What the heck is a Stehekin anyway?

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I have a confession to make.  I used to hate fly fishing.  That may sound a bit harsh, but  I do come by my aversion naturally.   My dislike of fly fishing started on my tenth birthday when my dad wrenched the fiberglass Fenwick pole and Mitchel 308 reel out of my hand, pressed a bamboo 7 foot rod into it, tossed my Folgers can of worms into the water, walked me to the edge of Ward Creek and told me to wade into the freezing water and start casting.  I stood there shivering,  pitching a line into the water over and over and over in order to learn the finer points of the single-handed cast.  “It’s like throwing an apple off the end of a stick!” my dad yelled at me from the bank, as if anyone had ever put an apple on the end of the stick to throw it.  I never really got it.  Oh, I got the casting and stripping and all that because I am, after all, a very, very handsome and naturally gifted athlete with God-given superior hand-eye coordination, but I never really understood the appeal of it all.  I wasn’t catching, I was casting, and it felt a bit to me like the fish had the advantage.  Standing waist deep in a swirling river that was trying to swamp me so the fish could peck at my eyes as I washed down river never felt all that enjoyable or natural.  It always seemed to me that I should be pulling fish out of the river and not the other way around.

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I’m the one in the Xtratufs

It just wasn’t  all that fun, and not only wasn’t it all that fun, I always felt that there was way too much to learn to even begin to think it WAS fun.  The sheer volume of skill and knowledge my dad said a fly fisherman must possess to cast a line to catch a fish far outstripped my persistent ADD and I always found my mind wandering to the question of why can’t I just put a worm or an egg onto the end of the hook and pitch it out into the current?  If the end goal is to catch fish, this is certainly easier and by far more effective.  Silly me.  If a fly fisherman were to do that, not only would he be looked down upon by the other men dressed in waterproof, yet breathable, lederhosen, he would be called a BAIT fisherman by those same angry men, held down, and have his special card forcibly removed from his wallet, torn into pieces, and cast upon the fetid, stained and tainted bait-fishing waters of his shame and no one wants that.

If done correctly, however, fly fishing is an art form and one that even a bait fisherman can appreciate.  It is beautiful to see a fly fisherman use a whippy stick to cast a line onto calm water.  But there is science behind the art and it’s not just any old fishing line being cast, mind you, but a special fishing line that can either fully float, fully sink, partially float or partially sink, be weight forward or double tapered and all fly fishermen are required to know the difference and when and where each is to be used.  There are also countless types of leaders and tippets that attach to the floating or sinking line and multiple knot variations used to attach each to the other.  The line also has to perfectly match the size and weight of the rod (do not call it a pole) if you want it to actually work well.  These rods come in different sizes, weights and pieces ranging from a two piece, seven foot, one weight to a four piece, nine foot, fourteen weigh.  There are multiple variations on this theme and you must know what it all means and which to use to catch whichever species of fish you plan to target (notice I did not say catch, because that rarely happened in my experience).  Pair the wrong line with the wrong rod and disaster could strike or, at the very least, you will look like an idiot.

A skillful fly fisherman must also have expert entomological skills (not to be confused with etymological skills, though using the proper swear words when your line wraps around the same miniscule tree branch for the third time in a row is important too and very useful to have in your personal bad word tackle box) so he can identify every single living creature in the water, know its life cycle and how to mimic it using nothing more than elk hair, twine, tinsel and parts off a dead chicken.  The mimicking part is much different than the fishing part and is a special kind of torture enjoyed by a wide range of people as they sit in the dark recesses of their basements and “man caves,” or “she sheds,” (yes, women tie too) illuminated by a single light, only coming out long enough to wander down to the coffee shop in hopes of getting into a discussion with other masochists about whether a purist would ever use rubber legs on a stone fly or if using an egg or worm pattern isn’t actually really just bait fishing.  It’s different than voodoo, but not by much.

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The reward also seemed so, how do I say this… unrewarding compared to the sheer amount work one has to put in to get a fish to even look at the mimic (also known as “the fly”).  This imitation of the real is attached to the end of the tippet and used to attract, or in most cases, amuse, the fish when not tied correctly.  I guess if you enjoy the skill of it one might find it enjoyable, but if you actually wanted to catch fish, I used to think that you’d get better results trying your hand at bow fishing or noodling.  I thought fly fishing was akin to hunting for geese, but before you got into the field you had to build your own shotgun, make your own shell casings and gun powder, and pour molten lead into tiny molds to make your own shot.  When all was built you then went into the field blindfolded and if you happened to bag a goose, you ran to it in the hopes that you hadn’t killed it.  You then hold it in your arms until it catches its breath, take a picture of it and let it go.

This last part is called catch and release and is akin to dating in high school and is considered honorable among fly fisherman, but is a source of contention between Dream Crusher and me.  I catch big fish, but if they have an adipose fin still attached the law requires that you release them back into the wild so they can make wild babies (as opposed to hatchery babies), but for the life of her she cannot understand how I can spend an entire day catching fish and not bring home anything to put in the smoker.  She questions my manhood and the truth of my stories and swears up and down that I keep showing her the same picture of the same fish I caught on week one and that I really only go out on the boat to smoke and drink with my fishing partner, Dave, which isn’t the whole truth because I quit smoking years ago.

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Smoking is my passion

However, something happened to me a few weeks ago that changed my thinking.  I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve repented and that my change in heart has sent me scouring the interwebs for things like double tapered floating line, net magnets, felt-soled wading boots, head cement, and hackle capes.   I’m blushing a little, however, because I wasn’t even an agnostic, I was a full blown, unbelieving skeptic, but on that day, as I heard the preacher preaching what he was preaching, a beam of light fell upon me out of the stormy clouds as the wind whipped violently around me.   I jumped out of my seat, ran the aisle, and fell at the altar of the single handed cast and asked what must I do to change my evil ways and catch fish like man was meant to catch fish?  And Doug said, as he looked kindly into my eyes and placed his hand on my shoulder, “My son let me introduce you to the Stehekin River – a river so beautiful and so clear that it takes the breath away – and to fish so big that when they rise out of the water to take the dry fly, the echo of its body crashing back into the water will sound off the canyon walls for a full two minutes.”  I bowed my head and wept silently.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in January I was approached by my friend, Aaron, who works for an amazing ministry called Family Lines.  You might remember Aaron as the omni-competent guide from my post a few years back when Allison and I went on the Owyhee River together and I tasted death multiple times and found God.  He asked me (Aaron that is, not God) if Molly and I wanted to go on an amazing fishing trip and talk about our father/daughter relationship, along with two other father daughter pairs.  We agreed and off we went, neither of us knowing much about fly fishing, who we were going with, whether any of the Family Lines staff had any weird diseases (they do spend weeks on end in the wilderness), where we were going, how we were to get there, or what on earth we were going to talk about.   All we knew is that we were going, that we were going to talk, and we were going to fish.

None of my kids had ever really fished growing up (although Allison did catch a number of big fish in her college years with Dave and me, and if she’s around, I still rub her head when we make a run to the river) and by every stretch of the imagination I would have been considered an Idaho dead-beat dad because I live in the most huntable, fishable, campable state in the union and never did any of it with my kids.  We never went hunting or camping or fishing except for that time when Idaho had a free fishing day and I took the boys and we caught one hatchery raised rainbow trout on a piece of corn and we got free orange hats, but the girls never fished once.  The closest they came was the time we went crabbing at Rockaway, which was fun, but not fishing, and so I really had no idea that Molly even liked to fish (I’m not sure she knew either) until Dave and I took her Steelhead fishing last year.

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First Steelhead

As we were slowly backing the boat into the glory hole on the Clearwater River (it does have a name which I am not at liberty to divulge), Molly sat on the engine cover and talked to me as I ran the kicker.  “How you doing, honey?” I asked.  She had just moved back from Boise and I was thrilled to have her on the boat.  “Good.  It’s really nice to be out in the fresh air.  It’s really nice to be out in nature. This is pretty.”  She said all this with a kind of wistful voice and a sigh as if she was fine, but bored out of her mind.  Then all hell broke loose and a huge Steelhead grabbed the plug – aptly named Dr. Death – and she grabbed the pole and the fish tried to drag her off the boat and down the river.

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Maniacal gleam

There is something magical and terrifying at the same time when you have a Steelhead on your line and it tries to rip the pole out of your hands.  They fought to the death, literally, for ten minutes and by the end, when Dave netted the fish and said “It’s clipped,” we all cheered and Molly turned to me and she had that maniacal gleam in her eye that I had only seen once or twice before (see the Allison comment above).  She held the enormous Steelhead up so Dave could take a picture and it was huge and so was her smile.  At the end of the day I asked if she wanted to clean it and as she gutted it I heard her giggle a little and then my licensed cosmetologist, make-up artist, fashion-forward daughter held up the pile of fish eggs in her perfectly manicured hands so I could take a picture and I realized at that moment that she was hooked.

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So, I wasn’t all that sure she was going to like fly fishing.  In my experience fly fishing produced miniscule fish and the chase always seemed to be more important than the actual size of fish you caught.  The fish I’ve seen are pretty, dainty, delicate creatures that “fight” for a while and then roll over and sit quietly while they are taken out of the bamboo net to be photographed and no matter how close you hold them to the camera everyone can tell how small the fish is by comparing it to the size of your hands and unless you have Manute Bol hands no matter how close to the camera you hold the fish everyone can tell exactly how big the fish is and no matter how much you want people to think you’re holding a raging beast between your thumb and forefinger everyone knows that you are actually only holding  a very tiny smolt no more than a few inches long.

