Don't Carp

When I was a kid, the Elmo American Legion held a fish fry at the Legion Hall every third Wednesday of the winter months. On that day a Legionnaire would make the 45 minute drive to Rulo, Nebraska, a small town on the Missouri River, to pick up the fresh Carp to be deep fried that evening. (Carp is a bottom-feeding fish and commonly thought of as an inferior eating fish, but I liked it, having not known any better at the time). The fish was accompanied by white bread, potato chips, and iceberg lettuce salad with dressing made from a tantalizing combination of ketchup and Miracle Whip. Gourmet, it was not. But…but… I loved those suppers and always looked forward to them. If nothing else, they were a chance to eat dinner somewhere other than in your own home. (Tuesday night was Taco night at Whitehed’s Cafe, so that was another big night of dining out.) I fondly remember the atmospheric transition from the cold, dry outdoor air to the warm and steamy atmosphere of the hall, the smell of the frying fish, a vague wafting of cow shit from the farmers’ boots. The fish fry was the only game in town on Wednesday nights so the wait in the line inside the hall could be considerable. My friends and I passed the time looking at the framed photographs that lined the walls - class photos from the school in Elmo which had years earlier been converted into an elementary school, and then the middle school for the newly consolidated school district. To see one’s father (my mother graduated from high school in Hopkins, thirty miles away) as a child was both surprising (had my father really once been that youthful and handsome?) and comforting, because I didn’t look at his image in isolation; I saw it in terms of a continuum of our community. He was once young, a student, who grew up, fought in a war in Europe, worked across the country on a survey team, and now was a liked and respected contributor to the small town we lived in. And in the rows above and below him, his current friends - farm boys, goofy, awkward teenagers who had grown up to be farm owners, shop keepers, truck drivers, tellers, housewives. Though I didn’t return to Elmo like my father did, this generational model of stability I witnessed as a young boy gave me a sense of place and community and an awareness of the interrelatedness of us all. That beloved fish fry was about more than eating fish. It couldn’t have just been the Carp.

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