"Give a man a fish or a quail and you feed him for a day. Give a man a fly rod, a shotgun and a bird dog and he wonít amount to a damn." Ė(Unknown)
It creeps up on me. I donít realize it, until itís there, and I suddenly realize Iím drying out. I stand in the yard while the dogís romping, the heat suffocating me and the sweat rolls off my nose; Iím losing all my moisture, and though the rains kept coming for a long, long time so I could at least pull some of it back through my skin, the scorching sun is drying me out.
I stand there in the shade, trying to cool off, but Iím wondering if my father knew he cursed me. Put a hex on me that Iíll never, ever shake.
I havenít been to real, wild water since, oh, heck, I donít knowÖApril? May? Far and away from folks and noise and exhaust. I guess the last time I had that peace was when I stepped into a hilly country creek back at the end of April. I waded over sandstone terraces, gravel beds and white, treacherously shifting sands. I kept my legs in it up to the knees all day and I was saturated again.
But itís all gone now. Iím desiccated. Iím drying out. I canít sleep right. I sleep all night, but I donít feel rested; the only place I can sit calmly is here at the office, and I suspect thatís because of the psychological shackles and the dumbing-down of the fluorescent lights. At home I can be sitting in my chair and, without warning, suddenly leap up, almost leaving my skin behind, and race for the bayou behind the house with the dog. I canít wade it, of course, but being near it is mildly reassuring.
Itís tough going through life as a prisoner. A prisoner to all things that keep me away from water. Not even just water exclusively. JustÖthe great wide open. Out there. Far and away.
Ah, Iím ruined. So miserably disturbed. Itís all my fatherís fault. He put a rod in my hand and a shotgun under my arm. Led me out to the lake and set me loose in the fields.
Did he mean to ruin me? No, of course not. My father had great expectations for me. He gave me the sagest advice any parent could ever conjure. He said, "Boy, I donít give a dang what you do, just so long as you get rich."
But somehow he didnít see the contradiction in his actions: On the one hand urging me toward a higher education and a career in some six-digit salaried positionÖand then placing a burgundy, willowy six-weight Heddon fly rod in my hand when I was old enough to competently cast it without snatching off either of our ears with a hook.
Iím surprised he didnít realize what he had done, really. He was greatly disappointed in me when I spent a month in college after high school and promptly decided that dormitories and journalism professors who had never stepped into a newspaper in their lives offered me nothing but lost time afield. Yet he signed off for me to acquire a Fox 16-gauge to go find quail when I was old enough to be trusted not to blow my dang-fool head off with it.
Mamas, donít let your babies grow up to be outdoorsmen. Itís kinda like Harry Middleton wrote, when at 12 years old he asked his grandfather to teach him to fly fish. His grandfather wailed and fretted, vowing that never, ever would he corrupt the boy by doing such a horrid, hateful thing. He demonstrated how a fly rod can ruin a man by pointing to the old Sioux Indian who lived a ways down Starlight Creek from them:
"And look at Elias Wonder! Yeah, take a gander at that buzzard. Forty years ago he was happy, generous, charitable, tall, dark and hand-some. Then he took up the fly rod. Now consider him. Uglier than fresh road kill. Evil-eyed, can-tankerous, sullen, mean. An anti-social misfit that causes a groundswell of spleen wherever he goes."
As it happens, he did teach the boy to fish, though in an indirect way and apologizing for his hatefulness the whole time. He took Harry to town and let him look on while grandpa pawned an old Orvis bamboo fly rod, then walked out into the street, leaving Harry behind in the shop. Chance will have it, the buy-back price was precisely the few dollars Harry had in his pocket. When he came trotting out of the shop beaming proudly over his new fly rod, his granddad reminded him that he didnít have a thing to do with the degenerate lifestyle the boy was willingly embarking upon.
Nick Stouff also doled out his wisdom along with fly rods and shotguns, without recognizing the dichotomy. No cognizance of the disparity. Iím sure, if he had his way, he would never have put such a gris-gris on me. Oh, heíd have much druthered to have a doctor in the family, I suppose. A lawyer, or at least a good veterinarian. The idea of making a living as a writer escaped him. Come to think of it, Iíve been at it 28 years now, and it escapes me, too.
My father was a good man. He would not have condemned me to gazing through glass slits in the concrete bunker of this newsroom at the sky and the few tree leaves I can see; he wouldnít have dreamed of sending me off to city council meetings at 6 p.m. in the evening, when I could be taking advantage of the long summer hours to tempt stump-knocker bluegill with a carefully tied fly at dusk; or in the shorter, auburn light of winter, searching for quail in some cornfield or pasture near the Rez.
I wonder if what my father intended was for me to get well-off enough to go "out there" anytime I wanted; certainly it can be said that I failed at comprehending his instruction. But being the victim in this debacle, I make a plea for misdirection, as well as beg for forgiveness of the old man: He didnít realize what he was doing to me, so neither of us can be held accountable.
My adopted brother gave a part of Dadís eulogy at the funeral. He spoke of how our dad reminded him so much of his true father who passed away years before.
"I can imagine the meeting up there," he said. "The one says to the other, ĎThanks for taking care of that boy all these years.í And the other replies, ĎNo problem. SoÖhowís the fishing?í"
Testament to a man who figured it all out, and expected the Hereafter to be as it should be. Somehow, I missed a nuance of merging the two ideals: Fiscal success with being far and away. I donít know. But I was hooked when I was three or four and weíd be out in the boat and owls would perch nearby in the cypress trees and call, Who? Who? Who?
He taught me to say, "Itís just me and Daddy!" and, remarkably, the owls would be silenced, satisfied with the answer.
Maybe I missed a chapter in the lesson on "the good life" but I was simpleton enough to believe that the best life was paddling through Grand Avoille Cove when rain came, and if there was a bit of a surface film on the water the falling droplets would create thousands of bubbles that stayed for long, beautiful, translucent minutes; the covey of quail erupting at my feet from browned corn stubble in a morning misted like the whole world had just been born; fleeing a thunderstorm in a tiny wooden bateau when the lake stood up on its hind legs, like a coiled serpent suddenly striking, and the swells were so high that, between them, we could see only sky Ė the only time I ever saw fear etched on my fatherís face.
The dog and I endure the heat in the yard. Heís a Labrador, bred to the cooler climates of New Foundland, and Iím just getting old, I guess. The heat didnít bother me so much half a lifetime ago. Bogie pants and I wipe sweat from under my hat band and cuss. Is my father looking down from the Beyond and apologizing for my lot? Or laughing at my inability to follow even the simplest instructions?
Whoís to know? Iíd like to think that heíd be proud I can now cast a five-weight fly rod approaching 70, 75 feet. That I shot at least three clays out of every four with a side-by-side .410 a year or two ago. Heíd likely be disappointed in my efforts to save for my retirement, something he was diligent about, and frown and shake his head at how close my checkbook consistently skirts the edge of disaster.
"One day, standing in a river with my fly rod, I'll have the courage to admit my life," author Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall) said. Maybe, one day on some cold creek or far, far back at the end of a dark canal off Grand Avoille Cove, or somewhere in the Rockies, Iíll uncover the magic to make sense of mine. Perhaps my father will send an owl to comfort me. The bird will perch in a tree, great yellow eyes staring unblinking, and inquire, Who? Who? Who? Iíll give the same answer I did all those many, many years ago: Just me and Daddy.
And maybe then Iíll find that, as he intended, I am rich after all.