“Forgive me all my anger
Forgive me all my faults
There’s no need to forgive me
For thinkin’ what I thought”
—- Guy Clark, “Dublin Blues”
“Forgive me all my anger
Forgive me all my faults
There’s no need to forgive me
For thinkin’ what I thought”
—- Guy Clark, “Dublin Blues”
In the process of straightening up and trying to clean out my life, I came across these thoughts scratched on the back cover of a graduation program. It was the last in a series of 40+ that I attended.
The line arouses itself and begins to extend toward the future. One soul, twelve steps continuing into the fog of uncounted tomorrows. Hope plundering the shadowlands of uncertainty in the carriage of youth.
One last out and in. Grace in the cloak of repetition. The ease of innocence–some even genuine. Raging talent unprotected by the cloak. What pagans are gathering in the borderlands of the next sunrises? Or are the pagans sires to the Messiah? The chosen ones; but to what journey?
Chapter 1 of The Old Man And The Boy opens with the Old Man teaching the Boy about hunting quail and the many collateral issues that attend to the practice. One of the most important lessons revolves around the Boy’s first shotgun.
The Old Man: “You always got to remember that when a gun is loaded it makes a potential killer out of the man that’s handling it. Don’t you ever forget it.”
The Boy noted, “I said I wouldn’t forget it. I never did forget it.”
I cannot remember the day, month, or year that I first saw it. I was no more than nine years old, and my Dad was working a second job, part-time, at a tackle shop in my home town. In those days in the Panhandle of Florida the term “tackle shop” meant only one thing–a store where hunting and fishing gear was sold. I loved going there with him because I felt like an insider and was going to have an outsized percentage of my curiosities fed. It stood in a rack of guns behind the counter. Most of its neighbors and relatives were dressed in walnut or similar wooden stocks ranging from dark chestnut to light blond in color. However, the apple of my young eye was a Harrington & Richardson .410 gauge single shot breach loading shotgun furnished with a fire engine red stock. Unusual, but with irresistible appeal. Time has destroyed my memory as to the day and occasion that the red H&R became mine. Yet, the purpose, protocols of use, language, and love that came with the gun are indelible. My father refused to allow any of his children to own a BB gun. His intransigence on this point was based on simple logic. He did not want his sons (my sister had no interest in hunting) running around the neighbor hood developing bad habits with guns. Each appeal for a BB gun was met with, “When you are old enough to own and use a real gun properly we’ll see about getting you one.”
So even before the desire for a gun found specific expression, the lessons of patience and listening were seeded. Listening and observing over time were key because hunting and guns were part of who and what my family did in the fall and winter. As the Old Man told the Boy, a gun is dangerous.
Lesson one: Every gun is loaded until you personally physically check that it isn’t. This rule was intended to be followed literally. I could stand next to my father as he removed his 16 gauge from the closet checked the breach and found it empty then closed the breach. If he handed me the gun in the same motion that had closed the breach I was expected to open the breach again and examine the chamber. Even now I do it, as does my brother.
Lesson two: Safety was and is priority one when using a firearm. Bird hunting meant either doves or quail. Each activity had general as well as very specific protocols for handling the shotguns. Quail required a dog as well as a good deal of walking and waiting on the sudden explosion of targets spreading out in an unpredictably wide high speed arc. Most of the old men would not allow a third party on a quail hunt. When the dog flushed the birds one shooter took birds flying right and the other took birds flying left. A third hunter increased the risk that a gun would be fired in the direction of one of the others and increase the risk of a human casualty. My dad and his father would take me along but with strict rules about where I aimed when the covey rose. We never had an accident.
Doves involved different logistics and rules of firing geometry. Since the hunters were stationed around the perimeter of corn or millet fields it was not unusual that one man’s field of fire would be directly across from another’s. In other words, hunters could easily shoot someone on the other side of the field. Thus, the vertical firing angle was as important as the horizontal.
