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America’s World-class healthcare

April 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Yesterday, right here in Eugene/Springfield, a group of doctors opened a free medical clinic for the uninsured. If you live here and have no medical insurance, you have this weekend only to get that tumor looked at.

Eugene-Springfield’s uninsured invited to free medical clinic.

Here’s my challenge: Provide a compelling, cogent, rational argument for why it is more ethical, more moral to have a healthcare system that is profit driven rather than patient driven. Riddle me that, Batman. I dare you. I double dare you.

Going Back to Big Tree – Part II

April 29, 2012 Leave a comment

A man can divide his life into four parts. Part two: When his father is an idiot.

Every summer we went to Big Tree until my sisters, considerably older than me, had both left home. I was left, for all practical purposes, an only child. Having grown a little older, going up to Big Tree was no longer a priority. Eventually, we stopped going altogether. Young boys have no interest in camping out with their parents.

I still went fishing with my father occasionally, but never at Big Tree. It was simply too far for a day trip and my interests had turned from fishing with my father to my own feckless teenaged life. My father became a person to be avoided while I engaged in mischief.

I wasn’t sure when he had been cut from the glacier and thawed out but he certainly didn’t understand the world as it really was. For example, he simply couldn’t understand the importance of long hair. Nor could he appreciate good music, bell bottom jeans, black light posters, incense, wearing sunglasses indoors or component stereo systems.

When I was sixteen, my father bought a brand new pickup truck. It was a Chevy, fully loaded and fire engine red – his favorite color. If there was a bell or whistle to be had, this truck had it. This truck was pure muscle and flash to boot – 350 V8, Positrac rear end, built-in 8 track, tilt wheel, tinted windows – everything a man, or boy, could want.

When I was sixteen, there was only one thing – just one – that I wanted to get my hands on more than a brand new pickup, and she didn’t move on wheels. And as the logic of the day went, without the brand new pickup you could forget about the girl. So getting behind the wheel of this brand new pickup was pretty high on my list of priorities. Immediately, I started in on my father to let me drive it school.

Monday morning, the answer was no. Tuesday morning, the answer was no. Wednesday morning I said, “Dad, you don’t understand, I really need…”

“I understand everything. Not no, but Hell no.”

How could he possibly understand? How could this old man understand the sophisticated life of a sixteen-year old in the modern age? Didn’t he have a self-portrait on the wall of a cave somewhere? Wasn’t he cutting papyrus when he was sixteen? Did he really expect me to believe he had once begged his father to let him hitch up the buckskin to the buggy and blow past the dry goods store?

Frustrated and angry, I walked to the corner and hopped the bus to school. But this fight wasn’t over – not by a long shot.

By Friday of the following week, my persistence finally paid off and now here I was about to get the keys. But first, the lecture.

“Now you drive that truck straight to school and straight home, understand me Ed?”

“Yea.”

“You park it in the back of the parking lot away from the other cars. I don’t want some damn fool kid to scratch up my new truck, understand?”

“Yea, dad.”

“After school, you come straight home. I don’t want you cruising around in that truck, you hear me? Ed, are you listening?”

“Yea. I hear you.

My father had spoken and his word was…a recommendation, a suggestion, a guideline.

Behind the wheel of that truck was the most glorious place on earth. Every nuance of the road could be felt in the steering wheel. The interior still held that magical “new car” smell. The stereo was fantastic. Life was grand.

At the end of the school day I headed for the doors to the parking lot. I had parked the truck at the rear of the parking lot as I had told my father I would so it wouldn’t get scratched. The end of the day hadn’t come nearly soon enough. All day that new pickup had sat in the parking lot, calling me like a siren in the fog, and I had fallen under her spell.

As I reached out my arm for the crash bar on the door, here they came out of nowhere from my left, a vision of beauty. The most exotic and shapely legs in the world covered only by short a skirt and ankle socks; alabaster skin, smooth as butter; dark sapphire eyes behind long lashes; golden hair – angel’s hair – long and silky and spun by the Gods. They were the Peterson twins: the only thing more important to me than that brand new pickup and here she was – in stereo.

“Eddie, could you give us a ride home?” they asked, their lashes flashing. Then they looked at each other and giggled. Who knows? Twins.

Well of course I could give them a ride home. If I had been on top of the world driving that new truck to school that morning, I was now headed for the outer solar system – and look out, I’m bringing passengers. “I’d be happy to,” I replied nonchalantly, “you haven’t seen my new truck, have you?”

