The Old Man - Reflections
At the crest of the highest ridge in four counties, the Old Man paused at the trail’s edge. Looking out over the wooded hollow below, he felt the excitement tighten his stomach. He pondered on the rolling creek with its clear cold water that swirled and eddied at every fallen tree and deepened bank. This same creek had consistently provided the finest small mouth fishing the Old Man had ever enjoyed. “The key,” thought the Old Man, “to this wonderful stretch of water, was its security from man. The two hour walk it took to reach it was enough to keep the creek safe from encroachment,” reckoned the Old Man, as he sat cross-legged in the leaves. Never had he seen another man along this water; nor had he even stumbled upon an aged track of trespass as he waded the water’s sandy shoals and bars.
A gust of wind quickly quivered the leaves overhead. The Old Man watched as the leaves twisted recklessly in the high-ridge winds. Winds which are always stronger than those down below. His eyes followed the ripple of the wind through the tree, until he suddenly caught sight of the pine that he had marveled at for the last twenty trips into this sacred piece of land. It was the most impressive pine the Old Man had ever discovered in Tennessee. Standing unique, the only member of its species present, the short leaf pine towered above the bluff that fell sharply to the rolling creek far below.
But during this trip, the tree wasn’t so impressive. The bark from its trunk was piled around its base leaving a smoothed, deadened tower supporting twisted, arthritic limbs. Hundreds of blackened cones hung from the entanglement of lifeless, naked limbs. This monarch of dead trees offered such stark contrast with the living forest surrounding it that it truly touched the Old Man . . . and he thought of Sarah. She was the only person he had ever known to marvel at spectacular trees the way he did. Somewhere in the breeze, his memory recalled her voice. He knew what she would say if she were sitting with him now, staring at the tree, so recently dead with only its piles of fallen decaying bark to mark its decades of living. “Enough of this sadness,” thought the Old Man, and he raised himself up.
The trail led down the face of the ridge through mature stands of hickory and oak. Finally, at the bottom, he could hear the creek some hundred yards ahead. As excitement gripped his belly, he quickened his pace until, at last, he reached the shallows of a two hundred yard stretch of fast water. The Old Man gasped at the first step into the cold water, but in a matter of seconds his body became refreshed with the coolness at this feet. He waded a hundred yards upstream to the edge of a black-blue hole where the water swirled against a submerged, fallen sycamore and an eroding bank. He tossed the floating lure in the center of the largest swirl, and before he could close the bail, the fish exploded at the surface. The Old Man closed the bail and set the hook in one fast motion. Instantly, he felt the surge of power on the other end, as the line was ripped from the ultra light reel. The smallmouth rose, jumped and dove again. Laughing aloud, the Old Man held on. After two minutes, the Old Man knew that he was gaining on the fish ever so slowly. Finally, after three more jumps and dives the fish was beached on the sandy shoal at the tailwaters of the hole. The Old Man sat in the sand and gently examined the 4-pound fish. Carefully, he removed the small treble hooks and released the golden-brown fish back into the swirls of the sparkling water.
He looked upstream, where as far as he could see, there were riffles and holes and rock outcrops. The water glistened against the overhanging greens of the forest canopy. Nowhere had he ever found a more beautiful creek, thought the Old Man. He stood slowly and made his way upstream.
Three hours and 19 released small mouth later, the Old Man rounded a sharp bend. The smoke from the small cooking fire rose straight up, and 30 yards away a man was kneeling over the fire holding a skillet. The Old Man remained motionless. He watched the man continue cooking. Finally, the Old Man spoke.
The man at the fire jumped as if shot. Grease and frying fish splattered into the coals. The man slowly turned and stood, holding his chest with the skillet-free hand.
“Hello,” the stranger managed shakily. “You scared the . . uh” he glanced toward the fire . . . “fish . . . out of me.”
The Old Man smiled and walked across the sand bar to the fire, each step sloshing loudly.
“Didn’t mean to startle you so. Sorry about your lunch.”
“Oh . . . don’t worry about it,” smiled the stranger. “There’s more where those came from.”
“That’s for sure,” replied the Old Man. “My name is Sam Kenton.”
“Joe Summers,” returned the stranger as they shook hands. “Listen, Mr. Kenton, I’ve got some more fish on a stinger over there. You help me clean’em and we’ll try lunch one more time.”
“That’s a fair offer. Where’s the fish?”
They sat at the edge of the creek, each finding a large flat rock on which to fillet the fish.
“You’re the first, you know,” said the Old Man as he flipped a large side of the smallmouth over for the final cut.
“First what?” asked Joe Summers.
“The first man I’ve ever run into on this creek in 20 years . . . just out of curiosity . . how’d you find this place?”
The stranger laughed, and looked skyward. “From up there,” he pointed. “I do a lot of flying, which takes me across this area. I’ve been gazing down on this creek for three years. Finally, I decided to make a concentrated effort to find it on the ground. Took me the better part of two days to get in here, once I landed, but I think it was worth it. I’ve never seen such smallmouth in a creek.”
The Old Man smiled and grabbed another fish. “That’s because you’ve never fished such an unmolested creek, fed from water by such an undisturbed land.”
“I think you’re right. How far do you think is the nearest house?”
Sam Kenton pointed with the blade of his knife. “About eight miles . . that away. And that house doesn’t have electricity.”
