Sunday, July 03, 2016
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This story was first published in Fish & Fly Magazine.  It recalls a journey I made back to my home town, where my father taught me to fish, and where I learned a lot of early lessons.  WH
I think you know the routine. A distant family member died.  A complicated web of old family and old cousins and old stories and older expectations.  History is a spider web floating freely in the air.  Not unlike the Bible, worshiped by many, open to interpretation, and liable to land right in the middle of your face as you walk innocently through the forest.  Such is the environment I walked into in Flint Michigan.  You remember, 90 degrees, and it just finished a rain shower.  Steaming, and Sticky, with a hint of sinful underbelly.  Might even be sexy if it weren't southern Michigan in the summer time.  For this kind of heat, you need to be in Louisiana, aimlessly wandering the swamps with a twenty year old Cajun woman named Chere’, high on life, whispering in your ear and tugging on your pants.  Life inside a bowl of steaming Chicken Gumbo.  Michigan of my dreams.

Michigan for me was purgatory.  A place I passed through on my way to where ever I'm going.  We're all responsible for our own responsibilities, so I can't lay blame, but you know what?  They could have done a better job.  My parents.  They did the best they could and that's all any of us can do, so what's the point?  No guarantee I would do any better in the same situation.  But you know, looking back, I don't remember a lot.  I don't remember imagination being cultivated.  I don't remember books.  I don't remember movies.  I don't remember camping.  I don't remember conversation.  I don't remember family.  We sort of walked through it. It’s just this space that from a distance appears full, but with a closer look, the glass is in fact half empty.  It wasn’t that they didn’t care and didn’t try.  They did what they could and maybe in the end, that’s all there is to do.  But I needed more than that.  Still do.

I do remember standing at my bedroom window looking out to the back yard past the garden to the field.  I remember countless times wondering if there was anything for me to do, anywhere in the world.  At ten years old, you don't know that stuff. You need a little help. I would go back to that house on this trip and ask the current owners if I could look inside.  It was smaller than I expected, as it is with much of the past.  I went into that bedroom and took a picture of the view out the window.  I have it in my office.  A reminder to me when I get bored.  A reminder that there is potential beyond the field out the window.  I just have to look for it, and no one can find it and no one can see it but me.

It wasn't a miserable life, it was just bland.  As a consequence, when something exciting or important did happen, it often burned its presence deep into my soul.  It was so out of the ordinary, it became part of me and I never ever forgot it.  Even small events could easily break the drone like pattern of life.  The events only needed to be slightly different to make a difference.  No long-term memory loss here.  It's as clear as truth.  These moments in the past are as clear to me as December snow.

And the light shines long ago, on the cold December snow.  And the River Runs on through the golden past.  I can see it in the bottom of the whiskey glass.

I left the small Michigan town when I was 18.  I didn't come back and I didn't stay in touch.  It wasn't intentional.  It was simply life in the process of not holding on to the past.  I was just gone.   There were some good friends I left behind and some family friends I probably should not have lost.  Leaving and not coming back always has collateral damage associated with it.  I did the only thing I knew how to do.  I left.  At the funeral, there were many cobwebs, and many implied expectations and many questions about my disappearance and my reappearance and my responsibilities as a member of history.  History was never my best subject.

After the funeral, I went for a car ride.  Determined to revisit the old memories and take a few snapshots.  A car ride back into my past.  A ride to some of those moments and places burned into my memory.  These things in a different life, might have been lost in the maze of old stories and reminiscences from a life lived well.  In this case, they were the very stuff of life itself.  The moment when fools gold is golden, and straw is spun and weaved into precious.

The little town was called Fenton.  Southern Michigan farmland and future suburb of Flint, home of Roger and Me.  After looking at the bedroom, I stood outside my old house.  Didn't go back in.  Just stood there.  Looking for my parents, now long past gone.  Wondering if we could pause for a moment and have a talk.  A little conversation.  A bunch of questions I'd like to ask.  Things I'd like to know.  What was my mother's favorite color?  Did my dad ever have a secret wish?  A little conversation.  A talk we never had.

There was a chimney wall on the west side of the house.  From where I stood, I could see an ancient hieroglyph etched onto the brick of the chimney.  A square shape actually, a marking of sorts, the kind of which might be made by using a small rock to scratch an outline about two feet square and three feet from the ground on the dark red brick chimney.  The light marking almost faded away now.  The sort of mark a ten year old might scratch on a chimney and use as a fake batter's box.  I could see him.  Hour after hour, throwing a baseball at that mark.  The Fenton Little League Yankees went 18 wins and no losses that year (57).  Scholars at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown disagreed for years as to the reason for the unbeaten record.  Rumors were that the pitcher simply could not be hit.  Some parents said nothing like it had ever been seen before.  Of course no one remembered anything now.  Save one.