“You have a new truck?” Then in unison, “I love new trucks.” And more giggling. They were too cute for words, but I’ll try my best.

We headed out to the parking lot to the new red pickup truck and with a twin on either side of me I was about to burst, in more ways than one.

“Are you guys going to play the victory dance this Saturday night?” they asked, referring to my band.

I was the lead singer in a rock band that a few of us had formed with the help of the school’s band director. We played our own victory dances and those of other High Schools in the surrounding area. High School is a popularity game and I didn’t play team sports, so the rock band was a major vehicle for my ride up the social ladder. It was a great gig. My biggest problem was my father. He wouldn’t let me grow my hair past my collar. He was a Neanderthal.

“Oh yea, we’ll be there.” I replied as we reached the pickup. “We’ve got some new material and Rick is gonna do a killer solo. Well, here we are ladies. This is the new truck, you approve?”

“Oh yeeeaaa.” They said in stereo. They never seemed to speak independently.

I opened the passenger door for them and helped them both in, taking great care not to be obvious about the fact that I was focused clearly on their legs and not their faces. It was truly hard to do. When you’re sixteen and faced with the options of long legs under short skirts, or beautiful faces with big blue eyes and long blond hair, choices become mind bending. I couldn’t even get my head wrapped around it. So instead, I tried my best to alternate equally between the two.

With the twins safely in my truck and me behind the wheel, I was ready to show the world just how cool I was. We would have to take the long way around campus. People needed to see this.

The twins lived on the other side of town and with traffic I figured it would take at least half an hour. Fortunately, my dad wouldn’t be expecting me home with the truck for another hour at least, so this was going to work out just fine. Just fine indeed.

Cruising down Riverside Drive along the banks of the Snake River in a brand new red pickup with two gorgeous blondes next to me was one of the most ego pumping experiences I had ever had in my life. It was a beautiful, spring day in Southern Idaho. Everything was in bloom and the trees along Riverside Drive were bursting with flowering buds. The smell of lilac filled the air and the roar of the river falls underscored every delightful note of sweet, sweet music that came from either of the twin’s soft, pouty lips. It was a delicious lullaby of…

…”OH MY GAWD!!!” I screamed as we rolled through the intersection at forty when suddenly, from my left, a Jeep ran the light and appeared directly in front us. I hit the brakes and swerved to the right but it was too late. I T-boned this guy in the middle of the intersection and tossed his jeep about ten feet across the asphalt.

In a second it was over, but it felt like it lasted a full thirty minutes. The jeep appeared, and I threw my right arm across the girls and pulled the wheel to the right, hoping I could avoid him. By the time it was over, we were both a mangled mess of steel and glass. The front grill of the pickup was pushed up against the firewall. The Jeep was wrung like a wet rag. Fortunately, no one was hurt even though none of us were wearing seatbelts.

There in the intersection, surrounded by twisted metal and shattered plastic, I calculated my odds of explaining this to my father and escaping with my life. It wasn’t looking good for Team Ed. When I called home, my mother answered the phone, thank God. I just told her where I was and what had happened. She said, “I’ll tell your father.” It sounded more like, “I sentence you to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Within twenty minutes, my father came pulling up in the family car. I braced myself. He got out and slammed the door behind him. He marched with purpose through the intersection of broken dreams, through the pond of brake fluid and broken glass, oblivious to the traffic swirling around him. He was focused on me like a laser beam. His eyes reminded me of that bear at Big Tree. They were glazed with rage. There didn’t seem to be a person behind them. Beyond the anger, everything was a blank. I was dealing with my father at his worst.

He started in on me with a string of expletives that would have made a hardened sailor blush. Colorful as they were, I was visibly shaking. My father had never raised a hand to me in his life, but on this day amongst the tangled wreckage, I was sure he was going to kill me. Believe it or not, there are things that can make a sixteen-year old boy forget all about pretty girls with long legs. As my father hammered in my ear, my mind went numb. He might as well have been talking to a sponge.

“Ed, what the hell were you doing all the way down in this part of town, anyway?!!! Ed?!!! Are you listening to me?!!!”

“Uh, well, uh, I was, I was, I was taking the girls home and…”

“Why the hell were you giving them a ride home?!!!”

What a silly question. He obviously hadn’t taken a good look at the twins. I felt I should point that out to him, but with just a teaspoon of better judgment remaining, I kept my mouth shut. Instead, I said, “Dad, it wasn’t my fault. That guy ran a red light.” Yea, that should do it. The other guy ran the light. Any fool could see that it was entirely his fault. He ran the light. I was just a victim of circumstance.

