When he was 32 years old John Lennon said that if he had it to do all over again, he’d rather have been a fisherman. At 26, Lewie Faustino would like to have been John Lennon. He tried to get in touch with Paul McCartney once, the last time the tour came to Chicago; he wasn’t shy, he didn’t get discouraged, but it didn’t work out. He’s had some luck as a fisherman, though. In his lifelong quest for the big bass at Gravel Lake, the one that’s older than the boats bobbing above the waterline, the bass as big as a shoe box, the one that never nibbles, Lewie has a partner. Mr. Black.
Lewie sits with his dog all night in a rowboat, fishing by the reeds just off the center of Gravel Lake. As the sun rises red over the houses angled up the steep banks on shore, like a silent audience, a heron screams overhead. It is always this way, and it always seems to Lewie like the beginning of the world. A CB chatters in his free hand. Lewie doesn’t believe in absolute silence while fishing. It’s a lake, not a church. He talks to other fishermen and passersby on the CB, casting his Rhino rod (“Indestructible from tip to butt”), getting a bluegill, throwing it back, nabbing a bullhead, throwing it back. A bass he’ll keep. Shooting the breeze with another fisherman on the CB, Lewie once mentioned that he’d hooked a couple of bass, but they aren’t in season until June. Until then you must throw them back. The other fisherman said, “Oh, then you got a ‘grass perch.'” “What’s that?” Lewie asked. “That’s a largemouth bass out of season. Come June, them grass perch turn right back into bass.” Part of the magic of fishing. Lewie won’t eat the fish he catches, mostly he throws them back, though he once tried to bring a bass back to Chicago to keep as a pet. It died in the car.
Mr. Black eats almost every fish he catches. He eats a lot of the fish Lewie catches, too, the ones he doesn’t throw back. Lewie says Mr. Black has a good deal there–sells him the bait, sends him out to fish, and eats the catch. Mr. Black has a sign on the wall of the bait shop, the old quotation about “give a man a fish, you’ve fed him for a day, teach a man to fish, you’ve fed him for a lifetime.” Mr. Black taught Lewie to fish and has fed himself not for a lifetime, exactly, but at least several good dinners.
Mr. Black runs a bait shop out of a two-room shed next to his house, a neat cottage on the corner where the dirt road meets the gravel road. It’s across the road from Gravel Lake, which is in Porter township, near the village of Decatur, in Michigan. Mr. Black has been living by the lake for 21 years. He’s 83 years old, and he’s Lewie’s best friend. Lewie has known Mr. Black for most of his life. Mr. Black was a friend of his grandfather’s before him, years of walking down the road and talking over the crickets in the night, yells echoing across the frozen lake in winter, pinochle, bait talk, and cold morning dips when the ice melted. Lewie’s grandfather was a natural builder, he’d transform a couple of slabs of driftwood into a bedroom chest in a single night without thought, without plans, almost, seemingly, without work. Mr. Black used to labor over the wooden shanty he built annually for ice fishing, and that increased the admiration he had for Peter Barr, how easily he constructed his surroundings, his chairs, his cabinets, the two floors of additions to what was once a small cottage. Mr. Black was not envious, he’d also found a natural calling, and he found it late in life. At a time when most men reluctantly begin to search for a hobby, he had found an avocation, something he could touch through his heart and feel with his fingers.
He’d fished all his life, of course, when he could find the time. He grew up near the banks of the Muskegon River, where childhood demanded that he find a stick and some line and cast it in the water. Orphaned at five, his mother dead and father disappeared into some wilderness (still plenty of wilderness in the U.S. in 1913, even in the cities), he was raised by his aunt and uncle. In his 20s he was a housepainter. Later he worked at Inland Steel and helped organize the union there; in the process he met John Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller and admired both. “They never took a dime. Sure, they didn’t have to.” All other politicians he has no use for. Calling someone a “politician” is the worst epithet he can apply, worse even than “asshole.” There’s a few of both around, and sometimes they cross over; in the union he met some of each, but mostly there were good people about, and through the union he had helped to set up the benefits program that enabled him to get the bait shop. He knew the area, knew Gravel Lake. When his pension came he bought the property.
