The Man with the Yam

This past Sunday, Preacher Daryl told us that grumbling and complaining is a sin as a friend of mine sunk lower in the pew after posting a Facebook rant about donuts, “Why are there no donuts shops open on Sunday morning?” Which made me think of Garrison Keillor’s story about the man who wrote a check hurriedly as the collection plate was being passed realizing later that he had forgotten to place a decimal in his number and the $100 became $10000. He wondered if he would be struck by lightning if he asked for the check back so he could void it and write another. Which is how most of us feel after grumbling on Facebook. We want our words back, a chance to re-write the check.

How would I ever explain Facebook to my grandparents? Their face book was newspaper clippings on a cork board secured by a push-pin where I once spotted my grandpa holding a gigantic yam. The caption read, “The man with the yam.”

Jesse Suit Tie

The Man with the Yam

I only knew him the last few years of his life, long after his hair had receded like plowed soil blowing hot across the Oklahoma plains. Grandpa Jesse in his youth looked like Henry Fonda in the Grapes of Wrath except with a fishing pole and less angry.  He went to California in the 1950’s to escape the pollen and dust of the Oklahoma Panhandle. He returned from California in the 1960’s when I was a boy.

Jesse Coffee Machine

Grandpa Jesse with his coffee vending machine

That picture of the man with the yam made me think that he was superhuman, all Popeye and spinach, I yam what I yam. Now my wife grows yams and tomatoes and kale and it is hard work making me realize how difficult it must have been to be a farmer, a dairy man with a herd of milk cows on the plains of Oklahoma when hard times were the worst hard times.

Grandpa Jesse married Mildred the year after the stock market crash of 1929, just as drought and perpetual plowing turned winter wheat into desolation and dreams into dust. The dust bowl still impacts how I eat a chicken leg. Grandma Mildred often chastised me for not eating efficiently, taking from my plate a mostly denuded chicken leg and gnawing it down to the gristle as if it were a sin to leave meat on the bone. I think of her still when I eat chicken…and when I begin to grumble about how difficult life is.

Grandma wrote prose like she ate a chicken leg, gnawing the subject down to the marrow,  sharing only the essentials in a letter she penned about her life as if to say modern folks know nothing about multi-tasking. She reduced the birthdays of six children into a single rich sentence.

“When my babies were born, they were delivered by Dr. Smith, who was also a vet and a dentist.”

My grandparents always had an eye on the heavens while living close to the good earth as they plowed it, gardened it, drilled water wells into it, and in the worst times of drought and wind they inhaled it. They made their living on a harsh landscape with the promise of better days. When Grandpa died, I was nine-years old and I remember Grandma Mildred describing his passing to a lady from our church as I walked up the stairs of our home. I was amazed that adults spoke about death and I dreamed of Grandpa for several months after that and once I saw him in the closet by my bed late one night. I was never afraid, but I did wonder if I was nutty or perhaps heaven had a revolving door with hall passes.

One afternoon not long before he died, Grandpa picked me up at school and asked me to help him. I sat beside him in his Ford truck as we drove to Woodland Park where he was working on a house. He said, “Can you stick your arm into that hole in the wall and pull out that wire?” I told him sure. But after trying for several minutes, I gave up. I had failed. He drove me home and as I was getting out of the truck, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter, handed it to me and said, “Thanks.” I walked to the porch and sat down, watching my Grandpa drive away. He never made me feel that I had failed, and the quarter was his way of saying so, gratitude replacing grumbling even in the midst of a failed venture.

