The Grand Prize

As a seven-year-old growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, summer vacation was comprised of a week-long fishing trip to northern Minnesota.

The drive to Lake Vermillion seemed eternal. Dad stared stoically ahead, piloting our Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser. Mom would crack the window, exhaling long ribbons Benson & Hedges smoke. Chris and I struggled over an invisible line in the back seat. The Wisconsin Dells (Water slides! Petting zoos!) slipped by, and soon enough, the great iron ore heaps of Duluth too were in our rear view.

Those weeks spent swimming, water skiing, and fishing off of Ludlow’s Island are my last great memories of youthful innocence: bluegills, fireflies, and Flavor Ice. The cabins there were out of time: no televisions, microwaves, or telephones. So, too, was our time spent: Uno, Go Fish, and War passed for entertainment.

Walking home tonight, I tried to remember when I was first struck by the realization of fame, of audience, of being known by those who don’t know me. And I thought back to Ludlow’s.

I was into pom pom animals that summer. While Chris, Johnny and Jim — all three or more years my senior — were hell bent on landing Northern Pike, I was wrapping yarn and pasting googly eyes. One afternoon, a few feet from my mom and aunt, my knees deep in the sand on the edge of the lake, I constructed an entire kingdom for my little furry friends (each, surely, with its own name).

As the afternoon light turned to dusk, Mr. Ludlow came by to compliment me on my efforts, then said, “Would you and your friends like to be in our new brochure?”

“Boy, would we!”

The next morning, I rebuilt my Pom Pom Empire for the cameras. In my minds eye, I can see the photo: laying in the sand, freckled head resting in my palms, smiling through missing teeth.

It occurred to me then that hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of Ludlow’s Island families would see me smiling there on the beach, turn to each other and say, “We should make reservations for next year!”

Later that week, I was fishing for perch as my family finished dinner in the cabin up the hill. The sun had set, but the stars had not yet come out. The water was clear and still, cast in pinks and oranges. A small perch nipped at my line, then took the bait. As I reeled him in, a giant Northern lunged from beneath the dock and swallowed the perch and the hook whole. I gasped, my heart in my throat, and tugged at the pole. When my bobber broke the surface, it was all gone: hook, line and sinker.

I ran to the cabin and breathlessly related my fish tale. To this day, I’m certain that no one believes me.

It’s the one that got away.

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