Uncle Chancey lived wild and crazy – a risk taker, a carefree maniac, lover of speed, fighting, danger; a legendary animal trainer. He was known to train dogs to pick pockets, fetch beer, protect children, and retrieve fish. Chance traveled from Marysville, California to spend the July 4th, 1957, camping and fishing with all our family at Hebgen Lake, Montana.
July 6th dawned bright.
“You and Chancey don’t stay out if white caps start,” ordered Mom.
“We won’t stay out if it comes up a storm,” said Dad.
Dad and Chance didn’t return until dark. “Where’ve you been?” scolded my mother.
“We didn’t catch anything til evening. Chance wouldn’t quit until we limited.”
“Get washed. I saved you some supper,” snapped Mom.
Chance fussed at the boat. I went down to eyeball their catch.
“Hey squirt,” said Chance. “See that barrel up yonder?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Zip up there and dump the garbage out and roll’er down here, fast.
I emptied the garbage, causing a stink at camp. “Uncle Chancey told me to,” I explained, and rolled the barrel down.
“You s’pose that barrel’ll hold water?” Chance asked.
Chance heaved buckets of water into the barrel. When the rusted barrel was about three quarters full, he said, “That oughtta do‘er.”
He hauled up a stringer of fish. At the end was the biggest fish I have ever seen; big as Chance’s leg and still alive.
“Dang, whatcha gunna do with it?” I asked.
“That there’s a Sylvanius Namacoot Spud, a mackinaw stinkin’ lake trout. Bet she weights forty pounds.”
“Whew,” I managed.
Chance lowered the fish into the barrel.
“Why you doin’ that,” I asked.
My dad arrived. “Yer uncle thinks he can train that fish.”
“Train it fer what? “ I asked.
“Train her to walk and maybe even talk,” Chance said. “If I can train her, I can find where all the fish are hidin’.”
Next mornin’, Chance was up early at the barrel.
“Thinkin’. I’m ready to train Gretta here.”
“Oh yeah. Critters gotta have names. I’m gonna train her on breathin’ air first. It’ll take a while, but when she tires of starvin’ fer oxygen, she’ll breathe.”
He placed“Gretta” on a bench holding her back so’s she wouldn’t flop off. He exaggerated breathing, wheezing in and out, modeling breathing for the fish,
Gretta, I shoud say. When she looked peaked, he popped her back in the barrel.
“Gretta girl, sooner you get to breathin’, sooner you can quit feelin’ dodgy.”
Gretta finally caught on.
“Now she’s bi-breathable, walkin’ is next.”
“You can’t teach fish to walk,” I argued.
“Bet a Peps there squirt?”
Blast if that fish didn’t pick up walking faster than breathing. Chance walked up and down the beach and showing Gretta off.
“You owe me a cold Peps there speed.”
“Oh crap,” I muttered.
‘Sure’, I thought.
Some scruffy old unshaven skinny guy from New Mexico, I saw the license plate on his camper, trapesed up and watched Chance work with Gretta and piped up, “Why you talking to that fish?”
“Gretta here is mighty interested in entomology,” said Chance.
“What? What’s entomology?”
“Bugs,” responded Chance. “Gretta knows all about bugs. “She told me, ‘I love the Plecoptera, the delicious Stone Fly.’ She said them bugs wash into the lake from the Madison and she lies at the inlet and just slurp’s them up. Sounds plum icky to me though.”
That night Gretta joined the campfire for family singing. Her voice was croaky. The only one that could understand her was Chance. She couldn’t sing worth spit. While the pine logs popped and crackled in the fire, the flames lighted Gretta’s face. She enjoyed the hubbub.
Next day, our last at Hebgen, Chance bustled about preparing to take Gretta fishing. She reclined on the middle seat watching Chancey ready his rods and
tackle. Chance whistled “Oh Susanna”, then burst into song, inserting “Gretta” for “Susanna”:
“I come from Californi’, banjo on ma knee,
I’m goin’ up to Hebgen, old Gretta for to see.
Had a dream the other night, when everythin’ was still,
I dreamed I seen sweet Gretta walkin’ down the hill.
Good old Gretta, don’t you cry fer me,
I come from Californi’ with a banjo on ma knee.
“Silly song,” Gretta croaked.
As Chance was about to push the boat out, a feller walked down from camp. He wore a uniform.
“Howdy mister,” the man addressed Chancey. “Montana Fish and Game”, he continued. “I understand you’ve a pet Mackinaw, and it was one more’n you should’ve taken. Limit here is six fish and you boys kept 13, according to this fella here.”
Chance glared up at the New Mexican camper dude who must have turned him in, then Chance fiercely stuck his finger in the air at him.
“None of that,” said the warden. “Where is that extra fish?”
“You blind?” asked Chance. ”She’s sittin’ right here in the boat lookin’ at’cha. You don’t have to worry none bout limits. I didn’t fish at all yesterday and we can have twelve in our bag limit to take home, right?”
“Rainbow Trout yeah, but Macks . . . well, I didn’t even know there were any in this lake. You’ll have to put her back.”
“Horse dung, grunted Chance.” He looked pitifully at Gretta and back to the warden. “Well then, let me ease her back. She ain’t been swimmin’ fer a couple’a days now.”
Tears welled in Chance’s eyes. He lowered Gretta gently and whispered to her, “I’ll be back next summer, Fourth of July. You meet me right here, and don’t forget what I taught ya, hear?”
Gretta looked him in the eye, and I believe she nodded her head. Chance kissed that fish.
“Get’em Gretta,” he said. She stroked her tail a little awkwardly, and disappeared into the greenish Hebgen.
Chance, Aunt Marietta, and Butch came in back in 58. The family decided on Fishing Bridge that year, instead of Island Park. Chance was bummed not going to Hebgen to check on Gretta but he and dad used to drive logging trucks out of Yellowstone Park when they were young men, before the war, and they were excited to get back up to that country again. “Sides,” said Chance, “fish is fish. I’ll catch me another’n and train’er up.”
“Hope Gretta’s okay,” he mused. “Wonder if she ever learned to sing worth a damn?”