First Saturday in May: Wixom Fishing Derby

Kelsey Cowan Flyfishing in the Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming

Lindsay Brown fishing in the Bear Paw Mountains, Montana

In the late 1960s, the first Saturday in May was an important date in North Baltimore: the annual fishing derby at Wixom Quarry.  At that juncture, the quarry was a club called Wixom Sports Incorporated and was managed by volunteers.  Each spring, the club would purchase a truckload of trout to stock the quarry and the southern banks of the quarry would be lined with eager, bright-eyed children on the first Saturday in May, each dreaming of catching that prized trout.

At noon, a horn blew and the fishing frenzy began!  There was a prize for the first fish.  I remember the excitement of that first fish being caught and the lucky fisherman racing to the prize table to claim the reward.  Some of the trout were tagged before they were released.  The number on the fish tag identified the prize the fortunate angler won.

Cheryl Vaughn Piatt (’78) was always a great fisherwoman.  I can distinctly remember Cheryl reeling in trout after trout at the derby.  Cheryl recently shared, “I remember fishing there each derby. Dad (Hack Vaughn) would get me so excited about it. We caught lots of trout that they stocked for those derbies. As for the prizes, I believe there were items for kids but I remember my Dad being most proud of me winning things like engine oil!”

I also remember Julie Stephens Cowan (’78) at the fishing derbies.  Julie recently recounted how exciting the fishing derby was for her, “I so looked forward to it, and the competitive me wanted to get the biggest fish.”  Julie recalled one year when we both were in the NB News with our fish photos.  She said that hers was more humorous than mine: “I had a stringer full of trout. The photographer from the NB News, wanting to get a great photo of a little kid with the big haul, knew what he was doing when he asked me to ‘turn the fish’ so he could ‘get a better picture.’ I did, and as soon as I touched those slimy things, I said, ‘Ick,’ and he got just the reaction he was suspecting he’d get from a girl–and the photo to go with it. That’s about what the caption in the newspaper said, too—‘EEEK!’”

As Cheryl, Julie and I rekindled our memories of the Wixom fishing derbies, each of us remember fishing with our dads.  For each of us there is a strong intergenerational link in fishing or as Herbert Hoover said, “Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers.”

Cheryl and Julie still are avid fisherwomen.   Cheryl said, “I sure would like to fish at the Wixom Quarry again. I still fish every chance I get.”  Julie shared beautiful pictures of successful fishing trips in her home state of Montana.   Julie said, “My brother Jim attempted to teach me to fly fish at the quarry when I was about 8 or 9. It came in handy though as I married a Wyoming boy who is a fly fishing aficionado, and we fish the waters of western Montana regularly in the summer.”

On our trip down memory lane, reminisced about how we learned to fish with our dads, sharing great pleasure in the fact that we both have daughters who also love to fish.  It was important to Julie to pass on her love of the outdoors to her girls, “Seriously, in this day and age, the best gift we can give our kids is the appreciation and love of the outdoors because if they don’t learn to love the outdoors, who will be the stewards of the land for the next generation?”

My original intent for this essay was to reminisce about an annual event that North Baltimore residents enjoyed in the 1960s. After talking with two of my classmates, it turned into something much different: a realization that even the simplest childhood activities, like fishing at the Wixom Quarry with our dad or brother, turned into lifetime passions for Julie and Cheryl that have now spanned into the next generation as our children include fishing as part of their adventures.  Who could have imagined that a truckload of tagged trout could have had such impact?

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“Nothing Happens Unless First a Dream”

shushing_librarian

Carl Sandburg wrote, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” I have heard another American author and educator, Ruby Payne, apply this theory as she lectures about the importance of providing a “future story” to every child.  By future story, Dr. Payne means exposure to potential career opportunities.  Dr. Payne’s research suggests that children must dream about possible opportunities in order to remain academically inspired. 

 

 In my home, there was never a shortage of future stories.  I was blessed to grow up in a family where I was told that I could be a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, or anything else that I might dream to be.  And like many kids, I had an ever evolving list of career dreams:  naturalist, teacher, reporter, lawyer, accountant, nonprofit director.  In fact, I am still motivated by my ever-changing career goals.  I still spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to be when I grow up and finding ways to learn more about the topics that inspire me. 

Besides home and school, there was another very special place in North Baltimore where I literally feasted on future stories: the public library.  If I close my eyes, I can remember it all:  the smell, the sounds, even the way the books were arranged.  It is summer 1969 again.

