Close the Hatchery, Please

dad and suey

My dad didn’t talk much. I’m not sure whether he didn’t have anything to say or there was just too much talking without him adding to the chaos. I didn’t talk much either. I didn’t have much to say, so to make the effort to break into the chatter didn’t seem like a good use of my energy. I reserved my effort for doing, for swimming, riding my bike, skiing, roller skating; I wasn’t picky when it came to playing outdoors. It was my dad who taught me how to do all the things I loved – lured me into, what seemed at age four. the deep, deep pool of danger, held on to my bicycle at five when I finally agreed he could take off the training wheels, and went up the ski lift with me at eight to show me his graceful, easy turns. He even made me a skateboard out of old roller skates and a two-by-one when the craze first started. My dad is gone, but I am still doing all these things, using all these skills he helped me master. And I am grateful that he didn’t need to talk, that what he gave me lasted much longer than words.

I think about my dad, how he looked, how he smoked his pipe, how he was gentle in his ways. He also took me away from the chatter at home, to the chatter of the river to fish. Before we went on our first fishing trip, my dad and I stood in our front yard in the waning summer light on a warm evening practicing my casting. It seemed pretty easy. I was sure I had it mastered. Then, after the sun went down, he also taught me how to find worms with a flashlight. We were ready. Rising before dawn, we were on the stream in the high Uinta mountains early. But my casting didn’t work as well amongst the willows. Somehow before the hook and the worm ever hit the water, they landed in my hair, got stuck in my pants, snagged a branch. We didn’t catch any fish that first trip. In fact, we never caught any fish, which I finally realized was the best part of the trips.

My dad thought I wanted to catch a fish. And maybe I thought I did too. I guess it was assumed, though we never talked about it. So after a few unsuccessful outings, we stopped at a fish hatchery – a sure place to catch a fish.  And I did. But I wished I hadn’t. The fish took hold of the hook on my pole. I reeled it in. That’s when the fight began, a fight for life. The fish lost. But I didn’t win. I was a swimmer who never wanted to get out the pool. My mother would yell, “Time to go. Get out of the pool.” But I always tried to pretend I didn’t hear. I’m sure the fish was yelling, “Put me back in the pool, please.” But people at the hatchery can’t hear that and keep doing what they are doing, so the fish’s request was refused.

On the way home, the fish sat between us in my dad’s creel. I cried. I wanted the fish back in its pond. I know that my dad felt horrible. He tried to explain to me how the nervous system of that fish was different from mine. It was a good idea, but it didn’t help. I was stubborn and the body language of the fish was enough to convince me that it wasn’t about a nervous system, it was about the will to swim. I can’t remember that we ever went fishing after that. After all, why? What fishing had been for me was the gurgling water, the crisp air, the being alone with my dad who made me hot chocolate and didn’t talk much. He didn’t need to. We didn’t need to. The talking was saved for important things, like the nervous system of a fish.

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