I don’t think my dad was ever fishing for dinner, citations noting achievement, or even the thrill of the hunt. I think he was there to soak in the fish tales. To catch and release banter and chatter. To make a mate, here and there. And to teach me my first lessons about surviving in the great blue wide open, or at least how to hit “the head” and unhook a boot from a rented rod without needing a hand. Despite our poor track record of bringing home dinner, it was one of our most successful collaborations, or at least better than our 0–12 recreational soccer team (he coached, I played fullback) or our last-place Pinewood Derby finish (yes, it’s possible to flunk Boy Scouts). But in fishing, we had something — a routine and understanding that it was our time to make sense of the world together.
Sometimes my older sister, younger brother and mom would join as well, including one time when we all squeezed into a dinghy meant for two. Before we could even move around the boat, we had to shout out our intentions; otherwise we’d tip precariously to one side or the other. One such time, my dad, bent low, bounded unannounced to snag a nibbling fish from a bending rod, sending my mom within inches of a salty bath, and prompting her to yell something still etched in Ward Family history, “Get on the other side of the boat, Squatty!” It was the water birth of a nickname.
I also understood over time that these fishing trips were meant more for me than for my pops. He enjoyed a little time by his lonesome fishing on the surf, slicing up squid and sneaking out of our borrowed beach bungalow with his pole in one hand and sand spike in the other whenever the tide tables dictated, but always before dawn.
And in all the moments that regularly rotate through my mind’s eye ViewMaster reel starring dad, it’s this one that I always focus on.
It’s him, silhouetted against the opening credits of the sunrise. I would run down from the dunes, half mad he didn’t wake me and fully excited to see what he caught. He was wearing cut-off jean shorts before they were hip and his “lucky” thread-bare red and blue striped polo that even Goodwill would reject. Dad was casting toward the horizon with an ancient hat — something that was given away from the racetrack to get patrons to stay through the 9th race — and he always had a warm “good morning” for whoever was up early or still trolling the beach from the previous night’s bacchanalia.
Every once in a while, he’d snag a sand shark. But that was about it. Dad didn’t mind. This was his time to think and relax, after all. And probably recover a bit from the previous night, when friends and family gathered amongst games of charades, deep martinis and occasional beach bar sojourns that lasted longer than planned.
It’s been a while since I fished. I actually think the last time I dropped a line was 10 years ago, fittingly with my dad. It happened off Key West on the eve of my wedding. No one caught a thing, but I still remember my dad laughing uncontrollably, almost rabidly, as my buddy Kent — a refined Southern Gentleman with ink up and down his frame — was felt up by a curious Asian tourist who had never seen Civil War generals tattooed into a man’s flesh. Maybe it was that famous laugh that always scared the fish away…