Guest Post: An Old Fisherman Waves Good-Bye

***The following is an article my dad wrote over at Ricochet and I wanted to share it here on my blog. My penchant for writing comes from my very talented father: A lawyer by trade in years past, philosopher by hobby, and writer by night. This is a story based on my grandfather with the occasional creative license. It caused knowing tears to stream down my face. My grandfather taught me how to fish and all of us grand kids. I will forever remember him fishing the ponds and lakes near Lewistown, Montana. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him. He’s been gone 15 years, but looms large in our family’s memory.***

As the sun traveled westward a single tear dropped slowly down the old man’s face. He stared transfixed. Diamonds seemed to float atop the surface of the lake. He’d fished the lake for nearly thirty years, but he’d always been busy with the trout, unaware of the revelation atop the waters. He tried to add up the days he’d spent here. Like another old man, he’d seen many a great fish, and it was always bad news for those fish.

Today, though, he knew that the fish would have the final victory. The old man, bent and crippled now, quietly accepted that his fishing days were over.

Still, he couldn’t quite lay hold of the thought. Wetting a line was his entry into transcendence: Timeless and eternal. He knew now he’d deluded himself. He had always believed that God had revealed himself in the fish teeming in the depths. How could it be that God would take away the old man’s link to Him?

But God had spoken through the old man’s sufferings. The journey was at an end.

Now there was only time to reminisce, and what great memories the old man had!

So as he stood paralyzed with awe, the old man thought of the days when, as a boy, his father took him and his brother from New Mexico, across Texas, to Corpus Christie and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. These were glorious times. The old man’s father was a master of the sea, and guided his apprentices through the eternal truths of angling. Especially the lessons of humility. The fish, after all, prevailed far more often than the fishermen.

The old man half chuckled as he remembered the morning he and his brother woke early and sneaked off to rent an eight foot skiff and took to sea in pursuit of the creatures of the deep. Boys, of course, are boys, which means they are often too young to know they are fools. Not paying attention to anything but the fish, they’d not seen the tanker bearing down on them until the wake lifted the skiff skyward. At the last moment they heard a horn blast and looked up. Blue words shot from their mouths like a Gatling gun in perfect rhythm with the frantic oars: “Sh#t! Sh#t! Sh#t! Sh#t! Sheee###t!!!”

Needless to say, they’d kept that story to themselves. They would live to fish another day, so long as they didn’t tell their mother.

Back in New Mexico the old man fished the tributaries of the Rio Grande or hiked the rugged Organ Mountains in a sometimes fruitless effort to find a promising fishing hole. In springtime he could spy the full reaches of the Mesilla Valley. When the rains came the Valley would burst in the colors of the wild flowers; then in an hour the colors would be gone. That’s life, he thought, a now you see it, now you don’t affair.

Life never stands still for long and the day came when the family’s prospects in New Mexico dimmed. Like so many families of the times they set off for California in search of the promises of that land. They settled along the shores of Monterey where the old man cast his line into the bay. He loved to try the patience of the nuns by skipping school and disappearing into cannery Row to buy bait before heading to the Wharf. He learned so much more from the schools of fish than from the schools of fancy learning.

But he grew up and life would not leave him to himself. The war came and with it his sense of duty. Three years in the South Pacific left little time to fish; only time to seek the enemy. He’d been tempted to try the waters off Saipan, but the blood of battle had yet to wash out to sea.

But, with God’s good grace, and his mother’s endless petitions to St. Jude, the old man made in back, all his fingers and toes where they were meant to be.

He went back to the Wharf in search of peace and redemption. And he sought out a soul mate, someone who could tame the demons that chattered in his mind. He found her, or rather she found him, and they quickly joined hands—and created many children.

And he fished with a new urgency. Kids have a nasty habit of wanting to eat. There was little money, but there were many fish, and he cast his line and filled his creel, offering a prayer of thanks for each catch. In later years, his oldest son would say that no man ever praised God more.

And he taught his boys to praise through the fish. Now living in Montana, where fly fishing is the unofficial religion, he took them to the rivers and ponds and tirelessly guided them in the finer aspects of catching big ones. Three of the four turned into scholars of the art, while the fourth excelled at throwing rocks to scare the fish away. The boy had no concern for the fish; he simply lived to irritate his brothers, who themselves learned something about blue words. The old man was stern in his warnings, but lax in enforcement. Boys must fight their way to manhood, and the old man figured his sons wouldn’t kill each other—probably.

Later, when the kids headed off on their own roads to the straight and true, he’d made peace with the fish, which he now caught and then released. He thought often of those days of family fish feasts. Now, however, he heard a whisper reminding him that there were other young fathers and other small children who would need the ones he threw back. Now with each fish he threw back, he added a prayer for young fathers everywhere.

The years wait for no man, but they are also abundant in new gifts. He had time now to sneak off to the lake in the middle of the day, the only fisherman in a suit and tie.

Sometimes his wife would join him. After all those years of cleaning fish she had no desire to wet a line, so she would sit on a lawn chair or nestle in the car reading a book while the old man fished. Truth be told she came along only to make sure the old man was still afloat. He’d taken to fishing by inner tube, a Rube Goldberg contraption made of canvass to cover the tube, which wrapped around the waist. With flippers on his feet, and a plaid newsboy cap on his head, the old man backed into the lake with a Daffy Duck waddle. Sometimes she could almost hear his glee, a Daffy voice shouting “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.” Then he would paddle hither and yon in search of the perfect spot.

Once, when his wife decided he was on his own, the tube burst and the old man floundered, pretty sure he was headed for the reaches down under. But his guardian angel, probably a celestial fishermen himself, transferred just enough heavenly power for the old man to lurch and paddle his way to the shore. Shades of the Gulf of Mexico.

But today the old man had only time to reflect. His life, he mused, had been a constant fishing trip. There had been days of abundance when the catch nearly swamped the boat, and days of frustration when nothing would bite. But it was the journey that mattered. He’d traveled far. He had seen a thousand fish, and floated a thousand waters, but his energy sapped, it was time to hang ‘em up. But not a time to give up. Rather a time to keep moving toward a new beginning. Old men ought to be explorers, after all.

In a final valediction, the old man waved his hand to bless the lake, thanked both God and the fish, turned, and waved goodbye.

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