I turned and took another photo.  I have it now.  The view was down the street in front of my house looking west.  It was the view I remember from when I was sixteen.  Sitting in my parent’s car.  Alone.  My first drive with my new driver's license.  It's burned into me.  The thought that the road went on forever.  In a blinding flash, a concept that had never occurred to me before became real.  I was always Walter and never the same again.

One block to the west and left onto Leroy street.  Another block and park the car in the small lot and walk to the creek that wound its way through Bush Park.  The creek was named Shiawasii. Superman was a television must see in those days.  Once a week, Clark Kent became the Man of Steel.  One night I watched an installment and heard Superman say if you took a piece of coal and put it under enough pressure (like underwater), in a thousand years it would become a diamond.  I believed him.  I was 8 years old.  Hell, Superman was god, and so was I.  The next day at sunrise, I took a piece of coal down to the bridge at Bush Park.  I took the coal and threw it into the water just upstream from the Bridge.  Middle of the creek.  Watched it sink into three feet of water.  The bottom of the small creek was light colored so I could easily see the piece of coal.  Dreamed about it in days to come.  Eight years old standing on the bridge, I closed my eyes and promised myself that in 1000 years I would come back and find a diamond.  A fortune.  In the future.  Today at 59 years old, I stand on the bridge and in the bottom of the creek, I can still see it.  Even if it's not there anymore, it’s always there.   I took a photo of the creek.  I have it with me and I have a fortune of sorts.  In a thousand years, anything is possible.  Superman and I are certain of it.

A few more blocks up the road and I walked onto Phillips Field.  Home of the 1963 Fenton Tigers High School football team.  Now home to the whistling wind.  At the time, I was headed nowhere and nowhere was home.  Failing at school, and destined in the not too distant future to putting rivets in new Buick LeSabre’s on the production lines in Flint.  The air was sickly thick with failure and the death of spirit, folded over on itself like a Salvador Dali watch.

My father didn’t give me many gifts that would last, but he did give me two of serious note.  One gift was that of persistence.  Persistence in the face of unrelenting failure.  As a child of stubborn, persistence is tinged with hope.  While stubborn remains rooted in the past, persistence looks for a way out.  During two a day football practices on Phillips Field in August of 63, Ken Wagner, the football coach called my number.  I was a third string offensive end and on that day 1st and 2nd were late to practice.  I was third, I looked stupid in a football uniform but I was persistent.  I remember running forever to catch up to a football thrown by John Bradly.  No idea how it ended up in my hands.  I turned around with the ball in my hands and suddenly the world was a different color.  Standing here today on this field, I ponder the events leading up to and the circumstance of finding a way to be worth something. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than a ball in the air.  Sometimes it just comes out of the air, as though you had nothing and everything to do with it.  Almost as though you subconsciously willed it to appear.  Suddenly it just is and was and will be.  Just as suddenly now, a brief shower caressed the field.  I took another photograph and walked quietly to the car.

This place you’re looking for, might have washed out in the rain.
Might not be there any more, might not be the same.  But if you find it won’t you let me know.  If I knew it, I would surly go.  Don’t you know I used to love it so.  When I was just a boy.

The freeway ran north two hours past the industrialized southern part of the state.  Past the almost surreal landscape of automobile assembly plants and steaming placid farmland.  Southern Michigan is what you get when you cross a four-door luxury car (pay nothing till next year) with a beat up John Deer tractor.  This journey north was to visit the source.  The North Branch of the Ausable River. 

My father gave me two gifts.  The second was fishing.  Fishing was pretty much my father’s only escape from the ravages of the real world, and in those first 18 years, by inheritance, it was mine as well.  The North Branch was the stuff of magic.  A world unlike anything I’d ever seen.  Small in stature, but huge in memory, the North Branch was where impossible became ponderable.  It was here that my father became larger than life.  More than he was, and less like he’d been.  Adventure lurked around every bend.  A place so far removed from reality, that the fantasy became real.  This quiet little river took me so very far away, years later I would find I was on my way back home.

As I drove north this last time, I could feel the layers pulling away again.  In those days, the road north was my personal underground railway to freedom.  I felt the same excitement and the same release from that same suffocating grip of blandness. On this particular trip I stood in two places that changed my life.  The same memories that normally would be lost in the chaos of life remain vivid due to rare appearances and lasting impressions.

