Paul stepped gently, he thought, on the brake pedal of his mostly rusted out old F-150. Seated on the passenger’s side, Alan let out of a loud “Ouch!” ” Dammit,Paul, can’t you take it easier on that brake pedal?” he said. ” Must be those brake pads. I had ’em replaced in, oh, 1984, I think,” explained Paul with feigned sorrow. “You know my neck gives me fits, man. I might not be able to fish now.” “Sorry about that, Alan. I just might have to catch all the fish seeing as how you won’t be able to turn your head enough to see all the good casting spots.” said Paul, now chuckling softly. ” Just for that you’re going to have to launch the boat all by yourself !” retorted Alan, knowing full well that he was quite able to assist in dropping the ten foot long aluminum jon boat into the river. Paul slowly backed the old pickup down the ramp towards the water’s edge. Once the tires contacted water, he again braked the truck, this time being extra careful to avoid jolting Alan’s neck. Both doors creaked open simultaneously and the two men stepped on to the concrete of the state funded ramp. They moved toward the trailer, eyeing each other as they walked. “Paul, when you planning to get that hip replaced? It looks to be about as worn out as your old pickup.” asked Alan. “Just as quick as you get that cataract fixed, you half blind old fool.” responded Paul. “It’s a wonder you can see how to cast, much less tie on a lure.”
The two made carefully placed footsteps as they eased towards water’s edge, each placement of their feet calculated to minimize risk of slippage and a possible trip ending fall. Paul stopped at the bow, making ready to unlock the winch, while Alan continued to the stern so as to release the woven strap securing the aft section of the boat to the trailer. “OK, strap’s off ” called Alan as he folded the nylon belt for storage. Paul began lowering the boat off the trailer and into the river. This maneuver required little force to control, yet his back spasmed a bit and a small groan escaped his lips. This did not go unnoticed. “Maybe you need to get one of them fancy electric winches, Paul,” said Alan snidely. “Just grab the bow line while I go park the truck,” responded Paul. With that, he made his way to the driver’s side door of the truck, slid into the driver’s seat, and guided it and the trailer to a parking space near the ramp. “Good use of tax money” thought Paul as he walked back towards the ramp. “So much better than that decrepit old dirt thing we used to have to use.” He looked down at the water and saw that Alan had already boarded and was holding the boat fast to the wooden dock with both of his tanned, wrinkled hands. Just then, he heard the shrill whistle of a bird and reflexly looked up. He caught a glance of a particularly large bald eagle, scouring the river on a fishing trip of its own. As he descended the concrete ramp, Paul’s left foot slipped a bit and he nearly lost control and fell. “Careful, old man!” yelled Alan. “I don’t have time to take you to the hospital. There’s bass waiting out there!”
Soon the little vessel was slowly making its way upriver. Paul and Alan typically began their fishing upstream so in case of engine failure, they might be able to simply drift back to the launch site. Despite the protestations of their wives, and especially their children, neither man owned a cell phone. They were much too luddite for such modern gadgets. Instead, they depended on their long experience , each other, and plain old luck to ensure a safe trip. They way they saw it, they had been fishing for over fifty years without such contraptions, so they would spend that money on motor maintenance and new baits instead.
Paul and Alan had worked together in the post office in Baltimore for thirty years. Long ago they discovered a shared love of fishing and the outdoors. They began fishing the Maryland rivers for bass and stripers and found that they made a good fit as fishing companions. Once, they had made a trip to central Florida to try its warm, clear bass waters. They decided on the spot to someday retire there together, assuming the wives were agreeable, of course. Samantha and Jill loved the idea of escaping Baltimore’s cold winters and all the congestion. The kids all agreed that it was a good plan. Besides, visits to Mom and Dad would dovetail nicely with taking the children to Disney World. So, twenty two years ago, they made the big move. No one ever had the slightest regret. Alan and Paul fished two, often three, days a week. They had discovered several locations on their home river where largemouth seemed to lurk around every stump or blowdown. They were headed to one of those spots today.
