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Tony’s At 5 AM

October 21, 2021

I have many memories from my childhood that all fit me like snug warm clothes in winter. One in particular is recalled often as it set a rhythm my whole life has followed.

In the early 1950’s, I was a very young fisherman who had a particularly proud father. He was a hard-working salesman and a fly fisherman. On Friday nights from May to October we would play out a ritual together that was repeated many, many times. I would obediently go to bed early at about 6 PM and would be awaken at 11:30 PM to begin a magic carpet ride to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Owens River that laid at their feet.

The road was long: Precisely it was 306 miles and six hours flat from our small home in San Fernando, California to our fishing destination, the Long Ears Ranch on the Owens River. The mileage and travel time had been calculated on countless occasions. It was a car trip that my father and I knew very well. As we left our driveway just before midnight, my mother always was there to wish us well. “Drive safely and catch lot’s of fish!” echoed into the late night of a sleepy town.

The night took us first to Newhall and then to Mojave for the long trip up Highway 395 to our destination. We drove the long road in harmony with one another and I was always awake as I wanted to see the jack rabbits and deer that we passed on the desert floor. I also had endless questions that included the familiar, “Where are we now?” I was always as eager as my father to get to the fishing. I would gaze out the window at the shadows of the mountains as they began to loom in the distance and think about what the dawn would hold. A rising moon often gave the  spectacle an aura of magic. The whole traveling the road at night thing would stick with me my entire life.

As our car shot across the Mojave Desert, my anticipation became almost unbearable as there was always one stop we made on every trip. Passing the town of Lone Pine, I always looked up the road and into the night like an owl until we arrived in Bishop. We drove slowly through the town and there it was on the left: Tony’s Union 76 gas station and the nameless cafe next to it. Nearly five hours had passed. My father would always seek out Tony personally as they had become friends. Our old Buick was filled with much-needed gas and then the real magic began.

The cafe next to Tony’s (I always thought they were one and the same.) was sort of gathering place for early morning fishermen in those days. I remember the walls were crowded with trophy trout, each tantalizingly descriptive of where and when the fish was caught. I memorized them all. They were like markers for the road up ahead. These fish were all huge and I remember feeling confident that I would catch one of equal size when the dawn finally arrived. The place had knotty pine walls and heavy fishing conversation echoed off of them in a pre-dawn frenzy. There was always a bunch of fisherman who were going out to Crowley Lake; that’s where some of the big ones were for sure. Others were heading up to Convict Lake and still others were destined for Hot Creek. Each had abundant enthusiasm as they splashed down their coffee and eggs.

Occasionally an acquaintance of my father would ask, “Goin’ up to the Upper Owens again?” My father would agree with a nod and then push me forward to introduce his fly fishing son. The room seemed to gather around me as all of these old timers had questions and words of encouragement. This scene continued for years from when I was about five to about ten years old. In the latter years, I began to recognize most of these folks on my own and I would greet them when we came in after visiting Tony’s for gas.

After some store-bought breakfast, which was a special treat in those days, we would say an early goodbye to everyone and headed up Sherwin Grade into the pre-dawn to secure our position on the early morning waters of the Upper Owens River. We turned off at the Big Springs Camp Ground and took five miles of rough gravel road to our final destination. It was always not yet quite light yet; those were the rules. We would string up then enter the swampy cow pastures as the first hint of the sun arrived.

My father and I would fish six straight hours, break for lunch and then fish until the late afternoon. Then, with reluctance, we’d pack everything up and head back to San Fernando which was six hours south. I made dozens of these quick trips along with longer stays with my father. I always wondered at how the man was able to get up the next day and do all of the things he needed to do after such a long exhausting turnaround trip. I was just a kid living in my own little world. Once home, I would stare into the night sky with shuddering anticipation of the next trip up the line to Tony’s at 5 AM.

I returned to Tony’s many times as an adult and on my own. Tony had disappeared from the scene. Only his sign recalled the name. The old timers next door had been replaced by a newer generation and the conversation was sparse. Even the eggs didn’t seem the same. As much as I tried, with the passing of so many years, Tony’s at 5 AM had become unattainable. Memories were all I had left but I learned to cherish those good times and put them away for the moments in life when a little resurrection is needed. Now and then I bring them out and I can still see that large orange Union 76 sign in the night sky: Tony’s at 5 AM.

P.S. – If any reader can tell me the actual name of that little café, I would be grateful.

Note: On October 12, 202 I received a response to this post from Marsha Keef that read:  According to my friend who has lived in Bishop since 1955, it was always Jack’s Waffle Shop, currently just Jack’s. The fish are still on the walls.

Photo: Author in 1956 with an Owens River German Brown Trout.

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  1. Timothy Price permalink

    Good memories. Things change, but at least we have the memories. My dad loved fishing. I hated it. I was a bit of a disappointment for my dad. I was not interested in Ham Radio and I hated the Boy Scouts. So three things he loved I did not. But we both liked working on cars and building things, so we did those together.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Janet's Thread 2 and commented:
    This is the best blog so far! Thanks for the memory. Now I want to buy your book on fly fishing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great memories, Allen. Thanks for posting this. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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