My good friend Foster. The trouble he has gotten me into over the years. One adventure started innocently enough, with a postcard: "I am in my favorite city," he wrote, "riding the ferry across the harbor (6¢ first class, the only bargain left in Hong Kong); hence my uneven hand. I regretfully must report that I'm up to my same old tricks, frequenting the Dragon Boat bar to ogle the Chinese ladies, closing down the Captain's bar because of failure to adjust to local time and squandering my HK dollars to fast-talking Chinese merchants. Tomorrow this decadence ends and I go to work in austere caution." (Foster imports textiles.) He signed it "Foreign Devil" and added a postscript: "Jane has left me. Surrogate wife needed (you will do) for salmon trip to Iceland, July 31-Aug. 7."
Nine years earlier I had been best man at their wedding. I'd been present when he proposed, in fact. We were playing miniature golf on Grand Bahama Island, even up after 16 holes. On the 17th mat, a par-two, Foster said, "Janey, if I sink this shot, will you marry me?" He was chock-full of rum.
"All right," she agreed.
He called on me as a witness. Then he calmly rapped it in. It was a difficult putt, too, through a windmill. I congratulated them and, noting the expectant look on my date's face, conceded the hole and the match.
April 12, 1982
I had never fished for salmon before. When Foster returned to the States, he called and we worked out the details. The river, the Laxa i Adaldal, was reputed to have the largest Atlantic salmon in Iceland, and despite the expense, it was simply too good an offer to pass up. The only hangup was a regulation I found in a travel pamphlet, in a section entitled "Icelandic Government Regulations Concerning Fishing Tackle," designed to keep out something called "swirling disease" (properly known, I later learned, as whirling disease), which afflicts salmon and trout.
The regulation read: "...all fishing gear that will have contact with the water (including flies, line, reels, waders, etc.) should be immersed in a solution of 4% formaldehyde by a veterinarian for a period of 10 minutes, then washed in clean water. The tackle should then be placed in sealed plastic bags for shipment, accompanied by a certificate from the veterinarian to the effect that this has been done. The certificate should then be authenticated by a Public Health Officer."
This seemed a bit complicated. I hadn't been aware that Connecticut, where I live, had any public health officers at my disposal; I knew no vets; and my only previous experience with formaldehyde came in the seventh grade, when a jar of it sat in the corner of the science room preserving the eyeball of a calf. The alternative to these sterilization procedures, according to the pamphlet, was to buy all new fishing equipment and bring the receipts. This, I soon learned, was what Foster was doing. Not me. I checked the Yellow Pages and called the nearest vet.
"You want to sterilize a fishing rod?" came the giggly response of the receptionist. "With formaldehyde?" This was funny stuff.
"I don't want to, I must." I read her the regulation, and she put me on hold to consult with the vet. In a moment she was back. "I'm sorry. We don't do that sort of thing."
"Do you know of anyone who does?"
"I'm sorry but we really don't."
"You could do it though, right? Couldn't you? You've got formaldehyde, right?"
"Momento," she said lightly. When the receptionist returned, she was curt—rebuked, I suppose, by her boss for taking up his time. "We don't do that sort of thing. The doctor has never heard of such a thing."
"Don't hang up. You could though, right? You've got the facilities to sterilize? Ask the vet if he's heard of swirling disease. Ask him."
"We sterilize our instruments, not fishing rods."
She hung up.
The next vet was more sympathetic. "You're going to Iceland?" he said excitedly.
"Day after tomorrow if I can get this taken care of."
"I'd give anything to go along with you. I'm a fly fisherman myself."
"As far as I know, the trip's filled," I said cautiously.
"Oh, I wasn't...no, no. I couldn't possibly leave. Hmm. We stopped sterilizing with formaldehyde a few years ago. We use steam now. I don't believe your flies would survive a good steaming."
I waited hopefully for a suggestion. "Let me tell you one thing," the vet said. "I wouldn't soak any of my gear in formaldehyde for two seconds. That's what we use to take the stains off of old bones."
"Did you say 'bones'?"
"But don't give up the trip. Lie first."
This at least was sensible advice. Would that I had followed it. Instead I spent the afternoon buying the formaldehyde myself—it required a prescription that I got from a sympathetic doctor—and brought a bottle of it home. In the meantime I had visited the Public Health Department of our county. The director was on a sewer tour, but I saw his assistant, who didn't take it kindly when I asked him to certify that I had soaked my waders according to the specifications of the Icelandic government. He was totally inflexible about it. He didn't care about swirling disease in Iceland, my trip or the regulation stipulated in the pamphlet. He suggested I talk to Fish and Game.