Mildred Fishing 2017

Mildred fishing

I’m not aware of any writing that Grandpa passed along, but Grandma wrote about her life for posterity at the behest of her children. Here is part of what she wrote:

My sister Ida and I walked two miles to…school. Mother, in later years, often told me I started out crying and came home crying. The winters were very cold. We also had to help milk cows before we left for school and again at night. As we girls had no older brothers, we worked alongside our Dad doing chores, field work and gardening. Dad always raised hogs and cattle. He would work in the fields until dark and then chores had to be done. I was eighteen years old and going to high school at a state school in Goodwell, Oklahoma when I met my husband to be. My mother’s mother developed cancer in February 1930 and as Mother was her only daughter, she needed to go care for her…I was brought home from school to take Mother’s place caring for Georgie, Essie and Wesley, besides chores, cooking, etc. Grandmother passed away in May. Because of this time out of school, I did not get to graduate from high school. Doctors in those days were not readily available and their knowledge was limited. I suppose they learned a lot of what they knew from reading medical books…

I never heard them complain much, except when I wore my short shorts. Maybe Grandpa complained about hard times to the dairy cows early in the morning while milking them, but Mom and her siblings told me that they never heard their daddy speak ill of another person nor complain to the cows or anyone else. And if he complained or griped about his lot in life, that too must have blown away with the dust. I thought that was remarkable. Maybe she just wasn’t around him enough. Or perhaps there really are people in the world who are like Grandpa…I hope so.

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New York & Toronto: journal 3

Saturday August 26 

We took the subway to downtown Toronno (locals say Toronno) and walked along the harbor. The Blue Jays won in a slugfest over the Minnesota Twins so we heard roars rising from the open stadium and bouncing around the city canyons. The ferry carries 453 souls at a time over to Centre Island and it provides an extraordinary view of the city skyline. We walked to the far side to a sandy beach and watched pasty folks who found the beach novel, wading and corralling children in the shallow water as if this were the first time to experience sand and surf. But the salt air is missing along with the majestic powerful roar of surf pounding sand.

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Toronto Harbor with the CN Tower in the background

Lake Ontario is simply nudging up to the beach in gentle ripples. The children are stripping off their jean shorts to reveal camo or superhero underwear, boxers, briefs, it is all here on display.

Sunday August 27

We drove around the western edge of Lake Ontario through Hamilton and just shy of Niagara to fruit tree land. This area is afforded protection being hard against the western edge of Lake Ontario giving it just enough protection from north winds which are warmed by the lake in winter giving grapevines just enough comfort to keep  from freezing and lake generated snow keeps plenty moisture in the ground. There are vineyards and peach, nectarine, cherry, and apple orchards. We went into the orchards on a trailer pulled by a small tractor and used wide-spreading ladders older than me to pick peaches, nectarines, and a few plums which were not quite fully ripe yet, but should ripen off the vine in time.

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Karen climbs the peach tree.

This farm was established in 1799. There is a beautiful old tree with a huge trunk and low spreading limbs that I couldn’t identify as to species, so I asked a worker. She said the tree is a Purple Beech and came over with the family from Estonia on the ship, a small sapling traveling in a boot, and planted at the new homestead which became their front yard. Now it’s over 200 years old.

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This Purple Beech tree traveled in a boot as a sapling from Estonia over 200 years ago next to my son Brandon sporting Canadian socks, lime shorts, and a man bun all younger than most of the smallest limbs.

 

Afterwards we enjoyed fresh cold apple cider and shared a peach muffin from a roadside farmer’s market.

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Walking to the orchard to pick peaches, plums, and nectarines.

Then we had Cuban sandwiches and pulled pork shoulder with rice and beans and mango spicy salsa. Next door is a place called Bang Bang where they pair gourmet cookies with exotic ice cream. The line is always 30 plus deep. Here are some flavors: bellwoods stout beer n’ brown bread, black tea banana puddin’, Italian eggnog, salted caramel vanilla mojito… can’t even remember what I got but pretty sure I blacked out into a sugar induced coma afterwards.

 

New York & Toronto: journal 2

August 24-25, 2017

We drove to the Adirondack Mountains with Toby & Debbie Taylor with plans to kayak the Moose River near the village of Old Forge. We wandered through Old Forge Hardware established in 1900. It’s squeaking groaning oak floors tells stories of those from another time walking these same boards with hunting boots, saddle shoes, and blue leather Mary Janes.

