My Fishing Pole

Flame orange life vest buckled snugly around my chest, I sat in a rented rowboat with my uncle and my father. My new Zebco rod was perfectly sized for me, and its pushbutton spin reel made casting easy. I reeled in the lure with gentle jerks of my wrist meant to make it appear lifelike, then cast it out again.

I wondered how deep the water was where we were. Neither of the grownups could say for sure. I leaned over a little and peered downward. A couple of feet below the surface the water was a cloudy olive drab, and after that it went opaque with shadows.

Snags were an inevitable part of fishing an Adirondack lake. Normally, persistence paid off, but when it didn’t, the line had to be snapped or cut. This time it was really caught, and I couldn’t work it loose. It was a favorite lure, though, and I wasn’t willing to give it up without a fight.

My uncle rowed toward the snag. I kept the line taut so it wouldn’t get tangled in the oars. He circled slowly, thinking we might be able to free the hook from a different angle. It wouldn’t let go.

I miscalculated the effect of the waves on the boat’s motion, and felt a sudden tug. My heart snagged in my throat as I fumbled with the reel to let out more slack. But I was too slow and my prized Zebco was yanked clean out of my hands. It drifted down into the shadows and disappeared.

My Dad was born at home because the hospital was a luxury his parents couldn’t afford. He learned to love the outdoors at an early age, and in due course became a Boy Scout. After high school he joined the Army, where he learned to peel potatoes and fire a bazooka. When he got home he married my mother and went to work bagging groceries. Around the time I was born, he got hired by IBM, and spent the next thirty-some years punching the clock for Big Blue. He was a pipe smoker, a wood carver, and the scoutmaster of my Cub Scout troop. He was and is a Yankee fan, a Ford driver, and a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. At six-foot-two plus, and well over two hundred pounds, he’s rarely been described as graceful. And yet, it was grace I saw in the powerful, implausible quickness with which he shed his clothes and entered the dark water.

Patiently, methodically, again and again, he dove down in search of my lost fishing pole. In between, he’d surface and tread water while he caught his breath. His reddish-blond crew cut and broad, freckled shoulders were almost incandescent, bobbing in the slate-green lake. He kept at it, curling downward and vanishing with nary a splash, like a pale sea lion in Sears skivvies. My eyes must have been saucers. My thoughts were a swirl of despair, wonder, and admiration. My uncle grinned at his big brother, and egged him on.

Long after a less stubborn (and frugal) man would have given up, unbelievably, my Dad found my fishing pole. Up through the airless shadows he surfaced, prize in hand. He swam to the boat, and returned my Zebco to me. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been Excalibur. He told my uncle and me he’d meet us at the campsite because he wanted to swim in.

We tied the rowboat to a tree trunk, and watched my Dad breaststroke toward us through the waves. Once he reached shallow water, he went flat against the rocky bottom, and pulled himself along like a crocodile up to the edge of our campsite. Thankfully, since his white underpants were obviously not a bathing suit, and since some neighboring campers had become interested, he stayed beneath the cover of the waterline until the last minute. My mother waded out with a beach towel, and wrapped it around him as he stood up.