By Louis Cahill
Ever heard the phrase, “the geezer hatch is on?”
I’ve used it myself. It’s a common way of saying there are a bunch of old dudes on the water. It’s pretty common to hear younger anglers and guides grousing or making jokes about old guys who can’t see their flies or wade like a mummy in a black and white horror film.
In the past decade, fly fishing has taken on the soundtrack of extreme sport and with it some of the attitude. Too many of us feel compelled to judge our fellow anglers and that comes down pretty hard on the over-seventy set.
Like any cross section of humanity, old guys run the gambit from pompous assholes to salt of the earth. On the whole, the younger guys I know treat them pretty well but once they are out of ear shot, there is often a comment made that reveals the judgment.
Maybe I notice it because I’m at the point in my life where it’s painfully clear that we’re all going down that road. It may also be that I habitually pull for the underdog and have a heightened intolerance to inequity. I’m not saying it’s a major problem, just an underlying prejudice that rubs me wrong sometimes.
This is where my friend Mike Ray comes into the picture. I’ve gotten to know Mike over the last year or so and had the pleasure of fishing with him both on the river and in the salt. Mike is a great angler. A solid caster, in spite of a badly scarred hand, and an all-around fishy guy who’s company I thoroughly enjoy. He’s about seventy, a retired lawyer who’s done well for himself.
If you didn’t know him, if you hadn’t fished with him, you might be tempted to throw him right into the geezer category. (Sorry Mike.) If you spend some time around the man, you see something completely different. That’s how prejudice works.
In fact, what you find is a guy with a youthful spirit, an open mind, and a hell of a nice cast. But there has always been something more to Mike that I just couldn’t put my finger on. There is an air about him when he put on his waders and climbs in the boat that is nothing short of a transformation.
There’s a calmness that comes over Mike when those waders go on. A comfort and a confidence that you don’t see in many anglers. His body language changes. The way he stands and holds his cigar, the way takes a knee on the bank, and I think even the way he sees the world become something completely different. Something old and familiar.
On a recent trip to Patagonia I found out what it is.
At dinner one night, after we had all had a bit to drink and were telling some stories, Mike let something slip. He didn’t make a big deal of it, or really talk about it at all. He’s incredibly humble. It just came up in conversation that he had been on the ground in Vietnam during the Tet offensive. He is incredibly humble about it, saying…
“Its true that I was injured, during Tet, while scrambling planes but the real heroes were those grunts out there who were in danger constantly, under the worst conditions.”
That may not mean anything to a lot of you. We, as a culture, don’t talk much about that war and even less about the winter of 1968 when over 80,000 Viet Cong troops overran allied command centers, taking US forces completely by surprise. It was the first time in a generation that the US Armed Forces really had their ass handed to them. It the history books it’s marked as a US victory but it sure didn’t feel like it at the time. 543 Americans killed and 2,547 wounded, the highest weekly number of casualties of the war. It changed the way America saw the war in Vietnam.
I’m just old enough to remember that war. To remember seeing it on television. My father and my great uncle were veterans of Korea and WW2. I’d seen what combat does to men. I knew then what I’d seen in Mike. It wasn’t waders he was putting on. It was a uniform. There on the bank of a river halfway around the world, he had somehow come home.
We fished again the morning after that dinner conversation. It was a challenging day. The Patagonian wind howled. It beat us all into submission. I put away the dry flies and picked up the streamer rod so I’d have some weight to throw into that wind but at the take out my shoulders and back ached from casting.
As we pulled off our waders Mike asked me, “Have you ever had one of those days when nothing went right? Well, that was today for me. I’m really embarrassed about how I fished.”
My first thought was yes. I’ve had those days, hundreds of them. Days on the water when I was beat down, when everything I touched turned into a cluster. Days when I thought about giving up fly fishing. I’ve had more than my share but never in my life have I had a day when 80,000 troops overran my position, when 543 of my friends and coworkers were killed. I looked at Mike’s twisted hand. I’ve never had a day when I was one of 2547 men injured while serving my country.
“Mike,” I said, “I don’t give a damn how you fished. No man who lived through the Tet offensive has anything to be ashamed of, ever.”
Like any cross section of humanity, old guys run the gambit from pompous assholes to salt of the earth, but remember the next time you’re watching the geezer hatch come off, some of those old men have done a hell of a lot more in their lives than cast a fly. I hope to be one of them some day, but I will never be the man that Mike is and that so many of them are.
Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com email@example.com Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!