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Dr. Toby Taylor who is 1/256 Cherokee Indian standing next to the drug store indian at Old Forge Hardware store.

On main street there are slabs of oak and red elm and butternut standing at attention like surf boards at the beach awaiting a buyer to transform them into breakfast bar tops. There is a candy shop with mini donuts and chunks of fudge and brown bottles of Saranac Root Beer. We came to kayak, but we never made it, losing ourselves in a 1970’s time warp of batting cages, go carts (yes, Karen cut someone off), an arcade with redemption games like pinball and skee ball, Pac Man, and Galaga, and right next door there is a dairy shack with a roof top ice cream cone where you can get a frozen custard cone rolled in crushed heath bar. I ignored my age all afternoon and acted 14 most of the day.

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according to, Kathleen McMichael Mulligan, this is my mom’s wedding picture with Karen’s Aunt Rose n my Dad Roy Fairbanks n her GMA’s other two sisters Aunt Mary n Aunt Bertha…

We drove west to Syracuse on Friday, then north on Interstate 84 to the Canadian Border crossing at Thousand Islands (salad dressing originated here) and then connecting with Canada’s 401 West.

As we drove north along interstate 84 in upstate New York, I listened to my wife go through a box of old pictures given to her by her sister Debbie after her mom had cleaned them out of the house before moving to Arizona from New Jersey. It felt like listening to Jack Buck call a Cardinals baseball game, very entertaining, but visually I have to create some of the images from verbal reactions and comments from Karen as I drive in a strange land on strange roads. Karen reacts to a picture of herself in a bikini on the roof of Cathcart dorm as a 9th grader visiting Harding University in the late 1970’s and I steal a glance since I would have been a freshman there at the time.

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Thom Mason in his James Dean rebel years. This picture was taken not long after a car wreck. He and some buddies were raiding a farmers watermelon crop and were chased away. In the scramble to escape, he did not sit in his usual seat in the car. Thom’s friend sat in that seat instead. His buddy died in the accident.

While we are still on I-84 in New York, Karen reads a letter written from her mother Anne who was pregnant with Debbie in August 1957. It is addressed to her husband Thom who was serving as an Army Reserve cook at Fort Drum in upstate New York. Karen always wondered about her Dad serving as a cook in the Army, where the love of cooking and making eggs and bacon for his children first began. Karen has always wondered where Fort Drum is. She looks up from her letter and spies a green interstate highway sign not far from the Canadian border just east of Lake Ontario. It’s an exit sign for Fort Drum.

The Unfolding Highway…part 1

I remember watching my Dad fold a road map on vacation while driving the highway. It is a lost art and the original texting while driving. Those maps had memory, and if you ignored the memory creases, there could be a thousand ways to fold the map, but only if you got in a hurry. So you looked or felt the memory at the fold line, the crease.

My family has always loved maps and the great American car vacation. Sometimes we unfold that highway map and see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, the Gateway Arch, a Disney cup in a small world after all and a runaway mine train in Silver Dollar City. I saw the folded paper and squiggly lines as a treasure map and the longing for the highway was passed down from the ghosts of Okies travelling route 66 to California. Dad and Mom have always enjoyed driving vacations and seeing the country and the sights.  

This love came mostly from Dad because he was afraid to fly. That was my theory anyway, but he would insist that driving the highways of these United States is a love affair, topographical intimacy at 70 MPH that goes deeper than asphalt, into the soil of our nation and those who have built cities and bridges and monuments and National Parks. I inherited this love like a dog in a Norman Rockwell station wagon, head out the window and tongue flapping in the breeze.

