Last week while vacationing along North Carolina's gorgeous Outer Banks in that region's riotous pother of sun, sea breeze and surf, I some what foolishly took it upon myself to interview one of Kitty Hawk's notables on a matter that intellectuals are forever overintellectualizing: fishing. In popularity, it seems to rank with baseball as a trigger for the writer's hot air.
At any rate, my quarry was Willie Bunch, and he totally unhorsed me. Willie presides over the bait and tackle counter on Kitty Hawk Pier from 4 a.m. until 2 p.m., and I know that he understands the arcanum of the deep. His laconic advice to small boys intent on mastering St. Peter's original lifestyle is almost infallible. So far as I can see, he harbors no ill will for the purists of the environmental cult. It is just that Willie knows that young boys on a pier dream of catching fish. In fact, until I approached him in my professional capacity, Willie counseled even me on the art of the hook and reel.
Yet, when I returned to Kitty Hawk Pier, pad and pen in hand, to turn Willie into the stuff of literary legend, he transformed himself into stone. It was to be an unexpectedly frustrating adventure. Now I have experienced at least one of Barbara Walters' nightmares, the struggle with the silent interviewee.
Barbara, however, interviews the venerated and the powerful, and on that rare occasion when one of these worthies turns coy owing, say, to an unanticipated revelation in the morning's news, Barbara can always resort to personal abuse, or to a line of questioning suggesting yet unchronicled improprieties. Trying these tactics on Willie would be a futile business, resulting, quite possibly, in injury to one's person. Journalists can rudely accost the venerated and the powerful of the republic, but ordinary Americans are a different kettle of poisson. For one thing, they are not dependent upon journalists for their earning capacity.
So, there I stood in front of Willie's cash register, and there he stood surrounded by all manner of paraphernalia for incarcerating fishes and defying the elements. I wanted him to conspire with me in producing an intellectual's piece de resistance: a prose work reeking with metaphysical insights on a mundane matter, a prose work that would make me sound like a regular guy--but a guy who sees the deeper meaning of the commonplace. I would have the admiration of the good-books-and-good-causes crowd. Willie would have his day in print. Unfortunately, Willie did not give a damn. I offered all the enticements in my knapsack, but Willie would not talk.
"Willie, what is it that brings man to the sea at 4 a.m.? Surely it is more than a few flounder or bluefish." His reply? "Go out and ask them."
"Willie, what are the secrets of catching these fish? There must be knowledge that comes with years lived by the sea." His reply? "I don't fish much."
"Willie, is fishing as boring as it looks?" (Here I approached what Barbara and her colleagues classify as "the tough question." It availed me not.) "Ask one of them out on the pier," Willie responded.
The problem with that answer was that the only people on the pier willing to be interviewed were the greenhorns. Those with the answers to my questions were not talking. They were too busy reeling in the fish. Or, as with Willie, they were not attracted by the prospect of ephemeral celebrity and the windfall profits that occasion ally come with it.
Is there really a Willie? Is it possible that in our time a man would spurn the journalist and his promise of instantaneous elevation over the herd? Many will find Willie's responses inscrutable. "What, pass up an opportunity to ham it up and solemnize?" The thing is unthinkable. Has he no pride, no great cause to which he has devoted his life and his sacred honor? Why not at least take the opportunity to tender a few observations on the condition of the whooping crane, fat people, women? The modern man of conscience would do no less, and the opportunity could bring with it still more occasions to solemnize. Yet, Willie wasn't talking. Perhaps he has too much dignity to be come a modern man of conscience.