Achy Old Men

two_old_men_and_dog_fishing_dock editiedPaul 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.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

My Three Fathers

Dad and James

   Author’s Note–  The following piece was written about two years ago. Its original intended audience was family and friends. In the interim, my Dad has been transformed into an eternal being, now existing in splendor with The Creator. I decided to publish this in honor of my Dad and in recognition that part of him continues to be present on this Earth in the form of his three children, his five grandchildren, and his great-granddaughter. I will see you soon, Dad. I love you and remain grateful for all you did for me. My life is a testament to your guiding hand.

There is always a small gasp of surprise accompanied by a quizzical expression when I tell people I have three fathers. Most think I refer to my natural father, and two step-fathers, or perhaps with a godfather thrown in there somewhere. They seem puzzled when I tell them no permutation of those three possibilities explains my unique situation. Everyone requests an explanation of this curious phenomenon. I’m happy to oblige, but this one takes a little time.

An examination of just what a father is seems in order, especially now that I find myself at that point in life where I, myself, am a father of sorts.  To my surprise and amazement, I seem to be muddling through it. Throughout my youth, I never seriously felt that I had the right stuff to become a Dad. After all, Dad was someone whose wisdom massively exceeded my ability to comprehend. A Dad always knows, without hesitation or any necessity for deliberation, precisely the correct course of action to solve any problem, be it a broken washing machine, a suboptimal report card or inappropriate behavior at Sunday School. Dad knew without fail, how to do everything from changing a tire or building a room onto the house, to more delicate matters such as comforting my Mom when she became distraught over mostly non-issues. Heck, he could even distinguish her real from her not so real crises.  Would that that skill were passed genetically. It seemed to me that this type of Solomonian wisdom was simply beyond my reach.

I realized fairly early on that achieving Dad-dom would be a reach for me. As I watched Dad toil infatigueably, day after day , to provide our daily necessities and what he could of our wants, it just appeared altogether impossibly difficult. In my soul, I knew I was too lazy for all that self sacrifice stuff. Playing ball, watching TV, and later, pursuing girls, proved infinitely more appealing to me. He arose at hours that didn’t even appear on my clock to leave for his customary day of hard physical labor, and came dragging home, way past dark, only to ingest a few bites of Mom’s dinners, bathe, and fall into bed, renewing his body for a repeat performance in a few short hours. Fatherhood seemed to involve a superhuman amount of work. It seemed way too much for a mere mortal like me.

Yet the list of Dad duties extends far beyond self denial. Dadness requires the passing of both knowledge and wisdom. Some things I learned from my Dad were merely osmotic. The basic concepts of what is right and what is wrong simply appeared in me, following the gradient between a high concentration of moral values ( my Dad) to a lesser concentration (me).  Watching him conduct his life, handle his family, and interact with neighbors, I acquired a strong sense of fairness, honesty, and right and wrong. I have since grown into an adult, become educated, and experienced a fair amount of the world, both good and bad. The moral compass constructed in my soul by Dad has never grown cloudy or spun in circles. His indelible impressions on my inner man have led me through the tempests of life on an even keel.

Other things I learned were taught in a practical way. An excellent example is the highly valuable life lesson about work ethic. When I was in high school and had finally acquired that most prized of all teenage possessions, the driver’s license, I fervently desired the second most sought after- a car of my very own. Dad saw this as a teaching opportunity. It was time to learn about hard work, reward, and the value of money. Nowadays, many teenagers are gifted with a fancy expensive automobile as soon as they earn a license. To their detriment, this phenomenon likely reflects the parents’ own ego gratification, at the cost of a lost chance to teach youngsters a solid, dependable core value lesson. Such an opportunity certainly was not wasted in my own case. Dad sat me down and explained the relationship between effort and reward. Dad elucidated for me the many splendors of hard work- self discipline, financial reward, enhanced physical fitness, and the satisfaction of making your own way. He explained how a real man cannot be truly satisfied, deep down inside, with mere handouts. Only the fruits of his own efforts provide that inner sense of worth that leads to true contentment. Only then does he truly value that car, bought by the sweat of his own brow.

Once the school year was complete, off to work I went. I worked with my Dad in the tough, physically demanding world of construction. Dad was self-employed in the land clearing and drainage business. My first job consisted of refueling the dragline he operated. That mechanical beast was enormous at seventy five feet tall, and its appetite for fuel was even larger. The pickup truck Dad drove holding the daily fifty five gallon allotment of fuel had to be left near the road, while the machine might be a half mile deep in the woods. My task was not unlike that of Sisyphus- constantly hauling the heavy five gallon cans of fuel to the machine, only to see it converted to carbon dioxide and energy before the next trip was complete. I would fill two five gallon containers, drag both them and myself through the woods, fill the machine even while it continued to move, then trudge back to the truck and begin again. I kept rolling that particular stone up the hill for the entire summer.

All his predictions about this task proved true. I did manage at least a modest gain in physical strength, and I earned enough money by the end of the summer to buy my first car. I was in heaven, despite the fact that the car was an older, battered economy model. I treasured it and lavished it with massive amounts of TLC. Other guys, sporting attention grabbing girl magnet cars laughed at my ride, but I never cared. I EARNED this car myself. Even today, I reminisce fondly about it. I began to understand the relationship between effort and reward. I discovered the joy of accomplishment. That car was not simply a possession, but rather a symbol of my new found self reliance.

Dad had not had the opportunity to be educated academically, but his genius was undeniable. True, he couldn’t introduce me to quantum mechanics or expound about the breathtaking beauty of Shakespeare’s plays, but Berkeley County schools provided teachers for that part of my education. His lessons were taught in the classroom of the real world. His instruction shaped every area of my life and formed the bedrock of my life view. There can be no doubt that my accomplishments, however modest, are all grounded in those fundamentals. All that I am as a person I owe to him and my Mom’s guiding hands. Without them, I shudder to think how my life may have turned out. All that has followed in my adult life was built on that foundation.

Nothing came easily to me. Academic success came at a price, despite having a few friends for whom it all just seemed so effortless. Their calls to put down the books and join their parties were hard to resist, and but I knew that grasping the plum for which I reached would take absolutely everything I had. So, most parties went unattended. Even dates got triaged to less critical status. I was totally, completely obsessed with admission to medical school. I even arranged a meeting with my local state representative at the capitol (at Dad’s insistence), just in case my academic record needed a measure of political impetus to ensure success. Dad felt strongly that achieving anything in life beyond a subsistence existence required the blessing of the political machine. I will never know if that meeting with our county’s senior senator produced such an effect or was immediately forgotten as soon as the door shut behind me. I suspect the latter was the case. My lack of confidence in a political intercession for medical school admission merely gave me added incentive in my studies. I sweated it out throughout my undergraduate years, bypassing much of the reverie that most college students enjoy, all in a do or die maximum effort to gain my place in med school.

Some things just remain etched in 72 point bold Helvetica in our memories for our entire lives. The first girlfriend, the first drive to the store all alone, and the day THE letter came- the letter that announced that I had been selected to join the class of 1977 at the Medical University of South Carolina. I remember it like it was this morning, despite being some thirty three years distant now. I was working at a local hospital as an orderly to help put myself through college. The Letter had arrived that morning, but I waited to open it until my shift that evening in the ER. I finally screwed up the courage to peek inside it on my dinner break. I nervously, cautiously, gently opened the folded paper that held the course of my entire life within. I carefully let my eyes take in the first line. The only word that mattered was the first- “Congratulations”.  Trying to convey my feelings upon reading that word seems impossible, like explaining a sunset in the Bahamas to a blind man, or attempting to communicate what sex feels like. Suddenly, life was completely different. I knew that if I worked really, really hard, one day I would be one of them- a doctor. As I watched the doctors go about their business, there seemed to be a new- felt kinship with them.  I was now a brother in arms. Someday, I too would be a doctor. I had no idea what kind of doctor, but the glorious reality was that I would be a DOCTOR!!

Med school was all I had imagined- tough, demanding, intimidating, and all together fascinating. As I progressed through the classes, rounds, lectures, and endless hours of study, it seemed I was living a real life version of an old classic novel- “Two Years Before the Books.” I studied from 8 AM until 11 PM for those first two basic science years in a battle to attain reasonable marks. At that point, I already knew I wanted to become a surgeon. Anatomy had held a special attraction for me and I had always enjoyed working with my hands. Surgery just seemed the epitome of medical science. All the esoteric knowledge acquired in the classroom was combined with the physician’s motor skills and his ability to think on his feet resulting in an outcome that was easily judged by the least sophisticated casual observer on the street- a basic form of what might these days be called an intent to treat analysis. Or maybe I had seen one too many episodes of Ben Casey. My mind was made up- I would be a surgeon.

But what area of surgery should I pursue? Initially, I felt general surgery was the right path. A general contractor, instead of just a plumber or an electrician seemed sensible. But, as the movie trailer announcers say, “A new wind was about to blow.”

Somehow, I heard one day about a meeting for the entire class in the large auditorium where we heard many of our lectures. We had now reached our third year, when the bulk of our learning was now done on the wards. An interesting program had been devised which allowed medical students the opportunity to leave the confines of the academic world, and venture into the real world with real practicing doctors. The format of that meeting was straightforward. Physicians of various specialties gave brief descriptions of where they worked and what they did. As I sat, mostly bored, I wondered if I had wasted valuable study time when my next Father made a rather grand ascension to the podium.

Dressed in an impressive three piece suit, and sporting an even more impressive, almost stentorian voicing and appearance was the man who would set in motion the course of the remainder of my life. J. Lorin Mason was his name and orthopedic surgery was his game. I vividly recall his presentation. He made orthopedic practice seem better than possessing the ability to reanimate corpses, and I was enthralled. After his speech, I hardly paid any attention to the remaining speakers. I knew in my soul that I was destined to go to Florence, South Carolina and spend a six week externship with this man. I had no idea at the time how profound his influence on me would ultimately prove to be.

