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Homage to Patagonia

Page 2 columnist

It had taken any number of phone calls to find out that the one place in Rio Grande, Argentina, which was showing the Super Bowl was the Posada De Las Sauzes, or as the gringos might say, the House of the Willowbrushes. There we could see the Gigantes of New York play the Cuervos of Baltimore.

Patagonia is home to both awe-inspiring scenery and outstanding trout fishing.
For on the sports world's most sacred day, the Sunday of all Sundays, my friends and I were fishing for brown trout in what is virtually the end of the earth, the southern part of Patagonia, by dint of a trip scheduled nearly a year in advance. That is a trip agreed on well before the most unlikely of all scenarios had become reality: My beloved Gigantes, 7-9 last season, and a somewhat sloppy 7-4 in mid-November, had gone on a surprising roll, getting better by the week, ending up in the Super Bowl, their chances greatly enhanced by an amazing dissection of the Vikingos of Minnesota.

My friend Dick Steadman, who was also a serious Gigante fan (and a former football star himself, having played center for Punahou High School in Honolulu in the late 1940s at roughly 150 pounds), and I thus found ourselves caught between two formidable athletic pulls, the desire to catch some of the largest and most formidable fresh water fish imaginable, and the love of and commitment to a favored football team making a most unlikely championship appearance. For that tiny minority of my fellow Americans who take football more seriously than fly fishing, I should point out that fishing for brown trout in Patagonia is a kind of championship in itself, a rare opportunity, or perhaps more accurately a rare privilege.

The Argentinean Rio Grande is exceptionally difficult to get to, requiring almost two days of travel; the conditions under which you fish are extremely demanding, winds up to 40 miles an hour; and the trout themselves, which are sea-going, but which come back to fresh water to spawn, are well worth the immense effort, and can easily run up to 35 pounds.

Madness vs. madness
Thus the choice between fishing and watching the Super Bowl was between one kind of madness in irreconcilable conflict with another kind of madness. When the shocking contradiction of our schedule finally manifested itself, Steadman and I had flagged our group leader, an ebullient friend of mine named Richard Berlin, to explain the gravity of our problem. Berlin, who lives in the Boston area, was not personally affected by the crisis -- his Patriotas had disappeared from serious contention on about the fourth week.

Still, Berlin is a good pal, and he knows obsessive behavior when he sees it, (after all, he owns some 20 fly rods), and he phoned Pat Pendergast of The Fly Shop, which was midwifing our trip, and explained the dilemma carefully. He had these two good friends, he said, both of them almost normal under most conditions, who were now caught between their conflicting obsessions. They wanted, in his jaundiced view to do the unthinkable, to interrupt, however briefly, some of the greatest fishing on the continent in order to see a football game.

The trout in the Argentinian Rio Grande can run up to 35 pounds.
Pendergast, a man who clearly had his priorities much better ordered -- there was trout fishing and then there was everything else in life -- listened patiently, as if to the counsellor for two madmen who was loyally carrying out the most undesirable of instructions, and then said he would do what he could to find some place where the game was on. Then he had paused and added his own view of things.

"Richard," he said, "I think you're fishing with the wrong kind of people."

That might or might not be true. But there we were at last, a mere 6,000 miles south of Tampa, hoping that somehow a television set which carried the game could be found. Even then there was, of course, a serious conflict in our schedules: the visitors to the Maria Behety Lodge fish twice a day, from roughly 8:30 to 12:30 in the morning, and then again from about 6:30 to 10 p.m. at night. The game itself was to start at 8:30 Rio Grande time. The trip from the fishing pool to town was about an hour, which meant that we would barely have time to start fishing before we left the river for the game.

Nonetheless, the evening starting auspiciously. Richard quickly caught two fish, and I caught one (a 10-pounder, which while not big for the Rio Grande, was big for me, since few of the trout I had caught in the past had ever gone above 2 pounds). Both of us were quite sure that our good fishing luck was also a harbinger of how the game might go.

Castro remains calm
So it was that we picked up and left one of the greatest trout streams in the world, the action clearly still hot, and driven by our guide Jorge Castro (gracious enough neither to say anything nor to show any obvious disbelief), raced for downtown Rio Grande. Never in my life had I left such good fishing so early with a promise of much more to come. But life is clearly full of sacrifices, besides there was still almost a full week of fishing ahead.

We got to the hotel with six minutes gone, the game scoreless, the Gigantes stumbling around on their own goal line, almost turning the ball over. As I pulled up a chair I was struck, not for the first time, by the contrast between the richness and privilege of my life and the particular era we live in, and that of my father, who was, like me, both a passionate fisherman and a committed football fan. (There was, I discovered years after his death, a note in his 1925 Tufts Medical School yearbook to the effect that getting Charley Halberstam to describe a football game was as good as going to the game itself). He had loved to fish, but had largely been forced by finances, a lack of time, by service in two wars, and by lack of access to prime fishing water to spend his time casting to ghost fish in fished-out lakes in northwest Connecticut. His reward, one or two keeper bass a summer.

