The Artist’s Son: for my Father

A version of this appeared in Anglers last year, but in a low- toned gentle version that made my Dad simply a sad nice guy.

Fact is, Joe Bodio was not a sad nice guy. He was a passionate conflicted sometimes brilliant guy who first taught me to love his passions- fishing, hunting, art– and when he succeeded, seemed to turn against them and me for thirty years. Not a nice guy at all. This is the story of a difficult man’s redemption, and it is interesting mainly because of that.

I know, because I am the artist’s son. This is the first time the whole story has ever been published.
Illos too!


Striper hipster

At around the age of thirty, an observation by Elizabeth Katherine Huntington that I was “an artist with nice guns” struck me with unexpected force. I realized that I had become a man my father always wanted to be. And that he hated it. I was an artist only in the broadest sense, a sportsman with a madness that has a little to do with ability and a lot to do with obsession, successful only in the smallest of subcultures, but had my very successful father ever wanted to be anything else?

See: in the early 1950’s, a very young man in a three-story Dorchester walk-up, a first generation American born to immigrants from the Swiss border fueled by passion and talent, married to a pretty young woman of a different class and ethnic background, with nothing to show but those passions. At that time he really was an artist: a painter a sketcher a sometime sculptor – and a man with a passion for animals, fish, birds, mammals, their shapes and sizes and feathers and movements. In a dingy blue-collar neighborhood, all my early memories are of animals, alive and dead dirt-common and exotic. All before I was five, because of their context; black gas stove with blue and gold flickering flames, basement coal chute, blacker than black, dust on your hands, there stories, white-fenced porches on each level. Its only existence is in a few molecular memories—Google Earth shows the very street vanished below the obliterating white geometry of Ashmont Station.

Against this faded dream: a flash of the most intense blue I have ever seen, edged as for emphasis with black and white. It is the shimmering speculum of a “Black mallard” – Yankee for Black duck – which he takes from the pouch in the back of his coat one morning followed by three more. I am mildly confused because it is NOT black but a rich chocolatey brown. I already know my colors. At four, how would the artists’ son know? My father works as an “engineer”, which I don’t understand because in my mind an engineer drives trains. But not long-ago Dad was a “scholarship student at the Museum School”. And Mum was a commercial artist, drawing models in furs for Kakas of Newbury Street. The relic of which is another fascinating animal, a full-length ocelot coat.

But the ducks…like other beings soon to come, the ruffed grouse, the flounders, the stripers, the brookies, the hornpout, the yellow perch, the mackerel and soon, the tuna and the white-tailed deer, they were all I could focus on as long as they were visibly themselves. And then they became holy relics. I kept those feathers for a decade.

My father let me carry it to the table. That it was dead did not bother me. The only live animals I knew were English sparrows, pigeons high overhead, as remote as angels, and the ragman’s blinkered horses. I had found a dead mouse in the bedside water glass, a dead pigeon in the yard covered by live ants, my cousin’s dead cat, Snoozy smashed in front of my house on Templeton Street. It might be human nature, or something genetic in the artist’s boy, or a little of both, but I found them far more interesting than my little metal plane with the rotating blue propellers, or my toy trucks, maybe an undiagnosed case of Biophilia, not yet invented by Ed Wilson but already hinted at by Aldo Leopold: “…the man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph, or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly normal. He is super civilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him. Babies do not tremble when they are shown a golf ball, but I should not like to own the boy whose head does not lift his hat when he sees his first deer.”

So: dead heavy, limp, wet feathers shimmering like watered silk when I stroked against the grain, deep and thick and soft against it. I could have handled them for hours, but Dad had something else in mind.

He set them gently on the table or rather on the newspapers my mother had provided set one on its back and stripped off a couple of big chunks of feathers against the grain. He smoothed them out in his palm to reveal a single feather, crossbarred with light pencil lines. “I’ll teach you how to tie flies”, he said. “These are the feathers that make wings for flies.” Perhaps he saw the incomprehension in my eyes because he grinned. “Flies – to catch fish. Trout.” He went out, put the feathers down, and came back with a shiny silver box. When he pointed out the wings I could see they were the same as the ones we’d taken from the dead bird. Do artists, or artists’ kids, imprint like birds? Sixty some years later I’m still dazzled by the treasure he revealed in that box. And I still have it, and a few flies I’ll never fish.