I knew I had made the correct choice even before we began the formal externship. The medical school ,amazingly, made arrangements for me and my fellow student and embryonic orthopedic surgeon, Jim Bethea, to visit Dr. Mason in Florence. The university aircraft, a nice Beechcraft Baron, was put at our disposal. Being a lifelong aviation enthusiast, I was thrilled. I was absolutely fascinated by the flight, especially as I was allowed to ride shotgun and observe the pilot’s activities in detail. The remainder of the trip was a thing of wonder. We were greeted by Dr. Mason and it seemed the entire city of Florence when we arrived at the offices of Pee Dee Orthopedics. We even made the paper. “All this for a junior medical student” I thought. “I’m going to like this orthopedic business.”

Jim and I lived like kings in Florence. We had our own apartment, paid for by the University. Everyone was cordial and treated us like family. It truly was a heady experience for a couple of guys who hadn’t yet demonstrated anything beyond the ability to gain admission to medical school.  Even the doctors in Dr. Mason’s practice were benevolent. They showed patience and a real interest in teaching us some basic concepts in orthopedics. However, as nice as they were, their devotion to our education was several magnitudes of order less than that of Dr. Mason. At the time, I was completely unable to appreciate the sacrifice he of himself and his time for us. It was only years later, when I did some teaching myself, that I understood.  He never seemed to mind taking time after work hours to sit down with us and attempt to give us a basic grounding in the art and science of orthopedic surgery.

His teaching methods at times, seemed reminiscent of those of a marine drill instructor, and I was just as intimidated as a Parris Island recruit.  I can now look back with understanding and fondness at the occasions he referred to me as “dicknose”, for example. Initially, his entire approach to Jim and me, as well as his employees, nurses, and scrub technicians, seemed harsh. Little by little, though, I began to look beneath that gruff exterior to see and appreciate the real Lorin Mason.

It is hard for me to easily put into words everything that Dr. Mason taught me.  He showed me not only the technical part of being an orthopedist, but what it meant to be a compassionate physician. At the University, I learned science, and lots of it. Little regard was given to what it means to really take care of sick and injured people. Lorin showed me that. Early in my rotation with him, he got a call to go to the emergency department to see a young girl with a badly broken forearm. I will always remember that scene. As we walked into the room, she was visibly in pain. She was about 20 years old and had a terribly deformed right wrist, damaged in a fall at home. Dr. Mason walked over to her and in a very soothing tone, explained exactly what he planned to do. He then gave her, ever so gently, an injection of local anesthetic. Once the medication had done its work, he grasped her wrist and made a quick, deft movement she never even felt. As he applied a plaster splint to her arm, she let out a sigh of relief- her pain had totally disappeared! I was in awe of him now. Having just spent four months on the internal medicine service, I was flabbergasted that a person’s problem could be so simply and completely fixed. After all, I had seen the medical doctors treating high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. They NEVER seemed to actually cure their patient’s problems. The best they could manage was to keep the symptoms under control. This orthopedic surgeon could FIX the problem. It hit right at that moment that orthopedic surgery was to be my life’s work.

I was so excited to get to go to the operating room with Dr. Mason the following week. The first case was an ankle surgery- a fracture that required surgical fixation with a special metal plate and screws, if memory serves. I had read up on the case the previous night, but admittedly, it was after some social activity that involved “moderate” alcohol consumption. Upon opening the skin, Dr. Mason asked me a basic anatomy question. Of course, I fumbled the answer. He glared at me and noted that as a student, I wasn’t expected to know much, but anyone who had passed gross human anatomy should know that answer.  With that, he demanded that I leave not only the operating theater, but the hospital as well. I was instructed to walk back to the office and study ankle anatomy. It was a lesson well learned. It became clear to me that being in the OR was a privilege- one that had to be earned. Preparation was all important. I never forgot that lesson, along with many others. This particular one served me well throughout my residency and my practice.

He also taught me to see my patients as people, not merely a disease process. I remember examining a middle aged black man who suffered from painful arthritis of the hip. My clumsy exam had caused his hip to pain him significantly. Dr. Mason reminded me that he was a human being, not a manikin, and that I should respect him and be more sensitive with my exams. I saw this trait repeatedly demonstrated during my time with him. He was helping me make that transition from the teaching hospital mentality to being a real doctor. At the teaching facility, patients seemed to be valuable only as an opportunity to see in real life the diseases we read about in the books.

It seemed that he and I were so different in so many ways that the development of a friendship that would last a lifetime would be impossible. He seemed the antithesis of me- brash, bold, supremely self confident, and socially adept. He was also at the pinnacle of his surgical skills, which he displayed with relish in the operating theater. In stark contrast, I was but a simple country boy who was way out of his depth in all these areas.  Coming from an extremely modest background, I felt ill at ease in most situations. I had minimal medical knowledge, no surgical skills at all, and felt like the proverbial fish out of water.

During my childhood and adolescence, I had heard my parents and their friends exchange “doctor stories.” I was always in awe when they spoke of the physicians who cared for them through injuries and illnesses. They seemed to ascribe almost God-like characteristics to them. I suppose hearing these accounts, mostly delivered in hushed, reverent tones, led me to believe that, as a group, doctors were more highly evolved than us gentry folk. That may be the reason I initially was completely intimidated by them.

As I went on to “climb the evolutionary tree”, as it were, I realized that for the most part, physicians are normal people, complete with all the foibles that accompany humanity. I found this to be true in Dr. Mason’s case. After peeling away the outer layers of bravado, I discovered a genuine human being who cared deeply about his patients, his students, and his profession.

When I first heard him mention that he dabbled in painting, I was totally surprised.  His persona seemed diametrically opposed to the meek, introspective, reflective personality I had erroneously always associated with artistic types. I was, frankly, shocked to see the quality of his paintings. He has never ceased unveiling new aspects of his complicated person. Once more, I learned from him. Never again will I judge a person quickly, or by observing only a portion of his overall life.

While working under Dr. Mason’s tutelage, another of the most important events of my life occurred. I met my future wife.

We were doing a surgical case at a small hospital in Florence, and our nurse anesthetist for the day was a strikingly beautiful young woman of Scandinavian descent named Sheila Hemmingsen. I could barely focus on the case for want of stealing periodic glances at her as we worked. Even Dr. Mason made note of her charms later as we reviewed the day’s cases in his office late that afternoon.

Kay, Dr. Mason’s nurse and girl Friday, had secretly made a blind date for me with Sheila.  I believe it was a Friday night when we first met formally. I immediately fell totally in love, although I couldn’t be sure if the attraction was for her or her brand new canary yellow Chevrolet Corvette. Here she was, a gorgeous woman with a new ‘Vette. It had to be fate, or karma, or something. Eventually I realized that was actually the intervening hand of God. Our first date consisted of me driving her, and her car, down to Myrtle Beach. The sudden rainstorm which forced us to stop and install the hardtop certainly didn’t dampen our mutual attraction. Some thirty five years later, we remain inseparable. She is the mother of my two incredibly beautiful daughters, and will always be the love of my life.

As my residency ended, I found myself thirsting for more knowledge and better surgical skills prior to beginning my own practice, just as Dr. Mason had predicted. I sought to spend some time in a post-residency program to gain special expertise in a subspecialty field. Since Dr. Mason’s major contribution to orthopedics had been in area of arthroscopy, I naturally desired more education in that burgeoning, but new, area of orthopedics. I scoured the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons publications for available fellowships. I settled on spending time with an internationally known arthroscopist and knee surgeon in the Los Angeles area. His program was prestigious, and he accepted only a single fellow for each period. I was doubtful that I would be chosen from the many, many applicants for this highly sought after position. After all, I would be competing with graduates of big name programs like Harvard, Hopkins, and Duke. Once more, I was the country boy from South Carolina.

One last time, Dr, Mason changed my life. He made a concerted effort to get me the fellowship. He attended most of the major orthopedic meetings around the country. At each one, he repeatedly suggested to Dr. Jackson that he strongly consider me as his next fellow. After I had arrived in California, I asked Dr. Jackson why he chose me. His replied that when he sat down to make the decision, all he could hear in his mind was the voice of Lorin Mason telling him that I was the best choice. Doing that fellowship proved to be another major event in my life. I learned much about techniques in surgery which advanced me professionally.   Manifold deeply rewarding opportunities resulted from having done that particular fellowship, things which I never would have been able to experience without it.

Time has continued to flow, like a river, towards its emptying place in eternity’s ocean. As it does, life changes with its current. As I write, more than thirty years have come and gone since I first entered medical school. My children are grown and on their own. My own orthopedic practice is beginning to draw to a close. As luck would have it, Dr.Mason  and his bride have moved from Florence to a small retirement village not very far from my own home. We have had the opportunity to meet a few times for dinner and remembrances. Even today, when I see him, I feel a mixture of intimidation, respect, and love for the man who so deeply influenced my life. I can only hope that I have been able to have some small similar impact on someone else’s life.

What about the third Father? Who might he be? He is my heavenly Father. God has been central to my life since I was a child. The love and gifts bestowed on me by my two earthly fathers, as great as they have been, cannot be compared to the love and care given from above by my Heavenly Father. He gave me life. He gave me parents who loved and nurtured me,  a mentor to help me in choosing and developing my life’s work, a beautiful and steadfast wife, two intelligent and equally beautiful daughters, and more earthly riches than any man deserves or needs. For these things, I am thankful. I have lived a life that is the envy of many and a joy to me and my family.

Yet, my Heavenly Father has given me an even greater gift- the gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.

I often wonder what heaven will be like. It seems hard to imagine that it will be the wings and clouds of folklore and movies. I suppose we will exist in a dimension inconceivable in this life. At long last, I will be able to see clearly, no longer through a glass darkly, able at last to fully understand all the mysteries of creation I so diligently studied in the present life. We will exist in perfect harmony with God, His brilliant glory, and all His saints, just as He originally intended. If we are able to discern our loved ones from our time on earth, I will be afforded the opportunity to spend eternity with my three fathers, as well as my family and friends in Christ in a new dimension of holy perfection.

