Officially, it's the West Rochester Sand Pit. But we always called it "The Sand Pits."
Today, my memories of the Sand Pits are a little cloudy and a lot romanticized. I don't recall the name of the town where you turn onto the dirt road leading there (though I do remember that in the late summer, this forgotten lane was lined with tart, finger-staining wild grapes), and the roads themselves have disappeared from my mind’s map, despite the numerous times I sat on Dad’s lap and “steered” our beaten pickup across the bumpy gravel tracks. Nor do I have anywhere in my memory, an image of my mother at the Sand Pits.
I did remember that they were somewhere in Cedar County, Iowa and that they are separated from the Cedar River by a sliver of a sandbar thick with willows and box elders and underbrush. You never saw the river, but you felt its presence through the trees and saw its influence on the old flooded sand quarry in the freshwater clams and large fish that inhabit the Sand Pits.
Before we got the red, fiberglass canoe, we’d stand on the eroded bank and cast our poles out into the brackish waters. “It’s over a hundred foot in there, some places. Stay out of the water. And watch your rod...” Dad would level his eyes at me while saying this, which he did frequently, and jerk his head over his shoulder to indicate the green surface behind him. John, my little brother, had to be secured to a tree with a fish stringer, one end clipped to a belt loop or bib strap and the other wrapped once around a small ash or poplar and clipped back through its own chain links. He wouldn’t stay away from the water, but then he was only two, so what did he know? Dad always did cast a line in for him, even though John never watched the tip of his pole or his bobber, but rather spent most of his time straining against the stringer toward the water or toward something he saw in the trees. I’d just shake my head disgustedly and turn back to stare intently at the orange and yellow orb floating on the water in front me. Dad never used a bobber. I figured he was trying to catch the giant fishes I knew must live on bottom. After all, a hundred feet was a long way down and it would take a monster to survive down there.
I saw one of these monsters once, too. As we were leaving one day, a man started screaming for a net from somewhere. We all stopped and listened to him holler. Finally, Dad dropped his tackle box and rod, hefted his dip net and jogged toward the shouts. “Watch your brother,” he said over his shoulder. I looked at John, who was staring at something off in the woods and tugged at his bib strap. “Come on...”
We picked up Dad’s stuff (John got his rod all tangled up in Dad’s line) and followed to where we heard his voice talking excitedly with that of another man. The man held a fish near his belt line and let the tail drag on the ground near his shoes. It had giant teeth and mean eyes. It was from the bottom.
“That’s the biggest damn northern I’ve seen! What’d you get it on?” Dad’d just hooked a couple of carp using the canned corn he’d brought along for bait, and I think he was feeling a little inadequate. We threw them back.
“Thanks for your help. See you later.” And the man gathered his gear and ran off to his car. Dad never did figure out what that northern was caught with, though for a few weeks, we threw every kind of bait imaginable into that water: minnows, crawdads, catfish paste, worms, bugs, lures, spoons, spinners, even pieces of the inevitable carp that we reeled in using these new baits.
I guess I shouldn’t say “we” when I talk about catching fish. The only time I remember a fish on the end of my line at the Sand Pits was after we got the canoe and began paddling out to the willowy island on the far edge of the lagoon. We’d fish from its sandy shores, though I fully expected our extra weight to push the fragile island into the depths at any instant.
On one such occasion, John and I had abandoned our rods, which were propped up on forks that Dad had fashioned from tree branches, to explore the “jungle” of an island that couldn’t have been more than thirty feet long and twenty feet across. We were hiding in a bush spying on a native fisherman, whom we suspected to be a cannibal, when the fisherman let out a yell and my rod leaped off its fork and into the water, followed almost instantly by the native, who got it back to shore and reeled in the fish (a carp, I think).
“Get out of those bushes and watch your rods! Shoot, my cigarettes are wet...” John and I anticipated hostility on the native’s part.
Sometimes, we’d camp at the Sand Pits. We did this the last time on my eighth birthday, Dad, John, and I. By this time we’d moved to Iowa City, so the Sand Pits were quite a schlep away for a one-day fishing excursion. But as a treat for my birthday, Dad agreed to take us camping and fishing.
We didn’t own a tent, and this was the best thing about camping at the Sand Pits. We would build a wickiup, a type of shelter used by Native Americans. We’d find a stand of young willows, and within that stand, find a space where four or five trees circled an area maybe ten feet in diameter. Dad would pull the tops of these trees toward the center of the clearing and tie them together, forming a frame. Meanwhile, John and I would go around gathering the leafiest branches we could find from other trees, which we wove through the framework, careful to leave an opening. Then we’d pile more leaves and grass on the floor of the shelter and cover it with a sheet of plastic, another of which we placed over the top of the structure to protect us from the rain. When we were done with the wickiup, we’d just fold up the plastic and cut the cord that held the frame into place.
This is what we did on my eighth birthday as well. We spent most of the day fishing and canoeing around the Sand Pits. At one point in the early afternoon, John and I spied on a man and woman skinny-dipping at the far end of the lagoon. We were quite indignant at this type of display in our favorite place, so we immediately told Dad about the scandalous behavior. John recommended we call the police, and I was surprised that he’d come up with such a good idea. But Dad just laughed at us. Eventually, they went away.
That night, around the campfire, we looked at the stars and ate hot dogs and beans. We cut sticks and roasted marshmallows, and as the coals began to glow brightly, licked intermittently by a blue tongue of flame, Dad told us that he and Mom were going to be divorced. We packed up and went home early that night, and I don’t remember having been back since.
I still think about those times at the Sand Pits. I even talked about it with Dad sometimes before he died. But we don’t mention my eighth birthday. And I never asked him how to get back to the Sand Pits.
Photo: City of Osage, Iowa