LEARNING TO FISH
There is a German word, “Dasein”; I read about it in one of the books that Lillian-the-Librarian would eventually direct me to as we came to know each other in my nightly visits to her library. It loosely translates into: the human way to be-in-the-world, or to know one’s unique purpose and potential. And also to forfeit it through inauthenticity.
What I remember about the hospital room that I woke up in was how clean and quiet it all was. My Dasein was working overtime. It felt like a library for sick people and the books were medicine. I liked the little room that I was sharing with Mr. Smith One Tree, the one-eighth Cherokee from Youngstown who’d had two vertebra fused and was getting the government to pay for it on account of he worked as a mechanic on the base in Pensacola when he was young enough to hold a wing in one hand and tighten or scratch a nut in the other. I liked the clean white sheets and the clean white smiles of the nurses who changed my dressing and the docs who came in and said I was lucky the bones didn’t hit any major vessels and lucky that they were the best docs in the county and could get those bones to lineup proper and lucky that I was a distant cousin of Harry Davis, while they laughed and winked deep and purposeful about how Harry could take anybody he cared about to the hospital on the Airforce base, even if he had the ways and means to do that as well on the outside.
It all felt odd as if this too, this first class care, another positive after a tough break that followed some sacred hurt which came in on the heals of dark tragedy, a roller coaster of incidents and accidents that had bore down on me aggressively and nakedly as if I was in fate’s cross hairs or a swift stream. It occurred to me that it mustn’t have been planned. It was too chaotic and neat and wildly ordered to attach any sense to it. The best I could do was to put my feet up in the river and float without catching a shoe on a rock or, worse yet, getting swept into a side eddy where the river just rolled passed you like a soundless picture show and all you could do was try and read the actor’s lips. I was in it, but I couldn’t fight it.
I lay there that night after they fixed my leg, feeling the cool breeze from the ceiling fan, lost in its revolution. Smith, the barely-Indian in the bed next to me was talking in his sleep, something unintelligible to my ears, but not to him. My leg was bound and cast in a wide swath of white plaster and held aloft by a shiny stainless metal bar and chain. What power was willed and wielded, deals made or re-made, debts paid or accrued so that a civilian could get care like a war hero might? The fan and my questions had unsettled the antiseptic air and replaced the quietude with an impermanent stillness. My intelligence had come up against the gratitude of the moment. The room began to shrink and the air thickened.
Let the river take you, the voice was saying, a man did something good for you. This is not, cannot be, and will never be, a game of quid pro quo.
The broken leg throbbed.
Never an eye for and eye.
I tried to get up from the bed but found the metal chains to my cast screwed down.
It would never be about getting paid or paying back.
Let the water soak in, it said. All the way down past your bones, past your soul and past your past until it comes around to your future. And then you’ll quench your thirst by passing the glass.
She’s gone. You can’t make her ungone.
* * *
In the morning Harry came and picked me up. The attending nurse who got me ready to leave had teeth as bright as the Mississippi sunshine. And I let her warm me, let it take me, passing the smile back.
I sat in the wheel chair as Harry rolled me out a side exit to the waiting truck where Grace sat with Gillie and the baby Phin in the cab.
“I think you’ll be more comfortable stretched out in the back with Cane and Abel,” Harry spoke flatly with impassive eyes framing his mouth.
“It’s not the first time.”
“Nor the last.”
“Harry, I wanted to…”
“Forget it. Grace is busy with the kids. I need some help baiting hooks. ‘Bout time you learned to fish.”
“But how did you arrange the hospital, the docs, the…”
“Later, okay? Let’s just say that I have—to use one of your big words, a social contract with the community. You were the fine print.”
I wish I could say it was a happy ending. Or even a sad beginning. I’d made a choice by choosing for that moment, not to choose. Harry pulled away and I looked in the dark gray pools that were the eyes of the Davis’ dogs. They knew it was only the beginning. They knew. In those big round dog-eyes I saw the shape of clouds reflecting a seamless horizon over which someone close to me or maybe me if I was lucky would sail away towards. I sometimes wonder if I was being shown the future in that animal’s iris, a dimension where life exists before it unfolds–the perfect vision of an imperfect world.
Just when I was finding some reason for Ruth’s death, which was no reason at all, and just when I was tasting the sweet human transaction of equality, the gray eyes clouded over and the dogs laid their head on my lap.
But there would be many good years and much deep blue water would pass under me and through me. Things would grow and prosper and children would begin to find their place in the world of grown men and women.
Once more the dogs looked up at me and it was just Abel who yawned and shook and made a low sound that seemed to come from another era.
I put my feet up and floated.
# # #
On a clear morning in late spring of ’52, maybe six ponderous weeks after my fall, we left on Harrys’ 38 foot. It was a twin diesel-powered vessel with lines from a distance appearing long and thin and clean and a high bridge that looked like a secret tree fort. On closer inspection there was a utilitarian essence to the way things were laid out, the way they might have been handled on the fly, off the cuff, moment by moment. While I knew machines and men and the way they interacted, I didn’t know boats. But after living with the Davis family in an un-beleaguered domesticity for almost three months I thought I knew a fair amount about Harry. And when he finally invited aboard his boat there was no question of coming along or not. The leg was boat-worthy, the time to enter a new geography here. “No more living in the margins, Cobb,” Harry had claimed one evening after Gillie and I had finished a game of chess. “Time to fish and you’re cutting bait.”
I had no idea that you could learn as much as you could about a man by the way he organized the deck. When I limped up the gangway on my cane and was immediately guided to the rigger’s chair, I didn’t have to ask questions, already knew the drill. It was more of the gift, it was real. To deny it was to deny my dasein, my authenticity. It wasn’t the fish of the ocean that both frightened and enthralled me, nor was it the Siren’s song of old. It was the crew—just Harry, a couple of other local recruits that shared a love of the process of hunting fish and to my surprise, a savvy eight year-old girl going out on her first extended trip. Unlike most commercial fisherman, this crew cared little if they brought back a hold-full or limped in empty. They’d been out to sea pitting themselves against the odds, jockeying skills with a natural resource, another one of God’s creations, if you believe. They kept what they needed to keep friends and foes alive, to sell or to eat, and threw back all the rest. At times, they put their lives at risk. It was a good trade.
But Gillie, the eight year-old first mate was following some childhood instinct, her own dasein, her own purpose. She would always feel comfortable out on the sea, especially in later years when her younger brother would come along, when her father would say, “I’m going below to make some sandwiches. You take the helm, Gillie.” And one of the older crewman would kid her, spreading his arms out toward the edges of the boat and say, “One day all of this will yours, Kiddo.” But Gillie would say that it wasn’t her dad’s or anybody else’s to give away. She would be referring to the boat and the seas and all that was connected between the two. And she knew the difference.
Watching the young girl then and the way she moved about the boat with grace and ease and with strength and control as she grew into herself, I would gain both a greater respect and in some way, a renewed fear of the ocean. Watching the way that the crew moved, each with a duty, the total being greater then the sum of its parts and especially how the young girl with the very old soul was skipping years in her steady march toward adulthood—I knew then that my life would never exist on a straight line, in a vacuum or without purpose and complexity.
And along the way, I learned about fishing.
We stayed out ten days that first trip; chased back into port by reports of an unseasonably early hurricane in the central Gulf. The hold was full of amber jack and bass and few bins of shrimp for good measure. I saw these men and Gillie’s inherent vote for Eros over Thanatos, that they had the sea in them. But it would not find me in the same way.
A day after we off-loaded the catch I was on my way home to the farm up near Mobile.