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“Fishing for My Father: Everything Old is New Again”

by Robert DeMott

Part II (read Part I)

In The Sporting Road, Jim Fergus says outdoor sporting pursuits proves we are just “great big kids.” I see his point, though I never thought Peter Pan was a suitable role model. But indeed going outside started for me at a very young age, so perhaps a residue of youthfulness has always attached itself to my sporting pursuits. I never suffered from what is now called “Nature Deficit.” My father was caretaker of an estate in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, owned by world famous illuminator, anti-Axis activist, and political cartoonist Arthur Szyk. The world came to Szyk’s door in the 1940s. His work was on the cover of Time and Colliers magazines, he illuminated the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, and many politically like-minded celebrities trekked up from New York City to confer with him. I am told I was introduced to film actors John Garfield and Frederick March, to film producer Michael Todd (before he married Elizabeth Taylor), and to Menachem Begin, who later became Prime Minister of Israel.

Those are second-hand recollections, however, superseded by Szyk’s vast and wonderful grounds with its many acres of lawns, fields, gardens, box elder fence rows, and the most stately grove of oaks and maples imaginable to a dreamy kid. My father was a kind of green renaissance man when it came to caretaking Syzk’s estate, and he had a hand in nearly all facets of its operation. He was a trim, compact man, only 5’ 9” tall, who worked efficiently and knowingly at whatever the task at hand happened to be. Dad was a problem solver and I never remember him flailing around or panicking in an emergency as my mother sometimes did (and from whom I clearly inherited the worry gene).

Of course, I followed my father everywhere on his various rounds and duties whether it was bush hogging Syzk’s meadow, cutting the acres of lawn, planting bulbs in the flower beds, or raking the fall leaves; in his footsteps, from the first, I gained an abiding sense of the outside being as integral to a whole life as the inside. (A decade ago, when dad was being interviewed for a documentary about Arthur Szyk, we revisited the house and its grounds and found, much to our satisfaction, that its subsequent owners had kept the lay of land mostly unchanged in the fifty years since Szyk died, though it seemed a bit more groomed and decidedly trendy than it had been in my father’s era.)

As one of eight children of Italian immigrant parents who had grown up in straitened economic circumstances in the 1920s and 1930s in urban Stamford (he quit school after eighth grade to help with family support), my father encouraged my outdoor pursuits with a kind of enthusiasm I always found unusual in such a realistic, no-nonsense working man. In typical Italian fashion, he stuck to family rather than outsiders, and to my mother’s side of the family at that (he was somewhat distant from and oddly formal with his own seven brothers and sisters).

Though my father was a steady and utterly reliable provider, consummate family man, and devoted husband—he and my mother, Colletta (“Helen”), were married for more than sixty years—there was also something of the gambler (he was a stellar craps shooter when he was a young man) and lone cowboy in him, which I was delighted to discover on one of our car trips through the West.

As a child he had idolized Western matinee film star Tom Mix, whom he had once seen in person. My father was a fairly good horseman himself and had happily acted  in a 1940s-era home-made Western  movie (filmed in Connecticut!), “Outlaw Roundup,” directed and produced by a close family friend Mike Natale, who also starred as feared gunman “Blackie” Slade. My father played Buck Duane with a smile on his face, even when he was being lynched by the bad guys. But except for membership in Knights of Columbus, and later a local Sons of Italy lodge, Dad was not a joiner. He was always skeptical of organizations and group think, but he loved to hear the stories of outings (with and without my uncles), and in that I think he was giving me permission to keep doing what I was doing. Occasionally, when time and money allowed, he enjoyed stringing along. He told me the story about having once seen Tom Mix and his famous horse Tony when we were passing close to Monument Valley, the northern Arizona setting for countless Hollywood Westerns. Sometimes you can’t make up these overlays.

 

***

      Several vivid early events colonized my sporting imagination and created a lasting effect whose tendencies, I think, have stayed with me all of my life. New Canaan was a launch point. At the public Mill Pond Park near Route 123, in the company of my older cousin, Jack Lapolla, I caught my first fishes at age 4 or 5—a brown bullhead (horned pout) and a sunfish—on a cane pole three times as tall as I was (a gift from my parents), rigged with waxed twine and a snelled Eagle Claw hook baited with an earth worm. It would be many years before I learned that Thoreau had a similar experience a century earlier on the more famous Walden Pond, where he pulled a “horned pout squeeking and squirming to the upper air.” Thoreau claimed, in a truly metaphysical gyration, that he caught “two fish… with one hook,” and I have since come to believe that, as I am still actively fishing sixty-five years later, those two fish caught me.