Although, I must confess my sins of omission, that I skipped a family frontier photo shoot at Worlds of Fun and I also skipped a Washington state vacation to play in the Little League state championship. Once, while vacationing in Orlando my junior year of high school, I flew back alone to Tulsa for a golf tournament. That first airline trip was a rite of passage, a happy moment. And even as I felt a bit alone leaving my family in Orlando, I felt a sense of independence, that my Dad and Mom had confidence in me to let me fly back on my own. I flew Delta Airlines and listened to canned airline music on my headphones, Eric Clapton’s Layla and Marry Me Bill by the Fifth Dimension. It wasn’t as manly as the Inuit Indians sending off a sixteen year old brave into the Arctic Sea in a sealskin canoe to hunt for caribou on a distant island, but it made me feel grown up.

My penance though, for missing those vacations is to write about the moments I remember.

I remember vacationing with the Davis cousins in Washington state and playing whiffle ball with Mark, Brooks, Greg and Toby, and riding a pony. Listening to Mom read doses of literature, her medicine from Reader’s Digest or the Bible was enabled by captive attention, our ears within the sound of her voice for extended hours as we drove. This was her highway pulpit encased in steel and glass, and as we listened, we were oblivious to the fact that the fuel needle was below “E” and Dad had speeded up to accelerate the resolution of out-of-gas suspense. Mom used teachable moments before anyone thought to call them teachable moments.

Sister Terri two-stepped and fell down the steps in front of 35,000 fans at Busch Stadium, the same place a $5 bill was pilfered from my 9-year old fingers at the hot dog stand. I was fascinated by a thousand cars leaving a stadium parking garage descending a corkscrew driveway, and addicted to chocolate malted ice cream frozen like arctic ice, and the ubiquitous lyrical serenade of wandering vendors, “Hey, ice cream…hey, hot dogs, hey cold beer.” At the Houston Astrodome I snagged a foul ball hit by Jesus Alou on a pitch by the Cardinals Nelson Briles.

Before Ralph Nader and the NHTSA, all 7 of us could fit in a red 1967 Ford Mustang driving to church and we piled 8 into a Chrysler Imperial for a vacation to California. We drove west a lot in those early years, to California, Colorado, Texas, and we once calmly watched a twister travel across a plowed field in west Texas like it was an antelope running across the prairie.

Once in Texas, after staying overnight at the Cochran’s in Spearman, Texas, Mom left a 10 dollar bill stuck in the door as some kind of tip or bed and breakfast fee and Aunt Nordeen took offense and they passed back that 10 dollar bill back and forth, screen door to wiper blade, through the mail slot and back to the car visor…I thought we’d never leave because these two children of the Depression were fighting over $10.

To be continued (part 1 of 2)

The Bones of 12 Acres

Before we built our home in 2005, the 12 acre site was grass and trees and water along with the bleached skeletons of cattle piled in a place our kids called the boneyard. I have lived in 22 homes, if you count college dorms and my in-laws basement. This sounds nomadic, and yet, 22 may be the one that I can never leave. Will we ever be able to sell the acreage that holds the memory of three weddings?

Near the north boundary is a wedding tree where my brother the preacher said, “Lauren, you may kiss your groom.”

And on the hill in front of the one-hundred year old oak trees, Elizabeth and Brandon said, “I do.”

Jenna Andrew facing pond

 

Jenna and Andrew were married just across the cedar bridge, next to the pond and the ancient oak trees which shade the resting place of Murray, a stray Manx cat we found on the seat of the Murray mower at our previous home.

Fourteen years ago, I stood with a shovel in my hands  leaning against my truck. Under the shade of that tree next to the swing where Jenna and Andrew were married fourteen years later, I laid my head on the hood of my truck and wept.

Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations, “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”

I had no idea what lay ahead of us in this place that now held the remains of a tailless feline that I had never asked for yet had come to love. And when he grew old and sick, quivering in pain, suffering, it was time to go home. So I brought Murray here to rest at this spot under an oak at the southwest corner of Philson Hollow pond, waiting for a moment that I never asked for but came to love, a  wedding and a strolling dance with my daughter.  

