My father and I had a tense relationship. I never felt that I truly “measured up” in his eyes, although I never had a clear sense of why. It was just a gnawing feeling deep in my gut.
Part of the answer lied in the fact that my parents really had, in essence, two families. My five older siblings were born pretty much bunched together. Then there was a seven-year gap, between those five and my brother Mike, who was 13 months older than me as I brought up the rear.
I knew from family stories that my father was the troop leader when my three oldest brothers were in the Boy Scouts. In fact, he and my brothers helped build the original buildings at Bear Paw Scout Camp, and my older brothers all worked at the camp for several summers in their teenage years. When I joined the Scouts part of me was hopeful that this would be a point of common interest between my father and I, but my father didn’t come to a single meeting, even when I expected to receive an award. I overheard him tell my mother once that he had “put in his time with the older boys”.
I also heard stories that my father played amateur baseball at the time that he started dating my mother. He played catcher. He paid the price for that as he couldn’t straighten the fingers on his left hand because they had all been broken a number of times because of the poor quality of catcher’s mitts at the time he played. He only told me one story about his playing years. He recalled the first game that my mother came to watch him play when they began dating. He really wanted to impress her. He stepped into the batter’s box and hit four home runs in a row. The problem was they all went over the fence on the wrong side of the foul pole. On the fifth pitch he hit a little dribbler up the third baseline and was thrown out at first base by ten feet. When I wanted to play little league baseball, though, I was told “no” because dad wanted to use all of his vacation from the papermill for camping in the summer, which obviously was a conflict with summer baseball.
Probably the biggest wedge between us was the time that I saw him sneaking a drink from a brandy bottle that he hid in the trunk of the car on a camping trip. I saw him and he knew I saw him. I never asked, and he never said anything. Throughout the remainder of my youth until I moved out, my dad’s drinking steadily got worse. It wasn’t a pleasant environment. I resented it for years, but as I had my own children I began to better appreciate that parenting is hard, and we all have our demons to battle, and so the bitterness has lessened.
So, in most ways we were very different people, but there were two exceptions. On our many camping trips it was my dad and I who stayed up the latest. Each night we would watch the fire die down, and we would stare deeply into the glowing embers. I did say out loud one night that watching the embers was my favorite part of having a campfire. He replied that it was his favorite too. Looking back, I am sure that this was my introduction to contemplative prayer. We almost always sat in silence poking at the shimmering red and black coals, but it was a peaceful silence.
The place where we were the closest though was in a little 12-foot fishing boat. My father loved fishing. He grew up fishing on Green Bay for perch. And perch remained his favorite fish to catch. This was the era of stout casting rods and knuckle-buster reels. They were called knuckle-busters, because if you tried to cast with one, the spool and associated reel handles spun freely as the line peeled off. You had to “feather” the spool with your thumb to stop it the exact moment that your lure hit the water, or else the line would become hopelessly snarled in what was not-so-affectionately called a ‘rat’s nest”. And if you didn’t keep your thumb and fingers out of the way of those spinning handles, you learned the hard way why those reels were knuckle busters.
But, we didn’t do much casting because regardless of what other kind of fish may be in whatever lake we were camped at, our first duty was to catch a stringer of perch. All we had to do to catch perch was to bait the hook, let out enough line that the heavy sinker hit bottom, then you reeled in just enough line that the sinker was an inch or two off of the bottom so the line was taught, and wait for a nibble.
My dad’s choice of fishing pole was his Shakespeare Wonderod. He had bought it in the later 1940’s – the first solid fiberglass fishing pole on the market. He had literally caught thousands of fish with it through the years. Even though the Shakespeare Company eventually improved their rod design, changing to a hollow core spun fiberglass, he stuck with his faithful original.
When my dad passed away in 1984, my brothers and I divided up his fishing tackle. He had a number of modern rods and reels by then. I let the others divide up that newer gear. I took the Wonderod. It connects me to my younger father that I never knew – someone more carefree; someone more at peace with himself. It connects me to all those evenings in that little fishing boat when we could admire each other’s catch, maybe watch an eagle soar, sit in the middle of the setting sun as darkness settled on us, and be comfortable, even glad, to be with each other.
I don’t use it because I don’t want anything to happen to it. It sits on top of my bookcase upstairs. A couple of years ago I was in a shop in northern Wisconsin that specializes in older and antique fishing gear. I described my dad’s Shakespeare Wonderod to the owner and asked him if it had any value. I had, and have, no intention to sell it, but I was curious. He shook his head, “You’d think so, as old as it is, but there were so many of those made, and the quality was high enough that there’s still lots of them around. It’s probably worth six or seven dollars maybe.” No real value. But to me, it’s priceless.
His Peace,Deacon Dan