Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

December 13th, 2004

Mockingbird Pups

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

Each one of us, at some point in time, has been taught a life lesson. One of those lessons that strikes a note that echoes clearly in our hearts and heads, and even though it was many years ago, it still repeats time and again. One of those notes was sounded many years ago, when I began to stretch my wings from adolescene out into the first stages of young adulthood.

This week's article doesn't have a lot of fly-fishing content; it has almost none. I sometimes become disenchanted with waters that frustrate me to a point of giving up fly-fishing forever. That's when the note's major chord strikes those keys again, and I am reminded that I am more at home on my salty flats, than anywhere else. Home, sweet home.

My dad loved mockingbirds. He respected their habits and would mimic their sounds, adding words to replace their calls we heard so often in the spring. He would mow thirty feet around an old, golden rain tree in the side yard, where they always nested to raise their young, so as not to disturb the "pups." That's what he called the babies.

Our wooden house had a detached garage that was used mostly as a storage barn; I never knew it to protect a vehicle, not even the old, green skiff he built was tucked inside, ever. My grandmother used the shelter of the garage to quilt beautiful bed covers when she stayed with us in winter, and other old women would gather there on the brown, clay floor, dipping powdery snuff, and gossiping as they stitched the top to bats of cotton and ticking. I always found the attic interesting. That's where a box of my worn playthings was stored. Sometimes I would climb the ladder that led to the dank and dark and dusty place to look through the box that held my first Teddy bear, and a few slingshots, wooden tops and stuff. The garage was an important extension, I suppose, to the home and the life we lived.

I was sixteen, and it was Saturday morning; first day of dove season.

I was excited. Cool, morning breeze, a day to spend with a few buddies that were, for the most part, a little older than me, and a nice beginning to opening day of bird hunting around the orange groves in central Florida. My dad, unknown to me, had other plans.

Before readying the shotgun, loading the hunting vest with shotgun shells and adorning my green, tan and black camouflaged outfit, I went out to let Dad know where we would be hunting. He didn't oppose hunting; he had done a little hunting back in his younger days. But there he stood with two, four-inch wide paint brushes and a couple of gallons of white enamel paint. My young common sense told me he wasn't planning on using both brushes at the same time.

"Get your paintin' clothes on; we're goin' to paint the garage today."

"I can't. I planned on going huntin' with Joe and some of the guys. It's the first day of the season." I knew full well, when his mind was made up, it didn't matter what I had planned, or with whom I had planned it with. I felt a sick feeling of disparity rolling in the pit of my stomach. But I was in high school, and he had just lectured me on being responsible for my actions because, "You are almost an adult, so start thinkin' like one."

"But I'm going hunting and I'll help paint the garage later."

"You'll do as I told you, so go get your paintin' clothes on."

I could tell he was miffed at me already, so I figured taking it to the next level wouldn't make that much difference. Besides, I was now pissed, and my mouth over-rode my non-thinking brain. Who the hell did he think he was?

"Well, I'll just pack my stuff and leave home. You told me yourself, you left home at sixteen." So there, I guess I told him. But I still winced, figuring he would crack me a good one for smartin' off...but he didn't.

Behind the house, at the rear, screen-door was a large slab of concrete that served as a step to the back-porch. The old slab had served many a purpose from being a pirate ship, to a lookout for a young Daniel Boone as he scouted for bears and Indians. Many make-believe scenarios had played out on the slab.

"Well", he started out, "I reckon we need to have a talk, before you up and leave out." That sounded strange coming from this man. Usually, up 'til now, it was his way, or his way, period. Something was different in his voice, even the look on his face had changed from slightly stern, to a look of possible understanding. But, something was amiss. I was still mad as hell, and surely didn't want to hear anything he had to say.

"Come over here and sit down." It was almost as if he were asking, not telling.

"You know those mockingbird pups that nest in the rain tree?" I pretended to not pay attention, looking out into the empty field behind our house. "Mama Bird and Daddy Bird work their butts off day and night from the very beginning, even before those eggs show up in that nest. They have to build the nest first. So off they fly, gathering sticks and pieces of fuzz. Then when the eggs are laid, they sit on 'em, day and night, rain or shine." I tried to appear nonchalant.

"After those pups are born, Mom and Dad go to work everyday huntin' worms, grasshoppers, and bugs to feed the young 'uns. They never rest. Then, one day, one of those pups stands on the edge of that nest up there, and begins to stretch those wings. Now, he ain't got all of those feathers, yet. But they watch him and hold their breath as he flaps those little wings."

I could visualize that little bird; I had seen it happen many times. But I stayed defiant. Had he lost his mind? What did baby mockingbirds have to do with painting that old garage? If he would just shut up so I could go about my business. He went on.

"Finally, the young pup gives up and sits back down in the nest. They take a deep breath, look at each other, and start huntin' bugs again."

My interest was showing without me realizing it. I now stared at him painting the scene, as he told the story. He wasn't looking at me, and seemed to have a certain sadness about him. Intrigued, I caught myself asking him to continue.

"In a few weeks, the little bird, now full-dressed in feathers, stands on the edge of the nest again. This time Mama and Daddy Mockingbird look at each other, and he flies away."

I was growing uncomfortable, but interested in his story. He had never sat down like that before and spoke in a soft voice that almost broke a few times.

"You know, that young 'un will always be welcome to visit that rain tree. But he will never live in that nest again."

With that said, Dad got up, never looking at me and never waiting for any type of response. He just got up, picked up one of the cans of paint, and a brush, then walked towards the garage. I sat numb and watched the back of him walk away.

I remained seated for a few minutes in silence. Never once did he say another word. He just opened up that can of paint and started working. I had just been dealt a life-altering hand, and now it was my turn to call or raise or bluff.

I picked up the other can of paint and brush and stood with him that day. We painted the garage together. I had sat back down in the nest. I know he took a deep breath that morning. But he never let me see him exhale.

See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.

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