A Cast of Crisis

Crisis

I was no older than six when I found myself in an unfortunate position with nature.

I stood barefooted in a lake, and my small fishing pole extended over the water. A friend of mine, a six-year-old outdoorsman, fished with me. It was his lake, and his territory of comfort.

He was one hundred feet down the shoreline, and in his hand, a beautiful rod. Unquestionably an adult rod. It reminded me of my grandpa’s.

I kept stealing glances at my own – weak and plastic, line continuously jammed in the spool. I had to press a button to release the line, whereas my friend snapped open the bail and slung without effort. On a good cast, my line went fifteen feet – his, fifty.  Embarrassment was quick to bite.

I do not remember how I came to accept this playdate. Our mothers were fine friends, and if I were to guess, they had probably set it up. I tried to remain confident in my casts, and I tried to keep distance from my friend. Flaws were harder to spot that way.

He and I cast, and there were few words exchanged. Within minutes, a grunt came one hundred feet down, and I looked to my friend. He was fighting with a fish, and his line bowed toward the water. I watched with great excitement, and I may’ve yelled a time or two, for encouragement’s sake. He wrestled with the reel for a while longer, and eventually, a decently-sized bass emerged out the water. My friend smiled as he removed it from the hook. I wanted to applaud.

“I’m up on you,” he hollered. “Better not get too far behind.”

Until then, I was unaware we were in competition. I had not really been focused on catching the fish, but rather, casting smoothly so my friend would not see me as fraud. I accepted his challenge, nonetheless, because I saw no other alternative.

Suddenly, though, as I began to cast with new intent, I was taken by fear. Never once had I removed a fish from its hook.

I suppose, until that moment, I had always taken for granted a fish’s detachment from the hook. I wasn’t a stranger to fishing. My grandpa and my father had taken me often, but on the rare instance of me catching a fish, they had put their thumbs in the fish’s mouth; it was they who removed the hook and had blood on their hands to show for it. Never me. I would watch, in the same way I now watched my friend.

My realizations came quickly. It seemed I would inevitably lose the competition, and more embarrassingly, I’d be too afraid to grip a fish if I were to catch one.  I was wedged in the biggest pickle of my young life, and I hadn’t a way out.

I swallowed hard, and cast my line into the lake again.

Some time passed without a bite, but my friend, meanwhile, hauled in fish like an Apostle. He would call over, heckle some, and throw the bass back. It was an unfortunate scenario for me, wanting desperately to catch, and also avoid, the fish. My boyish pride, though, kept me going. I continued to cast, up to twenty feet if my sling was good.

The afternoon was slow until, in an instant, a sharp jolt tugged at my pole. A hot rush went to my forehead, and I shot a glance to the ripples in the water. Instinctively, I reeled. I thought neither competitively nor fearfully. I only reeled; I yanked; I grunted as my friend had. I might have hollered to him – I do not remember. I can, however, remember him stop to watch me. My line behaved and did not jam. The cast was the smoothest I had had the entire day, and as the line shortened, as the fish came nearer to the surface of the water, there was an awful noise. A brittle crack came from the middle of the rod, and a small vibration went into my hands.

The moment was over. I held half of a plastic fishing pole in my hand, and the other half was swimming underneath the surface with my prizewinner. I was stunned. I stared at the lake and wanted to cry.

I had forgotten about my friend until he gave a snort of held-back laughter. When I looked at him, he laughed some more, and within seconds the giggling had taken him to a point of no return. It was not spiteful or mean. He laughed from simple humor of the moment, and without thought, I joined him. Mine, perhaps, came from relief, since I no longer had to worry about competition and fear. I laughed until tears blurred my vision.

Until evening, I watched my friend cast with grace, and I saw fish gladly bite at his bait. I, again, had the urge to applaud; but instead, I quietly admired.

The next time I fish with Papa, I thought, I’ll make him show me how to do it all.

That time did eventually come, but that evening, I sat barefooted on the shore of a lake, and stared fondly at what I could not do.

An Elderly Arm

Some time ago, while sitting outside with my grandpa at his home, a great rustle stirred in the forest ahead of us. The evening had been still, without wind or bird calls, and perhaps the rustle had seemed so tremendous for this reason. My grandpa and I jumped slightly in our lawn chairs, and kept our sight to the noise in the forest. It was growing nearer, and from my little knowledge, the noise most resembled the leaps of a deer. My eyes became ready for a doe, or perhaps her lost fawn, to poke out the woodland and stare curiously at us, the way deer do.