But my father still didn’t get it. He said to me, “Ed, I don’t give a damn if that guy ran a red light or not. This was your fault. You should never have been here in the first damn place.”

I was stunned. What was that supposed to mean? Was my father brain damaged? It was official: my father was a complete moron.

It wouldn’t be until many years later that I finally understood what he was trying to tell me about choices and consequences and how we each design our own failures. But a few days later after he’d had a chance to calm down, he did say something I thought was pretty funny even though I dared not laugh at the time. Pacing around his broken truck and kicking the dirt, he asked, “Why couldn’t you have done this to your mother’s car?”

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

We’re growing!

April 28, 2012 Leave a comment

I logged in this morning and saw that we are up to 31 followers! Some of these nice people are folks I’ve never met before in my life but found our blog and decided they like what they were seeing. Thanks to all of you! Given the vast number of blogs out there (30 million+ on WordPress alone) it’s exciting to me to see that just in a couple of weeks our little corner of the web is starting to be noticed.

I’d like to welcome two new contributors: Mike and Steve (aka Smeagol49). This means that we now have three different contributors with degrees in Anthropology and strong interests in history and social theory. I expect to see great things from you guys!

No pressure.

I will be posting Part II of Going Back to Big Tree this weekend, so look for it.

Have a wonderful day, world!

-Mitch

Categories: Blogroll, Uncategorized

Creative Recharging

April 27, 2012 6 comments

Everyday we are surrounded by a gaggle of people who want a little piece of us: our kids, our spouse, our boss, our pets, and our friends – an exercise in herding cats. At some point, we have to withdraw and recharge. This is important. Sometimes our ability to sequester ourselves in a womb of solitude protected from the demands of others can mean the difference between sanity and lunacy. I know.

Some years back I had a job that kept me on call 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. I was responsible for the uptime on a centralized mainframe computer system supporting a major military installation. The military operated non-stop, therefore the computer operated non-stop, therefore I operated non-stop. Fourteen to sixteen hour days were typical, including weekends. I averaged at least one telephone call per night between the hours of midnight and five A.M. On average, two of these trouble calls per week would require me to get out of bed and drive out to the shop to fix a problem. It was exhausting. No, let me rephrase that, it was killing me.

The frustration, stress, anxiety and depression were driving me inexorably to a final dance with my revolver. There was only one thing in my life at that time that was powerful enough to keep me interested in life: my piano. Having a creative outlet save my life.

Human beings create. That’s what we do. We use our imagination and the gift of opposable thumbs to make things. This compulsion to create is what sets us apart from the other animals and our nearest competitors, the Neanderthals.

Somewhere between 20-30 thousand years ago, Homo sapiens ventured deep into caves to create art. They did this at great risk to themselves. In areas where even today access is difficult with the latest technology, they spent hours of precious time investing in the act of creation. So far as we can determine, our Neanderthal cousins did not do this. Only we did. It is what makes us who we are. It is what makes us uniquely human.

In addition to other foundations of culture – supernatural beliefs, burial rituals, rites of passage, and language, we humans developed art for art’s sake. Art historians and anthropologists do not know, exactly, why early humans created these paintings, but I think I do.

They did it in order to create something beautiful and harmonious, something elegant and timely, and something that could transport them away from the short, brutish lives they lived. Whether your daily existence is kill or be killed or a constant battle to separate oneself from the relentless demands of a modern career, the call of art creation springs from the same well of desire: a need to fully experience our humanity.

We live in a world where humans move through the quotidian more as machines than people, more as automatons than fragile souls. Our time is pressed upon. Our personal strength is sapped by others – vampires of time, energy and creativity. That’s why it’s vital to spend time each and every day doing something creative for our self. It is how we connect with our true nature, our core humanity.

There is a reason why art is used as therapy for PTSD victims. It works. We now know that creative endeavors such as art and music build new neural connections in the brain allowing us to see the world differently. Art helps us to gain a new perspective on our worn out paradigms. It allows us to escape into something that belongs only to us. It is time well spent engaging in our personal space, learning about ourselves, exploring our own ideas without interference from others. And it may be that engaging in the creation of art for art’s sake is a very real evolutionary artifact that developed to help us cope with reality, connect with our true nature, and imagine our way to a better future.

