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A Fishing Lesson. By Lance Garrison Ballard.

Fishing rod over shoulder and tackle box down by side, the boy ambled slowly across the south end of the beach to the pier. A small flock of seagulls flew high over-head — scanning sea and surf for sardines and blue fish.

Wish I hadn’t even got up today, the boy thought. His shoes left deep impression in the sand. Each step had him that much closer to what he hated. The pier.

Today was when he would know for sure if he had what it took to be thought of as a man, not a twelve-year-old boy anymore, the other fishermen there in Key West would tease and prod how he would always be. A twelve-year-old boy. No matter what.

He would either finally be accepted today, or as it had always gone, teased and prodded relentlessly for his weak stomach when out in a boat or how his muscles cramped stiffed-up-tired before the day was truly done and before the sun’s last rays had finally melted black.

Today was the day. No doubt. Today was the day. Do or die, today was.

No less then four hours ago at home, the boy had made up his mind never to walk the beach again, let alone cast line and fish the pier, if this constant teasing and prodding from the other seasoned fishermen did not, from today forth — cease.

Strange the boy had put so much effort in thought on the subject because he honestly didn’t know or remember what had brought him there to the pier, four years ago, in the first place.

But isn’t that how it goes with most great mysteries, tangled amidst human nature? No one knows for sure why it is they do what they do. Other then they just do. And continue to just do.

Same for the boy.

He continued to just do and come down to the pier here every other Saturday morning, his four-year routine now, going on five, and cast his line and let his thoughts drift to the gentle sway of waves out there, far beyond the surf.

That would all change, though.

As already said, the boy had already made up his mind. His mind was set. And set sure.

When a twelve-year-old boy has his mind sure-fire-set on whatever it is he’s resolved to do, rest assured nothing can be done to alter or change that mad concocted plan.

Because of this — the relentless teasing and prodding, had, if anyone had paid attention — forced the boy to get somewhat of a backbone and much thicker skin, to shelter ego from insult and any other further hurt, deemed sure to come his way.

Kidding, teasing, prodding; didn’t much matter. Far as the boy was concerned, verbal hazing of the likes could all be lumped along side insult.

No difference at all.

Not to the boy, there wasn’t.

He thought of it much the same as a lion in the wild and a lion in a cage; one roaming freely in the wild, where as the other, trapped hostage in a cage — no difference is there at all between either cat? — other then one is free to roam wild, while the other is, unfortunately, trapped hostage in a cage.

A lion is a lion, no matter if in the wild or, sad to say — trapped hostage in a cage.

This was for sure, without doubt, the boy’s best stab at abstract thought, to tighten down the screws and try and make sense of — going on five years now — why he had been teased and prodded in rank by Key West fishermen.

No other reason or excuse why, the boy thought, other then because I’m small and no muscle.

Just then, he saw himself as the unfortunate lion, trapped hostage in a cage; but instead of locked behind cold, steel bars, the boy’s cage was self-doubt — a psychological Stone Hinge reminder of laden flaw.

All that self-doubt suddenly worsened, for there was the pier — a looming presence of battered wood, barnacle infested — withered, worn.

Fact true, the whole pier seemed point-blank-ready to collapse in rumble. Any day now. Any second. That’s how the weather-worn pier looked. How it had always looked. Ready to collapse. In rubble. Any day now. Any second.

Though still riddled with self-doubt, the boy heel-toed it past the boardwalk to the pier. The same flock of seagulls as before had, by now, expanded wider in number — crazy-mass-winged-flock of white — well over two hundred birds soaring high above, overhead.

The boy then rigged his rod and cast out line.

As the seagulls continued to soar high above, white-capped waves swelled larger and crashed down even harder upon the shore there, where the surf pulls back out again — a terse cue for any surfer, board waxed and ready — to plunge in and paddle out and morph in mind, body and soul, to that odd rhythmic flow of turbulent sea and surf — all while not wiping out. Most important thing to do. Not wipe out.

So far yet, there was no tug on the boy’s line. With the sun burning off any chance for any shade from the clouds, the boy couldn’t help but see his destiny like those point break waves out there, far beyond the surf; only to the boy, the waves he saw in his head were mammoth swells — hurricane gusts, wind and water — set course to crash down and annihilate.

Simply put, wipe him out.

Him, and his life, the boy believed.

Yes, that’s what the boy believed — envisioned his life to be. Total wipe out — infinitely adrift in self-doubt and headed for high-rise swells of mammoth rage and unbridled devastation.

No hope was how the boy saw his future; how he saw his life — shattered fragments of daydreams that had once stirred the hum of thrill and adventure of a time stand still, to reach out and grasp hold of and never to let go, the brass ring to wed fate and destiny together in tranquil solace, forever lasting.

Forever lasting in tranquil solace.

That is, before depression sat in — silent plague of stealthily mental haunt. But the boy hadn’t spoken about this to anyone. Last thing he needed right now was to admit he suffered from something of the likes, as this, and endure further teasing and prodding from the fishermen there in Key West.

Well, not all the fishermen there in Key West teased and prodded the boy.

