I’m hard pressed to write about fathers. I had one and I’ve known several, one or two very well, but I don’t think like a father so everything I write is from a spectator’s point of view. It gives the whole challenge of ‘voice’ another couple of degrees of difficulty.
So I have no option but to tell a story.
When I was a teenager, the last child to live at home, my brother and sister both several years older than me and already gone on to their own lives, my parents and I would spend a week every summer in a cabin on Gulliver Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Every morning before dawn, my father would get up in the dark of the one room cabin, put coffee on the gas stove to perk and pack his gear to go fishing. From my rollaway bed, I’d hear him lumber out the door carrying his tackle box, a few minutes later, there’d be the sound of the rowboat pushed into the water, the oars dipping into the water, and, in a bit, the tear of the boat motor. If I looked out the window, I’d see him headed to the center of the lake, the sun just rising. He would be sitting in the back of the boat, his hand on the throttle, with his rounded shoulders and tractor baseball cap.
This was his vacation from working six days a week, 12 hours a day, getting up before dawn to fish by himself.
By mid-morning, he would be back, a row of fish on a stringer. In the fish cleaning shed, he’d put one big finger in a fish’s mouth, clamp his thumb around the gill, and scrape the scales off with a little metal tool with mean-looking teeth. It bothered me that he didn’t cut the fish’s head off first because it seemed that the scaling would be painful. To me, it was more evidence of my dad’s lack of something, empathy? He didn’t care about the fish. It never occurred to him.
One night he laughingly suggested that I get up early the next morning and go fishing with him. “Okay,” I said, surprising both of us. This meant being alone with my father, probably for several hours in a boat in the middle of a lake without my mother to mediate. It seemed a cross between a dare and a nightmare.
He decided we should fish for Northern Pike, big long fish with mean teeth, impossible to filet and worse to eat because they have a million tiny bones. But they were ‘scrappers’ as my dad said and would be fun to catch. We started trolling, the low hum of the boat motor the only sound on big Gulliver Lake, hardly a light on in any of the cabins, the V-shaped wake flowing out behind the boat like a long skirt.
Every now and then I’d get a strike but unless he saw it, I’d just keep my line in the water. Reeling in a pike opened the door to all kinds of trouble, breaking the line and losing the lure, leaning over the side of the boat with the net, the pike flopping and arching with its fins ready to slice up my legs, and finally getting it into the boat where it would lie on its side, the hook in its mouth, flapping and moving and waiting for what would happen next.
“Get the pliers out of the tackle box. Put your foot on him right behind the gill and pull that hook out.” With that, my father turned to cast his line off the rear of the boat. We’d stopped trolling but we were still moving ever so slowly. He didn’t want to waste the time and he didn’t want to look at me. Looking could be interpreted as sympathy or interest or even a prelude to helping or just doing what needed to be done.
“He’s not going to take himself off the hook.”
So there, with five minutes to spare because it’s now 11:55 p.m. CST, is my story. My father would have waited all day for me to take that fish off the hook. There would be no point at which he would feel sorry for me or decide he was tired of waiting. There was no question about it, no shirking of my responsibility and no un-catching of the fish.
That’s all. That’s my reflection tonight on fathers and what a good one might teach us.