The next event in our lives brought us much closer to fish and birds and nature and game. In 1954, we moved to what my mother considered wilderness. These days with Easton a crowded bedroom community located rather less than twenty miles south of downtown Boston, this would seem ludicrous. But in those days, my urban maritime mother wasn’t far off. Easton still had dirt roads, and its population of Yankees, rich and poor, and ethnic Portuguese looked not to Boston but to New Bedford and Taunton to the south, to cranberry bogs and whaling towns. Not a few of the oldsters there had never been to Boston and had no intention of going. To me the raw subdivision hacked into the fringes of a boggy seasonal swamp was a paradise for a novice hunter – gatherer. For our first two years, our basement had six inches of water and three species of calling frogs in it. To me, in today’s vernacular it was a feature, not a bug; not the result of a cynical ploy to fleece the World War II generation, but a habitat.

Dad eventually put in a pump and got rid of the frogs, but I don’t think he was bothered by them. He ramped up his leisure time activity even as I filled my jars with frog spawn, and often took me with him. It was around this time that I caught my first trout in his company, in what was then known as the Blue Hill River. In 1955 it still contained native brook trout, and again the artist’s eye rewards me. My father had been fishing a cast of wet flies, something that he did so often then that a part of my brain still considers it the only way to go. After a while he sat down on a rock and asked me if I would like to catch a trout. He was always a fisherman whose artistic purity fought his dogged north Italian pragmatism but right now neither seemed relevant. He took a coffee can out of his box and hooked a squiggle worm on to, if I remember, one of the flies. “They like these better”. He rolled the line lightly upstream and put the rod in my hands, stripped line for me, and then raised the rod tip, which began to dance. “You’ve got him! Reel him in.” He actually grabbed my little hand and whirled it around the reel as he backed up until it skittered on to the bank. “you’ve got him!”

I did have him. He was probably five inches long, but the red and white in his fins and the mottled vermiculations of his back glow in my memory as the most beautiful fish I have ever seen. That night we ate him fried in butter. Need I say that I still do that?

Today, I’m sure the Blue Hill River exists. Last I checked, it was a trickling culvert under what was then Route 128, now a part of I-95, neither of which were built when I caught my trout. But such tiny natives were always an almost invisible reward for those who shunned more popular quarry. They may be gone from the Blue Hills, but my friend and contemporary Paul Dinolo, a retired teacher, still catches, releases, and occasionally eats my trout’s close relatives in the numerous dark cedar bogs of Plymouth County .

The next fish I remember remains at the opposite end of the scale. I did not see it caught, off Chatham, in my father’s deep-sea saltwater phase, but discovered it beached in the shingle, waiting to be cleaned. For no reason an adult can fathom, my first reaction, and my little bother Mark’s, was to take off our shoes and WALK on them.

Maybe it was just a wordless testimony to their size. Although they were all what we would soon learn to call “just little schoolies”, weighing no more than 100 pounds, most less than 50.They were the biggest fish we’d ever seen. In retrospect, they were probably the biggest my father had ever seen, which explains why his reaction was to beam at us, rather than to snap at us, “Get off the fish”, which would have been more in character.

It was probably the beginning of what was the most idyllic period of our sporting relationship. There is something sweet about teaching a child to fish especially if all the material, from bait to quarry, is near to hand. We had Knapp’s pond, now a eutrophicated “wet meadow” but then a gloriously productive pond with three species of game fish broadly defined; no, actually more than that. There were three species of sunfish alone, including big bluegills, an edible spiny catfish which most people today call black bullhead but which we called hornpout, and sinister but elegant chain pickeral. Not to mention a diverse herpetofauna including many snakes and more amphibians which interested my dad as well, though not the rest of the family — another little bond. My father was always a naturalist.