I just hope Dr. Mason doesn’t spend eternity asking me to leave heaven because I didn’t prepare enough. I learned my lesson well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Silver Stars


George was a simple man. He led a simple life in a small town where each day seemed to be an instant replay of all the days that had come before it. It had reminded George of that movie, what was it called- “Groundhog Day”? This morning, however, was just slightly different. He drank his coffee today minus the customary reading of the small daily paper dropped at his front door by the McKenzie kid from the next block over. That boy certainly was punctual, George had noted several months earlier. But he was MIA this day.

He had not been particularly surprised by the announcement that the local newspaper was shutting its doors. With so little “hard news”, as the reporters like to call it, to report, everyone grew weary of reading about last week’s Sunday School social and the latest gossip columns. So, the publisher made an easy business decision. An announcement on page one of today’s issue informed the readership that the paper would cease publication in four weeks time. “At least it’s a change.” George chuckled to himself after a coworker told him the news later that day.

Shortly after each sunrise, George donned his ball cap, the same red and grey one he had worn for nearly ten years. He then climbed into his beat up old Chevy pickup, slamming the slightly malaligned door to be certain that it had fully closed. Next he systematically consumed his morning meal, a bright yellow banana, as he headed down his short dirt drive towards the busy highway. Bananas suited George. Healthy and tasty, they are provided by nature in a neat, biodegradable package. Even as he tossed the peel from the intermittently sticking, manually operated window of his vehicle, he felt no remorse. “It will be eaten by some creature even less fortunate than me.” George reasoned. He looked both ways at the end of his drive and aimed the battered truck north, towards the motel where he worked.

The journey consumed some twenty-five minutes of George’s day. He enjoyed the drive. The traffic was never overwhelming, and he had time to think about things.  Where he lived, in central Arizona, even the weather hardly varied. Nearly every day was “severe clear” as George had heard the helicopter pilots describe such meteorological conditions back when he was in Vietnam.  He tried not to think too much about his service days. He had been a helicopter mechanic, trained by the Army to keep those Hueys in the air, even when the pilots brought them back to him shot up, or their engines burned out by overstressing them during combat manuevering.  He had been diligent in his duties, right up until that night when NVA sappers had crawled under the perimeter wire, killed the guards, and burst onto the base. One of them had fired a round from his AK  at George as he emerged from his hooch, running to scream a warning to others in his unit. The lead found its way into his left femur, just above the knee. The bone had been shattered by the blast, but fortunately, the nearby major blood vessels escaped injury. This bit of good fortune saved George’s life, but ended his military career. He was medevac’d out after the sappers had been neutralized, to Tan Son Nhut, and from there to a military facility on Guam. There he underwent numerous surgeries. The skilled surgeons saved his leg, but it would remain a nuisance for the remainder of his days. His action that night saved many lives.

huey maintenance  Silver_Star_medalPurpleheart

After he had recovered, he was given his Republic of Vietnam service ribbon, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart as well. George was subsequently discharged from the Army. He came home to Arizona, where he married his high school sweetheart and raised a nice little family. He and Deb were blessed with two children, a boy named Joel and a daughter, Sarah. They liked the biblical names so popular in the local Baptist church they attended. Sarah and Joel were grown now, and had moved away, with lives of their own. Joel taught algebra at a high school in Tempe, and Sarah had married a minister with a new church in Albequerque. The house had acquired an unaccustomed quietness now. George and Deb grew close again, without the daily distractions of raising a family to consume all their time and energy.

George worked as a maintenance man at a small mom and pop motel on the edge of town. He fixed whatever went wrong. His training and mechanical proclivity allowed him to repair the AC units, the plumbing, wiring, or even do basic carpentry. He liked the work and found using his hands to be rewarding. Samantha and Leroy, the middle aged couple who owned and operated the place, were good people and appreciated George’s dedication and abilities. Ever dependable, George planned to work until he simply could no longer go on that bad leg. The work suited him and gave him a sense of purpose. Besides, sending two kids to college had left him in considerable debt. Even with Deb working as a server at a busy local eatery, finances were always a concern. His money worries, however, seemed to vanish when he thought about how happy Joel and Sarah had been to become the first in family history to attend college.

George had acquired a love of the outdoors in his youth. He frequently sought out streams and ponds where he loved nothing more than casting his line at bass and panfish. As he matured, he was able to get up to the mountains, where he learned to fly fish for rainbow and cutthroat trout. Fly fishing had become a passion which never left him throughout his life.  He managed to buy an entry level Orvis rod and reel at an estate sale, and had become quite proficient at casting. Laying out a seventy foot loop and delivering a size six dry fly onto a nine inch plastic plate had become routine. His casts looked like they were straight out of “A River Runs Through It.” As Lefty might say, his loops were so tight, George could cast his fly line through a screen door. George’s innate manual skills made him a natural born fly tyer. Each of the locally available species had fallen in turn for George’s creations, pleasing him immensely. But now he yearned to move on to the next level. He had watched as famous television fly fishermen stalked exotic species such as tarpon, bonefish, and permit on the Saturday morning fishing shows. He burned with the desire to follow in their footsteps. He was mesmerized by the neon blues and greens of tropical flats, and steadfastly hoped that eventually, one sweet day, he would tread those same brilliant white sand flats. He pictured himself fly rod in hand, seeking out bonefish, the silver stars of the flats. These athletic fish had moved up to the number one spot on his bucket list. Mental imagery of a tailing ten pounder, gleaming and flashing in the Bahamian sun, filled his mind. “I just need to figure out how to afford it”, he mused. “Where there is a will, there is a way, as Dad used to say,” he thought. He just needed to find it.


George sat at the kitchen table, blowing his steaming cup of coffee the next morning. Spread before him, in place of the his usual newspaper, lay a fishing magazine. He had opened it to a full page color photo of some lucky devil standing calf deep on a gleaming sand flat in the Bahamas. His rod was bent double, and in the distance could be seen the telltale rooster tail of water caused by a speeding bonefish fast to the fly line. “Man, I would love to be able to that, just once!” George told Deb. “Do what?” she said. “This” responded George, handing her the magazine. “Oh my, that is so beautiful!” she exclaimed. She peered more intently at the page. “George, it says something about a contest to win a trip to the Bahamas. Why don’t you enter it?” ” I never win anything. It would be a waste of a stamp.” George said.
“Say, isn’t the paper still supposed to be published for a couple more weeks? Where is it?” George wondered aloud. “Well, I was talking to Sally Gardener yesterday, and she mentioned that Danny McKenzie, the paperboy, has been real sick.” answered Deb.” His Mom took him to see Doc Turner. Turns out he has a bad form of leukemia.” “What? That is TERRIBLE!” said George. “He seems like such a fine young man- good athlete too. And, I hear he loves trout fishing, just like me.” “Life can be so unfair at times.” lamented Deb. “Maybe the doc will send him to the university hospital and they will be able to cure him down there.” “They have all the latest treatments.” she added.
George turned towards the door, banana in hand, and bid his wife farewell. “Have a good day, dear.” she said as he disappeared through the door. “You, too” was his response. Deb picked up the magazine, reading about the lodge in the Bahamas and gazing at the spectacular photos of the tropical waters and strange looking fish. She opened the kitchen cabinet junk drawer and retrieved a pair of scissors.
Days went by, just as they had for the past twenty six years. The work at the motel was steady, and George and Deb were slowly able to pay down their educational loans. George still was able to slip away on Saturdays, and occasionally on Sunday afternoons after services, to place his feathery offerings before the persnickety trout inhabiting the clear, cold, fast running waters of the mountain creeks above town. It gave George great pleasure to watch a selective bow accept his fly after thumbing its nose at lesser fishermen’s clumsy efforts. After releasing the brightly colored fish, he sat down on a flat rock on the water’s edge and had a long drink from his water bottle. He felt quite contented at that moment in the pleasant Arizona sun. Despite the satisfaction of the release of the rainbow, images of bonefish flats drifted steadily across his consciousness.  Though he cheerfully released every trout he caught, he seemed simply incapable of releasing the idea of chasing bones, no matter how remote the chances of actually living his dream. He sighed as he contemplated the fact that he really did already have the good life. He had a wonderful wife who worshipped him and two kids who had grown up to be responsible, productive members of society. Emotion washed over him as he considered how narrowly he had escaped death that day in ‘Nam, and wondered if Danny McKenzie would be as lucky. “Well, I best let these guys rest a little.” George thought, glancing towards the stream. He began packing his rod in its metal tube. “Hope my leg doesn’t give me too much trouble going back down the trail.”

Tuesday morning found George at his customary place at the kitchen table having what he thought was his customary coffee. “Hey, Deb. This coffee tastes different today. What gives?” George inquired. “Oh, it’s Jamaican. It’s a tropical blend. I thought you might like to try something a bit different today.” With no paper to read, George looked down at the table, silently thinking about the day’s work tasks. The eight ton AC unit would need to have the Freon topped off today. George wondered when he would have to switch to the new government mandated 410A refrigerant that was supposed to be better for the environment. “Probably a good thing.” George thought. Anything that could protect his precious trout was all right with him. “Oh, this came for you.” Deb said as she dropped an envelope in front of him. “It is from Tropical Fly Fishing Magazine.” George said as he examined the envelope.” They probably are looking for another subscriber. I don’t think we can afford it, at least until we get those loans taken care of.” He casually tore open the paper. He retrieved the letter it contained and began reading.

“Dear Mr. Taylor, we here at Tropical Fly Fishing Magazine are delighted to inform you that your entry was drawn at random from over four thousand that were entered in our recent contest. It is our great pleasure to let you know that you have won a week long trip to Abaco, Bahamas, to fly fish for bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Congratulations! All expenses, including airfare, lodging, and transfers are included. Please contact us at your earliest convenience to make the arrangements. Thanks for entering and being a supporter of our magazine.”

George was stunned! “There must be a mistake. I never entered any contest!” he protested. “No, you didn’t, but I did!” explained Deb. “After you left for work, I filled the form out with your name and mailed it in. I never dreamed you would win, but you did! George, you deserve this! I am so very happy and excited for you!” George looked up at Deb. “I love you, Deb. How can I possibly deserve such a wonderful woman AND a free trip to the Bahamas?” “I love you too” was her simple response.

