A loyal Chetek reader wrote last week to share a mid-1960s tale about her father and two buddies fishing one night in the Mississippi River’s backwaters near Guttenburg, Iowa, just across from Grant County.
The reader, Julie Schilling, knows folks like old-timey stories about hunters and anglers who return home after surviving failed plans and good intentions. True, the survivors seldom return reporters’ phone calls to tell what happened to their gear, clothing and loose parts, but their families and employers remain grateful they were miles from the boat ramp before the game warden and volunteer firefighters arrived.
Schilling’s tale rekindles a story from 40 years ago called “Poof—No Eyebrows!” by the late Patrick F. McManus, an Outdoor Life and Field & Stream humorist. McManus’ tale recounts a boyhood incident when he and a buddy built a cannon from a sewer pipe, mounted it with a few boards to a baby carriage, poured a black-powder charge down its barrel, rammed a croquet ball into the tube, and touched it off with a homemade firing mechanism.
McManus details what happened next: “Eventually, clanging bells inside our heads replaced the thunder, shattered pieces of earth and sky fell back into place, and the wobbly world righted itself.”
He and his buddy then limped over to a utility shed to sit, relax and repair their shattered senses. A deputy soon drove up, stepped from his car, and studied the splintered 2-by-4s, fragmented sewer pipe, smoldering patches of turf, scattered baby-carriage wheels, and scorched remains of one boy’s muskrat-skin cap.
The deputy toed the smoking fur with his shoe, looked sympathetically at the boys and said, “Too bad about your dog.”
He then asked if they knew anything about a big explosion reported minutes before. When they played dumb, the deputy asked, “Then why are you boys sitting out here smoking behind this shed?”
“Shucks,” McManus replied, “if you’d been a little earlier, you’d have seen us while we were still on fire!”
Anyway, Schilling said her dad, Ernie Burger, was an auto mechanic who ran a gas station in Worthington, Iowa, population 300, several miles south of Guttenburg. Their family lived upstairs on the second floor, so she could tell welding odors from kerosene fumes, and regular customers from mere passers-through.
Despite working six days a week, Burger often took his family fishing, and taught Julie how to clean everything they caught. She scaled bluegills and skinned bullheads on a big table in the basement, where her dad also stored new tires and stacks of oil cans. And when the family needed bait to fish the creek behind their home, she knew at a glance which cow pies to flip to find worms.
Given such credentials, Julie Schilling qualifies as a credible source. One summer night roughly 60 years ago, Burger hitched up his flat-bottom aluminum boat and 25-horsepower Johnson, and drove north with friends Dick Thier and Harry Marrugg to fish for crappies and bluegills.
They expected to fish after dusk and battle marauding mosquitos, so Burger brought two coffee cans filled with kerosene-soaked sand. Handy headlamps and Thermacell bug repellants weren’t around back then, but Burger’s improvised smudge-pots handled both jobs, however primitively.
“Things were going great until a storm passed through, drenching them,” Schilling said. “I doubt they checked a weather forecast or packed any rain gear. It was summer, so they didn’t have to worry about freezing to death.”
The storm dumped about 2 inches of rain into the boat’s bottom and flooded Burger’s smudge-pots. The overflowing coffee cans spread a film of kerosene throughout the boat. The rain, however, didn’t penetrate Thier’s pack of cigarettes, so he fished one out and sparked it.
Poof! The boat was soon ablaze, sending all hands scurrying overboard to squelch flaming hair, clothes and exposed parts. Yes, kerosene lacks gasoline’s explosive properties, but it’s volatile enough to burn atop water while searing metal, cork and fiberglass, and melting fishing lines and rubber hoses.
Fortunately, the river water was neither swift nor deep, and so the men clung to the boat’s gunwales until the blaze flamed out. When they climbed back aboard, Burger was relieved to find the outboard engine, its gas tank and fuel line intact.
But their night of fishing was over. The fire fried the line on the men’s bait-casting reels and thoroughly frazzled their adrenaline systems.
“I don’t recall if they had many fish to clean when they got home, but they probably drank a few beverages,” Schilling said. “They told that story for years whenever they got together, and they never stopped fishing. My father loved to fish. He went after work a lot, and he really stuck with it. When you went fishing with him, you never knew how long you’d be out there.”
Ernie Burger also took his family on fishing vacations to Wisconsin and Minnesota, including the “bullhead capital of the world,” the Elysian and Waterville area of south-central Minnesota.
And that’s where he eventually tested Dennis Schilling’s worthiness to marry his daughter. It was nothing exceptional for Burger’s family to catch 100 bullheads on those trips, and he wasn’t above taking leave after returning to their campsite with their catch.
“Julie’s dad would take off walking, and leave me and Julie to clean all the bullheads for the fish fry,” Dennis Schilling recalled. “She and I could rough-clean five bullheads a minute once we got going. I’d cut them behind the top fin and pull everything down, and Julie did the fine cleaning.”
Cleaning bullheads didn’t equal the trial by fire that Burger and his friends passed years before on the Mississippi, but the Schillings aren’t complaining. Roughly 53 years later, Julie and Dennis are still married and remain faithful fishing partners.
This 1992 photo shows Julie Schilling, middle with catfish, with her children Kathryn, Maryanne and Dan; and her father, Ernie Burger. — Photo courtesy of Julie Schilling