Time in service

FIVE WEIGHT

Posted by | On the water, Time in service | 3 Comments

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?”

“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.”

“How so?”

“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.”

“Right.”

***

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?”

“What’s good?”

“Your anger.
It’s no different than pain.
That’s good.”

“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.”

“I know.”

“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?”

Splash.

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.

#theyearofhappiness

Posted by | Life, Time in service | 9 Comments

The 4th day of the new year is winding down. A couple fingers of bourbon. Leif Vollebekk singing Cairo Blues. Two dogs vying for heat-run space and my attention. A crockpot full of brisket filling the kitchen like the recitation of a long-simmering poem. My wife will be home from work soon. The kids are with their mom. And I’m sitting in the midst of everything thinking about everything. Writing some stuff down.

Earlier this morning I dropped off a dear old friend at the airport who I was stationed with in Germany. He flew in from Portland on a last minute invite and serendipitous timing to visit and celebrate New Years with us. The last time we saw each other was in 2010 when I flew out to Portland to meet him and fish the Fall, Dechutes, and Metolius Rivers together. Prior to that was 1993 when my tour in Germany (and our tenure as roommates) ended and my boots pointed toward Ft. Benning, Georgia for my next duty station. We were teenagers. Army Privates who were a long way from home. A few of us became close friends, as happens when the world is suddenly far bigger than you’ve known and you need to rely on others to help keep your shit straight. Thankfully, he and I have managed to actually stay connected beyond Facebook likes and comments on pictures of kids, fish, or new vehicles.

During his visit, Josh reminded me of the substance of our late night Pendleton whisky talks from my 2010 trip west. We spent two cold April days up to our nuts fly fishing in unproductive water and two cold April nights crowding a riverside campfire before climbing into a thin nylon tent and 30-below fart-sacks, and then a couple better days of fishing and nights lounging in a yurt at Tumalo State Park outside of Bend during a snow storm. I wasn’t happy in work or my marriage, and wasn’t very present as a dad with my three kids. I hadn’t been for a while. He was trying to navigate a divorce and the intricacies of a tough dating scene while being a great dad to his (then) 6 year old boy.

We were back in a world far bigger that we’d known from both a personal and a camping-in-Umpqua-National-Forest standpoint, and needed to lean on each other to keep our shit straight again. We bared our souls and spilled our guts. We listened and empathized. We raised glasses to the things that we loved and middle fingers to everything that was wrong. We both just wanted to be happy, and find an even keel. On the last day of our trip we hiked up to the headwaters of the Metolius, a small garden of quiet, unassuming springs in the shadow of Black Butte, and Josh asked me this question: why don’t you just do what you need to do to be happy?

That question started the atrophied wheels of my motivated, idealistic, hungry-for-life younger self in motion. Far more than I understood at the time. Over the next six years it sparked my move to freelance, inspired Deliberate Life, helped me come to terms with ending my marriage, and strengthened my love and involvement with my kids, family, and friends. It also led me to a place (mentally/emotionally/physically) where I was ready to meet the woman who I just married this past August.

When Amanda and I started dating and sharing photos on Instagram we created the hashtag #theyearofhappiness to accompany all the big and small moments we captured and celebrated in our life (it seems to have caught on a little). And even though we’re well outside of that first year, it still lives on. It lives on because the year of happiness is not a finite period of time. It’s a state-of mind and being. It’s a reminder that you can, in fact, do what you need to do to be happy, and that we found each other because of our individual pasts, not in spite of them. Happiness is a choice that we are all capable of making.

I was extremely sad and nostalgic on the drive home from the airport. Saying goodbye to a brother after so short and meaningful a visit is never easy. The car was packed with the ghosts of the full expanse of our shared experiences, meandering pasts and mindful todays, our choices and the failures and successes born of them. We had so much more to say, so much more ground to cover than time available. But I’m grateful that we’ve stayed in touch and that Josh was here with us to close out the end of this particular year of happiness, especially since he played a significant role in making it possible. I know we’ll be making a point of not letting so much time pass before our next visit.

To that end, I wish you all #theyearofhappiness many, many times over. Hashtag the shit out of every one of them.

THE COURAGE OF HOPE

Posted by | On the water, Time in service | 6 Comments

 


Camaraderie, balance, and hope.
I have two handwritten quotes on two small pieces of yellow legal paper taped to the wall next to my desk. Each given to me by friends at points in my life when I really needed them. The friends and the quotes.

The first is by John Buchan, a Scottish author:
“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive, but attainable. A perpetual series of occasions for hope.”

And the second, by John Wayne:
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

As a freelance writer, fly fisherman, father, and veteran, both quotes have offered some much needed perspective at various times since they were gifted to me. Especially when it comes to my time spent outdoors and it’s value in my life. While it’s true for me of pretty much any wild place, I’ve come to see that rivers have a special way about them. They take what we give them and return our selves to us. They press and push and keep us off balance until we learn how to stand in seemingly equal measure.

The river is spiritual. Healing. Holistic, and wholly powerful. But what we give the river is only what we’re willing to let go of. And sometimes the river is not enough to loosen the grip we keep on that weight. Or loosen the weight’s grip on us. Rivers can never be too full of our sins and pain. Our fears. Doubt, guilt, anger, sadness. But sometimes simply finding our balance, whether figurative or literal, takes more than finding our small station in the constant rush to larger and larger water.

Through it all we need to lean on the ebb and flow of hope. If we didn’t have hope, there would be no reason to try, for anything, in the first place. And that, for me, is the draw of fly fishing, and the reason Project Healing Waters exists and serves our veterans. The hope of reaching out and having our efforts connect with another living thing—be it fish, or human being—and the healing that happens as a result.