As the small craft slowly made headway against the current, they bantered continuously. The day’s Chamber of Commerce weather raised their hopes of a twenty bass day. The section of water they planned to fish was generally deserted, save for cormorants, and the occasional deer seeking sustenance from the tender leaves of the young willows that flourished along the bank. They hoped the weather had not brought out all the local yahoos with their sparklie painted fiberglass, massively overpowered bass boats. No, they wanted a quiet morning casting baits around the abundant bass cover found on “their” stretch of water. “How old is that youngest grandson now, Alan?” Paul absent mindedly inquired. “Seventy?” ” Smartass! He’s eighteen and headed for college. Gonna study to be a lawyer, so he says.” was Alan’s response. While Paul drove the boat, Alan began tying on a lure. “I think I’ll start out with a topwater. Maybe a broke back Rebel,” he mused . “Better put on your Mr. Magoos so you can see the line.” advised Paul, noting that Alan had left his thick glasses in his breast pocket. “Well, you better put on your life vest before the law sees you. Why don’t you already have it on? Did you leave it in the truck?” “No, I have it right here,” Paul said. “Guess it must just be getting a little bit too tight, huh?” prodded Alan. ” Didn’t you just have to buy a new one six months ago?” “Oh shut the hell up, Alan.” Paul said, silently reminding himself that he needed to start that Atkins diet thing next week.
Paul’s cast landed three inches from a small cypress stump protruding from the clear water. He had on a spinnerbait in his preferred chartreuse color with Colorado blades. He liked to slow roll this bait. The bass experts seemed to think that this technique is better suited to use in deeper or off colored water, but Paul had enjoyed great success with it in this shallower clear water. “Maybe the bass like seeing something they don’t have to dart up to grab. Takes less energy,” was Paul’s reasoning. In any case it seemed to work for him. He had made perhaps four slow turns on the crank when a bass sucked the bait in and departed for a refuge among the root tangles where he might enjoy his catch in safety. Paul gave his best “Roland Martin” set and the fish was on. The largemouth rocketed into the brilliant blue of the Florida morning. These aerial displays were what the two friends lived for, and they thoroughly enjoyed the fish’s acrobatics. “Hoo-eee!” shouted Paul. “Nice one!” added Alan. “Keep him out of the wood if you can,” he advised. Paul demonstrated his extensive experience by smoothly guiding the fish away from obstacles and towards the net Alan had submerged beside the boat. In seconds, it was a caught fish. Paul carefully lifted the bass by the lip, extracted the spinnerbait, and guesstimated its weight at four pounds. “I’ll take a few more just like this one,” he said, releasing the fish gently back from whence it had come. “My turn,” said Alan, with a mock serious tone in his voice.
An unusual Pacific species known as the Treefish.
The two men continued to cast for the next few hours, all the while working back downstream. Alan spied an especially promising looking stump featuring multiple bass sized perforations very near the riverbank. A spreading willow provided aerial protection for the giant bass Alan knew just HAD to lying at base of this piece of ideal bass structure. He made careful mental calculations of distances and angles, factoring in wind drift and boat movement. After a quick check of the reel’s drag setting, Alan expertly made a hook shaped cast, just like the bass fishing pros he regularly saw on the Outdoor Channel. The Rebel, all three treble hooks gleaming in the bright sunshine, tracked like a Stinger missile towards it’s target. “Damn it all!” exclaimed Alan as the Rebel made contact with a low hanging willow branch he had not seen. The lure and flexible ten pound monofilament line had instantaneously wrapped themselves into a Gordian knot amongst the tree branches some four feet above the intended touchdown zone. Paul took one look at the web of monofilament and calmly asked Alan “You bring your knife, or you need mine?” Then he let out a laugh that shook the boat so that its rolling made little waves which spread across the river. “Of course, maybe you were trying for one of those fish I read about on the Internet the other day- a TREEFISH!!! You know, there really is something called that. Lives in the Pacific Ocean though. That’d be a hell of a cast.” Paul erupted in laughter once more. “Laugh it up, Paul,” said a disgusted Alan. “No, I got mine.” he added. He reached in his pocket, then unfolded the pearl handled penknife his grandson had given him for his birthday last year. He rose unsteadily to his feet and cut the line. “Alan, don’t rock the boat. I have no desire to become gator bait.” said Paul. “Don’t worry, Paul. There are some things too stinky for even a gator to eat.”
