I remember the first time I ever recognized the pride my father felt at witnessing one of my accomplishments. I was nineteen years old, and for much of my adolescent life I had been something of a prodigal son. Throughout high school I was a poor student, but not because I couldn't handle the work. Rather, I lacked focus and ambition, and like so many of my peers I was more concerned with girls than grades. I drank alcohol to excess, came home far past curfew most nights of the week, and even had a brush or two with the law. My parents tried, but the more they tried the less inclined was I to do the same.
Even twenty odd years after the fact, the reminiscence is tinged with regret. My mother and father deserved better, and I was too stubborn, too juvenile to understand a son's duty to his family. Fortunately, time has a way of healing the rifts between parents and their children, and I think this is especially true of fathers and their sons.
For my father and I, the process of reconciliation began one chilly November morning on the red-clay parade fields of Fort Benning, Georgia. On that day, I stopped being a delinquent child, and started being a man. On that cold November day, so many miles from home, my mother pinned a blue cord on the right shoulder of my uniform, a cord that signified my status as an infantry soldier in the United States Army. My father shook my hand, looked straight into my eyes, and told me that he was proud. I felt - both in the steel of his eyes and the stone of his grip - that he meant what he said. He was proud, truly and genuinely proud.
That moment was for me a rite of passage. My parents, my father in particular, saw me differently on that day. Even though my path was so often uncertain, on that day I managed to navigate my way out of the morass of my youth, and become the person Mom and Dad had known I could be and had so hoped I would be. After my service was fulfilled and I returned home, my father treated me not so much as his child but as his peer. We talked as men talk, and together we did the things that fathers and their grown sons do.
These memories were refreshed on a recent trip to the river as a friend and I drove along a country road that parallels the river's course. As we navigated its many twists and turns, we passed a young boy of maybe 10 or 12 years and a man that was almost certainly his father. The boy was seated behind the wheel of a well worn, emerald green John Deer lawn tractor. His father was explaining - quite vigorously explaining - the purpose behind each pedal, button and lever. Next to the tractor, seemingly discarded in favor of the larger piece of machinery, was a walk-behind push mower. To my eye, the scene had the appearance of a graduation. The boy had reached some sort of landscaping benchmark, and was being rewarded with the tractor and his father's guarded trust.
Accompanied by thoughts of the boy, his father, and memories of my own passage into manhood, I quickly settled into a cast-step rythym, flailing the water as best I could. Before long I was into a good fish, which I quickly played, photographed, and released.
My eyes followed the brown as it swam off into the current, eventually losing itself amongst the cobble. I waded downstream a stretch, and spent the rest of the afternoon watching my friend - who had been learning to double-haul - cast to rising fish. I thought of the pain I endured while learning the same cast. I thought of the years I spent on the bends and twists of the river. I thought about that last fish, and I thought about my first fish. I thought about the milestones I've passed as an angler; milestones that have made me - at least as much as having been a soldier or a son - the person I am today.
That is - perhaps more than anything else - what those folks who don't fish may never understand about those of us who do. The milestones we encounter as fishermen are sometimes as significant as any other we might experience in the various facets of our lives. Learning to cast and then learning to cast well, tying that first perfectly proportioned fly, hooking our first fish and landing the last: we learn something from each of these and myriad other moments. Not only do they make us better anglers, but oftentimes they makes us better people.
Yes ... the river is both instructive and redemptive. She teaches us patience, and the need to sometimes move more slowly. She teaches us to forgive ourselves of our failings, and to see past our partners' peccadilloes. She shows us triumph and disappointment alike - often in the same afternoon - and we learn to smile regardless. Perhaps more than anything else, the river teaches us hope. Hope for that next fish. Hope for a better day. Hope that we'll recognize the importance of the moment when the moment happens.
And it may just be that hope is the very best of things.