Uinta Mountain lakes, arctic greyling & war

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day, and I thought a lot about my own father, LaVarr B. Webb, who served in World War II in Italy.

When the United States entered the war, my father was married with two little girls and a third on the way. So he didn’t immediately volunteer to go to war. But as the war went on, and more men were needed, he was drafted and he willingly left his young family to serve in the Army.

He was sent to Italy toward the end of the war in Europe. He did not see heavy fighting, but he did see the horrors and destruction of war. When the war in the European theater ended with the surrender of Germany, he was put on a troop ship headed for the invasion of Japan.

That invasion never happened of course. It could have been the most terrible and bloody fighting of the entire war. But Pres. Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the world’s first atomic weapons. Japan promptly surrendered and my father came home.

Many decades later, he wrote the following essay. He titled it “Uinta Lakes, Greyling & War.” It’s a fishing story more than a war story, but I think it touches on the poignancy of war and provides a glimpse into the mind of one veteran who served his country.

From the writings of LaVarr B. Webb:

In September, 1939, Jake and I pushed the old Model A Ford over the ruts and rocks of the dirt road that twisted up the mountain face north of Soapstone in the high Uintas. We were looking for lakes that were supposed to be in the area.

We parked our fishing buggy, the Ford, at the end of the road, found a trail, and hiked through the towering timber, lush meadows, and rocky humps to Hour Glass Lake. There we set up camp, and started fishing on one of the most picturesque lakes in Utah.

We were using dry flies. On my first cast, I saw the swirl of the water as a fish broke the surface, and then hit my fly. I tried to set the hook, and lost the fish. The next cast produced the same result–the fish breaking the surface, the strike, the setting of the hook, but no fish.

I asked Jake how he was doing. He said, “I can’t hang on to them. They strike, then throw the hook, or something.” He added, “Let’s give them a little more time, let them run, and then set the hook.” We tried that, but again lost the fish. We finally decided that we were too rough. We were jerking the hook out of the mouths of the fish. So, we just barely twitched the end of the pole when we set the hook, and we played the fish gently.

I brought the first one to the net. It looked like a cross between a flying fish and a rainbow, with big, paddle-like fins, a tall, sail-like dorsal fin, and a body as streamlined as a torpedo. They were arctic greylings. The first we had ever seen. We discovered that, unlike trout, they had very tender mouths. It was necessary to use a light touch when setting the hook, or it would literally tear through the lips of the fish.

Those greyling were fun to catch because of the skill required to bring them in but, also, because they were scrappy. They fought right up to the net. Neither Jake nor I had ever eaten one, so we decided to fry some for supper.

I was chopping wood for a cook fire when a man, a big, bearded, rugged, young, outdoor type, walked into camp. He said, “Howdy. You fishermen?”

I answered, “Yes, and you?”

He said, “Oh, I do a little fishing once in a while. I’m a sheepherder. My herd’s over the next ridge. Then he asked me, “What are you hacking on that wood for?”

Somewhat surprised, I answered, “I’m cutting wood for a fire. We’re going to have fish for supper.” Our visitor laughed, “One thing you learn as a sheepherder is, you don’t have to cut wood for an open fire. You put three long logs on a fire, let them burn through, and you have six pieces of wood. You put the six pieces on the fire, and let them burn through, and you have twelve pieces. I never chop wood. I let the fire do the work.” Then he asked, “What’s going on in the world?”

I answered, “What do you mean, ‘What’s going on?’ Don’t you know there is a war on?” “A war?” he yelled, “Who’s fighting?” He went on to explain that he had been with the herd for over six months, and hadn’t had any news in all of that time.

We told him that the Germans had invaded Poland from the west, and how England and France had declared war on Germany. We also described how Russia had entered the war by also invading Poland from the east.

The news bothered him, and he declared, “I never did trust those Ruskies.”

Then, as we cooked the greyling, prepared the rest of the evening meal, and ate, we talked about the possibility of the United States entering the war, and how we, rather than fishing and herding sheep, might soon be slogging through the mud of Europe and dodging German bullets.

Now, as I look back, the mud, the grime, the fear of war and the destruction and the devastation of Italy, where I served, hangs behind curtains in the dark corners of my mind. But I can still see clearly the calm waters of Hour Glass Lake, the birch and the firs, and I can see the boil of the water, and the strike of a greyling and I can even feel him fight, twist and dive, and I am glad that the joys of that fishing trip are still vivid, still beautiful, while the hell of war has been buried deep in those dark recesses.