His ability to travel, after all, was prescribed in a different, much poorer age, when jet travel did not exist and those remarkable bonus miles which had enabled me to get to Buenos Aires had not been invented. His foreign travel had been confined to two trips, France and Germany in 1917, and France and Germany in 1944-45, both of them, at least, financed by his government. He died some 17 years before the first Super Bowl was played. The idea of athletes like these, so big and fast, playing before us on an immense television set, virtually an indoor movie theater, located so many thousands of miles from where the game was being held, would have been beyond his imagination.

The difficult journey to Argentine fishing spots is usually worth it.
So even as I watched, I pondered the cumulative technological miracles of which I am the beneficiary, grateful for my good fortune, and wondering at the same time what it will be that my daughter will do and be part of in her lifetime which is beyond my own comprehension.

The game was on, live and in color and in Spanish. Clearly the Super Bowl was not that big a draw in Rio Grande. Steadman and I were the only people in the hotel den, other than a somewhat puzzled waiter, who seemed to have no special loyalty of his own, but who, in an engaging and warm manner, seemed to want our team to do well, and was quite willing to grimace whenever fortune smiled on the Cuervos. Nonetheless there was something absolutely charming about watching the ultimate football game from so great a distance in an environment in which no one else seemed to care.

There was, after all, a certain modesty to the setting that the game badly lacks almost everywhere else -- it was almost as if we could think of it as being in normal numbers, rather than Roman ones. It was marvelous being spared the hype; I am, after all, one of those people who believes that the Super Bowl is more often than not a disappointment, in no small part because of the two-week layoff, so much of it devoted to the hype. (One of my cardinal rules as a journalist is that any event that attracts media people in regimental or division strength is almost sure to disappoint and is not worth attending).

No noise is good noise
What I liked best, I must admit, was the absence of noisy commentators. The announcers were speaking in Spanish, and with all due respect to John Madden and Pat Summerall, it was a pleasant change. Actually, I can easily imagine that when Madden watches at home, he, too, turns down the sound at a game like this. He is one of my favorite commentators, and I savor the idea of Madden the fan turning down the sound of Madden the announcer. The lack of words helped to bring the game down to scale. In addition, the self important hand of Madison Avenue was blessedly absent in the Spanish version, and I loved that.

For the normal show within a show -- the Super Commercials at the Super Bowl -- was gone: the great American beer and auto companies paying so much to unveil glimpses of their products, clips which are more often that not about the talent and inventiveness of their ad agencies than they are about the advantages of the product being showcased. Instead, there were ads in Spanish for the Spanish audience.

As for the game itself, it turned out to be hard going for the Gigantes, who seemed to get smaller throughout the evening. I had taken the Cuervos quite seriously -- they clearly had advanced to the game through a more rigorous schedule, but in truth I had feared the Titanes of Tennessee more than the Cuervos, because they seemed to have more offensive weapons at hand. It was my hope, forlorn as it turned out, that while the Cuervos were stronger on defense, the Gigantes would have more weapons on offense.

Cheating on los Cuervos
Kerry Collins
Kerry Collins and the Gigantes were dominated by the Cuervos.
I believed the Gigante secondary could cheat on the Cuervos and Trent Dilfer, as the Cuervos could not cheat on Kerry Collins. My game plan was for the Giants to imitate the Jets in their victory over the Colts some 30 years ago, and take what was given, short passes to the tight end and the backs coming out of the backfield, effectively using the pass as a run until the defense finally opened up deep.

I thought it could be done, and I was very wrong. Either the Gigantes had no comparable game plan, or the Cuervos linebackers were so quick that they took even the shortest pass away. Whatever happened, it was not our day. Be that as it may, Steadman and I accepted our fate and decided that the Cuervos had dramatically outplayed our senors.

We also decided that it was a lot easier to accept the dismal outcome so many thousands of miles from home, not being part of a large group of New York fans clustered together, expecting victory but watching their hopes systematically evaporate in the second half. So, one season ended. One form of madness was over for the day, and in fact, for about eight months. So be it. Football is football, not life itself, unless of course you're a professional football player.

For the rest of us life must go on: We survive as mortals, and as sports fans, and as fisherman based as much as anything else, not on truths which can often be barren, but on hope and faith, that life holds possibilities for tomorrow that are more expansive than the realities of today, that Kerry Collins will grow in confidence next season and throw less into double coverage, that our next cast will entice a fish larger than his predecessors.

And so the next day, I went back to the Rio Grande and in the middle of the evening a huge fish took my fly, made one grand jump, displaying itself in full glory -- at least 30 pounds, said Castro -- then stripped much of the line with a fierce run, jumped again and bent the hook completely out of the line, thus departing forever from my life. But on the day after that, I went out and hooked an immense trout. It put up a magnificent fight, lasting some 25 minutes, and this time neither I nor my equipment failed, and I finally landed the brown, 22 pounds, the largest fresh water fish I had ever caught.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49 will write bi-weekly columns for Page 2.

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