A Conversation at Fish Camp

 

Four fishermen haphazardly dragged two aluminum canoes onto the craggy shoreline near their campsite and overturned them to ensure no dew would dampen the seats that evening and make their early morning outing soggy and uncomfortable. They tucked the paddles underneath them and set their fishing rods against the boats. The poles, with their tips bowing slightly from lures being hooked securely into an eyelet, were inadvertently placed near where its owner had sat that day as he excitedly pulled walleye and northern pike from a pristine northern lake. The action was tremendous and each reeled in his limit by dusk. When a sizeable fish was landed, the one catching it smugly held it up for the others to see, confident no one would outdo him.

Now the boats gleamed in the moonlight, save where splotches of gravel and rust-red pine needles clung to them in scattered places. The men were unusually chatty as they prepared dinner over a crackling campfire, its smoke rising into the pines and birches and hanging like a thin cloud beneath the canopy of summer foliage. One man was chopping potatoes that had been baked in glowing embers the night before. Another was rolling fresh-cut filets in a floury batter and handing them to the one tending a cast iron skillet strategically placed on a grate over the fire. As the meat was added to the boiling oil, it popped and spattered and quickly turned brown and flaky. The fourth man had no duty and was simply sitting on a log watching it all. 

Most had only a singular connection to the others there. Tom and Mike had arranged the trip. Later, Mike casually mentioned it to his acquaintance Jack, who said he’d love to go along. In turn, he invited Charlie to join them and the foursome was complete. Each was young and vigorous and in the beginning stage of fatherhood. Little did they know this would become an annual outing, lasting decades until their aged bodies could no longer bear the strain of canoeing and portaging.

As they ate, the conversation arbitrarily weaved from one topic to the next before eventually turning to their families. Tom said he looked forward to the day his son was old enough to go fishing with him. He loved the sport but lamented that he came to know it on his own, rather than learning it from his father. His dad was a traveling salesman and gone frequently for a week at a time. As a result, they rarely did much together and he always felt distant from him. 

Mike agreed. He, too, hoped his own son would grow to love fishing but said it would be fine if he didn’t. Mike spent much time on the lakes and rivers near his home and now wondered if it was becoming too much, as his wife has suggested more than once. He feared he was becoming like his own dad, who was obsessed with golf and spent all of his free time on the links. Although he tried to get Mike interested in the sport, he had no interest. Thus, they never formed the close bond that results from a shared passion. 

Jack’s story was more tragic. His father was killed in a car accident when Jack was in the third grade, and he always felt cheated because of it. He had fond memories of his dad but all involved outings they shared with his mother and five siblings. With such a large family, he was hardly ever alone with his father. His mother remarried five years later but Jack didn’t like the man, a former military captain who was authoritative and overly regimented. As Jack grew more independent and developed ideas of his own, they clashed often.

Tom noticed that Charlie was quiet and didn’t share details of his family life so he asked him about it.

“How about you, Charlie? What’s your father like?”

“My Father?”

Tom nodded.

“You want to know about my Father?”

Tom squirmed, wondering if he’d opened a can of worms.

“My Father is awesome and I love him dearly. I can’t imagine life without him.”

 

The others were stunned to hear him speak with such endearment, yet they weren’t completely surprised because there was something noticeably different about Charlie. Maybe this was it.

Tom’s interest was piqued and he wanted to know more. “So you spent a lot of time together when you were a kid?” 

“Oh, no, but that was my fault. When I was younger I was too cool to be with him, you know.” The others understood. During their teen years the chasm between them and their fathers grew ever wider. “The crazy thing is,” Charlie continued, “it didn’t seem to matter to him. Whenever I wanted to be with him or needed something he has always been there for me.”

 

Tom became skeptical. “Really? You always got along?...Didn’t you ever fight?”

“Oh believe me, we had our battles but in the end I learned he was always right. I just couldn’t see it at the time. That’s the beauty of being a little older now. A little older, a little wiser.” Each thought that was a rather odd comment from someone not yet thirty.

Mike piped in. “Man, I hope my kid talks about me like that some day. It sounds like you have a really great dad.”

“Dad?” asked Charlie.

Mike look confused. “Yeah?”

“Oh, no. My Dad is a deadbeat. I don’t even know him. He ran off on me and my Mom when I was just two years old and I haven’t seen him since. Haven’t even heard from him once; not even a birthday card.”

Now everyone looked confused. “But you just said...”

Charlie cut off Mike before he could say more. “No, I was talking about my Father,” he said, raising his eyes to where a million bright stars danced in the inky night sky. Suddenly, the conversation plunged to a much deeper level.