Sunday, June 15, 2014

That Great Big Wonderful Grin: Happy Father's Day Dad!

When I was growing up along the shore of Long Island Sound in Connecticut, my father often took me fishing for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, flounder and mackerel. From the start, he taught me conservation basics: To keep only what I would eat, to fish fairly and honestly with respect for the quarry. Later, he showed me the varied ways of pipers and horseshoe crabs, jellyfish and sea robins, scallops and mussels, cormorants and terns. He also spoke of the importance of clean water and healthy estuaries for striped bass and all ocean creatures. He served as president of the Westport Striped Bass Club and helped protect and restore the fish he so passionately pursued. 

He took me camping, backpacking, trout fishing, taught me to identify trees and other plants, got me involved in Boy Scouts and shared with me all of his enthusiasm, knowledge, love and respect for the natural world. He not only inspired me to cherish all things wild and free, but encouraged me to speak up for and defend the things I love.

In other words: He greatly influenced and shaped not only who I am, but my core values, beliefs and what I do for a living. He was a wonderful and amazing man.

I remember one time, in particular, sitting on a log along the banks of the Housatonic River on a beautiful, crisp fall day. Listening to the sounds of dry golden beech leaves rustling in the breeze, my father asked, “Do you know what that is?”

My father and I with some hefty stripers, around 1973
“Leaves?” I replied.

“Nope,” he said, while grinning that great big wonderful grin of his that was always accompanied by a hunch of his shoulders, a flick of his eyebrows, a twinkle in his eyes and sometimes a wink (all signifying he was about to say something he found amusing), “It’s a ‘rustling’ grouse! 
“Ha, ha, funny Dad,” I said (or something along those lines, being the teenager I was at the time).

But right about then, startling us both, a real ruffed grouse with rustling wings actually flew in and landed right near us. And then we both really laughed, long and hard. Such things seemed to happen often around my Dad.

My Dad and I, Rock Creek Montana, 2001
It seemed he always caught the most and biggest fish; was always first to spot terns diving over feeding bluefish; was always first to see deer browsing in the forests, hawks circling in the sky, or trout rising in the currents. He could find a four-leaf clover most any time you challenged him to. Yet it never even seemed like he was trying (and I don’t think he was); things just happened that way for him. Most everywhere we went, even on out-of-state trips, he ran into people he knew -- and everyone loved, admired and respected him. 

Once, driving alongside a meadow when he was visiting me in Montana, I was looking hard for moose and said, “Dad, keep an eye out, this is where they sometimes hang out.”  And he immediately, calmly, and nonchalantly replied, while pointing his finger and grinning that big wonderful grin of his, “Like that one right there?” And sure enough, there was a huge bull hidden in the willows that I would have never seen.

He had a tough upbringing; grew up in the depression; never knew his real mom; had a not-so-nice step mom; quit high school to join the Marine Corps and fought in the most brutal battles of the Pacific Theater in WWII (Iwo Jima, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa). He never had much money. Yet he was the happiest, luckiest, most patient, most honest, most loving, most wonderful man I have ever known -- and I am one lucky guy to have had him for a father!

When he was dying, in the fall of 2003, I found a few particularly bright, brilliant sugar maple leaves and brought them to his bedside to show him. He grinned that great big wonderful grin of his I will always remember him for.

I miss him, and I think of him every day.