By N.T. McQueen
A rod, a reel, a tacklebox and a bag of Tootsie Pops.
In the complex relationship with my father, only one shared activity remains hallowed. Moments where I am afforded the ability to look back without questions or doubts or quixotic lenses.
These moments remain hallowed, untouched by lies and replacements and fruitless applause. These moments, whether in folding chairs or on the jagged edges of the Mendocino bluffs, the bodies of water drowned the demons if for a few hours. In retrospect, I think I understand why my father always ordered us to spread his ashes into the Pacific Ocean off “the rock” in Makerriker State Park. To this day, his affinity for this one rock still has a shroud of mystery. He never caught some massive fish or held an epic tug-of-war with a mighty behemoth of the depths still shrouded in legend. It’s just a damn rock.
For a son, the first fishing trip with your father is one of those pivotal initiation rights. Not just going with your father while he fishes but being a capable participant. Someone who can rig up their own line. Tie a hook with a blood knot, clamp on sinkers and a bobber, untangle a rat’s nest in the reel, dislodge a hook from tulles without snapping your line. Casting without snagging a blackberry bush or tree branch. The autonomous fisherman. The moment you become a peer and not a source of hook tying practice for your dad.
The first trip with my dad didn’t actually count. At six, I remember waking up at 5:30am in the dark, hopping in the Toyota truck, picking up Grandma Olive and driving 35 minutes to Lakeside Park along the channel before the county let the weeds and hydra consume it. Grandma had her plaid folding chair and her nine- foot bamboo rod rigged and ready for any bottom feeder that might snag her nightcrawler. As for me, my rod of choice (actually the rod of my father’s choice) was a three-foot, nail thin reel and rod combo of Superman equipped with three pound monofilament.
Truthfully, I didn’t care much about what rod I used. My heart was in the moment, not the outcome. Perhaps my heart was set on the bag of Tootsie Pops my dad religiously brought on fishing excursions. In a sense, they acted as his communion, his eucharist to partake within his sanctuary from the mysteries after him.
As the sun crept over the oaks on the opposite side of the channel, I sat by my dad on a short bank with my Superman rod and my line floating on a bobber. Maybe a bluegill or crappie might have some interest to the wiggling redworm. Blue jays shrieked in the branches and mallards and their brown mates swam, often dipping with their tailfeathers jutting skyward. The faint hum of boat motors carried from the lake.
To be honest, my six year old mind began to wander and boredom set in. The dreams of reeling in
my first fish faded and I wondered if maybe I should have stayed home with Splinter and the turtles. Closer to my sanctuary and all the characters awaiting my imagination in my toyboxes.
As I sat beside dad, tossing pebbles into the water, I failed to notice my bobber dipping before being sucked under the surface.
“Nate, you got a fish!”
I held the rod which no longer danced but bent in my paralyzed grip. Dad leaned over and tried reeling and I sat, intrigued but not enough to take ownership. Perhaps the battle seemed not worth the fight.
But then the moment erupted in a chaotic burst of water and spray as a massive carp breeched, jerking and kicking. Without a hesitation, my paralyzed grip let go and I fled. I scampered up the embankment and away from the lake’s edge as my dad, along with Superman, wrestled with the beast. I watched from a distance, heart racing and resigning myself that this would be my last fishing trip.
A minute later, dad walked up the bank with a piece of Superman in each hand. The line snapped and curling where it broke. He tried to assure me that was my first fish but, even at six, I knew that if you don’t land it, you can’t name her.
Later that morning, Grandma caught another carp with her bamboo rod. Dad told me to stand next to her as she held it up with both hands. As he wound the disposable camera, I looked eye level with this carp, face to face as its narrow mouth pulsated before spitting a wad of mud and mutilated worm into my eye.
The next trips in the early dark yielded much better experiences. As a family, we’d gather our rods and tackle and Tootsie Pops and fish for bluegill in the reservoir where the Hidden Valley Lake dam released when it overfilled. Dad, Sarah and I would stand on the concrete wall, just high enough from the water’s edge and dangle our lines writhing with worms, watching the bluegill peck and investigate until one fish’s greed consumed it. Fish after fish would take the bait and dad would show us how to grip their lip and pull the hook without getting a palmful of sharp spines from the dorsal and pelvic fins. Then they’d return to the water and we’d fish on. When the bites slowed, Sarah and I would walk the concrete embankment up the hill to the lake and survey the nestled paradise of homes lining the lush golf course.
