Not here. You fuckers cannot follow me here.
His dad looked over his shoulder from the tailgate at Charlie, standing in the tall grass looking over the river, hands tucked into the top of his waders, rod under his arm.
“You say something bud?”
Charlie thought he’d whispered it.
“Nope… Hey, need instructions for those waders or what?”
Dad smiled. “Funny. Either I’m getting heavy or these might be your mother’s.”
“I don’t know what I’m hoping to get out of this. I don’t even want to be here.”
“No. But I know something’s not right. Hasn’t been right since…well…shit, for a while. Listen, you’ve got to understand, I’m not weak.
I can’t be weak and do what I do.”
“Just because you want to talk
doesn’t mean you’re weak.”
“I’m not weak.
I just can’t take these ghosts anymore.”
Charlie enlisted right out of high school. His first day of Basic Training was the first day of Desert Shield. August 3, 1990. Combat Engineer School followed. Then Airborne, Air Assault, Ranger School. He knew immediately that this was his purpose, his place in the large scheme of things.
Home on leave for the first time in a year and a half, Charlie met up with his friends, all home from college for the summer. He’d be heading back to Germany in a few days, then on to Saudi.
The five of them sat around a firepit in Corey’s parent’s backyard. Drinking Milwaukee’s Best. Passing a makeshift beer-can pot pipe and lighter. Guns N’ Roses from a radio up by the house.
His friends traded stories. Screwing girls, puking in bar parking lots, blowing off classes. “College is fucking awesome.”
Charlie thought about Ranger School. The hell he’d just been through, and how much stronger he was for it. The reality of war. “Throw me another beer, bro.”
Hunting and fishing mornings always started early. It seemed like no matter how early he woke up, his dad would have coffee brewing when Charlie came downstairs. And no matter how early they planned on leaving, they always managed a half-hour to sit and talk optimistically about the morning’s game-plan and chances.
Last night, Charlie had only slept for a couple fitful hours. He was used to it.
His dad still didn’t sleep well either, even with Charlie home now. He too was used to it.
His dad poured two cups. Pushed one across the counter.
Charlie asked, “so, you been out much?”
“Not as much as I’d like. But some. Not much fun flying solo.”
Charlie smiled, drank some coffee. “Nobody to back up your stories.”
“Or hold the net,” his dad added.
Charlie leaned on the counter, holding his cup in both hands. “We going to start near Avoca or at the train trestle?”
“Thought we’d try the train trestle. Last couple times I went, the browns were hungry early.”
A few minutes passed silently. In that short time Charlie’s thoughts ran an improbable path from the kitchen to sitting in a turret behind a .50-cal counting insurgent rifle shots to listening to distant gunshots during deer season as a kid to speaking with Iraqi soldiers and civilian mechanics in Arabic to a Metallica tune to the mute chaos of triage and evacuation after a roadside explosion to drunken fist-fights over drunk-and-willing girls in G.I. bars.
His thoughts snapped back to the kitchen and their conversation. “So, I picked up some more 7x. Some gnats and BWOs too.” He wasn’t sure how obvious it was that his mind was off someplace else, or for how long.
“Good deal,” his dad replied. “And I’ve got plenty of nymphs if you need any.”
Charlie walked over to the pot, refilled his coffee. “You want some more?”
“I’m good.” His dad stood, stretched his back. “I’ll already be in and out of my waders all morning to piss.”
“What kind of ghosts?
Are they memories, or visions?
Do you actually see them?”
“No, I don’t see them.
They’re more like a sense of dread…makes me ice-numb.
I feel helpless and scared and pissed-off. Like trying to lift a sleeping arm.
Like that primal noise of fear and rage you manage to get out of your throat in the moment before your car hits a deer or tree…”
Saudi was his first hitch in the desert. Desert Storm. Cold nights. Brutal, day-long heat. The grit of powder-like sand in his boots, his eyes and nose, in his gear, skivvies, food. There was talk of chemical and biological attacks, but no combat, to speak of. Regardless, the landscape of the Middle East fascinated him. Its rugged, foreign beauty. When Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off in 2003, Charlie looked forward to his first tour. His time in country passed quickly. He came home tired, but motivated.
