Perhaps you have never heard of the X Kilo Club. If not, there is no reason to feel inadequate, for all its members could be fitted into a couple of the long black limousines that are always waiting, polished and silent, in front of the club's meeting place. Neither are you likely to have accidentally wandered into the club's room on the third floor of a building at 21 West 52nd Street in Manhattan. The entrance to the building is through a black iron gate, down two steps from the sidewalk and past a reception desk where one gets a proprietary clearance from guards who show inches of linen at cuff and collar, a sort of hard-eyed inspection that remains from the years when the building housed a speakeasy. If you have brought the wife up from Ponca City for a necktie-salesmen's convention and wish to stop in for a beer and a chicken-fried steak, there are restaurants in which you would be more at ease, and tolerated, than in the one that occupies most of the building where the X Kilo Club is located. The restaurant is called "21."
Membership in the X Kilo Club is controlled by blackball, whim and the stipulation that a member must have caught an Atlantic salmon of more than 22.2 pounds, or else must have made a significant contribution toward other members' catching one. A significant contribution could be defined as furnishing airplanes, lodges, boats or other considerations that would make X Kilo Club members feel you are a wonderful fellow and indispensable to them, in which case peripheral, nonvoting memberships are available, but rarely.
Fishing for Atlantic salmon is a sport that a body of literature has made out to be one of man's nobler enterprises. The fish itself is a grand creature, large and silvery, courageous, angry, aristocratic, arrogant and doomed. The men who pursue it with rod and reel are of all sorts, having in common the willingness to travel to far places and spend prodigal amounts of effort and money for the joy of feeling a salmon run. Men will go to unreasonable ends to experience that moment, and once they have done it they never cease to feel it.
On an evening last July, as the X Kilo Club was near to coming into existence, although none of its future members yet knew it, an old single-engine de Havilland seaplane flew up a fjord at the northern tip of Norway, rattling along between green mountains that stand at either side of the dark water. Streams from melting snowcaps ran down the hills, and mists floated from the fjord to cling like smoke to the pine forests that moved past the wing tips. Clouded islands close below reared up like the sea monsters of Norse legend, and in any direction the country rolled away, green and vast, meadows climbing into mountains, glaciers glowing in the sun, an occasional tiny farmhouse or village sitting improbably in the lonely landscape that is for all but a few months of the year buried in snow. Roaring and shaking, the de Havilland swung around a hill, cleared the crest of another, then plunged toward a village that had appeared along the shore. Inside the plane, Tony Triolo, the photographer, was praying loudly. The rest of us, only two days removed from our departure from "21," mashed out cigars and cigarettes, gripped chair arms and reassured ourselves that the grinning young pilot did realize he was not at the controls of a Spitfire. "I must say," said Cornelius Ryan, the author, peering out the window as waves rushed up to meet the plane, "this does give one the sensation of flying."
January 22, 1968
In a few minutes the plane was taxiing toward a wooden dock. The men who had run out to lash the de Havilland to the pilings glanced at each other in perplexity when the door opened in the side of the plane and out stepped Seth Baker of Wall Street, wearing dark glasses, white turtleneck, trench coat, tailored slacks and Gucci shoes, looking as if he had been kidnaped while on his way to a polo match at Cowdray Park. Such splendid garb is uncommon in the town of Alta, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near the top of the world.
We disembarked and gathered at a cabin above the dock, shuffling our feet for a while with hands in pockets, blowing white breath and gazing off at the hills. Finally Seth Baker said, "Now where do we go?"
"Who knows?" said Pete Kriendler, one of the owners of "21," a man who does not appreciate the pleasures of standing still.
"We've come 6,000 miles to get to this town and nobody knows where the lodge is?" said Jimmie Graham, entrepreneur of art of the Old West.
"Call a limousine," Kriendler said. "Call Sven. Where is Sven? Where's our luggage? Do I have to do everything? Are all of you guys helpless? Take you out of New York and stick you in the woods and you're lost, is that it?"