Sarah contributed to fishing sometimes but, for the most part, the trips became a father and son event. However, even I had my limits on patience. The camping trips to Fort Bragg where dad and I sat on the bluffs, lines taught in the water and moving with the ache of a ship at sea, sucking on Tootsie Pops and waiting and waiting and waiting held a magic and banality my young mind could handle so long. After an hour, my legs would take me to the tidepools, trying to snatch crabs scuttling into crevices, attempting to catch gobys with some fishing line on my finger and searching for starfish before humans committed an accidental genocide against them. Then I practiced my ninja moves, jumping from rock to rock and seeing how fast I could traverse the jagged terrain.
Two hours later, ready to start something new, but dad sat so long on that rocky seat, I wondered if part of him had become stone. Bites or no bites, he stared across the waters, rod and reel at attention, striving to catch something. As if he were in competition with the Pacific Ocean or the God who created it.
Throughout the years, those fishing trips became more sparse but they happened. We’d even have the opportunity to try for salmon in the Sacramento River or off the Mendocino coast in a boat where we’d troll our lines in eight foot swells. My gut handled the river but those swells defeated me and my involuntary duty involved chumming the waters with my breakfast and soul. Even snagging a 27 pounder couldn’t mitigate my misery. But dad fought the sea and always seemed to win.
Maybe the Tootsie Pops were his secret weapon.
I’ve scoured the past for faults in these memories. Agonized and analyzed the minutiae of the trips that stood out as insincere moments. This scrutiny of memory has become normalized in my relationship with my father. But these memories have remained hallowed, untouched, sanctified and pure for some reason. The bluffs, Lake Cleone, the Russian River watershed, Hidden Valley Lake, Rodman Slough, Mather Lake. These bodies of water somehow cleansed him of the pressure of his choices, his demons, his fears. The act of fishing, for a moment, taught his to be a father who taught his son how to bait a hook, tie a blood knot, reel a bass lure, hold a fish. A man who stood at the bow of a charter boat as his son lay on the seats, fighting nausea, waiting for the unmistakable dance of the rod tip and then calling me over to real in his fish on his line.
In later years when the lies he fed became more and more voracious, those moments where he sought cleansing and catharsis from them at the water’s edge became more desperate. One summer when my middle daughter was young, my family camped at Mackerricher State Park (except my mom who loathed camping and stayed in a hotel). Aunts, uncles, cousins, even my in-laws all set up tents and played badminton, horse shoes, catch and drank beer. One of those days, dad spent some time fishing off the bluffs. I joined him for two hours without so much as a bite and I wanted to see my family. So I walked back to the camp with my wife and girls and my mom. Six hours later, dad roamed the edges of Lake Cleone, desperate to not be beaten by the water. My mom complained and ranted about how crazy he was but I felt sympathy for some inexplicable reason. His desperation to validate his time, effort and actions seemed the moves of a man on a precipice. A precipice, at the time, I had no inclination he stood on.
From bluffs to lakeshore, he fought all he could not control for six hours. The trail around Lake Cleone worn even deeper from his incessant and stubborn pacing, trying every reed clearing, rig set up, reel and bait he could muster to catch a trout or bluegill or crawfish. Anything to validate this choice. To attempt and fail, losing hooks and bait and weights in the name of victory on his own terms. When does determination transform into pride? Or perseverance into obstinacy? Or when does a lie become a truth?
When dad finally returned, walking along the narrow road between Ten Mile Beach and Lake Cleone into Makerricher campgrounds where his children and grandchildren and brothers and sister-in-laws all sat around the campfire, laughing and eating, he emerged from the redwoods empty handed save his rods and reels. The flippant promise of fish for dinner that night faded from everyone’s memory but he must have still been back at the water in his mind, wondering what he did wrong. Why all of his efforts proved fruitless.
Whether he ponders all those fishing trips with empty buckets in his prison cell, I can’t say. And if he tells the few left in his life those thoughts, can you trust the words of a pathological liar? Perhaps the foundation of his memories lies in those empty buckets or the one that got away, not on the fish I landed or those moments at Mather Lake helping my daughters reel in bluegill and watching bobbers.
As a father now, my daughters speak of a desire to fish but tremble at the early morning wake up call or the empathy for the worm. They may join me in the early dark and watch the sunrise over the mountain. They may go through a metamorphosis from boredom to anticipation as I did, but maybe not. My oldest just practiced casting a lure into Honokohau Harbor as I directed her on how to flip the bail, hold the line, when to release and all the subtleties of the cast. Maybe the spark lit. Maybe not. Maybe using Tootsie Pops creates the incentive for them.
Regardless, if that is the memory given me, I will store it with the others. Canonized for the remainder of my days.
N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs and The Disciple. His writing has appeared in issues of the North American Review, Fiction Southeast, Entropy, The Grief Diaries, Camas: Nature of the West, Stereo Stories, and others. He has done humanitarian work in Cambodia, Haiti and Mexico and teaches writing at several colleges and universities in California.