By his third tour, he had enough of the desert and mountains. In the rugged beauty he saw hideouts and ambush points, insurgent shadows and death. Too much death. He wanted time to pass quickly, but it only slowed. Firefights and tactical advances from block to block, city to city lessened. The cold edge he felt in his chest though, did not. Charlie came home from his third tour and the ghosts came with him.
He slid the three sections from the tube, gently piecing the 5-weight fly rod together. He half-expected the cork in his hand to feel like the pistol grip of his AR. A phantom limb. The dead weight that followed him home.
This was his first time back on the Cohocton in almost ten years. During each deployment, at night or when they’d break from patrols, he used to let his mind wander its riffles and runs and long lazy pools. The river was a welcome break from his unwelcome reality.
As his mind started to clear, the water became audible. He listened as it rolled and broke over itself in various distinct and soft pitches. Repeating its short chorus over and over. Small part of a much larger song.
With no line strung or fly tied to tippet, Charlie waded slowly out into a knee-deep stretch and stood, breathing the October morning in through his nose. His dad watched from the truck, waiting for him to exhale.
“At first they felt like a rush—the ghosts—a constant adrenaline.
I was always on.
Like in the first years of my enlistment. I’d go out to bars or clubs off-post. I knew long before I even went out that I’d find a fight.
I remember telling an ER Doc once that the mood struck me after I got out of the shower, while I stood in front of the mirror putting on deodorant. She just finished stitching up my eyebrow. Told me I was lucky it wasn’t worse.”
“Do you know why you wanted to fight?”
“Not really, other than sometimes it just takes more to make you feel alive, you know? But eventually the adrenaline runs out. The rush changes.”
“Well, everything just turned really fucking dark and heavy…I’d have to fight to find my way back.
After a while, there was no way back.”
“No way back. What do you mean?”
His flight home from Atlanta had been uneventful. His row was empty on both planes. From his window seat, Charlie studied the easy southern Blue Ridge landscape during take-off, the incomplete NYC skyline touching down at JFK, and then the sprawling upstate farm-fields and lakes and woods as the plane droned its way from the belly of clouds above Rochester. He’d lost track of how many times he’d seen these landscapes from his window seat over the years. But every time felt like they were brand new.
Between JFK and Rochester, Charlie’s mind went to an afternoon in a dusty Mosul intersection, their Humvee parked with a view down two city streets. Sitting in the front passenger seat, his foot propped against the Humvee’s bullet-proof door.
People moved here and there in the streets in their daily busyness. A little girl, no more than 2 or 3, walked in bare feet toward Charlie and his open door. He watched. His men watched.
A few weeks earlier he had pulled burned, bleeding, dead fellow soldiers from the twisted, bullet-proof remains of their Humvee. A van packed with explosives t-boned their vehicle. The blast left a crater 24 feet deep. Scorched pieces of the Humvee found 300 meters away.
She walked up to Charlie, smiled, reached up with both hands and started swinging from the handle on the outside of the door. He pushed the door with his dusty boot, letting it swing back before pushing it again. The little girl swung and laughed, bright as the sun. The flight attendant’s voice brought him back. “We’re making our descent. Can you put your seat in the upright position? Thanks.”
Charlie walked through the A Terminal, back toward the glass-walled waiting area. Pressed BDUs and shined jump-boots. Full and well-worn military duffel over his right shoulder. A little girl took three steps from where her parents stood and stopped him.
“My big brother used to wear camouflage too,” she said confidently. “He fought bad-guys in the desert, but now he’s with gramma in heaven.” She looked Charlie right in the eyes, “do you fight bad-guys in the desert?”
Charlie kneeled, “I do.”
“Better be careful,” she advised in an almost-whisper.
Her dad stepped over to them, extended his hand. “Yes, please be careful.”