The cabin we always rented from Bud still sits on the riverbank.  Amazingly, Bud is still alive. As I approached the cabins that sit in the forest next to the river, he stood with his walker in the doorway to his house.  Barely able to see, he watched me get out of the car.  As I stepped forward to introduce myself to him again after almost forty years, he looked me in the eye from twenty yards away and said “Bob, is that you Bob?”  My father, Robert Charles Hodges died in 1974.  He and Bud were buddies.  The comment stopped me dead in mid step.  I looked up at him with tears in my eyes and said “Bud, it’s Walter, Bob’s son.”  He smiled, gave me a hug and whispered in my ear “God Walter, I would have sworn it was Bob. You walk like your father. Where the hell have you been?”

We talked and he took me to the cabin.  Something about it.  I couldn’t walk inside.  Too much.  Just too much.  He walked inside and brought out what appeared to be a small framed piece of art.  Black velvet actually.  About five inches square.  Little wooden frame. On it were some twigs that had been glued to the velvet and about ten very small sea shells.  Totally unrecognizable, appearing to be useless, appearing to be made by a dyslexic child, nothing of note and certainly nothing to be proud of.  And then came the story.

My father was truly a good man doing the very best he knew how, but he just never understood how to deal with my mom.  His personality was so very overpowering, that mom’s personality never got a chance to grow.  She was simply overcome with my dad’s presence and his continuous revolving journey back into himself.  As a consequence, when we would go fishing, my mother would sit in the cabin.  Alone.  Hour after hour she would wait for dad and I to come home.  In many ways, we never made it back home.  She never faltered.  Never complained.  Always patient. I had no idea what she did in those hours and those years spent waiting for the men she loved.  In a sense, she may have come to some kind of peace with it in the end, and maybe it was just life as life was lived, and maybe she was happy.  I don’t know.  I can’t judge it, but I do live with the memory of her waiting for dad and I to come home only to find her waiting for us to catch up to her.  We may never have come home, but we certainly never caught up with her.

Bud said, “I think you’re mom always had a fantasy that she might like to be an artist.  She would sit for hours at the table in there and make these little objects.  She had nowhere to go.  Nothing to do. Pasting little things like sticks and leaves and shells together to make a little piece of art.  Probably little pieces of herself.  She made this one the first year you went away to school.  She gave it to me and I put it up on the wall of the cabin.  Figured that’s where it belonged.  It’s been there for forty years.  Fell off the wall a number of times and pieces continued to break off, but I couldn’t see throwing it away.  Lost most everything that was pasted on it, but I just couldn’t get rid of it.  I felt like it was her ghost, waiting in the cabin.  I liked your mom.  Couldn’t throw it away.  You should take it with you.  A little piece of your mom.  I think she’d like that.  I think she’d like to go home with you.”  I tried to speak.  Couldn’t do it.  Just stood there crying.  I held the frame, turned and looked at the river and the willow trees.  The very spot where I caught my first trout.  The spot where my father taught me to fish.  The spot where a trout rising from the bottom of the river was tantamount to my soul rising from the far end of nowhere. I turned and managed to say “my dad thought the world of you.” Bud said “I know Walter, and I really liked your dad too.  He was a pretty tough guy, but he had a heart of gold.”

I never saw my father drunk.  But on a few small occasions, he would have one too many and start to laugh and sing.  The only song he ever sang when he’d been drinking too much Crown Royal was When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.  He didn’t know all the words. Just enough to get to the point where he couldn’t stand it any more and he’d start to laugh.  It’s almost too much just remembering it.  What an amazing sight.  My father lost in song.  Me lost in the memory.

One day on the North Branch, he and his fishing buddy Carl Obrecht took a small bottle of Crown Royal and walked down to the river to fish.  Too tired to fish, I stayed in the cabin.  Towards sunset I decided to walk outside and stepped onto the dirt road.  The sun was setting and the light had turned that dusty yellow common to Southern Michigan summertime.  I looked up the road and saw two figures wandering in silhouette back toward the cabin.  The two of them were certifiably snockered.  Carl was on the right.  My father on the left.  They were laughing and talking, talking and laughing.  As they approached I watched my dad.  In his left hand he held a small fishing rod.  In his right, he held a five pound brown trout.  As he approached he began singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, sure tis like the morn in Spring. In the lilt of Irish Laughter, you can hear the angels sing……”.  At that moment, he was bigger than life.  He was everything I ever wanted to be.  Timeless now as I stood on the road, I imagined the two of them almost like pairs of Charlie Chaplins in silhouette, seen from behind in that famous silent movie, walking the road to the crest of the hill.  Over the crest and off to forever.  My dad and Carl.  Singing, Laughing, Together, Forever.   

