All summer, while working as a sailing instructor, he had been looking forward to this trip. He shifted his six foot frame in the passenger seat of the pickup and stared out the window into the early morning darkness. He’s driving too fast, he thought. Scares the shit out of me. All the old feelings were coming back. He wanted to say something. But what? It would only upset the old man anyway. He didn’t want the trip to start like that.
The winding highway finally brought them to the launching ramp. He watched the wheels of the boat trailer disappear into the water. As the 14 foot aluminum runabout slid into the ocean he jumped forward to get the boat ready for fishing.
“Just hang onto the bowline and wait on the dock. I’ll do that after I park the truck.”
In low gear the 4X4 roared up the ramp. He stood on the dock, bowline in hand, waiting and watching the shoreline take shape in the half-light of morning. ‘Daylight in the swamp,’ his father used to say. He smiled at the memories it brought; of emerging from the tent into the cold daybreak; watching your breath rise as you hurried to build a fire; getting ready to shoot the elusive moose or go out and catch the ‘big ones’. The boat bumped gently against the dock. His father came back and started organizing the fishing gear.
“Why don’t I steer, then you can get the rods ready.”
“No, I know where I’m going.”
Well, it was the old man’s boat. And fishing gear. If that’s the way he wanted it, well . . .
The son squatted on the dock the way men usually do when they want to give the impression they are at ease, watching his father, trying to think of something to say.
“Looks like a nice day for fishing, Dad.”
“Yeh, if . . . “
The rest was lost in the roar of the outboard as it started.
As they crossed the open channel they ran into some heavy chop. Even slowed down the runabout took a heavy beating. Climbing high on a crest and slamming down into a trough, the bow was almost buried, an event that can be fatal in an open boat. I sure wish he’d let me steer, he thought. Every wave seemed as if it would catch the edge of the boat, flip it and throw them into the icy water.
After forty-five minutes they finally reached the sheltered bay where they were going to fish.
“Usually only takes me fifteen minutes to get across,” his father said. “I was afraid we might have to turn back.”
“Yeh, those waves sure looked big in the middle there alright. Hope it calms down by the time we have to go home.”
He watched as his father began to prepare the rods for fishing, baiting the hooks with herring strips and, from time to time, steering towards the opposite shore. The boat zigzagged across the bay.
He’s wearing that old blue plaid shirt I gave him last year. And my old runners—he likes to wear them in the boat. They’re comfortable and quiet and don’t scare the fish with a lot of noise.
They often did that, wearing each other’s old clothes for the ‘dirty work’. They were both big barrel-chested men; the same height and with the same shoe size. They were alike in so many ways.
His father handed him a rod and threw the baited hook into the water.
“Reel off a hundred and fifty feet and if you get a strike—that’s your rod. You worry about yours, I’ll worry about mine.”
They trolled along the shoreline, watching their rods and waiting for that whirring sound of the Petz reel that meant a salmon had taken the bait. In the still air of the sheltered bay the sun began to warm them. He took off his coat and relaxed against the seat. There was nothing for him to do but watch the tip of his rod for a strike. With one eye still on the rod he again thought of why he had been eager for this trip. He was hoping for one of those heart-to-heart father-son talks that would deepen the bond between them. He desperately wished the old man to be the father he had always wanted and for them to be the friends they never were.
He wanted to tell his father those thoughts men find so hard to say to a woman and even harder to say to a man. Thoughts that were so difficult to put into words—words he feared would betray him even now. They were on the tip of his tongue, yet an unknown fear stopped him from speaking them aloud.
By noon they still hadn’t caught anything. He wanted to change from the herring strip to a hootchie. His father wanted lunch first. At least that would give him something to do.
He served lunch.
“Been fishing lately, Dad?”
“Last week the church had a small derby and picnic. Had a bout thirty boats there.”
“Catch any fish?”
“Yep. I was the only one to catch anything. Caught two Coho. An eight pounder and a nice fourteen pounder. Hey—you’ve got a strike!”
The Petz reel screamed as the son dropped his lunch and started to reel in. As it got harder, he realized it wasn’t a salmon.
“I’m hung up on the bottom.”
“Dammit, I told you not to let out so much line.
They tried to shake the hook loose by backing over the place where it had snagged. The line eventually broke, leaving hook, flasher and weight on the bottom. His father swore at him the whole time. He finally took ten dollars out of his pocket, handed it to the old man and told him to shut up. His father had the largest tackle box that could be found at the Army and Navy store. It was stuffed to overflowing with salmon fishing gear. He even had a separate box for freshwater fishing. Yet he always made such a fuss whenever he lost common gear that was easily replaceable at the hardware store.
“Seeing as how we lost that, we may as well try a hootchie now.”
His father gave an irritated, “Yes, yes,” in reply and busied himself with attaching the new lure. He wouldn’t let anyone touch his tackle box. No one could do it as well as he could.
