I was in a day-dreaming mode (mood?) the other day. It started out by remembering having to drive my boys to AAU summer sports camps. As I went down that trail, I went back a little further into the vault of memories that eventually took me back to when I was a kid.
It seems like a half-century ago because, well… it was. I thought of how things have changed so drastically in the period of time where most of my memories would be made. That period of time that I love revisiting, but always needing the courage to withstand the sadness.
Memories of better days. I don’t know if that brings warm tender feelings or just loneliness because time never allows you to move in reverse. It never allows you to recreate exact moments. It doesn’t allow for conversations today with those who departed yesterday.
So. I thought about what I’d have been doing as a kid on a Friday summer afternoon. Life always conditions you to look toward the weekends. Because of school during the year and because your parents are always working during the week, we are conditioned to look toward that bastion of days we live for.
Before high school, Tuesdays and Thursdays were always sporting my green T-shirt. Mainly because I was on the green team for Little League. Although we played ball most of the week, only twice did we have organized games with our Parks and Recreation Department.
Back to Friday afternoons. For most kids it was a Friday night pickup game of baseball in the sandlot, but for me it meant I had to have my clothes packed for a weekend with my Grandpa Mataya. In summer it was fishing and in autumn it was hunting. No deviation from the schedule.
He would have all of our gear in the back of the station wagon as he was all too efficient with a touch of OCD and a lot of precision to his life.
He always knew where everything was because he told me once he didn’t want to add up all the hours when it was all over and find out he wasted his life looking for stuff. That lesson stuck. A lot of his lessons stuck, even to this day.
He was a big towering man born to Croatian immigrant miners and farmers in Iowa. His voice was not only bass and booming, but it could also be scary and intimidating. But not to me. I was his first grandchild and when I came along God revealed a softer, gentler side of the man that took everyone by surprise.
His dad (my great-grandfather) died in his 30s of a stress related heart attack and I’m pretty sure my grandfather found stress reducers. Hollering at the speed of sound at anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. His quiet Catholic faith on Sunday mornings. His Croatian music and his love to be in the outdoors. Something I must have inherited. Perhaps to make him proud of me.
He was also an expert fly-fisherman who had a sportsman’s television show in Milwaukee in the ‘50s and although he covered several topics, his passion was fly-fishing and tying these magnificent little flies with hands as big as shovels.
He got to be a legend, fishing all over the North American continent, catching swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico, salmon in Alaska and record Muskies in the Chippewa Flowage in northern Wisconsin. His favorite, though was catching trout on the Embarrass River near Pella, Wisconsin.
Sometimes we’d fish together. Sometimes he’d put me in downstream and go to find his own spot. He was unique and what put him into the American Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame located in Hayward, Wisconsin, was his ability to watch what the fish were feeding on, taking his mobile fly-tying kit to the stream and tying flies right there. It earned him the name and his exhibit in the HOF, “The streamside fly-fisherman.”
I got the gift of spending hours with a man who didn’t take time for many people. To walk in his shoes is nigh unto impossible. To call him my hero is an understatement. But today the memories in my mind caused me to walk with him again in the quiet of the woods, hearing only the gentle flow of the stream and the night birds winding down as the moon came up. Fishing until well after dark and more than once having to be rescued with the sound of his brusk voice that broke the silence of the dark woods, “Whadyou catch?”
Last Friday I went Fishing with a memory perhaps. But more than that, catching him up on all that has passed since his passing and wondering if he’d be proud of me. I challenge you to take a trip back one of these days to that one who so profoundly changed your life and have the courage to wonder what they’d say.