Seeing failure for the first time through my father's eyes.
|I remember the first time I tasted failure in my life. It wasn't mine, but the pain was still palpable. I was a silent spectator to my father's brush with greatness and the bitter plummet that followed. I was seven years old and the memory of that day still remains with me. I am sure it does for him as well.
Every summer our family went camping at Branch Lake in Maine. Forty two years ago, the area was desolate and beautiful at the same time. The lake was a blue jewel set in a sea of green. The woods were lush and full of life. Deer and raccoon sightings were a daily occurrence. At night the eerie howl of wolves would carry for miles in the night stillness.
I loved the lake and spent the waning school year restless, pestering my father. As the day approached, time seemed to slow down in that agonizing way it does leading up to Christmas. But, finally, the car was packed and we were heading north
The car ride was never fun. Ultimately I wound up in the middle sitting between my two older brothers. I would complain as I suffered the endless elbows to the ribs and being squished for hours.
That old green station wagon just chewed the miles off. We never stopped for a hotel. If my father was tired we slept in a rest area for a few hours. Hotels were expensive and a luxury we could not afford.
We were going camping, and Branch Lake was perfect for it. We would pull up to the gate and select a campsite closest to the water. Once we pulled into our site my father could barely keep me contained. I wanted to fish and badly. He had me help with one or two little things and then he would turn me loose.
I would streak towards the water with my tackle box and rod in hands. That first cast is always magical. As the lure is zipping out over the water there is an excitement and rush of hope. The gentle rings that circle ever outward are thrilling to me. I held my breath hoping for a splash that signaled a strike.
My father would set the tent up with my brothers and then would join me on the dock. We would cast our lures and talk. I pointed out bluegills and small bass in the shallows. We would listen to the loons and the world couldn't be more perfect to a little fisherman.
We had our supper and went back to the lake to cast a bit more top water. The evening shadows began to gather and my mother called me back to the campsite. My father advised he was going to fish a while longer after it got dark.
I could hear the wolves from the tent. It was a little scary even though I knew they were miles away. Sleep came quickly and I didn't hear my father when he returned.
I awoke early to hear an excited conversation between my parents.. My father wouldn't tell me details only that he had caught "a monster" last night after I was asleep. My breakfast was instantly forgotten but my mother insisted we eat. . As we ate he told me how the fish had slammed his popper in the shallows. He had fought it hard and landed it and had it alive just off the dock.
He was so excited and planned to have it mounted on the wall. He was so proud as we quickly made our way to the water.. He said it was the biggest bass he had ever caught. My father led me to the dock where he had secured the fish.
As he lifted the metal stringer from the water he looked crestfallen. The stringer held just the head of the biggest bass I had ever seen. The head was bloody and the body was gone. I was stunned.
My father never said a word as I asked what happened. He unclipped the head and we both watched it slowly sink to the bottom. I felt awful for him. He didn't fish the rest of the vacation. Actually I never saw him take another cast in Branch Lake. We never went back there after that summer.
In hindsight, I know what happened. Much like Hemmingway's "Old man and the Sea", a super predator took advantage of an opportunity to snag a free or easy meal. In this case, I would wager a large snapping turtle was the culprit.
We haven't talked about it since, and I won't bring it up. It was the biggest fish I had ever seen him catch. He still loves to fish and gets that wistful look in his eyes when I invite him. Now that he is old, he is content to watch me cast and sit in a chair or on a grassy bank.
My father once told me that God does not subtract the time spent fishing from a man's life. I take him every chance I can even if it's just for company now.