Lighter Side

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November 24th, 2003

What My Father Told Me
by Mike Delp

What my father told me, he mostly told me when we were fishing. It didn't matter that we had skipped church for the hundredth time, or whether he had walked into my school and gotten me out of class. He wanted to tell me things, he said, and the best place, he felt, was on the river. He said the river was as close to time as you were going to get. No sense, he said, watching a clock to learn about time. It wouldn't even do you any good to study rock stratification or fossils, like some scientists believed.

What seemed to arrest my father's attention the most was the fact that rivers were always full of water. He would often stand on the banks of our cabin on the North Branch and ask over and over where all that water was coming from. Of course, he knew. And one summer when it was over 90 for almost two weeks in a row we sweated our way north of Lovells and found the source: a small fingerlet seeping out from under a hummock in a swamp. Another time we stopped along the mainstream and my father showed me what he called a sacred spot. There was an iron ring in the ground, and looking into it was like peering into the eye of a river god, my father whispered.

My father taught me about perfection too. Often I heard him say "perfect, everything is perfect" and when I asked what he meant, he'd always say, - Just look around. But I remember him telling me a story about perfection, just to illustrate that perfection wasn't always an absolute quality in his life. Once in Montana he been fishing a section of the Madison when he stopped in mid-cast to admire what he considered to be absolute perfection: a clear, evening sky, five-pound rainbows rising to midges, alone and miles from any house. Suddenly he heard the sound of tires squealing, the crush of metal against the guardrail a hundred feet above him and a Ford Pinto flew over the exact spot where he was fishing, landed in the river and sank in front of him. The driver swam toward him, my father half cursing his bad luck, but marveling at his one chance to see a car fly.

He taught me about glaciers and about how glaciers literally carved out the bellies of rivers. Move this water out of here he'd say and all you got is a meandering single track through the woods barely deep enough to spit in, but add water and you've got a living vein. My father never talked much about God or religion except to say that whatever made rivers had to be wild.

My father loved wildness. He loved the fact that you could stand only so long in the current of a river until your feet started to drop out from under you. And he often said, over his shoulder when we were fishing together, that you could take something out of your imagination you didn't like, just like you would out of your pocket and let it go into the river and it would never come back.

He told me that whenever he felt any sense of failure, he would go to the river and just let whatever was bothering him loose in the water. He said he felt wild when he drank from the river, or caught brook trout and ate them on the same day. Trout particles he called them and he was sure they had lodged in his bloodstream over the years until, he said proudly, he was more brook trout than man.

When I was twelve he took me to the Upper Peninsula for a fishing trip on the Big Two-Hearted. He was careful to point out that the river wasn't the real river Hemingway was writing about, that was the Black, further east of the Two-Hearted. This was before the Mackinaw Bridge, when you had to take a ferry across the Straits. We holed up in the station wagon, listening to Ernie Harwell call a late Tigers game. I could smell the odor of wet canvas. Tents and fishing bags. Fishing tackle.

On our way into the river my father told me that of all the places he'd been, all the rivers he'd fished, this place we were going meant the most. In the 40's he and Fred Lewis had fished this water for weeks at a time. Years later, when Fred went blind, his wife dropped him off and he fished by himself for two weeks.

I still have pictures of Fred Lewis in my albums at home. In one, he's wearing a red plaid wool shirt. My dad says those were the best shirts you could wear to fish in. He told me to always have a fishing shirt handy. Never wear it for anything else, he said. And never, never wash it. If you can, he said, the first time you wear it, you need to anoint it with the blood of a few night crawlers and brook trout.

That's what my father fished for most. Brook trout. He could sneak into the smallest, brushiest streams where you'd swear there wouldn't hardly be any water. He'd dangle a short rod over the bank and slip the worm in without making a ripple. Then he'd mutter a prayer to the fish gods, to keep them close, he'd say, and then he'd lift the tip of his rod so slowly you couldn't see. I remember brook trout coming out of the clear water, how they looked like miniature paintings vibrant and lose with color.

My father told me sitting on the banks of the Two-Hearted that the best way to cook brook trout was in the coals. Pack them in river clay, he said and put it in the fire. When the clay cracked, the fish was done.