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Manute Bol hands

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against smolt. In fact, without smolt, Molly wouldn’t have caught that Steelhead.  Smolt turn into big fish that I use a big boat (it’s actually Dave’s boat and he runs it) and large rattling lures to catch and then muscle up to the net and hold  close to my body because they are too heavy to hold out to the camera.  Then I  (sometimes Dave does this) whack them on the head (if they’ve had their adipose fin circumcised) and throw them in the fish box, grab my steaming mug of hot tea (I only drink tea because coffee does bad things to me) which is almost as manly as drinking thick, black coffee (okay, it’s not, but it tastes really good, especially with sugar and cream – okay, non-dairy creamer, actually, because dairy does bad things to me – and besides no one can tell that I’m not drinking coffee once I take the little baggie out of the cup using the cute little white paper flag), take a swig, push the button on the TR-1 (sometimes Dave pushes the button), let out the lines, and then I am (and Dave is) fishing again… for large angry fish.

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Dave and me and an angry fish

So yeah, I was a little worried that Molly might not like fly fishing and, after a long ferry ride and her first afternoon on the Stehekin, I was worried doubly so.  As she sat on the rocks waiting for others to get tired of catching nothing and start back to camp, she looked for all the world like she wished she had cell reception.  “It’s beautiful, it’s nice to be out in nature, it’s nice,” she looked as if she wanted to say; only this time there wasn’t a S0teelhead to break into her reverie… or any fish for that matter.   She probably wasn’t exactly bored, but tall majestic mountains and a beautiful, rushing river are good things to look at for a while.  They are good things, but they are not fish things.

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No cell reception

Fly fishing is challenging on a calm day, and any kind of fishing is difficult on a windy day, but fly fishing on a very windy day is almost impossible because no matter how hard you fling the line it comes shooting back at you like a wispy ball of tangled yarn.  If by some miracle the wind lets up a bit and you do get your fly line to lay down on the water, the wind whips the trailing line and drags your fly down the river like it’s got its own engine and the natural presentation of the fly is ruined and more than likely so is fishing for that day and we had wind in spades – high, gusty winds like you hear about in the scary tales of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Stehekin River is quite possibly the most beautiful river I’ve ever been on and I’m from Alaska where big beautiful rivers are a dime a dozen, but as we forded the same stretch of the river on the morning of the second day and the same high wind was trying to push me over and the river was trying to lay me down, I really couldn’t see the beauty in it and started wishing for my spinning gear and a flat calm lake while sitting on Gertrude McDudieface, my Boston Whaler.  However, Mindy, our excellent and faithful guide, pushed us on and kept up her cheerful banter and patiently switched out flies and leaders in hopes of getting us on the bite and though I had one fish rise to my strike indicator neither of us caught any fish and as we trudged back through the turbulent waters a quote from Nacho Libre came to mind, or a variation thereof, “The Stehekin is a lie, Steven… A LIE!”

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Casting into a headwind

It wasn’t as though I was in a bad mood.  I wasn’t.  After all, I was on a trip with my daughter in a location with no cell coverage.  I was surrounded by great people in a great place with great food and as we sat around the dining room table waiting for Jon and Doug (two amazing guides and friends) to get back from scouting our new afternoon fishing location, we warmed up, ate a good lunch, and had some really good conversation.  I was in good spirits, but the hope of catching any fish was quickly waning and even though I was told that the Stehekin was better even than the rivers of Montana and the rivers in Montana are so legendary that they wrote a book and made movie about them, I had never heard of any books written about the Stehekin.  At the end of the meal I was beginning to wonder if the scenery, the food, and good conversation was really all that I had to look forward to for the next day and a half.  I was mapping out my plan to make it a five pound week if it was.

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After lunch I squeezed my skeptical, well fed and breathable wader-clad-body into the van and in my food induced coma I almost missed the fact that we turned the other way on the road coming out of the ranch.  It was warm and my less-than-toned-and-tanned body jiggled merrily away as the van rattled down the road, trying to lull me to the point of sleep.  The banter going on in the van was pleasant and as I watched the river slide by I realized that I shouldn’t have had three cups of tea and a glass of water at lunch.

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As I trotted off into the woods to take care of some business, Mindy got our gear ready.   When I got back everyone was already halfway up the road to our fishing spot and as I caught up to them I realized that Doug had been assigned to our little band of The Three Amigos and I was kinda sad that our little troupe couldn’t have just wandered off to make our own way.  However, I figured that Aaron thought that we were so hopeless that we needed two guides instead of one. There were no fish in this river anyway so what did it really matter if we had one or two guides, but Aaron knew better.  Doug is an amazingly kind, soft spoken and gentle man, but he WAS the one who said the Stehekin was better than all the rivers in Montana and so I looked at him with a wary eye and as we walked I lagged behind and, to my shame, I abandoned Molly to the guides and fished another patch of dead water that I thought looked promising.  I really had no clue.  Little did I know our education was about to begin.

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I was a little discouraged, but mostly resigned to not catching fish and as I wandered over to where Doug was teaching Molly the finer points of how to let the line swing to the end of the float and use the pressure of the water to bend the rod and gently lay the fly back upstream in one fluid motion, I prayed “Lord, please let the daughters catch fish today.”   It might seem like an odd thing to ask for, but I know my God loves to give good gifts to his children and so I thought I might just bring it to His attention.  I would have been happy either way, but much happier to have caught fish.  I’m kind of selfish that way.

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I know this will be hard to believe, but moments after I said that prayer and on the very next cast, Molly caught nothing, and on the next cast she also caught nothing, but on the next cast she caught the biggest nothing I had ever seen.  No fish, nada.  However, Doug calmly continued to point to the water and teach and take a few steps upstream, teach and move, teach and move until Molly was in a fly fishing rhythm with every cast falling more or less where Doug wanted it.  Mindy and I just kind of watched and listened.  Then it happened.  Molly’s cast landed in a seam in the river about three quarters of the way across.  She stripped line and lifted her rod to keep the strike indicator moving at a natural pace.  It was a beautiful thing to watch and I might have teared up a bit. She had just dropped the tip of the rod and was about to pay out line when it hit.  Her rod bent double as the huge Cutthroat tried to pull the rod out of her hand and she set the hook like she had a giant Steelhead on, and, in doing so, yanked the fly clean out of the fish’s mouth.   I can imagine that the Cutthroat at that moment must have thought, “What the heck was that?!”

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I whooped, then wheezed, as the air went out of me and I went from elation to dejection in the span of a few seconds.  It was like an entire baseball stadium heard the crack of the bat only to realize that it was just a very loud and long foul ball.  The rod dropped to her side and we all kind of groaned… everyone that is except Doug who took a few steps upstream and told her to try again, only this time to use a bit more finesse if she hooked another fish and reminded her that these weren’t Steelhead.

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A few steps and a few casts later she laid her line onto a beautiful pool in the river and let the fly swing through the tail out.  Moments before she was going to flip the line back up stream a solid Rainbow crashed her fly.  She didn’t panic, but raised the tip of her rod and with gentle pressure set the hook.  It fought hard and tried to get tangled in an old tree snag, but Molly moved quietly away from it, holding the line tight and with what looked like a practiced hand, guided the fish to Doug’s waiting net.  I’m not sure who had the bigger smile, the student or the teacher.   I could see Doug talking to her as he unhooked the fish and left it sitting in the net which he had also left in the swirling water of the river so the fish could continue to breath.  She nodded, wet her hands, then gently lifted the rainbow out of the net and both of them turned to me and smiled for a picture.  Then she lowered her hands into the river and the trout bolted for freedom either to be caught, or not, another day.

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This may sound dumb and simplistic, but as I stood there I realized that fishing is a great analogy for fatherhood.  To someone who loves almost nothing more than catching fish, watching Molly land her first large trout, I realized that, simply stated, being a dad means you find greater pleasure and enjoyment out of watching your daughter catch a fish than you do from catching one yourself.  It’s very simplistic, but I think it correlates pretty well to the father/child relationship.   As a father almost everything I do for my children is because of one thing and that is that I find more pleasure in seeing them succeed than I do in my success, and I do love to succeed.

Molly caught a lot of fish that day and as we were getting ready to head back to the ranch Doug told Molly that not many other people had caught fish and if anyone asked how many she had caught, just tell them “a few.”  Well, he didn’t tell me not to say anything and so after we got back to the ranch and someone asked me, I did a toned down version of my victory dance, then lifted my shirt just enough so they could see the ten tiny hash marks I had etched into my belt with my knife and I just smiled as they whistled through their teeth.  Okay, that last part isn’t perfectly true, but she did catch ten and they were beauties.

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The next morning we made a b-line for the “Magic Kingdom” as it was dubbed, and for a full day we did nothing but catch fish – and magic it was.  The river was teeming with life.  There were thousands of red, spawning Kokanee that scattered as we walked through the water and large spawning Chinook that shot up the river like wild teenagers looking for a date and the sheer number of big trout looking for an easy meal gave the place its name.  We were sheltered from the wind and the sun shone through the fall leaves making the water sparkle and we never wanted that day to end.

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Thousands of Kokanee

We were late to dinner that night and the wait staff wasn’t all too pleased that many of us ordered off the menu instead of the hotline, but we were satisfied with the day and didn’t really care that our food might have not been treated with the best hygiene by the unhappy cook.  We lined up at two picnic tables and ate our meals and drank our hot coffee (tea for me) and our weariness was tempered with great peace.  I listened as everyone recounted their highs and lows of the day and there weren’t really many lows.  As everyone was talking I leaned over to Doug and said, “Thank you so much for teaching my daughter how to fish.  She had a great time today.  I’m a little worried though because I think you might have created a monster.”  He just smiled and shook his head a bit.  “I didn’t create a monster.  I just released the monster that was already in there.”  No truer words were ever spoken.

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Cast of characters

That night the skies opened up and dumped a deluge of biblical proportion onto the ranch. The wind whipped and howled so that I thought the trees would fall upon us.  As we packed the next morning for the long ride home, the canvas on our cabin roof and windows snapped and popped in the wind and I added an extra layer.  We ate quickly and loaded our stuff into the van and as we pulled onto the road, the clouds broke and the sun came out and reflected off the swollen, muddy and unfishable Stehekin River.