I had my own spinning outfit by then. I don’t remember a thing about it. What I remember is my father. He fished with the most beautiful spinning reel I’ve seen before or since: an Alcedo Micron. It was a color of pewter and had a kingfisher in raised relief on the side. I coveted it as I have come to covet all too many kinds of fine tackle. Perhaps a writer’s appetite for words started with the names of equipment, the “lyricism of shoptalk” as Thomas McGuane had it. Names to say, names to covet: Alcedo, Penn, Browning, Winchester, Pfleuger, Hardy Orivs, Leonard…

On Knapp’s Pond we would take our separate perches usually on opposite sides of the little dam that emptied beneath the road, and make our own choices of bait or lure. At that time, Dad would only suggest if the fishing seemed slow. He favored sunfish and hornpouts both quite edible, even acceptable to my mother I liked the hornpout because they could hurt you and with their sharp spines in their pectoral fins, and my father had showed me how not to get hurt. Mastery of even a simple skill encourages you to learn more. But really, I preferred pickerel, which we didn’t eat. “Too Goddamn bony!” I didn’t care. When one came in, slashing its snaky body across the lily pads, with its golden chain pattern and barracuda teeth, I was in ecstasy. I didn’t even mind cutting it loose, and in those days, like most kids, I wanted to keep everything. My response was a combination of adrenaline and esthetics. Ted Hughes was soon to write his poem “Pike”, about the pickerel’s bigger relative:

“Pike, three inches long, perfect.
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.”

The last form of fishing I was exposed to in the 50s has been a lasting source of fascination for me though I never was able to combine the time the place, and the culture to hit it just right. The mid-50s were, I think the first period of serious surfcasting for stripers and blues. The photos make me ache with nostalgia: ancient woodies with rod holders on their front bumpers rolling down the beach at Chatham or Duxbury with waves crashing beside them; all those World War II veterans with big casting rods and casting reels like the Penn Squidder. The preferred lure was the “tin squid”. I haven’t seen one in decades, but its soft luster and texture, its heft, its ability to take a shine when you rubbed it in the fine sand, was like nothing else I have touched before or since, like a nobler form of lead. The other think I remember my father using was the eel skin rig. On my last stab at seaside life, in the 70s, I did try this, but those years were in the lull between the two great explosions of big stripers, and I never caught much.

As I was learning all this from my father, I was also learning it from, Field and Stream and all the other old-fashioned sporting magazines. And books. My mother’s contribution to making me a worthless lay about was teaching me how to read – family legend says at three. This is more than possible. At three my mother was reading Kipling aloud to me, as well as everything about animals in every publication in the house’ and sounding out the words for me. As I tested out at an eight-grade level reading before my sixth birthday, doing stunts like reciting the scientific names in Peterson’s bird guide to a nun with a PhD in psychology, this timeline is likely true. What I read about was live things – natural history, field guides, tackle articles, the “Old Man and the Boy” from Field and Stream, William Beebe’s books about tropical reefs, Adrian Conan Doyle’s tales of manta rays and killer sharks were all fodder for my imagination. I’m just as bad at 65.

Meanwhile, something was happening to my father; something in retrospect, sad though I found it disturbing. He wasn’t spending much time doing interesting things. His temper – he was never serene – was getting shorter and shorter. I wanted to hunt was well as fish but after a few sessions with him bird hunting, I retreated. When I learned to fish I watched him, and received advice when I asked for it. Bird hunting was different. First, we had no dog. His big-going Texas English pointer Joe, who could be the subject for another article, was unsuitable for New England hunting, and had died of old age. Dad’s method now was to march around grumpily in grouse cover with his sweet sixteen Belgian Browning, while I carried a rather heavy single-shot .410 choked tighter than a gnat’s butt. He insisted I shoot first, and when I did and missed he would snap me on the back of the head and refuse to allow me to reload, saying “watch what I do.” He would then either shoot a grouse, after which we would go home, or not shoot one and be in a bad mood that I had blown our opportunity. He employed the same methods to teach everything from fly-tying to driving a stick shift and I learned to teach myself.

