The other morning was dark and gloomy, with rain and thundershowers promised. But the forecast did not trouble Reese Gardner, whose smile brightened the area around him as he set up his two fishing poles alongside the Anacostia River to practice his favorite sport.
"It rained almost all day Mother's Day, but I fished all through it and I caught eight big carp -- that's 30 pounds of fish," he said. "I sell them to pay for bait. I sold three for $9 and sold the other for a buck and a half. The other four I put in my freezer."
Driving a battered 1971 green Buick Electra given to him by his son James, the 83-year-old Gardner sets out each morning from his rented three-room flat in Southwest to fish the Anacostia or the Potomac. "I been fishing these two rivers for 50 years and I love them both," he said.
Besides his fishing gear in the trunk of his car there are a sickle, a shovel and a plastic bag -- equipment he uses to clean up along the banks that he likes to fish from. We were standing just below the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge in Southeast, alongside a wide grassy field. Only the hum of bridge traffic or an occasional slow freight passing nearby broke the silence of Gardner's isolation.
"I cleared this place here," he said. "Cut some high weeds, filled some holes, limbed the trees, cleaned out beer cans and bottles, told people if they want to fish to keep it clean."
His quiet determination over the years to keep the river banks clean has not gone unnoticed. The Washington Area Waterfront Action Group has named him grand marshal of a three-day festival this weekend called "Awakening," to be held in Constitution Gardens on the Mall to celebrate a cleaner, fishable Potomac. Gardner will be honored at the opening ceremonies at 12:10 p.m. Friday."He personifies the best kind of responsible citizenship," said "Awakening's" president, Thomas R. Schedler.
When Gardner and I met early in the morning at his place, he apologized for not being ready, saying, "I'm just cooking up some bait. I thought I might catch myself a fish or two."
He was rolling the bait on the back of his car, shaping it to the size of a man's thumb and sneakily wrapping it around a mean fish hook.
"Carps love this," he said, smiling widely. "All it is flour and a bit of sugar to keep it together. I roll it into a big ball and boil it."
Ready, he cast his line left-handed in a powerful arc. Satisfied with the distance, he leaned the pole against a nail hammered long ago into a scrubby looking tree and came back to bait his other pole. This time he cut up tiny wieners, explaining it was the catfish that liked them. "I caught a six-pounder her one day, but I don't really like them."
Paul Leach, project coordinator for "Awakening," said that about $1 billion in the past few years has been spent in cleaning up the Potomac. In his river trips, Leach said he has seen sturgeon about five feet long. "Also bass, perch and rockfish," he said. "You will see this river fished by thousands someday, and people swimming."
Gardner began fishing 70 years ago in his hometown of Woodford, S.C., to break the monotony of working the cotton and corn fields. He moved to North Carolina and married. He and his wife, Rebecca, who died in 1932, had three daughters and a son. The family later moved to Washington, where Gardner became an auto mechanic and ran a shop until 1954, when he became an electrican.
"I never had any education," he said. "I don't remember when I started grade school. I know I was very small and very small when I left."
He is a slight man, 5-feet-6, 130 pounds, and still talks with a soft Carolina drawl. He wears horn-rimmed glasses (except when a photographer snaps his picture) and has a very slight black mustache.
His fishing garb is not out of any fancy sporting goods store, the only luxuary being a pair of expensive fishing poles. To go along with the relaxed atmosphere of fishing, he wore a dark green, faded leisure suit, a blue baseball cap tilted jauntily to one side, brown slippers and a faded orange fishing apron tied around his waist by a rope.
As he learned against his car, watching to see if his lines would bob, we talked. "I still do electrical work. Otherwise, I spend my time down here alongside the river." He said he cooks his own meals, and especially likes fried chicken, macaroni and fried fish. On warm days when he spends more time at the river, he brings along something to snack on. "Maybe a piece of chicken and some figs and a cold drink."
He is a skilled musician. At home in the evenings, he plays the guitar. He can also play the organ, piano and mouth organ.
"When it gets kind of quiet, I hook up the guitar to an amplifier and play old songs, some blues, John Henry. I sing along with some of the songs." He laughed and asked. "Have you ever heard, 'Boil the Cabbage Done'?"
His son once said to a friend, "My father don't have to go to heaven; he has peace here on earth."
As the promised rain came down Reese Gardner didn't seem to care. He made sure the fishing poles were secure against the nails in the tree and said he would get into his car at the water's edge to keep dry.
We shook hands and, as I drove off, he stood alone, a small figure against the wide river and towering bridge. Shortly, he would catch two carp. But he would catch two carp. But he has given to the river far more than he has taken.