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Monday, July 11, 2016

Sifting Through Memories

We were sitting in the boat together about 100 yards from the shore.  Dawn was just poking it's head up over the mountains and the only thing to be heard was the chirping of the crickets among the rocks.  In my mind we were fishing.  It was a good setting as any to meditate on some memories, a place to work out the conflict I felt within.

"Are you rolling your line or using loops?' Dad asked.

"Loops," I replied.  "It would be too dark to see the hole."  We sat with our backs to each other.  His line was still in the water, his bobber barely visible 40 feet out.   I had reeled my line in and found my hook was gone, probably snagged on a root at the bottom of the lake or hooked on a fish further out.  I preferred using loops rather than rolling the line.  It seemed simpler and worked better in the dark.  But my hands were numb from the cold and I was having trouble finding the center.

"Did you put on your long underwear?"

"Yes." I replied, gritting my teeth.  We had gone fishing two other times in the past week.  You'd think he would trust that I'd remember by now.  I finally got the line laid down the center and pulled the larger loop through the smaller one.  The newer one fit through the eye of the hook and I clipped the extra line.

"Do want salmon or the other eggs?" he asked.

"Salmon."  He handed me the jar and I covered the hook with two eggs.  Pulling the bobber further up, I brought the pole back over my shoulder and cast it out.

"Don't cast over my head, son!" he said.

I bit my tongue, and then replied, "Sorry."  We sat in for a while, listening to the crickets and waiting for the fish to start nibbling again.  There were a couple of other boats out on the water, but they were on the other side of the lake.  I let a few minutes go by then said, "I wonder what it was like for you in the boat away from Mom while you were on active duty." I used "boat" since you never referred to a submarine as a "sub".  "I mean, I know you had those candy-grams and all.  But I had lost my second tooth while you were out at sea.  And you and Mom hadn't been married that long."  In spite of the distance, I heard another fisherman's reel spin as he cast out down the lake.  Dad had lifted his head and looked towards the sound.  "I'm at the point in life where I'm trying to be sensitive to what James and Tessa's interests are.  They're active in sports and have their friends.  But I find myself wondering what went through your head as we kids grew up and chased after our dreams."

He was quiet for a while, then leaned back and said, "Jim, I thought of a fun skit to do with the other Weebolos.  You walk into the room.  Four other boys are following you in while they hold onto a rope.  I'll ask, 'Catch anything while fishing, Jim?'  And you answer, 'No.  All I got was a bunch of jerks!'"

I laughed.  I must have been in sixth or seventh grade when we did that skit.  Reflecting back, I'm not sure how the other boys felt about being referred to as "jerks".  Strange how some memories popped up uninvited.  But the desire for Dad's presence seemed to outweigh logic at that moment.

We sat a bit longer.  "It must have been difficult.  You had work.  You were travelling.  And us kids, we all were different.  You and I were different.  I wonder how you regarded me or thought of my 'exploits'.  I was into music.  You never really picked up an instrument.  You were organized.  I wasn't.  You excelled in sports and school.  I didn't."  The sunrise was lighting up the east.  The air was a little warmer and sounds of campers moving around echoed through the trees.

He spoke softly.  "Jim, your mother and I just want to give you an opportunity to be part of that music group at Mrs. Hatsu's.  There are kids who play a number of different instruments, even a couple around your same age.  We aren't trying to force is on you.  How about we just go over and listen to what she has to say.  I'm not requiring you to be part of the group.  If you hear what it's all about and decide 'no', then that's fine.  What do you say?"

I thought back on the day he spoke those words.  We were driving for an appointment I didn't want to keep.  I had opened the door and sprinted from the car, tears streaming down my cheeks.  But Dad quickly parked, jogged over to me, speaking calmly and listened to my objections.  We ended up visiting the music teacher to see what the program was all about.  And when I made the decision to not participate, Dad backed me up.   "Thanks for being sensitive to my decisions."  I tried to rub some warmth into my hands while holding onto the pole.  The bobber moved back and forth.  "You know, there were other times you seemed distant.  Far off.  You might have even been upstairs in your office working.  Not sure why that keeps coming back to me."

But then I remembered one day when we were working in the garage together.  He had stood over me as I moved the jigsaw along the wood for a table we were making for Mom.  His hand carefully guided mine, and finally he let go as I followed the line to the edge of the wood.  Dad handed me the broom afterwards and I swept up the sawdust.  "I guess I just wanted some reassurance." I said.  I moved my rod a little to the bow of the boat.  "Dad speaking to another dad.  Wondering if I'm going through the same thing you did.  Wondering if you faced the same questions I'm facing now.  Needing to know what was going on inside of you around this time in your life."


I opened my eyes.  Thoughts of fishing faded to the present-day surroundings.  The white headstones aligned the ground in perfect formation.  The sun was quietly dipping down against the western hills.  I looked to my right.  A middle age man in Honor Guard uniform with a black beret stood four feet away, hands at his side.  He had a salt and pepper mustache and dark sunglasses.  "I was on my way out, sir.  I couldn't help but notice that you had been standing there for some time.  Just wanted to see if I can offer any assistance."

I stared at him, then glanced down at my watch.  7:35 p.m.  Annie would be bringing the kids home from swimming any minute now.  I cleared my throat.  "  Thank you.  I must have not noticed the time."  I looked down at Dad's headstone.  "I guess I was sifting through the past for some answers.  Sifting through some memories while trying to hold onto his presence."  I turned and peered at his flags.  Colonel.  I looked into his eyes.  "I suppose some questions are left unanswered."

He glanced down.  "Relative?"

"Yes, sir.  My father."

"Which branch was he in, if I may ask."

"Navy.  He became commander when I was young, served in the reserves, then retired after 30 years."

The colonel smiled.  "That's quite an honorable service."

"Yes.  My mother tells me that at times he would take an assignment without pay just to finish his years."

He stood in silence for a moment, then said, "Sounds like he was committed to his dream.  Some kids join, serve their term, then leave for other endeavors."

I nodded to his pins.  "Looks like you were committed as well, sir."

"It didn't start out that way.  I was a rascal in my teens.  My father worked at a factory in Detroit.  Would come home and give me the third degree for getting into fights or getting low grades in school.  Told me to do something with my life.  So I joined the service.  Worked as Airman up to First Lieutenant, and finally finished out at Colonel."

"I'm told the service teaches you a lot about respect."

He took a deep breath and replied, "True.  I certainly learned manners.  And even discipline.  But it was my father that taught me to work hard and be there for one's family.  The bond I forged with my outfit and friends...I first observed in my father."  He looked down at Dad's grave, then looked back at me.  "Sometimes our father's actions speak louder than words, and their presence creates the example we long to follow."

I felt a lump form in my throat.  "Yes, sir.  That's certainly true."  A little silence passed between us before I spoke. "I suppose that example can be stronger than any differences we may have had."  I stood there, fidgeting a little with my hands, then said, "I appreciate your time.  Thank you for your words."

"My pleasure.  None of us fathers are perfect, except for one."  He gave a slight nod towards the sky.  "But the time we spend with our loved ones speaks volumes."  He extended his hand and we shook.  "God bless you, sir.  May you find peace."  I thanked him, turned and walked slowly back to the car.  As I drove towards the cemetery's exit, I glanced back over my shoulder one last time.  The soldier was standing erect in front of Dad's graveside.  He sharply raised his hand up to his beret and saluted.

I turned back forward and had to strain through the tears to see the road.

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