Decades ago, when I was in my salad years, a psychologist studied his summary report on me, looked up from his desk and said, “You should never be a watch repairman.” A watch repairman, bent over a watch case, tweezers in hand, would try to insert a tiny screw or a coil. It would drop into the mechanism and he would say something fierce like, “Oh rats,” retrieve it and repeat the effort to insert the part. He would drop it again, say “Double rats,” rinse and repeat. At the second drop, I would have blown out an expletive unsuitable for a family blog and launched the offending part into orbit. My customers would take their trade to another watch repairman with better skills and a PG-rated vocabulary. I am not proud of this trait. Friends would be surprised to hear that I am not a patient person at core. They see a genial, sociable type guy, cruising along life’s waters with steady sails, no luffing allowed. My Life’s Editor, of course, knows different. It has taken some work to create this fiction.
The work started on a seawall of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. back in my tadpole stage. Sitting in my shorts, chubby legs against the concrete, basking in the sun and my father’s presence, I was oblivious to the detritus that slid along on the river’s surface back in the 1950s: beer cans, discarded paper cups and the occasional drowned rat. A bamboo rod, a direct wind bait casting reel and cotton-braided line completed my gear, passed down by my grandfather to my six-year-old self. I waited for an eternity, possibly five minutes, assured by my father that patience would be rewarded. Tap, tap. Something down in the murky water was interested in my bait. The tap, tap became a tug, the rod bounced up and down, and my Dad shouted, “Marshall, Marshall! You’ve got a fish on!” Huh, a fish? What?
I declined to make use of the crank handle thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer. Instead, I clutched the rod, stood up and ran back across the grass field behind us. The catfish, launched out of the friendly Potomac, banged against the seawall and landed flopping on the grass. I threw down the rod and pounced on it. In the ensuing years, my landing technique hasn’t greatly improved. But it was a starting point for exercising patience. The life lesson being if you hang around long enough, you might get lucky.
I put this into practice in college in pursuit of My Life’s Editor. A junior, she was overseeing a “mixer” her college put on for freshpersons. For readers younger than my dirty buck shoes, a “mixer” was a dance at an all-women school to which guys from a particular all-male college were invited. This mating ritual is now extinct. Likewise a junior, but from an uninvited all-male college, I had arrived with a roommate to check out the new crop of freshperson talent. My Life’s Editor-to-Be was looking extremely good, so I stopped at the entrance where she was checking IDs and threw moves at her: “Hi, what’s your name? Would you like to dance?” Though I was not from the approved college, she allowed me in, looking at my regulation red crewneck sweater and khakis, no doubt thinking “Why not? He’s clueless, what harm could he do?” I got a whiff of her perfume (Jungle Gardenia) and was poleaxed. She tried to shoo me away, but I hung in all evening, getting enough demographic data on her to mount a long-term campaign. It took me five years to convince her to accept the My Life’s Editor position, further proof that if you hang around you might get lucky.
The wage-earning/family-forming stage of life presented me a tsunami of patience-testing opportunities from major to minor: obstinate teenage children; unending introductory speeches at charity events; embarrassing drunken toasts by groomsmen at weddings; slow talkers who crank back up just when you think they had ground to a stop; and the lady in bifocals and Birkenstocks in front of me at the express checkout lane, counting out change from her coin purse. But when I took up fly fishing those tests of patience were all dwarfed by comparison. A fly fisherman is condemned to suffer travails that make Job look like a party animal. I offer a day on the river as proof.
I approach Michigan’s Au Sable River in my waders, edge down the bank, catch on a root, and fall forward on my hands and knees into the river. Whew, didn’t break my fly rod. But wait, I take in a gallon of 60-degree water through the top of my waders. It now runs down my crotch into my booties, soaking my socks. I slosh out to where the stream burbles along, rocks glistening, wildflowers lining the opposite bank. I start to tie a dry fly onto monofilament tippet the diameter of one of Albert Einstein’s eyebrow hairs. The fly being the size of the nail on my little finger, the hook eye the size of a gnat, I need to use the bifocals hinged to my cap bill. I reach up to flip them down, knock the lens askew. Bad words. I adjust the bifocals but drop the unattached fly into the water, where it floats downstream, promptly snapped up by a ravenous brook trout. More bad words. I fetch a second fly from my fly box, prodding among the feathered goodies. Finally, I advance to cast the fly lightly as a lover’s kiss on the water. Brook trout, native to North America, are not particularly difficult to catch, unlike, say, the clever brown trout, a German import. This is not much comfort. All around my fly, as it drifts, brook trout nosh on floating insect life with shameless gluttony. They laugh derisively at my offering. When I fetch my fly box out of my vest to dig for a different fly, my cold fingers fumble the box. It tumbles into the Au Sable, bobbing away on the current. Exceptionally bad words.
Prayer does not help. Competing with me for God’s attention on this Saturday in the fall are millions of college football fans who are praying that their team will totally crush the other team, albeit in a Christian way. Since there are too many requests for God’s services to deal with, She tends to other things like tectonic plate drift and the decline in butterflies in the Amazon.
I sigh. I check my fly, make another cast. I am patient. I just might get lucky.