Alexander the Great cuts the Gordian Knot with his sword
Once Alan had re-rigged, they continued on downriver. They made casts to likely bass holding spots and were rewarded by multiple strikes. Together, they brought to hand some twelve bass that morning, ranging from one to four pounds. Though they traded barbs for the entire trip, Paul and Alan were fast friends. They not only fished together, they had often ate dinner at each others homes, traveled with their wives on those “senior” trips, and even attended the same church. Despite the good natured ribbing, they shared deep affection and admiration for one another, though this feeling had never been verbalized. Such expressions simply were not the way such old school, John Wayne kind of men.
“Well, had enough, Alan?” asked Paul. “I guess it is getting late. Maybe we should head on in. Don’t want the Little Lady to get worried,” replied Alan, knowing that such a request from his friend usually meant that he needed to make use of the Port-A-Potty at the landing. “Paul, I swear I’m gonna buy you a case of diapers so we can have a little more time on the water,” Alan added with contrived annoyance. His own bladder was beginning to fill, and standing to relieve himself was a risky maneuver in the small boat. “Very well,” announced Paul. “Prepare to make flank speed,” Paul said to no one in particular in his best officer of the deck voice. He made a course for the ramp and soon they had tied up to the floating dock there.
After each man had completed his biological business, they loaded the boat. The slight incline of the ramp amplified the effort required to pull the small vessel to the waiting trailer. Alan did his best to camouflage his groans as he tugged at the bow and attached the winch line. Paul stood at the ready by the winch to begin cranking the boat into position on the small aluminum trailer. “All right, Paul, ” he said. “She’s ready. Haul away.” With that, Paul began turning the handle on the small winch as Alan maneuvered the boat in line with the plastic carpet covered bunks upon which the boat rested while being transported. The boat slowly made its way toward the winch as Paul turned it. Both the boat’s keel and the winch mechanism made creaking noises as the loading made slow, but steady progress. “Hey, Paul,” said Alan. “That creakin’ noise coming from the winch, or your hip and shoulders?” “All three probably,” responded Paul, now winching a bit. ” Doc Barnett told me both my rotator cuffs were bad last time I went in to see him.” “Well, maybe when we get back to your place, I can grease these bunks a bit and throw a little on your shoulders,” Alan said with a grin. Paul silently wondered why the pain in his left shoulder seemed to be worse than that in his right shoulder, despite the fact that he was cranking the winch equally with both arms. “Funny,” he thought. ” I am right handed.”
Soon, they were unhooking the trailer from Paul’s forlorn old Ford and the friends parted ways for the day. ” Want to try ’em again Friday, Paul?” Alan asked as he turned towards his compact Chevy. ” I suppose, but you know what day is a fish’s least favorite day? FRIDAY!” It was an old joke that they had laughed at to the point of ritualism over the years, but they still got a chuckle from the telling. “OK, buddy. I’ll call you Thursday night to confirm.” The driver’s door on Alan’s car closed with a bit of persuasion and he headed out the driveway and toward his house a few miles away.