“Nothin’ stops ya comin’ down here, every other Saturday morning, does it?” The voice did not resonate in youthful glee nor serious banter of mid-age; more like a bleak winter sheet of rock-solid crystallized snow.

No other way to say it: The man who suddenly spoke was old. Sure enough he was.

Old.       Very.

Had someone rattled off a triple digit guess, that wouldn’t even come close in range in giving even an honest portrait in words of how old he really looked.

But he cared little. When your skin is leathery-tanned and creased deep in rutlike, thin wrinkles — as was the old man’s face — there was no valid reason whatsoever for any kind of love affair with any kind of mirror. As the old man saw it, any love affair anyone had with a mirror was nothing short of gift wrapped vanity, hid well behind spoiled, ill-manners — hypnotized in trance, under the reflective shimmer of one’s own self-indulgence.

No, the old man cared nothing anymore, if ever he had, of how he looked, for there were enough memories preserved, pristine in mind of his brazened youth of the women he had so passionately loved and who, it turned out, had loved him just as passionately back.

These careful guarded memories of youth long ago never permitted the old man to wallow in self-pity or sorrow or lost regret. For it seemed, in as so far as he could remember, he had none. Self-pity. Sorrow. Lost regret. None of it.

Legs bowed out at the knees, the old man waddled up next to the boy, who was now reeling back in his line, dead-set on another try, and said, “Don’t feel like talkin’ much today, huh?”

“Sssh,” the boy said. “You’ll scare the fish.” Still no tug or pull to line.

The old man smiled. “No fish worth scarin’ here, down by the pier. Real fish worth scarin are out there.” He pointed westward, where the sun was now at high noon and beating down with fierce heat. “ ‘Course, out there, ya don’t take to scarin’ no fish. They take to scarin’ you.”

The old man knew this, for he had, time and again, laid hook to and had fought to reel in, record-book worthy catches of sharks and marlins.

As story goes, the old man had once been fishing for white shark off the coast of Long Island and had, soon after docking back at the pier, met in the late spring of '72, an unknown speech writer and novelist at the time, gathering vital data and information. ‘Research,’ as he had put it, ‘for a book I’ve been paid to write.’

“Guy didn’t even have a—“

“Title,” the boy interrupted, “until twenty minutes to press. I know,” he continued. “Heard the story before. Told me, more then once, you have.” Chest puffed out.

The old man chuckled at the boy’s brazen act of toughness. “Never really got around to tellin’ ya how we fishermen there that day, took to razin’ that there young writer, now did I?”

Chest relaxed, the boy’s once tough demeanor vanished. “No,” he said, “you didn’t.”

So, it was told — that day, back in late spring of '72, of how, then unknown speech writer and novelist — Peter Benchley, was given a good teasing and prodding by a group of Long Islander fishermen, the old man included.

He went on —

“Know why we did that, do ya?” he asked the boy. He shook his head; his rod and reel back by his side now and tackle box not but inches from his feet as well.

“ ‘Cause,” the old man continued. “We fishermen there, knew that young writer—“

“— Benchley,” the boy politely interrupted.

The old man grinned and nodded. “Knew that Benchley there really didn’t belong with us, even if he wanted; that he had more goin’ for him in his life, then to be down there on the dock, hangin’ out with a bunch’a scally-wag fishermen like us. Even if it was just that day, gathering research and all, like he said he was.”

“Sorta like how it is with me, huh?” The ominous cloud of depression that had once taken hold, suddenly lifted and was gone. The boy smiled at the old man.

And he smiled back. “Sure enough,” he said, dirty brown grimace of nicotine stained teeth, chipped and brittle from years spent scourging the sea for the next record book catch, hook, line and sinker.

The boy knew for sure now the reason for and why, the constant teasing and prodding by the local fishermen there in Key West; it was just their way of saying: You don’t belong here. You have more going for you in your life and better things to do then spending it down here on the docks every other Saturday morning with a bunch of scally-wag fishermen like us, as the old man would say.

And did. Told the boy the exact same thing — he had more going for him in his life and better things to do.

“And don’t start sayin’ it’s ‘cause ya love fishin’ and all. No kid y’r age could take to lovin’ fishin’ this much. Y’re stubborn. Tryin’ to prove by castin’ line here at the dock ya got what it takes to be a man. Let me tell ya, spendin’ every other Saturday down here like ya have, for darn near passed five years, won’t get ya any closer to bein’ a man… Only tanned.” The old man chuckled again and the boy hugged him.

Then said, “Goodbye.” For the last time.

Upon turning seventeen and graduating high school — third in his class — the boy, by way of scholarship, held room and board at Harvard — finally acquiring a hard-earned degree in law and went back to Key West to build a solid practice and to hopefully find and thank the old man for what was said there that day at the dock.

But the old man was not to be found, only stories told by aging rummies in Sloppy Joe’s Bar of how the sea had gone and taken the seasoned fisherman to his watery grave, ten thousand leagues below.

And as the new practicing lawyer in Key West turned to leave, he glanced up at the wall and noticed a tarnished, dusty silver framed picture of the old man.

It hung beside Hemingway’s.

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