George had great difficulty concentrating on work that day. He had even forgotten to eat his banana on the way to work. Hunger never entered his consciousness. Instead, his mind’s eye saw massive schools of silver flashing in the Bahamian sunlight. He imagined his homemade Gotcha sailing through eighty feet of salty air, landing gently six inches from the mouth of a hungrily feeding bone. Then he wondered what it might feel like to have a ten pound bonefish emptying his reel of all of its twenty pound braided backing. George was completely enthralled by the upcoming trip. He made it through the work day and hurried home to begin his preparations, despite that fact that the trip was still several weeks away.

Back at home, George found Deb home from her shift at the restaurant. She was beginning dinner preparations. “Deb, I am so excited about the trip, I could barely think of anything else today.” George told her. “How was your day” he asked. “A bit disturbing” she said. ” I overheard a conversation about Danny, the young man with leukemia.” “What is going on with him?” George asked. “Well, the news is not good. The doctors at University Medical Center have looked over his test results. They say his leukemia is incurable. He has maybe eighteen months left. Sad, isn’t it? A nice young man being taken from us. I feel so bad for him and his family. I just don’t know what to do to help them.”

Once more, George was stunned. He was sick to his soul as he considered the situation. He uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving that his own children had grown up healthy and happy. Danny, on the other hand, would never enjoy many of life’s greatest joys. He would never graduate from high school, marry, see the many marvels of the world, or have kids of his own. How could God let this happen?

George suddenly looked up and a broad smile developed across his now tear tracked face. “I know what to do!” he said joyously.

He fumbled through his wallet and extracted a small piece of paper with the phone number he had called to claim his fishing trip of a lifetime prize. He quickly dialed the number. George explained that he wished to transfer his prize to someone else. The nice man on the other end of the line explained that such a thing was not possible. However, once George explained Danny’s situation, the folks at the magazine had a change of heart and agreed to allow the sick boy to make the trip to Abaco instead of George. “Thank you SO much” George told the man. “You have made a dying kid’s life a whole lot better. He now has something to look forward to. God bless you, sir”.

The next day, Deb and George went to Danny’s house. Danny’s parents were doing the best they could to be strong, and called for Danny to come downstairs. Danny didn’t look sick, at least not yet. He still maintained the vigorous appearance of a sixteen year old, easily able to stand on the bow of a flats skiff and cast to the silver treasure of Abaco’s flats. “Danny,” George began, “I have a big surprise for you- and one you are going to really like! I won a free fly fishing trip to the Bahamas and  I want you to have it. Please accept it and go have a great time.” “Gee, thanks so much, Mr. Taylor. This is so very cool. I have watched those guys on TV catch bonefish, and I know I will absolutely love this trip.” “You are more than welcome, Danny. I know you like to fly fish , and bonefish are like trout on steroids!” responded George.  “Don’t forget to take photos so that you can do a show and tell for us when you get back.” suggested Deb.  Danny hugged them both, as did his parents. Deb and George excused themselves and let themselves out. No longer able to contain their emotions, tears rolled down their cheeks as they walked down the walkway to their car.

It was several days later when the doorbell rang. George answered it to find Thomas Lineback standing there. “Come on in, Tom”, said George. George had become acquainted with Tom through the local veteran’s group and knew him to be a fine man who was quick to come to assistance of any vets in the area who might find themselves in need. “How are you doing, George?” Tom asked as the two men sat down on the couch. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or anything?” George asked his guest. “No, actually, I have something for you today, George.” “Tom, as you know, there are lots of guys around who need help more than I do.” George responded. “Yes, that’s true, but there aren’t many so willing to help others as you!” Tom said as he handed George a manila envelope. George opened it, emptying its contents onto the coffee table. “What in the world is this?” George asked rhetorically. He sorted through the materials and found a plane ticket to Abaco and a reservation confirmation at the very same lodge where Danny was to fish. He checked the dates, and saw that they matched those of Danny’s trip. George broke down, weeping in gratitude.
“Not many men are heroes twice in their lives, George. I am proud to know one of them!”


Aside | Posted on by | 7 Comments

Muddy Waters


The lowering sun was a smudged orange ball as it slowly found its way behind low hanging puffy cumulous clouds, seeking a resting place for the night. A layer of cypress and water oak trees lay interposed between earth and sky, ringing the smallish lake where I sat motionless in my tiny fishing craft, transfixed by the scene arrayed before me. The reddish orange hues of the sun oozed into the greens and greys of the trees, flecked with splotches of Spanish moss. The scene could have been one painted by noted watercolorist Charles Reid. The occasional call of a great horned owl, readying itself for a nocturnal safari, reminded me that I was indeed, in the midst of the greatest art gallery on Earth, Nature Herself. I was at ease in my diminutive plastic boat, alone with The Creation, knowing the Creator’s face lurks just beyond the façade of His handiwork. I actually sighed as I contemplated it all.

Nonetheless, I was here not for philosophical pondering, but to fish. Actually, it was a bit of both, as the two have become inseparable to me.  Rarely do I fail to consider the order of things in this magnificent universe we call home as I stand rod in hand, casting bits of animal fur and feathers into that liquid bit of heaven called water. This day I floated on the sweet surface of a small lake that protrudes like an irregularly shaped liquid hernia from the banks of my home river, the Little Pee Dee. The unlikely clarity of the river’s waters, the abundance of life both above and below the waterline, and its ability to remove me from the modern world, invariably induces prayers of gratitude to the Maker. Once I am out of visual contact with the boat landing, I seem to step through the door of an invisible teleporter, carried to another, nearly alien world.

carp record

Rumors of large carp had lured me to this spot. A carp seems an unlikely component of a fly fisherman’s life list, but it has slowly moved up the hierarchy as others species have been gradually crossed off. In my youth, carp were regarded as coarse fish, unworthy of attention, and considered nothing more than a waste of good bait. In recent years, fly anglers have awakened to the sport provided by these freshwater denizens. They can grow to capacious size, reaching weights of 90 pounds or more. Despite being considered devoid of any sporting value by more modern anglers, Izaak Walton wrote of the carp in his classic treatise ” The Compleat Angler”  that  “The Carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good, and a very subtle fish;”.  Contemporary fishermen are now recapitulating his observation, thrilled by the size, power, and speed of these generally disrespected fish. I sought that day to experience its strength for myself.

DCF 1.0

I had affixed a highly recommended fly tied specifically to entice these fish to the tippet section of my fly leader. My fly line was a full sinking model, designed to take my offering to the benthos, where these bottom feeders generally prefer to dine. I had always been taught that carp are strict vegetarians. Scientific investigation has revealed that they are, in reality, omnivores, greedily consuming whatever meal of opportunity presents itself. An enormous variety of flies have been devised for these newly glamorous fish, but I prefer one that moves water and resembles a crayfish. That way, even if no carp seems inclined to consume my dining option, a collateral species might take it as an easy meal.

In the dappled filtering of the soft ochre light emerging through the treeline, I cast beneath an overhanging branch, reasoning that my quarry might be lying submerged beneath, awaiting its daily manna. A bow and arrow cast is not especially easy, particularly when a heavy sinking line is involved, but I did my best William Tell impersonation, letting the fly slip quickly and carefully from between my thumb and forefinger. My second sigh of the afternoon was the result of a happy combination of a bloodless release and the striking of the water’s surface in the general area I had intended. I let the fly, leader, and fly line sink into the darkening water. Once the downward movement ceased, I gently stripped the fly along the bottom. I felt no response. After covering the bottom, I pulled the line from the water, and once more made an archery release. Dragging the fly in short, quick movements this time, I continued to feel only temporary encounters with underwater objects, but no strikes. This sequence was repeated multiple times until I determined that perhaps the carp preferred a different locale this day. I engaged the twin electric motors of my boat and moved a small distance down the shoreline. Once more, I sent my fly to water’s bottom, desperately seeking carp. Once more, I was met with frustration. I now tied on a different color variation of the same fly and let it arc towards the spot I hoped to find a hungry carp. The fly sank slowly to the bottom. I stripped once and, as the famous chef Emeril would say, “BAM!!!”  The line came tight and the fight was on. From the pull on the line, I knew this was a decent fish. I tightened the drag as much as I dared and applied some heat to the fish. Unexpectedly, the water about twenty feet from my boat exploded as though a neighborhood kid had dropped a cherry bomb in it. A dark brown mass of writhing muscle contorted itself into the languid late afternoon air. “That’s an odd looking carp!” I thought as I made some semblance of a bow to the fish, so as not to allow disengagement of the hook. Line unwound from my Rulon drag equipped fly reel. The reel had been designed to tame saltwater species such as bonefish, so I remained confident in its ability to control this freshwater beast.  I gingerly added a bit more drag. The line began to slow down, so I wound furiously in order to keep the fish away from the many underwater obstructions and snags that coat the lining of the lake. Once more the water’s surface split into a million pieces as the fish leaped into the air, frantically throwing its head to and fro in a last ditch effort to rid itself of the steel that was jammed into the corner of its mouth.

“Go ahead and shake, buster. I got you now!” I thought. I would finally be able to cross carp off my list. The fish felt like it was beginning to exhaust itself, and I seized the chance to bring it to hand for the mandatory photo op. The reel did not disaapoint, and soon the fish was at the boat’s side. Then, out of nowhere, the fish began a violent series of thrashes that reverberated against the hull. “I thought this fight was over”, I silently noted as I held fast to the line. The fish rested, but only momentarily, and quickly began a prolonged episode of seizure like spastic motions. “Wow! I have never seen anything like this before. No wonder carp are regaining sporting popularity” I said aloud, to no one in particular. “I may have to provide a little anesthesia to break this seizure” I surmised. I reached in my tackle box and produced a rusty old pair of heavy pliers that had resided there for many years. I pulled the fish sufficiently close and applied the anesthesia in a series of quick sharp blows to its head between the spasmotic movements.  At last, it lay still and submissive, but breathing the dark water of the lake. “Now I can get a photo” I thought. I set up the self timer and positioned my digital camera on the front seat of my two man boat. I next pulled the fish clear of the water. What I saw shocked and puzzled me. “This is not a carp!” I mentally exclaimed. I think it is a MUDFISH!!!