The stranger was silent for a while.
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” he asked.
“I wonder about a lot of things at my age,” answered the Old Man.
“I mean about what we’re doing to places like this. If you noticed, seems like the only clean places left . . . healthy places . . . are those where man hasn’t been yet. I remember streams where I grew up fishing . . beautiful steams they were . . and now, I wouldn’t eat a fish out of them even if there were fish left.”
Joe Summers paused. He finished his last cut, washed the firm pieces of meat in the cold water, and looked up at the Old Man who had finished his job already. “Have you noticed that, Mr. Kenton?”
“I have . . . noticed that Mr. Summers. And, I have noticed that with the concern with this country’s leadership has shown for the land and its water, we should expect nothing else . . except a calloused disregard for the land.”
They paused and listened to the creek.
“Well, what do you say we cook some fish, Mr. Kenton?”
“I say, good,” replied the Old Man, and shortly the grease was sizzling with the browning fillets. Within 10 minutes they were sitting cross-legged in the sand eating the sweet white meat from the skillet that was placed between them. Uninterrupted by the eating, the conversation resumed.
“What kind of leadership were you talking about?”
The Old Man chewed for a while before answering. He then stood, walked knee deep into the clear water, and scooped up a double handful of the creek. The water ran in small rivers down his forearms and fell back into the steam below.
“Leaders that need a public outcry from their constituents to tell them that this . . . water. . . needs to remain unpoisoned for our survival. Water, my friend, is the reflection of our intellectual failure. We can go to the moon, cure disease, create computers that will catalog our every thought but . . . we are so stupid as to allow our water to slowly die, and with it . . . we die too.”
Joe Summers smiled. “I agree, but if the people don’t care, then the politician who tries for protective laws, and in the process costs important businessmen a lot of money in cleaning up their wastes, doesn’t stay a politician very long. If the people don’t care, the leader who does, becomes a non-leader.”
“Bull!” cried the Old Man. “I don’t want to deal with politics every day. If I was gonna do that, I’d have become a politician in the first place. There are a lot of us who vote for a man because we have faith in his judgment . . his character . . . that when a decision needs to be made, he will have enough salt to do what’s right . . . not what is easy.”
“How many of them have you found, Mr. Kenton?”
“Two . . . two . . . in forty-five years of votin’.”
“Well, I’ll tell you how I feel about it. When you tell me that you don’t want to be a politician and deal with politics. . . well, that’s the easy way out. Where’s your salt? There have to be leaders in and out of politics. If you ever find another one that has real character or salt, as you put it, then he better have some men behind him who aren’t afraid to get involved. He has to have some help. And you, Mr. Kenton, would be fine help.”
The Old Man threw his head back and laughed. He waded out of the creek back to the fire. He knelt down and looked Joe Summers straight in the eye.
“You’re the one, aren’t ya?”
“One what, Mr. Kenton?”
“One of them no count, chicken hearted, self-servin’ politicians.”
Joe Summers smiled.
“Now, you think about it . . what’s the chance of your finding a politician here, stream fishing in the middle of nowhere?” answered Joe summers.
“Slim,” said the Old Man. “Slim, indeed . . but if it were true, it would be a dream come true. And, you’re one. I know you are, ‘cause you turned that argument around on me slicker ‘n a peeled onion.”
The Old Man raised back up to a standing position. “Well . . are you?”
The stranger smiled and stood up.
“I’m a United States Congressman from the State of . . well. . . I believe I’m going to let you get involved and find out where I’m from.”
The Old man laughed. “I knew it! I just knew it.”
“Let me see your fishing license, please sir?”
“What?” replied the Congressman.
“Your fishing license. I’d like to see it, please.”
“Are you a game warden, Mr. Kenton?”
“Not anymore . . just a sportsman from the State of Tennessee and I’m gonna check your non-resident license. . . one way or the other.”
The Congressman chuckled and removed a license from his shirt pocket. The Old Man examined it.
“What if, Mr. Kenton. . . just by chance. . . I’m number three?”
The Old Man smiled. “That, Mr. Congressman, would be an extreme pleasure at my age.”
“I’ll tell you this. There’s no better way to learn about a man than to spend a day with him steam fishing for smallmouth. What do you say we go catch some fish, and we’ll talk about water and the land and what we’re gonna do to fix what we’ve already messed up.”
The Old Man smiled. “I’m tryin’ hard not to like you, Mr. Congressman, but any man who uses my own arguments to solve arguments must be approaching the truth. I believe I’ll take a chance on you, but I promise you this. . . I’m gonna do some checking on you and if you’ve lied to me abut your feelings or if you ever tell any living man about this place. . . I’ll hunt you down like a dirty dog. Am I understood?”
Congressman Summers put out his hand.
“Fair enough . . and about this place. . . to tell another stream fisherman about a place like this would be downright stupid. I assure you, I’m not stupid.”
The Old Man grabbed his rod and adjusted the line on the lure.
“That, my friend, is yet to be determined. The waters ain’t clean just yet.”
Two miles downstream, a pileated woodpecker swooped to the trunk of the towering dead pine. His hammering echoed with deafening resonance throughout the hollow below. And, shortly thereafter, he began feeding on the Southern Pine Beetles that had girded the tree a season before. With his belly filled, he called out. It was an irate, nagging sort of call, had someone been present to hear and comment on such a thing.