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First Place - "Looking Back"

1997 Anne Horton Writing Award
First Place
"Looking Back"
Jennifer Sherman

The path to Pine Lake took us down a long and winding dirt road. The Oak trees that marked the way sagged with multicolored leaves hanging from their branches. It wasn't until we made the final turn that I could see the shining blue water of the lake. The cattails that surrounded the lake seemed almost alive as they poked out of the tall weeds. At the far corner of the water, I was able to spot an opening for us to fish from.

This was the first and only fishing trip my father had taken me on by myself. I was a very anxious 9 year old, wanting to prove I could be as good a fisherman as my brothers. Grabbing a plump night-crawler out of the bucket, I tried to remember exactly what my father had taught me regarding the art of baiting one's own hook. I started with the tip of the worm, working it gently up and around the curve. The trick he said was always to leave a small portion of the worm dangling at the end of the hook to attract the fish. With that task completed, I let the line from my Zebco reel sail through the air and land with a gentle plop in the water. I was determined to catch the biggest fish in the world and make my father proud.

For what seemed countless hours of waiting, the candy apple red bobbers floated on the top of the water. Reaching maximum boredom, I decided not to care who caught the fish as long as we had some action. Finally, when I thought I wouldn't be able to wait any longer, my Dad got a nibble on his line. The bobber came up, went down, then up again. This action continued for a minute or two, then came to an abrupt halt. Dad and I began to think something nibbled the end off the worm and moved onto new territory. Then in one split second the apple bobbed totally out of sight. The only thing we could see was the transparent hint of the fishing line flying back and forth in the water.

My father struggled for countless minutes to reel his pole in, while giving the creature at the other end enough slack not to break the line. I was so excited; I wanted to jump into the water and escort what ever was down there to shore myself. Trying to no avail to swim away, it finally tired out and gave in to my father's unending patience. Placing the net in the water we lifted out the most beautiful green striped Bass my father had ever caught in that lake!

Grabbing the scale to weigh it, the Bass ended up a whopping 10 1/2 pounds, and my father was ecstatic. I, on the other hand, thought it such a shame we make supper out of what looked like such an old, yet not so wise, creature. Determined though to be "tough" in the eyes of my father, I did not request of him what I so desperately wanted to.

Looking back on the situation, I wonder if my father saw the despair on my face. As he released the net from my hand he said, "J.B., I think that it is this fish's lucky day. We have too many hot dogs to eat to worry about cooking him too." With that, holding the fish behind the gills, Dad took it out of the net. He carefully backed the hook out of the corner of its mouth. Placing his "catch of the day" in the water, he gently rocked it back and forth. After letting air pass through its gills, he let the fish swim gracefully out of his grip.

Until that moment I thought I had learned all that I could from my father. Although as he let that fish go, I realized his lessons to me were unending. At dusk, when it was time to head home, I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness, not wanting our time to run out. Looking back on that day, I wish I would have kept that feeling with me throughout my entire life. If I had, maybe I would not have taken any of the precious time I had with my father for granted.

The years seemed to pass rather quickly from that point on. Like most teenage years, mine were not the smoothest. On my 16th birthday I left my father's house, not returning until I was 20. When I finally went back home to live, my father was retired, and both his physical condition and demeanor had taken a turn for the worse.

On his 70th birthday, my father and I had a talk that brought me to a very rude awakening. I was in the kitchen cooking him a pizza for dinner when he told me he wanted to audio-tape the "story of his life." Though the room was filled with silence, I knew in my heart what he was trying to say. My father was at the point he did not want to go on living. The words he spoke still ring in my ears, "J.B., I have never been more miserable in my entire life." My father told me his mind was consumed with thoughts about my brother Joe who had passed away the previous summer. He didn't seem to be able to handle the fact that one of his children had died before him. My father told me how tired he was of being sick, unhappy, and of living. He explained to me that the color in things he once loved so much had simply faded to black and white.

Though it was hard to understand, I did my best to listen to my father. It seemed that if he had ever needed me to just listen to him, there was no greater time than that moment. My father and I made amends that night for all of the rocky roads in our past, putting behind us all the pain we had caused one another. I came to regret with all my heart that we let so much time pass by before we had that talk. Had we made amends sooner, our trips to Pine Lake could have been countless.

It was a dark fall night when I came home and found my father finally at peace. In his life, my father's greatest love was nature and the outdoors. He not only lived where he could hear the tips of the trees whistling in the wind; he died there too.

On the day of the funeral as my father lay in that bed of oak, he looked somehow more alive than I had seen him in a very long time. Sunniness seemed to glow from his face, as if he had once again caught the biggest fish in the lake. Without a wrinkle in it, his favorite suit had been ironed to perfection. His bolo tie hung just perfectly around his neck. All of his favorite colors lay in beautiful correlation around his body. More cattails than we had ever seen at Pine Lake were placed carefully around him. Pheasant feathers were intertwined amongst the cascading shades of red and burnt orange flowers. The things he loved and held most dear surrounded him that autumn day. Not only was this my father's favorite time of year, autumn seemed to portray his entire outlook on life.

Many things come to mind when I think of all that my father has taught me. His greatest lesson, however, is that true appreciation of all things in both nature and life comes from within ourselves. He helped me see the beauty of a pine seedling as it grew or a deer as it stood in a field lightly dusted with snow. I have learned through him that there is a time to live and a time to die. What is important is that you don't take even the smallest detail in life for granted. These lessons are some that I plan to carry with me throughout my life and pass on to my children. I hope that somehow his influence will be felt as much by them as it was by me. Sherman