Avery’s Dad And The Silver-Gray Ribbon
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Avery’s Dad And The Silver-Gray Ribbon

Infinitely oblique syllogisms determined Avery Well’s every moment that he spent with a fly rod in his hand. He was stalwart in following the fly fishing catechism that had been drilled into him during a much slower, easy decade when soda cans still needed an opener to reach the pop inside. His lessons were fleeting recollections of his father that traveled with him to every stream or lake he had ever thrown a fly over. The memories of his dad were of the gray, vaporous variety. Avery never remembered those days in the vivid pastel colors that make up most people’s childhood memories. His only happy remembrances of his father were those rare, special moments with his dad’s favorite stream. Other than that handful of joyous visions from the past, his mind held nothing more than the colorless auras of the dry souled man clapping out time while he waved a willow limb in the air.

It seemed the limber stick was always half of a clap behind the rhythmic slapping sound of his dad’s hands coming together. Most fathers would have expected this from a 7-year-old but his never did. “Casting;” his dad would soliloquize to the ever-present Olympia beer can in his hand, “defines how the angler is perceived within the world he inhabits. Whether this is right or wrong doesn’t matter, it is the mechanics of the universe.”

McCully Creek with Mount Joseph in the background in the late fall
A stream holds more than fish. It holds a child’s dreams and a man’s memories.

When his dad finished speaking, his melancholy eyes would drift morosely towards the mountains as if he were watching his words rise through the layer of smoke from the hog fire at the mill. These were the most profound words that he would ever hear his father speak.

The first few thousand Saturdays of Avery’s life started with the same question; “Daddy can I go with you?” Forcing a smile, his dad would tell him maybe next weekend or not today. Then he would open the front door and carry the canvas gear bag and rod tube that Avery’s grandpa had given his son out to the waiting old yellow Chevy truck. There would we be 30 seconds of strained churning and plumes of volcanic silver smoke as the truck’s engine grudgingly awakened. Then the little boy with his nose pushed against the window glass would see a man through the oily cloud of smoke behind the wheel. The man had a relaxed grin on a soft face that radiated happiness. Glancing towards the pajama-clad little figure in the window, the joyful man would give Avery a little wave. Then the strangely happy man would back his dad’s truck out of their driveway and head off to his river.

A deep low droning song from the mill whistle echoed up and down Main Street of Avery’s little town every morning at 6 AM, 365 days a year. He would wake up and scamper to the kitchen where his mom would be making his breakfast before she headed off to her job at the bank. The only sign that his father had been there was the ancient black lunch box and dented green thermos that lived by the front door had disappeared. Avery knew that his dad had already unloaded two or three logging trucks before he had gotten out of bed. The same trucks that his friends’ fathers drove relentlessly, blizzard or not, through town and down to the mill. The one that provided the fuel for the engine of the local economy. After about 25 more loads were unloaded it would be time for his dad to come home, open a beer and head out into the backyard with Avery. Together they would practice casting an imaginary fly line as the sun the fell behind the mountains.

The whistle was still singing when Avery came into the kitchen expecting his morning kiss and a bowl of oatmeal from his mother. His mom was there and so was the oatmeal, but so was his father at the head of the table with a cup of coffee, his slippers on his feet. “We are going fishing today Ave. Eat your oatmeal and then we will go;” his dad said as he took a sip of his coffee. The confusion about his dad being home was washed from his mind by a tidal wave of excitement. His dad was going to take him fly fishing for the first time and actually let him fish! Avery was so busy shoveling his oatmeal in like a stoker feeds coal to a steam engine that he didn’t see his dad glance over to his mom and mouth the words; “We are going to be alright.”

Avery knew that his dad loved two things; fly fishing and his family. He also knew that the only time he ever saw his father smile is when he was knee deep in Willow Creek. His dad would effortlessly cast one of the intricate little flies that he had watched him tie during the winter to a spot behind a rock or in some frothy, fast water. Then, without fail, a trout would end up splashing around the little stream, straining to shake the hook from its mouth that his father had magically gotten the Rainbow to eat. His dad, after all, was the greatest fly fisherman on earth. It was on this day Avery was going to learn that the little fly was called a Caddis and the frothy fast water was a riffle. He would learn that he could also do magic.

The pickup was bounced along. There were twenty miles of ruts and rock that it would navigate leaving a plume of acrid brown dust lingering behind it for miles, the telltale sign of late July. Crickets sang songs about the heat from hiding spots in the bunch grass that dotted the barren open range the father and son were passing through. Neither would have noticed if they could have heard the insects over the gravel bouncing around the truck’s wheel wells. Both were trying to talk over the AM radio that was tuned to the only station that was in the valley. Avery was asking endless questions about flies and fish to a father who tried to answer each one without sounding beat down by his son’s endless amount of enthusiasm. Finally, Avery’s dad said; “Take a break for a minute son. There will be lots of time when you are fishing to ask this stuff. Anyway, we are only a few minutes away, eat something.” He then reached over and turned the radio up and began to hum along with Charlie Pride.

Thoughts about his family’s future tried to creep into his mind, attempting to spoil this moment with his wide-eyed, blonde haired sidekick. He was jarred out of his wanton thoughts of money and bills and all other things adult by a deep belch from the tiny person next to him. Glancing away from the road that was starting to drop into the canyon, he saw a little kid joyously gulping cheap Safeway pop from a can. After each big swallow Ave would stiffen his back and push as hard as he could from somewhere deep his inside body, a place that only kids know exists. Then his neck would go stiff and his head would tilt back as he opened his mouth to release the loudest burp he could elicit from the depths of his tiny soul. After each one he would pause and look at his dad for his manly approval. “Nice one son;” he laughed as the worry drained from his face and they began the short descent down into Willow Creek.

The Silver-Gray Ribbon

Avery, the boy, had been to the little creek many times. Avery, the fly fisherman, was seeing the meandering stream in its shallow valley for the first time. His interest in bouncing the echoes of soda-induced burps around the cab of his dad’s truck instantly waned when he saw the silver-gray ribbon of water just a few minutes away. With every revolution of his dad’s pickup’s mismatched set of tires, he was getting either more excited or more nervous, he couldn’t tell. Thirty years later he still wouldn’t be sure which it had been.

Fears of disappointing his father rode next to Avery. The demon was clapping along with the imagined sounds of his father’s scarred hands coming together, seemingly to setting the time of every bump they hit as they jolted along. The sharp, rhythmic sounds his mind was conjuring up were getting painfully louder the closer the truck got to their destination. They slowly lurched down the last steep pitch that spilled onto the old cattle guard that was the gateway through a rusty barbed wire fence. The fence had once defended the lush meadow grass that grew next to the creek from wandering cows but now it was in disrepair with broken stays a saggy wire.

Avery didn’t lift up his feet like he had always done, when the old Chevy rolled across the rusty bars that were lying perpendicular to road covering the shallow pit that kept the cows out. Anxiety and doubts about his ability to keep the smiling man behind the wheel from turning into his dad were strong enough to overcome the irresistible, endless joy that usually emanated from Avery. He didn’t notice the cloud of dust roll into his open window as the truck wobbled to an unsure stop.

“Hey Ave, you there;” a low, feathery voice pushed through the heavy, darkness dragging him back to the moment. “You dreaming of all the fish you’re going to catch today?” his dad finished as he shut off the old truck. Before the little boy could answer, the man in cutoffs and the worn pair of Converse sneakers that he had played basketball in when he was in high school was out of the truck. He was rummaging around the long wooden box that he had built specifically to hold his fishing gear. Avery watched through the grimy back window as the rods were brought out first and then the old canvas reel bag. His father dug around in the bag for a few seconds before he found the dingy silver fly reels and placed them gently on a piece of cardboard that he had laid on the open tailgate. Then he pulled out the aging wooden fly box that had his name, “Tom Simmons”, burnt across the top. Inside were the magical little conglomerations of feather and fur that he had tied over the winter. The little boy was watching this from his seat, frozen in his uncertainty, until his dad noticed where he was and asked; “You going to go fishing today kid? When you get out, grab that bag from under the seat.”

His dad was humming when he rounded the end of the truck with the brown paper sack. “Put that on the tailgate;” his dad said. “Ave, watch how I do this. So you can do it yourself next time.” He picked up one of the fiberglass fly rods up and then grabbed a reel off of the cardboard. “Make sure the handle is always on the right side when you put it on the pole;” his dad said as his vernacular slid back into the local jargon. He knowingly smiled from the speaking error that he knew his son would catch and said; “I know it is a rod, not a pole.”

There was a joy in the man’s precision as he proceeded to show his son how to thread the fly line onto the limber white fly rod. Avery was nervous and his dad knew that he was to blame for the normally animated child’s solemn demeanor. That year, life that is, was taking its toll on him. His co-workers had been getting laid off from the mill. Every Monday he had gone to work expecting a pink slip in the place of his timecard. Yesterday, the little piece of paper malevolently appeared in his slot. So the job that he never intended to be dependent on at the mill was suddenly gone. The time was right to take Avery fly fishing for the first time.

He had to take that job out of desperation, a job that replaced his irrepressible teenage smile with a dour glare that shrunk his soul. One that made sure that his life would be no different than any of his friends. A boring, normal life based on finishing high school so you could get one of the better jobs in the mill or in the woods cutting trees. Dreams of being an engineer and fly fishing are what had driven him through high school career, not of making foreman after 20 years driving a log loader. He managed to keep half of his dreams alive through his sophomore year in college.

Avery’s mom was a senior in high school when they had met. Her eyes were glowing soft and golden in the dancing light from the flames of the bonfire that lit up the bottom of the gravel pit that night. He saw her and a friend shyly lingering at the edge of the shadows, just outside of the ring of college kids that were slurping down cheap beer. When he handed her the plastic cup full of Heidelburg he knew at that moment that his life had just changed. Just under a year later he was standing in the creek casting a grasshopper pattern as his new bride proudly watched him from a blanket he had thrown on the meadow next to the water. In her arms was a tiny pink little Avery wrapped in a blanket.

“Dad, I think you missed one of those hoops on the rod;” Avery giggled. His excitement had finally pushed the fear of letting his dad down aside. Drawn out of his thoughts, he looked down at the boy like it was the first time he had ever seen him. A subtle, warmth began to rise up through his bones as the blue-eyed midget gazed up at him like he was a superhero.

“They are called guides;” his dad said with a laugh as he was pulled from the melancholy of what could have been. “Let’s get some flies on and go catch a fish. Oh, wait a second you don’t have any flies;” he mocked melodramatically as he reached for the brown paper bag that was rustling in the slight breeze. He then handed it to his son and told him to open it.

When Ave pulled the small wooden box out of the sack, the first thing he saw was his name, “Avery Simmons” burned into its brown lid. He stood in the sunshine gawking at his name on the fly box his dad had made for him in dreamy disbelief. “Open it up Avery, see what’s inside;” the happy man’s voice, his dad’s voice, falling softly on him from above. The little boy slid the oversized latch that was made from a brass machine bolt from one of the machines at the mill to the right and carefully opened the box.

“Those are for you, but from now on you will have to tie your own;” his father told him as he looked at the dozens of different flies that were lined up perfectly in the box. Each row of flies had a silver metal label above it with the name of the flies etched into it. Names like “Adams” and “Pale Morning Dun” were shining in the sun.

“Thanks, Dad! I hope I do ok;” the last five words from the grinning, yet worried boy put a sad weight on his dad’s moment.

“You’ll do just fine;” his father said reassuring Avery and reminding himself of his first time out in the same stream. He saw his impatiently stern father standing beside a crying boy. His dad never smiled, even when he was fishing. There had been no hope or joy in his dad’s life only, the constant of the lumber mill’s tormenting whistle and a fly rod. His dad’s fly rod was a tool that fostered his addiction but not like most angler’s fishing addiction. His addiction was to the agonizing reminder that fly fishing gave him of how good his life could have been. It wasn’t until Tom’s teenage years that he realized his father had no love for anything, including himself or fly fishing. The day Tom figured these two things out about his father’s inner-workings was the day he left for college. His dad had put the old suitcase into the back of his truck and was walking away with his gruff voice trailing behind him saying; “You’ll be back, just like me.” Less than two months later his dad would be found next to Willow Creek with a trout still on his fly, his rod still grasped in his hand. The same empty frown that Tom had never seen leave his face was still there.

The father and son splashed into Willow Creek until the water was up to Avery’s knees. Tom looked down at the little boy while was Avery surveying the slick sheen water in front of them as the water flowed softly around their legs. “There’s one!” Avery said like the excited seven-year-old he was. His finger shooting towards the remnants of a ring on the water.  A trout had just eaten one of the mayflies that were flitting around the pair of anglers.

Thirty years later Avery would remember everything about that moment. He could feel the warm day and the cold water. He could still see the willows trembling in the breeze when he closed his eyes. But what he remembered most of all, was his dad smiling down at him as if he were fishing himself and saying; “Let’s catch that fish.”

Follow Sean Johnson:

Sean was raised in Northeastern Oregon in the Wallowa Valley. It was there that he learned to hunt and fly fish. After receiving his history degree from the University of Oregon, Sean guided fly fishermen from Alaska to Chile. There were a few interludes where he sailed as a crew member on a ship and even worked in the craft brewing industry. Eventually he found his love in writing about the outdoors. His articles and fiction stories have a unique style and voice that conveys his love for the natural world. Currently he is the main writer for Always A Good Day, freelances and is working on a book of fiction.

2 Responses

  1. Shelly Ehmer
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    Love this