I found a receipt in my wallet recently from White Pie Pizzeria in Denver, which reminded me of another moment of recognition, that time had changed me, and my daughter, Jenna. On this receipt was listed the best pizza I have ever enjoyed:

PORKORINO: a wood-fired slightly charred pizza with House Red, Mozzarella, Sopressata, Pickled Chiles, Hot Honey – $14

As great as the pizza was, it wasn’t the most memorable thing from that meal. I was eating pizza facing the setting sun, wearing shades, hands sticky from the hot honey, and Jenna texted me this question: “What song do you want to dance to at the wedding?” I joked, O Canada, since it was her ringtone for a time.

We left White Pie and walked to our vehicle and I received another text from Jenna. It was a link to a song so I touched play while strolling a few paces behind Karen, and Bob and Sheila Martin, listening to Jessica Allossery sing, I’ll Let You Go. I had never heard the song, yet as I listened to the first acoustic strums, I realized my daughter wasn’t my baby anymore…and a lump formed in my throat and I felt an overwhelming river of emotion…my daughter is grown up, smart, tough, beautiful, spiritual, a lover of life and people, and then I heard these words:

The day has come, to let you go

Only happiness, I will show

I’ll always be here for you, you know

Nothing takes away my love and it shows

I lost it…and I opened the door to the Suburban while Bob, sitting on the passenger side, told me I wasn’t driving. It’s the only time in my life I had to have a designated driver.

So I stood on the hill overlooking the cedar bridge at 150 dear people waiting below but knowing for just a moment, she was still my girl. And I wasn’t going to weep in the sight of God and friends and the resting spot of Murray where I had wept 14 years before.

As we stood waiting on the hilltop, alone, I said, “Let’s have fun! We are going to have fun on this walk.” To which Jenna said, “Let’s dance…we’ll dance down to the bridge and then we’ll walk from there.”

So we did…and I have no idea what moves I made but it felt like floating down together doing our own thing on wings and feet of blue.

You’ve grown up now, things have changed

Grew some wings now, you’re flying away

I’ll always be here for you, you know

Nothing takes away my love and it shows

Yeah nothing takes away my love, When I let you go

Later we danced the father and daughter dance and we invited other fathers and daughters onto the dance floor. And I watched those dads get all misty eyed. I’m glad they had the chance to join us.

https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=yset_chr_syc_oracle&p=i%27ll+let+you+go+jessica+allossery#id=1&vid=0511a91699ea04748e81e50adcaeb64d&action=view

Then, I heard these words from the song:

You’re my baby

Always will be

I hope you know

My love stays when you go

And you hugged me and said, “I love you Daddy.”

Well, so much for not crying.

 

Jenna Andrew I present to you

Now, this land that was once the home of cattle and old bones is a place of priceless memories. Maybe one day, if the good Lord blesses our children with children, they will come roam this 12 acres and our children will show them the spots where we danced on wings and shoes of blue, show them the old boneyard and the garden, and maybe they will see the place where your journeys began, a wedding tree, a hilltop, the corner of a pond, where you said, “I do,” in front of God and loved ones and trees and blowing wildflowers, and a cat resting peacefully under an oak tree near the waters edge. 

Jenna, what a lovely young lady you are! You have married well. Now, go and love well!

God bless you, Jenna and Andrew! I hope you always know, my love stays when you go!

 

Country Driving

My mom, Charlotte Taylor, recently attended a York University retreat and was challenged to write and she did, writing a story called, Country Driving.

Mom instilled in her children a love of story. She read to us, her captive but nevertheless attentive audience, as we drove to California or Florida or Mt. Rushmore. She read from Reader’s Digest, Life in these United States or Drama in Real Life or just as likely, a chapter from the Bible.

 

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Grandpa Jess with Becky Davis

My wife was getting a massage recently by a friend who knows me and she said, “Brent is the woman, you are the man.” As my wife repeated this story to me, I took absolutely no offense. I’m in touch with my softer, feminine side, yet I still like the idea of driving a bulldozer. Both of these sides came from Mom which you’ll realize after reading her story called Country Driving.