I drove a short distance to what was called Dam Four.  I never knew what the name meant exactly but I knew the location.  Found it easily.  This was the spot on the river where dad and I would come at sunrise.  He’d park the car in the little dirt parking area and we’d walk past a deserted broken down ghost house from years past.  An old fishing lodge on the banks of the river.  I always thought I heard laughter inside as we walked past the past.  Walking now across an open field as the sun came up.  Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, Christopher Columbus, Davy Crockett, the whole lot of them never saw a view more exciting than that which reached the eyes of a child walking with his dad at sunrise to the banks of the North Branch of the Ausable. 

If I were to keep walking when I reached the end of the field, I would walk straight into the river, and did just that.  The Ausable is relatively shallow and slow moving.  It meanders like a spring creek through the fields and forest of Northern Michigan.  I chose not to fish.  It didn’t feel right, and it would not have been the same.  It never is.  I threw water on my face and walked upstream through the cathedral of my memory.  Water tugging at my pants, asking me to stay, and reluctantly letting me go.  A one mile walk through a physical wall of memories.  Every bend a memory of fish caught, fish lost, sunrises and sunsets, the smell of spring, the feeling of being connected to something larger than myself, and my father patiently teaching, and laughing and standing proud on the banks of the Ausable, watching his son grow. 

At one particular bend, I paused and remembered a morning.  I was maybe 10.  Dad was upstream a bend or two and I was fishing (catching brown trout) and watching the river.  Suddenly a large splash behind me.  I turned and looked eight feet away into the eyes of an awkward stumbling white tail faun, backlit by morning sun.  The doe probably hidden somewhere in the brush. Her child, like myself, on its own for the moment.  Faun and young boy standing together in a timeless connection with the past.  Ten years old.  Lost and found on the Ausable River.  The child looked into my eyes totally unafraid and infused with wonder.  It took a step, staggered a bit, picked itself up, took a drink, and stepped quietly away around the bend. Every step I take today follows the path of that faun.  I see the faun every time I stop in wonder.  I see it when in moments unexpected a new potential appears magically in front of me.  I see it when something cherished and fleeting passes away.  As I walked upstream toward the present and the future I could clearly see it again. A zealot’s baptisim could not have been more cleansing.  The North Branch of the Ausable.

This place you say you’re looking for, that’s a place I used to know, don’t know the number of the road, but I can tell you how to go.

My plane was due to leave from the Detroit airport, but I had a couple more stops along the way.  Two more people to see and one last favorite fishing hole back in my home town.  Running more on raw emotion than gas, I headed south.   It was an hour south on the freeway back to Fenton. Fenton was and is a very small town.  It’s now not much more than a suburb on the rural side of industry. There’s a little of the antique left.  Not much, but enough for a couple last memories.  The Shiawasi River ran straight through town.  A millpond ran over a small dam and through a park next to the fire station in the center of town.  In the center of the park was a rock outcropping where I would go with a friend to fish when I was very young.  Maybe 9 years old.  We’d go down there and catch little blue gills or catfish or carp.  It was a hiding place of sorts.  A place I could go in town to escape the bedroom window.  Many hours spent watching the shallow little river and catching small fish at sunset. Another place to hide right there in the middle of the placid Eisenhower years.

I carried a camera with me to visit and photograph the river and the rocks where I fished so many years before.  As I stood there lost in memories, I heard a small confident voice behind me say “are you going to fish mister?”  I turned and looked into the eyes of a very young boy.  Dish water blond.  Blue eyes.  Maybe 8 to 10 years old.  I said that I was not fishing, and I moved out of the way to let him pass.  He smiled and jumped onto my rock, sat down and began to put his fishing rod together.  A fly-fishing rod.  We talked for about fifteen minutes.  He told me of his adventures fishing and his hopes that on one of these casts he’d catch a really big one.  “You can never tell mister, I caught a pike here last year and you know, the next cast might be a really big one.”  I said I would try to remember that advise. Remember it every day.

I told him about my adventures on that same rock, and he nodded and smiled as though he knew what it meant to me.  My advise to him was to fish as much as he could for as long as he could.  He said he would.  I believed him.

I said good luck and turned to walk away.  He wished me luck as well.  I took a couple steps, turned back to the young man, and said “what’s your name son?”  He said “My name is Walter”.  When some of my friends came back from Vietnam, they had what has come to be known as “the thousand mile stare”.  That look you get when you’ve seen too much for too long a time.  That must have been what the young man saw in me as I stared at him in almost total disbelief. Speechless.  Staring into the eyes of myself.  He said “what’s yours?”   I said “My name is Walter”.  He laughed and said “that makes two of us huh?”  It did indeed.