Why I am a Feminist

April 26, 2012 1 comment

The roots of my feminism run deep.   I was a feminist long before I heard the word or even realized that “feminism” was what I was feeling. As a child, I reacted strongly and viscerally to the idea that women were good enough to teach a child everything they needed to know in life except for religious doctrine: you had to be a male to do that.  An untested boy was the preferred leader for a congregational meeting over a woman with fifty years in the church.

I thought that was one of the stupidest things I’d ever heard in my young life, and it was the foundation for my blossoming feminism.

There were other aspects of our religious life that reinforced my sense of gender-based injustice in the system.  They may seem like little things, but sometimes it is the little things that catch our attention.  As a young woman, I watched my mother fight a battle to allow for women to wear dressy pants to church instead of the requisite dress and panty hose. The way some of the men in the congregation reacted, you would have thought she wanted to attend naked.

As a teen, it was drummed into my head by the young minister that I was responsible for the temptations that my attire might create in a male.  I pointed out to him I could wear a potato sack and someone might find that sexy, and that I was not responsible for how other people respond to me or my clothing.  I also asked why boys weren’t held responsible for any lust their tight jeans or well-styled clothing might incite in young women.  He didn’t really have an answer for that.

But it wasn’t just the seventh century ideas held by the old men at church.  It was the things said and done to women fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, at supporters of Roe v. Wade, and at every woman who ever walked by a construction sight or outdoor ball game.  As I got older, I saw other examples of systemic injustice that continually fed my feminism.  I am a feminist because I saw too many women in my life beaten, raped, or otherwise abused by men; because women trying their best to raise their children without a man in the house are called “sluts” and “whores”; and because we have elected representatives do things like compare women wanting to abort a dead fetus to livestock.

When half of the global population is treated as “less than” the other half, something is wrong.  And that something has been wrong for a very, very long time.  Women and girls are not property to be sold for hard labor or sex, yet this still happens far too often. Rape victims still have their attire or past sexual history brought into testimony.  It wasn’t until 2009 that a law was signed requiring equal pay for equal work. The fact that websites like this are needed for women to come together in voicing the sexism they face on a daily basis is why I am a feminist.  Women’s magazines seem to have one rape prevention article per issue, but men’s magazines don’t have articles about how to not be a rapist.  Yet, both men’s and women’s magazines have fashion ads that imply rape to sell high-end jeans. When male Secret Service agents violate their code of conduct, rather than suggest that the “old boys club” clean up their act Congresswomen suggest that this would not have happened if more women were in the trenches (to do what – act as mommy to a bunch of grown men who should already know better?).

While women comprise 51% of the population in this country, we still only hold 16.8% of the seats in Congress.  The issues women face are the issues that all people who are disenfranchised (or marginally enfranchised) face, and they will never be dealt with until adequate representation exists.  Being a feminist is about justice for everyone.  It is about supporting the rights of all people to be treated the same under the law, male, female, and third-gendered alike.

Why am I a feminist?  Because when I see the systemic gender-based violence and injustice around the world, I cannot be anything else.  A better question would be, “Why aren’t you a feminist?”

Going Back to Big Tree – Part I

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

A man can divide his life into four parts. Part one: When his father is a giant.

My father was a great many things but above all he was this: He was a man of stone and steel. He was a man of fire and salt.

In the summer time he would take us fishing, up on the Continental Divide along the Idaho-Montana border; on the edge of a beaver pond at a place we called Big Tree. Sitting atop his broad shoulders, I would watch as he used his huge leathery hands to wrap the worm around the hook. He had enormous hands, disproportionately large, like bear paws; great gnarled machines of bone and grit. He was missing pieces of fingers callously robbed of him by cold steel. And everything he ever knew; everything he ever did; all that he was – could be read of in that venous text of his ruddy hands. They were a living testament to a life of hard labor.

Summer flies buzzed in the warm, moist air. The thick reeds and brushes along the edge of the pond disguised the deep, black mud they were rooted in. My father’s green rubber hip waders would sink to the ankles and every step he took would suck wetly as he pulled them up out of the muck. Each step he took left a hole in the earth that would slowly cave in on itself. Tiny green frogs, singing harmony with the dragonflies, skipped along the surface of the mud through the tall grass. It was a primordial place forgotten by time and ignored by all men except my father. This was his secret fishing hole. To know of this place was to know that my father guarded your life. Your sacred soul was in his care.

Tucked away in this lost valley where Camas Creek rolled down from the high Rockies, the beaver had built a work of art. Mother Nature’s engineers, working only with their teeth, tails and tenacity, had deftly diverted the rage of water that the mountain had thrown at them. With sticks and mud they tamed the creek and the tiny glen was transformed into a life-sustaining pond. Trapped in the deep, the trout bred and grew and lurked and waited in the cold for my father.