Two other moments in particular out of hundreds—one natural and one virtual, but each, I suppose, a version of theater and thus profoundly symbolic—stand out from that long ago past. On a stormy day more than sixty years ago at Bonaventure Island in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, my father braved a downpour and my mother’s and aunt’s vigorous protestations so I could see first hand the Northern gannett rookery, one of the largest breeding colonies on earth. For a budding amateur ornithologist starting in on compiling a life list, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Some nights, even now, I still feel the rocking of the boat caused by swells so large that, as Stephen Crane famously said, none of us knew the color of the sky. Through the tempest and clamor all those wild birds—raucous gannetts, gulls, murres, auks, guillemots, by the thousands—went on doing their primal business right in our faces. As though we weren’t there, as though we could ever doubt that nature goes on at a roiling pitch almost incomprehensible to us humans whether we are present to witness its drama or not, whether our witnessing is itself an act of alteration, as some eco-theorists claim.

My father occasionally had business in mid-town Manhattan. I rode shotgun in Arthur Szyk’s big Buick sedan and when dad’s city duties were dispatched, and if it was early enough in the day, instead of driving straight back to Connecticut he would surprise me by taking me to a place he thought I’d enjoy—one of the still surviving Horn and Hardart Automats, Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, or Central Park Zoo. But he outdid himself when we rolled up for the first time to the American Museum of Natural History. As far as Big Apple destinations go, it has always been the cream of the cream.

The museum’s intimidating size, its vast network of cavernous rooms, and its overwhelming amplitude was too much to absorb in a hundred visits, let alone one. I’ve been back many times since that day a lifetime ago (most recently with my grandson Nicholas on his first visit), and have dallied in many of its endless nooks and crannies, ogled the incomparable dinosaur displays, oohed at the heavens in the Hayden Planetarium and aahed at blue-lit marine views in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, but I always circle back to one indelible spot: the Hall of North American Mammals’ splendid gray wolf diorama.

Northern Minnesota at 3 am in early December: a pair of wolves in full stride are chasing unseen prey across frozen Gunflint Lake (prints in the snow suggest it is a white-tail deer, soon perhaps to be torn limb from limb). James Perry Wilson, an artist known for his fascination with light effects, painted the background and there he was at the top of his representational form, as were taxidermist George Adams and foreground artist, Raymond deLucia. The dramatic scene is punctuated by long shadows of trees under moonlight, and is bathed in an eerie blue glow that seems to rise out of the snow from the ground up (an effect that I’ve witnessed many times since). The panorama is backlit by a stunning display of the aurora borealis. The collaborative artists’ scene is entirely artificial and staged—a sublime example of nature fakery or breathless zoo, I suppose, as all habitat dioramas are—but as a riveting, shivery dreamscape destined to haunt my imagination, no one has ever done better.

The upshot of those experiences—and many others akin to them—is that my attitude toward the vitally contested domains of nature and art as reciprocal elements was formed somewhere between realism and rhapsody, that is, between ear-splitting, riotous avian rookery caked with bird shit and dead fish and animal parts on one hand, and utterly silent, unchanging, perfectly sculpted mounts engaged in a pursuit that has no beginning and no end.  Postmodern theory aside regarding the primacy of language, I want it all: the raw moment in so far as it is possible for us insulated humans to be exposed to and participate in such events; and the grammar, lexicon, language—call it what you will—conservatorial or otherwise, with which to frame the experience, even if only approximately. Chris Camuto says it best in Hunting from Home: “I love language as much as landscape….” Which is to say, a heart full of woods and water, a head full of books: we can both hunt and write, teach and fish, read rivers as well as books. Because each activity has reinforced and informed the other, I don’t want to be forced to choose one at the expense of the other, though even having said that perhaps I have already made my choice.