The Bowfin, also known less attractivbely, as the mudfish

The Bowfin, also known less attractivbely, as the mudfish

The mudfish, or bowfin as it is also known, is an inelegant, but feisty resident of many of our local rivers, lakes, and ponds. It is inedible to all but the hungriest of fishermen, and sports extremely sharp teeth. The mudfish is no treat to the eyes, but has survived since the Jurassic Era. In fact, scientists tell us that it is the sole survivor of the order Amiiformes. It has been so wonderfully constructed by the Maker that even today it continues to prowl these waters in search of such food as it can find. It exists in large numbers in my area, but is rarely fished for. Its capture is generally merely accidental.
I sat motionless as I considered my next move. I initially thought I might simply throw the fish back from whence it came. It certainly was not what I had thought it to be. The carp was my quest. That species is no glamour fish either, but seems to be Miss America when compared to the mudfish. The tenacity and ferocity of this mudfish had, in fact, created an exciting angling experience for me that afternoon. Its leaps and vigorous runs had tested my reel as well as the knots I had tied to attach leader and fly. “Well, this monster does have heart, I suppose.” I admitted to myself. I carefully lifted it from the water, activated the timer on my Panasonic, and posed, removing my sunglasses quickly before the shutter fired. The camera beeped, the fill flash illuminating angler and fish. I placed the fish back in the water and checked the image on the camera’s small screen. It seemed acceptable, so I turned to the gunnel once more, this time using the pliers to remove the hook from the mud’s mouth, mindful of its sharp teeth. It swam away, appearing unfazed by the fight or the “anesthesia”.
By now, long shadows extended from the western edge of the small lake and across me and my sturdy little craft. The landing lay some two miles distant, and I thought it prudent to begin the return journey. My Honda four stroke could, with maximum effort, propel my boat at the breakneck speed of 3 miles an hour, and that was without considering the current I would be facing. I laid my rod alongside the gunnel, cranked the modest motor, and pointed the bow towards the landing.
The journey took nearly an hour to complete, despite the best efforts of the engine. That was no matter to me, as I was able to enjoy the scenery and wildlife along the way. It also provided an opportunity to consider the events of the afternoon. I had a wonderful angling experience, though I did not land what I thought I had hooked. Initially, the mudfish seemed gross, ugly, and undeserving of even a second glance, much less a photograph. Yet, on further reflection, it had become clear that even the mudfish did have its appeal. I found myself hard pressed to dismiss the warrior spirit of this creature, in spite of its unattractive exterior. It had earned a place on my list after all.
As I motored slowly landingward, a realization suddenly formed in my mind. I now see that fish as symbolic of people in my life. On occasion, people I have known for many years have turned out to be quite different than my impressions of them. Some are far better and stronger people than I had previously appreciated. I had simply not recognized these qualities in them. In many cases, they silently bear burdens of which I have been completely unaware. The quiet dignity with which they go about living camouflages physical ailments or deep psychological or emotional damage, which can be just as painful as other kinds of injuries. Others for whom I have an accumulated lifetime of respect and admiration, have ultimately been revealed to have feet of clay, like the statue in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. I remain devastated by discoveries of their true character. But, as the writer of Romans said “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I am learning that, thankfully, one does not have to meet a standard of perfection in all ways to be worthy of love and respect. God does love all his creatures, even the mudfish, warts and all. And as the saying goes, I am trying!
The following day, I printed that image of the mudfish, enlarged it, and hung it in my fly tying room, right next to the photo of my hallowed permit.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Catcher in the Wheat

 Small explosions of dust marked each step as I ambled toward my destination,some half mile distant down the dry, hard pan dirt road. My right knee felt as though a couple of mad carpenters were using forty grit sandpaper to furiously grind away at what remained of the cushioning in my right knee. The knee creaked audibly and each step immediately flashed a high intensity signal to the pain receptors in my brain. These aches at least reminded me that I was still alive, unlike several of my fishing buddies, and that I was blessed to be able to continue to peer into the maddeningly detached eyes of a trout. I was inspired by the thought that I had somehow been left here to catch a few for my friends, so I pressed onward. The pain also reminded me to go ahead and make an appointment with that son of a bitch orthopedic surgeon who had none too subtly told me that I would return, sooner or later, for a knee replacement. The trout were getting increasingly difficult to approach physically as I aged, but remained within easy reach in my library of sweet memories. I could only pray that the joy of reliving my good days on the stream would not eventually be stolen by the cruelty of Alzhiemer’s Disease, as had happened to my great grandfather.

 The summer sun fell hard across my face, reminding me of the wife’s admonitions to wear a hat and extra high SPF sunscreen. She rightly reminded me of the three skin lesions Doc Underhill had removed from my face this winter past. They turned out to be something he called squamous cell cancer. “Too many days out in the sun chasing those trout around, I suppose.” he had theorized. “Be more careful, or I may have to whack off half your face next time!” he warned. “You won’t be much to look at after that.’ he added solemnly. “Not that anybody wants to look at the face I have now”, I remembered thinking as I mumbled some appreciation for his concern.

  My right hand bore an ancient fly rod case crafted from a sturdy piece of oak and some canvas and string. It had been constructed when TR was in office, I had eventually discovered. The rod within had belonged to my great-grandfather. He had been the intellectual type, a college professor teaching English Lit at one of those ivy covered schools in the northeast. Fly fishing for trout seemed to be an appropriate pastime for men like him and he took to it like a big brown to a caddis fly. When he finally moved on to that eternal stream where the fish are all large and take flies just often enough, he bequeathed his precious rod to his son. John, however, showed no interest in it.Neither did his son, who left it in a dark corner of a basement until the natural progression of time led to it being placed in my eager hands.

 My own vocation was, in a way, similar to that of my forebear. I had been consumed from youth by a desire to understand how the universe had been designed and the principles that bind it all together. For forty five years, I had spent the biggest part of my life in the research lab, seeking to unlock some of nature’s biggest riddles. My work had been interrupted only by visits to the nearby stream to try to solve the equally difficult riddle of getting trout to eat my creations of feather and fur. I found casting to be relaxing, almost meditative, often opening my mind to a sort of left brain activity that I hoped might connect the dots in my right brain to answer some question of theoretical physics I was wrestling with at the time. There seemed to be some correlation, as I had noted a certain similarity between Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and my trout fishing- I found that I could be sure of the location of a given trout , and what fly might be necessary to imitate the insects hatching at the moment , but I was unable to predict both simultaneously.

  Sunlight refracted off the waist high wheat in the fields alongside the old road as I marveled at the uniformity of each stalks’ height. It looked as if some Middle Eastern rug maker had snipped all of them at the same length, creating an undulating, living carpet of lager colored grain. As I walked on, I noted the antique split rail fence separating the wheat from the livestock around the barn. It was obviously very old. Its surfaces were coated with lime green mosses and grayish  lichens. An occasional mushroom sprouted from its wood, softened with age and countless rain storms. I guessed it must have been at least fifty years old, but nonetheless, the Guernsey cows that grazed within its borders remained properly restrained, unaware of the ease with which they could have simply walked through the mostly rotten wood.

 A short distance away, the rails led to a battered old barn. Its walls had long since been bleached by the sun to a grayish white color not unlike that of my beard. Some of the boards were loose, one end forlornly dangling towards the ground. Its tin roof sported large patches of rust and a few areas were devoid of metal altogether. The door and window hinges appeared rusted shut and unusable. The entire building leaned precariously to port. I did a few quick calculations mentally and guessed the entire structure might collapse in another four and a half months.

  A loud creaking sound filled the air when the farmer, appearing nearly as old as his barn, opened the side door.  “Sorry if I startled you. I need to put some oil on that hinge”, the old man remarked as I neared him. “No problem”, I replied.  “I thought maybe it was my worn out knee”. “Gonna try them trout again today?” he inquired. “I get lucky with ‘em once it a while”, I responded as I continued my journey.  Our vectors diverged, his to his beat up pickup and mine towards the stream where I hoped to land a nice brown today.

  I had studied the hatch charts and checked the weather conditions the previous evening. A cloudless sky with a slight breeze from the southeast had been predicted by the Weather Channel. This time of year, I might expect the wind to deliver a few hoppers from the grasses lining the stream and so I tied on a medium sized foam hopper pattern. It was just the right shade of green and even had a bright white piece of foam tied its most upper section. I figured it would be a triple threat- conditions called for hoppers, the foam fly would float high, and the white patch would make it easy to see, even for my now failing eyesight.

 A blowdown jutted into the stream from the opposite bank. I knew there was a deep pool just beyond the downed tree. It was the kind of place a brown trout dreams about, and the kind of place I was dying to float a hopper over. As I assembled the rod’s bamboo pieces, I marveled at how wonderfully constructed this wood really is. Its strength to weight ratio is remarkable, and it is used in the Orient for everything from chopsticks to scaffolding for high rise construction. The fly rod’s wood remained sound, but the antique agate guides clearly showed their age. Frayed tags extended from each wrap where I had done my best to super glue them back into place without destroying the rod in the process. The reel seat was worn and loose, and had required re-gluing last year, but overall, the rod was still quite functional. I yearned for a new boron rod, with its superfast action and completely indestructible guides, but that idea had been vetoed by the wife.  My well conceived, logical arguments about a lifetime warrantee being such a good investment fell on unsympathetic ears. I secretly continued to lust for the high tech rod, and had even clandestinely brought a fly fishing catalog along this morning, so I could fill out the order form away from prying eyes.

