Sunday, June 15, 2014
GIFTS FROM MY FATHER
I lost my father in early July, seven years ago.
He’d lived a good life, able to get around on his own.
Although he was slowing down after 88 years, he could still make his way to the boat club and shoot pool all day with his friends.
It seemed like he beat the cancer, or so the oncologist said, but 88 years took a toll on his heart, which shut down on that hot July day.
I always knew that death could be coming. It hit me hard all the same, yet death came the way that he wanted, all at once, fierce and clean.
I was tasked to write his eulogy, which can be a hard thing to do. It wasn’t the first time I’ve done such a thing, and I’ve learned that the right way to do it is to chase all the thoughts from your mind—it’s OK if your eyes still hold tears—try to picture the person you lost as others might see him, and then just let the words flow.
My father, I learned then, was a teacher.
Although he never earned a college degree, and made his living, six days a week, building and rebuilding furniture in the basement of the business that my grandfather started, he was a teacher of the finest kind.
He taught lots of things to others. He taught me to fish and to run a boat, to split wood and to shoot a rifle, and if it was only those sort of things that he taught me, I would have been a fortunate son.
But somewhere along the way, he taught me to know myself, to embrace duty and to live honestly, in any surroundings.
Mostly, I learned such things near the water, where he and I spent much of our time.
Looking back, it was almost a tribal childhood, with not only my father, but my friends’ fathers and my fathers’ friends all pitching in to teach me and the other kids the things that we needed to know.
Every night from May through September, we’d go down to the dock after dinner, where the men would talk and we boys would stand at the edge of their circle, listening to stories of fish, and of boats, and of places and times that we hadn’t yet seen.
As the sun fell beneath the rim of a summer sky and the dock lights came on, we could lean on the rail (the middle one, at first, for the top was too high at our age), stare down into the water and learn about the obligations that, in the end, define every man.
My father’s generation was defined by the Great Depression and the Second World War, and each man bore his own set of scars from those times. None of them were wealthy; they all worked with their hands, and money did not come easily. Yet, for the most part, they were all filled with a survivors’ joy in just being alive, and the stories that they told were by turn tales of hardship, of happiness and of jobs yet to do.
Many could have been written by Aesop, although the characters, and the language, were on the more colorful side.
My father was the sort of person who respected, and could sit down and talk with, just about everyone—but not all.
Sometimes, he’d nod towards someone down on the dock and say “He’s a rummy; stay away from him,” or “He’s a loudmouth, and starts fights,” and walk away himself.
Though I didn’t really know what a “rummy” was, I understood that it was a bad thing, which was all I needed to know a few years later when temptation, knowledge and opportunity showed up hand-in-hand.
Sometimes, a fisherman would come struggling up the ramp, dragging a trash pail filled with bluefish or a couple of big striped bass. After the guy tossed the fish in his truck and drove away, my father would shake his head sadly and mutter “He sells those fish. Doesn’t need to. He’s got a good job.”
And a couple of the others folks on the dock would nod, maybe spit into the water, or mutter “Just greedy,” and I’d understand that there was a difference between merely catching fish and being a sportsman.
And that such difference mattered.
To this day, when I hear of some doctor or lawyer or real estate hotshot with his million-dollar boat, custom-built rods and shiny gold reels killing and selling some tuna “to pay for the trip,” I wish that more folks had the same kind of teacher that I did.
And I, in my turn, say “Just greedy,” too…
One summer, after a spate of thefts, the local boat club offered a $100 reward to anyone providing information leading to the arrest of the crook.
Somebody did, and he was given the money, but from then on, was pretty much shunned by the men on the dock. I didn’t understand why, at first, because he always appeared to be a decent guy, and seemed to have earned his reward.
But folks said that no one should take payment just for doing what’s right.
And 50 years later I now know that’s true.
Back then, the community defined the angler. Today, they are largely defined by the media, in all of its various forms.
There are the TV shows and the magazines, that emphasize (their advertisers’) gear and big fish, and don’t talk at all about an angler’s obligation of respect and responsibility for his quarry.
There are tournaments, that are all about money, and treat fish nothing more than pieces in a game. Some toss sharks, sailfish and marlin into dumpsters; another, down in Florida, rewards folks for foul-hooking tarpon.
And then there are the photos, on Internet chat boards and tackle shop walls, that encourage anglers to claim their fifteen minutes of fame by killing big fish for pictures and praise, without thinking about whatever harm that may do…
I thank my father for helping me realize that such things are wrong.
Pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold once said
“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”
My father taught me the same lesson back in the spring of ’69, although he used different words.
I was 14 years old, and just becoming a “real” striped bass fishermen.
Back then, we caught bass in a few different ways, just as anglers do now, but mostly we caught them by trolling a couple of sandworms behind a big “Cape Cod” spinner. My father had always held his own as an angler, but the previous summer, we finally broke through and caught a lot of fish on those worms.
According to the practice of the time, every “keeper” was kept, cleaned and put in the freezer. Now, as a new season dawned, he found half a dozen packs of freezer-burned bass lying on the shelves, good for nothing but lobster bait.
“This is wrong,” he told me. “It was a waste. We’re not doing that again.”
We never did.
And so, for the first time, he taught conservation, although he never uttered the word. As Leopold might have said, he taught that killing too much wasn’t right, even though it was legal.
And in teaching that lesson, he gave birth to a conscience that has troubled me ever since, for it not only tells me what not to do, but also what should be done.
So if this blog offends you, if you don’t like being told that you have obligations as well as rights, if you resent reminders of debts to folks yet unborn, I suppose that you can blame my upbringing.
For my father bequeathed me a conscience, and a sense of obligation that doesn’t let me walk away even when it would be far less expensive—in money and time and personal ties—to do so.
You can blame him if you want to.
But me, I can’t thank him enough.