After two glorious days on the best river in the world, the window of opportunity to fish it had slammed shut.  Had we arrived a few days earlier or a few days later, the fishing would have been very different.  As I said, my God loves to give good gifts to his children and He certainly gave a great gift to us that week.  As we drove home Molly and I talked for the entire five hours about the trip and the friends we had made and what was discussed on camera and about the fishing.  We were both tired, and each of us had a pretty good load of caffeine on board, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it.  We were experiencing the warm afterglow of an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip.  We both want to come back to the Stehekin again next year, but one never knows what a year will bring.  As I sat there, the nose of the Tacoma pointing east on I-90, listening to my beautiful daughter talk and laugh, it struck me how much our relationship had healed and I realized in that moment that this trip could never have happened a year ago.  It was a beautiful gift that God had given to us, but especially so to me.

I would have put a bullet through my foot if I had a gun.

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Just the first of many

Impulse is a dangerous thing and especially so when you are trying to impress one of your children. Doubly so when it’s one of your girl children. To put it mildly, my daughter Allison hurt my feelings and my capitulation was an attempt to regain what was left of my dignity.  What she said was, “I didn’t ask you to go because I really didn’t think you’d be able to do it,” but what I heard was, “You’re too weak and feeble to do anything like float down a river with me, old man. I’ll just ask someone who is stronger and more capable.” She had ground salt into the open wound that was my rapidly deflating ego.

“No, I really want to go,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. Even as the words parted my lips, my mind was looking for a compromise, a way out. The audible click I heard was the sword of Damocles breaking free from its secured position. Had I really just verbally committed to floating 50 miles of the most remote river in the lower 48 – the Owyhee – with my daughter? Yes, I had. I was terrified even before I learned that someone had died on the river that spring and well before I would see the flotsam and jetsam of a shattered drift boat being held by the pressure of what amounts to two full grown cows pressing it against an imposing rock wall.

All I knew at that moment was what Allison had told me in the past, that there are no roads in or out and that you must leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but all of your bodily secretions out with you. I was worried (and a little grossed out by it), but it was still months away and a lot could happen between then and now.

Nothing did.

A long drive and an uncomfortable first night and I suddenly found myself sitting on a bright red, inflatable kayak, with a bright yellow helmet, a bright red life vest and clutching a bright yellow paddle. The fact that everything was brightly colored should have been my first clue that things don’t always go as planned.  If they did, everyone would be dressed in drab outdoorsy fabric like the kind you see the urban Eddie Bauer types wearing and the kayaks would sport more natural colors to blend in with the environment.  What I should have realized is that in a rapid it’s really hard to differentiate between a rock and a dead body unless the body is tightly wrapped in some form of unnatural, neon pigmentation. Had I only known.

I kept up a cheerful countenance as I floated a little ways from the group, getting the feel of the kayak under me.

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Emma teaching the group proper paddle technique.

The teen girls (it was a father/daughter trip) all listened intently as Emma and my daughter (a third year guide) talked about boat safety and how to paddle.  Boat safety, shmoat safety.  I grew up around the water and paddling would come naturally to me.  A duck didn’t need to learn to swim did it?  Besides, I own a drift boat. How hard could it be?  Yeah, it’s not the same.

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A glimpse of my group paddling off as I spun in circles.

I watched as the kids paddled off downstream and turned to catch up with them. I put a paddle in the water and pulled.  My kayak spun wildly. I plied the other end of the paddle to slow down the spin.  It didn’t help.  I firmly plunged my paddle into the water on the port side and it slowed to a stop. I slowly centered myself and pointed the bow downstream.  I dipped a blade into the water and slowly pulled.  The kayak began turning to the right.  I quickly jammed the opposite blade into the water and pulled and it spun wildly again. This was not going as planned. I smiled, with an ease I wasn’t feeling.  Inside I was like, “Uh oh, this is going to end badly.” It was all coming true.

I knew I was going to die on the river. I also knew it was going to be hard on Allison to have to pull her dad’s brightly festooned, but lifeless body out of a rapid, but I didn’t care. She had asked me to go and it would serve her right for goading me into coming on this trip.

Dream Crusher asked a number of times if I was doing okay as we drove to Horseshoe Bend where the trip would begin.

“Yes, I’m fine, why do you keep asking?” I stared straight ahead.

“Look at me.”  I turned my eyes towards her, but not my head.  “Okay, I’m looking.  I’m fine, really.” I bared my teeth in a feeble smile.

“Then why are there beads of sweat on your upper lip?”

I yawned and dragged my arm as carefree as I could muster across my lip. “By the way,” I said, “did I tell you that I want my ashes sprinkled on the Clearwater?”

“Just stop,” she replied.  “I knew it.  I knew that’s what you were thinking about.  Just stop it right now.”

“What? I’m just making conversation. Oh, and the passwords to the online accounts are in the cupboard and makesuretogiveChristianmybaseballglove.” I raced to finish this last line as she reached for the knob on the radio to turn up the volume.

“I have to do something to drown you out,” she said as she spun the knob. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase and she turned to look out the window without another word. I felt my lip. It was wet again.

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My paddle was actually upside down and backwards.  You shouldn’t be able to see the writing on the paddle in the lower right corner.

As my kayak spun in the water and I got further and further from the group, Allison paddled up to me and said, “Umm, Dad, one of the other guides told me to tell you that your paddle is backwards.”

“Oh, yeah?” I responded. “That’s how we do it in Alaska.  Makes it more streamline.”

“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and paddled off. When I was sure she wasn’t looking I flipped my paddle over and paddled after her, still looking for all the world like an inebriated walrus, but more of an I’ve had one too many drinks kind of walrus and not a college student on a Friday night kind of walrus.

For the first few hours we did nothing but paddle in flat, barely passable water which caused our kayaks to come to a skidding halt often enough that my abs quickly cramped in their attempt to free my kayak from the resting part of Newton’s law of motion.  Apparently one must “oochie – scooch,” which involves thrusting yourself backwards and forwards in an effort to get the rock to loosen its grip on your kayak.  The ever helpful river guides would shout this and other helpful hints at you as they “encouraged” you to “soldier” on.  “You can rest when you’re dead.” “Only 48 more miles to go.”

Dying in a river is apparently a real thing and wearing a tightly wrapped and zipped Coast Guard approved flotation device does nothing to ensure that you won’t get your foot wedged between rocks and drown.   For the first few hours it was drilled into our heads what do do if (should have said, when) we were to fall out in a rapid.  The most important thing you can do is get into River Position!  This involves getting your feet pointed down river and and up off the river bottom, flailing your arms and keeping your eyes down river to see what’s ahead.  And one must never, ever stand up.  I was told that dads always try to stand up and that a lot of dads die.  Yeah, not this dad.  I was not going to give the river the satisfaction.

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Emma, our guide, using a teachable moment to model proper River Position while our omni-competent and ever-cheerful trip leader, Aaron, looks on.

A short while later we entered into our first rapid and I immediately flipped, but came up in the most acute river position in the history of man, with my knees up and feet pointing downstream. My posterior bounced off every rock on the way down.  There was no way I was going to be foot entrapped.  Butt entrapped, maybe, but not foot. All the guides were yelling at me at once to the point where all I heard was a cacophony of “Let go of the kayak! Get your feet up!  River position! Keep your head up! Breathe! Swim! Don’t swim! Feet up! Let go of the paddle! Hang onto the paddle! River position!”  I did it all at once.  Allison told me later that I had scared her because I came up wide eyed and gasping. Well, if you know OBryans, we have nothing BUT wide eyes, and the gasping part was because I was drowning and was moments away from death. Yeah, fear like that happens when someone is scared out of their freaking mind that they are going to get their foot trapped and be sucked under only to rise again either on the last day or when their bloated body gets so buoyant that the river gives them up like some grotesque party balloon escaped from the pudgy hand of a toddler. I was terrified. I was also shaking and embarrassed.

I dog paddled to river right (that’s river guide speak for the side of the river I’m always not next to) and dragged the upper half of my body onto a mossy rock, my useless legs dangling behind me in the diminishing current. My eyes focused as my cheek rested against the slime and I watched every single teenage girl float through the class 10 rapid

as if they were sitting on a cloud, riding a spring zephyr wind. One of their kayaks scraped over my semi-lifeless body. “Oops, sorry. Hehe.” I turned my head away.

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This is a threatening smile.

“Are you okay?” Allison asked as she rushed over to me in her kayak as if it obeyed her every wish. She was looking a little wide eyed herself. “Go on without me. Leave me here to die,” I managed to say.  She patted my back and told me in low tones that if I didn’t get back into the kayak in less than a minute she really was going to leave me right where I was.  I dragged myself onto my kayak and let Allison pull me along. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I could feel my legs beginning to redden and burn. It was yet another indignity on the first day of the last week of my life and I hadn’t even made it to the first camp and I still hadn’t used the facilities in the woods. It was going to be a long week.

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Sand as far as the eye can see.

One thing I realized on day one is that a river produces an exorbitant amount of sand.  It’s  everywhere and in everything and finds its way into every crack and crevice. If you’re lucky you can keep it out of your food and, thankfully, I was able to keep it off my camera equipment. AND it was hot – 118 at one camp.

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Even though it was only 117.7 degrees, it totally felt like 118.

I don’t remember the first night of the trip other than we ate and slept and that sand bugs tried to invade every one of my facial orifices (orifi?) Even though it was smoldering, I chose to keep a buff over my face so they wouldn’t have the joy of a good night’s sleep in one of my facial crevices. I really only remember having one thought and that was that I have six days left and I am not going to make it.

The only way I can describe the feeling is remembering being a kid and thinking that there were six long days until Christmas and wondering if it would ever get here and how on earth could anyone ever wait that long? And then it was here and you got to open presents.  It was like that, only some freakishly hellish version where you’re always waiting and there are never any presents, only a never ending feeling of despair and misery until the river either takes you or vomits you out on “Christmas” day after it beats you and chokes you and teaches you a lesson you’ll never forget. This was day one.

