My father, Bill Craig, was the personification of Lt. Col Bull Meecham, crack jet pilot and man’s man, in Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini.” The difference being that my father was an army infantryman and, having two stars on his shoulders, outranked Bull. My father preferred bourbon, loved attractive women, could dance, fish and shoot equally well. Each week he balanced the books by kneeling at the 8:00 AM Sunday Eucharist, clutching his personal Book of Common Prayer. Like Strom Thurmond, a kindred Dixiecrat, he valued masculine grit; a set of barbells graced my father’s closet floor until he was in his seventh decade.
The crack in the granite wall came on a fishing expedition to Missouri. I invited him, in his 75th year, to join some friends and me on a trip to fish the Big Piney for smallmouth bass, his favorite prey. We flew to Missouri, and in the course of hustling along airways, moving bags, renting cars and driving for miles to get to our fishing camp, I saw my father stop occasionally and take a breather. Was that a puff of relief as he let a bag down? When we clambered into the Jon boats, streamside, he moved carefully, unsteadily, being sure to set his weight before hazarding another step. Evenings, as we gathered in the motel room to sip whiskey, the Great Santini’s eyes slipped shut, his mouth gaping slightly in that old man way. As night follows day, the inevitable occurred. He waved off my extended hand in getting out of the Jon boat at day’s end, mis-stepped and fell back with a crash against a cross support. He lubricated himself with Jim Beam that evening, nursing his sore ribs. I looked at him as he sat, eyes lidded, breathing labored, and heard the faint strain of Taps.
Press the fast forward button, advance twenty-five years, and my son Hutch and I were driving to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. We booked a day’s fly fishing with professional guide Scott Owens. I had fished with Scott for a half day, several years prior, when My Life’s Editor and I had gone with pals to an Elderhostel retreat to take painting lessons. In between trying to coax my inner Picasso into making an appearance and swilling wine secretly with pals in our guest rooms (where adult beverages were not allowed), I wedged in a few hours with Scott. I did catch a young, impetuous redfish on a fly. www.craiglit.life features the photo proof.
Hutch and I were after a specific fishing experience. Coastal flats north of the last mangrove in Florida are marked by spartina alterniflora. The slim green, tough, salt-tolerant grass rises to several feet, growing thickly in meadows over mud flats, broken by tidal creeks. At the base of the grass is a universe of crustaceans and bivalves – shrimps, crabs, mussels and oysters. When tide rises to envelop the spartina, redfish cruise in to graze a supermarket of snacks. Fly fishermen follow, quietly gliding in on flats boats.
Around four o’clock the next day, Scott smoothly poled us into a flooded meadow of grass. From his vantage point on the poling platform, four feet above the deck of the boat, he scanned the water’s surface for the bronze gleam of redfish tails as the fish moved to slurp up shrimp. I pulled out my eight-weight fly rod rigged with one of Scott’s hand-tied flies. To my eyes, it was a woolly blob. To the redfish, it looked like dinner. A casting platform was mounted on the front deck, a triangular affair about 24 inches to a side, 12 inches off the front deck of the boat. I stepped up on it, pumped that I was now as tall as an NBA player, yet nervous at the new experience of a platform. Within fifteen minutes, Scott spotted a fish. “At 2:00, thirty feet out.” I looked, saw a swirl. “Cast it just in front of him, maybe a foot.” The problem was with the term “front.” The redfish refused to hold still, moving ahead, then backing up, then turning around. I cast. “No, you’re behind him.” And so it went. I took a twenty-minute slot of missed shots and turned, saying “Come on, Hutch, you get up here.”
The next thing I knew, I lay in dead cockroach mode in the bottom of the boat, feet up in the air, my rod waving in one hand like an antenna. Two faces peered down at me. “You OK?” they asked. I had forgotten about the raised platform, stepping off into space. I had collapsed to the front deck and slid with a crash to the bottom of the boat. Hutch reached for me, eyes filled with concern for a seventy-four year old guy who had just taken a hell of a fall. They helped me to my feet, and I allowed that I was just fine. Not true. I ached. Scott shook his head, sure that the noise had caused all the fish within a quarter mile to scram. But we got back to business and by the end of the afternoon had boated four redfish in the six to eight-pound category. A good time fishing, made more interesting by the sight of enormous container vessels navigating down the main channel, stacked to the level of the rising moon.
Hutch drove us home the next morning. I snoozed, fortified by ibuprofen. Maybe I drooled a little. Was that a bugle I heard in the distance?