True to his word, Alan punched in Paul’s number Thursday evening. The phone rang a few times before a strange voice answered. Alan thought he had recognized it, but was unsure if he had maybe misdialed the number. “Sam, that you?” “No, this is Jenn, her daughter.” “Oh, hi, Jenn. It’s Alan. Can I speak to your Dad?” He thought maybe Jenn had come for an unexpected visit to enjoy the warm Florida weather. “Alan, I have something to tell you. Dad had a massive heart attack last night.” ” Oh my God!” gasped Alan. “How is he doing?” “Alan, he didn’t make it. He passed away about nine o’clock last night.” Alan’s heart sank. All the feeling left his arms and the color disappeared from his face. The room spun in circles and he felt weak and nauseated all at the same instant. ” Oh God, that is terrible” he finally said. “He was fine when I left to go home.” Jenn filled Alan in on a few more details. ” He decided to go upstairs to get a book he was reading, but stopped on the landing , holding his chest. We called 911, but by the time they got here, he was gone. There was just nothing anyone could have done.” “How is Samantha holding out?” Alan asked, concerned about how she might be handling all this. Samantha and Paul had been together sixty two years. “She is being a trooper, but this is very tough on her and the whole family.” “I will be praying for you all. If there is anything…” He could not finish the sentence, and hung up the phone as the tears began to flow down both cheeks.
Paul had always been a planner. After relocating to Florida, he had visited an attorney and made a few changes to his will. He specified that he wished for his remains to be cremated and his ashes to be distributed over the river where he had enjoyed so many days fishing with his old buddy Alan. He bequeathed his boat, trailer, and all his tackle to Alan, including his favorite chartreuse Colorado blade spinnerbait.
Alan was numb that afternoon at the river. The events and people who surrounded him at the service somehow seemed far away, in a different dimension. He was for all his efforts to the contrary, sealed in an invisible bubble of shock and grief. It was like a piece of him had died. “Oh God! he pondered “As bad as this is,what in the world would I do should something happen to my sweet, sweet Jill?” He had never imagined that he might be so emotionally labile. Jill squeezed his arm in support during the brief memorial. Samantha, Paul’s children and grandchildren, as well as friends from church and even Baltimore, all stood silently at the ramp that had been such an important part of Paul’s life. Memories flooded through Alan’s mind as the minister read a couple of Bible verses and told a few touching anecdotes about Paul’s life and his love for fishing. The analogies to Jesus’ fishers of men were inevitable. One of these stories recounted a particularly successful day Paul and Alan had shared on the river. That one brought a bittersweet smile to Alan’s face. The service ended after a prayer for peace and healing for the bereaved family and friends. Sam then walked nearly knee-deep into the clear water, soaking her long black dress in the warm clear river water. She opened the urn, then slowly inverted it. Gravity emptied the container, and the gentle breeze wafted Paul’s ashes across the river he had loved so much.
Alan was the last to leave the ramp. He had sent Jill ahead with Samantha to comfort her. “I’ll be along shortly” he had told her. “Just do what you can for Sam right now. She needs you. I know her children are there, but she will need all the love and support she can get right now.” “You are right, Alan. Just come on over to Paul’s house when you are ready. We’ll have some fresh hot coffee and a few doughnuts ready.” Jill had then looked into Alan’s eyes, took his hand in hers, and whispered” I am so sorry, Alan. I know how close you guys were. Maybe you can begin to get closure and start the healing process by spending a few minutes here alone. I love you.”
Alan gazed out over the river. Emotion swept over him as he thought about all the great times he had shared with his friend here. He knew that there would be no more days spent kidding each other about physical infirmities and fishing skills. “Rest easy, friend,” he said to no one in particular. Alan thought to himself “You know, this is kind of like that Disney movie I watched with Jason when he was little. The Circle of Life.” Paul, Alan realized, was now a part of the river, its fishes, and even those infernal trees that always seemed to reach out and grab their lures. It seemed quite fitting and proper.
Alan had not gotten around to telling Paul about his own visit to Doc Barnett last week. He had not even been able to break the news to Jill, choosing instead to put it off a while, just in case the Doc was wrong. But he knew in his heart now that he must, just as soon she had recovered at least a bit from the shock of Paul’s death. Alan at last turned away from the river and headed towards the well-worn old Chevy parked near the top of the ramp. Partway up, he turned, looked again at the water, and said ” Save a few bass for your old buddy, Paul. I’ll be joining you soon, my friend. Real soon.”