The walk to the car was maybe fifty yards over a flat city park.  I don’t remember the walk at all, but when I became conscious again, I was sitting in the parked car, and I was dazed, out of breath and sweating as though I had been running up hill for five miles or more. Something about the distance between what was and what is.  It’s up hill the whole way. 

Early evening in a steaming southern Michigan summertime mood.  The little hotel in Fenton had been there since top hats and parasols.  It was pretty much the only place our family would go for dinner.  Something a little special.  I have fond memories of dinners with my mom and dad at the Fenton Hotel.  The old dinning room with the hammered copper ceiling and the wallpaper with floral patterns and scenes from the turn of the century.  Dad was always in a good mood at the hotel, and I remember my mother’s laugh and dad occasionally singing about those ever present Irish Eyes.  When I was 7 years old, it was a treat to get Seven Up and a maraschino cherry from my dad’s Manhattan on the rocks. Frog’s legs were the most exotic thing I could imagine and they were on the menu.  When I was 16, I walked into the dining room a hero on Friday night, after catching the touchdown pass that won the game.  Everyone knew my name.  I can still feel the slaps on my back from all the parents who stopped by our table to pay their respects. Glory days, they’ll pass you by…… Bruce Springsteen

This particular night the dinning room was empty, and I was full of memories.  I sat at the same table where mom and dad and I always sat.  I hate Manhattans.  I had two.  The frog legs were as good as memory could allow.  I heard all the voices and all the laughs, and all the dreams came flooding back.  The dinning room full of happy people and no one there but me.  The waitress caught me wiping tears from my eyes and asked if I needed anything.  I smiled and said I had just about everything I needed. She said she hopped I was ok.  I said I was better than that and then some.  Over the years I’ve had some lovely dinners, but none better than this last one with my parents and the tastes and sounds and dreams of the way it was when I was just a boy.

Head on down till the pavement ends.  Used to go back there now and then.  Used to know it like the back of my hand.  When I was just a boy.

The drive to Detroit and the airport would be an hour and a half.  The past few days had left me exhausted emotionally.  I was in a state of almost total mental disarray.  Nothing but raw nerve endings holding onto the wheel of the car. Lost in space looking for just the slightest bit of focus to get me down the road and through the night.  I needed something I could understand and wrap myself around, because most of what had happened in the past few days stretched the imagination to the frayed end of a cattle prod.  A slaughter house for my grip on the real world. 

I chose to drive by our old house one last time.  I sat in the car on the street outside the house for a moment.  Almost sunset.  A little dust in the air had turned the light to a golden hue.  Lingering shafts of back light cut through the oak trees and made for a totally ethereal moment as I paused and picked up my iPod.  I Plugged it into the stereo system, thinking that I needed all the windows open and some loud music to carry me out of Fenton and back to life.  I had set the iPod to the “shuffle’ setting and the play list was on “Rock”.  There are one thousand songs in my iPod under the playlist “Rock”.  Something like 10 hours of constant rock and roll.  It shuffled through all 1000 and came up with a song.  As I drove through town past the old high school and Phillips Field, this is the song that “shuffle” presented to me, and it’s the last memory I have while leaving my home town for last time.  You can’t go home again, but you can certainly drive past.  James McMurtry singing “Vague Directions” into the last light of the day.

“This place you say you’re looking for, that’s a place I used to know.
Don’t know the number of the road, but I can tell you how to go.
Head on down till the pavement ends.
Used to go down there now and then. 
I used to know it like the back of my hand.
When I was just a boy.

This place you say you’re looking for,
might have washed out in the rain.
Might not be there any more. 
Might not be the same.
But if you find it won’t you let me know.
I at once would surly go.
Don’t you know I used to love it so.
When I was just a boy.

And the light shines long ago, on the cold December snow.
And the river runs on through the golden past.
I can see it in the bottom of the whiskey glass.

An hour and a half on the freeway to Detroit.  I couldn’t believe this was the song for my departure.  I put the song on repeat over and over and over and over again.  I simply lost track of everything, including where I was or what I was doing.  A car ride Dr. Hunter Thompson could appreciate. As I approached the airport, I remember shaking my head as though trying to stay awake, while at the same time being more awake than I can remember.  I had no memory of the hour and a half.  I suddenly glanced at the speedometer and it read 110 mph.  The little rental car was shaking as though it was about to blow apart. Not unlike myself.  Blown with great ceremony into a thousand sharpened little pieces.  Each piece, a small part of my first fond memories of life and my last trip home.

Used to go back there now and then.  Used to know it like the back of my hand.  When I was just a boy. 

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