There was a time when every weekend meant hours prowling the Loxahatchee River, the Intracoastal Waterway, Jupiter Inlet, and the edges of the Atlantic Ocean out to the Gulf Stream. Most often, it was our boat, but there were many times when a ride was hitched with friends. There were also numerous trips to Lake Okeechobee as well as infrequent journeys to the Everglades, Stick Marsh, and even the cooling ponds at the FPL power plant in Indiantown. A lot of time and effort was put into fishing, but catching? Not so much.
Times changed. Kids grew up. Kids built lives for themselves. Good times became fond memories. Tough times required serious commitment to families, jobs, and health. The boats were sold or simply stopped running. The rods were put away. Contact dwindled to occasional brief phone conversations or even less frequent email messages.
Then, the phone call came: “Hey Dad, I want to tell you something…” Six months later, the door that was opened has enabled me to pass into a world so precious it defies definition. John, my eldest, had stopped into John B’s Fly and Light Tackle in Stuart. He had heard that it was the place to go, that John B had a heart of gold and a burning desire to turn every man, woman, and child into a fly-fisherman. My two granddaughters had tagged along with their dad on this expedition and patiently passed the time sitting on the floor engrossed in fly-fishing magazines. When the hour-long process had culminated in a $3.50 transaction and my son gathered the kids to leave, John B insisted that they wait until he finished rummaging around in the back of the store. He finally returned with a juvenile rod and reel, which he offered to the sisters as a gift.
All my life, I have lived by the belief that there is goodness in every person. A young person sometimes has difficulty grasping that concept especially after struggling mightily to find success and happiness. That day, my son became a believer.
John B had told my son that a friend of his gave free fly-fishing lessons every Saturday morning at Indian Riverside Park in Jensen Beach. “Do you want to go with me this Saturday?” The stars were properly aligned. The wind was in the right quadrant. Everything fit together perfectly, and the park became my Saturday morning destination.
Even with no expectations, the experience was a continuing series of surprises. John and I arrived nearly 1/2 hour early to an open expanse of grass on the edge of the Indian River, which seemed like as good a place as any to wet a line. The day was off to a beautiful start. While some shy from the sun and heat of an August day, I thrive on it. Even at 8:30am, the temperature was poised in the high 70’s on its way to a real scorcher. The heat had stolen the wind leaving a dead calm weighted with humidity. My kind of day!
The slate gray Suburban with US Army, Stars and Stripes, and Airborne stickers rolled into the parking lot and backed lazily to the curb. Finally settled into place, the tank’s door popped open and belched out our instructor. There was no doubting ownership of the vehicle, as his belt buckle carried the same military theme with the impressive winged parachute front and center. A body that had experienced one too many low altitude jumps in full gear was twisted like a pretzel. It didn’t slow his gait. Gigantic hands formed a grip that did not hide their strength. The voice was clear. The gaze was sharp. Our instructor was a force to be reckoned with. Introducing himself as “Sarge,” we quickly learned that he was a retired Command Sergeant Major, an original member of the Special Forces, and was in his mid-80’s.
His sidekick who arrived shortly thereafter is a retired Air Force colonel who is fighting the vagaries of Agent Orange. I was stunned to discover the depth of Sarge’s warmth, his innate ability to simplify a complicated process and his patience as we struggled to duplicate his effortless cast. Instead of fish in the river, we were casting to bare patches in the grass. Typically, 15-20 feet of line ended up in a pile within 10 feet of where we were standing. Sarge can drop a perfect, straight/taught line over a squirrel’s back at 90 feet! We had a long, long way to go.
The hour passed too quickly. The following week passed equally fast, but with one exception: multiple phone conversations with John reviewing the events of that fateful Saturday, discussing fruitless practice sessions, and planning the next excursion. The weeks and months have marched inexorably onward with mundane work and life experiences punctuated with entertaining fly-fishing classes. If I can somehow learn to stop bending my arm, the endless pushups might come to a halt. Each week, others have joined us, but none have remained. John and I continually return, more for the contact with a truly wonderful old soldier than for perfection of our cast.
John B died. He died way too soon, way too fast. No one was ready to let him go. The memorial service at that same park was attended by hundreds of family, friends and acquaintances. John and I were there. We shared the grief. We laughed at the stories. We marveled at the tightness of the fishing community in which he thrived. While we frequent other similar stores, we try hard to make our purchases where they will in some small way help John B’s family.
John and I talk nearly every day. Once a week we meet at his home and work on a 14-foot johnboat that we plan to use this summer in quest of snook, trout, and redfish. John’s brother, Morgan, has a new “best friend forever.” Dan is the salesman in the Orvis store in Alexandria, VA, Morgan’s home. During his infrequent visits to the area, the three of us manage to squeeze in some time to try a new stream, canal, or pond.
It’s not like “old times.” Everything has changed. John and Morgan’s mother, my first wife, is fighting cancer. Morgan is battling a chronic illness. We all seem to have a fair share of dents and bruises, but we have also found a place in our minds and hearts where we can escape to lie back and immerse ourselves in the comfort of relationships that are totally devoid of rules, exceptions, or disruptions.
Fly-fishing has opened the door to a world populated almost exclusively with John Bs, Sarges, Colonels, and other equally warm, generous, good people. The space that world has provided for my sons and me cannot be defined. We are learning to simply accept it with the deepest gratitude.
This story was originally posted on 2/13/10 at: http://anothercasualobserver.blogspot.com/2010/02/family-fly-fishing-fun.html