 

I embrace my softer side (I use that term to describe beauty, not a lack of toughness) because I’ve learned at the feet of many beautiful but tough women who could drive a harvester by day and cook a meal for 8 by evening. My great-grandmother was the first one that I remember talking when I prayed aloud at the dinner table…”yes, Lord”…Grandma Beck would say, right out loud in the fat middle, not the end, of my prayer. Grandma Mildred spoke to me whenever she was awake, about vitamins and good food and gardening and hard work and modest shorts. And my mom has always been the fiber in my moral compass along with my wife who grows lovelier and more Godly every day, and my two daughters who teach me about beauty and creativity and joy and tenacity.

 

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Charlotte is 2nd from right

I am part of the harvest of prayer and diligent work that my mom provided. I realize I’m changing, like a seed coming out of the earth, little by little…becoming what God intended for me to be from the very beginning, and all the things I once longed for as a 21-year-old who had no idea what he didn’t know, those things seem trivial now. I’m getting closer to the wonder of seeing the One who dreamed me up in a funky quirky ironic moment, if moments indeed happen in the place beyond time.

George Steiner writes about how depriving our children of words can kill them: “To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial—a comic book is better than nothing so long as there is in it the multiplying life of language–if the child is left empty of texts, in the fullest sense of that term, she will suffer an early death of the heart and of the imagination.”

Mom is 81. And she is still a creative force. She is the primary reason I love to read and write and create. And when I see her reach back and plow up the field of her childhood into words and emotions, I can’t help but see what is still growing 70 years later. Families, rose bushes, lovers, gardens, creators, artists, the analytical, and the poetic.

Thanks for sharing this story from your youth. I love you Mom!

 

COUNTRY DRIVING

Living in the Panhandle of Oklahoma, I was aware of the wide open spaces that surrounded me.  Our farm was two miles from the closest neighbors.  So there were no obstructions to get in the way when I learned to drive – maybe an occasional cow.  But I didn’t drive in their pasture very often.  

Dad had five daughters before he got a son, so as his second daughter I was chosen to be his right hand girl. I was taller and “sturdier” than the other girls so I’m sure that was part of the selection process.  And I’m sure he knew I would always know just what to do.  “Charlotte, get me the lug wrench from the garage”.  And when you bring back the wrong one, you learn to be more discerning the next time.

I don’t have distinct memories of learning to drive or how old I was, but there were plenty of vehicles to learn on.  The pickup truck, the old Chevy truck with granny gear, the Case tractor and the International tractor were all mastered by the time I was 12 or 13.  I was a little older when I drove the back roads to the elevator in Boise City with a load of wheat.  Of course, Dad was ahead of me with a load in the old truck.

There were lessons learned as I drove the tractor pulling the combine as we harvested the wheat crop. Dad gave me hand signals because there was no way of hearing his voice above the roar of the tractor.  When the wheat was thick, Dad’s signal was “Slow down, Charlotte!”.  So I learned from Dad’s signals.  

There are times in life when things feel “thick” and I need to slow down.  And other times when it’s easier going and I can speed up.  The memories of Dad and his quiet, gentle ways linger with me today.  Because of his gentleness with me as I learned to drive and help around the farm, I can in turn show that patience with my family and others in my life.

Another lesson learned was the endurance of my parents.  As I drove the Case tractor around and around the field plowing up last season’s wheat stubble, it was hard not to be bored by the monotony.  But now I feel amazed at their ability to start over again after being hailed out or no rain or winds blowing it all away.  

To remember their courage and willingness to start anew each day is a blessing I will always remember.  And Dad would say, “Charlotte, get up and be thankful for each new day that the Lord gives you”.  Thanks, Dad!