In addition, both quail and dove hunting often required crossing streams, working one’s way through difficult brush, or crossing fences. Fences were particularly important in the realm of gun safety. Guns had to have the chamber unloaded, then placed on the ground pointing away from where the hunters were crossing. The weapons were retrieved after crossing and then reloaded. Early in my career failure to adhere to this procedure cost me the use of my gun and thus meaningful inclusion on the next hunting trip. My father’s word was his bond. Breaking rules had consequences.
Lesson three: You never point a loaded gun at anything unless you intend to fire at it. Guns were/are not forms of play, threats, or intimidation. Loaded guns were always pointed at the ground in front of the hunters or at the sky away from all the hunters. Thus, any unintentional discharge would not result in a casualty. We never had a gun tragedy in my family.
Lesson four: If you shoot it you dress and eat it. My father never countenanced the idea of hunting for trophies. Hunting required killing and killing was to obtain food, NOT to hang something on the wall. Thus, when early in my gun life I wanted shoot a cardinal or jaybird (memory fails me as to the exact species) my father relented. Once the deed was done, he reminded me that I must dress the small victims, have my grandmother cook them, and then I had to consume them. They were small, tough, and about as tasty as the leather from the masts of Magellan’s ship. Lesson learned.
Eventually my Dad gave me a Winchester .22 hammerless lever action rifle and later added a scope. Respecting guns and the attending rules was the path to a more varied set of hunting tools. I shared many days in the woods with my Dad and grandfather. I came to appreciate that well made tools appropriately applied to their intended purpose were to be admired, but never misused. A respect for animals and their habitat was the other integral piece of my education with guns.
Through guns and hunting my Dad and the old men in my family taught me that life is to be respected; that life is finite; and that death is part of living. My Dad is gone now, but he left me his Marlin .22 calibre lever action rifle. I never pull it from its faux alligator leather case without remembering him and the deep respect for life that he taught me.
Close your eyes and see what matters
Wash away your worry and pain
There’s holy water
In an island rain
--------Mac McAnally, "Island Rain"
“I want to dance with circus gypsies
Talk with hippies
Where the past and the future
Still walk down that same sandy street
The importance of elsewhere
Is still that important to me”
—-Jimmy Buffett, et. al., “I Want To Go Back To Cartagena”
December came four days late. She was dark, cold, saturated, and uneven. Your soul needed a boat. Magellan ordered the the mainsail reefed. Noah asked for Job’s advice. Darkness and water were locked in a connubial embrace oblivious to the needs of man.
A year and four days later man was still marooned in the darkness of Winter come thirteen days early. The sky settled in as hammered steel with no hints of azure to be imagined and darkness closed to ink. Job had no answers save ideas.
The sails were unfurled even as the wind accelerated. The voice in man’s darkness was Ishmael’s: “Steer in the wake of the Rachel. Ride the edge of the storm, faith requires neither sun nor a port.”
Fishing. Freshwater fishing. In The Old Man and the Boy the Old Man uses fishing to teach the Boy about some of the important things in life. Ruark leaves the reader with the impression that everything the Old Man did was calculated to teach the Boy. Undoubtedly the episodes the Boy recounts were thus spawned. Yet, many lessons from the old man were secondary and even unintentional in their conception.
My father loved fishing, but freshwater fishing, especially bass fishing in the North Florida Panhandle, was much more rewarding if done from a boat. The working class world of my youth was not a place where such things were purchased as the cash was not “growing on trees”. In fact one of the trees in my backyard was a Catawba tree which attracted certain creatures that laid eggs which hatched worms that we used for fish bait. The tree had no other purpose in my world.
So my father saved and employed one of his great gifts, patience, to build a boat. What did he intend the impact of this project to have on me? I cannot say, but. . . . Ruark’s Old Man tells the boy, “You can also learn a whole lot about yourself. Ain’t nothing like a boat to teach a man the worth of quiet contemplation.” While I cannot vouch for any memories of deep contemplation I do have a few vivid memories of the work and the end product. In the first instance there were the materials and tools needed to float my father’s dream.