By using the telephone in the cabin, someone located two taxis. We were driven along narrow roads through forests and fields to the Alta airport. This being the Arctic, I had expected to see polar bears and floating ice. Instead, it was like Wyoming, like elk country. Hay was drying on the fences, and a few little bowlegged Lapps walked along the road in their smocks and fur boots, turning at the noise of the taxi engines to look hopefully for customers for their scraggly reindeer hides. Tremendous power lines were strung through the trees, an indication that Alta, 165 miles from the Russian border in an area called Finnmark, is as important to NATO as it is to salmon fishing.
Sven Ericksen, the masseur from the "21" Club, was waiting at the Alta airport. His eyes were very red and he needed a shave. The day before, Sven had wired Kriendler, his boss, in Oslo to say he had arrived in Alta, which is nearly as far north of Oslo as that city is north of Milan, Italy. Kriendler, who was having dinner at the time, had wired back: CHECK IN AT AIRPORT MOTEL AND WAIT. In Alta, the airport motel is a bench in the lobby. Not knowing we had transferred to a chartered seaplane in Troms√∂, Sven had sat on the bench all night waiting for the SAS flight. When it arrived, the luggage was unloaded, but there were no familiar faces, leading Sven to believe he might not have been abandoned entirely but had been put on hold for another day.
As the 39 pieces of luggage, 940 pounds of which were overweight, were stacked at the counter in Alta, a young Norwegian girl kept looking at the bags and boxes and then at us. "How long do you gentlemen plan to stay?" she asked.
"In Alta a week," said Jimmie Graham.
"We take 20 kilos of luggage each when we go to the States," she said. "If you gentlemen need this much luggage for one week, why don't you hire your own airplane?"
"My dear, we did, we did," Jimmie said.
The luggage had attracted a crowd at the airport in Oslo early that morning as several porters hauled it in on trucks. Besides the usual suitcases, there were long cardboard crates, boxes of liquor, cartons of boots and wet gear, boxes of thermal underwear and mosquito repellent and—gasps from the crowd—a folding massage table. Kriendler had found a wheelchair from which to direct the unloading, Oddvar Kjelsrud, the man from Mytravel International, a Norwegian travel agency that leases fishing beats on salmon rivers, climbed over the counter and began tagging the luggage.
The massage table was lifted onto the counter.
"Don't forget the body oils," Kriendler yelled. Turning to me, he confided, "Somehow, I never thought we would get this far."
For weeks in the spring the mysterious summonses had gone out: dinner at "21," in the Frontier Room, a small gathering. The gentlemen would arrive one by one at the mocha-colored building on 52nd Street between the clamorous clutter of 6th Avenue and the somewhat more elegant clutter of 5th. In the Frontier Room they would sip cocktails beneath old shotguns and prints of animals—unaware that this room would eventually be redecorated with fish pictures and become the headquarters of the X Kilo Club—and, when they had finished their roast beef and were on their way out again, they still would not know why they had been requested to attend.
After they had gone, Pete Kriendler would go into his office and sit among framed cartoons and heaps of books and newspapers at the big table he uses as a desk. "This fellow is all right," Pete would say, examining the list of men who had been at dinner. "This fellow I'm not sure of. He might crack." More summonses would be sent, and again the gentlemen would arrive. In that way, the party was chosen, each member investigated as if Kriendler were recruiting an intelligence network. At Triolo's suggestion, Kriendler had spent two years planning a fishing trip to Norway. "It wouldn't be fair to lay out a pile of cabbage and have one guy ruin it. I could easily have got 50 guys for this trip, but if we can make it with just half a dozen of us living together for three weeks in the woods we will have done something great."