Fly Fishing with Bob

Last summer my friend Bob and I were in Denver at a fly fishing outfitter admiring the gear and clothing. It was in that moment of idealistic longing that we decided to go trout fishing. Neither of us fish much. But the river called to us like the sirens singing to Delmar and Pete in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

Come on, brothers, let’s go down, Down in the river to pray

It was the siren call of the river that drew my friend and I into the water in search of a rising fish and a connection to a river that runs through each of us.

Scott met us in the McDonald’s parking lot and we shook hands. He was our guide for the next four hours of trout fishing in Silverhorne, Colorado. Snowmelt from the Rockies ripples over rubble wearing the gold and brown and gray stones into shapes that look like eternity. We were to fish in a Gold Medal stream, which means it has surpassed certain criteria for purity and the fishing is catch and release.

Fishing makes me aware of my duplicity. I love fishing, I hate fishing. I am compassionate, I am selfish. I give a man with a sign that reads, “Help, anything appreciated,” five bucks, but I ignore the homeless man standing on the street. Fishing is for suckers in one moment and it is transcendent in another, as Steven Wright describes, “Last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.”

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Brent & Bob

Scott is from Seattle but has lived and guided fishing trips for over twenty years in Colorado. Scott drove Bob and me down to the edge of a dirt parking lot next to the Blue River,  just below Dillon Dam. We donned our waders and boots and grabbed our fly rods and walked down the bank to the edge of the river. We encountered other fly fishermen during our time on the Blue, and the conversation was always fishing, what’s hitting, which fly, how are you setting indicators. Fly fishing seems to be more of an art than a science, more of a conversation than a lecture, more a dance than hike.

Bob, grew up, like me, on the plains of Oklahoma. Like me, he also married mysteriously well, his wife lovely and younger.

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Sheila & Karen

Our married children were born on the same day, and they are sometimes mistaken for twins.

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Lauren & Beck

We were dining together in the Lohi neighborhood of Denver and the waitress asked if Lauren and Beck were twins. No we replied, they were born within hours of one another, but they are not twins, they are alike but still very different.

Scott spends time with Bob and then with me, alternating, coaching, encouraging, sometimes talking to the fish, “Eat it!” he says as our tackle flickers just to the side of a shadow that looks to me like another rock, but to Scott’s practiced eye, is a fish. They are alike, they are different, the water pounds both fish and rock, and the shapes beneath the surface change without perception to the untrained eye.

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On a trout river we are all alike but different. There are no strangers on a river, we are one with the sun and the stream and the fish. All things fade into sunlight and rippling water and the rhythm of a line and a current and as Norman Maclean says so poetically, in A River Runs Through It, “…all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”

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The cast is more flick than muscle, and Scott has the muscle memory layered year over year compared to mine which is only a few minutes old. Yet he helps me, always saying, “Perfect,” when my tackle and indicator hits the flow of the stream near a yellow rock exactly where he has asked me to cast and as the indicator flows downstream I watch it bob and flow in the rhythm of the river waiting for a fish to strike and plunge it down and out of sight for a moment. Then I know the fly has either been caught between two rocks or a rainbow has hit it and is running. “Let it run,” Scott coaches us. “Your line is 3.5 pound test and if you resist, the fish will break the line, let it run, but keep the tip up and some tension, then when the pressure is slight reel in some line.”

Trout 3

My wife teaches yoga, and to her delight (no really, she loves it) I attend her sessions occasionally, and she has helped me with practices of calmness, quietness, and inner core strength, which is both spiritual and physical at the same time. And it’s helped my golf game, I more limber, able to play a game that requires violent twisting of the back and torso, with more suppleness and grace than before I started working out with her. Since we have this in common, we went together, the four of us, Bob, Sheila, Karen and me, to a tiny yoga studio in Frisco, Colorado. So the four of us are something, we are not sure what…friends-in-law? Anyway, we are traveling friends. We go places and we eat good food and enjoy God’s creation.

