My father and I came to be tightly entwined by fishing line.
* * *
I was five years old, badly sunburned skinny legs hanging off a dubious dock. I held a plastic dime store “rod and reel” in my hands. In the murky water below, dangled a bare hook (said “fisherman” not yet clear on the concept of “bait”).
I’d be hard pressed to guess who was more surprised, that adolescent largemouth bass or the tow-haired boy, as we found ourselves engaged in a battle of survival or conquest. After much shrieking, heart-pounding excitement and tortured anxiety, the bass ended up at my feet. I had become a true fisherman.
My father celebrated my hard-won status.
This constitutes my most vivid childhood memory. It came near the end of our first family vacation, one of only four (poor people don’t vacation much).
* * *
Poor people don’t vacation much, but poor people do go fishing. And so it was that, thereon after, my father would devote two or three weekends each summer to go fishing. With his son.
We didn’t fish for sport. It was more a matter of subsistence. Well, no. Not really. For my father it was something more than that. Something I didn’t understand for many years. For him it was a refuge from toil, an escape from urban grit and harsh reality.
It came to be something even greater than that: a father’s exploration of his own flesh and blood...a son’s divination of his father. But that metamorphosis was decades in the making.
I was pretty much useless as a fishing partner in my early youth. My father only had one rod, one reel and this one son who asked lots of questions and traipsed clumsily (albeit enthusiastically) behind. Even so, he indulged me by inviting me along and he would explain patiently what he was doing, all the whys and ways of a fisherman.
I grew fast. I grew strong. My father brought me a “proper” rod and reel. And I would row the leaky rowboats gladly. There was nothing
I loved more than fishing with my father. And as we watched our bobbing bobbers or flung our lures out onto the water, I would pray that he would be the first to catch a fish. As I came to know, he was praying the same for me.
* * *
There’s no need for me to relate all the “fish stories.” There are many. Those two or three weekends per year added up over the decades. But, understand, those weekends were never about the fish. My father and I had become entwined in fishing line.
We sat in boats and contemplated each other. Delighted in each other. Explored each other’s heart and soul. With every line cast, we came to understand each other, increment by blessed increment.
I came to find my own way in the world. I came to money. I came to my own mistakes, my own successes, my adulthood. As I prospered, I gave back to my father a small fraction of what he had given me. I gifted him with fine rods and finer reels. I gifted him tackle boxes filled with dazzling lures. I brought to him fishing motors and “fish locators” and fishing paraphernalia of every imaginable sort and stripe. It was pure selfishness on my part. I simply wanted to go fishing with my dad.
And fish we did. Weekend after infrequent weekend. Year after year. Decade after decade. It came to be that neither of us could muster much enthusiasm for fishing with anyone other than each other. We each derived great joy from that.
* * *
I’m the sort who likes working with his hands. More so as my career became an intellectual pursuit. In my fourth decade, I decided I wanted to build custom fishing rods. Truth be told, my one desire was to fashion a gift for my father. I took to studying the rod-builder’s craft. I acquired/assembled the tools necessary to accomplish that. I built a few rods for myself, and a few as gifts for others, as I worked towards a respectable proficiency. I was working towards something that meant all the world to me. I embarked on the mightiest challenge of all: to create a fishing rod for my father unlike any other.
I understood his preferences. I knew his favorite colors and the size of his hands. I purchased the finest carbon-fiber rod blank available, gold-plated line guides, gold-plated reel seat, fine line wraps and high-grade cork, walnut and ivory to serve as luxurious inlays. I set myself to the task of shaping/crafting the handle form-fitted to his fingers.
I found the innate spine of the rod blank, carefully calculated the spacing of the line guides and wrapped each one in place with the most intricate line wrappings my own fingers could muster. I then purchased the finest gold-plated spinning reel available.
I presented both to my father one Christmas.
* * *
Years later, we were fishing together near his lakefront retirement home. His lure had snagged on submerged brush. Having lived in poverty for all too many years, the retrieval of a snagged lure was a matter of great import. I worked to position the boat so that he could lever the rod to pull the lure free. The hooks were set deep. He pulled on the rod mightily with no success. He tried harder as I angled the boat in a different direction.
I heard the “snap
I turned and saw my father’s face. It was a visage of horror, terrible pain. I swear, his face looked exactly the same as the face I had witnessed that night three years earlier when my parents rushed into the emergency room and saw me lying bloody on a table after my motorcycle accident. Some faces are seared in memory.
And here was that very same visage, again. And a broken fishing rod.
Face ashen, my father was far beyond consolation.
“I’ll build you a new rod. I’ll build you something even better
” I said.
“I’m sorry, so sorry
” was all he could say.
I did my best to put his heart at ease the rest of the day and for the remainder of my visit.
What I remember and can never forget, is how much he had come to love that fishing rod.
* * *
He died, unexpectedly, three months later.
* * *