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Panic

The first rapid of the second day was called Read it and Weep and I approached it with caution, which I learned later is not how you approach a rapid designed to make you cry. It sensed my trepidation and I heard it giggle just before it lured me into a false sense of security and sucked me into a sink hole the size of ten commercial washing machines and I nearly drowned again. I wept silently, secure in the fact that no one could differentiate between my tears of sorrow and the river’s tears of mirth.  On the second rapid I flipped again. And on the third rapid… I flipped. It is generally understood that if someone goes down for the third time they are not coming back up. Thankfully, I had my bright yellow life jacket to keep my flailing body from giving up the ghost.

I am an athletic guy. I played NCAA baseball. I am a good golfer. I can juggle. I win at Pickleball (when I am playing Dream Crusher) most of the time. I have a few slight of hand tricks. My hand eye coordination is excellent for a man my age, but for the love of God and all that is holy, I could not make my kayak do what it was born and bred to do. It was engineered to be a kayak, but it was more like an unruly toddler that, no matter how hard I tried to reason with it, would do the exact opposite of what it was told. I was sure I had gotten a defective one (or a possessed one) and I was equally sure that it was actively trying to kill me. I would see a rock some way down the rapid that I knew was a bad idea, yet no matter how hard I tried to avoid it with back strokes and front strokes and side strokes and high siding and panicking, the kayak was attracted to it like it was a positive magnet and the kayak a negative. A rock meant one of two things: getting stuck or flipping, and neither were a good option.

Thankfully, there is flat calm at the end of every rapid.  It’s a time to either catch your breath and thank the Lord that what about happened to you didn’t happen or to shout with joy at your besting of the accursed white water. At the end of every flat calm there is a rapid. As I floated quietly along and heard the tell-tale whisper of an approaching rapid I would turn my face to the sky and whisper, “Please, God. NO!” I was miserable and tired and scared. Then we reached the Weeping Wall and a miracle happened.

I dragged my dry bag and my poop tube (yes, everyone had one), aptly called “Bad Disneyland,” up to the place Allison had designated as our place of rest for the night and collapsed onto the ground in a stupor. After a while my wits returned and I realized that gnats were rapidly accumulating on the many cuts my legs had incurred.  I felt like a water buffalo that was too far gone to care about the insects sucking the life out of him and I just let them feast.  Something may as well benefit from my misery.

I looked at my foot and wondered where a good spot would be for a bullet to go through without causing too much damage. I didn’t bother searching for my revolver because I didn’t have it with me. I didn’t even bring a knife (what kind of idiot doesn’t bring a knife or a revolver on a survival trip?) and I didn’t think a sharp stick would cause enough damage to get me airlifted out. Besides, I didn’t have a knife to sharpen a stick and it probably wouldn’t have done enough damage anyway. It would get mildly infected, but not infected enough to get me a helicopter ride out and it would just add to the pain I was already feeling. Besides, Allison would make me row out with an infection. I wondered what injury WOULD get me airlifted out? There was a large rock sitting next to me and my eyes gleamed at the thought of bringing it down on top of my metatarsals, cracking them into little pieces. That would surely do it. I reached for it, fell over and collapsed into a heap, too exhausted to lift it.

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Discussing the highs and lows of the day at Camp Montgomery.

This was a father/daughter trip and every evening our enthusiastic, cheerful, and omni- competent trip leader, Aaron, would gather us around so we could talk about the highs and lows of the day. I dragged myself to the circle of humans and tried to think of the highs from the day and all I could think of was, “Well, I didn’t die…. yet.” That was my inner thought. My outer words were, “Hey, I got to spend quality time with my daughter.” Inner thought, “It’s her fault that I’m out here.” Outer words, “Golly, this is a beautiful place.” Inner thought, “God forsaken, more like it.” I went on like this for a few more minutes, babbling, then lapsed into silence. My inner mind was pacing like a caged ferret looking for a way out, but I was mute. I don’t remember what anyone else said. I just kept smiling and nodding vigorously when people’s lips stopped moving. I was sure I was going to die, so what did it matter what any of these people said? I would just be a bad memory to them as they recounted the tale of the uncoordinated old guy with the bad facial hair who couldn’t get his kayak to work and the river ate him. Good thing we couldn’t find his body because that would have been so gross to have to see his bloated whiteness the entire rest of the trip.

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I texted this photo to Dream Crusher at the end of the trip. Her response: “You Look Hideous!”  I guarantee I would look worse dead…. though not by much.

On the third day I awoke sore and defeated. However, unbeknownst to me, three things were happening in the universe. Thing one, my good friend, Matt, was praying for me on the exact morning of my crisis. I know this because I got a voice message after I got off the river that said: “I don’t know why I’m praying for you, but you’ve been on my mind all morning.” The date and time was the morning of the Weeping Wall. Thing two, Dream Crusher was also praying for me. She knew this was going to be tough on me (she had no idea at the time how tough) and so she prayed for me without ceasing. It is hard to pray for someone when you are getting no feedback on their well-being, but she did. Thing three: God was listening.

The Weeping Wall is a sheer, vertical rock face, 200 feet high that is as dry as a bone until it reaches about 40 feet from the base of the cliff. It’s at this point the water runs out the side of the cliff like so many shower nozzles and it is thick with greenery. It’s an oasis, cold and refreshing, and it’s here that we filled our water bags called ticks (yes, they look

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The Ticks

like bloated ticks) and bathed our hot (as in hot from the sun, not as in “Your bod is so hot!”) and stinking bodies. The water was amazingly clean and revitalizing. Even though it was morning, the air was already turning warm and the water felt good. I leaned into the mossy wall and let the water run over my head and tried to get the day to come out of my mind. A glimmer of hope lit. Live in the moment. The kayak doesn’t exist. The river doesn’t exist. Only now exists. I had been praying seemingly without ceasing the entire morning and I tried to physically relax and not think about anything but this moment.  It could last forever if I wanted it to. It didn’t work. I opened my eyes. The river and the kayak were still there. I sighed, pushed myself out of the water and slipped my way back down to where my plastic coffin was tied.

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Plastic Clouds or Plastic Coffins.  It’s all about perspective.

I strapped my gear onto the kayak and climbed into it. It squeaked with my weight and I felt the familiar sore spots as they settled and rested on the hot plastic. I pushed off and glided in an uncontrolled arc into the calm water.

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Burned, swollen and zinced.

The sprites were gliding and giggling over the water on their plastic clouds. I knew that at the end of this calm water was not calm water and I bowed my head in weakness and fear.

“Perfect Love casts out fear.” “My power is made perfect in weakness.” “When I am weak then I am strong.”

As I sat there with my head bowed asking for help, the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair came to mind. The World’s Fair? Really? After all my fervent prayer, that’s all I get? Who, but a select number of Canadians, even remembers the Vancouver World’s Fair? Well, probably no one outside of Canada, except me. It was then I realized why God had prompted this memory. I had experienced a significant moment of fear and weakness there that I had always regretted and it wasn’t until I had kids that I had gotten over it completely. It is a very odd statement to say that thoughts of the 1986 World’s Fair comforted me, but they did.

Even though I was 23, the very age where you’re supposed to love jumping off cliffs wearing nothing more than a squirrel suit, I didn’t. I still looked both ways before crossing the street and I always wore my seat belt (even before it was cool) and I certainly wasn’t going to ride my new mountain bike downhill on a gravel road. Think of the road rash. But here I was heading to a Young Life club in Canada to be their summer photographer. Not an extreme sport, but we would be out of radio contact and that was scary enough. Not everyone was a photographer back then and the profession was still cool enough to give me some panache and the fellow staffers I had met up with were pretty cool.

They all wanted to go see the World’s Fair. “Why not?” I thought. I love to wander through the fair looking at the exhibits and the canned fruits and vegetables. It turned out that none of them were interested in the exhibits and as soon as we pushed through the turnstiles they made a bee line for the roller coaster.

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This is me NOT on the Expo 86 roller coaster.

Little beads of sweat trickled down my side. Roller coasters were one thing that I had determined would never be on my bucket list (even if I had known what a bucket list was). They begged me to go and I made a very, very feeble excuse not to. My fear was evident. It was like when someone asked me to do something bad when I was little and all I could think of saying was that my mom didn’t want me to do that. Then I would get punched in the face and left while they went off to steal matches and start fires. My credibility went to zero and my summer, while fun, wasn’t what it could have been. This was a scene that I had relived countless times and it was a regret that haunted me for years. It wasn’t until my kids were old enough to ride roller coasters that it went away.

My kids had a funny way of taking care of many of my fears… they added many others, but at least for me there were many things, like the fear of stinging insects, that went away as I tried to model proper respect for things without fear. I never wanted my kids to be like me, fearing things they shouldn’t. That’s how I found myself sitting in a roller coaster with my two sons waiting for it to kill me. I was strapped in and there was no place to go but up and over. As the coaster lurched and grumbled to the launching point, I quickly made a conscious decision. I made the determination at that moment to enjoy the feeling of abject fear. When the coaster dropped over the edge, I was going to scream like a little girl and enjoy the terror. And I did both. Now, I can’t get enough of roller coasters and will go on any, at any time.

My kayak bobbed unsteadily on the water, threatening any moment to tip me out, but I was no longer paralyzed. My head came up, I thanked God aloud. I smiled and I was ready. I knew there would still be fear, maybe even terror, but I was going to enjoy it. I was going to lean into the fear and enjoy the feeling.

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“None Shall Pass!”  Todd, the Gatekeeper, watches as the guides devise a route the Sprites would find challenging.

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Not a bad place to die.

