Perhaps you have never heard of the X Kilo Club. If not, there is no reason to feel inadequate, for all its members could be fitted into a couple of the long black limousines that are always waiting, polished and silent, in front of the club's meeting place. Neither are you likely to have accidentally wandered into the club's room on the third floor of a building at 21 West 52nd Street in Manhattan. The entrance to the building is through a black iron gate, down two steps from the sidewalk and past a reception desk where one gets a proprietary clearance from guards who show inches of linen at cuff and collar, a sort of hard-eyed inspection that remains from the years when the building housed a speakeasy. If you have brought the wife up from Ponca City for a necktie-salesmen's convention and wish to stop in for a beer and a chicken-fried steak, there are restaurants in which you would be more at ease, and tolerated, than in the one that occupies most of the building where the X Kilo Club is located. The restaurant is called "21."
Membership in the X Kilo Club is controlled by blackball, whim and the stipulation that a member must have caught an Atlantic salmon of more than 22.2 pounds, or else must have made a significant contribution toward other members' catching one. A significant contribution could be defined as furnishing airplanes, lodges, boats or other considerations that would make X Kilo Club members feel you are a wonderful fellow and indispensable to them, in which case peripheral, nonvoting memberships are available, but rarely.
Fishing for Atlantic salmon is a sport that a body of literature has made out to be one of man's nobler enterprises. The fish itself is a grand creature, large and silvery, courageous, angry, aristocratic, arrogant and doomed. The men who pursue it with rod and reel are of all sorts, having in common the willingness to travel to far places and spend prodigal amounts of effort and money for the joy of feeling a salmon run. Men will go to unreasonable ends to experience that moment, and once they have done it they never cease to feel it.
On an evening last July, as the X Kilo Club was near to coming into existence, although none of its future members yet knew it, an old single-engine de Havilland seaplane flew up a fjord at the northern tip of Norway, rattling along between green mountains that stand at either side of the dark water. Streams from melting snowcaps ran down the hills, and mists floated from the fjord to cling like smoke to the pine forests that moved past the wing tips. Clouded islands close below reared up like the sea monsters of Norse legend, and in any direction the country rolled away, green and vast, meadows climbing into mountains, glaciers glowing in the sun, an occasional tiny farmhouse or village sitting improbably in the lonely landscape that is for all but a few months of the year buried in snow. Roaring and shaking, the de Havilland swung around a hill, cleared the crest of another, then plunged toward a village that had appeared along the shore. Inside the plane, Tony Triolo, the photographer, was praying loudly. The rest of us, only two days removed from our departure from "21," mashed out cigars and cigarettes, gripped chair arms and reassured ourselves that the grinning young pilot did realize he was not at the controls of a Spitfire. "I must say," said Cornelius Ryan, the author, peering out the window as waves rushed up to meet the plane, "this does give one the sensation of flying."
In a few minutes the plane was taxiing toward a wooden dock. The men who had run out to lash the de Havilland to the pilings glanced at each other in perplexity when the door opened in the side of the plane and out stepped Seth Baker of Wall Street, wearing dark glasses, white turtleneck, trench coat, tailored slacks and Gucci shoes, looking as if he had been kidnaped while on his way to a polo match at Cowdray Park. Such splendid garb is uncommon in the town of Alta, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near the top of the world.
We disembarked and gathered at a cabin above the dock, shuffling our feet for a while with hands in pockets, blowing white breath and gazing off at the hills. Finally Seth Baker said, "Now where do we go?"
"Who knows?" said Pete Kriendler, one of the owners of "21," a man who does not appreciate the pleasures of standing still.
"We've come 6,000 miles to get to this town and nobody knows where the lodge is?" said Jimmie Graham, entrepreneur of art of the Old West.
"Call a limousine," Kriendler said. "Call Sven. Where is Sven? Where's our luggage? Do I have to do everything? Are all of you guys helpless? Take you out of New York and stick you in the woods and you're lost, is that it?"
By using the telephone in the cabin, someone located two taxis. We were driven along narrow roads through forests and fields to the Alta airport. This being the Arctic, I had expected to see polar bears and floating ice. Instead, it was like Wyoming, like elk country. Hay was drying on the fences, and a few little bowlegged Lapps walked along the road in their smocks and fur boots, turning at the noise of the taxi engines to look hopefully for customers for their scraggly reindeer hides. Tremendous power lines were strung through the trees, an indication that Alta, 165 miles from the Russian border in an area called Finnmark, is as important to NATO as it is to salmon fishing.