It was a rather sore surprise when a dog busted into the lawn. Its chest heaved and its mouth panted, but the exhaustion was expressed in such a way that seemed enjoyable. The stray dog trotted near us, and politely, he dropped a tennis ball at our feet.

Now, despite the excessive breathing, or the drool, this Labrador had a sharp mind. He was not so easily fooled by a fake toss, and as the evening idled along, he proved to be wildly gifted at the game of fetch. The instinct of anticipation was wired well within him, and as I tossed, the throws became farther, higher, or with added velocity, as to best the dog at his own game. Eventually, it was not so much a matter of win or loss, but a matter of challenging the dog, who retrieved so effortlessly that it bordered upon hoax.

After one of the tosses, the Labrador did something strange. He disregarded me, as if my throws had brought boredom, and he laid the ball gently at the feet of my grandpa.

At this, I must give witness – my grandpa was once a very athletic man. My witnessing does not come from sight, but stories. I had heard from adults of his elbow once coming even with the rim in a basketball game; of his weightlifting days, where his muscles had been chiseled from stone; and, of course, his diving heroics in center field, so throughout my childhood, I had high regard for my grandpa’s past ability.

I must give one last witness – never in my life had I seen my grandpa perform an athletic feat. Mostly, I assumed, it was because of his age, so I respected him firmly, but never dared to ask him to rekindle that ability through H-O-R-S-E or a game of catch. It was best to let my mind run with the stories, and to see his athleticism in that respect.

The tennis ball, meanwhile, sat temptingly at his feet, and for a moment I watched his face and sensed his contemplation. His decision was suddenly made, and after picking up the ball, he stood with great effort from his lawn chair. I was silent and partially stunned, for something this unprecedented could not be appreciated in any other way.

My grandpa gave a determined eye to the distant forest, but as he wound his arm to throw, the movement was awkward, unable to bend the way it once had. The jerkiness would not have been so obvious if the ball would’ve sailed into the brush, but instead, he released too early, for he was much out of practice. The ball sailed perhaps ten feet high and long, and the Labrador, without excitement, walked to the bouncing tennis ball and easily snatched it from the air.

My thoughts had shot to my grandpa’s young athleticism, and surely his had, too. I suddenly had deep embarrassment for seeing the throw, and I wished to reiterate that I did not care about it, that I would forever see him as the diving center fielder, or the talented leaper, but my tongue was too hot from embarrassment, so I could not speak.

Our eyes connected, and within him, I, too, saw embarrassment. His mouth was slightly agape, his eyes wide, and without speaking himself, he slowly sat back in his lawn chair. The Labrador then compiled the issue, for when he chose his partner in the next round of fetch, he turned his nose up to my grandpa, who had not challenged him. Within a moment, the ball was placed at my feet.

What my grandpa said next was unexpected, and my only response was to obey his command.

“Try to throw it above the woods,” he said.

At the time, I was unsure whether he had said it to spite the dog, or to perhaps in an effort to lose the ball, so he could finally be away from the game. I, nonetheless, gave the ball a great heave. It was a good throw. My elbow slung like elastic, and the ball skied to upper quarter of the trees. The Labrador went happily to fetch.

I turned to my grandpa, and there was a satisfied look to him. I was very close to the man, and I knew immediately from where the satisfaction had come. He watched me, a product of himself, a young, strong arm, throw a ball far up into the trees, and it made him glad. In me, he saw himself – his youthful, athletic self. And in some strange way, both our embarrassment had been slightly chipped away.

The Labrador had faithfully returned, and after again dropping it at my feet, my grandpa said, “Try higher this time.”

I obeyed. My elbow slung once more, my shoulder rotated smoothly, and my body torqued as to give greater velocity to the ball. It had sailed higher than the last throw, and the Labrador set off to the woods.

This routine continued for a long while, and as the dog was off sniffing for his ball, neither me nor my grandpa said anything. We listened to the rustling of the paws, and did not look at one another – I think because we were afraid to do so.

I woke the next morning, and upon my first movement, my right arm was stiff. The little muscles around my elbow were tender, and the large ones running along my right ribcage quivered. I enjoyed every wince of pain, being very prideful of the soreness, knowing what it had given to my grandpa.

I went into the kitchen that morning, and my grandpa was at the table, sipping coffee. I sat beside him and did not let on to the pain in my arm. We said nothing for a moment, until he gave a weak smile.

“I wonder if the dog will be back today,” he said.

I contemplated it, and said, “Maybe.”

He took another sip of coffee, and his weak smile grew stronger.

“Well,” he said, “let’s hope so.”

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