What Pete called "a pile of cabbage" was a hearty sum of money. Not counting the airplane fare and the hotel bills in Oslo and Troms√∂, fishing the Alta can cost up to $3,200 per rod per week, depending on the time of the short season and on the beat of the river being fished. The ones Kriendler selected could afford $10,000 each for three weeks and, he felt, would be congenial under the odd stresses of Arctic daylight. They were: Cornelius Ryan, author of The Longest Day and The Last Battle, son of an Irish brigadier who raised him on the notion that a gentleman should fly-fish, ride horses and hunt; Seth Baker, Wall Street figure, chum of royalty; Jimmie Graham, art gallery proprietor; Bob Graham, Jimmie's brother and partner in the Graham Gallery, expert on French Impressionists, former intercollegiate wrestling champion at Yale, owner of the world's largest catamaran and of his own private zoo in Connecticut; and Tom Lenk, Austrian-born president of the Garcia Corporation, importer of fishing, skiing and hunting equipment. Triolo, who is as good at arranging things as he is at taking pictures, was included from the beginning. With no unseemly reluctance, I agreed to go along. Then Pete also invited Sven Ericksen, who was to act as interpreter and give daily massages to the fishermen whose arms would no doubt be worn out from battle with monster salmon.
From the airport at Alta, it required all the town's taxicabs to drive the Kriendler party and luggage 10 miles to the lodge. As we approached it we could smell the wet earth and hear the rush of the Alta River. The lodge was a rough cabin about the size of a boxcar, and a cold rain was dripping from its eaves. In each bedroom were two tiny bunks, one above the other. "Are Norwegians midgets?" Kriendler shouted. "Lumber is the cheapest thing in this country. Why do they have to live like they're at sea?" Wet laundry hung on a fence near the lodge. The luggage was unloaded into the mud. "These accommodations are not what one would call ho ho ho," said Ryan.
But our attention was turned to a butcher-paper tracing on the wall of the living room. The tracing was of a long, fat 45-pound salmon that had been taken from the Alta River a few days earlier. On a wooden post on the porch was a mark that showed how long the fish had been. The river was pouring and gurgling 50 yards from the lodge. The gillies had pulled their graceful longboats onto the bank among pines and birches and tiny blue flowers. Fishing on the Alta begins at 8 p.m. and continues until about 3 in the morning, or whenever each pool has been fished twice. Lunches of smoked salmon, bread and butter, apples, hard-boiled eggs, cookies and coffee had been packed in net bags. The long crates were torn open and out came fly reels and two-handed fly rods supplied by Tom Lenk, and dozens of boxes of flies. Our mood was changing to anticipation. As the rain quit, we scrambled down the steep bank into the longboats, each of which was crewed by two gillies.
Ryan was one of the first to step into a boat and be motored into the current. He chatted madly about flies, water conditions, salmon runs and local mores to gillies who spoke little or no English. His conversation is a banquet of topics, ranging in a matter of minutes from the whereabouts of Martin Bormann ("He's dead") to the snoring of Ernest Hemingway ("He snored like a bull but he could get away with it because he was Hemingway") to moviemaking, fishing, and politics ("The Democrats called me up and said they expected me to bring in Ridge-field, Connecticut. Bring in Ridgefield? There are only six Democrats in Ridgefield, and that includes my yard man").
Tom Lenk waited to go out until he was sure the others had loaded up on the equipment he had brought. He also wanted to practice with the two-handed rod, a very awkward casting device for those unaccustomed to it. "In the publicity releases, they claim I grew up with a rod and reel in my hands," Lenk said. "The fact is, I'm less adept at this than anyone else in the group."
Fishing the Alta is bound up with English tradition. Catches have been recorded back to 1567. Except for spring, when the natives who can get permits are allowed to go after the early runs with spoons and spinning tackle, only fly-fishing has been allowed since the Duke of Roxburghe leased the Alta in 1862. One of the English traditions is to fish at night. Although it never gets entirely dark in summer, the gillies say the fishing is best when the midnight sun is closest to the rim of the mountains. However, most gillies are farmers who have always worked their land during daylight; the night was the only time the visiting English could hire them as guides. Another tradition is the use of 12- or 14-foot two-handed rods, 30-pound-test leaders and flies with double hocks. We objected to the heavy equipment and instead used 20-pound leaders, still feeling guilty, but even that did not satisfy the gillies who keep and sell most of the meat that is caught. I think the goals of sport fishing are to relish the outdoors and to hook and fight many fish that have an excellent chance to get away, so it was reasonable for me to ask the gillies why very light spinning tackle was not allowed. "Because it is not done that way," the gillies said.
