The days of summer are really only made for one thing…fishing. I recall that at thirteen I would have rather been fishing than pretty much anything else I could think of to do. Of course that was a time before I discovered that girls were placed upon the earth for something more than to just to annoy me. The Wakenda creek wasn’t good for anything more than gars and the occasional soft shelled turtle. You might catch a few Bullhead catfish or even a descent sized carp on a good day but that never mattered. It gave me all the peace and quiet I needed to try to make some sense of the raging hormones that were part of being a teenager. Most days you could usually find me lying on the bank staring into the clear sky and wondering if I wasn’t really adopted. There were even times when my line would be in the water without any bait on it.
In most places the Wakenda creek normally ran very shallow and narrow. However in my secluded, and I thought secret, spot the water backed up into a pool of deep green. A large cottonwood tree stood at the water’s edge just off a nice sandy beach. The breeze would dance among its leaves and pluck the soft tufts from the branches and send them drifting slowly to the water below. On this particular day as I rounded the cottonwood I saw a familiar figure leaning against the tree. It was my dad.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, more than a little puzzled. You see there was more than a little age difference between me and my father so we usually didn’t have a lot to talk about.
“Today…I’m going to show you everything that is important about life.”
So I thought that this was the talk that I have heard so much about from my brothers. So I prepared myself to absorb this information. I was going to learn about girls, sex, money…you know what I mean… real life and death stuff. It was going to be the kind of stuff that you can only learn through years and years of trial and error. The knowledge of a lifetime given to me from the one person I knew to be the wisest man on earth.
My dad placed his hand firmly on my shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze. For the first time in my life I noticed his hands. They were strong and tanned but calloused from way too many years of manual labor. His fingers were twisted from age. His touch was rough and his grip firm. But I could feel there was a gentleness that lay underneath the surface of his touch. It was a tenderness learned from a lifetime of love and caring. With the other hand he pulled a red checked handkerchief from his bib overalls and wiped his brow. His face was wrinkled and leathery but his eyes were still full of light.
I watched intently as his knurled hands threaded a large gumbo earthworm onto his hook. His tongue stuck out from between tight lips and curled slightly on the end. He held the work only a few inches from his face trying to see through squinted eyes in the dim early morning light.
“Always take your time to do it right. It’s gotta be perfect in order to get the big ones,” he said. “Leave just the right amount wiggling to lure them in…but not too much or the smart ones would just pull it right off and leave you with nothing.”
After an extensive examination of his work he nodded his head in satisfaction. Then he spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the squirming worm. A small trail of dark liquid trickled down his grizzled gray beard.
“Just so they’ll know it’s me.” He said, with a crooked grin and a quick wink. Then with one fluid motion he cast the line of his cane pole into the water of the creek. There was barely a splash as it landed within inches of a fallen tree that jutted out from the surface.
“Always know exactly where to place your bait,” he said.
After resting his pole on a forked stick protruding from the soft earth, he removed his sweat stained ball cap, ran his twisted fingers through his thin silver hair and took a long swig from his bottle of wine. He leaned back against the old cottonwood tree…wriggled his body a little in search of the most comfort. Then he spat out another stream of tobacco juice and went to sleep.
I wanted to give him the time to provide the answers at his own pace. So for several minutes I watched him lying there in the warm sunshine. The only sound was the sough of the wind in the willow trees and the long mournful whistle of the distant Burlington Northern making its way east with a load of grain. I waited patiently, eagerly anticipating the wisdom that he was going to share with me. I had so many questions that needed answers. I wasn’t sure where to begin.
“What the hell?” I asked myself. “Is this all there is? Where are all the answers about women, sex, work, politics, war and money?”
Now, nearly half a century later, I understand one thing, that no matter how paramount my problems may seem to be at the time, I always look back to that day and realize. He had told me everything I needed to know