|Standing in the swamp as the sun goes down, and darkness moves in.|
After an evening of mindlessly beating the water with a fly rod-- which I knew would be an exercise in futility, anyway-- I couldn't help but feel just a bit melancholic. From out of nowhere, thoughts surfaced, reminding me of unfinished business, wasted time, and missed opportunities. My lamenting continued as I walked the dark path to the truck, and I found myself wondering where the time had gone.
My son, who has been my fishing companion since he learned to walk, was working that night. In a way, I felt guilty being there without him. He is a senior in high school, and will soon be off to college. I wonder if he'll find time in his busy schedule to come fish this small water with his old man in the years ahead. Will he remember the times when we came here and spent the afternoons together, even when we didn't catch a thing? Did I spend enough time demonstrating just how important it is for me to pass on this sporting heritage to him? I worry that he'll only remember the times that I criticized him, and showed disappointment when he failed to see things my way. Maybe he will think about all the times that I turned a fishing trip down because I was too tired, or felt bad, or was actually too lazy. Those kind of thoughts kept coming as I sat there on the tailgate of that old truck.
The sky had grown dark, and the wind picked up, sending a chill down the neck of my light flannel shirt. I buttoned it up to the collar, and took another dip of tobacco from the can in my shirt pocket. It was well past time for me to have been home, but I just lingered there, like I was waiting for answers. I changed my shoes and shut the tailgate, and propped myself there for while, listening to the wind blow through the trees.
The truck was parked at the end of an old skid road leading deep into the swamp, where years ago my old man would take me coon hunting on Friday and Saturday nights. We would lead our hounds down that trail just a short distance and turn them loose, then stand there in the dark, waiting and listening for one of them to strike a hot track. We were waiting for an answer. As we stood there in the dark, my dad and I talked quietly, knowing that we could be interrupted at any moment by the frantic cries of our Black and Tan hounds. I remember watching the glow of his cigarette as he raised it to his mouth and took a long drag. How it lit up his face under the brim of his hunting cap, then the glow softened as he lowered his hand back down, looking like a tiny red star falling toward earth. We saved our lights for walking in thick woods, and for shining up trees to look for our quarry. As a young boy afraid of the dark, the light from his cigarette was oddly comforting.
Those nights spent walking through the woods, crossing creeks and wading through flooded timber is how I learned my way around this place. It is how I became familiar with all places like this. I have felt at home out here ever since. And I was lucky to have had someone there with me, to show me things, to give me advice, and yes, even correct me when I was wrong.
Though I wish that my son could've been standing there with me in that moment, I didn't feel completely alone. I suddenly realized that just like I had been doing there that evening, my boy will one day look back at all those time I took him fishing down in that swamp, and everywhere else we hunted and fished and explored nature together. I still have plenty of regret for the things I wish I'd done with him, just like the things I missed doing with my old man. But from somewhere out there in the darkness, a comforting thought came to mind.
In the morning, the sun will come up in the swamp, slowly illuminating the gray standing timber. The geese will take flight and the wind will lay. The turtles will find their way onto logs to bask in the light, soaking up every last bit of heat they can squeeze out before the harsh winter comes. And I will return to this place with my son, if the Good Lord's willing, and we'll have another chance to spend time doing the things that we both love. I may never accomplish the things that I set out to do in my life, and there will be opportunities that I will miss, but there is still hope in knowing that as the last light fades, it will return again.