What My Father Told Me
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
by Mike Delp
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
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
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
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
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
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
www.troutbums.com - for more by Mike, visit the website.
We appreciate use permission.
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