As he rose in his company and worked more hours and more, he did less fishing and hunting even as I became obsessed with it. On the occasions that he did, all its fruits went to my grandparents in Milton. My grandparents had a rather incredible lot there with twelve apple trees, a grape arbor and a garden larger than the one I cultivate today in New Mexico. They also kept “anything that doesn’t make a noise” i.e., rabbits and pigeons as opposed to ducks and chickens. They made grape wine and dandelion wine, picked dandelions and wild mushrooms, baked their own bread, and killed sparrows in the pigeon loft to make sauce for polenta.

My mother was overwhelmed by much of this though grateful that they took the game off our hands. More disturbingly, my father – or Joe – as we kids were coming to call him as he distanced himself from what he loved, and I think, from us, had no time for the food of his roots either. Just a few years before he was the only man besides my grandfather who cooked; now if he could not get to the Bodios, we ate 50s food. The pattern was set: Joe worked, I became ever more obsessed with fishing, hunting nature, animals, and books. Though a scholarship student all through my grammar and prep school years, my grades were indifferent. When I wanted to use one of the rods or guns, I had to undergo a grilling. “Why are you wasting your Goddamn time?” was a constant refrain. He sold the best gun he ever had, an early Model 21 Winchester with two triggers; his better cane rod and the Alcedo and the Hardy disappeared; even the racing pigeons which he imported from France, bred and studied and raced, another bit of biophilia I came to inherit, were first ignored and then abandoned. Looking back, I think they were a last attempt at having some contact with nature without having to take up any time traveling. When I left home prematurely at seventeen, blown along by the raging winds of the 60s, we were barely talking.

And so it remained for a decade; no I am whitewashing; it got worse. During these years, whether in an apartment in Cambridge, a fishing shack in Canton, an 18th century farmhouse in Shutesbury, or a relative’s rental in Marshfield, I devoted my life to fishing and hunting and writing and nothing else of practicality. When in 1970 he told me to take my wife and my dog, in that order and get off of his property, I didn’t talk to him for two years. When a few years later, slightly reconciled, I brought a 28-gauge AyA sidelock to his office, brimming with pride at my brilliant taste, he turned to his lackey and said “Look at this John. My asshole son just bought a rich man’s gun.” That he had recently sold a Winchester worth five times as much was not something I felt able to say, I just walked out and didn’t talk to him again for two years.

The genuinely funny part of all this is that our period of greatest estrangement was when I approached the ideal of the life he had taught me. My years in Green Harbor just yards from Duxbury Marsh, were the high point of my fishing-hunting-eating career. No place in New Mexico or the Rocky Mountains could sustain such a prolonged feast. In those days, my friends and I fished and gathered year-round, and hunted whenever we could. We threw clam baits to cod in the winter surf, fished for stripers and blues on the jetties and off Duxbury bridge, where we also caught flounder and eels, free-dived for lobsters before that was considered attempted theft; we gathered quahogs and steamers and sometimes razor clams; we ate blue mussels steamed in game broth or wine before the restaurants discovered them – “You eat those blue things?” In the fall Black ducks and Brant were among the commonest quarries on the marsh, still two of the best eating birds I know; woodcock and grouse were not far away in remnant patches of forest; I even learned how to cook the scoters and eiders that fell to my 10 gauge when I anchored my battered boat in the winter surf; if you cube the meat and put it in buttermilk overnight you can make a hearty chowder that everyone loves. Just a little further afield, in the tiny streams of the south Cape, we discovered salters, native sea-run brookies seemingly unknown to anyone but us and our close friends. A few of these streams still had clean oysters.

But I still wasn’t talking to Joe. When I moved out to western Massachusetts to polish my skills as a writer, we had a rather tentative rapprochement. When I heard he was attending a business conference in the valley I invited him and my mother to dinner at my house Was it perversity that made me serve them a Brunswick stew made from road-kill squirrel? Which, miraculously, Joe loved, though my mother took some persuading. Still we remained wary. He looked around at the old wood-heated house and said, “You really think you can make a living from this?”

