It would have been the summer of 1971.
We moved into our house in February of that year, and I think that summer I got my first fishing rod and reel. I got it from the guy who sold sporting goods in the New Castle Farmer’s Market on weekends.
Not long after, Tommy Riccio, my neighbor across the street, took me to the secret fishing hole that the boys on my block all went to on summer mornings. They called it “Nonesuch Creek” and it’s not just a local moniker, it actually appears on maps of the area. A small little outcrop off the Christiana River, about three miles from our neighborhood.
It was tidal, and dirty, and smelled like diesel and dirt. We never caught anything but carp and catfish but that wasn’t really the point. We weren’t there for trophy fish or to catch our dinner. We were there being little boys. Fishing by ourselves, at a time in this world when little boys could jump on their bikes after breakfast, pedal three miles to their secret fishing hole, and spend the day in the sun, hidden from the nearby highway traffic, deep in a meadow that ran alongside this dirty little creek with the mysterious name.
We’d dug earthworms from our parents’ gardens the night before. We packed a lunch of bologna sandwiches and Cokes wrapped in aluminum foil, in a vain attempt to keep them cold, and we set out on our spider bikes.
Tommy Riccio was three years older, and it wasn’t many more summers before his interests in hanging with the younger boys on the block waned, and he discovered girls and KISS records, and we didn’t do much together anymore.
But for those first few years, he was one of my best friends, and my fishing buddy.
He was creative and funny and mischievous and smart. Like all my other friends on that block, Tommy added the color to my childhood that made it fun and in many ways, tolerable. Home wasn’t the happiest place, but out on the block, with my friends from Monroe Avenue gathered on the white block wall that ringed my yard…I was happy.
Tommy and I grew up, and moved on, but we’d run into each other now and then when I’d get home for a visit and it was always good to see him. Somehow, even after 45 years, I still held him just a little in awe. He was still special to me. They all are, those kids from Monroe Avenue. It is always good to run into my childhood friends and Tommy was no exception.
Tommy passed away unexpectedly last week and the news hit me hard. He’s the second of my close friends from childhood to go, and like Sheila six years ago, this is painful for me. I love his family and I loved Tommy. His mom and dad were always the two people I made sure I visited when I’d get home. His mom passed earlier this year and I still struggle to grasp that. Now Tommy joins her.
I keep thinking about Tommy and that fishing hole and those spider bikes and the time we dissected a bullfrog in his garage and it looked like a scene from a horror movie. I think about the first tree fort we built in the big sprawling oak behind the Ferraro’s house. How we’d tar-papered the roof and it was weatherproof and we would sit up there on rainy summer days and talk about what boys talk about, while the Phillies game was on a transistor radio we’d brought along.
I thought about how we’d all pile into my mother’s VW Beetle and head to the Chesapeake Bay, or to the Drive-In on a Friday night or to the haunted houses at Halloween and we’d all go through them together. One big gang of kids, all from the same dead-end street. Friends to the end.
I’ll be thinking of Tommy next spring, when the snows thaw and the James River runs fast and deep and I begin another season of fishing. The James is a far cry from Nonesuch Creek. It’s beautiful, clean, and surrounded by pristine mountains and the fish I catch are true trophies. It’s what I dreamed of when I was a little boy, fishing that dirty creek with my neighborhood friends. In every imaginable way, it’s better fishing than what Tommy and I experienced on Nonesuch Creek.
Or is it?
There won’t be three other boys there; bikes piled clumsily nearby, with a coffee can full of earthworms nearby and cork bobbers floating anxiously on the water.
We won’t be telling jokes and peeing in the bushes, and getting tanned and sweaty and dirty and enjoying just being out there with each other.
It will just be me. Floating a section of one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen, like I dreamed when I was a boy.
In my heart though, where the best memories live forever, Tommy will be there. He’ll be there laughing at my jokes, telling me a few of his own, casting to the best spot and watching that bobber with an eagle eye.
He’ll live on in my heart, this old friend of mine, and he’ll fish with me in those brief, flashing moments when I’ll think of him, and Johnny and Richard, with our rods and tackle boxes in our hands, pedaling our way down the path that led to our secret spot.
I can still see his face as it was when we were kids. He’ll laugh, he’ll cast his line in that perfect clear water next to mine, and then he’ll go back to the place in my heart where he’ll be forever.
Godspeed dear old friend.
I’ll see you on a bright Saturday morning next spring. You’ll come out from your place in my heart, and we’ll fish together for a few moments.
Hug your mom for me.