At about this time every year my thoughts turn to recollections of days spent with my now-deceased father. I think about warm summer mornings on the bank of a Johnston County farm pond or in the shade of a river birch along one of the small creeks in that neck of the woods. They are mental snapshots that feature cane poles, tin cans full of red worms and quiet banter between a young boy and a man who I seem to be turning into more and more each day. Those were magical moments, times that meant more than my dad ever realized; times that, to a great extent, defined the kind of person I would become years later.
Unfortunately, those fishing trips with my father were not as frequent as I would have liked. With minimal formal education and a family to support, his first priority was work. He enjoyed fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor pursuits but those things had to take second place to what was required to pay the bills. As a consequence, Dad wasn’t always available when his ever-eager son wanted to go fishing.
In retrospect, I realize now that my younger years were blessed in so many ways. For one thing, there were always other adults who were willing to take me under their wings and spend time with me enjoying the out-of-doors, especially fishing.
One of the first I remember was my maternal grandmother. Most folks called her Ms. Myrtle. To me, she was just Granny. To nearly everyone who knew her, she was an accomplished angler with few equals. I heard more than one person comment that her skills were such that “she could catch fish in a mud puddle.” Most important, as far as I was concerned, was the fact that she didn’t hesitate to let a knock-kneed young’un, hardly big enough to hold a pole, tag along on trips to her special fishing spots. There she demonstrated immense patience (for a woman not known to suffer fools gracefully) while teaching the young boy how to bait a hook, cast a line, know when he had a bite and the other stuff that go along with angling for bass, bream or catfish.
Those weren’t Granny’s only quarry; she would catch whatever was available and her agenda included frequent forays each fall to Topsail Island when the spots and bluefish were running. The highlight of my young life may have been the first time I was allowed by my parents to accompany her and three of her fishing buddies on one of those trips. It was three or four days of sheer bliss – sitting on a weathered ocean pier, watching the waves roll toward shore and gulls soar overhead while waiting for the tip of a fiberglass rod to twitch and signal yet another bite. It was a “real” rod, not just a cane pole and the fish were exotic saltwater species like the ones I sometimes saw in the fish markets. And the fishermen around me were Granny and her friends, who were equally enthusiastic about fishing and spoiling their young protege rotten. If I never make it to Heaven, at least I know what it must be like.
Not all my fishing mentors were relatives. Others had no familial obligation to spend time and share their expertise with me; they just did it. Our next door neighbor was one of those. Southern kids used to be taught to refer to adults as Mr. or Mrs. and their first name so to me, he was Mr. Lisbon (last name, Jones). He was a busy man with a family of his own and a demanding job but somehow managed to find time to take me fishing when Dad couldn’t.
Mr. Lisbon took me shad fishing for the first time. There are two very distinct challenges when angling for that species. One is the fact that casting the small, lead-head “shad darts” requires the use of a lightweight spinning or spin-cast outfit; a cane pole just wouldn’t get it done. Another is the fact that, when fishing for shad, you have to work your lures close to the bottom, which means frequent hang-ups. Mr. Lisbon dealt with both of those aggravations, as well as the others that a preteen just seems to carry along with him, with patience and tact. And, we caught fish. I don’t remember a cooler-full but I do recollect being mesmerized by the battle a “tiny tarpon” can put up on light tackle, and feeling like a real fisherman when I brought one to the net. I also recollect Mr. Lisbon beaming with pride at my accomplishment.
My outdoor mentors didn’t disappear as I got older. In my late 20s, I met John Thompson, a retired architect who, at that time was in his mid-sixties. John never had any children of his own and the one grandfather I knew had little time for kids. Maybe it was destiny that we would meet and sort of adopt one another.
Whether it was karma or just chance, we formed a deep bond and, for the next 20 years, spent a lot of time fishing, boating and just enjoying each other’s company. John was an avid angler, a skilled naturalist and an outstanding birder. I vividly remember us floating in my small skiff down the White Oak River where it meanders through Croatan National Forest in Jones County. The intended purpose of our outing was to catch some of the fat redbreast sunfish and bluegills that inhabit that rich, dark stream. However, we got so enthralled with the prothonotary warblers, finches and other songbirds flitting through the surrounding forest and chirping from the limbs overhead that we sometimes forgot to cast. John knew each bird by its appearance and its call, and could give the Latin name for most of them.
In addition, he was able to identify the wildflowers that were splashes of brilliant color in the dark green forest that bordered the stream. A few weeks after our outing on the White Oak, John and I were at his cabin on Harkers Island when he said he had something to give me. He pulled out a couple of beautiful watercolors, one of a Carolina Lily, the other of a Swamp Rose-Mallow. They were two of the wildflowers we had seen on our river trip. John had gone home and painted them from memory.
My old friend, John Thompson, is gone now. So are Granny, Mr. Lisbon and others who shared their time, their lives and their love with a little boy and a young man when it meant so very much. Every time I look at John’s paintings that now hang in our family’s living room, I think of all of them, including Dad.