He’d carried me on his shoulders down through the heavy brush to the edge of the pond. Now, with a flick of his pole the bait flew across the open water, plopping down through its glassy surface with an audible “Bluup!” and the gossamer line trailing lightly behind faded invisibly into the water. Except for the gurgling of the headwaters and the buzz of the insects, this was the only sound on the planet. The entire universe was otherwise silent. My father had taught me well: fish can hear you coming so you must stalk them. Surely, fish must have the finest hearing of any animal on earth if they could hear us coming from that far away.

My father’s word was law. Even the sunshine settled into a whisper.

With his own line cast and the bait placed strategically along the edge of the reeds growing up through the water, he carefully rested his fishing pole against a bush and began preparing my line. My stubby little fishing pole, made especially for a child, like all things of mine was dwarfed by my father’s giant hands. With my fishing pole tucked under his left arm, I held his ears while he carefully wound a worm onto the hook and positioned a red and white bobber on the line above the string of lead sinkers.

Proper positioning of the bobber above the sinkers and bait was something magical that only my father knew how to do. Among all men, he was the final authority on bobber placement. I knew this because neither of my two sisters could ever position the bobber in just the right location. My father always had to reposition it – sometimes only a hair’s width distance one direction or the other. My father’s word had been given: if the bobber isn’t in the right place, the fish won’t find the bait.

He cast my line into the murky water, rolled the handle of the reel one-half revolution, and handed the pole up to me. Then he picked up his own pole, holding it firmly in his right hand, and began to delicately tease the line with his left hand. The diaphanous filament played across his thick fingers like a spider line. His index finger was ever so slightly crooked toward him with the line running lightly across the tip. He could sense the giant lurkers in the deep swimming around the bait on the end of his line. They circled it with suspicion, calculating their odds. Fish were smart, but hungry. He tugged on the line with his left hand and reeled in the slack, luring the fish toward him.

Golden sunshine danced across my father’s curly hair. He had a full head of wavy hair and bushy sideburns. Sometimes, as he carried me on his shoulders, I would comb my tiny fingers through his sideburns just for fun. They were thick like the whiskers of a cat, but as thickly spaced as the under brush that surrounded the beaver pond. They felt like the fishing line, tough and wiry. He didn’t like it when I tickled his sideburns with my fingers and my teasing would be met with a sharp rebuke. “Hey, cut that out boy!” But I knew his bark was worse than his bite so I did it anyway.

His cheeks felt like the sandpaper he kept in his workshop but were pliable like rubber. They were sandrubber. Sometimes in the evenings at home, after he had read to me for the umpteenth time The Shoemaker and the Elves, or, Gwendolyn the Miracle Hen, I would sit on his lap facing him and pull on his face. He was like a real-life Mr. Potato Head with a face I could rearrange by pulling it this way or that. My sisters would giggle uncontrollably at this and even my mother would start laughing too. My father growled a lot, but you could pull on his tail all you wanted. In the end, he would simply give in and say something like, “Yea, you’re all real damn funny.” My father never polished up well. He was as out of place in a tuxedo as a fish out of water. And at this moment, on the edge of the beaver pond at Big Tree, getting a fish out of the water was just exactly what he was preparing to do.

The spidery line running across his finger tips tugged gently but quickly. There was a fish on the other end tentatively nibbling at the worm. My father used a fly rod with a casting reel. An unusual set up but it worked well for him. The long fly rod was super sensitive at the tip and its length allowed him to place his casts far and with surgical precision. He wore a pair of green rubber hip waders over his pants, and connected the tops of the waders to his belt with snap straps. When he wasn’t trudging through the marsh and muck, he would unbuckle the waders from his belt and roll them down so they were folded over below the knee. It gave them a swashbuckling character and with my father’s pencil thin mustache, he was the very model of a dreaded pirate captain. Indeed, the beaver pond was my father’s secret treasure, stowed away high in the Rocky Mountains.

The beaver pond was known only to us and just getting to it was always a grand adventure in itself. At the time, the family car was a passenger van. We called it “The Bus.” It was creamed coffee in color and could hold the entire family and all of our camping gear. Myself, my two sisters, both older than me in the back seat with my mother riding shotgun and my father’s great hands wrapped around the wheel. With all of us loaded into The Bus, we would leave for Big Tree before dawn’s light. Big Tree was hours away beyond the tiny village of Kilgore, Idaho.