There is an inherent danger in hope, however. Hope disappoints. Hope ends up far below expectation more often than not, if at all. It sets you up for failure. But our combat veterans are cut from different cloth than most. Even in the darkest hours, they manage to find the slightest, dusty ray of light. They hold on in spite of disappointment because that’s what keeps them in forward motion. Without hope, without some thread of belief, they would lose their edge, their passion, their empathy. Their fight would leave them and fear would take its place. It takes courage to be hopeful.

Our veterans live with the hope of finding some normalcy again. Hope of finding a respite from their pain—be it physical or mental. They hope to return home in every sense of the word. Imagine feeling as though you’re caught between two realities that are as different as oil and water. Imagine living with a constant reminder of the worst in this world, even in the best, most beautiful situations, and not knowing how to let go of that weight.

To see our combat veterans at the vise in the evening, intent on tying a fly that could catch them their first steelhead or brown or salmon at first light. To see them opening up, letting their guard down, and talking and laughing with mentors, guides, and volunteers—many of whom are veterans themselves. To see them wade with growing confidence into the river with those mentors and guides, the morning coming to life right in front of their eyes, the river alive with the possibility of huge fish willing to eat. To see them find their balance, holding onto the hope that any and every cast could be the one that will connect. Their mentor or guide standing close with the same hope. This is why we serve those who have served so selflessly for us.

Ultimately, one hope brings the other to fruition. The hope that comes with their focus on something as small and deliberate as a tying a fly. The hope that comes with finding their own strength in the power of the river, and finally reaching out, connecting, and holding their glorious, finned hallelujah with both hands. Each of these answer our veterans’ larger hope for normalcy and returning home. The camaraderie and glorious unquiet-quiet and life of the river loosens their grip on the weight they’re carrying, and loosens the grip of combat and all the shit that it has imposed on them. Ultimately, it’s a gift of presence, and greater courage. On the water and in life. Elusive, yes. But attainable. And absolutely worth saddling up for.

(fp note: this post was written to commemorate the Project Healing Waters event held on the Salmon River (NY) earlier this past November, hosted by the Ft. Drum and Syracuse Chapters of Project Healing Waters. I am honored to have again been a part of this event, and the fantastic work that PHWFF does for our veterans. Thank you to Dan Morgan, Ira Strouse, Fran Verdoliva from the NYSDEC, and all the guides and volunteers who made the weekend a success.)

HEALING THOSE WHO SERVED

Posted by | On the water, Time in service | 14 Comments

The weekend of November 4th brought a pretty heavy frost to the Salmon River near Altmar, NY. It also brought over a dozen combat veterans from the Ft. Drum Chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, and at least that many local fishermen to serve as guide/mentors.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is a national organization that is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing, fly tying education and outings.

Friday evening was check-in at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Officer School barracks just outside of Pulaski. Bob Rock, a long-time supporter of Project Healing Waters and master fly tier/instructor, arrived early, took a seat at the head of the table in the lounge area, set up his vise and tying materials and started warming up on a wooly bugger pattern.

As soldiers and volunteers arrived, they took seats, one-by-one around the table– some behind donated vises, some behind their own– and began working on goo-bug, egg-sucking leech and woolly bugger patterns of their own for tomorrow’s excursion. Many of the men in this group carried the scars and continued pain of physical injuries from the war–gunshot and shrapnel wounds, broken bones, burns, traumatic brain injury (TBI). Some wrestling with PTSD as well. That said, you would be hard-pressed to tell that any of them had any issues at all. The art of camouflage conceals so much more than any of us understands. It’s a matter of self-preservation.

After a while, announcements and house-rules were covered, BBQ was served and everyone started to warm to each other and the prospect of hooking up with the largest (for some the first) fish they’d ever caught.


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

The next morning came quickly and after an even quicker breakfast of coffee and donuts, the group caravanned to an undisclosed rally-point to gear up, pair up with a guide and get in the water. Thanks to the tremendous leadership of the Ft. Drum Chapter of Healing Waters and the good folks at the DEC, these men had an entire section of unpressured and absolutely prime water to themselves. A small gesture of thanks for their service and sacrifice, and a great opportunity to have success on a river that is notorious for tough fish and Black Friday-esque lines on the shore.

But that success is bigger that just catching fish. For some it’s the success of making it through 2 cold days of difficult wading and fishing in spite of the pain and limitations of physical injuries. For some it’s finding a peace and sense of calm that allows them to relax and laugh from the gut and feel like things are OK. Life is OK. Being home is OK. Even if that feeling is only for a short time. While it will definitely take a lot more than just fly fishing, in the end, the hope and mission of PHW is that if enough of these quality days are strung together, it will help these heroes make their way back from those dark haunts that frustrate and scare the shit out of them–to help them finally make their way home for good.

Now, I’ve heard stories and seen pictures of other Healing Waters events in other parts of the country. But I’d be willing to bet that there isn’t another chapter that has experienced the number, species diversity and size of the fish that were caught by these guys–every single one of them–over our two days on the Salmon.

The weekend was a profound and humbling experience for me. It was an honor to be able to spend the time I did with the guys, to hear their stories, shake their hands and stand in the river together just like a bunch of normal fishermen chasing bent rods, lake-run monsters and grip-and-grins.

That is, if there is such a thing as a normal fisherman.

Be sure to “Like” the Ft. Drum Chapter’s facebook page and visit the national Healing Waters site as well. And if you can get involved in a chapter near you, please do. Our soldiers need our support right here at home.

 Photo credits: Grant Taylor