Several years later, I was doing just that with the steadfast encouragement of Elizabeth Katharine Huntington, a partner who believed in the life that I lived. She had a legendary background, had money when she was young, blew it, put herself through BU Journalism School by waitressing, and never complained. She had been everywhere and had done everything and was startlingly frank. Improbably, she hit it off with Joe, the first of my partners ever to do so. It was all the funnier because he, whose precarious prosperity was earned by a typical first-generation ethic of hard labor, tended to call Yankees with broad vowels “Inbred overbites”. To which Betsy would amiably agree. “That’s all right Joe. The Huntingtons and Trumbulls are just Connecticut Valley farmers who said ‘ain’t’ until the 1950s”.

And she cracked a mystery. One night she asked him flat-out why he had given up art, and fishing and hunting, and seemingly, fun.

We were on our third or fourth Jack Daniel’s. he said “Betsy, when I came back from the war, it was a little early because I had flown thirty-four missions. I had big ideas. I’d done my flight training in Roswell, New Mexico, and hunted with a rancher there who had promised me a dog. He sent me the dog on the train. I had bought an antique Cadillac roadster, and rode off to Roxbury to show my old man what a swell guy I was”.

“I drove up and knocked on the door, and Rico came out and looked at me and said “Get your Goddamn rich man’s dog and your Goddamn rich man’s car off my lawn.”

“I didn’t care. I had survived the war, I was a scholarship student and I had talent. In England, as a first lieutenant, I was an officer and a gentleman. I rented a studio with the two most talented artists I know. One was a veteran, and one day they carted him off, screaming. He had what they called “battle fatigue” in those days.”

“Then I started watching my other friend and realized that he was gay. My father had been nagging me constantly and was always saying that all artists were either crazy or queer. I was doing some good work, but I didn’t know how to sell it and my money was running out. All of a sudden I got scared. I sold all my stuff and applied to Carnegie Mellon, and the rest is history. I started in a company and ended up owning it, and as you know I lot a good bit of it in the last crash.”

“I did it all for security and, you, know, I did it wrong. I’ve harassed this Goddamn kid for thirty years, and you know what? He made the right choice. There is no Goddamn security.”

And he looked me in the eye and clinked his glass on mine.

I never had an argument with him again. He came to New Mexico; we took him to rodeos, we went birding, we fed him wild things. He called Betsy in the hospital in her last week, and I managed to see him just before his. He might not have attained security but he had some measure of serenity. I have very little of his equipment, having sold or bartered it away. My sentiment is rooted more in memory and a little bit of his art. I’d still own an Alcedo Micron.[note got one last week,seduced by my own story– worth the wait. Despite its tiny size, it is all machined steel inside, like a 1950s racing machine — no postmodern technical crap here. It was packed in a grey industrial goo which I had to wash out with rubbing alcohol, and replace with light machine oil. Now it runs more smoothly than all my modern ones]. The last of his tackle I possess is an odd assortment: the aluminum fly box and motheaten flies, some older than me,that will never see the water; a leather and fleece Wallet for streamers, which I use; and most ridiculous here in the high mountain desert of New Mexico; the Penn Squidder, still loaded with braided linen Cuttyhunk line.
A photo of him stands on my desk, a portrait in profile, obviously on a sailboat, the wind ruffling his white hair, sunglasses shading his hair. He is in the place he loved best, off St. Croix, in the islands. I often think of it as the Old Man, or the Old Man of the Sea. He is four years younger than I am now.

The gun in the first photo, with a woodcock in Easton MA, is Betsy’s Parker 16. Photo of Betsy with Maggie on West Mesa Alb NM ca 1982.In the 3rd photo I am holding the damn “rich man’s gun”, my first custom- ordered “bespoke”gun,, an AyA XXV 28 bore, a lot cheaper than his Model 21

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