“The green card in the back of my library book says that today is the due date.  In order to avoid a library fine of two cents per day, I grab my bike, my library card, and my books and pedal up to the library.  The only bad thing about the library is it has too many rules: I break the first one by throwing my bike in the front yard.  Next, I open the front door and loudly plop my return book in the big book depository right inside the front door.  That’s the second broken rule.

Next, I tiptoe by the serious librarians into the hushed silence.  I stealthily walk along the north windows about half way to the back of the library.  I kneel down at the bottom shelf of my favorite aisle:  biographies.  Here I find a virtual smorgasbord of biographies written for young adults.  I just returned one about Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a talented athlete who was a gold medalist in track and field and a professional golfer.   Many of these books seem like old friends to me.  My favorites are about Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and Annie Oakley.  After leafing through all of the biographies that I haven’t yet read, I decide on a biography about Harriet Tubman.  The dustcover says she is an abolitionist.  I’m not sure what that means but it sounds exciting to me.

After finding the next biography to read, I visit the magazine section and flip through the latest edition of my favorite kids’ magazines.  Luckily, a couple of my friends are also in the library, so we cluster around a study table and whisper a bit until a librarian shushes us.  Since we are in a pack and feeling especially bold, we ask to listen to an album in the listening room.  The librarian puts the album on the record player for us and closes the door behind her.  This is another opportunity for giggling. 

After exhausting all opportunities for library mischief, I pull out my well-worn library card and check out my new books, hop on my bike, ride home, and start reading.  Soon I am immersed in another time and place.  It is not North Baltimore in 1969 but Dorchester, Maryland in 1835 and Harriet, a young slave, spends her time spends her time working as a maid, a field hand, and a cook.”

There is no doubt that my childhood was full of future stories.  If I could dream it, there was always a caring adult assuring me that I could accomplish it.  Oddly, some of the best future stories of my childhood were actually past stories, the life tales I found in the young adult biography section at the North Baltimore Public Library, tales about adventurers, political activists, athletes, pioneers, actresses, and even an abolitionist.  Once I read about another person’s accomplishments, it was added to my list of potential life goals.  In hindsight, I see now that the North Baltimore Public Library was truly a transformational asset in my life, even if there were a few more rules than I preferred in 1969.

Slippery Elm Trail: Community Gem

Slippery Elm Trail

True confession: my proudest moment in 2012 was walking the entire length of the Slippery Elm Trail.  On a cool afternoon in late August, my husband, Byron and I, drove to North Baltimore from our home in Findlay, parked at my parents’ house, and walked to Bowling Green.  I didn’t know what the whole trail looked like:  some of it is sun baked, some of it is shady, and there is a mature stand of trees near Portage.  I was surprised by the variety of scenery along the trail.  When we were within a mile of our final destination in BG, we texted my dad and he drove over and picked us up at the terminus of the trail three and a half hours later.

We mostly walk in Findlay due to time constraints but when we get a little extra time and a nice day, we love to come to North Baltimore and walk on the trail.  It is so relaxing to not have to contend with car traffic.  It’s also nice to see the changing of the seasons and the wildlife:  deer, birds, and even an occasional snake sunning itself. There are plants along the trail that I haven’t seen elsewhere.  It’s also quiet on the trail, away from the noise of everyday life.

When I talk to my friends in Findlay about our outings on the Slippery Elm Trail, almost everyone shares a tale about his own bike rides, walks, or rollerblading adventures on the trail.  Initially, I was surprised to learn that so many of my Findlay friends spend their free time in North Baltimore.  By now, it has happened to me so many times that I assume that all of my friends are familiar with the Slippery Elm Trail.  In fact, I’m not surprised to see them when I am on the trail.   I have to admit that it makes me very proud to know that my hometown is a popular destination.

Nationally, trail proponents suggest that communities benefit from trails in many ways:  transportation, recreation, fitness, economic development, increased property values.  Recently, I had a chance to visit Memphis and learn about the Binghampton neighborhood outside downtown Memphis. Through a trails initiative, this community is being revitalized almost overnight. Currently, one seven-mile bike trail exists and is surrounded by urban farming and resident-led neighborhood revitalization projects. Work is now underway to connect that trail to a bike-friendly Overton Corridor, a former busy city neighborhood, to unite eastern Memphis suburbs with downtown Memphis. This will bring new foot and bike traffic through the blighted Binghampton neighborhood and also give its residents safe places to walk and bike. This is a success story highlighting locally-grown foods, transportation, access to affordable housing, arts, health and regional connectivity.