Charlie stood, shook the man’s hand with a knowing nod, turned and resumed the walk to his family, waiting on the other side of the glass wall.
“I remember an attack that happened about 300m in front of me. A van packed with explosives t-boned a Humvee. The explosion was so powerful that it flipped the Humvee across the road to the other side of traffic. The gunner was ejected and died there. Everyone else was dead inside while the Humvee caught on fire. We were able to pull one guy out and it happened to be the interpreter. Doc and I worked on this guy in our vehicle while he was evacuated to the CASH. He seemed fine, but in a lot of pain. In these situations, pain is good… it means he still had feeling.
The toughest thing is that this isn’t the first time I’ve had to work on someone. All of them have either died in my care or shortly after. I know Doc and I do everything that we possibly can to save these guys. It is just hard to send these guys into the CASH telling them that they are going to make it, then hear later that they didn’t.
If you see enough, you stop feeling pain. You’re dead inside. There’s no way back.”
“And there’s no way back.”
Charlie sat in his idling pickup at a red light. Left turn lane. Blinker blinking. Pink Floyd, Coming back to life, came on the radio. Caught in a long stare over his left hand draped top-center of the steering wheel. His mind still trying to make it home.
He had seen Floyd in Atlanta. Drove up from Ft. Benning to Bobby Dodd Stadium. Light-show on the belly of charcoal gray storm clouds, Bill Clinton played sax. Charlie opened and closed his hand above the steering wheel.
He felt good in the old truck. The smell of the cab reminded him of his dad’s Carhartt jacket, work boots, climbing belt and tools. It was the smell of his childhood. Home.
Charlie looked down at his own boots, rubbed dirt from one with the other. Left turn lane. Blinker. The radio station moved on to Neil Young. He looked back up through the windshield. The sun now clear of the trees.
“I’m just so fed up with all of it. The killings, the bombings, the ridiculous political bullshit, it doesn’t make sense anymore.”
“That’s good you know?”
It’s no different than pain.
“I’m just so tired. I don’t sleep. My mind…it just won’t shut off…won’t be quiet. I’m going to get out. I’ve got to get out. Maybe find a place on a river out west. Hell, maybe Alaska. Off the grid and on with my life…a new place in the large scheme of things.”
“Is that going to help you
make it back?”
“You tell me.”
“It might help you find some peace.
But it’s going to take some
work to really come back.
You can’t do it alone.”
“So what’s next?”
“I’m flying home. My dad and I have some long-overdue time on the water we need to spend.”
“Your file says you’ve got
one more tour coming up.”
“Yea. Afghanistan. Early next spring. That’ll make five.”
His dad headed for a wide meandering stretch below the trestle. Charlie followed his memory along a long-overgrown path toward a run 500 yards upstream.
The river was narrower here. The far bank rising from the water, leveling out briefly and then rising again as a heavily wooded hillside. This spot had given up a beautiful brown his last trip, his largest. 18 or so inches of head-shakes and big shoulders. A fish that size in the Cohocton was rare. A story told by old-timers. Charlie let himself believe that brown still haunted that stretch.
Rises along the far bank. One aggressive splash like clockwork three feet downstream of a forked, half-submerged log. Just beyond the seam. Charlie kneeled in the shallow water at his feet, scanning across the surface to find a hatch—fleeting movement in relief against the dull burgundy and gray of the far bank.
Half thought, half whisper. “All right boys, what are you after?”
Tippet held between his lips, Charlie pinched a #20 Griffith’s Gnat from his fly box. The river pushed and flowed at his feet. Fish rising like clockwork. Tippet to fly. Five wraps, through and through for the clinch knot. Charlie’s mind wandered. His calloused fingers moving instinctively.
He pulled line from his reel. Let it drop into the current at his feet. Two, three, four false casts. The beautiful weight of the line against the flexing fly rod, against the pull and push of his hand and wrist and shoulder. The weight of five tours in perfect flight away from him.
This story first appeared in Pulp Fly Vol. 1, an anthology of fly fishing stories, back in 2011.