We ate fish like that for a week. My father drinking small glasses of wine. Sometimes he'd let me sip some and we'd lean back against the trees, our faces hot from the flames. Coming through the fire, his voice sounded like the voice of a god. It sounded hollow and large, like it was coming from somewhere under the earth.

My father told me that rivers weren't really natural phenomena at all. Rivers, he said came directly out of the veins of the gods themselves. To prove it, he said, try to follow one. When you tromp through a swamp for a day or two, following something that's getting smaller and smaller and then finally vanishes under a hummock in some swamp somewhere, he said, you'd need to go down under the earth to find the source.

The source was in wildness, he said. A wild god making a river come up out of the ground by opening up one of his veins and letting his divine blood sift upward toward blue sky. When I think about my father now, I think about gods under the earth and about blood, about how he baptized himself there on the Two-Hearted that summer.

I'd already been baptized twice. Once in church when I was a baby, he said. But he'd had second thoughts about what went on, about who was sanctifying what. And another time by my grandfather with a handful of lake water. Now, he told me, I needed to drink from the same river that he drank from.

We were standing knee deep just about the mouth. Lake Superior was crashing below us. He lifted a cupped hand to my mouth and I drank and then he drank. Blood he whispered. Keep this wild blood in you for the rest of your life.

When my father wasn't working or fishing, his other great joy was quoting short lines of poetry while we fished. When he wasn't talking about the connection between rivers and the spiritual territory he tended so seriously inside me, he was talking about the wildness he loved in poets he'd read. I always thought it odd that a man brought up around huge tool and die presses would come to something so seemingly fragile as poetry. He particularly loved an ancient Irish poem, "The Wild Man Comes to the Monastery." Some nights when he was a bend or two below me I could hear him calling back, "though you like the fat and meat which are eaten in the drinking halls, I like better to eat a head of clean water-cress in a place without sorrow." At twelve, those lines meant little, but over the years, something seeped in and built up, an accumulation of images, he liked to say to me, would get me through the hard times when my life would go dark. To keep away the loneliness he'd say and then whisper another line from Machado, or Neruda. Keep these poets close to your heart, he would admonish me and so I fished for years listening to the great Spanish surrealists drifting upriver to me in the dark.

Weeks later we were drifting on Turk Lake trolling for pike. It was almost dark and my father was looking back over the transom, watching his line. One word came out of his mouth, storm. I looked into the western sky and saw huge clouds boiling in, black and inky, the curl of them like a huge wave. Keep fishing he said. Keep casting from the bow. The pike will feed just before it hits, keep casting, cast your heart out he said.

From where I stood I could see a white belly slashing up toward my lure. I could see my father etched by lightning, his rod low, then him striking, both of us fighting fish under the darkening sky.

We lost both fish. The sky seemed to literally fall on us. My father told me later in the cabin, that we'd been lucky, foolish, but lucky he said. He told me that luck was when skill met necessity and that his lightning theory was worth proving. Besides, he said, we had fished in the wildness of a storm, and what better way to end a day than to be wringing the wildness out of your wet clothes, sucking the wild rain out of your cuff, thirsty for more.

What went into a boy, stayed inside. I hid it away, kept my father's voice inside me, packed in close to my heart. Whatever my father told me I always regarded as the absolute truth. I believed in the river gods. Believed that river water came from their veins; that if there was one god, He must be made entirely of water. That was years ago. For years I kept lists and journals of what I remembered my father telling me. It was all good.

Take the river inside as you would a text he would tell me more than once. He knew that once inside you could memorize every pool and run, every rock in a stream and unless there was a winter of bad anchor ice, you could come back in the spring for opening day and look for every mark you'd imagined in the winter. Even better, he told me, was the ability to enter the river inside whenever you felt the need to. "I got to light out for the territory" he was fond of saying, a good part of him given over to the wildest parts of Huck Finn's personality. And always there was that dark, brooding sense of the surreal, the river looming up inside both of us as if it were alive and breathing through our skins.

