The death of former President George H.W. Bush has evoked fond reminiscences, including a Denver Post vignette from his cousin, Walker Stapleton — Colorado Treasurer and recently, unsuccessfully, Republican candidate for Governor.
Stapleton recalls a day fishing with Bush, he at age six, and Bush, soon-to-be Vice-President, advising him: Public service is a noble calling. It’s a great thing to do and you should find a way to do it sometime.
If only I, at about the same age, had had the benefit of such wise counsel! Like Stapleton, I did have an older cousin who might have guided my future. He was in show business, and I am grateful for his teaching me how to wiggle my ears, play the ukulele, and cross one eye, but preparation for a life of public service it wasn’t.
My father might have been the more appropriate counselor. Like Mr. Bush, he was an amateur fisherman and I was his pupil, eager for sage advice on our day-trips down to Fabius Brook or up to Fish Creek.
These hours together could have guided me toward great deeds, but what I got was, Looks like rain. Could mean better fishing. Dunno why. Maybe harder for the fish to see us. Or, Don’t hook the worm through that light part there; it’s soft and the worm’ll just get pulled off in fast water.
Don’t get me wrong. My father was a sophisticated, well-educated guy. It was just that fishing days were for fishing, and, if you wasted your time daydreaming about lofty goals like becoming President, or, even better, first-baseman for the Dodgers, what you’d end up with was, not greatness, but a waterlogged branch snagged on your hook, with moss.
On these trips, Dad’s longer-range vision ended at whether we should accept our bad luck here and move upstream there to where we got that nice one last year, or, better, where should we go for lunch.
In fact, now that I think about it, lunch was probably a major missed opportunity — father and son sharing a meal together; time for serious, strategic planning.
It didn’t start auspiciously. Early days, we’d eat streamside. The problem was that, in that relaxed setting, where I might have been susceptible to fatherly advice about the future, lunch was pickled lambs-tongue sandwiches, which did not make me receptive to much of anything.
The alternative, once I had worked up the courage to protest the sandwiches, was also not the best. Dad was not exactly a gourmet (a man who, for years, lived on coffee and tuna-fish sandwiches for workday lunch), and, on fishing days, a greasy spoon — as raffish as possible — was his preference.
One of the favorites was a dive that featured dirty socks thumbtacked to the ceiling, an old barber’s chair in the corner, a juke box, and a menu spattered with ketchup.
Sports talk was the logical common-denominator, especially the Chiefs and Eddie Shokes’ flawless fielding, or the Warriors and whether the Bruins were going to call up Bronco Horvath (they did). No chat about colleges or professions or higher callings.
Not quite the stuff of future greatness, but there probably was a lesson in all this more useful than what a well-meaning Mr. Bush gave to young Master Stapleton — there’s nothing wrong with big dreams, but the smaller details, like how to bait a hook or field a grounder, are what get you there one step at a time.