To be honest, I’ve never much liked the smell of second-hand smoke. I lived a pretty grungy life in my younger days and after inhaling cigarette smoke for years at a time, I’ve avoided it since.
This past Friday, however, I reveled in the smell.
I smelled the cigarette smoke and it reminded me of times past and a confusing time in my life, eventually and gracefully rescued by still waters, two-stroke motors and cheap fishing rods.
As the ash rolled down the front of his shirt and onto my flip flops while his long, dark hair blew in the warm lakeside breeze, I instantly connected with him.
The smell reminded me of a time when I was struggling to get my life together. I was grinding every single day, trying to figure out what in the world my life, and this fishing world, had in store for me. I was a young kid with a wild dream of working in the fishing industry and at the time, I had absolutely no idea what that really meant.
Ignorance was, in fact, bliss.
The smell of this cigarette last Friday brought me back to a very vivid time when I was working a miserable dead-end job and didn’t know where I’d be living the next month. I wouldn’t eat on my lunch breaks; I’d sit in my old diesel truck in an abandoned parking lot, doors locked with a pistol on my center console and write fishing articles on my laptop.
I’d dry heave on the hour-long drive home at night because I’d be so hungry. But the dream of working in the fishing industry and the draw of eventual calm waters, sunrises and a simpler life kept me striving for a seemingly unattainable dream. I didn’t have any money so there was nothing to lose. I wanted to smell the water every morning somehow. I didn’t care how it happened.
Fast-forward a decade or so and I guess it all worked out, thanks to a lot of hard work and dang good people along the way. But oddly enough, my career brought me to another lost soul.
That guy smoking a cigarette last Friday put a lot of things into perspective for me and it made me further understand the sheer importance of what we all do.
So here’s the backstory.
I work from home and I’m pretty much always by myself. It’s pretty good most of the time, but there are a lot of times it gets really lonely and at least for me, things can easily get into my head at times. My beautiful wife realizes this, so she makes me leave the house a few times a week to go out to dinner. She can tell when I need a little human interaction, so we’ll hop in the truck and head to a few nearby restaurants to get me out of the house. I don’t always feel like it but she makes sure that I stay socialized, as odd as that might sound.
There’s a marina restaurant a few-hundred yards away from our house and we like to go there every now and again. We can grab a grilled chicken salad (I’m getting old, so I have to watch my beautiful figure), watch a few innings of the Braves game on the outside patio and get back to the house in short order. This brief social outing does a lot for my head; I can see people, talk fishing with folks and get a change of scenery. The older I get, the more I realize how important this really is for my mental health.
As we were finishing up our supper there last week, I struck up a conversation with a pretty intruiging dude. He had long hair, a big beard and it was obvious he didn’t really buy into today’s social norms. I love to talk to people like that because in my experience, they often have the most interesting stories. I don’t purposely seek out people like me. I want to learn about other kinds of people because I think that’s very interesting.
He was a traveling union welder from Canada. He was in our town for a few month-long assignment and was totally by himself. He had work colleagues and all that kind of stuff, but he didn’t know anyone. He didn’t really have much else to do at night, so apparently he drove to this restaurant to do the same thing I was doing… socializing with other human beings. I reckon we were just two lonely guys looking for a decent conversation.
As we were on the outside patio and the condensation from my rapidly warming beer dripped onto my bare toes, my wife realized some sort of connection was happening. She kind of eased off into the shadows and left the two of us to talk. As I mentioned earlier, his cigarette smoke engulfed my face. The ash was all over the wooden deck. I’m sure I smelled like a 1990s Waffle House.
A situation that would normally irritate me suddenly didn’t bother me a bit, however. I wanted to hear his story. I tell stories for a living. It was time for me to listen to a story, for a change.
Because he was in town by himself, working 12 hours per day, he found himself quickly drowning in some bad habits. He hadn’t seen his widowed mother in a few years. He was depressed because he didn’t have any close friends in this suitcase, boondock-type town. He was a grown man working his butt off and making great money, but he still felt empty. The fulfillment didn’t exist.
As a result, he turned to the bottle.
When the bottle stopped working, he turned to other vices.
Before he knew it, life was getting out of control. It was hard to stay on top of his work and daily responsibilities. He knew it was time to change. I asked him about his future plans and his answer, and the full-circle realization that followed, shocked me.
“I need to go back home,” he said. “I need to see my mom and I need the water. I need to feel a smallmouth bump my line. I need to catch a walleye. I need to feel the cool breeze from my boat. I need to find myself on the water again. That’s the only way I’ll straighten up.”
Think about that for a few seconds. The solution to his fairly serious issues revolved around this beautiful sport we all love. If he could fish, he could fix himself.
After a while, I shook his hand and returned home with my wife. While I was in the shower, she and I were talking and I told her there was no way I couldn’t write about such a chance encounter. I didn’t know what I was going to say and Hell, I probably still don’t know what to say. But I know I need to say it.
One of my very best friends died from addiction several years ago. I didn’t know he had a problem. Nobody did. He did a good job at hiding it.
He begged me to take him fishing. Read that sentence again. He practically begged me to take him fishing. But I always had some stupid, short-sighted excuse.
I never took him fishing.
Less than a year later, he was dead. I will never, as long as I have a single breath in my lungs, forgive myself for that. I could have helped him.
For me, this job with which I’ve been blessed, is not always about teaching people HOW to fish.
I think a lot of it revolves around teaching people WHY to fish.
I like to believe that the Good Lord created these still waters, these eastern sunrises, these fish catches and these chance encounters with likeminded outdoorsmen as a respite from the garbage we all deal with in everyday life.
It seems like we’re bombarded, every second of every day, with negativity. The world isn’t what it used to be. Some days, in my opinion, it flat-out sucks.
But the waters remain still.
The waters will never judge you. They’ll never make you feel insignificant.
The waters are what they’ve always been.
They’re our still point in a turning world. They’re our escape from the mundane.
The waters are our sobriety.
Sobriety from addiction. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, technology, negativity, self-hate, insecurity, anxiety or depression. The waters are there to heal us.
Regardless of the addiction, everyone reading this has known someone who struggles with this issue and it doesn’t make that person less of a human being.
But maybe, just maybe… they need the water. And if they do, it’s up to us—the fishermen—to provide them with that solace.
Put a fishing rod in their hand. Set some time aside. I wish I did with my old buddy. But I’ll never get that chance back.
For my new Canadian buddy, who is now on a journey back to Canada to rediscover his sobriety, I wish him the best of luck. He’ll probably never read this but if he does, I hope he knows I’m pulling for him.
To my new friend: Embrace the Great Unknown. Stay near the outdoors. Breathe it in. Re-center yourself and most importantly, thank you for the conversation. I appreciate your trust and time.
Always remember… the unwavering waters of sobriety will save your life if you let them.