But, what I remember most clearly now is the way his voice sounded on the day he died. He was barely coherent, wandering through the double stupor of morphine and the cancer in his head. He was almost dead, but you could tell his mind was still reeling with images. On this last day he was talking rivers, and trips he'd taken. I showed him a new reel and he launched himself into a beautiful story about fishing the Two-Hearted again. Then, he said he had been overtaken the night before by a dream that he had turned into something purely wild. He didn't know what it was, he said, but he knew he had moved with grace, and that he moved under the earth with great force. He said that when he woke up, he felt a part of him was missing and that he had some sense in the dream that he had been deposited somewhere. Surely, he said, he must have dreamed himself into a river. He knew, and I remember him telling me, that there were Sioux Indians who could turn themselves into rivers. He said he had seen one such man when he was a boy traveling through Nebraska with his father. The Sioux had simply lain down, begun singing in low tones, stretching himself out further and further until he literally flowed past his feet.

My father's last dream had taken him back to that day, back to that wondrous opportunity to see flesh transcend itself. Now my father, weak from disease, lay still in his bed, only his mouth moving. What he told me on that last day was to honor my promise to take him away, to take him back to the river.

I remember my father telling me he had scouted years for the spot. He was never one for fanfare, nor ceremony, and the measure of a good day was calculated by hard work. A good spot had requirements he had said: shade most of the day, a gravel bottom and a mixture of currents, a mixing place. We visited only once. That afternoon he sat with me and talked mostly of dams. It was either a wing dam, he thought, or more probably a coffer dam.

In the sunlight that filtered through the trees he drew diagrams in the dirt. Head the river off gently, he said, or it would surge over everything. With leaves he made the wash of the river, traced it exactly over the spot where he wanted the grave. Mud, he said, the trunks of trees jammed by the current against steel rods driven into the bed of the river to hold back the water. He was firm about this desire, and his firmness carried itself into the waking dreams I had of the dam, the daily visions I had of myself felling trees, driving the steel rods, packing mud like a beaver.

After he died I simply carried him off from the funeral parlor, out the back door and into the truck. His friends buried the coffin in the cemetery on the hill and I drove his body to the river.

I worked most of the first day cutting. The trees came down on the bank and I moved over their limbs as if the saw were a scythe. He lay up higher on the bank, his head on a rock like he was sleeping. I drove the stakes in two feet of water, then rolled the trees in, guiding their huge trunks against the stakes.

That night I worked against the river, my hands digging up river stones, mud, clay from the banks. I looked often at him lying up above me, his face barely visible in the cast of light from the lantern. I had made the cuts like he had instructed. Like putting a log cabin together he had motioned in the dirt that day, one log grooved, the other mortised. The seam of the logs joining together was barely a scar against my hands.

I slept off and on, working, sleeping. Packing mud and clay, repacking small spots where the water wanted to get in. When I finished I was standing in something that looked like a wooden arm growing out of the bank and angling back against the flow of the river. At the lip of the dam I held my hand against the water then turned back to look at the moist bottom of the river below me open to daylight.

I dug down below grade, through rocks and smaller rocks, into the clay that cradled the river, the water seeping into the grave.

No mumbo-jumbo he had said, no remorse, just let me go back. I laid him face up at first, then rolled him to his side so one ear might be toward the river, the other toward the sky. I packed him in, tight he had said, wedged into the bottom of the river and then covered him, first with clay and heavy stones, then with lighter rocks and pebbles.

I waited until early evening, lit the lantern and then began dismantling the dam, only enough to let the water in, letting two logs drift away in the darkening current. The water sluiced over the dam, now inches under water, over the stones, and sifted down, I am sure into my father's lips. I wanted to speak something to him in the dark but couldn't. He had wanted silence; wanted the sound of the river all around us.

Now, in summer I drift over his spot. The remnants of the dam still hold. I imagine my father has gone back completely by now, and only his bones are held in the belly of the river. I think of him often, how he carried me far beyond the years he could. How his life merged and moved with mine and then swept in another direction. I think of him alive and casting, examining and selecting flies like a surgeon, his love of poems and wildness fused together and fueled by his desire to take in all of the world in front of him. I think of how his life comes back to me each time I fish, each I step into the current. Mostly, I think of how both of us are carried by rivers, how his memory sifts through me like the current where only his bones are left to tell the story. Mike Delp

Credits: This story is from - for more by Mike, visit the website. We appreciate use permission.

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