 

***

Although my father and I had our private altercations and ideological differences (he disapproved of my liberal stance on the Viet Nam War, hated my long hair and beard back in the day, disapproved of my spendthrift habits) and we disappointed each other in ways only fathers and sons can (probably never more so than when, as a teenager, I was arrested with some thieving delinquent pals for breaking and entering at a local school), I knew, despite my being off and on a trial to him,  that I was loved and respected in ways that lent an extra cushion of grace and well being to my life. No less welcome was my father’s habit of assuming I knew what I was doing. In that assumption he was only partially correct, for as inflexible and dead-set as he was in some areas of his life, he uncomplainingly bailed me out of tight scrapes on more than one occasion, and never held those reckless lapses against me. Bless his heart, he was an uncomplaining and responsive listener and sounding board through my 2 divorces and several bouts of depression. Dad’s steadiness and dependability offset my habitual impetuosity; his pragmatism and level-headedness leavened my impracticality; his frugality made up for my profligacy.

The generosity of his attitude and depth of love toward his only child (and later, toward my daughter, his only grandchild) was liberating and appreciated in ways I don’t imagine I will ever be able to fully honor or articulate. We lived 600 miles apart all my adult life and no doubt geographical distance between Ohio and Connecticut amplified each other’s best attributes and diminished our questionable ones. When we spent time together, which over the long haul was considerable (I was in my early sixties when he died), we preferred to take pleasure in each other’s company and join forces to tackle tasks rather than rehash the misdemeanors, indiscretions, and blunders of the past, almost all of which, I am quick to own up, were mine. He let me off easy. Dad was one of those rare people we meet now and then in our lives who made you seem better than you were. With people like that, whose efforts all tend toward acceptance, the trick is to be honored by their largess, but not take advantage of it.

I am fairly certain my father, who by then owned and operated the Esquire Barber Shop in Wilton (after Arthur Szyk died my parents moved to Norwalk then to Wilton) never quite understood what I did as an English professor, or how that job required such long hours of sustained preparation and cerebral work (70-hour weeks were routine), but then, while he was in no sense intellectual (though he enjoyed attending the Metropolitan Opera and many art museums and literary sites here and abroad), he never belittled my ivory tower occupation or demeaned it by accusing me of not living and working in the “real world,” even though my own version of the daily grind was cushy compared to the fatiguing monotony of standing on his feet all day to cut strangers’ hair.

Unlike my mother, a physician’s office manager, Dad was not an avid reader (National Geographic, the large-print Readers Digest, and the daily New York Post were his accustomed texts), and despite his keeping a daily diary for many years, I don’t think I ever received more than three or four written letters from him in my life (correspondence was my mother’s bailiwick), so I know it must have been a stretch for him to understand a son who read and wrote for a living and never made much money at either.

Fortunately, real and vicarious experience merged numerous times in our lives. Some of my fondest adult memories involve my father. We worked side by side finishing our roughed-in Vermont cabin in the summer of 1973, made two cross-country car trips together, traveled to England and our homeland Italy for weeks at a time, floated the Otter, Snake, and Madison Rivers in Vermont, Wyoming, and Montana, erected dry-stacked stone retaining walls, and planted (and transplanted) more flowering shrubs and perennial gardens at our homes than I can count.

Spend eight straight days in a car with someone, driving from Connecticut to California, and you catch on pretty fast to what makes them tick. Opinionated and even stubborn as he could be on occasion, my father was always a good sport. He was interested in everything the road brought our way, whether it was his first view of the Grand Canyon or a broken valve lifter in my Chevy truck in the middle of traffic in downtown San Jose; he was always willing to take it all on with his sense of equanimity, wonder, and good humor on display.

At the south rim of the Grand Canyon, it was worth the entire trip to see that his sense of amazement and awe could not have been greater. He had read about the place for years, scanned photographs of it in National Geographic, and at last, face to face, was almost speechless. “No wonder people believe in God,” he said later. I loved that about him. He never lost his sense of wonder and pleasure whether it was looking out over the Grand Canyon or walking up the wide stone steps at the 14th century cathedral in Orvieto, or something as simple and here-and-now as relishing pizza and beer in the time shortly before he died when he had become fed up with the belief that a strict diet and health regimen would do him much good.

In many regards he was a remarkably patient man, and one of my enduring childhood images stems from the time, post-Arthur Syzk, when he was preparing for his barber licensing examination. At the kitchen table he would lather the surface of a tethered balloon, then carefully, methodically shave it with a straight razor honed to the finest edge. Every so often the balloon would burst and lather would spurt everywhere, but he was a master of the incremental process, whether it was shaving, tending his garden, or making wine with my grandfather: “little by little,” he would say, until a job was finished, a lesson learned, a task completed. I still hear that mantra in my head nearly every day; it applies to just about every facet of my existence.