The first night of fishing produced several salmon of more than 20 pounds but none approaching the mark on the front-porch post. Bob Graham came in with a fine one of 25 pounds. "I've fished half a dozen times in Canada, and I've never seen a salmon this big before," he said. His brother Jimmie had been shut out, as had a few others, but when the fish were laid on the grass in front of the lodge there was no feeling of discontent. The gillies stood around grinning, and the bottle of brown Norwegian akvavit was passed.
Each fisherman would fish a different beat each night, working hard for four hours, standing upright to handle the long rod while the gillie in the prow rowed steadily to keep the boat headed into the current. At midnight there was a break for lunch on the shore. The gillies would build a fire, and we would sit on a log or on the chair seat from the boat, drinking the strong black coffee, hearing the river running past, smelling the pines and the smoke of the fire. Then we would go back onto the river for the last two or three hours of fishing.
Every kill was recorded in a log book in the lodge. There were frequent trips into the town of Alta—which could have been any small mountain town in the western United States except for the Lapps wandering the streets—to buy the flies that seemed to be currently the most attractive. Mickey Finns, Dusty Millers, Thunder and Lightnings and Blue Charmers were constantly being tied onto lines or clipped off. Knut Kjeldsberg, the chief gillie, a young man who is also a cryptographer in the Norwegian air force, listened with amusement to the debates on the merits of various flies.
"I don't think it makes any difference what fly you use," Knut said. "A salmon eats nothing in the river. He hits a fly because it annoys him. The fly itself has little to do with it. A fish can't see colors. He sees shadows and light. A big salmon feels that he owns the pool he is in, and he kills anything that comes into the pool."
But if there was one trait that characterized the Kriendler party it was that hardly anyone showed lack of confidence in his own judgment. Most were accustomed to giving orders, not to listening to suggestions, and they would sit around giving orders to each other, interrupting, contradicting, so that there was always a general din. Kriendler, who is a lawyer and has a seat on the American Stock Exchange, as well as being a partner in the "21" Club and other enterprises, was the captain of an unruly crew. "I'm putting you in charge of the fire-building detail," Kriendler would tell someone, and walk away. A few minutes later Kriendler would return and demand, "Where's the fire?"
"There's no wood, Pete."
"So now there's no wood! Have I got to do everything? What's wrong with you guys, anyhow?" Kriendler would say, waving his arms and stalking off. The cook would come and build the fire.
Knut Kjeldsberg's theory went unheeded. We would pack fly boxes full of little feathery items and set out with the long rods. By fishing every pool in turn, it meant that each fisherman had to spend part of one night at a pool we called Broadway. The trouble with Broadway was that it was in a part of the river that flowed through town, and the banks would be crowded with tourists. The gillies could cast a fly 60 yards with the long rods, but the best of us did well to cast 60 feet and thus we were sensitive to criticism from the bank.
Going down the river to Broadway, the boats would pause to work other pools. On the evening of one trip Seth Baker was casting the J√∂ra pool at the base of the sheer granite Raipas Mountain, trying to improve his technique before it was presented to the public. I was in the boat that evening strictly as an observer, having announced that I would not perform for the amusement of tourists. Seth was less than delighted with the idea, but it was his boat and there was a certain noblesse oblige involved. "They're cheating. You shouldn't have a critic at a preview," Seth said, pointing toward the bank. Among the pines stood a lone blond boy, about 12 years old, his hair luminescent against the wet emerald of the forest. The boy was not allowed to fish the Alta, but he had walked a long way through the woods to watch the fishing, and now a heavy mist was moving in over the river and lightning cracked behind the hidden face of the Raipas. Tiny bullets began to strike the water. The gillies yelled for the boy to run for cover. He did not move. When the storm hit, you could see the blond hair for a while, and then the rain was too thick to see it anymore. "A reprieve," Seth said as we huddled in our rubber clothes in the rain. "Maybe this will keep up all night."