I thanked God as I pushed by Todd, the gate keeper, and into the rapid. I was excited because I had made a conscious decision to enjoy myself. I attacked the rapid with a furor yet unknown to me and the first thing that happened when I hit the primary drop was that I immediately FLIPPED! I’m serious. Right over. I came up, but not wide eyed (except for the normal, O’Bryan type) and I wasn’t afraid. I was exhilarated and not a little mad that I had been dumped out of my toddler. “You just stopped paddling!” screamed Aaron and cheerfully gave me a thumbs up. I stored that bit of information away, got my kayak, kicked it a few times to teach it a lesson, grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of the sprites and their dads as they made their way unscathed through the rapid.

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Leroy was in his 70s and had a bad back.  He can be classified as one of the Sprites… just sayin’.

Over the next four days I went down countless rapids and flipped a total of NONE times. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the most graceful kayaker after the Weeping Wall revelation, but I was a kayaker.  I could actively avoid most rocks, but when I didn’t, I learned to use the rock to aid me on my way down the rapid. I was still a walrus, but this one was a teetotaler. Now, maybe I was just becoming better acquainted with the spoiled child that was my kayak or maybe my athletic ability and natural good looks just kicked in or maybe I just got lucky? OR, maybe, just maybe, I needed to learn a lesson. My mind and body have always been good at doing things like this and had I been able to pick up on this from the first stroke of the paddle, I might have had to learn a different lesson, but not as one as impactful as this one was.

What had started out as a complete beat down turned out to be a glorious river trip and every evening from Weeping Wall on, I had nothing but personal highs to talk about. I watched the sun rise from a chalk dome called Chalk Basin, caught an inordinate amount

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Chalk Basin

of smallmouth bass, sat in a hot spring, saw soaring cliffs and deep pools, and throughout the rest of the days had the best time with my daughter. What started out as a bad dream ended up being an amazing trip, one I would do again in a heartbeat.
Some may say, “Well, that’s dumb, why didn’t you just trust God?” I’m really not sure how to answer that, other than to say that I just couldn’t find it within myself to do it. No matter how hard I tried, my strength just wasn’t sufficient. Whether it was fear or unbelief or just not remembering how God has provided for me in the past, I don’t really know, but I do know one thing – that my God is a God of comfort and He will use whatever means He needs to bring us to that place of peace. For some it’s a kind word from a friend, for another it is direct revelation. For me, it was the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair. Go figure.

The following are some of the players in this drama:

 

 

 

 

 

Clackamax Drift “Whaler” For Sale – $9500

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Excellent condition, but does get a bit gamey in direct sunlight

Hi, I got your email address from Benson and I’m contacting you regarding your item posted on Craigslist.  My name is Dennis Petit! I’m a creative Underwater Photographer. I’m also a warrior who fights for the sake of protecting and saving sharks, whales and other creatures living in the earth’s oceans. I’m presently on assignment and I spent most of my working hours underwater, photographing scuba divers and marine life that is why I am unable to make or receive calls at the moment so I will be available via email, so can you assure me I won’t be disappointed buying this from you? I have a hauler that will be coming for the pick up and i also have a few questions for you about it.

 Any damages?
Are you the original owner?
Why are you selling it?
Send me some pictures of it
Do you have an account with PayPal?
Do you have any offers yet?
What is the final price of it?
 Looking forward to read back from you.

 Wow, Dennis, it sounds like you live an amazing life!  It is ironic though that my family is in the business of harvesting whales and sharks for the Asian markets.  We don’t really use all of the shark, just the fins.  We do catch, cut off the dorsal fin, and then release the shark.  I guess you could call us Eco-Warriors, too, since we try to practice sustainable shark harvesting.  We are in the process of developing an artificial fin that we can strap on the shark, post-harvest, that will eventually graft onto the shark’s own spine.  We are going to place a radio beacon in the fin so we can track its progress. We’ll also be coloring the fin bright orange so we know not to try and harvest the same shark twice. LOL.  The name of our new shark orthotic is called Addafintome.  Expect to see this sometime mid year.

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Beta testing Addafintome

 

We still haven’t found a way to safely catch and release whales for their parts, so we only try to harvest the sick and the weak. I mean, the whole harpoon thing sticking out of the side of the whale makes some pretty bad flesh wounds and makes it hard to remove AND release.  We have been trying out very large suction darts, like the size of a Volkswagen, and with some of the smoother whales we have had some success, but even then the huge hickie it leaves tends to make the whale really embarrassed and it wants to wear a turtle neck… I’m only kidding.  We have never tried the suction cup thing.  That’s just a little Eco-Warrior humor.  Culling out the weak is our way of trying to make sure that only the strongest gene pool survives, too bad your family didn’t practice some of that culling… haha.  JK LOL.

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Is this one of your pictures? No Shark Fins! LOL

My guess is that we have probably met at one time or another across the water and didn’t even know it.  Do you ever ride around in that Green Peace boat?  That thing is the bomb.  If I can get my boat sold I’m thinking about getting one of those… except not the one with all the unwashed people with long hair on it… that’s just gross.

The boat is in excellent shape except for the blood.  Shark and whale blood is very hard to scrub off.  I’ve tried power washing it with Oxyclean, but even that doesn’t take it off (Don’t you love the Australian guy that sells Oxyclean? G’Day Mate! I just love that).  It doesn’t affect how the boat works, but it does tend to get sticky and kind of gamey smelling when it’s been out in the sun too long.  There are no teeth marks in it, but a slight rubbing where we’ve dragged the sharks over the edge of the gunnel – shark skin is really tough and sandpaper-like… as you well know. LOL

I’m the original owner

I’m not sure what PayPal is, having barely just figured out the whole World Wide Web and Electronic Mail thing.  It sounds like something my mother used to have to do when I was a kid… Pay other children to play with me.  Get it, Pay for a Pal? LOL. I’m on a roll today!  I wasn’t the most attractive kid or the most pleasant after the shark cleaning incident, but I think I’ve persevered pretty well for a person with only one good eye and half an ear.  My half ear is on the same side as my good eye so if I stand just right you can’t even tell I’m missing my other parts.  In pictures I can actually look pretty good.  If I comb my hair over the missing part of my ear I look almost as good as Jimmy Shirell.  Do you know him?  He works in the industry too.  I’m not a huge fan since he married my old girlfriend.  Oh well.  Stuff like that happens.

I’ve had an offer from my cousin, but he wants to give me his old Buick as a down payment and then make $50 per month payments for the next umpteen years.  He’s good for it when he’s working and not drunk, but I was hoping to get a lump sum payment and besides, who even drives Buicks nowadays?  I’m all for those Japanese imports. They are amazing and run forever.  If I can get him to throw in some of the elk he got this year I might consider it though, so you should act fast.

Since we’re on the opposite side of the whole Eco-Warrior thing my bottom line for you is $12,500.  Let me know when we can meet face to face and I can take your cold, hard cash from you.
Thanks,
Lefty

 

Thanks for your understanding and swift response,

I do appreciate the way you answered my questions!. I’m satisfied with it’s condition and i believe i wont be disappointed. I want you to know am serious in purchasing it and am sure he’s gonna love and enjoy it more than you did. Well it a very good idea to see what am buying my self but am a very busy type i have a private courier agent that will come for the pick up after the payment and sign all necessary documents transferring the name of ownership and signing of all paperwork will be done by the hauler agent on my behalf also i would love to assure you that it wont leave your side until the money is in your account and clears i will be patient with you as am an honest man and a man of my word so once all this is done then we can now both schedule the pickup time and date.

I would have loved to send the pick up agent with the cash or cashier check but they don’t deal with cash transaction between buyer and seller and i want you to know that PayPal is the best online payment and they protect their customer the both seller and buyer. My mode of payment is PayPal because i don’t have access to my bank account online, but i have it attached to my PayPal account. Since I’m requesting this transaction to be done via PayPal, I will be responsible for all the PayPal fees/charges on this transaction, if you don’t have an account with PayPal, it’s pretty easy, safe and secure to open one. Just log on to www.paypal.com. I hope we can make this transaction as fast as possible. As I look forward hearing from you with your PayPal information as requested below.

Your PayPal e-Mail Address :
Firm Price:
Home Address/ Pickup location Info:
Cell Phone#:

I am ready to purchase this, so you can take the add off Craigslist.

 Hi.  You sound so serious about this.  I really appreciate you telling me that you’re an honest man and a man of your word.  What I’ve found as I’ve gone though my short life is that I never know whether someone is honest unless they tell me so.  I’m also really glad you told me that you are a man of your word.  There are so many liars and cheats and scammers out there that I would hate to have someone take my boat AND my money and then be left with nothing.  Thank you for letting me know that I can trust you because I really do!

I have looked into PayingPals.com and it looks legit.  Too Legit to Quit if you ask me, so I’ve signed up and I’m ready to go.

However, it doesn’t sound like you’ve got a very good agent if he won’t work in good ol’ American Cold Hard Cash.  I have a friend named James Hoffa who is a good friend of mine, though he’s really hard to find sometimes.  If you would like me to contact him, I know he would be willing to to be the go-between us.  He would hold your cash and my boat and then make the switch for us, just don’t make fun of him… He does not like that, boy, does he not like that.

So, is there any way we can do a cash transaction?  I would even be willing to clean the boat some more to make sure the blood is off the oars.

Lefty

PayPal is the best option for me and I’ve been using it for several years without any regrets, I know you will be glad at the end dealing with me if you can proceed with me via PayPal. It is safe and secure for online payment, since you have set up an account with PayPal feel free to get back to me with your PayPal information as requested above so as to proceed.

Wow!  Good!  I thought for a minute that our deal had fallen through.  Oh, I forgot to ask.  Were you the one taking pictures of the whale that saved the swimmer from the Tiger Shark?  If you were, then we have met because that swimmer was me.  It’s a weird story, but we had just attached a prototype of the addafintome to the Tiger shark and released it back into the water (Tiger sharks look nothing like real tigers, BTW LOL).  Well, the fin wasn’t quite straight and the shark kept leaning to the right.  It had this terrible list and I felt bad.  Well, dad pulled the boat next to the shark so I could straighten the fin and the stupid thing turned and bumped our boat really hard (I guess it couldn’t tell I was trying to help it) and I got knocked out.  Well, I still had his real fin in my hand and when he saw it he tried to get it back from me.  I’m not sure what he thought he was going to do with it since it was already severed from his body, but he wanted it.  He came at me and was about to bite my leg when out of nowhere this enormous Humpback whale (that’s kind of a dirty name I think, don’t you?) took me in it’s baleen and pushed me out of the way.