Lewie doesn’t belong to a union. He also has never joined: the Boy Scouts, the 4-H club, any support group, any organization of any kind. He’s a painter, and he writes songs. One of them is called “All Alone, By Myself.” He has a dog. He has a girlfriend whose family he’s lived with on and off for several years. His relationship with his own family is shaky. He’s proud to call himself the black sheep. He once appeared on an Oprah Winfrey show devoted to that topic. In the audience at another Oprah Winfrey show, one about juvenile delinquents, he went up to the stage and took the mike, while his friend Steve, red-faced, tried to fit his bulky self under his seat. That was when Lewie was 24. His sister’s ex-boyfriend, cooling off after two sets of tennis in his hotel room at Hilton Head, switched on the tube and instantly filled the room with Lewie, boasting about his bad self to a concerned-looking Oprah. Another time Lewie’s brother-in-law, searching the radio for an alternative to U-2, twisted the dial right into a harangue by Lewie on WCKG. There is no escape, he rightly concluded. Lewie once had plans to move to Hooterville, the setting of the TV shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Eventually he found that there wasn’t any Hooterville. He did find the real Mayberry (“Mount Airy, North Carolina, it’s really there!”), but by that time he’d made other plans. Someday he would leave Chicago forever and move to Gravel Lake.
To someone used to fancy resorts, or swimming and boating in the waves of Lake Michigan, Gravel Lake wouldn’t seem to be anything special. It’s small, maybe three or four miles all around, encircled by little houses and summer cottages, some with detachable wooden docks protruding into the water. Pontoon boats, wide and slow, are popular with the summer people there; they circle the lake in promenades, day into evening. Farmland surrounds the resort, and beyond that villages that live off the harvest and minor summer tourism. Beyond the villages are the urban centers of Paw Paw and Kalamazoo. A few of the people who live at the lake year-round commute to jobs in those cities. To Lewie it seems like Mayberry, a little town where characters care about each other. To others it might look like the kind of place where Fred and Wilma would take Pebbles on vacation–from the heart of Bedrock to the shores of Gravel Lake. Or maybe it could be the deceptively placid setting for a mystery, “Murder at Gravel Lake.” The bones of human beings have been discovered near its shores. Were those really old Indian burial mounds? Only the devil and an old half-wit named Elmer know for sure!
It’s quiet, and while it isn’t sparsely populated, it isn’t overrun with tourists either, and probably never will be.
Lewie is the most normal of eccentrics, or maybe he’s the most eccentric of normal people. He’s certainly a danger to no one but himself. He wants stardom, like so many other people; he also wants to be alone, far away from the expectations of others. He’s himself at the lake. Calling ahead from Chicago, he’ll get Mr. Black over to the shop to prepare his bait for later. Mr. Black will scoop out a bunch of night crawlers, put them in a can, and place the can out on his front steps. Lewie arrives around midnight, grabs the can, and heads straight for the lake. No booze or beer necessary, just a crumpled pack of Marlboros and a can of Pepsi. “No matter what kind of bait you get, spinner bait, buzz bait, jitterbugs, anything, it all comes back to night crawlers,” says Mr. Black. But he sells all the other kinds of bait and lures, and Lewie has them all, neatly arranged in a three-tiered foot-and-a-half tackle box better kept than anything else he owns. Lewie is always broke, but he has “the ‘Bassassin,’ the neatest thing you can use.” He’s also got plenty of Berkeley Alive Fish Slime, “good for your lures, but don’t get it on your hands,” and when he gets tired of fishing in Gravel Lake he’ll head over to Little Cedar, privately owned, “put two dollars in the can for boat rental, one dollar if you bring your own boat.” He uses the family boat at Gravel Lake, a 30-year-old aluminum rowboat with a motor he bought himself, but he rents over at Little Cedar. It’s worth the extra dollar to prevent family hassles about moving the rowboat.
Lewie’s mostly estranged from the family. They’re a nice, well-groomed family of blue-collar origin and upper-middle-class aspirations. Each generation has bettered itself. At the turn of the century his mother’s family bounced from one place to the next, living in borrowed garage apartments. His parents were born in the Depression and both grew up in the same neighborhood, at 55th and Normal, not quite in the middle of the road. His father is a supermarket manager and has worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for most of his life. His mother is generally acknowledged as the mom everyone wants to have had, understanding, fun, forgiving, better than a saint. Five brothers and sisters are all solid, living lives of quiet achievement, and they view Lewie’s struggles–with life, with his father, and with them–with detachment and some amusement. He’d almost be the family joke if there weren’t so much sadness about his separation.
