I trudged across the field toward the row of white crosses that marked the cemetery. Somewhere among that row of crosses was the earthly resting place of a man that I barely remembered but who touched my life in ways that he could never have known. Somewhere in that French countryside, among that field of stones were the earthly remains of the father that I barely remember. He had died in World War II, the war that brought the world to a standstill and produced the fields of crosses that marked the final resting place of brave men like my father that paid the ultimate price for freedom. I was barely five years old when my father enlisted in the cause. Hitler was turning the world upside down and the United States had joined the effort to reverse his course. I still remember the last time I saw him, and I have a fading black and white picture of him as he boarded the train and waved good-bye for what turned out to be the last time. Somewhere, in a field in France, a bullet took his life and he would never return to us again. They buried him there, along with many of his comrades and now, after all these years, I came to find him.
After a few years my mother remarried and the only father that I truly knew was the man that took my real fathers place. He was a good man, and he loved me and raised me as if I was his own son. My real father, the one that had died so that I might remain free, became a vague memory and a fading face on some old black and white photographs stored away in a box under my bed.
When I was eighteen my mother told me that in the basement there was a large cardboard box that my father had left for me before he shipped out for Germany. His instructions were that, in the event he did not come back, that I should open it when I turned eighteen. I went down into the basement, and there, beneath the stairs under several blankets, was a large brown cardboard box. I pulled the box out into the center of the room and sat down on the stairs. I don't know how long I sat there staring at that box. What could it contain? What secrets would it reveal about the man whose memory was just a vague fragment in my mind?
With trembling hands I took out my pocket knife and carefully sliced through the dry cracking tape that held the flaps of the box closed against the ravages of time. I folded the blade of my knife back into its place, slid it into in my pocket and slowly pulled the flaps open. The box was filled to the top and lying on top of the material in the box was an envelope with my name printed on the front. Carefully I picked up the envelope and, sitting down on the steps, I broke the seal and withdrew the letter. Written in a crisp clear cursive style the words written nearly two decades ago were addressed to a son that the writer never truly came to know.
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. My step-father owned and operated a small hardware store selling everything that his rural customers would need as they made a living from the small farms that dotted the countryside.
As a young boy I roamed the fields and woods that surrounded our home which was located at the very edge of town. No boy could have had a more idyllic setting in which to grow up. I had an insatiable curiosity about anything and everything that I encountered in nature and I was particularly attracted to anything that lived in the water. I distinctly remember reading an article in one of the outdoor magazines that my step-father brought home about fishing with artificial flies. My step-father was a casual angler, fishing mostly for bluegills and an occasional bass in the many farm ponds that were scattered around the county. He was not a fly fisher but a bait and bobber man. In fact, I was in my late teens before I ever actually encountered anyone that fished with flies. All the information that I had about fly fishing I acquired from the various outdoor magazine articles that regularly appeared in the spring and summer issues.
My step-father sold some fishing tackle at his hardware store; snelled bait hooks on cards wrapped with cellophane, lead sinkers, cork bobbers, bait casting line, a few bait casting reels and he usually stocked a couple of bait fishing rods. In the early days the rods were mostly steel telescoping models and they were replaced by fiberglass models by the mid-50s. They had names like Shakespeare, Wright and McGill and Heddon and they were things of beauty to a young boy, but I longed to have a fly rod and fish with flies like those men that I read about in the magazines.
When I turned 13 I started working in my step-fathers store and I began to save up my wages so that I could purchase fly fishing gear. I discovered that several of the manufacturers that sold bait rods also sold fly rods. I set my sights on a Heddon Black Beauty 8 foot tubular fiberglass model. It cost the princely sum of Thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents and it took me nearly a year to save up enough money to make the purchase. The year was 1957. For Christmas that year my parents got me a Pflueger single-action fly reel and a Cortland® 333 floating fly line. I spent the winter reading fly fishing catalogues and acquiring the balance of my needed gear. Trout season opened the 1st of April and I was determined to be ready.
I knew that the local creeks and brooks held trout since I had caught them with worms for many years. Mostly they were native brook trout but occasionally I would catch a trout called a "German" brown trout by the locals. I read about them in the outdoor magazines and realized that they were the type of trout that most "serious" fly fishers wanted to catch. In the spring of 1958 I caught my first trout on a fly rod; a solid 6 inch brook trout that promptly went into my new creel. By the end of the day I had lost several flies in the trees but I had claimed ten brook trout, all about the same size as the first one. Fly fishing had claimed another convert.
With success under my belt I seized on every opportunity to engage in something involved with fly fishing. After a summer of losing flies to the trees and spending most of my hard earned cash from my job at my step-fathers hardware store replacing them I decided that I would learn to tie my own flies. When the fishing season closed and the long New York winter settled around me I spent my time reading about fly fishing and learning to tie flies. When spring arrived I had two boxes full of newly tied flies.
