“So why isn’t the town called Thorpe’s Corpse?” asked my friend. He certainly had a strong point. After listening to my plans to visit Jim Thorpe Pennsylvania, and the details of how the town acquired its name, it was absolutely fitting that the town should be known as Thorpe’s Corpse.
Jim Thorpe, the Native American who is often credited with being the greatest athlete of the 20th century, never set foot in the town that bears his name. He left his mark in 1912, winning both the pentathlon and the first Olympic decathlon (64 years before Bruce Jenner), completely dominating the field. He played professional football and baseball in the 1920’s, and while still a player, was the first president of the NFL, when it was known as the American Football Association. Fame did not equate to a cushy life for the young man who originally hailed from Oklahoma, as it was revealed that prior to the Olympics, he briefly played semi-professional baseball for a meager two dollars a day. Although many college athletes did the same using an alias, Thorpe lacked their sophistication, used his real name, and was subsequently stripped of his amateur status. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) forced him to return his Olympic medals, and declared the second place finisher as the champion. Although the IOC posthumously awarded replica medals to his descendants in 1982, Thorpe is officially only recognized as the co-winner of the events. We can imagine the money that an athlete of Thorpe’s magnitude would earn today, but in the first half of the 20th century; he was having trouble maintaining employment, troubled by alcoholism, and died in 1953, two years before another famous Native American, the war hero Ira Hays.
Thorpe’s third wife at the time of his death, Patricia, was looking for a suitable place to bury her husband’s remains. It appears that “suitable” would be defined as a place that would honor him with a monument, and also pay cash (claimed to be $500 by Thorpe’s sons) to the widow in exchange for the privilege of accepting his remains. The last Mrs. Thorpe interrupted the Sac and Fox Indian burial ritual that was in progress, and transported her husband’s body from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania, where she set up a meeting with newspaperman Joe Boyle. Boyle had a vision of uniting the economically depressed old coal towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, renaming them after the famous athlete, and even eventually establishing the national football hall of fame in the newly minted town. An agreement was reached to erect a monument to Thorpe, have his remains in a marble crypt, and call the joined towns Jim Thorpe. A new city was born, located not just on Route 903, but in the intersection where the Venn diagram overlaps regions of town needs a new image, widow wants money, and legend of disgraced athlete needs reconstitution…even in death.
Jim Thorpe’s final rest was not destined to be glorious or even peaceful. The decision to move his remains from Oklahoma was fraught with controversy and disgrace. Thorpe’s children made several unsuccessful attempts to legally challenge the decision, and there even seems to be a curse surrounding key people involved. NFL commissioner Bert Bell was reportedly in agreement with founding the football hall of fame in Jim Thorpe, and had plans to make the announcement after an October 11, 1959 game between the Pittsburg Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead, Bell died of a heart attack during the game, and the plan never reached fruition. Joe Boyle, the prime mover and shaker who fervently believed that the deal he brokered would improve the lives of people in his hometown, tragically died in 1992 from a freak Memorial Day parade accident, when the float he was riding struck a tree.
A town with such an ill-fated narrative sounded like a delightful place for a small vacation, so, many summers ago, the grand plan was to stay at the Jim Thorpe Inn, and put in some serious fishing time on the Lehigh River. I was looking forward to big trout from large water, a romantic long weekend with my wife, and the hope of establishing distance from some personal demons. Arriving into town, it became clear that those demons had been unionizing. Several days of hard rain had rendered the Lehigh River a mad torrent that would result in my body being fished out of the water downstream in Trenton if I was foolhardy enough to take a single step in. The fishing gear stuffing the car seemed useless, and I was working on starting a very indulgent downward spiral of self-pity. Pretty unattractive stuff for a man my age to be engaged in, but I’ve never claimed to be a bona fide grownup. A well-adjusted person would have looked at the menu of positive opportunities that were still present; the basic “if life gives you lemons, then make lemonade” approach. Not me…when life gives me lemons…I make a paper cut.
Late in the afternoon of a day spent sleepwalking through the usual tourist attractions, lumbering up and down steep hills, and scarfing down platefuls of pierogies at the Sunrise Diner (which is now physically located in Ohio…just like the football hall of fame), we noticed a small sporting goods store that sold some fly fishing equipment. While browsing the items and picking up a couple of new leaders, a conversation in the store led to the suggestion that Mauch Chunk Creek just down the road may not be blown out like the bigger waters. The moth was informed of a flame, and we all know how that ends.
