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May 16, 2011

THE OFF SEASON: Remembering ‘my old man and the sea’

TERRE HAUTE — It must be that my cousin, Renee, and her husband, Blake, were in need of a family story, for just a few days ago, as we stood in the crowded and stuffy gymnasium of an all-school reunion they shared with my wife, they told me they had a gift for me. It was my Grandfather Roy’s fishing tackle box, and they figured I couldn’t help but to reminisce and write about it.

They were right …

Their part in this story is critical, for after my grandfather died — more than 30 years ago — I didn’t get many of his things, particularly the guns he hunted with or the fishing poles he carried with him everywhere he ventured in his Chevy pick-up. Images of his battered green tackle box had been committed to the deep recesses of my memory to wait with those of his ever-present straw hat and his inexpensive silver wristwatch and his ratty brown fishing vest. But Blake saw the box sitting on a high garage shelf, got curious enough to take it down, and decided that since it meant little to him, he needed to give it to someone who would want it. And so, gratefully, the box will be with me a while.

Memories of my grandfather never travel far from me; he was my best friend.

As long as I can write words on paper, he will float through them, not as a ghost who haunts, but as a companion. He proved over and over that a man with just an eighth-grade education can make a fine teacher. 

He was born in 1902 near Mecca, and he spent his life in and around small towns just like it for the rest of his life. By the time I came along, he lived along the hunchbacked county line road that split Vigo and Parke counties in two, and it was into that world, with his garden and his fishing rods and his hand tools, that I was born. My parents built a house a few hundred yards to the east of his, and I spent virtually every day at my grandparents’ place, always knowing that if I wanted to stay the night, I could, and if I wanted something to eat, it was there for the asking. If I needed laughs, I could get a daily dose of those, too, for my grandpa had a streak of goofiness in him that was infectious.

My grandad was a true fisherman; so much so that I got to calling him “the old man and the sea,” not long after I read Hemingway’s skinny novella in junior high school English. He was a trapper and a hunter and a seeker of ginseng. If he could scale it, he’d eat it; if he could skin it, he’d hunt it; and through just a few precious boxes of the dried, gnarled roots he stowed away in his back-porch closet, he raised a little extra money that a meager pension couldn’t provide. He read “Fur, Fish, and Game” almost as religiously as his Bible, and he was a fly fisherman, a mender of john boats, and a prodigious raccoon killer.

When I got home that night, I explored the old box, sifting through the musty lures and spools of greasy fishing line and buckshot-shaped split-sinkers as if they were Kidd’s treasure. I found a smooth, coppery stone in the top tray, and although I can’t specifically remember putting it there nearly a lifetime ago, I think I must have, for often I would wander away from the old boy in search of rocks and fossils along the banks of the creeks and ponds we fished. 

I sometimes grew tired and bored with my grandfather’s unconvincing insistence that he was “nearly done” or “about finished” for the day; after all, a 10-year-old boy can enjoy fishing only as long as there is some catching being done, so I would suggest we eat the brown-bagged lunches we’d brought with us — usually a peppered egg sandwich and an apple and a bottle of warm Pepsi — and we’d go our separate ways for a while. At one of the places we fished — a smallish but deep strip-pit pool a road north of us called Taylor’s Pond — I had a favorite beech tree under which I snoozed away warm afternoons, read my cousin’s comic books, and, on occasion, tried to put my grandpa’s tackle box into some semblance of order, whether he wanted it “organized” or not.

The box’s second tray reminded me that he loved spinner baits, for he enjoyed, perhaps most of all, watching the flashing metal silver lures glide just under the surface of the water, the bluegill and sunfish slashing out of nowhere to attack his line. There were bass baits, too — ancient and creaky jigs and jitterbugs and spoons. One is a yellow and red “Hula Popper” and another is a “Fred Arbogast” jitterbug, which is nearly as old as I am. I also found a South Bend Optic lure that has a pair of wicked treble-hooks attached to its belly; I think he had to have bought it while Eisenhower was still president. I remember that I always wanted to use his more complicated lures and baits, but he usually handed me a cane pole and a bobber and told me to “get patient” for a while. 

My favorite fishing days with Grandpa Roy came at creeks and streams. I have an affinity for shallow water that ripples and gurgles over rocks, and he must have sensed that even then. I knew when I saw him sitting on the tailgate of his truck, peeling his socks off and rolling up his pant’s legs, that he planned to use his fly rod and wade the creek. His fly rod might as well have been a magician’s wand, because I never learned how to use it.

In a few years, I hope to have a grandson or granddaughter of my own, and I will teach him or her how to tie a proper knot, and to cast, and to “get patient.” He or she can have that old tackle box of my grandfather’s, and if, on some warm afternoon, they want to drag it over to a shade tree to play with, or even nap beside, I think that will be all right by me.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808.

Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His third collection of stories is due to be released in the fall.

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