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Me falling in

I grabbed the harpoon sticking out of its neck and held on as tightly as I could until the shark went away.  I felt really bad harvesting the whale, but I guess man is supposed to dominate wildlife, right? LOL.  Haha.  I just realized that you might not like that story, because you are an Eco-Warrior.  Sorry.  What I meant to say was that after the whale helped me, I released it and it went back to its homeland.  You can write that in your papers.  Haha.  I’ll take a 1000 off the price of the boat for killing the whale that saved me.  Does that make it better?

Do you still want to make this deal even though I’m a whale killer?  You’ll probably put the boat to better use I guess.  Haha LOL JK.

I’m ready to send my PayingPals.  Are you ready for it?  I just want to make sure because my cousin said he would give me half his elk if I sold the boat to him.

Sincerely,
Lefty

Yes!  Send me Paypal information now. I am ready.

Okay. Whew.  Thought I might have made you mad.  Okay.  My address is a little weird, but I’m an honest guy and a man of my word (We are so much alike! It’s like we could be brothers).  I’m just saying that it’s all legit.  Also, if your agent tries to call, just let him know to keep trying and that my number sometimes takes a few tries to go through.

The Phone number is actually for my sister Jenny Jenny (we all have two first names, my name is actually Lefty Lefty) since she’s the only one that knows how to use the Flipper Phone.  Her number is 867-5309. I’m glad she’s got this phone, because she’s the only one I can turn to in situations like this.

My new PayingPal address: mommadidntraiseafool@gmail.com
Price $11,500 ($1000 less than I said originally because of the whale incident).

The boat is at my mom’s diner.  The address is:

new-orleans

Lefty Lefty Hekknow
C/O Your Mama’s House
2020 Hindsight Lane
GottaBeKiddinme, CA 90015

 

I Do Not Have the Best of Friends.

keith chuck meMy hands had sweaters for weeks.

A friend is someone who knows you so well that they can tell what you’re thinking without being told, knows how you’re feeling and how you respond to certain things, and knows all your likes and dislikes.  Really, really close friends learn these things so that they can use the information against you in unspeakable and evil ways.

I worked in the college bookstore industry for over 22 years until some lumpy guy with an MBA and no chin from the corporate office downsized me.  I got my two month “golden parachute,” a “thanks for 22 years of hard work,” a hardy handshake and the prospect of standing on the street corner for the rest of my life with a “Hungry, please help me” sign clutched between my gaunt, white hands.  It all worked out for the best, but at the time, faced with losing my job and not getting to work with the two guys I had come to look at as brothers, life seemed pretty low.

Twenty two years is a long time to do any one thing and it’s amazing the amount of useless information that I had gathered in my head over that period of time.  Equally daunting to me was the realization of exactly how useless that information was outside of the college bookstore industry.  I guess it’s the same with any industry, but it was a bit of a shock trying to figure out how I was going to feed the family knowing that the only real information I had to offer prospective employers was things like knowing the first six digits of the skus for all the vendors I ordered from or that the Pentel P207 is the finest mechanical pencil every made and that the only stapler worth owning was the Swingline 747 (it comes in red, too).

There were things I wasn’t going to miss about the bookstore, like stacking boxes of books or dealing with helicopter moms, but there were things I would miss terribly, things that I still miss to this day like working with some of my closest friends and the energy generated by kids attending college for the first time and the feeling of knowing that I could probably answer any question they could ask.  AND, there was also nothing quite like attending the annual college bookstore trade show.

Not many people get to experience all expense paid trips to big cities, staying in nice hotels and eating food you can’t afford in real life.  And the only real cost you had to pay was the pound of flesh you lost by having to weave your way through row after row of seedy-looking vendors who were doing everything they legally could do to get you to buy their junk. I relished it.  I placed a lot of orders, but I also did my best to cram as much free vendor swag as possible into my bags.    Free stuff meant that I wouldn’t have to think about what to get my kids for Christmas again that year.

Okay, I wasn’t as bad as that, but I did keep their drawers filled for years with everything from floaty fish and Rubik’s Cubes to hacky sacks and pen lights.  I have four kids, but vendors were more than happy to let me have four packages of whatever I wanted.  If I took them it meant that they didn’t have to pack it up and bring it back home with them.  I was so excited to give this stuff to my kids that I would ship my clothes home in a box and stuff my luggage with the trinkets.

I loved going to the trade show and kind of forgot about it as I started my new job.  After four years it was completely out of my mind, that is, until I received a trade show gift package in the mail from my bookstore friends Keith and Chuck.  I was never so excited to open a package in my life.  I carried it around the office, hugging it to my body, showing others, and even opened it in the presence of a few people to let them revel in the gifts that were all mine.  I even might have actually laughed out loud and danced a little, held it to my face and called it “My Precious.”

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I pulled out trade show T-shirts, fake teeth, mustache tattoos, dollar store flash lights, paper pads and cheap pens.  It was a bunch of junk – except for the golf balls – but I loved it.  I was just really touched that they cared enough to remember me in their fun.

I immediately texted them to thank them for thinking of me and I told them how much I appreciated their “gift.”

“Thought you would like it,” was the reply I got.

“Thought you would like this, too:” was the second text I received a few minutes later.

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Yep.  It turned my gift into a box of Ebola.  Boy, I love my friends.

We’re Born Again, There’s New Grass on the Field!

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Not a blade of grass to be seen.

I’ve played a bit of baseball in my time.  I think I may have told you in a previous post that when I was in Little League old men would ask me to autograph baseballs on the off chance that I would actually amount to something other than a manager at a hospital.  I guess the joke’s on them.   I imagine those signed balls being passed down from generation to generation without the giver having any idea why.  Then again, maybe not.

I played baseball from the time I could walk until just after my 21st birthday.  I was the classic product of the big, farm-raised fish in the small stock pond of life and once I got into the actual Pacific ocean of wild fish, it turns out that I was just pretty darned average.  My natural good looks and athletic ability (I had plenty of the latter and very little of the former) only fed my ever expanding ego, but never met with the requirement to actually work hard in order to succeed.  I had the desire, but not the work ethic to advance to the next level.

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Batting practice at Spring Training

So I always have mixed emotions when I watch a live, professional baseball game.  On the one hand, I still feel like I could have made it had I tried harder, but on the other hand I thank God that I didn’t and especially so after watching many of the fans at Spring Training last week in Scottsdale.

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Mom and Dad staying out of the heat

My dad brought my sister, my mom and me to Scottsdale in 1974 to watch the Chicago Cubs Spring Training.   I have some very vivid memories about the trip, but most of the other details are lost to time.  I saw Hank Aaron play (he popped up in his only at bat), got Don Dreysdale’s autograph (I still have no idea who he is) and had my picture taken with a ballplayer whom I don’t now recognize.  I also remember my dad interviewing a carpet layer in our hotel room.  Dad always said that you could tell the measure of a man by how calloused his hands were and I was dying to know if the man had rough hands.  Dad said he did.  Weird what my mind recalls.

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I have no idea who the guy on the left is, but I think he smelled like Aqua Velva.

We stayed at the Camelback Inn and I ate t-bone steak and dipped my crusty french bread in the stewed juices of dead snails.  Never had the body fluids of a  mollusc tasted so sweet.  I swam in the pool, got sunburned for the first time  and took batting practice in the same place the pros did.  I was a young Alaskan in sunny Arizona and I had baseball in my blood and it felt like something else let me tell you.  Well, at least what I remember of it.

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Vanna White would be proud.

We watched game after game and I got so many autographs that I couldn’t keep track of which players I had and which ones I didn’t.  It got so bad that the players would see me coming and say, “You already got me.”  I’m sure I was like a bad dream that wouldn’t go away, but to me it was like an Easter egg hunt and their big, fat signatures were the eggs.  There were few fans, the players were accessible and willing to sign (except for Mike Marshall, the stupid jerk) and it seemed like one big tailgate party.  My dad loved it.  Mom not so much.  My sister not at all (she got blood poisoning from her sunburn and slept a lot).  It was here that I wanted to be when I grew up.

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This is my sister Betty recovering from her blood poisoning. Sun and Alaskans don’t mix.

Let’s just say, things have changed a bit in 40 years.  Lots of things.

Spring Training last week was a really good time.  The weather was amazing, the ball parks were fun and we got to spend an amazing week with my sister, but the overwhelming thing I felt for the players was pity.  I truly did.  I know they make millions playing a game, but because of that, a small minority of the fans think they are owed something from them.  The players are badgered and cajoled, sworn at, talked down to, and fawned over – all for a signature.  A sharpie mark

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Running the gauntlet of autograph seekers

on a baseball.   A scribble on a piece of cowhide to prove that the owner actually had a brush with fame, or, as is more often the case, to be sold on Ebay so others, for a price, can hold a piece of that player’s soul for eternity.  And, for all I know, many players may look at it like the tribesman from New Guinea who won’t let you take his picture because he’s sure you’re stealing a part of his soul.   Some will sign, others might, and still others never do.

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Brandon Belt signing Allison’s jersey.

I do understand why we want it.  It’s a memento, a moment in time.  A freeze frame of your life that you can pull out and show to friends, who will then know that you met someone famous.  It’s your six degrees of Kevin Bacon moment.  And we love it.  It’s a bit like buying that Star Wars action figure and never taking it out of the packaging.  We hope it will go up in value and that we can pass it down to our children and someday it will be worth millions.   On my deathbed I will hand my signed Whitie Herzog baseball to one of my lucky kids and they will hold it high and flaunt it over my other children and still not know who the heck Whitey Herzog was, but because he was famous they are somehow famous.