  Hopper in place, I lofted the century old bamboo into the nearly still morning air. Its action was not unlike watching a movie shot in super slow motion. I could almost take a sip from the brandy flask in my hip pocket while I waited for the back cast to unfurl. But, when the rod was brought forward, the line unrolled into a slow, smooth, tight loop that could bring a tear to the eye of any true fly fisherman. After a single back cast, I let slip the weight forward floating line bearing my offering to the Trout-God. Weightlessly falling, the fly seemed to defy Newton’s Law as it alighted ever so gently on the water, barely disturbing the surface tension.

  The hopper moved as one with the current, no telltale drag to be seen. The attached fluorocarbon leader belied its true intent, winking at the fish beneath the water’s surface, while inviting them up for a delicious meal, free for the taking.  A flash of brown, interrupted by black and red blurs, appeared and disappeared simultaneously. The hopper was gone. The old bamboo rod bent over, almost begging in its agony, for me to let this big fish run for now. I complied and the big brown raced down current, seeking to relieve itself of the hopper and its size 10 hook. Unlike most browns, this one proved its athletic prowess by leaping high into the morning sunlight, to my very great delight. I doubt that the rod had seldom been called on to handle such a challenge, but it performed flawlessly. I tried to calculate the bending moments being placed on the rod, and the tensile strength of bamboo and tippet, factoring in the rod’s age and the effect of its being wet, as well as the angle of the line to the water, but finally gave up and fought the fish by feel. Each surge was transmitted to my hand, and I used this tactile feedback to put what pressure I thought appropriate to bring the fish to hand. Slowly, I began to win, but was careful to let the brown have it his way when necessary. The bamboo groaned and maybe even creaked a little, not unlike my worn out old knee, but never gave in. The softness of its action allowed it to flex deep into its length, all the way down to the handle, providing at once a challenge and simultaneously the deep satisfaction of control without exerting total physical domination. I delicately guided the fish ever closer.

  After about ten minutes, I held in my net a magnificently colored brown, weighing some eleven pounds.  I carefully released back to its home what was easily the biggest fish of my life.

  Shaken, I noticed the stump of a cut down tree. It made a convenient stool and I sat down to savor my experience. Reaching into my pack, I pulled out a Cohiba, sliced off the end, and lit up. After a deep draw, I retrieved my flask and enjoyed a sip of my favorite brandy. After a few minutes, I noticed the catalog order form for the new rod where it had been neatly placed in my day pack alongside the Cuban cigar. I quickly grabbed it, inspected it briefly, then crumpled it into a ball and stuffed it into my pack.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

At Christmas, What Goes Around Comes Around

Author’s Note- This post was Originally Posted on December 13, 2011by . It iis re-posted today for the holiday season. Please do what you can to help less fortunate children in our community to have a happy Christmas. This is what the holidays are all about. Thank you for reading my work and especially for helping the kids.


Joey had grown to despise Christmas.

It was Christmas Eve, and he sat on the edge of the stained brown sofa that served as his bed in the tattered little camper that he and his Mom called home.  The  camper , forlorn and drafty, sat tucked into the edge of the forest on a farm, far out in the country. The farmer, now in his seventies, allowed Joey and his Mom to keep the rusted camper parked there at no charge. They had been living there since Joey’s dad had disappeared one night a while back. Joey had no specific recollections of his father, just a couple of vague fuzzy memories of a large bearded man who seemed always angry and wobbly. He seemed to recall him being mean to his Mom, and being frightened when Dad was around. One night, his Dad had pulled on his coat, opened one last beer, and stormed angrily out of the house where they had been living in town, loudly slamming the door as he departed. Joey and his Mom never saw him again. That was Joey’s third Christmas, and his Mom prayed that he would not be able to remember the absence of gifts that year.

Joey’s mom was ill. She had been diagnosed with what the doctors called rheumatoid arthritis. Before she became ill, she had worked as a hygienist in a local dentist’s office. But her hands had soon become so grotesquely deformed by the ravages of the disease slowly destroying her body that she was forced to quit. She was no longer able to even hold the tools in her delicate hands, much less perform the exacting work required by her occupation.  She became desperate, now having a young son to care for with no husband, and no other family to help her. Her medications , while unable to rid her of this affliction, at least made existence tolerable. The drugs were horribly expensive, and soon she depleted her meager savings, and was forced to sell the small wood frame house where she, her husband, and Joey had lived. She applied for disability, Medicaid, and every other state and federal program she could find. The sole living accommodations she had been able to secure came in the form of a highly used small camper, which the seller kindly positioned on the farm of one of her former patients. The little money that came in the form of a government check had allowed her to run electricity to the camper, and pay for the very bare necessities of life, food, second hand clothes from Goodwill, and her medications, but precious little else.

Fortunately, Joey and his Mom lived in the southern part of the country, with its moderate temperatures. Still, the mercury frequently dipped into the twenties here, and their sole defense against the cold was a small electric heater. Joey’s mom worried continually about the very real risk of a fire. All it would take would be for a stray piece of paper to fall against the glowing orange coils of the heater. Thus far, they had been lucky.

Joey sat on the couch and stared into the heater’s coils, dreaming about Christmas. He was eight now, and a third grader at the local elementary school. Though his clothes were old and worn, they were always clean. His Mom made sure of that. Despite crooked fingers and twisted wrists, she ignored the pain and dutifully washed Joey’s clothes by hand. “He may not be able to wear nice new clothes, but he can wear clean ones”, she told herself as she hung his few shirts and socks on the wire line behind the camper. Joey was all she had now, the only thing in her life that made any sense. She was fiercely determined to keep herself sufficiently functional that she could care for him by preparing meals, washing his clothes, and helping him with his schoolwork. Joey had never heard her complain about the pain. He saw only a smile when he looked at her, never seeing her nightly tears after Joey had drifted off to sleep on that couch.

He had heard the other kid’s excitedly chattering about their Christmas lists. Henry wanted a new bike. Linda had been to the mall and asked Santa for a Barbie Dream House.  Barry was hopeful that he would awake to find a Xbox Kinnect under his tree. When his classmates asked what he wanted, he wistfully asked for a bike, so he could ride around all over Mr. McPherson’s farm after school. Silently, Joey also wished for something more practical, a new jacket. His coat was old and ripped in several places. The zipper was broken, so he was unable to seal it against the chilly winds of December. That bike would be really nice though.

Joey’s memories of Christmas stirred a variety of feelings within him. Each Christmas Eve, he would finally go to sleep after hours of dreaming and hoping for bright shiny toys and a red bike with coaster brakes. Each Christmas morning, he awoke to an empty camper. The only gifts he might see were a few pieces of candy and fruit, and maybe a Goodwill shirt. Of course, he was happy to be able to enjoy these treats, but soon began crying as he thought about his friends at school, and all the wonderful things Santa probably left for them. He knew he would hear all about it when school reconvened in January, and it hurt him deeply. With tears in his eyes, he looked up at his Mom, only to see her turn away, her own silent tears running in rivers down her face.

So Joey had begun to question this whole Christmas business. Why did Santa seem to always find his playmates?  Could Santa not find his camper? Did Santa forget that he and his Mom had moved from their old house to this place out in the country?  Joey soon grew angry about it, and hated the approach of the holidays. He was not sure which he dreaded more- Christmas morning or the return to a class of happy and excited classmates after the holiday break. Still, as darkness began to fall on the farm, and the camper, he simply was unable to avoid the hope that somehow Santa might find him and his Mom again. Maybe THIS year he thought. He knew he might not be able to bear it again this year if he awoke to disappointment yet again. Then he had an idea. He slid off the couch, and found the star that he had made during art class at school. He opened the camper door and taped it to the metal side, above the tiny window. “Maybe this will help Santa find us!” He went back inside, closed the door, and lay back on the couch. He pulled up the thin old quilt his grandmother had made many years ago before she died, and soon was fast asleep, visions of red bicycles spinning around his little head.

Back in November, Joey’s mom had discovered a program for less fortunate families that promised to help them this year.  Though it did hurt her pride a bit, the thought of Joey’s face upon seeing a real Christmas quickly overcame any perception of shame. “I don’t need anything for myself,” she had told the nice lady from the local Baptist church. “But anything you could do for my Joey would be, well, just wonderful! Thank you so very much for your kindness.” “Don’t thank me. I have an anonymous donor who wants to help”. “God bless him!” was Joey’s Mom’s response.

Christmas morning dawned clear, and Joey’s eyes popped open. He jumped out of bed, and his eyes popped open even wider. “Mom! Mom! Look what Santa brought me!!!!   A new jacket! Fleece lined! And its red, my favorite color!” “I know,” she said, “He left me something as well!” She held in her hands a new dress, one that she would not be embarrassed to wear in public. “Looks like we will be able to go to church now”, she added.


Joey hurriedly tried on his new jacket. It fit perfectly. He stuck his hands deep into the pockets. “Mom, there’s something in the pocket” said Joey, feeling a piece of paper. Withdrawing it from the pocket, he unfolded it. “MOM!!!  It’s a note from Santa!!!” “What does it say?” she asked. “It says Dear Joey, I am so sorry I have not been able to find you for the past couple of Christmases. Maybe this will help. I left you another present, but I couldn’t get it in the camper, so I left it outside. I hope you like it. Be a good boy and I’ll see you next year!”


Joey threw open wide the camper door, nearly tearing it off its rusty hinges. There, beneath the star Joey had taped to the side of the camper, sat a bright, shiny, brand new red bike.


Across the field, Mr. McPherson stood at his living room window, holding a hot mug of coffee.  His gaze was fixed on the small camper on the other side of the cornfield.  He watched as Joey first jumped for joy, then jumped on his new bike, and tore off down the dirt road in front of the camper, wearing his matching red jacket.

The farmer turned to his wife and said “ I always wanted a red bike too. Seems I finally got my Christmas wish after all these years!’ He smiled broadly, put down the cup and gave his wife a huge Christmas hug.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Trading Places

Fred with a twenty two inch redfish taken on the fly at Hobcaw Barony

All those many days spent standing rod in hand on the bow of a flats boat recall my days at sea on a destroyer. There was I, junior officer of the deck, glasses in hand, scanning the sea surface from the bridge wing for Soviet vessels prowling the tempestuous North Atlantic. Perched high above on the masthead, the ship’s radar antennae simultaneously sifted through the wave returns and displayed targets well in advance of my Mark 1 eyeballs, as young and keen as they might have been. Attempts to insert some form of logic into naval surveillance methodology proved an invitation to frustration. So, I held the heavy binoculars to my face and at least pretended to search for the Red Menace.

