IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Newsman’s memoir proves to be quite a catch

In his second autobiography, Howell Raines reflects on fishing, marriage, fatherhood and his career at The New York Times. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

In his new memoir, “The One That Got Away,” Howell Raines writes about what it was like to be fired from the New York Times after a distinguished career was brought to an end by the fabricated articles of a young reporter named Jayson Blair. But the book is about much more than just the famed newspaper, it's a love story between a man and a fish. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter One: On the Goneness of Lost Fish
In a century of fly fishing, one thing has not changed. “It is our lost fish that I believe stay longest in memory, and seize upon our thoughts whenever we look back on fishing days.” A paradigmatic Victorian gentleman, Lord Grey of Fallodon, published those words in a book called Fly Fishing in 1899. Over one hundred years later, there is still nothing as gone, as utterly lost to us, nothing as definitely absent and irretrievable as a lost fish.

“Seize our thoughts” is an apt phrase, for there are some lost fish that haunt us like old love. They live forever in what Izaak Walton called “the boxes of memory.” Yet not all lost fish are equal. Sometimes there is a soothing completeness to the loss of a specific fish. The encounter has an accommodating narrative arc — a beginning, a middle and a conclusion, at which, for some reason, one does not feel robbed. These flashes of enlightenment are rare and a blessing when they come. But fishing in the main does not allow for such an absence of Avarice, such a deliverance from Desire and its handmaiden Regret. That is because, once a fish is on our line, we don't want the imperial feeling of possession ever to end.

The governing emotion of fishing therefore is not one of attainment but one of anxiety about incipient loss. Every moment that a fish is on the line, we dread the sensation of being disconnected against our will, of being evaded, escaped from, of grabbing and missing. Every fish that slips the hook instructs us in the surgical indifference of fate. For like fate, a fish only seems to be acting against us. It is, in fact, ignorant of us, profoundly indifferent, incapable of being moved by our desires, by our joy or sorrow. We regard the moment when the fish rises to a fly as a triumph of piscatorial artistry, and when the line breaks or the hook pulls out, we feel cheated, outfoxed, chagrined. We take it personally. But to the fish, such an encounter is simply an interruption, unremarkable and unremembered, in the instinctual, self-absorbed journey of fulfilling its fishhood. What we experience as an exercise of will and hope, the fish encounters as an accident, no more or less remarkable than meeting a shrimp.

So, perforce, each departed fish pushes us toward a dim, momentary and reluctant acceptance of that inescapable fact against which the mind constantly rebels. For against all reason and evidence, we try to believe that life is shaped by a process of acquisition. It is, in fact, a process in which our dear things slip away, slowly and elegantly if we are lucky, rapidly and brutally if we are not. We try to believe, in poor old Jim Dickey's mysterious line, that we can “die but not die out.” Lost fish remind us that time, like an undertow or gravity itself, will pull us down, will confound every hope of lasting, every dream of possessing something — anything — wonderful for more than an instant. Lost fish chasten us to the knowledge that we are all, in each and every moment, dwindling. Imagine my surprise when I discovered well into my sixth decade that losing fish can prepare us for a blessing as well as for pain.

Accepting the latter, the hurtful, seemingly accidental losses that life imposes on all of us, did not come naturally to me. I remember the resistance I felt in college when my favorite professor, a wizened, erudite man named Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, was making a point about one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's doom-clouded stories. “Everyone who lives has to accept something that may seem impossible to the young. At some point in your life, you will come to know great sadness. You will lose something precious. Remember this.” He did not speak another word, but we understood that class was over.

The professor's son, Tennant McWilliams, was my closest friend, and I knew from him the piercing experience that lay behind the old man's words. When it came to sorrow, life had given him no grace period. Mr. McWilliams was three when his mother, pregnant with what would have been her second child, died in a fall down the hard, steep stairs of an antebellum house in the Alabama Black Belt. A dozen years later, Richebourg McWilliams's father died of a heart attack when the two of them were quail hunting not far from that fine, airy, oak-shaded house. Theirs was a plantation family tracing its roots back to fifteenth-century French Huguenots who had gone to the rack in Languedoc. But in the end these landed gentlefolk, who owned cotton fields, sawmills and steamboats, were as vulnerable as the blacks who served them or the white yeomen who scratched livings from patchwork farms in the Alabama hills. Richebourg McWilliams, indeed, was no luckier in respect to the wounds of mortality than my own father, who was haunted all his life by the early death of a parent on one of those hill country farms at about the same time.

I speak of these things in the context of lost fish, because in fly fishing as in life it is always possible to make things worse, through clumsiness perhaps or hubris. Say, for example, you tighten the drag on a fish that has just seen the net. Or perhaps the fish was well hooked and you say to yourself in the tiniest mental whisper, “Oh, yes, this wonderful creature is truly mine,” when it has not yet been taken from the spacious, amniotic embrace of its watery home. If you conflate this kind of carelessness with unrepeatability — with knowing that you have blundered away a pleasing coincidence that will not come again — then, my friends, you have a departed fish that will never desert you. Certain of my lost fish — a largemouth bass in Alabama, a brown trout on the Missouri River, a permit in Belize — have been with me so long as to become icons of instruction about the importance of avoiding avoidable mistakes. I think of the respective mishaps by which they gained their freedom and I gained pedagogic memories — with the bass, an overtight drag; with the trout, a strike too hard by half; with the permit, a hook set slow as the thunder that follows lightning down a mountain.

Unlike Mr. McWilliams and my father, I knew little as a child about unavoidable losses, those to which one responds with courage or by being crushed. I had few occasions until comparatively late in life to consider the hierarchy of losses, to learn about assessing them in the way of Tennyson, who said that, while much may vanish from our lives at any given moment, much abides. Comrades, those words seem less facile to me now than when I first read them, for reasons I hope to illustrate. For the nonce, however, let us return to the subject of lost fish, if for no other reason than to prove how capacious a sentence was left to us by Lord Grey. For example, when I think of lost fish, I often turn in memory to the falsetto hotel keeper in Bellagio. The town is on Lake Como near the Swiss Alps. This is Mussolini country. Nearby, irritated Italians put an entire platoon's supply of bullets into Benito and his foolish mistress, Clara Petacci, and then hung them upside down, like marlin or tuna.

Unlike fish, they were dangled in a spirit of ridicule rather than admiration.

Anyway, that was the neighborhood, and the hotel keeper of whom I speak had a voice like a set of church bells. I knew, of course, that the age of the castrati was three hundred years past, but his voice had that kind of purity, a boy's voice pushed into an artificial tingling range beyond soprano.

Excerpted from “The One That Got Away: A Memoir,” by Howell Raines. Copyright © 2006, Howell Raines. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.