Sometime along the way I would awake on the seat never remembering how I got there. As we got closer to the mountains, the road turned from asphalt to gravel and meandered through a vast, open range of sage and cedar: a great ocean of musky smelling brush and bramble. Far off in the dusty distance, the blue-gray mountains yearned for the endless sky. Herds of domestic cattle, safely contained behind barbed wire fences, shared this land with buffalo, antelope and deer. Far off across the open range, a long abandoned barn would stand arthritic and sagging precariously to one side, its weathered exterior blackened with time.

Along the gravel road at the base of the mountains was the Kilgore Store: a one-room concrete block structure with a single gas pump out front, a pool table inside along with a few post office boxes, and coolers full of soda pop and beer. The Kilgore Store stood alone in this vast wilderness, sequestered away from civilization by dust and distance. It was cubicle, with equal dimensions on all four sides, and had a four-point roof of green asphalt shingles. Above the door the hand-painted sign, long forgotten and flaking, read: Kilgore Store. Out here on the open plain, the store could have gone without a sign altogether. It was the only thing around for miles.

We would always stop at the Kilgore Store. My father would top off the tank, all the while complaining about the outrageous price of gas. Stopping at the Kilgore Store was always one of my favorite things to do. It always meant a Payday candy bar and a Nehi orange soda pop.

From there we had to drive further across the open range and on into the mountains. As the road made its way higher up, its gravel surface gave way to packed dirt and rocks and sometimes a spongy bed of evergreen needles. Inside the tree line, the world changed. The air cooled and the musky odor of sagebrush and cedar was replaced by the pungent smell of Douglas Fir and Lodge Pole Pine. Inside the ancient forest, the world smelled like Christmas.

The road turned from clearly defined to imperceptible. We drove atop the carcass of a nineteenth century logging road left abandoned to the forest. Over time, the mountain had reclaimed what was hers. We now used it by permission on the condition that the location of the beaver pond never be revealed. Carefully, my father would negotiate The Bus along the road at a snail’s pace. I would stick my head out and watch the squirrels race up the trunks of trees as we passed.

Deep in the forest the road ended and there on the banks of the headwaters of Camas Creek, at the top of the beaver pond below the mountain, there grew a tree so old that only the mountain knew its name. This was Big Tree. At the base of the tree, a boulder of white granite rested in the earth. The boulder and the tree were one – a partnership formed in the deep of geologic time. Here, the mountain marked the passing of seasons as only a mountain can: with the patience of stone and stars. Big Tree leaned slightly out over the pond as if sheltering it from the mountain’s rocky gaze. Across the glen, downstream from Big Tree, just before the creek left the valley and cascaded down the rocky slopes to the great plain below, the beavers had built their dam and changed the face of this meadow for all time.

In the pond, a lunker toyed with the bait on my father’s hook. The line tugged again on his meaty finger and suddenly, “Whaap!!” he snapped the pole backward and slightly to the side. The line pulled tight and the tip of the pole bent down toward the water in convulsions. The stillness of the pond was broken by the frantic thrashing of a great trout on the end of my father’s line. The long fly rod he held in his hands threatened to escape his grasp as the trout broke the surface of the water and danced on its tail before plunging down again, pulling the tip of the fly rod with it.

“Ooh, he’s a big one.” He said cautiously so as not to jinx the moment. I had learned from atop my father’s brawny shoulders that fish can hear what you say and the wrong words will set them free.

On the edge of the beaver pond with a trout on the end of his line, my father was at his best. Nowhere else on the planet could you find a happier man. He and the mountain were one.

We never considered ourselves poor, but we were. An overnighter to Big Tree was the closest we ever came to a grand vacation, but it was enough. We had an Army surplus tent that my father would pitch in the clearing by the headwaters and that became our home. We were too poor to own sleeping bags, so the floor of the tent was covered with a great canvas tarp and my mother would lay out handmade quilts for us to sleep in. We seemed to have an endless supply of quilts. At the end of the day, I could wrestle on the quilt covered floor of the tent with my sisters in the flickering light of the campfire.

As soon as we would arrive at Big Tree, my mother would place a watermelon in the creek to chill. Other perishables were similarly stored in the cold headwaters above the pond. No one was allowed to wash their hands upstream from where she had placed the provisions. And under no circumstances was I allowed to bring any frogs into the tent.