Based on this example, trails have the ability to change entire communities.   I think the Slippery Elm Trail has changed North Baltimore too.  When I leave work on Friday in Findlay and ask, “Any big plans for the weekend?” and one of my co-workers excitedly answers, “Yes, my family is going on a bike ride in North Baltimore tomorrow,” I’m pretty sure that the Slippery Elm Trail is having positive impact that is regional in scope.  And it always makes me proud that I grew up in North Baltimore.

Beecher Street Ballers

basketball

Bounce, bounce, bounce.  Clang!  Bounce, bounce, bounce.  Swish!

As a child, those sounds were music to my ears.  As soon as I heard a basketball dribbling, I quickly grabbed my basketball, always the first item on my Christmas list every year, and headed out the backdoor.  As the screen door slammed, I shouted, “Mom, I’m going down the street to shoot baskets.”

We didn’t need a Pied Piper on Beecher Street to get all of the children to gather together.  The lonely song of one basketball dribbling quickly turned into a chorus of a half dozen bouncing balls.  We played in the summer and after school nearly every day when the weather permitted.   We weren’t too picky about the quality of the weather, either.  We were especially proud of our games of “ice ball” when dribbling wasn’t required because of snow or ice on the driveway.

We first began our basketball at Shari and Steve Peterson’s driveway.  I remember playing games of “shoot it until you make it, shoot it until you miss it” as early as first grade.  It was hard just to get a basketball all the way up to the basket then.  Dale Peterson, Shari and Steve’s dad, would facilitate the games for us, always smiling and laughing as we played.  In second grade, we gained another paved driveway and basketball hoop at the Slaughterbeck’s house, giving us two options for playing basketball.  We continued to play and we learned to make layups there.

In sixth grade, the best thing ever happened to our basketball games when Don Bean, Ron’s dad, built a huge new garage with a wide and long paved driveway.   It was a regular Taj Mahal of North Baltimore outside basketball courts.  From then on, Bean’s driveway was the center of our basketball playing universe.   Barely a day passed without a crowd of kids playing basketball on Beecher Street.

I remember games of one-on-one, three-on-three, and foul shooting contests.  We also loved to pretend like we were taking the last shot to win an important game.  The shooter had to narrate his own shot:  “The Knicks trailing by one for the NBA Championship. Earl the Pearl Drives.  Five, four, three, two, one. He shoots!  He scores!  The crowd goes wild!”  Unfortunately, we usually missed.

My outdoor basketball memories are full of muddy feet, dirty hands, and lots of laughs.  Sometimes older kids or friends from other parts of town would ride their bikes over to play at Bean’s house.  I remember that being especially exciting.

I’m supposing that some of you are thinking about the outdoor basketball games that happened in your neighborhoods and wondering what is so special about the Beecher Street games.  I guarantee that we had a unique feature that none of you had.  There never was an outside basketball game on Beecher Street that didn’t involve Jim Gray practicing long distance shots, and by long distance, I mean half way down the block and across the street.  It didn’t happen very often, but when he made one, I’m sure for that one millisecond, we had the most exciting outdoor basketball game in America right there on Beecher Street in North Baltimore.

Through Hope You Can Move Mount Kilimanjaro

gabriel

Gabriel, a handsome middle-aged man with a brilliant smile, addresses the audience in a deep, rich voice.  He is speaking English with an accent that hints at his African upbringing.  Like most successful businessmen, he has an impressive academic and work resume that includes college degrees and great accomplishments.  Currently, Gabriel’s business card identifies him as CEO of the Hope for Ariang Foundation, an organization that provides access to education in South Sudan.  Under his leadership, Hope for Ariang has built schools, trained teachers, dug wells, and empowered women in his childhood village of Ariang, South Sudan.  It seems as if this lecture will be a well-intentioned attempt at inspiring me to donate money to a cause in a country that I can’t even find on a map.

Then, Gabriel begins to share his story of self, a story about a ten-year old boy living in a bucolic village in southern Sudan in 1987.  In a cashless society where one’s wealth is measured in cattle, young Gabriel is honored to be asked to spend the day watching his family’s cattle herd, his family’s entire net worth.  As he proudly tends to the cows, he can see his village in the distance and he thinks about all of the people in his life:  his respected father, his wise mother, his many siblings, and the kind neighbors who share parenting of each other’s children.