If you are reading this letter it means that I never came back from the war. I realize that you were barely five years old the last time you saw me and I doubt that you have much of a memory of me. You were my pride and joy and how I looked forward to watching you grow up and sharing with you all the adventures that a boy and his dad could share. The contents of this box are one of the things that I had hoped to share with you since they represent something that was very important to me when I was growing up. I hope that you will find some joy in using them.
I'm sorry that I was unable to come home, and I'm sorry that we truly never got to know each other as a father and son. Know that I am in a better place and that to the end I loved you.
The dad that I had never known but had never really been forgotten suddenly came rushing back into my life, and tears began to fill my eyes and fall on the words that he had written. Years of unrealized grief over the father that I had never known came rushing out and I sat, with my head in my hands, sobbing like a baby.
When the tears finally subsided I carefully folded up the letter and replaced it in the envelope. I stood up and pulled back the flaps of the box and looked inside. On top was a jacket and when I lifted it out I was surprised to see that it was like the fishing jackets that I had seen in the catalogues. It was long-sleeved, olive green in color and made of a heavy material that was slightly stiff to the touch. There were several pockets on the front and each pocket contained something that was hard. I opened one of the pockets and found a metal box. Why, it looked like a fly box and a fancy one like I had seen in the fly fishing catalogues. Cautiously I opened the lid and discovered that it was a fly box; one that had little compartments each covered with a lid that opened to reveal the flies inside. I opened one of the lids and it was full of the most beautiful flies that I had ever seen. Quickly I opened the other compartments and they all were filled with flies. As I opened the other pockets I found several more boxes just like the first and each one was filled with flies.
Replacing the boxes in the jacket I carefully hung it on a nail and looked back into the box. The next item that caught my eye was a silvery metal tube, a rod case. With trembling hands I pulled the metal tube up and out of the box and slowly removed the cap. Sealed up for nearly 20 years the sweet odor of varnish filled my nostrils as I slid out the cloth rod sack. I could see that the butt section of the rod had a silver end-cap and it was inscribed. Holding it up to the light I could read the inscription "H. L. Leonard Rod Company." Slowly I extracted the butt section from the cloth sack and stood trembling as I realized that this was a bamboo fly rod.
I don't know how long my mother had stood on the stairs behind me watching me open the treasures in the box. There was a fine English reel, a handmade wicket creel, and several more boxes of flies.
"Those were your father's most prized possessions," she said, "and he wanted to make certain that you had them when you were old enough to treasure them as he did."
Surprised by her voice I turned around quickly and saw her standing there, her eyes glistening with tears. Like me, the husband that she had tucked away in a forgotten corner of her mind suddenly came rushing back. We sat on the stair steps and we cried together.
That was many years ago, and now I am the last living member of my family. I fished the Leonard rod for many years and only recently retired it to a place of honor in my den, along with the fishing jacket, the wicker creel and the fly boxes. The English reel still performs as smoothly as when it was new and I still use it when pursuing trout on my favorite trout streams. This is the tangible legacy that my father left me, but he left me so much more. I carry his love of all things wild and love of the places where they live. I am truly alive when I'm near a trout stream and filling my lungs with air scrubbed clean of all the odors of civilization by God's marvelous creation.
So today I find myself trudging across a field in the French countryside headed toward a field of white crosses. It has been nearly 70 years since my father walked these same fields, a young man in the prime of his life with so much to live for but was never to realize. Now, after all these years, I had come to find the place where he had been laid to rest. I was accompanied by an old French gentleman, the sexton of the cemetery, himself a survivor of the war. Like me, he had been but a child when the Nazis swarmed across his country. He remembered the Americans that came to set them free and how glad they were to see them. They were the ones that gathered up the dead and buried them here in this peaceful field beneath the trees. They were the ones that maintained the place, mowed the grass and tended the graves of men that were only names to them. Now here we were two graying old men from different worlds but somehow drawn together by a distant event that shaped both of our lives in so many different ways.
The cemetery was surrounded by a stone wall and a wrought iron gate was set in the stones and as my guide opened the gate for me its rusty hinges moaned softly; a subtle reminder of the pains that many of those resting here had endured. We walked through the rows of white crosses until he stopped and pointed at one particular cross. I leaned forward and read my father's name, Sgt. William James, U.S. Army, July 3, 1944.
I straighten myself, wiped a tear from my eye and gazed out over the surrounding countryside. Green fields stretched away into the distance, gently flowing down toward a small stream in the valley. Perchance it was a trout stream and perhaps my father had crossed it as he and his comrades moved toward the tree line and the waiting enemy. In broken English my companion told me that the Americans had come from the direction of the stream and advanced toward this hill. In the distant tree line the Germans were dug in with mortars and heavy machine guns. Twenty American and British soldiers died as they tried to cross the open field. One of those that died was my father.
Although he was only a young boy my companion had helped the other local villagers collect the dead and bury them here. "Perhaps," I said, "you buried my father?" "Oui," he responded, and I noticed a tear trace a path down his face. "Oui," he said again.
As we left the cemetery the old sexton closed the gate and I looked back toward my father's grave. Like him I was now at peace; my search was over.