The marshy muck, like black fudge, around the beaver pond was alive with frogs and I was more captivated by them than the fish. I could catch frogs. Fish, on the other hand, were always elusive. When my father would tire of me on his shoulders, I would chase around the brushes after the frogs. With nowhere else to store them, they went into my pockets. With my pockets bulging with croaking, squirming frogs, and covered from head to toe in black, tarry mud, I would then go on the hunt for my sisters. I had discovered sometime earlier that frogs, mud and sisters mix with rather humorous results. A frog-wielding mud monster struck terror in their souls.

But that was for later in the day. For now, I watched as my father skillfully reeled in the trout. Again, it erupted from the surface of the water and climbed toward the sky, only to plunge back down into the deep dark water of the pond. It was closer to the edge of the pond now and the critical moment was coming up: that split second between the water and the grassy bank when crafty old fish like this one always got away. My father had said it, and it was law. The distance between the water’s edge and the bank was so thin that you couldn’t even see it, but wedged inside that hairline plane of existence was a world that favored fish and once there they could escape the hook and be gone forever. And they would know if you ever came back to the pond because they had long memories.

Somewhere in the deep dark, nestled against the willow bank, was a monster fish that had thumbed its cold nose at my father for years. Summer after summer they had matched wits and the fish had always won. Only one time had my father ever managed to hook that great beast of all fishes, and when he got it up to the edge of the pond into that netherworld where fish cannot be captured, it got away. And my father had been hunting it ever since. That fish was the oldest fish in the pond, because this had happened back in the olden days before I was born.

Maybe the fish he had hooked now was that great fish of lore. We would soon see.

My father took great care to keep the line tight, pulling back on the rod and reeling in the slack, pulling on the rod and reeling in the slack. Again and again he did this, carefully coaxing the fish toward the shoreline. It was a delicate operation; any wrong move could spell disaster. This trout was huge. Surely, this was the great fish of legend. As he got the fish close enough to the shore so he could clutch the line with his left hand and pull it up, I held my breath. This was the critical moment. The fish was about to cross that line of no return. It would either end up in the pan that night, or it would escape back into the murky water to fight another day.

My father grabbed at the line and quickly twisted his wrist so as to loop the line securely through his fingers. He lifted it up swiftly and pulled the fish toward him. The trout was going wild on the hook, twisting this way and that, making my father’s arm shake. Through the netherworld it came, emerging on our side still hooked securely on the line. Now it flipped and flopped in the grass at my father’s feet, its glazed eyes staring blankly out on a world where it could not survive, its mouth clutching in vain at the warm mountain air.

My father held his fly rod under his right arm to free both hands and grasping the trout with his left, he pried the hook from the fish’s mouth with his right. His fingers were so thick I wondered how he managed to reach into the trout’s mouth and work the hook from its flesh. But he did it with such speed and confidence that within seconds the fish was off the hook and in his wicker creel.

As the fish continued to occasionally rustle inside his creel, he pulled another night crawler from the pouch on his belt and began knitting it on the hook. And with another flick of the rod, the bait was sent flying through the air across the pond. The great dance between man and fish began anew.

My father could stand on the edge of this pond all day until he dropped dead. Other things made him tired, but not this. On Sundays, we would go to church. My mother would make sure I took a bath on Saturday night, and Sunday morning she would dress me in my black pants with a red blazer and a clip on bowtie. She always combed my hair over and flipped it back at the bangs. I always hated that. My father combed his hair straight back across his head. His hair was so luxurious and wavy, it rested naturally thick on his head, not slicked back against the scalp. I would stand in the doorway of my parent’s bedroom and watch as my father tied his tie. I had no idea it was called a Double Windsor, all I knew was that my father knew many, many knots. He was a careful craftsman even with his tie.

At church, my father would always fall asleep with his head buried in one of his huge hands. My mother would nudge him for the passing of the sacrament. This happened so often that my sisters would play a trick on him by waking him before the sacrament just to see him instinctively reach out and grab at empty air as he awoke. When he wasn’t asleep in church, I would make him draw pictures for me or fold paper airplanes with the program we got at the door. Sometimes I would just tug on his huge, sausage-like fingers. They filled my fist like a pistol grip. When I got bored or tired, I would curl up under his arm and sleep. His smell made me feel protected.

In the summertime, the doors of the church were left open so the breezes could waft through the chapel. The sweet smell of honeysuckle and lilac would fill the church, and the organ would be heard for blocks around. Off of the entrance there was a room just for coats. And there was a multi-purpose room next to a kitchen where all the mothers would cook for special events. We had special events often and there was always a lot of food. Someone would always bring a salad made of green, lime Jell-O with shredded carrots in it. I never liked that, and I didn’t know anyone who did, but someone would always bring it anyway.