At that moment, his life is shattered by a sound he does not know: gunfire from Murahileen militiamen, involved in a Sudanese civil war.  Initially, he fears that the gunmen were trying to steal his herd but he soon realizes that his village is erupting into flames; this is much more than cattle theft.  Instinctively, he hides in the long grass, lying there for hours until he believes the militiamen are gone.  Finally, he stands up and runs back towards his burning village in search of his family.  On the way, a fleeing neighbor grabs Gabriel and throws him onto his shoulders as he runs away from the village.  Instantly, Gabriel hears gunfire again and the man below him collapses.  Gabriel rolls into the dirt covered in the blood of the dying neighbor who had tried to save him.  Again, Gabriel’s instincts protect him as he decides to hold very still had play dead.  A militiaman pokes Gabriel with the butt but decides he is dead because he holds so still and his covered in his neighbor’s blood.

After night fall, Gabriel climbs into a high tree and hides there for more than a day.  Eventually, refugees from a different village take solace under his tree.  Hidden above, he listens to their conversations about gunmen burning their villages and slaughtering their families.  Finally, Gabriel begins to weep.  In Africa there is a belief that your child is my child so the refugees below welcome Gabriel into their traveling band and they begin a journey of terror that includes walking barefoot for 1,500 miles and swimming across the Nile River to get to a refugee camp.  Members of this group would be eaten by lions and crocodiles and die of illness and starvation before reaching the camps where Gabriel would spend the next ten years of his life.

Oddly, Gabriel’s childhood spent in refugee camps is not a story of hate, but a story of hope and strength.   Gabriel remembers listening closely to the wise elders in his family when he was a small child.  They told him that “You can move Mount Kiliminjaro through hope.”   As one of the many orphans now called the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Gabriel tells himself that his perished parents’ wisdom will always protect him.  Looking around the camp, he sees that each boy has his own mountain and Gabriel remains fiercely determined to move his own mountain through hope.

Finally in 1997, Gabriel is accepted into the Refugee Resettlement Program and is allowed to move to Syracuse, New York.  Catholic Charities sponsors his move and helps him find a job and begin his formal education.  In respect for his fallen parents, his new mantra becomes “Education is now my mother and father.”  In time, he graduates from college and is a successful mathematics teacher.  Gabriel acquires a palate for American cuisine and considers Subway chicken teriyaki subs and boneless wings the ultimate treat.  He learns to drive.  He truly has moved his personal mountain through hope but he still can hear one more quote from his mother echoing in his head:  “Human worth is measured in how much one gives back.”

Honoring his mother’s legacy of giving back, Gabriel returns to Ariang, South Sudan in summer 2007, twenty years after he fled his home village.  He is pleased to learn that two of his siblings still live in Ariang.  But as a mathematics teacher, he is saddened to see that there is little formal education for the boys in Ariang and no formal education for the girls who spend their days carrying water because there are no drinking wells here.   On the site of her death, Gabriel hears his mother’s voice again and he knows what he is called to do.

As I sit in the lecture hall listening to Gabriel sharing his personal odyssey, I realize that this is no longer merely Gabriel’s story of self, or a narrative of people in a place that I cannot find on a map.  This is now a story of us.  Through his storytelling, Gabriel has pulled me into his village, his family, and his dreams for a new Ariang, South Sudan.  He has shared the wisest words of his elders with me.  Instantly, I know that inaction is no longer an option for me.  I need to know more about the people of Ariang and the Foundation that is helping them improve their lives.  I need to help them move Mount Kilimanjaro.

In a student-led initiative, Gabriel Bol Deng spoke at Toledo St. John’s Jesuit High School in February 2013.  HOPE for Ariang Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to providing South Sudanese with inclusive access to education, opportunities, and resources, with a special focus on women and girls.  http://hopeforariang.org

April 4, 1968

Title Card

Title Card

I just took my bath, put on my pajamas, grabbed my evening snack and settled down on the floor right in front of the big television in our living room.  We only have three television stations and one UHF station isn’t very reliable.  Luckily, my favorite show, Daniel Boone, is on a station that is coming in clear tonight and even more exciting, it’s being broadcast “in living color.”

From my seven year-old perspective, the plot of Daniel Boone seems so real.  I’m pretty sure that I am seeing real history unfolding in my home.  Daniel Boone is portrayed by the handsome Fess Parker.  He has a Cherokee friend named Mingo.  The exciting introductory theme music is playing when a news bulletin breaks across the screen.

The next words I hear are “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence and the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis Tennessee.  Dr. King was standing on the balcony of a second story hotel room…”

My mom is a great teacher.  Usually when we watch Daniel Boone, she tells me things about pioneers, or a town in Kentucky called Boonesboro, or many other things she reads in history books.  Tonight, my mom has to tell me a story similar to the one she told me when I was three and President Kennedy was assassinated.  She also has to tell me that there are some white people who don’t like black people.  I remember thinking this is all so complicated and scary.

It still is.