THE VIRTUES OF GROWING OLD
The summer sun was high in the big Montana sky and two anglers had retired to the shade of the cabin porch to wait out the long summer afternoon. The dull shrill of the Cicadas in the cottonwood trees was the only sound to break the stillness along the river. One angler was a young man in his early 20's; his blond hair was long and braided in a ponytail beneath his battered felt cowboy hat. The other angler was considerably older; the gray mustache which covered his upper lip was highlighted against his deeply tanned face, and his deep blue eyes matched the Montana sky that spread out overhead like a blanket. The younger man settled into an Adirondack chair quaffing a cold beer and his companion settled into an old wooden rocker sipping from a sweating glass of ice tea.
Wet waders were hanging on the pegs high up on the back wall of the porch; the water dripping from the boots was a counterpoint to the steady creak of the old rocking chair. Two fly rods leaned against the railing and matching fly vests hung from two rusty square-cut nails protruding from the planking.
The morning had been pleasant with several nice rainbows and one memorable cutthroat that rose slowly up through the crystal clear water of a deep pool and slowly tracked the elk-hair caddis just inches beneath the surface before opening his mouth and flaring its gills engulfing the fly with a subtle slurp. After a lengthy slugfest with several spirited runs and vigorous head shaking 24+ inches of wild cutthroat thrashed feebly in the mesh of the net. The barbless hook slipped easily from the corner of his mouth and moments later, with a flick of his tail, he disappeared back into the depths of the pool.
"Gramps that was one nice cutthroat you picked up this morning."
"Even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then. If you throw a fly out there often enough you are bound to get lucky and the odds are good that you will catch a fish."
The younger angler knew that it was more than luck that produced that big cutthroat. He had watched his grandfather study that pool for a long time before he made the cast that brought that big old cutthroat up from the depths. He had caught more fish that morning than his grandfather but his were smaller, and before his grandfather fooled that big old cutthroat he had fished through that same pool without moving anything.
"You know it wasn't blind luck. I think it has something to do with getting old."
"You think I'm old do you?" A smile slowly flickered across his lips as he watched his grandson squirm in his chair and a blush of embarrassment flush across his cheeks.
"Well, not exactly old," he stammered. "You know, more like experienced. That's what I meant; guys like you have lots of experience."
"Well, experience is one of the virtues of old age, but today I was lucky. Yes, I saw that old cutthroat hanging at the edge of the current seam. He's been living in that pool for the last couple years and we have had a nodding acquaintance on a couple occasions. I saw him move a couple times when you were fishing through the pool and I suspected that you might have hooked him if you had let your fly drift a little farther. He could just as easily let my fly drift passed."
"What are some of the other virtues of old age?"
"Well, I think that there are a number of virtues that come with age. Take this morning for example, I certainly enjoyed hooking and landing that cutthroat but I would have considered this morning's outing a success even if I had hooked nothing. Age has taught me to treasure each day, and each day I can get up and move around I'm reminded that I have been blessed with another day. When I was your age I took each day for granted, but age has taught me not to make that mistake."
"So you've mellowed out? Is that the results of age or are you just more complacent now?"
"Maybe it's a little of both, but I think that I have learned what is really important. There was a time in my life when I believed that catching the biggest fish was the most important part of any day on the water. One day I was sitting around the campfire at the end of the day and I realized that I hardly remembering anything about the day except that I had been real intent on catching a really big fish. What a waste. From that time I stopped worrying about catching the biggest fish and just relaxed and enjoyed the experience. So I really don't think I've mellowed out, I think I've benefitted from having lived long enough to learn what's really important. What makes me sorry is that it took so many years to learn that lesson."
"Are there other virtues of growing old," he persisted?
"Well, there is no guarantee that age brings wisdom, but I like to think that I have acquired more than a modicum of wisdom over the years that God has granted me. Fly fishing has been a major component of my life; it has provided me with many insights into life."
"Such as," he inquired?
"Well, we make too much of ourselves. Take that cutthroat that I caught this morning. To be sure it was a nice fish but what did it say about the person that caught it? In a word, nothing."
"Nothing! Why it must say something about you, your skill, your power of observation."
"Skill? Well perhaps, and power of observation, a possible consideration, but all of those things can be learned with application of persistence. If, by skill, you mean my ability to place a fly on the water and to hook and land a fish, it is a skill of little importance except to me."
"Most of the virtues of growing old are personal. When I was your age I really didn't appreciate most things. I failed to appreciate the journey because everything was about results. In addition, I presumed that it would go on forever. I fished places that no longer exist and I really never appreciated them then. I fished with people that are no longer alive and I failed to appreciate them or the time we spent together. What I would give now to fish those places again and to share a day on the stream with the people that I simply took for granted. Today I cherish each day and I recognize that the journey is the destination. I think that the one supreme virtue that age has produced for me is thankfulness. I think that is the greatest virtue that age has bestowed upon me."
Later that afternoon the two anglers donned their waders and returned to the stream. The sun hung low on the western horizon, and the two anglers sat on an old log watching and waiting for the evening rise. The stream, like a ribbon of polished steel, rolled along and, except for a few caddis flies that darted just over the surface in their crazed dance that only caddis understand, there were no other insects stirring. The sun settled behind the western hills in a blaze of reds and pinks and slowly turned a subtle shade of mauve before the final rays of the setting sun gave way to the increasing darkness. A thin crescent of the new moon hung just above the trees and bats began to skim just above the water, likely searching for those caddis flies.
"It's been a great day," the older angler said as he stood up and turned to leave the stream. "Lord willing, perhaps we will see another one tomorrow."
"Yes," said his grandson, "Lord willing perhaps we will see tomorrow and many more tomorrows as well."
In the darkness the older angler smiled. His grandson was beginning to come of age.