Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Once I was out fishing with my dad, somewhere in the vicinity of Feather Falls, California, up in the foothills outside near-doomed Oroville. He lived near there and said he knew all the good fishing spots. We hadn’t fished together in more than twenty years, I have to think, the prior time being when we lived in Virginia, before he left the family. He was probably a little hook-shy because on one of those last occasions, my little brother, Joe, had gone to cast his line and his backswing — if that’s what you call it — had snagged Dad right in his nostril with the hook. Joe tugged, not knowing why his line was stuck, and it was all Dad could do to keep from having his nose filleted. The blood flowed down onto his white t-shirt as he wept and yelled to his kid to drop the rod.
But I was in my thirties now and could handle the gear without hurting anybody. Dad had a jar of yellow fish eggs for bait in his tackle box, but they looked old and all their juice seemed to have dried up. Hadn’t been out fishing in a while.
We parked on the side of the road somewhere and hiked about a quarter mile toward the river. There was no real access to the bank, though. You had to high-step over fallen trees and a tangle of stringy overgrowth to get to the water’s edge, and even then we were forced to balance ourselves on rocks and stumps. He handed me the fish eggs and I impaled one on my hook, thinking one of us was going to wind up in the drink before this was over. I asked him, was this one of his regular spots? He nodded and claimed to have caught a ten-pound trout there one time, which I registered as a five-pound trout because he never failed to double his accomplishments for dramatic effect. I said it seemed like a hard place to get to if the take wasn’t worthwhile. Just shut up and fish, he said.
So we did for a while, until he asked how things were going with my marriage, which was on the skids at the time. In fact, I was visiting him to be able to vent a little bit about how it was in San Diego. He dispensed crusty advice like, “If you’re going to split the sheets, just go ahead and do it — don’t fart around.” I told him it was as bad as it had ever been and it looked like a divorce was inevitable, even after the counseling my wife and I had tried. She wasn’t into it, hadn’t really participated and didn’t like doing the homework outside of our sessions, when we had to listen to each other no matter what was said. I was trying, I said, I really was, but —
“I need you to know,” he said out of the blue, interrupting me. “I hit your mom one time and I don’t like that I did it and sometimes can’t live with myself over it.”
Fresh from that counseling, I decided to just listen. He said he’d been in the Air Force at the time and he and Mom were young newlyweds stuck in Salina, Kansas, where there was nothing for Mom to do and nobody to talk to. So when an emergency call came in one night for Dad to rush over to the base — he was attached somehow to Strategic Air Command, nukes — he hopped out of bed and dressed in a hurry and Mom started to cry. She didn’t want him to go. She didn’t understand, but — nukes! You don’t fuck around with that. She followed him to the door and out into the hall, and that’s when he found himself having to smack her to make her see. It was an order. Duty. He had no choice.
“That’s the only time I ever did it,” he said, and that must have seemed like quite a record to him because it was another fifteen years or so before he left.
We’d been at the fishing hole for almost an hour and no nibbles. The bait was bad, Dad declared.
Later I told my mom about Dad’s confession, and I was surprised when she said she didn’t remember the incident. She could have told anybody without lying that he never hit her, and probably did tell people that over the years.
His guilt was either misplaced, or she was being kind to him in letting me think he was innocent of that particular sin.
This is the sort of thing I’ll never know the truth of. That was between them. But I know I saw a man with one foot in cold water there that day, and he had the look on his face of one hoping for redemption. I wouldn’t have been the one to forgive him, of course. That was Mom’s choice, and there were plenty of other things she’d want to think about first.
That was the last time my dad and I went fishing.