They trolled for another hour before the son reeled in his line to check the hootchie.. He wanted to try another colour. This time his father allowed him to change the hook—but not without many words of caution and guidance.
As if I’ve never done this before, he thought. He never lets up, does he?
He was hoping a fish would strike in order to ease the tension. His father was always more talkative after they caught fish. But, as the afternoon wore on, there was nothing. Every time he tried a different lure his father became more exasperated. Finally it came:
“Let’s go in. You don’t know how to fish. You always want to change this and do that. Can’t you just relax and enjoy being out here? It’s sure as hell no fun to fish with you.”
“It’s sure as hell no fun to go out with a grouchy old fart, either. You’ve done nothing but bitch and holler at me since we got out here.”
He was angry and confused. He had tried, wanting more, but it was always just that one burst. Things came to a climax and then nothing. Silence. Until one of them gave in and apologized. It was usually he.
The wind had died so the channel was smooth as they crossed. They loaded the boat on its trailer in silence. They had done this many times before. As they drove to the motel they were to stay that night, neither one spoke. I don’t know if I can stand another day like this, he thought. When he got to the motel he had a shower, got dressed and, on the way to the door, told his father he would find his own dinner and would see him later.
He walked to ease the anger he felt and let his mind pour out all the arguments he had stored up to support his feelings. He walked till the road he was on ended at the ocean side. Or did it begin her? He chuckled at the wry thought that had intruded into his anger and frustration. He found a rock to rest on and, gazing out to sea, continued his reflections. His thoughts went back to when he was eight years old.
His father was a trucker then. They lived in a small town in northern British Columbia. His father delivered drilling chemicals to various oil rigs miles out in the bush. At breakfast that morning his father mentioned he had a short trip to do that day and would be back by mid-afternoon.
“Can I go with you, Dad? Can I? Can I?” He wanted to be a trucker, too. He wanted to have an adventure with his father.
“Let the kid go with you,” his mother said. “He hardly gets to see you on the weekends.”
As they climbed into the truck he thought he could never be happier. Within twenty minutes he was saying, “Are we there yet, Dad? Are we there yet?” They still teased him about that.
Much later he awoke with his head on his father’s lap. His father was shaking him and telling him to sit up. He looked through the truck windows and saw they were at a ‘Y’ in the road, somewhere in the middle of dense bush. The sky had turned cloudy and gave the scene an eerie feeling. His father was saying something about waiting.
“I’m supposed to meet * * * here at one of these two well sites but I don’t know which one.” His father pointed down one road. “This well site is only a mile down the road. I’ll go check if he’s there. I want you to wait here in case he comes by while I’m gone. I don’t want to miss him. Just flag down his car and tell him to wait for me. I’ll only be gone five minutes.”
His father wanted him to wait here in this bush where he didn’t even know where he was. He didn’t know what to say. I must be okay if his father said so.
“Go on now. Just wait over there by the side of the road.”
He watched the truck disappear around a corner. The dust slowly settled until there was no trace of it ever having existed. He looked down the other road, hoping to see the car he was waiting for. Nothing.
He first heard the silence. It roared in his ears. Then individual sounds began exploding in his mind. They were the natural sounds of the forest, but he didn’t know that. He only knew that his father had been gone an increasingly long time and he had been left by himself in this wilderness—in this frightening, vast wilderness. He could hear his heart pounding. The forest noises grew louder. His father was taking such a long time. He was alone. Alone. He gave a strangled cry and started to run. He ran after the truck that no longer existed. The road blurred through his tears.
The truck met him before he had run even a quarter of a mile. His father asked him what was the matter. He told his father of how he was afraid of the bush—the noises—of being left alone—of being afraid his father wouldn’t come back . . . His father laughed at him and told him not to be silly. The guy wasn’t there and he really was gone only a few minutes.
His family teased him about it for years.
I don’t know if I’ve trusted him since, he thought as he got up off the rock. His mind was strangely quiet as he began his walk back to the motel. It was as if he’d reached the end of something.
It was late when he arrived back. The room was dark, so he slipped quietly into bed and went to sleep.
Sometime in the early morning he awoke, woke with that feeling we all get sometimes of dreaded anticipation, of knowing there has to be some resolution of what was happening, hoping it would somehow go away.
He heard his father moving in the other room, his father who never woke in the middle of the night. So the old man’s got it too, he thought. He got up and walked to the open door. His father sat in his pajamas on the orange motel couch, his tackle box open on the floor in front of him.
“Dad—.” He wanted to say it. The words were right there. His father looked up at him. He couldn’t.
“Dad, I’m sorry.”
His father put down the lure he was holding.
That’s okay, Son. Everybody has a tendency to get owly and lose their temper when they’re not catching any fish.”
It had started all over again.

October 10/1985

©Braden Corby