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Bruce making friends

And in that autograph frenzy, where little kids are crushed by old men, something has been lost.  You can see it in their eyes.  Many of the players are not having fun.  As they walk by the bleachers with fans yelling at them and begging them for a morsel of their attention, they look as if they are walking to the guillotine and Madame Defarge is knitting at the edge of the dugout.   These men never have a moment in public where someone isn’t demanding something of them.  They have got to feel like performing monkeys in a circus – and it’s not too far from a circus either.

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Circus practice

And the players are partly to blame.  Every player is a brand and that brand has to be advertised.  And advertise they do.  There is an endless supply of personal information spewing forth from the culvert pipes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and it’s all a perfectly orchestrated wonderland where everyone is handsome and happy and all the kids dress well.  We know everything about their lives, what they wear, what they eat, and how they play with their kids.  Their wives even respond to social media posts which means that the players saw it, too, which means that I’m one step closer to him than I was before.

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Some have more fun than others.

And we all feel like best friends.  How can we not?  I know as much about my favorite player (and I do have one) as I know about my best friend – maybe more – and so why wouldn’t I expect him to be my friend?  We would be great buddies.  I could hang with him like I do my other friends.  I see him hanging with his friends and their families just like I do.  We could be BEST FRIENDS! If only he would meet me and get to know me and I could tell him how cool I am and how cool he is and wouldn’t it be cool if…  What a jerk he turned out to be.  He didn’t even look at me when I yelled at him.

I do feel sorry for the players.  I’m sure the game used to be fun.  Now, I’m not so sure it is.

But, there are bright spots.  Hector Sanchez is one.  He’s the backup catcher for the SF Giants and I really like him.  When you get to the field early you get to see the players with the dead eyes, but also the players that are completely energized by it all.  They know what it’s about.  They know that this is a sport with a dwindling fan base and they do what they can to create loyal followers.  Hector is one of those guys.

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Hector Selfie

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AND… the result

He should be the face of baseball.  He’s handsome and funny and kind (yes, it may all be orchestrated), but he spent an hour making sure everyone got an autograph and a picture with him.  He even took the selfies, well, himself.  I saw him walk across the field to give a baseball to a toddler and then do the same thing minutes later to give another ball to the toddler’s older brother – thus eliminating any fighting the parents would have to deal with on the way home.  He made people feel like they were his best friend.  That’s what I’m talking about.  That was Spring Training 1974 style.  I’m firmly in the Hector Sanchez fan club.

I’m sure there are more like Hector and I hope so because a little player attention goes a long way towards making someone’s day.  My girls got some amazing  autographs (they promised me that they did not swear at any of the players) from some really nice ball players and became “best friends” with many of them (winkie face). We were all thrilled with it.  Spring Training is a special time.  It’s a more intimate brand of baseball, something more akin to it’s Little League roots. Many of the old guard, the jaded ones, are just going through the motions, but there are many kids trying to make the 24 man roster who are completely sold out and though there is intense pressure they are reveling in the moment and can’t believe how fortunate they are to be standing on a field with people they idolize.  You can see it in their faces because you are close enough to see it in their faces.  There are no bad seats in Spring Training.

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No bad seats.

The Spring Training venues are amazing and intimate and a far cry from the days of dirt fields and bleachers (though bring your own food because it ain’t cheap at the park) and the fans are enthusiastic.  The A-list players may only play an inning or two, but the young talent is really fun to watch.  It’s a bit like a melodrama where you root for the good guys even though you know they stand little chance of surviving.  It breaks my heart to see a pitcher trying to make the squad get shelled or a rookie outfielder going O for four.  But then, that’s life and when they wash out they can always get a job as a manager at a hospital.

Baseball has changed and I’m not sure I like it, but as they say, it is what it is.

Above my desk is a picture of the American League vs. National League All Star Game held in Potlatch Idaho, October 26, 1914.  The stands are packed with loggers and dignitaries all dressed in their best – all trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite players.  The coach is standing in the box near first with his hands clasped behind his back and the pitcher is taking a signal.  This game has been around a long time.  It’s a game with a ball, a stick, and people running around trying not to get out and a group of other men trying to get them out.  In essence it’s really just an elaborate game of tag.  It is a game at its core, and a fun one at that.   I’m still not sure how it got so serious.

I Fish! Dr. Marvin, I Fish! I’m a Fisherman!

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The boy in the boat

A little bead of wetness clung to the end of my dad’s nose like a drip of golden honey – only it wasn’t honey.   Light refracted through it giving it the look of a droopy diamond as we sat under the canopy of our Glasply in the bitter cold sunlight and watched the end of our poles drag herring through the black water out by the old Ketchikan pulp mill.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  The tension was killing me.  It felt like the time I watched my great aunt Hazel smoke a cigarette down to the filter without flicking the ash.  No matter how many times she brought the gasper to her lips, completely covering the filter with old woman lipstick, the ash valiantly held forth.  When she finally flicked the ash into the tray and blew the last remnants from her lungs, I breathed a second-hand-smoke sigh of relief.

Fishing for King Salmon has been described as hours and hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror, but I think this is a gross overstatement.  It wasn’t as if we were harpooning whales from a kayak.   We put little fish onto a little hook to catch bigger fish.  I guess if our big fish got eaten by a bigger fish, like, say a Killer Whale, that would be terrifying, but sitting in a boat, eating Snack Pack pudding and Zots and reeling in a fish now and then wasn’t terrifying – it was actually, a little slice of heaven.

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Dick and Peggy and bait

My sister, Betty, hated fishing almost as as much as I loved it.    The problem with fishing was that it required her to spend hour after hour with my dad in a small boat.  It’s also a lot more fun if you actually catch fish, and, no matter how much she tried, my sister couldn’t catch fish.  I  would reel in three fish from the starboard side of the boat and dad would make us switch sides.  Then I would catch two from the port side and we would switch back.  Then we would switch poles and switch lures, but none of it helped.   If Ketchikan had had a county fair, I would have come home with ten goldfish and she would have had a bag of wax lips.   As I got older I realized there were other reasons Betty dutifully sat on her side of the boat catching nothing: chocolate bars.  The little bar of Hershey goodness was enough to keep her coming –  that is, until she realized she could stay home, with a good book, and eat the bars in complete comfort.

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Mom and Dad and BIL Pat

My mom, on the other hand, liked to go fishing, but I never once saw her reel in a fish.  She hooked hundreds, but as soon as dad realized that she had a fish on he would take the rod from her.  Exasperated, once again, she would say, “Earl!” and then go back and make sure Betty had enough chocolate bars.   It seemed her only jobs aboard the boat was to hold the pole until dad took it away from her, dole out chocolate and hold my belt loop when I needed to pee over the edge of the boat.

“Dad,”  I said after watching the drip roll back and forth with the rise and fall of the boat for what seemed like hours.  “You’ve got a drip of snot on your nose.”  I reached my finger up to my nose to show him where.   In an instant his tongue came out and the drip vanished like a chameleon catching a fly.  In that moment I felt my personal space bubble expand to exclude hugs from my dad and I also felt the urgent need to wash my mouth out with soap.

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Dad and his best friend Clarence

The Clearwater River is about as far away from Ketchikan as it is from New York City, but as I sat in the cold metal drift boat hooking plugs to snap swivels and arranging my gear for the day, I had a strange feeling like I had done it my entire life.  I blew on my fingers to get my 50 year old circulation going, but I felt 12 again.

I moved to Idaho when I was in my third year of college and never had the desire to fish.   I went once with my roommate and that evening he went on and on about the 13 inch trout he had caught that day.  After about ten minutes of his diatribe, I told him that in Alaska we used fish like the one he caught for bait.  I’m sure it was a nice fish, as far as trout fishing goes, but I could not see the enjoyment in reeling in a fish the size of a woman’s slipper.

Little did I know that only an hour away flowed a river of milk and honey, bursting to the banks with fish – real fish.  Fish that a man could be proud of.  Fish that broke the water when you hooked them and danced and flailed in the air trying to spit your hook.  Fish that battled you and fought you and tired you and tested you and needed to be knocked out with a stick when you got them in the boat so they wouldn’t damage anything.  Fish that bled on you and that you had to strain to hold as someone took your picture.  These were fish you hung on the wall.

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Freaking wild Steelhead!

It only took 30 years for me to discover it, but less than an hour to fall in love.  The Clearwater isn’t a misnomer.  It’s big and wide and clear as air.  It’s old and thinning in places where you need to lift your feet and hold your breath as you float over it so you don’t scrape the bottom, but deep and dark in other places with channels and holes that hide big fish that strike out of anger instead of hunger.  Angry fish, who knew?

“Keep your tip up!  Don’t loose it!  Let it run!  Check your drag!  Don’t give it slack!”   Every new fisherman gets on the job training.  I knew these words by heart and smiled warmly when I heard them.  When your body reacts independently of your mind and heart you have become, if not an expert, at least very comfortable and in tune with what you’re doing.  I hadn’t caught and landed a really big fish in 30 years, but holding the pole as the fish tried to rip it from my fingers felt natural and homey like wearing an old baseball glove or a favorite hat.  I felt relaxed and in charge.  The fish didn’t stand a chance.

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Dave’s lunker.

Catch and release is like dating in highschool.  You chase, you catch, you have a short relationship, then you release.    The hook fell out as the Steelhead flailed in the net.  I reached carefully in and grasped the fish by the tail and throat and lifted it up for its photographic debut.  He smiled and I smiled.   He was beautiful and bright, a wide band of color running down both flanks.  I knelt by the stern and carefully lowered him into the water to let the oxygen flow through his gills and bring him out of his stupor.  After a few moments of lolling from side to side his wits came to him and he fought out of my grasp, powering back into the depths.