I learned about the difference between “plywood” and “marine plywood”. The latter specifically designed to withstand its connubial contact with water. Most of the wood working tools were already in my mechanic father’s green metal chest. Yet, saw horses were required, and they were built not bought. Thank the muses there was no Home Depot or Lowes in those days because a home built saw horse is an interesting creature.
For an alleged equine creature it is “flat out ugly” and it does not move, much less run. Indeed, it is created to stand still. A good one requires at least one 2 x 4 as well as material for the legs, probably more 2 x 4 if it is to bear much weight. Cutting an inclined plane on the top ends of the four leg pieces and then nailing them to the spine takes time. Lesson number two: quality construction requires solid preparation. Oh, lesson number one: NEVER EVER use a tool for a task it was not designed to execute. (Young boys often believe a screwdriver is interchangeable with a wood chisel or that pliers are capable of doing anything.)
So from the beginning the conversations revolved around learning correct nomenclature for tools as well as safety. These were wrapped around instructional moments that were saturated with analogies and metaphors. I am not certain my father knew much about either of these literary creatures, but upon reflection I see them floating across time. For example: measure and then cut very slowly and carefully leaving the mark; it is easy to make a second cut if the joint does not fit, but you cannot put the material back if you rush to cut too much too soon. Holding on to the cautionary example would have certainly made life easier further down my road. I have erased too many marks with impatient cuts.
Saw horses made from studs standing like the most impotent of stallions in a inanimate paddock meant it was time to move on to laying the keel. Given that this was to be a real fishing boat, the keel was destined to be the backbone of the vessel rather than a deep water guide. I never embraced the blunt nose flat bottomed river boats that my maternal grandfather built. They were functional, easier to build than a keel and sharp prow, but they were ugly. For whatever reasons my father chose my aesthetic vision for his boat. Living in town meant the curve of the prow would have to be manufactured not found after a long search for a naturally curved piece. Out came the small hand held bottled gas blow torch. The process demanded patience, care with hazardous tools, and imagination as my Dad carved, heated, and bent the wood. I was in awe that one could use heat to shape wood. Watch and learn.
Slowly, never with a set of plans, but always with a plan, the keel sprouted ribs; bottom, sides and stern covered them. Here I learned what would eventually prove to be a powerful lesson. As the Boy notes, “once we stuck her in the water and let her seams swell, she never leaked another drop.” When constructing something that will encounter the vagaries of the real world always allow for the changes in your vessel. If the structure is too tight the swelling will produce a rupture, if it is too loose it will sink. Bulding a “tight ship” does not necessarily perfect.
At last sealing and painting were the final steps. Here my father yielded to my desires; the vessel would be dark green. Epoxy paint gave the wood a hard shining green shield. When things, such as cosmetics, are not necessary generosity is an important virtue to practice.
The boat was to be powered by an outboard motor. So many questions still remained. What brand? How much horsepower? Testosterone was beginning to drip inside my adolescent body. We needed a brand with cache. We needed serious power. How else could we carve the water with wind in our hair and spray flying? One more lesson. The boat has its purpose; the motor is part of that purpose. Fish don’t care about brands nor how fast you arrived or how fast you leave. The motor was a Wizard 7.5 horsepower purchased at Western Auto. No aquatic speed records were ever threatened. Lesson: image is never the starting point for an important decision. Match resources to purpose.
“I’m gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It’ll be a fair curve
From a noble plan”
Guy Clark / Verlon Thompson, “Boats To Build”
“History is like therapy for the present; it makes it talk about its parents.”
-Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch Joseph Conrad In A Global World
“He seemed to find my life negligible. I found his horrifying. Oh, well,”
—–Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceana
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Head of St. George's Independent School, Travel Novice, Folk Art Fan, Guitar Hack
HISTORY IN HONOR OF THE BOSS
Doing History After Leaving the Classroom