Many many moons ago, when I was 7 or 8 years old, my dad finished his dinner, dropped his fork with a clank, and looked over at me across our kitchen table with serious eyes.
‘Uh-oh’, I thought to myself. ‘What did I do this time?’
He stared at me for what seemed like an hour (probably more like fifteen seconds) before he spoke.
“Lad…,” he always called me ‘lad’. “Do you want to go fishing with me tomorrow?”
Now, to fully understand the way that that question bores into the very excitable heart of an unsuspecting boy you’d pretty much have to be a kid being knocked-out by what was, at that time in my life, the greatest question in the history of the world. My father was a complex man, a man who dealt with demons and lived his life on the wrong side of nearly everything you could think of when it comes to being a dad and a husband.
But, the man could fish.
I’m talking: he could cast a gold spinner into a puddle and catch a bass at least every other time.
So, him asking me to go with him floored me in a bunch of ways. You might think that it’s pretty common and natural for a dad to take his boy with him fishing, but things aren’t always as cut and dry as we’d like to imagine they are, huh? My father and I hardly did anything together, mostly because he was either working long hours in construction or he was sitting in a bar room somewhere miles from where I was.
He had never seen me play Little League and I had accepted that he never would. School plays, church picnics, homework help, my dad was never there. Ever.
Still, his Saturday morning fishing trips were the stuff of legend in my young mind. I remember hearing his pick-up fire up out on the dark street below my bedroom early in the morning. And by the time my little brother and I were eating our Captain Crunch in front of the cartoons on the TV, we’d both keep a sharp eye out for dad pulling back up outside, our minds obsessed with how many fish he might bring home, and what kind, and could we touch them, please?!
So yeah. I wanted to go fishing with my dad more than anything in the whole wide world.
And now it was going to happen.
To be honest, I don’t even remember that first trip all that well, at least as far as whether we caught anything or not. I’m assuming we did, because my dad was a master at river smallmouth bass and so even though there is a high likelihood that I caught nothing but a tree branch or a cold, chances are that my dad landed his share.
What I do remember though eclipses any fish, anywhere, anytime.
I remember lying there awake in my bed long before my dad came to rouse me awake. My heart was beating so fast that sleep was an impossibility. I was so excited; I just kept conjuring up visions in my little head, of great leaping trout and lunch with my dad and my mom’s proud face when she saw how many fish I had brought home for her to fry up.
When my dad appeared silhouetted in the hall light beside my bed, I remember pretending I was asleep, just so I wouldn’t ruin the moment he woke me up.
Out on our dark street, I recall the thunder of my dad’s Ford engine exploding beneath my butt. Here I was…IN the truck! No more listening to it from my room. No more being left behind.
Without even really trying too hard, my dad, a man who would ultimately let me down in ways he never could have even imagined, was giving me the greatest gift he ever gave me. He was taking me fishing. I was beside myself with joy.
The years have fogged up some of that day for me, but I still remember standing on the banks of a wide river cloaked in mist, my small fist clutching the bag from 7-11 where my dad had let me get whatever I wanted. I’m sure I got a ham sandwich and a Coke and all, but I can’t recall. I did get a fat brownie wrapped in cellophane, that much I know. I ate it standing in knee-high water, crumbs plopping down into the current slipping around my rubber boots.
Now you might think that there is no way that I would remember something so miniscule, a detail so random and small all of these years later, but I’m telling you that I do.
And I do.
Not a year or two after that morning, he was gone. My parents got divorced and my dad basically disappeared into the ether for the next 25 years of my life.
But the seed had been planted and I was hooked, pardon the pun.
I hung magazine pictures of giant muskies and trophy brook trout on my bedroom wall in between shots of ballplayers. My mom was a terrific mom and she took my brother and me fishing a lot, even when she was dead tired from being a single-parent and could have used a day of rest. My grandfather took me, too.
People who loved me saw that I loved fishing and they understood that that was a very good thing for a young man to be obsessed with and so they did all that they could to accommodate an elementary school kid, and then a middle-school kid, who was stuck in the suburbs when he was all the time wishing he was on a lake in the woods.
I’m 41 now with two kids of my own. These days I’m about as excited as I was on that Friday night at my dinner table long ago, because Violet, who is 4, and Henry, who is 2, have both said that they would like to come along with Daddy this year when he goes fishing.
And oh man, are we going to eat some brownies that day.
I simply cannot wait.