I came home from my Dad's final resting place , laid down and wrote this piece in my head. The next morning I pounded it out on my old Royal typewriter. I kept the now yellowed pages and will share it here today . Through the miracle of modern technology I can also share a couple of old photos. One is Dad holding me at age 1 year and two days. Pass the mashed potatoes please.The next is the summer of '65. You can hear the theme song to the old Andy Griffith Show if you listen carefully to the whistle in your head. The final one was my turn to hold Dad.
It was a cold mist snaking down past our collars on an early June morning in 1965 that snapped us both awake. We had been out of bed for an hour and a half now, readying for this adventure to take place. But no amount of coffee and scurrying could alert us to our situation as well as those first few icy drops slipping down to mid-spine. The older of the two of us recalled with disdain his brief sojourn aboard ship in 1942 somewhere in the South Pacific, memories replete with ghastly regurgitations and the lingering fearsome knowledge that he had not yet learned to swim. The younger of the two of us drawing courage from the depths of ignorance figured that the older one would calm down if reminded of the flotation devices and the unconfirmed tip that the bite was on. The older man took the bait , and the hook was set. Having pooled our piscatorial wisdom we knew it was time to slip the twelve foot aluminum boat into the waters of Yaquina Bay in pursuit of our first catch of the mighty Chinook salmon. And so we launched the craft, thinking of Melville, but looking more akin to Hieronymous Bosch’s “Ships of Fools”.
Dad and I figured that we had most of the basics ready for this kind of trip. We had tested the boat in the placid waters of the North Fork Reservoir on the Clackamas River and had even managed to bring home a few stringers of hatchery trout for the family dinners.
Of course, the next logical step would be to navigate the waters of the Pacific Ocean and hook up with a fish just slightly smaller than the boat chasing it. Because neither of us knew too terribly much about this new challenge, getting ready was a hit or miss affair. That spring Dad busied himself with the tangibles, creating a roof rack on the car for the boat, and I worked with the mental necessities, reading accounts in the paper and magazines of others who had succeeded at this sort of thing. I knew there wasn’t any way the fish could escape. The rod I used was blessed. It was Sears & Roebuck model endorsed by Ted Williams. My Dad was an incurable baseball fan and Ted Williams has the same birthday as me. It was a perfect combination and, and anyway Dad kidded, the pole was stout enough that if it didn’t work for this we’d turn it around, whittle it down a bit and use it for the sport Mr. Williams knew more about.
The comedy began shortly after we pushed away from the dock. Dad insisted on the helm position , sure that my idea of a good joke right then would be to drive the boat as erratically as possible thereby causing him turn a shade of green similar to the flotsam and jetsam splashing against the hull. I was much too busy for that however as the task was already at hand. Using the only knot I knew (the one that keeps your tennis shoes tied all summer without having to undo it) I readied our fishing gear for the plunge into the fathoms below. We trolled slowly for about an hour, each of us having a combination of wires, fluorescent plastics and sharpened barbs attached to our lines in such a manner as to scare away even the least sensible of the nether world. At such we seemed to be extremely successful, having lured not a single creature to so much as even accidentally swim into our trail.
Then it happened. My pole began to bounce downward and I knew from my reading and Dad’s near hysteria that this was the moment. I gave the line a strong yank and could tell the big one was on. Dad turned the engine off and let me play the fish, paddling here and there to get a better angle on it as the fish went about the business of trying to loosen me from its grip. The battle progressed to the point that Dad finally said now was the time to get it up to the boat, gaff it and bring it in. I was prepared to go through with it and tried to think of clever quotes to give Field and Stream magazine when they would surely call the next day. Dad screeched something about holding the rod differently, and how it was getting away. I couldn’t hear him though as he was creating such a noise starting the engine. It sputtered, then roared as he turned to yell we must change our angle. In one deft motion Dad spun the boat 120 degrees to port side, the pole which I had only been barely able to hold above water came rocketing backwards, and I catapulted just ahead of it to come to rest six inches off the seat. Dad had figured out how to release the first salmon I ever hooked slicing the line with the propeller.
He apologized profusely, near weeping all the way back into the dock. He said it was his fault and that he really messed up. I had never seen him act like this before. It seemed to take forever to get back to shore and he just wouldn’t let up with the apologies. When we got out of the boat the apologies continued. Then, as suddenly as the fish had struck, he swore. I was astonished. I had never heard him swear before. He lashed out the fish’s ancestry. I stammered that I couldn’t believe my ears. He wondered out loud if I thought my friends and I had invented the words and in the same breath ridiculed the poor fish’s mating habits and everything that fish had ever done. Then he began to laugh, and laugh some more and then he threw the car keys to me and told me to go get the car. I laughed and told him he was going crazy because he knew I had never driven a car in my life and I was just fourteen and what if I didn’t stop and I ended up in the bay with that fish? He laughed again and said he had seen how I watched him when he drove and he knew I was ready, and anyway, I couldn’t drive any worse than he could steer a boat. I took the keys and walked the quarter mile across the flat area to the car and brought it back to him.
In the span of about an hour I had hooked my first salmon, first heard my Dad say something was his fault, first heard him cuss and driven my first car. This is how my Dad taught me things.
As happens sometimes with fathers and sons, Dad and I didn’t see too much of each other in his last years. But it was a physical separation and not one of the heart. On a crisp Autumn day at noon in October of 1983 I took my Dad’s ashes up to a place where we used to fish, where we watched each other grow up. It’s a good steelhead holding pool with a tail out too shallow for any propellers to glide over. So with a few quiet words I laid him to rest, without a service because he didn’t like funerals. But I think he would have liked this one.
After I had my solemn thoughts and knew the time had come for me to open his urn and scatter his ashes downstream, I did so.
The wind picked up, and handful by handful in a few short tearful moments I had managed to get Dad’s ashes stuck on me everywhere. We laughed all the way home.