“The fishermen are catching some big stripers,” she said.
I looked at my nine-weight fly rod. “I’ve been fishing the Hudson.”
“You have the rest of your life to fish the Hudson. It’s not going anywhere.”
“Other than New York harbor.”
“Is John, the old fisherman, still on the island?”
“I don’t know who old John is.”
“I’d love to see him, if he’s still alive.”
“The beach isn’t crowded. You’ll have most of the surf to yourself. It’s a Monday, remember?”
Four hours later, I stepped onto the Fire Island ferry and saw two or three people I knew. Afraid they would ask me about the last few years of my life, or about my sister, I walked to the front of the boat and stood by myself. The sun hung halfway down the sky. It still burned brighter than fire and hurt my eyes. I put on sunglasses and looked straight ahead. The immense sky seemed to overwhelm the plain of sun-reflecting water and to halt it at the horizon line.
Engines blasted on. The ferry moved slowly away from the dock, then chugged across what looked like empty, outer space. I saw a distant galaxy. The galaxy, I knew, was Fire Island. I thought, I’ve taken this ferry ride a hundred times, and yet this the first time the bay reminds me of outer space. Is it because it really looked like it? Or is it because my infinite hours of practicing writing had made conjuring up images easier for me? Or is it because my three years of finally racking up a string of small successes has changed perspectives for me?
I don’t know.
Slowly, more and more of the island seemed to float up from the water and to expand like a balloon. I deciphered green trees and wooden homes. I looked to my side and wished my old friends stood next to me. Sad, I wanted the ferry to turn back, then for some strange reason, I wondered what soldiers thought and felt as they crossed the English Channel to fight on Normandy. Many of them, I assumed, also wanted their boats to turn back. They had good reason. Did I?
Grief isn’t made from lead or shrapnel. Never has it killed me before.
Fire Island and its rows of trees and wooden homes grew to life size. Like an old photograph, the island looked unchanged.
The ferry bumped into the dock. I grabbed my fly rod and my stripping basket, and walked to Margaret’s house. She waited on the porch. Because her father was an angler in Ireland, I knew she’d understand when I said, “I’d like to get some fishing in before sunset.”
Quickly I changed, set up my rod, and marched down the narrow, wooden boardwalk, and up a short flight of steps. I stood at the top of the high dune.
A fiery corridor of reflected sunlight blazed at right angles to the advancing, gently breaking waves. The long, long beach was spotted with only a few clumps of people. Instantly, nature painted over the images in my mind of a fast-moving, automobile-choked, concrete and brick city. Suddenly, I was as calm as the beach. The five years I had been away seemed to have collapsed into five days. Maybe Einstein is right about time being relative, or maybe a part of me never really left the island.
I didn’t see other anglers. I read the water. The tide was high. A big point was about fifty yards to the west. Seagulls streaked past. Their piercing squawks made them sound like drunken hooligans cruising for a fight. Why can’t seagulls sing beautifully, like other birds? At least they can circle, dive and sometimes point to fleeing bait fish.
This time, however, they didn’t.
Not discouraged. I trudged across the soft, warm sand to the hard, cool surf. I walked to the big point, where years before, for the first time in my life, I voluntarily surrendered to something much bigger than myself: the infinite beauty all around me.
Again I wanted to surrender, maybe because nature was a higher power I could believe in. I put on my stripping basket and false cast, letting out more and more line. I presented my green deceiver. Unlike the seagulls, the breaking waves spoke softly. They splashed around my legs and greeted me, one by one; and as they slid back out, they tried to pull me with them. I fought their beckoning, stood still, and retrieved my line, six inches at a time.
I thought of how all the clichés about fishing - being caressed by nature’s beauty and being stripped of self and time - were true . And I thought of how I, a writer, always tried to avoid cliches. But not now, as I stood in nature’s canvas, I was confident no one, especially me, would criticize the clichés in my mind.
Fifteen years ago I was also confident. So when I fished the surf with a seventy-dollar spinning outfit, I was sure my strong will would make me famous and therefore grateful. But as the rejection slips piled up, my doubt and bitterness swelled and battered my self-worth with the fury of a storm-pounded surf.
I looked down the beach. I didn’t see John. I again cast. My tight loop arrowed though the air. My fly turned over about ninety feet away. I was proud of having spent so many hours studying, practicing, and then writing about, long-distance casting.
Wanting my fly to sink to the bottom, I didn’t retrieve. I thought of how strange it was that I became a published, outdoor writer, especially because I had given up writing John would be surprised. After all, I knew nothing about fishing when I first started seeing him walk along the surf, always alone, always wearing a white, floppy hat, always carrying his old, surf rod. Then one day he walked over to me. “I saw you taking notes the other day. Are you a writer?”
He looked away from me and studied the surf.
I wondered if my answer disappointed him, then asked, “Is this a good fishing spot?”
“As good as they get, on this beach, that is.”
“So even fishing spots are relative?”
He smiled weakly. “I guess everything is.”
From that day on, every time he saw me he shared some angling know-how; and for the first time in my life, I saw how much I had to learn, how much I needed help; but John rarely looked into my eyes, and I became scared that becoming an angler might turn me into a loner, like John.
Still, I absorbed everything John said. But I wanted to learn even more. I read books and articles on surf fishing; and one day I told John about a new fishing technique I had learned. He looked into my eyes. I was surprised. “When I was a soldier in the Second World War,” he said, “I often told myself that if I survived the war I’d go back to Europe and fish the rivers I crossed as a young infantryman. Well I survived the war, and I did go back. But fishing wasn’t like I thought it would be. All I kept seeing were the dead and dying soldiers, floating face down, their blood spreading like smoke and clouding the rivers red. I was to glad when I got home again, even though I didn’t think I’d ever fish again. Randy, I’m glad you searched for and seemed to find your angling way.”
I wanted to ask John why he told me his story, but he turned abruptly. As I watched him walk along the surf I thought of his description of spreading blood. Impressed, I wondered if he was a writer.
The next time I saw John he said only hello and walked on. I wanted to yell and tell him how, thanks to him, I started to search for my writing way.
But I didn’t.
My fly bounced on the bottom. I forgot to retrieve. I looked behind me. The sun retreated behind the dune and, high above in the sky, exposed the stars its bright rays had camouflaged. Only a half-hour or so was left to the day. Don’t worry about catching a fish. Enjoy what’s in reach: this fishing moment. Sooner or later I’ll land a striper. Hasn’t fishing also taught me to persevere and to have faith?
I again looked down the beach. Again I didn’t see John. Something told me I never would. Suddenly I was sad. Am I going to spin back into grief? I don’t have to. Yes, soon I’ll see other anglers—Richard the actor, Gus the limo driver—anglers who became long-lasting friends. No, fishing didn’t turn John into a loner. Maybe the war did or didn’t. I’ll never know. And maybe that’s okay.
Grateful I didn’t have John’s blood-soaked memories, I reeled in my line and cut off my fly. Isn’t it ironic I accidentally learned from what I loved, fishing, how to ask for help and how to become a better writer? Maybe there really is a loving higher power or some divine plan. And maybe John was— is—part of that plan.
I wanted to thank him. I thought of walking to his house, but I became frightened of learning he had passed away. This time, however, I didn’t try to defuse my fear. In spite of it, I confidently, maybe selfishly, told myself that, because I had found my fishing and writing ways, John, wherever he was in the universe, wouldn’t mind if I headed straight back to Margaret and spent as much time as possible reminiscing with an old, good friend.