A “Tin Can” underway at sea

Often have I reflected, while on bonefish watch, how similar these later marine experiences are to those of my naval youth. My Bahamian guides have uniformly been several orders of magnitude better than me in spotting bonefish and other sundry species than I fear I will ever be. I have now swapped my government issue binoculars for fancy prescription sunglasses whose cost is north of two hundred dollars, but even these have not resulted in enhancing my fish locating skills. Like shipboard radar, the guides, positioned high above on poling platforms, divine the presence of fish well ahead of my  now aging eyes. On occasion, while aboard ship, I imagined what it might be like to be the Captain. “Make your course three-five zero.” “Ready the forward turret!” “Belay my last.” All very impressive to a young man such as myself who had never experienced the command role. Of course, I was completely unable to appreciate the burdens of command and responsibility at that point in my tender life. Similarly, I have considered the role of the guide whose job it is to pole the boat, point out the fish, and release them once landed. He must be able to find fish in all circumstances, operate the boat and its engine, tie sturdy knots, understand weather patterns, and even be a therapist to disappointed anglers.  As I have gathered increasing appreciation for the many attributes required to be a successful guide, I have pondered if I might have the right stuff for the job. I have spent many days on the sea, and have considerable experience catching all manner of saltwater species. I have served in the Navy and have skippered my own flats boat for quite a few years now. It seemed that guiding might add a new and interesting dimension to my overall fishing career. Enhanced by a couple of glasses of Cabernet, my mind began to conjure images of poling a small boat, finding the client’s target fish, and directing his gaze to said fish. In my vision, he then lays out a seventy five foot cast with a six inch wide loop that gently touches down eight inches from the tailing bonefish’s head. The fish immediately inhales the fly, and after a ten minute epic struggle of mano a fish-o , I release a ten pounder, digital memories appropriately recorded.

Guide hard at work poling boat for client seeking bonefish

Recently my good friend Steve called and inquired if I might be able to guide a client one day for him. Steve had enjoyed a relaxing and productive day of redfishing with me in my ten foot long electric boat and was anxious for his client to try stalking redfish at Hobcaw Barony in this shallow draft stealthy craft. I was totally enthralled by the idea. I immediately jumped at the chance and it was decided. All that was left was to substitute redfish for the bonefish of my imaginings. Soon, I would see if reality would meet my expectations. Like Eddie Murphy in the movie “Trading Places”, it was now time to see how the other half lives. I was fascinated to see if the square end of the boat would be as much fun as the pointy end. Reality would prove much more interesting than my fantasies. I awoke an hour before the five AM setting on my bedside alarm and quickly readied myself for my ab initio guiding experience. I find most new experiences, provided they are of my own choosing, to be exciting, and this day was no different.  Coffee cup in hand, I hitched the ten foot twin electric fishing boat to my Tahoe and mentally punched in the coordinates of my destination – Hobcaw Barony, hard by the city of Georgetown. I had loaded all my gear the previous evening, lest I neglect some critical piece of equipment needed for a successful day redfishing. I had prepped the boat two days earlier by taking my wife on a photo safari on the nearby Little Pee Dee River in order to break in the new 2.3 HP Honda motor that now adorns the stern of my vessel. I had reasoned that this extra propulsion might save the day should the battery become exhausted or the current or wind too severe. I was, in true Boy Scout fashion, prepared for any and all exigencies, I reassured myself. “It’s going to be a really great day!” I thought, as the Tahoe turned south, towards redfish paradise. I met Fred, the client, and Steve, my friend the guide at Hobcaw, at the interpretive center, just off Highway 17 South. Fred was an impressive figure, perhaps six feet four inches tall, with a lean, athletic build. He exuded the look of a three point draining NBA point guard, or perhaps a fleet footed NFL wideout. Interestingly, he was neither. Fred, as it turned out, holds a VMD degree with specialty training in veterinary pathology.  He is employed by the federal government where his efforts  are directed at preventing acts of domestic agroterrorism.  Tracking the whereabouts of such nasty pathogens as the foot-and-mouth disease virus, African swine fever virus, classical swine fever virus, highly pathogenic avian influenza virus and others.  These pathogens are known as select agents in the government vernacular.  I am relieved to learn that the people in the Washington, D.C. area are alert to to such dangers and have folks like Fred working to protect our agriculture, and thus our economy.  Makes me sleep better. I just wonder what other devious ideas the terrorists may be attempting to perpetrate. Of course, it might be best if I do not know of such things. I’ll just trust the Freds of government worry about these disturbing matters.

A Twin Troller- the boat Fred and I fished that day

We drove away from the entrance and down a long gravel covered road towards our put-in spot, a small ramp barely large enough to launch my Twin Troller.  Along the way, we were treated to the sight of some of Hobcaw’s abundant wildlife, including a small flock of wild turkeys. Once at the launch site, I loaded onto the boat the push pole, our rods, flies, cameras, and small cooler. Fred and I donned our personal flotation devices as mandated by law. We wore the low profile type that automatically inflate when contacted by water, as this type creates minimal interference with the casting motion. Fred anxiously clamored aboard, ready to stick a redfish with his fly rod. I followed suit, and Steve pushed us off. An unusally high tide was forecast that morning, the primary reason we arrived so far ahead of the tide peak. The tables predicted over seven feet of saltwater rise that morning, so if we were to have a chance to spot the tails of redfish, we needed arrive well ahead of the tide. As a friend says so succinctly, “You must be present to win.”

And so it begins! As the fortunes of the day dictated, a steady strong wind blew from the Northeast, combining its power with that of the very large tide flow which was sweeping millions upon millions of gallons of water onto the flats where we hoped to locate those coppery tails, emblazoned with those distinctive black spots, wafting in the breeze. The initial step in that process was to crank the engine and head directly into wind and current to reach an area where we might cut through the expansive spartina grass to reach a productive small island where I had seen redfish on previous trips. My new engine, which had been carefully broken in as per factory instructions, became an exercise in exasperation now. I followed the cranking procedures to the letter. Though this previously had been totally effective, the engine remained stubbornly quiet. Now the boat drifted with the swift current, pushing us against the pilings of the small footbridge that led from the landing to the research building at the end of the pier. Embarrassed by this failure, I was finally able to get the engine started and we made our way past the research building, turned to port, and headed upstream to the target for today. The electric motors I had counted on to hold us steady as I started the auxiliary four stroke engine proved powerless against the rush of the massive tide bulling its way toward the flats. I was happy that Fred was facing forward, unable to see the redness on my face.


We made satisfactory way up the creek and soon made an additional turn to port. As we were well ahead of the tide, I had hoped to use the power of the Honda to push us through the still tall and thick spartina grass until we reached the shoreline. At that point, the plan was to come right and make for what I have termed “Redfish Island.”  I began to notice large amounts of dead spartina grass filling the water’s surface now, being pushed by tide and wind into thick masses with no way to steer around them. The engine seemed to be producing much less than normal power, and as I turned in my seat to inspect it, I noted that Fred’s rod was missing in action. “Fred, ” I asked, “Where is your rod?” ” It was right here a minute ago” he responded. We managed a slow reversal of course and quickly found the rod. It was resting on spartina, the grass had silently pilfered it. We returned to our original heading, but very soon afterwards noticed that MY rod was MIA. Again, we located the rod easily and resumed our journey.


By now, the engine was not capable of putting enough horsepower in the water to move us effectively, even when I added the additional capacity of both heavy-duty electric motors to the mix. I reasoned that the drag induced by the load of dead grass the boat was attempting to tow with us was the culprit. So, I elected to go overboard after checking water depth and the firmness of the bottom. After clearing as much as I could, I climbed back aboard with great difficulty. My artificial knees were not very compliant when I asked them to flex some 130 degrees so that I might climb over the gunwale and reclaim the helm. After much effort, and some discomfort, this bit of physical therapy allowed me assume the conn, despite my clumsiness. This maneuver was repeated several times, and I was reminded of a procedure used by the Navy. Minesweepers are built of wood, not iron, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, the equipment onboard such as engines, generate magnetic fields, not something conducive to long term survival for any ship whose task it is to find and remove marine mines. To overcome this problem, the Navy uses something called a “degaussing station.” I have absolutely no understanding of the physics involved, but this equipment can effectively demagnetize these ships. I  wondered if the Navy might also possess tools to remove all this grass from my vessel-  perhaps a “degrassing station.” It turned out that much of the engine’s degraded performance was due to grass wrapped tightly around the prop hub. I was unable to remove this impediment to our progress, so fell back on the low tech push pole I had constructed some time ago from a long piece of hardwood closet rod and a metallic duckfoot attachment. I had included it as an afterthought the previous evening as I packed the truck.  It was too long to fit inside, so I had trimmed it to the absolute maximum that would fit inside the Tahoe. I had no way of securing it to the boat for transport,and was terrified of it departing the Twin Troller and striking another vehicle, or perhaps some innocent pedestrian. I now wondered if sufficient length remained to allow efficient poling of the boat. As it turned out, I was able to make yeoman’s work of the poling. At this point,my greatest fear was the potential failure of my arthritic shoulders, leaving us dead in the water. I had envisioned my role in this enterpraise as sitting at the after seat, operating the motor handle and the pedals for the electric motors. That should be completely untaxing on my arthitic sholders, neck, back and my two artifical knees.


A naval degaussing facility.