We fished the west bank of the Blue River heading north, holding on to the willows as we walked the stream bed edge. The worn round and oval stones in the stream bed were of varied sizes, from football size down to golf ball sizes, so the footing was uneven, and our walking required finding a firm foothold with the lead foot before following suit with the trailing foot. Bob and I both purchased wool socks the day before, but our feet were already cold by 9:00 am. And when we caught a rainbow, Scott netted the fish and told us, “Wet your hands.” And into the icy stream our hands plunged, then we grabbed the fish for a picture before it could wriggle away. After fishing the west bank for half the morning, we crossed the stream in a strong current, keeping a low secure base with our feet. Later, near the end of our time on the river, my back began to ache, and I realized how much core energy it took to stay upright in the rapids of an icy river. This was an entirely new kind of yoga pose, practice and repetition, eyes focused, body tensed against the swiftly flowing river.  

There is something in the stream that we can’t define but seek anyway, hope, faith, sustenance, connection to those who have fished before us. And it isn’t just in the river that we seek that, but in the rapids of living. A few days earlier, we sat at an intersection in Denver, and a homeless man sat, gritty, ragged, begging…I was driving and saw in the corner of my eye the passenger window coming down.

Bob talks to everyone without judgement. When we dine, he always asks the waiter/waitress, “What’s your name?” And eye contact. I’ve seen Bob give money to what many of us would call bums, but he gives them much more than that, he gives the touch of another human being, eye contact, I have noticed you, and a question, “How are you?” And the money, whether for a cup of coffee or a down payment on a bottle of cheap wine, doesn’t seem to matter, because a river runs through all of us.

Bob’s rolling down the window and he has a bill crumpled up in his hand. He yells out at the man who is seated and who is now trying to get on his feet, “How ya doin’? Don’t get up…here, I’ll throw it too you.” And he tosses a $5 dollar bill at his feet.

Bob rolls up the window and I said, “What did you throw?” Bob replies, “A $100 bill.” I tell Bob, “You went to heaven and hell in one sentence.”

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a $100 bill and Bob is kidding, but that isn’t the point is it?

Norman Maclean also writes in, A River Runs Through It, “We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman…

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Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river runs over rocks from peaks to valleys. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

It’s the day after our fishing expedition and we are in Vail, Colorado, at a LuLu Lemon shop and the girls are shopping for workout wear. The staff is friendly and they ask us where we are from. While the girls are in the dressing room, Bob and I are talking to the sales girl who is from a little town near Littleton. Bob’s son, Beck, is playing Link Larkin in the musical, “Hairspray,” at the Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton. It’s a small world. We tell her about our fly fishing trip and she says, “I love to fly fish!” and she tells about her Dad taking her fly fishing just down the road. And I think of how fly fishing makes us search for our true north, how it makes us feel that old feeling of duplicity, I am a fool, and yet sometimes, I am wise.

“Her dad would pull over to the side of a bridge, and they would watch from above, before he slipped down the bank to catch them. She was charmed by the motions of trout. How they take their forms from the pressures of another world, the cold forge of water. Their drift, their mystery, the way they turn and let the current take them, take them, with passive grace. They turn again, tumbling like leaves, then straighten with mouths pointing upstream, to better sip a mayfly, to root up nymphs, to watch for the flash of a heron’s bill. The current always trues them, like compass needles. When she watches them, she feels wise.”  Matthew Neill Null, Allegheny Front

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Blue River

We are all fishermen, some of us fish for money by the side of the interstate, some go to work each day fishing for legal tender, for others fishing is natural, an easy way to be yourself, but for some it is the measure of what is true in each of us.

Like those rainbow trout, life forms us with pressure and we take it with passive grace until it tumbles us like leaves until we straighten pointing upstream, until eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs, but we can’t see them yet because our eyes are the eyes of novices, unlike Scott, who has practiced all his life to distinguish the shape of a rock from a fish. One day, maybe I will be able to see fish like Scott and look beneath the tumbling shining waters, to see those fish and those words underneath the rocks and that they are beautiful.

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Our guide, Scott