The next morning found the creek a touch on the high side, but this stream with the clumsy name seemed fishable, and as a bonus, I appeared to have this location all to myself. My spirits should have been lifted, but the decision to try this spot was driven more by rote fishing behavior, as opposed to noble intentions to explore new water. The small creek ran through wooded level ground, and although it seemed rather secluded, any promise of a wilderness experience was betrayed by what looked like a brick pumping station, and the appearance of large cast iron manholes interspersed along the waterway’s path. A couple of quick slashes on a streamer got my juices flowing, but I was disappointed when the first couple of fish were brought to hand. These were not wild trout, but stockies; the cheap bottom-shelf liquor of the watering hole. With low expectations even lower, I fished on and hooked a brook trout that appeared close to 20 inches. I felt no thrill holding the large trout, just dispassionate capture. My attitude was that a counterfeit bill was a counterfeit bill, no matter how large the denomination, and I refused to extend respect to this drably colored char that attained its girth in a hatchery raceway. I was alone; finally fly fishing like I had wanted, but I’d provided myself with the worst possible companion; one who just sampled the best of what the stream had to offer, and still threw a tantrum. I wanted nothing to do with this guy. It takes a special kind of ingrate to get the best handed to him and still not appreciate it. I was truly fishing ugly…until better company arrived.
The old man first appeared as a distant white image moving so nimbly that he appeared to be floating ghostlike through the streamside scrub and earthen mounds that provided the boarders of the creek. When our distance narrowed, I felt relieved to realize that he wasn’t actually a ghost, but was wearing an oversized long sleeve white dress shirt, buttoned up very high on the collar, with untucked shirt tails obscuring a good portion of his baggy shorts. He was tall; well over 6 feet, and with his spindly legs and long-billed cap, he was looking less like a ghost, and more like a heron standing patiently in shallow waters. Busy processing this unlikely image, it took a few moments for me to realize that the old guy wet-wading the stream was even carrying a fly rod and in the act of fishing. While not usually pleased when discovering another fisherman on water that I consider a secret or valued spot, this dreary little creek was clearly neither, and I was curious about this person who looked not only out of place, but also a bit out of time.
I tossed out a simple “how’s it going” for my usual streamside conversational opening gambit. The old man didn’t reply immediately, but instead took the time to control his line, then reached his fingers to his throat before his spoke. “Nice to see you. What a beautiful day it is out here on this stream” was his reply. His words were wrapped in pure sincerity; the even-paced mechanical sound resulting from his voice prosthesis. That high-buttoned white collar was there to keep the hole in his throat cleared and clean, so he could speak after treating an illness that I never asked about. He would have to cover his stoma with a finger throughout our conversation, but never acted like the effort resembled labor…and he had much to say.
The old man explained how he always casts a size 12 Patriot pattern with oversized white calf tail wings, even if it was probably the wrong fly to be fishing, because it was the only fly that he could still see. I expected this old-timer to be using more of an old-timey fly, like a Rat-faced McDougal, but he reported catching several fish that day, and I thought it a comforting notion that the gods of trout fishing seem to grant special big-fly dispensation to us when we’re too old to see the diminutive stuff.
The old man had a great love for this place that seemed out of proportion to the fishing it had to offer. I found out why when I was given a more serious look, and he recounted how he’d lived a misguided life full of deceit, drinking, carousing, and fornicating. It was the first time that I’d ever heard someone use “fornicating” in a conversational sentence. Although he was clearly serious on these matters, his tone was more informative than penitent, and if any bitterness was once linked to his regrets, it seemed to have long since dissolved away. He was embracing a new path that involved coming to this stream nearly every day, and the more he spoke of fishing here…for these trout…the stronger and more vibrant his voice became. Ultimately, all paths are just paths, but the old man had chosen one that for him, had purpose and heart, and if he was the pastor of a church that was preaching forgiveness through fishing, then I’d gladly attend and drop a few flies into the collection basket every week (and maybe steal a particularly well-tyed one). The creek that I had so thoroughly maligned, and the trout that it contained, were getting the old man through his condition. As we said our goodbyes, I felt fortunate for having met him, and knew that in an unforeseen way, I’d gotten a significant piece of what I wanted when I came on this trip.
There was a lot to think about as I walked down my own streamside path. I was still fairly young and healthy, but it was difficult not to experience the encounter without a sense of premonition. I also thought about this strange place… where the rehabilitation of one man’s legacy was constantly elusive…while another had reconstituted himself in the cool flowing waters where I was also now standing. I snipped off the worn old streamer and cinched the knot on a freshly-tyed tan comparadun. The dry fly touched the surface of the water, but it wasn’t the same water as before. I was soon holding a rainbow trout, but it wasn’t the same trout as before. I released the bow’ with the utmost care and watched it blend in to its aquatic surroundings and disappear. Every trout was handled with the same reverence. These were no longer stockies…they were the old man’s fish.