I later saw on Google Earth that if I had followed that first large creek some distance further, I could have had deepwater, relatively free of debris, almost the entire way to the island. At this point,however, my only option was to turn directly upwind and pole towards Redfish Island, some half mile distant. Though the tide currents and the wind conspired to twist my bow in a thousand directions, I slowly managed to reach the island. I was tired now, but extremely thankful that my shoulders had not blown up. I was able to approach quietly to within ten feet of the island and began a slow counterclockwise circumnavigation. As we rounded the first small peninsula, I spotted a redfish tail. In typical fashion, it rooted the bottom, seeking crabs and mollusks for its breakfast. Fred assumed the position, and watched the red in complete fascination. “Cast now!” I urgently told Fred. He continued to stare at the fish as it waved back at him, its black ocellus in stark contrast to the greenish grass covering the bottom. “Do I need to get closer, Fred?” I asked, hoping he would make a presentation immediately. He stood on the bow, eyes on his prize, but failed to begin a casting motion. Predictably, the redfish disappeared from our view, swimming away to greener pastures. It was another case of redfish fever, the angling equivalent of “buck fever.” I offered no critique, as Fred is new to saltwater fly fishing, and I stand guilty of the same offense in the early days of my own fishing career.

The object of our desire

So, disappointed, I poled us further around this tiny speck of land and smallish trees and bushes. We encountered no more redfish at Redfish Island. Despite our failure to hook up, I was elated that now the wind and tide were at our backs. I easily poled us in the general direction of the ramp, some mile and a half to the south. As we departed the island environs, Fred’s sharp eyes saw a second redfish tail slowly working the benthos in about fifteen inches of water. “I see him too, Fred!” A nice redfish right there at eleven o’clock moving slowly right to left. Get it out in front of him!” I said, nearly breathless in my anticipation. It is remarkable how much I felt connected to this fishing event. It was almost like Fred had become an extension of me. I desperately wanted to see him land a redfish. This one seemed as good as any. “I got this,” Fred responded. He made a couple of nice backcasts, the wind now from his left and not a factor. He released the fly on the next forward cast, but unfortunately, the gold colored fly landed about a foot out of position. Without requiring my direction, Fred cast once more. Again the fly was not in a position to be visible to the fish. He then made one or two additional casts, but to our combined disappointment, the fish never saw the fly. It swam away, not spooked by the fly or by us. “Damn!” I thought. So close. Maybe next the fish will be The One. I turned the boat slightly to starboard to resume our course for the shoreline when I spied yet another redfish tail near the very edge of a line of short grass. Only the apex of the corner of the tail broke the surface of the water, and only intermittently. I was thrilled. “There, Fred. Right at the edge of the spartina is another redfish. Let’s get this one for sure!” I said as I spun the boat with my closet dowel push pole. “Where is he?” asked Fred, now frantically searching the water for the telltale signs of a feeding red. “Right there at ten o’clock and about 20 feet.” I responded, pointing the pole directly at the fish’s tail, barely visible now as he worked a bit deeper into the grass. “Cast now before he goes in any further and we can’t get the fly down through the grass.” I commanded. In the excitement of the moment, I neglected that fundamental rule of guiding – NEVER let a fly fisherman cast with the wind coming from his casting side. The wind had by now increased again and was blowing directly from Fred’s right side, the same side as his casting arm. He made a strong false cast and by the time he initiated the delivery cast, the crosswind had blown the fly beyond my left side. When he made his power cast, the fly slapped me smartly on my left cheek. I howled in pain reflexly as a half inch high welt instantly appeared on my cheek. Thankfully, I was wearing glasses and the hook was facing downwind at the moment of impact. There was no hook to be extracted and my Mark 1 eyeballs remained intact. Fred was incredibly apologetic. He seemed quite disturbed by this accident. I told him not to worry. This was an occupational hazard for guides. Besides, if I were left with a scar, it would make a great conversation piece. “Oh that? That’s an old guiding injury!” It would be a sort of Red Badge of Courage.  Fred continued to profusely describe the depth of his sorrow over the incident, but in the meantime, our redfish slipped into that deep, impenetrable grass. A better man might have consoled Fred by telling him that he himself had whacked a guide or two in the past, but I didn’t.


We worked on down the shoreline, but by now, some two and a half hours of poling left my shoulders a little achy, so I sat in the command chair and pushed the pedals of both electric motors. Nothing happened. Despite my apprehensions  about my musculoskeletal system experiencing complete mechanical failure as well, I poled us to the beach and exited the boat in order to “de-grass” the boat. Indeed, the boat was weighed down by massive amounts of dead grass, and the prop hub was choked by green spartina wound as tight as a watch spring around it. I cleared what I could, then leaned forward to remove anything remaining under the keel. When I did, I was startled to the point of nearly losing bladder control when I heard a loud “POP!” and I felt a strong tightness around my chest. “Oh my God!” I thought, “My heart just exploded from all that poling!” At that point I realized, somewhat sheepishly, that I was still wearing my PFD. When I reached beneath the hull, it contacted the surface of the water, and the PFD’s water sensor  did its job by instantaneously fully inflating. There I stood, a big yellow ring around my upper body, laughing out loud at my idiotic stunt. Fred began to chuckle as well. “Oh well,” I commented,”At least no one had mistaken me for a giant marsh hen, and shot me!” I climbed back into the boat, this last time easily from a firm and very shallow bottom. I doffed the PFD and picked up the pole.


By this time, the tide had reached its zenith. Seven feet plus of saltwater obscured the redfish that were almost certainly continuing the search for food. The wind had ratcheted up a notch or two, but thank God, continued to blow from our backs. The engine nor the motor were capable of making way for us, so I continued to man the pole. This was fortuitous, as there was no possibility of my propelling the craft against the wind which was now estimated at twelve to fourteen mph. A couple of hundred yards in the distance Fred spotted Steve and a prospective client at the ramp. They peered at us through binoculars. Fred theorized that Steve had a bet that I  had fallen into the creek. We quickly approached the footbridge leading away from the launch site. The water was now quite high and I had limited maneuvering control. I had visions of cracked skulls as the boat crashed into the wooden support structures. In what could only have been Divine intervention, we managed to touch the footbridge , duck our heads, and pass underneath unscathed. We covered the remaining few yards to the take out in a few short seconds.

Fred, Steve, and me back at the launch site. Check out my vestments!

The prop was in need of de-grassing

The mass of grass being towed by the Twin Troller. Photo taken at the ramp upon our return.

An enjoyable time was had by all!

Back at the ramp, I felt victorious, though never had a hook touched a redfish mouth. We had survived in spite of my loss of dignity. We had seen and cast at a few redfish. Most important of all, Fred indicated that he had had a great time. True or not, his comment did boost my spirits. We pulled the boat from the water onto its trailer and removed grass from its keel and some of that which was buried in the prop hub. It was only later, at home and with special tools, that I was finally able to remove the last of the spartina from the prop. In a rare moment of triumph, I handed everyone a Kalik, a Bahamian beer that is my favorite. Through a stroke of lucky clairvoyance, I had stashed several in a cooler in my Tahoe. We clinked bottles, took photographs of the battle damage, and made a toast to all the redfish which had eluded us that particular day. As we finished our drinks, I queried Fred as to whether he might like to try to walk the downside of the tide out at the point, beyond Redfish Island. I told him that I could make no promises, other than I would be happy to extend his day. He immediately accepted but wished to do a freshwater wash down of his gear beforehand. I agreed and climbed into the driver’s seat. Fred opened the rear liftgate to retrieve a personal item, then quickly closed it. The push pole, which I had carefully laid diagonally across the storage area and the center console got jammed as the door closed. The fit was a tight one, and the pole was forced into the front glass. A creaking sound was followed by the appearance of a ten inch long crack in the windshield. “Perfect,” I said with a smile. “This makes the day complete.” ” You should get that replaced as soon as possible” advised Fred. ” Don’t worry, Fred. My insurance will cover it completely. I’ll have a new glass by this time tomorrow.” We pulled the boat down towards the main research facility, and sprayed down the boat and trailer. Fred washed off his rod and we headed for the flats again. Only this trip would be made by foot. No motors or grass to bother us here.

The culmination of our fishing trip. It cracked us up, literally!

We slowly made our way down a long and very bumpy dirt road to the tip of the peninsula. It was a pleasure to chat with Fred. His intelligence seems matched only by his engaging conversations. It had been a pleasure to spend a day with him, no matter the misfortunes which had befallen us. Soon, we reached the turnaround loop at the end of the road. We piled out of the truck and onto the flats, where the jumbo tide was rapidly pouring itself back into the Atlantic. In the distance, we could see Redfish Island. We trudged through the quickly falling tide, hoping to spot a tail or three. I glanced up and saw a large bald eagle wheeling overhead. That sight alone made this walk worthwhile. As we approached the terminus of a feeder creek, its finger-like projections spread across the flat, I “bumped” a redfish. I had nearly stepped on it without seeing it. The water was still a bit too high. Onward we walked, reaching a point perhaps three hundred yards from Redfish Island. Here the bottom turned soft, and every footfall sank past the midcalf. “I guess we turn back here, Fred,” I suggested.  We made a course back for the truck, still searching. I guess it really is true about fishermen being eternal optimists. We had no casting opportunities on the way back, but did bump two more fish. In short order, we were once more at the road. Fred was totally fascinated by the hundreds of thousands of fiddler crabs that scurried across the now dry grass flat. He knelt down and took a few photos.

Fiddlers on the flats- redfish crack!

As we reached the road and the truck, I turned back towards the flats and thought to myself “I’ll be baahhk.” Everything I learned that day, all those lessons, might best be summarized by the old Indian aphorism about not criticizing anyone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. I gained a whole new respect for guides. The really good ones just make it all look so damn easy. This lesson may be a metaphor for life in general. I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to easy criticism of others’ actions or opinions. Perhaps we should consider their life circumstances prior to condemning them. Trading places seems a good way to gain an appreciation of the plight of others. Remember that trading places doesn’t necessarily mean living the life of opulence as Eddie Murphy did in the movie of the same name. It might also mean taking a trip to an impoverished third world country like Haiti to see how that “other half” lives.  Like my newfound appreciation for guides and what they do, such an experience might leave the traveller with a profound sense of gratitude for all we have here.

Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd is actually based on Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro”

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments