I remember getting to the river just as Tom V. tossed his tackle and waders into a truck. I hadn’t seen Tom in years, so was eager to catch up on the news. We’d attended
university classes together, prepping for a life in education, but later Tom had grown disenchanted with the prospect of teaching, so he got involved with sales. We’d seen each other only a few times since and, truth be told, I didn’t know that Tom had ever spent time fishing.
“I want to move south,” he told me. “I want to leave these northern winters and my lousy job and all the stress that goes with it.” Tom wasn’t an old guy ready for retirement at that point. He was middle-aged, youthful and brawny, with a crew-cut that lent him an appearance of an off-duty cop.
I told him what I’d been up to– family, fishing, writing, a rereading of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler.
“Want to see what I’ve been reading lately?” Tom opened a door to his truck and pulled out a dog-eared Christian Bible, exclaiming that the book had set him free. The word “free” had a curious ring to it.
“I’m happy now,” he said. “I’ve got a good wife, three kids, a friend or two, and I’m happy with Christ. Since I was a kid I’ve felt different from others. I’ve been sensitive to things, but somehow always… wrong. It took so long to realize that all our social masks and phony smiles, the small talk, all of it, is bullshit!
“You know, it’s funny how it takes a damned catastrophe, a horrible thing like war, to make you learn how full of crap this life is. Over in Vietnam you had to be real, or die. Over in ‘Nam I learned about camaraderie. Love for people, call it what you will. It was… spiritual, too. I got something that this other world rarely gives– a feeling for humanity. I can tell you this, ’cause I think you’ll understand– I’m not just another f”ing idiot!”
I didn’t even know that Thomas V. had served in Vietnam.
“I’m ashamed to admit it,” he said. “In ‘Nam I helped burn entire villages. Yeah, babies, children, old folk, dying women. I was… f”ed in the head. But I finally learned to love the human race.
“The Bible says we’re coming to the End. Two-thousand years, brother. If it wasn’t for the faith that I was given, I don’t know where I’d be today. You can talk about environmental problems all you want– of nuclear waste, acid rain, pollution of our rivers, climate change– but I tell ya, if it wasn’t for this faith of mine, I’d have taken an automatic to some of those bastards who perpetuate it, and blown ’em right to Hell. But I don’t need a gun, you see. I don’t need anything else, ’cause I accept the End.”
What could I say to Tom? Should I have spoken of love for nature, for the peace that’s found in rural living, in the gentle art of fishing? Did I dare converse about the pleasures of literature, or even mention the silliness of milkmaids in Izaak Walton’s book? Tom V. had other issues in mind.
“Obviously you’ve run into a dead end,” he told me. He dipped into scripture once again and read something that seemed half obscure, half truth, half handed-down, accepted with little criticism. Then he closed his book and prepared me for confession.
Tom had been fishing that day (without success, apparently), and I was eager to begin my casting, but I also wanted to hear about his youngest kid.
“I loved that boy,” he stated, “and more so because he had a physical deformity at birth. A year ago I saw him strike my daughter with a piece of garden hose. It made a small cut near her mouth. Her face turned red with blood… and I saw Satan.
“I was back in ‘Nam, and lost control. I smacked the boy on the ear and tossed him. We’ve got Evil in us, man, and given certain circumstances, we could be like Hitler.
“My wife rushed the little guy to the hospital. The doc knew immediately what had happened, and he urged my wife to press charges. She refused. The inner ear was damaged, but it had a chance to heal and to give back some of the hearing. I was shocked by what I’d done.
“I collapsed and had a vision. I saw, and knew, that my son’s ear would be okay. I decided to fast for 30 days, then lost all track of time. One day, on my 30th day of fasting, my wife returned from the doc’s and told me that the hearing had improved. I went to a spiritual healer and, well, here I am today. I’ve even taken up the spinning rod again.
“I don’t fly fish, but you won’t hold that against me, will you?”
“Hell no,” I said. “It doesn’t matter how you fish, if you’re playing by the rules and having fun. You’ve got your faith, and I have a different sort, but other than that, we’re fishing.”
Tom continued. “You should take my faith, and give it a chance in your life.” He was ready to read again from the Bible, but I gave him pause. We shook hands there on the parking lot, and I finished with a word from Izaak Walton while suggesting that some day we might fish together on the river.