Back in my apartment, I carried all my fishing tackle and a pair of rubber gloves into the bathroom, filled the tub, then read the directions on the bottle of formaldehyde. There was a skull and cross-bones on the label and repeated warnings not to let the liquid touch naked skin. I wasn't to inhale its fumes, drink it or pour it on anything that might someday have contact with my mouth. I was terrified that I might accidentally embalm myself. I decided this was definitely no place for a fly line or flies. Or a bamboo rod. But I was haunted by the thought of swirling disease—visions of giant salmon flopping around in circles—and threw my waders and reel into the tub. I opened the bottle of formaldehyde and poured a few drops in, catching a brief whiff of its awful acrid smell. Afterward I rinsed everything, dried the gear off with a dishrag, threw out the rag, threw out the rubber gloves, then set about searching for a "sealed plastic bag for shipment." I came up with a Hefty.
I still needed a letter from a vet that had been signed by a public health officer, and because no one would cooperate, I called Foster. The whole thing seemed to be his fault anyway.
"I'll get back to you," he said.
A half hour later he returned my call. He had just talked to the organizer of the trip, and everything was under control. Iceland didn't really care that much about documentation. He'd come up with something. The important thing was that the tackle smelled sterilized. "Does your stuff smell like formaldehyde?" he asked.
"I've taken great care that it doesn't," I said.
"Do me a favor then. Soak a couple of cotton swabs in the formaldehyde and put them in the bottom of the bag so it smells legit."
"I refuse. It's too dangerous. I'm frightened to touch it."
"Do you want to fish or not? They'll turn you away at customs. That's what this guy told me. Just do it."
Foster flew in the next day from Chicago, where he lives. He was wearing a Cubs hat, which he was trying to pass off as a "good rain hat with a long bill," which, in another section, the pamphlet suggested wearing while fishing in Iceland. I carried an Abercrombie & Fitch duffel and a Hefty lawn bag. He handed me my certificate, a hand-written note signed by his dentist. "This fishing gear has been sterilized in accordance with the regulations of the Commonwealth of Iceland and the Laws of Nature."
"That's a nice touch," I said.
Below the signature Foster had typed: "In witness whereof...." Then he had initialed it. "Public Health Officer" was typed below the initials. He had tried to notarize it with his key chain, which had left gray smudges at the bottom of the document. "Wonderful job," I told him. "Extraordinary."
That night we flew from Kennedy to Keflavik Airport, where we were to meet the rest of our party. Foster passed through customs easily, showing a bill of sale to the approving inspector, toting his new germ-free waders, reel and 9½-foot graphite rod. "Lax" the inspector said, waving him through.
"Big lax," Foster replied, simplistically, I thought.
I had pretty much resigned myself to spending the next seven days in the dutyfree liquor store. I gave the inspector Foster's forged certificate, then handed him my garbage bag, both arms extended, as if waiting for him to slap on the cuffs. From his look I gathered that a Hefty closed with a twist tie wasn't what Iceland was thinking of when it asked for a "sealed plastic bag for shipment," and as he examined Foster's note, I felt obliged to explain, "Big lax, me too."
"Not so good," the inspector said, handing the note back to me with a surprisingly engaging smile. He began to untie the bag.
I stepped back involuntarily, wondering what two days in an airtight bag with two formaldehyde-soaked swabs might have done to my equipment. The inspector opened the bag and peered inside. He started to blink. His nostrils flared. He dropped the garbage bag and recoiled, covering his eyes. Then his entire body shuddered as he violently sneezed three times. His face went immediately from white to lobster red, and evidently he was having trouble finding oxygen.
"Oly-Ollie-Johannson!" the inspector cursed, I think. Icelandic is a pleasant sing-songy language that is spoken to the cadence of "...to fetch a pail of water." Even a curse sounds musical.
Foster clapped him on the back.
"Joh-fit, hoo-fit, hominy!" the inspector shouted. He had removed his hands from his eyes, which were tearing profusely, and was glaring at me. Then he sneezed five or six times in a row, like a little dog. Foster, who had been slapping his back at the time, seemed pleased.
"Formaldehyde," I said, feebly pointing to the regulation in the pamphlet.
"Jà, formaldehyde!" The inspector had backed well away from his desk and was pointing angrily at the garbage bag, talking rapid-fire to me in Icelandic. I gingerly retied the bag, and to my great surprise, he scowled at me for several seconds, then waved me past.
Naturally I felt terrible. Foster had thought the whole thing very funny, but I wanted to stay and apologize. It wouldn't have surprised me at all if the inspector had called for an ambulance, but after noisily blowing his nose, he went right on to the next passenger—an older woman, also a fisherman. He found her fishing gear, and I saw the woman shaking her head. No certificate, I thought. All the way to Iceland, and now they won't let her bring in her equipment. Poor old bat. Then, to my amazement, the inspector carried her rod, reel and waders about 15 feet to a tub filled with 4% formaldehyde solution. With his bare hands he dipped them in, held them under a few minutes, rinsed them, then dried them off with a towel. The lady smiled and passed through.
On her way by, the woman said to me, "Whatever did you do to that poor man?"
"I didn't do anything," I said lamely. "He wanted to smell my fishing tackle."
"I wonder why?" she sniffed. "It must smell revolting."
Foster thought the whole thing was funny as hell.