His gillies were usually humming or whistling—their favorite tunes being Edelweiss, Yellow Submarine and Hello, Dolly!—and they maintained a concert throughout the storm. When the sky lightened, they started the motor. "No way out now," said Seth. He had been 14 hours without a strike.
Along the bank, at 11 p.m., I counted 43 people and eight automobiles. Two girls waved from the road.
"You think they're discussing my technique up there?" Seth said. His casting improved. He was concentrating grimly on the timing—counting one, two, three as the looping line straightened out behind, whipping the rod forward with a wrist snap. His fly was shooting out 15 feet farther than it ever had before.
Seth took two salmon of more than 20 pounds each at Broadway. After the first, he tried to put on a new fly of the same type, a Blue Charmer, but the gillies refused. "I wonder why they're so averse," he said. "This one is pretty well chewed. Being a typical American I would have just thrown it away and replaced it." He caught a small sea trout, and the gillies called for lunch, pleased that their man was getting fish again.
We all hummed Yellow Submarine on the long ride from Broadway back to the lodge. There, six large salmon and a few grilse were spread on the grass. The akvavit bottle was moving in a circle. Earlier, we had been talking about founding the X Kilo Club, and everybody had qualified except Tony Triolo (I had caught—pardon, killed—a 35-pound male salmon on a Thunder and Lightning the night before). But now Tony had come in with a 24-pounder, and the membership was complete. The members retired to the lodge to discuss the design of the blazer buttons. On the porch several paused to look again at the one thing that still irritated—that mark on the post. A 60-pounder had been taken in the spring, but that was by a gillie and so did not count. It was this 45-pounder by a tourist that had to be overcome for the good reputation of the X Kilo Club. "I plan to beat that myself," Kriendler said. "Mr. John W. Hawknose is out there waiting."
The monster was waiting, all right. For years he had escaped the nets, traps and lures on his journeys from the sea up the Alta and back, and the next night he lay at the bottom of a deep pool upriver below the rapids. Cliffs the color of copper, lead and slate went straight up beyond a narrow bank where junipers grew. The water was boiling white and loud at the rapids, and the gillies had to row desperately to prevent the longboat from being whirled down the river. Below, where the monster lay, it was quiet and dark until a trout went past the monster's nose. Stirring, he came up from the gravel bed to chase the intruder. The trout swam for the surface, then began acting very strangely, squirming and threshing, and the monster came on up to drive this trout out of his pool.
What Jimmie Graham saw from his longboat was the trout strike the Blue Charmer. Jimmie laughed and began reeling in to get the trout off his line. "Maybe I ought to use this one for bait," he said to the gillies. As the trout neared the boat an enormous shadow glided up from the deep pool. A great curving snout came out of the water, the jaws opened, and the trout vanished in an explosion. "My Lord," Jimmie said, "I've caught a hog."
For 45 minutes Jimmie fought the salmon. The longboat went up and down the river for a mile and a half. The first jump was 50 yards from the boat. "Big lax," said a gillie. "That's a hog out there," Jimmie said. The next jump was close. "Please come in," Jimmie said. The salmon ran again, and almost all the backing was stripped off the reel. The gillies rowed in pursuit. Jimmie got the backing back on, and then got some of the fly line, but the salmon pulled it off again. The salmon was charging into the current. Fighting against the river and the action of the rod, the fish began to tire. The salmon came up to the boat, wallowed and sloshed, ran again, came again to the boat. The fly line, dripping and taut, had ceased to move. The gaff flashed. The gillies heaved the floundering fish into the boat. Jimmie sat down heavily. "Let's get back to the lodge before we swamp and drown," he said.
