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Dad's special gift

5/31/2006

The first fish I ever "caught" was tossed to me by my dad at a seafood shop in Baltimore.

The first hunt I ever went on I watched Dad outrun an English setter somewhere west of Omaha to retrieve a ringneck pheasant he had shot.

Once he capsized a canoe filled with my fishing tackle, and we laughed about it for years.

You see, my father wasn't God's own outdoorsman. He was a career Air Force officer, a survivor of Hitler's concentration camps during World War II who worried more about his vocation than any avocations.

He hunted close to the truck, fished with marshmallows and generally went outdoors to pacify my yen for the wild.

We didn't always do it correctly, but we did it, and that's what counts even after all these years.

I remember the first time he brought home an issue of Outdoor Life sometime in the early '70s. Its cover had an artist's rendition of two bluegill eyeing a wet fly beneath a lily pad.

I opened the issue to a page showing how an angler had netted a big Northern pike with a landing net and the aluminum pole had bent. Fish that could break tackle! I was mesmerized.

It fairly blew my mind, and Dad made sure I had a steady diet of second-hand outdoors magazines from some unknown benefactor in his squadron at Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base. He never perused them, just said, "Tell me what you read," over his omnipresent Dutch Masters cigar.

I think he recognized the spark in me, and he joined a lake lease, outside of Bellevue, Neb., for $25 a year. That's when it got ugly. Stocked lakes, snakes, tadpoles, mud; this was Six Flags Over Nature for a kid, and a 14-inch blue catfish was my crowning achievement during our tenure in Omaha.

A move to Guam opened a whole new world. We snorkeled the coral reefs nearly every weekend — Dad's burly form trailing my skinny frame — and kept an aquarium Darwin would have been proud of.

We netted reef fish, moray eels, poisonous cone shells, octopus, puffers, sea slugs, crabs — you name it — and dropped them in for a worm's eye view of the food chain.

Our friends had beautiful aquariums with clown fish and host anemones, live corals and such, but we had a crowd of spectators gathered at feeding time.

The purchase of a spear gun further sparked my genetic imperative of a hunter/gatherer, and we brought home octopus and reef fish to fry or smoke.

The jungles surrounding our home were my playground and yielded papaya, breadfruit, peppers and coconuts. Euell Gibbons had nothing on me in the fourth grade.

Dad talked about the pitfalls and the providence of a jungle ecosystem and let me learn my way while he spent 10 to 16 hours a day holed up in a shop trying to help win the Vietnam War.

Our next stop was Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. We arrived midway through fifth grade and stayed through my first two years of college. The state proved to be a veritable prep school for the budding outdoorsman, and I took full advantage.

The golf-course ponds on base were excellent fishing holes, and my first limit of bass came from one on a rainy spring day throwing a red-and-white Heddon River Runt.

Manchester State Forest was nearby, and many Saturdays we'd load up early in Pop's Volkswagen camper bus and try our luck deer hunting. I recall the first time we ever saw deer (out of the window of the bus), bouncing through a mist-covered broomstraw field with tails waving in the warm morning light.

Usually he'd park the bus and wander off a few yards, lean against a pine tree, puff a cigar and wait for deer that never came. I tried to be more adventurous, but always met with similar results. It didn't really matter, though.

I measured success back then in deer seen, and I think Dad's barometer was simply getting out of the house. Many times he stayed in the bus studying for career-enhancing courses while I wandered around.

We never killed a deer, and it didn't seem to matter. Success is not always measured by bag limits or antler points.

As I got older and more mobile with a driver's license, Dad's interest in the outdoors seemed to wane proportionately.

He seemed content to listen to my tales from the comfort of the couch, and I was content with the freedom to hone my skills on my own, now combining knowledge and equipment to go with the enthusiasm he had tempered.

I don't want to sound like we were "The Brady Bunch," because we had our differences, especially as I got older. I had an agenda after the scents of perfume and gasoline hit my nostrils. But there always seemed to be some common ground when dogs, guns and tackle were involved.

Today, I have three beautiful kids, a wonderful wife, a good dog, a mortgage and the usual trappings of urban life. I also have the opportunity to enjoy (most of the time) a vocation rooted in something I truly love.

Dad's lost a step or two over the years. He has no desire to get out and hunt or fish anymore. Sometimes I'm not sure he really wanted to 30 years ago, but he did, and that meant that we did.

We never put any trophies on the wall, but we made some memories and built a relationship.

Thanks, Dad.

Happy Father's Day.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.