“Fish must be stupid, at least stupider than I am,” Lewie says, laughing. The family lets him use the house, bought and built by his grandfather, now owned and administered reluctantly by his mother; when a large family uses a single possession, there must be someone in charge, and though it isn’t natural for her to leave anyone displeased, it has fallen to her to settle any arguments about using the place. After his last big fight with his father, Lewie had a fear that he might not be allowed to use the house anymore. That night he was down as he drove the 125 miles or so to Mr. Black’s. No happy talk about Mayberry or the Bassassin that evening. Mr. Black offered the use of a cottage across the road that he’d bought for his daughter. She rented it out sometimes, but Mr. Black said he’d let Lewie have the place as long as he needed it, free. Lewie said thank you, but no, he wouldn’t want to put him out like that. He drove back to Chicago. His mother, not knowing which friend was putting him up then, not knowing whether he was still living in his car, called everyone he knew, spreading the message that it was OK, he could still use the house.
After this brush with exile, Lewie drove up to the lake more than ever. One night in winter, snow swirling, the side of the road occasionally defaced by the dark hump of a stopped car, its skid marks already invisible under fresh drifts, Lewie took his ’76 Camaro and all the karma that fit, flew up 94 with a V-6 that does 0 to 60 in less than seven seconds, and plowed down the one-lane country roads on tires that last had a grip in the early years of the Reagan administration. You have to trust karma when you can’t afford repairs. He arrived late, determined to get out on the lake. He couldn’t be sure if Mr. Black would still be awake, most people at 83 go to bed early, even when they don’t sleep. Mr. Black’s house was dark, but a light shone from the window of the bait shop next to it, so coated by snow it looked in the deep country night like an ice-cream cake with a lit candle. Lewie thought he’d be welcome, and was. Mr. Black prepared the bait, admonishing Lewie to beware of the soft spots. “That ice over the lake may look as hard as concrete, but in some areas it’ll sink like quicksand.” Mr. Black didn’t question the advisability of going ice fishing on a dead-black night in the middle of a snowstorm. Orphans don’t need questions like that.
Mr. Black once told Lewie a saying that described the way he felt about life. He said, “Don’t walk in front of me, I will not follow, don’t walk behind me, I will not lead. Stay by my side and we will walk the path together.” Mr. Black was fond of sayings. Lewie wasn’t skeptical. He raised an empty glass, echoing the sentiment, “never above you, never below you, always at your side,” and pantomimed a clink.
Lewie didn’t care much for the ice fishing that night. Later, in the spring, he confided, “The best thing about ice fishing is this: they flip three times, then they’re frozen–fresh frozen fish!” It’s different in a wooden shanty that you’ve spent the fall building yourself, with runners anchored in the ice against the wind (otherwise you’d fly around like a witch on a broomstick). Sitting in a tiny room with a heater in the middle of the lake is cozy compared to sitting on a box in the middle of a storm. People who don’t plan ahead have to be hardy.
Both men believe that Lewie will get the big bass that lives in Gravel Lake. They say its home is in the deep hole at the cove on the eastern end, or maybe under the reeds slightly off the center. It’s two or three feet long, 25 to 30 pounds, big as a pike, it’s 40 years old. It’s avoided speedboats, water-skiers, kids with spear guns, weekend fishermen with nets and thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and all the other fishermen who believe they’ve spotted it off and on over the years. It’s avoided Mr. Black and many of his friends who have long since passed on. They say you can’t catch it unawares, neither in winter with the one living night crawler that would make its last meal, nor in spring when two dozen lines dangle in the water offering it a smorgasbord of worms and minnows. Lewie will catch it when it’s ready for him to catch it, and when he gets it he’s going to take it right over to Mr. Black’s house, across the dirt road from the lake. Mr. Black will clean it, stick it in the pan, and this time the two of them will eat it together, with butter and a Pepsi.
For information on the Gravel lake area, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John SUndlof.