The yuppie with the Spey Rod and the Orvis fly vest looked on with disdain as Dave and I thrashed around in the drift boat like a couple of school kids, hollering and high fiving like we had just won the lottery, which in a way, I felt  like I had.  I knew in that moment that I would be buying walnuts for Dream Crusher at Costco (you’ll have to ask her about this) and getting a boat.

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Man, I was unattractive, but boy could I catch fish. Dream Crusher and me before we were married. She only agreed to marry me AFTER I caught these beauties.

When the poles were once again dancing above the water,  Dave touched his nose and nodded in a way that confirmed, without actually saying anything, that I had a bit of snot dew clinging to the end of my nose.  Without thinking, my tongue shot out and firmly lodged into the corner of my mouth as I searched my pockets for a Kleenex.  I blew my nose and as I put the tissue away I thought to myself that maybe I was not my father’s son after all.

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The Clearwater and Dave.

 

Four Days Shy of 67 Mother’s Days

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January 31, 1926 – May 7, 2014

Her children rise and call her blessed.

My mom passed away just four days shy of her 67th Mother’s Day.  She was 88 and she was a saint.  If you have read any of my stories about my dad, you will know that no truer words were ever spoken.

It might seem odd, but I like to read obituaries.  They are sobering and give one perspective on how tenuous life really is.  Rarely are they ever completely truthful or give the entire story about what kind of person the deceased really was.  In every obituary the deceased family member was loved by everyone, loved life, always had a ready smile and never got angry.  Invariably, the person will be missed by every single person who knew him or her.   It’s just what you do when you remember someone.  You accentuate the best and forget the rest.  It’s a delicate balance and absolutely to be expected.   However, there is no delicate balance with my mom.  This is the honest truth – she was a saint.

She lived the last years of her life in a community of retired people (the last eight years in a nursing home) and outlived most of them.  Few of her friends are left to remember her.  But, her kids remember.

I would like you to meet my mom.

Gertrude Lorraine Bentley was born in 1926.  I don’t know much about her life because she never really talked about it, and I never asked, but what I’ve pieced together is that she was born into a migrant farm family that moved west during the Depression.  They were a family of dusty, fruit-pickers out of The Grapes of Wrath.  Her home life wasn’t ideal: her father drank and her mother slept at a friend’s house because of it.

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Mom and Dad and my brother Dick

Mom was a teenager when she and Dad met.   They were polar opposites and  I can only assume that he swept her off her feet with his enormous personality.  He must have seemed like the brass ring in an otherwise mundane merry-go-round. By the time I heard the stories of my dad getting into knife fights and brawls at bars with his then pregnant wife (my mother) in the fray, I couldn’t imagine it.  This woman with graying hair, who loved nothing more than to sit and read James Herriot novels and drink coffee or play endless games of cribbage with her son, didn’t seem capable of wanting to smoke cigarettes, while sitting in a bar watching her husband fight.  All I can imagine is that he must have seemed like an amusement ride compared to the life she previously led.  She must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to my dad.

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Mom and me.

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Mom, with her mom, and my sibling before I was born

I met her when she was 38.  I had just been born and from everything I pieced together later in life, I was a huge accident.  But in her mind, I was not a mistake.  She told me one time that even though Dad was really, really mad about her being pregnant (why he would be mad when he had a part in the process is beyond me) her arms ached to hold me.  It truly is all any child can ask of a mother – to be loved so much that her arms ached if you weren’t in them.

I remember bits and pieces of my childhood.  I remember helping her make cookies.  I remember Swedish pancakes with powdered sugar and lemon juice squeezed out of a plastic lemon.  I remember one-eyed Egyptian eggs.  I remember sitting with her in a rocker.  I remember the squeaky sound of her cleaning our huge picture windows and walking up and down Madison Avenue with her lifting my arm up so I wouldn’t trip going over the curb.  I can only see dimly the moments of her caring for my needs, but I am left with a vivid and overwhelming sense, like a technicolor hand-crocheted afghan, of how much she liked me.

Most kids know that their parents love them.  It is an entirely different thing to know that your parents like you.  I know that my mom liked me.  This is especially telling because in my mind I wasn’t a particularly likeable kid.  What an amazing thing for me to come home from school knowing that even though I may have had a really, really bad day, there was someone at home who couldn’t wait to see me and actually liked being around me.  She was my refuge and there is no greater blessing than that for a kid.

There are life lessons to be learned from my mother if we are wise enough to listen.  She never read any books on how to raise children.  She was permissive in her parenting, she never physically disciplined me, she was a good cook, but still allowed me to eat all the things that weren’t good for me, and she was virtually incapable of helping me or my siblings get through those awkward years where you don’t know why your feet are suddenly huge or why funny bumps are breaking out all over your face.  But, the one thing she was capable of doing she did in spades – she loved us.  Her love seemed to erase all the things she wasn’t able to do otherwise and it had a profound impact on all of us.  Her children have risen up because of it and called her blessed.

I never heard a single complaint about having to take care of any of us, and, in all my years, I never heard her say a harsh thing about me or any of my siblings.  She just didn’t have it in her.  She built up her children and never tore them down. She worked tirelessly to make sure we were well fed and clothed and had what we needed.

Mom was happy being at home.  Dad wasn’t.  He always wanted to be doing something.  She wasn’t particularly fond of going places, but she went.  If we picnicked, she packed, cooked and cleaned up when we got home.  If we fished, she processed the fish.  If we clammed, she cleaned them all.  If we crabbed, she cooked them.  She held our coats when we got hot and our shopping bags if we didn’t want carry them. There were times she was so overloaded that she looked like a Sherpa going up Mount Everest.  She bandaged my cuts and washed my wounds. She watched over the treasures that I found on the beach so no one would take them.  I took great advantage of her kindness, but that was Mom.  She gave and gave, but never required anything in return.  She was a saint.

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Yes, that’s a football. Yes, I did share my sister’s room for years.

She spent her entire life putting her children first.  Her arms ached to hold me as a baby, but her arms ached to hold all her kids.  All of her children have the same sense of kindness and affection towards her that was gained when she rocked us to sleep as children or read to us when she put us to bed.  She wasn’t the smartest or the prettiest (though she was both smart and pretty), but she loved us unconditionally.  This love kept me from doing some really stupid things as I grew up.  In my world, the worst thing I could do was hurt my mom and the first thought that came into my head when I was tempted to do something stupid was, how will this make mom feel?  I feared disobeying my dad.  I felt self-loathing when I did something to hurt my mom.

She only raised her hand against me one time.  I don’t remember the exact circumstance, but to have done something bad enough to bring her to violence against one of her children, it must have been something really, really irritating.  She swatted me on my fully clothed back end as I ran by her and I cried.  It did not hurt even a single bit, but knowing that I had done something to her that made her get angry at me was enough to break me down.  In my world it was a turning point and it never happened again.

Some might say that she was living vicariously through her children and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was (living with Earl made us all want to live a different life somehow), but mostly she wanted to see her children happy.  She didn’t have much power because of my dad, but what power she did have – the power to love us – she used to great advantage in our lives.

There are turning points in a family’s history that mark a drastic change in that family.  Mom was that turning point in our family. In fact, because of her, our family tree grew an entirely new branch.   Most of my dad’s relatives were cut from a different mold and, how do I say this delicately, a bit rougher around the edges.  Had we been left alone with Dad, or Dad and the kind of woman that notoriously marry men like my dad, I know things probably would have turned out markedly different in all of our lives – think orange jumpsuits and not being able to vote.  Mom saved us in so many ways.

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Allison helping grandma

When I got married and had kids of my own I realized exactly how difficult it is to be kind and patient all the time (let me say impossible) and I always marveled at how easy my mother made it seem.  All my kids got to know their Grandma Dudie, but my boys got to know her the best.  She would sit for hours with them playing checkers or cards or listening to them tell stories or reading them books.   I could only take a few minutes of any of this, but she was content to just sit and be with them.  My girls didn’t get as many quality years with her before Alzheimer’s took her mind, but she loved them like she loved me even in her affliction.  I know her arms ached for them, too.

As we all got older, the times together as a family became less frequent, but when we were together Mom was still the buffer.  Dad would be unreasonable and demanding and she would deal with him and then come back to the game we were playing at the dining room table.  I can still see her in my mind laughing uncontrollably over some silly inside joke.  It was a constant goal to get mom going and when she did, we all laughed until we couldn’t breathe.  These were the best of times and the worst of times.

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Wesley getting some alone time with his Grandma Dudie

Even as Alzheimer’s took her mind from her, she was still sweet and she was still the buffer that kept us from the full force of Dad.  She wasn’t quite as sweet to him as she used to be and was finally able to stand up for herself (we were all secretly a bit happy about this) as the filters dropped from her mind.  But to her kids, she was still the same.  Even though she forgot things and asked the same questions over and over, her love for us still shone in her eyes and to the very end she was still one of the nicest people any of us had ever known.

Goodbye was always hard on Mom

Goodbye was always hard on Mom (and Christian always got teary)

Dad died three years ago and there was a huge sigh of relief from his kids.  I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but he was a trial and when Mom went to the nursing home eight years ago, the buffer was gone and we got the unfiltered, crack cocaine version of Dad.  Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing. It was made even more terrible for us because it took the parent that we all wanted to have around longer and sidestepped the one that made life difficult. The one who wanted nothing more than to sit and enjoy her children was taken away far too early.

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Still beautiful

It’s sad, but there it is.  Now she has passed.  As we drove to be with her during her last moments I wondered what one was supposed to do when sitting with a dying parent.  I now have a role model to emulate. My sister Betty was by her side and did the most beautiful thing.  She sat next to her, held her hand and talked about what a great mother she was and spoke the names of her kids and grandkids as she breathed her last.  What was most important to my mom in life was whispered in her ear at her death.  I am thankful that she was my mom and sad that her life is over, but at the same time I am happy and relieved for her to finally be free.  Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are her legacy.  Well done, Mom.