More than anyone I have ever known, my father understood the measured progression of life and the virtue of remaining unhurried. He might have been a horticulturist or nursery man in another life, so fond was he of working outdoors amid greenery and the natural cycle of flora. In his late eighties he was still gardening and landscaping around his house. Working in soil, close to the earth, kept him going. The dignity of physical work, even if it was a menial task, was something he knew first hand. I still picture him among his tools—his reliable old wheel barrow, with its taped handles and steel wheel, his over-sized landscaper’s rake, his mason’s hammer, and his wood handled shovel, all throwbacks to an earlier sweat-of-the-brow era. These were as dear to him as my fly rods are to me. Dad had planter’s hands, and his skill at tending day lilies or tomatoes or trimming fall roses was uncanny. His venerable pruning knife, its curved wooden handles nicked by use and darkened by sweat, is one of my most cherished heirlooms. I carry it every time I work in my gardens, which, like father like son, is often. “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,” Walt Whitman says in “Song of Myself.” “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles,” and I do.

When his time came, in early 2007, after nearly a year of off and on illness, medical pokings and proddings, injections, therapies, and operations, during which he was always a model patient, I like to believe he was ready for the end, having grown increasingly philosophical and even resigned, though who can say for certain this isn’t a delusional rationalization on my part? I take as truth, though, that a man’s stories live after him, as the Big Fish texts say, and in that way he lives on too, even if it is only in the confines of his family’s individual hearts and minds.

 

***

In the year of bodily diminishment before Dad’s death (a month short of his 90th birthday), those memories, experiences, and their associated stories, yarns, and tall tales were sustaining to both of us, as was my mother’s devoted care toward him. I took a leave of absence from my university teaching job and spent a goodly part of six months living with my parents during those trying times so I could assist in every aspect of a day-to-day life that had taken on a darker cast far different than either of my parents ever imagined. But I learned—following Dad’s patient, equanimous lead—that all we can do is take the best of what comes by and let the rest go, though I admit that doing so sometimes requires enormous will power.

I consider myself extremely lucky, though, to have been able to tell him, nearly daily, that I loved him, and to kiss his cheek in that old respectful Italian way that was our habit. When a clear window opened and I could slip away without feeling guilty, I sought solace in fishing the Housatonic, the Farmington, and now and then the Esopus in the Catskills.  Fishing was so-so, my mind was elsewhere, my heart was in flight from itself, but there were always stories to tell that Dad enjoyed hearing.

In speaking of my father here, even briefly, in honoring him by bringing him out of the shadows at last (for he was not a man accustomed to fanfare), even now a chasm opens inside me that seems bottomless and I know I will never not miss him. Grief is a hole in the heart that no number of brown trout or ruffed grouse can fill.  Which I guess says a great deal about true priorities.

Of the many qualities Dad possessed, personal integrity and generosity of soul were foremost. If uncles Tony, Pete, and Bob are present in my sporting obsessions in physical ways, my father, Jim, is no less present in spirit and in story.  And though he bought me my first fishing rod, my first pair of hockey skates, my first shotgun, he did not teach me to shoot accurately, cast a fly rod efficiently, or handle a hunting dog knowingly–all skills my uncles were adept at conveying. Rather, he created the context in which those things became not just possible but continuous and on-going, and that, to my mind, is the greatest present of all and the most difficult to repay.

How the dead get inside us, I well know: I live off the interest from my father’s gifts and stories even now and in some areas have become more like him than I ever imagined was possible forty years ago. He’s with me every time I work in my yard, step into a trout stream, play with grandchildren. “To find the father is to find oneself,” that marvelous centenarian poet Stanley Kunitz once said. Why not aspire to that? Earlier in my life that realization would, by matter of youthful, rebellious course, been a sign of personal weakness and maybe even psychological failure, but not now, not any longer, when the view behind is far longer than the one ahead.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Robert Demott, Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor at Ohio University, received six different graduate and undergraduate teaching awards. His latest book came out from Skyhorse in 2016: Angling Days: A Fly Fisher's Journals. His many other books include Steinbeck's Typewriter: Essays on His Art (1996), winner of the Nancy Dasher Award; three poetry collections, News of Loss (1995), and The Weather in Athens (2001), winner of the Ohioana Book Award for poetry. A Federation of Fly Fishers-certified casting instructor, DeMott lives with partner Kate Fox in Athens, Ohio. He is an adjunct guide with Elk Springs Resort and Fly Shop in Monterville, WV.
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