Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Daddy's Day

Reprinted with permission from Hard Aground... Again, by Eddie Jones
(Kindle version) (Print version)

We were two days out of Beaufort, North Carolina and some three hundred miles south and east of Cape Hatteras, rollicking along on a wild, lumpy sea on the fringes of a nor'easter that was pausing, not passing as predicted. Despite the low-slung storm clouds that framed the northwestern sky, the wind, waves, and boat were all moving towards the same tropical latitudes, so we weren't concerned with the growing gale - only thankful for the ride and the simple perfection of a self-steering wind vane. We had exhausted our stock of recreational diversions the first day out, so our crew had resorted to bawdy pranks with hot dogs and the Polaroid camera. Pity the poor crew member who slept in the salon.

During his morning watch, our captain had extracted a cheap boom box from behind the settee beside the quarter berth, so when I came on duty at noon I had the cockpit, rain, and radio all to myself. I was hoping for an AM station out of Nassau or Cuba, but what I landed instead was just as foreign - at least by some standards. Almost three hundred miles out to sea, where neither bird nor freighter had been sighted for days, I swerved into the Rush Limbaugh Show and another journey into broadcast excellence. Limbaugh was almost humble that day, speaking of the pride his father had felt when his son "Rusty" had finally achieved national prominence as a talk show host. The afternoon discussion centered on callers sharing their own desire for their father's approval and the importance dads make in the lives of their children.

My father never cared for Limbaugh and he never cared for sailing. Dad was a motorboat man with a special affection for outboards that were in disrepair. To my knowledge, Dad never had an outboard motor that ran for an entire afternoon, but that never stopped him from taking a chance on an overused, under-serviced Johnson. Those hot, windless days we spent on the water watching Dad tinker on his outboard helped to plant within me a love for the sea that not even trash in a carburetor can kill.

When I was eight-years-old I was sure my father was the greatest man alive. He was a tall, lanky fellow with shoulders so broad he could carry me around like a lightweight jacket. On his days off he would take me camping in the Smoky Mountains or haul me down to the coast. He taught me to bait my own hook, and when he thought I was a pretty fair fisherman, he took me to the Pamlico River where I caught twenty-six fish in a single afternoon. It wasn't until many years later that I learned I'd been catching the same tired fish all day as Dad snuck the wounded soldier off the dock and reattached him to my hook. Dad believed you could give a boy a fish and feed him for a day, or teach a boy to fish and keep him occupied for a weekend.

Dad tried hard to make me a fisherman. He'd take me out of school when the spots were running, and we'd share a small tent on Topsail Island with a squadron of mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Early in the morning, as the sun erupted beneath the horizon, we'd cast our lines past the breakers and into a school tearing at the water. That evening I'd haul my sleeping bag onto the pier to nap at the heels of my father. Dad wasn't the best fisherman ever to live, but he sure loved to fish and while I never learned to love fishing the way Dad did, I always loved fishing with him.

Dad laughed a lot back then and was inclined to build anything I wanted out of scrap plywood and two-by-fours. He built a motorboat one summer from a set of plans he found in a Popular Mechanicsmagazine. Mom kept yelling at him from the upstairs window to clean up the mess, but Dad wasn't easily discouraged, so within a few weeks we had a fine plywood motorboat. In the scheme of life a home-built motorboat is not much of an accomplishment, but when you're eight-years-old and enamored with the strength and wisdom of your father's abilities, it's a big deal. On the day we launched that boat and watched it float off the trailer, I decided my dad was just short of divine. I don't remember much else about the boat except that it developed a case of rot and had to be cut up and hauled off. Of course, by then I was a teenager and Dad wasn't as tall or wise.

He got another motorboat but the outings weren't as much fun. Dad would launch the boat while the rest of us hauled our gear down to the campsite. The outboard always started on the second pull because Dad worked on motors the way Limbaugh works on liberals - it was a passion with him. We'd get a little ways from shore, then throttle up and go roaring off in a puff of smoke. On a goodday we'd get a hundred yards away from shore before the motor would quit.

On a bad day, we'd get a mile out.

If it was one of those good, hundred-yard days, my sister and I would jump in with our life jackets and swim back to camp, leaving dad to tinker with an outboard that ran only in the metal barrel out back of our garage. It was during this phase of my youth that I learned to loathe motorboats.

A few years before he died, Dad gave up fishing. Said they didn't bite like they used to. Dad came to like his satellite dish and cable box, and hearing from his boy when I was safely back in port. But I believe that afternoon on our way to the Bahamas, even Dad would have enjoyed fishing with his son one last time.

I was coming off watch and searching the icebox for dinner when the trolling line sang out in that octave that lets you know it's a big one. I closed the lid and ran on deck to help reduce sail and slow the boat. There may be plenty of fish in the ocean, but nobody likes losing one when you're hungry, and we were too thrilled with the prospect of fresh seafood to toy with that fish. We gaffed him and killed him and let the yellowfin tuna soak in lemon while we celebrated our catch with a round of drinks. I can't remember the last time a fish tasted that good. Dad would have loved it.

So here's to Dad and fathers everywhere, both in heaven and on earth, who push us to find our passion and explore the potential that lies within us. Happy Daddy's Day, Dad. I miss you.

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