Whenever we came here to Big Tree my mother would always bring a lot of food but never any green Jell-O with carrots. Instead she would pack potato salad, bread and soda pop, a watermelon and breakfast fixings like pancake mix and bacon and eggs. In the mornings we would all awake to a world that seemed to be blooming from the earth for the first time. Stepping out of the tent first thing in the morning was like walking into a world that was brand new. The mountain air had a fresh, crisp quality to it. The smells of the forest were richly textured and woven into a tapestry of cool dampness. Morning sunlight would dance through the canopy of ancient trees in golden streams that exploded to life in a riot of delicate colors as they fell upon the forest floor. Above us, the crystal blue sky shrouded in a veil of green and gold, sparkled like jewels through the tree tops. The ancient forest was waking up from a long sleep and discovering itself again – older than time itself yet new as the sunrise that morning.

In the mornings my mother would cook breakfast over an open fire. The smell of wood smoke and frying bacon would fill the forest. It mixed in your nostrils with the sharp sting of the pine sap and the clear rush of the headwaters to create a palette of smells unique in all the world. It was as if the forest came to our house for breakfast. In the mornings the beaver pond was covered over with a blanket of white mist. It hung from the tops of the reeds and bushes like angel hair and the dragonflies disappeared and reappeared in and out of it. In the mornings, Big Tree and the boulder met the scowl of the black mountain looming over them. The mountain rose up from the glen and scraped the sky with its jagged, rocky tip. Wedged between the crags high up on the mountain face, perpetual snow clung for its life in streaks and wisps in places where it could hide from the summer sun.

From my vantage point upon my father’s shoulders I could look up at the mountain and wonder what it would be like up there, perched on an outcropping of black rock miles above the world. The eagle could do it with ease and grace.

I watched it soar from high upon the mountain; from a place only eagles can go, swooping down through the black crags wrapped in wispy white, its wings stretched out on the wind. Effortlessly it glided across the sky like a messenger from heaven, defying gravity as if the laws of nature didn’t apply to it. It circled above the tree tops, searching for a place to land, its keen eye surveying the forest below with piercing clarity and surgical precision. It dipped its wing and circled, carving a hole in the sky before diving through it like a fighter jet intent on dealing death. Then, it disappeared behind a curtain of trees.

My father wasn’t watching the eagle. He was still focused on the pond and the crafty lunkers within. The pond was patient and loath to give up her treasures. She acquiesced only grudgingly to my father’s insistence. But he had the patience of the mountain and nothing escaped the iron grip of his will.

Suddenly the silence of my mind was broken by the shrill screeching of sheer terror. My very breath was sucked away and all I could do was drop my fishing pole and pound my fists on my father’s head. My mouth opened, but not a sound came out. I was speechless.

Across the pond, from out of nowhere, there rose above the tops of the brush a great brown head with evil eyes and deadly teeth and it was looking right at me. It was the biggest bear to ever live in the history of the world. The bear’s snout wiggled this way and that, searching the air for signs of food. I was sure we were the food it wanted.

I grabbed at my father’s hair with my right hand and with my left I pointed at the bear across the pond. My mouth finally released the only words it was capable of at the moment: “Daddy, daddy, daddy…!”

My father looked up and, seeing the bear, raised both arms high above his head and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YHAAAAHHH GET OUTTA HERE BEAR YHAAAAHHH!!!” And to my total amazement, at that very moment, the great bear looked at my father with me on his shoulders and his arms raised and dropped back down to all four legs and went lumbering up the mountain from where it had come. We watched it carve a pattern of disrupted underbrush as it made its way up the hill and disappeared into the trees.

It was official: my father was the strongest, bravest man on earth. Without question.

As a child, I never feared my father but I always stood in awe of him. He never struck me or even raised a hand to me. All that was ever needed was that galvanizing stare and a gruff bark – if he was willing to take on a bear, he had nothing to fear from me.

“I wanna go daddy. I wanna go now.” I said, pulling on his ears as if to steer him like a horse. “Okay, okay just a damn minute.” He huffed.

Back at the camp I breathlessly told my mother and sisters of our encounter with the bear. By my reckoning, the bear had come within an arm’s reach of both of us and my father had out growled him. My father’s version was that I screamed and scared all the damn fish away.

Somewhere in between was the truth.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

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