was Fritz suddenly knocking on the door, flashlight in hand. He invited us to sit inside his car to listen to the fight. We had no car, no hope to hear the fight. It was extra special sitting there with two adults and rooting on Cassius Clay in his first major upset.  The icon that was to be Muhammad Ali began that February night.

My real bonding with Fritz came when he took me fishing.  He belonged to a private club with the prestigious name of “Fin and Feather.”  It was located in Palmdale, the desert community  60 miles outside Los Angeles.  In this improbable location lay a beautiful private lake, on which Fritz would launch his little aluminum boat powered by a small outboard motor.  The lake held huge trout.  In between fishing and catching, we’d talk about everything under those often cloudy skies.  I learned a bit about Fritz’s former life as well.  While I don’t recall everything, I do remember Fritz telling me that he hadn’t spoken to his father in 40 years. He was short on details, but his jaw tightened when he let that little fact slip out. No love lost there.

Fishing with Fritz began long before the requisite 5 am wake-up.  It started with going down to the Community Market the night before.  We’d pick up a few necessities like chips and cookies, soft drinks and water, and then find our way eventually to the butcher’s counter.  Down at the far end of the meat display cases sat the fresh fish for sale.  No, we were going to catch trout, not buy them.  But Fritz was definitely not beyond any tactic that would ensure we left the lake with an ice chest full of rainbow trout.  Fritz would ask Al the butcher for half a dozen mackerel.  Later that evening, he’d slice the mackerel in chunks and put most in a large mayonnaise jar.  Saving a few choice pieces of the silvery red fish for his blender, Fritz pulverized some mackerel into his “special sauce” and added that to the jar.  Next day, before we flung our bait or lures into the water, Fritz would anchor the boat, and unscrew the lid of the jar slightly as he lowered it into the water surrounding his boat. Air bubbles…glug glugged until the jar rested firmly on the bottom beneath the boat. 

“This will let the fish know we’re here,” he’d say.  A little chum was certain to produce some big rainbows with piqued appetites.  

I would generally nod off on the 2 hour drive back home.  Fritz would crack his window and continue to chain smoke Camel cigarettes.  He had a little Smokey the Bear cigarette butt snuffer mounted on his dashboard and he would methodically snuff one out and then light up another.  

Back at home, we’d clean the fish and divide up the fillets among ourselves and some neighbors.  Fritz taught me the proper way to clean and fillet a fish, while cracking off-color jokes all the while.  

My being in the throes of puberty was not lost on Fritz.  Once when he asked if I had any whiskers yet I told him, no, just a little fuzz over my lip.  

“I think I have a dark hair or two in my arm pit,” I said.

Handing me a red pen, he replied, “Here, circle it with this, it’ll be easier to find that way.”

As I moved from 14 to 16, I lost touch with Fritz.  His work demanded more travel, and  my mother became critically ill.  My life changed completely after the Kennedy assassination and the world suddenly became more complicated.  My fishing rod and reel sat in the closet on Saturdays more often than not.  

One early summer morning Fritz’s wife Mary knocked on our back door.  My mom let her in and she sat down at the kitchen table.  

“Would you like a cup of coffee,” mom asked.  In her Texas twang I could hear Mary reply, “That’s just what I came here fer.”

I heard their conversation from the next room.  Mary told my mom that yesterday they were painting a bedroom and the phone rang while Fritz was on a ladder painting the ceiling.  

“It’s your sister,” Mary told him.  Fritz said nothing but did step down and went to the phone.  Mary heard no conversation, save for a couple of “uh huhs” from Fritz.  He then returned to painting the ceiling.  

“What was that about,” Mary asked.

“The old man died.” was all Fritz said.  That day and ever after.

 

©Bruce Greene, 2020


             Bruce Greene taught for 33 years at El Cerrito High School. As a teacher-consultant for the Bay Area, Oregon, and National Writing Projects, he’s offered many workshops on the teaching of writing and literature.  His specialty is using Blues music in Language Arts and Social Science curriculum.

           In his eclectic writing career, Bruce has been a correspondent for a national thoroughbred horse magazine and published everything from poetry to creative non-fiction and memoir.  Recent credits include the anthologies The Pressures of Teaching, and What Teaching Means:Stories from America’s Classrooms. He was the 2010 winner of WORK Literary Magazine’s memoir competition.  A founding member of The Guttery, a Portland- based writing group, he currently lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

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