At the lodge the fish was weighed in at 47 pounds. It was two inches longer than the mark on the post. "I told you," Jimmie said. "Didn't I tell you?" They put the fish up on a wooden rack, and the weight collapsed the rack. "Didn't I tell you I would do it?" Jimmie said.
"This is like discovering Atlantis," Connie Ryan said, sitting on the porch beside the mark while Jimmie posed with his fish. "The sea goes down, and for a moment you see it, knowing tomorrow the sea will rise and you will never see it again. These fish are not the fightingest in the world. They're like a sack of flour rolling against the current. The people are hunters, with heavy iron and heavy lines, wanting meat. My arms hurt, my neck hurts, my back hurts, but I've never had such a grand time of fishing. God help us when this is finished forever."
In the morning we packed up and flew down to Troms√∂, the capital of the Arctic. The town is built on green hills on the mainland and on an island which is reached by crossing a high bridge over blue water. Polar-bear boats leave from Troms√∂, and a low, white, nesty-looking NATO building looks down from the highest hill toward the fishing boats at the wharves. Reporters and photographers were at the airport to meet us. In the newspapers the next day, Kriendler was identified as the owner of a chain of restaurants, and the "21" Club was called "James Bond's Club." Our party, it was reported, was made up of "high society millionaires.... Never has there been a tourist group like this one." Jimmie Graham was identified as "Michael Graham, world-renowned photographer, who caught enough salmon at the Alta that he will eat a fish dinner every night for a year and sell the rest in New York for $30 per pound." ("He must be planning to sell it at '21,' " Tom Lenk said.)
Jimmie's picture was on the front pages of both papers, hands spread wide to indicate the size of his fish. He was stopped on the streets and asked to sign autographs. He walked into a store and inquired if he could write a personal check for a purchase. "Of course, Mr. Graham, anything you wish," the clerk said. "I could have bought the whole town," said Jimmie.
At the Alta, Ryan's written record showed we had caught 30 salmon weighing an average of 24 pounds each and nine grilse at an average of five pounds. Down at the Malangsfossen, where the fishing is done by jigging heavy spoons from boats that are rowed around the pool near the head of the falls, the luck was not so good, and the method was unsatisfactory. "This takes me back to Coney Island 50 years ago. This is not fishing," said Kriendler. "When you become acquainted with salmon, you hate to kill them like this." The party began to read the boat assignments as if they were a duty roster. "I would like a 72-hour pass," Seth Baker said.
"We could try to get some sleep," said Ryan, "but in these places it's too expensive to sleep."
"I'll get my big fish mounted and we can hang it at '21,' " Jimmie said in an effort to direct the conversation.
"I ain't a dirt collector," said Kriendler.
The party was on the verge of disintegration. Some rather imperious gentlemen had lived together in the Arctic for about as long as they could. The dormitory life was beginning to pall. Sensing the feelings, Sven Ericksen produced his tjikost, an instrument made of a mop handle, a tin can full of nails and a wooden stick to whack the thing with while he simultaneously pounded it on the floor, stomped a foot and sang. There was a reviving of spirits, and in the morning Jimmie Graham killed four salmon on a silver spoon, Bob Graham killed two more on flies, and four got away. When we left the Malangsfossen cabin, where grass grew on the roof, to attack the Driva, the X Kilo Club was radiating solidarity.
That is why the Frontier Room at "21" is now the Izaak Walton Room. That is why in front of the building at 21 West 52nd Street in Manhattan you may have seen the fellows with the blazer buttons depicting leaping salmon and thought they were the Gaspé Peninsula choir or a rowing team from New Brunswick. What you saw was the X Kilo Club heading for a meeting. Being as markedly independent as X Kilo Club members are, meetings are rare, and the arguments at each gathering are a threat to club unity. But negotiations have begun for a lease on the Alta again next summer. Somewhere, in another deep pool, a big salmon is waiting, and the time for big salmon is running out.