Over the years, almost half a century of them now, I have failed miserably in my attempts to write the story of my father’s death.
I have failed with a lead pencil and with a Bic pen. I have failed with a Sears-Roebuck manual typewriter up in my room at our house in Chamberlain and with a blue Selectric auto-banger from IBM in the basement offices of the The Collegian on the campus of South Dakota State University.
I have failed with most of the desk-top, laptop computers known to the newspaper business, in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader newsroom, the Rapid City Journal newsroom and in the now-departed capital bureaus of each in Pierre.
I have managed in one personal column or the other, or in a poem or two along the way, to tell some of the cancer story, how it infiltrated our family and eluded the less-sophisticated methods of detection available in the 1960s. Eluded, that is, until it was too late.
I’ve written about how it surprised both my dad and his doctor, who happened also to be his good friend, and how it stole much of the joy from my sister’s wedding, just days after the surgery in Minneapolis told us all we hated to know about my father’s brief future.
I’ve written about how he turned his back, wisely I think, on the archaic treatment options of the time, which were likely to offer little beyond torture to a patient with advanced stomach and liver cancer. And how he spent much of the summer half-reclining in an old green lawn chair out in the front yard, nibbling at unfriendly bits of food, sipping an occasional can of malt liquor, reaching down from time to time to pat the head of our demoralized Labrador retriever-water spaniel mix, Nipper.
I think I’ve even confessed that at 16, distraught to the point of derangement, I couldn’t find the courage to visit my father’s room at Community Bailey Hospital during the last two weeks of his life, not even long enough to say goodbye.
So I’ve been trying to say goodbye in one way or another ever since. But I’ve never said it the way I hoped to, or needed to.
How long should a guy try? As long as he can, I guess.
But I tried something different this year, on the 49th anniversary of that sweaty August day in 1968 when my dad’s noble heart finally quit, leaving an empty vessel in a rumpled hospital bed.
There’s still a lot more than that to say. And this time, I decided I would try to say some of it, at least, with a fly rod.
“I’m going over to Silver City,” I said to Mary, as she managed a gaggle of giggling grandkids paddling about in kayaks along the swimming beach at Pactola Reservoir. “I want to spend some time thinking about Dad.”
It would be the right place for that, I figured, because Dad spent a fair bit of time thinking about Silver City. He wanted a little retirement cabin there, a place that would elevate his existence after a life of flatland farming and ranching in Lyman County.
He loved the Black Hills for how different they were from the grain fields and wheatgrass pastures that he loved just as much, or even more. He wanted a place out here, a little place, where he could sit on an open porch as the evening cool filtered in through the pines and ponder a few things.
And he wanted to fish. For trout. And have some idea what he was doing.
We fished for trout, he and I, during weekend visits or longer vacations out this way when I was a kid. We rarely caught any. And when we did, we rarely knew why.
And even that was almost always lake fishing, at Sheridan mostly. And mostly what we did was cast and sit and watch and wait. So it was not all that far removed from pulling bullheads from the North Dam or teasing pike and bass and bluegills by dangling fresh-dug worms under bobbers over at the Reliance Dam.
We did OK on the Missouri River, too, back then, for catfish, sauger and, as the river was transformed into a reservoir called Francis Case, for northern pike and, finally, walleyes. But to us, cold-water streams might as well have been particle physics.
We tried Spring Creek and Rapid Creek with our farm-fishing gear, without success. We even tried the Madison River once during a trip to Yellowstone, rising early in a futile effort to catch them off guard. We tossed clear plastic bobbers half filled with water, as directed by the guy with the vest and the attitude at a West Yellowstone fly shop, that were connected to tiny little bits of feathers and fuzz wrapped around even tinier hooks.
As we expected, we didn’t catch a thing.
Stream fishing was, to dad, a foreign language he couldn’t speak. That was especially true about fly fishing in streams, with all those willowy bamboo rods and the fat, oddly colored floating lines that suddenly shape shifted into something at the end known as a leader, or a tippett, or some such nonsense. But it was nonsense that intrigued him, strange as it was.
The other terminology was strange, too, to a flatland farmer whose angling vocabulary was based on scrounged-up lug nuts for weights, rusty Eagle Claw hooks and beat-up old single-action Pflueger and Shakespeare bait-casting reels that, when properly motivated with enough centrifugal force, grudgingly regurgitated a dozen or so yards of decades-old braided line.
So when Dad heard elegant words like baetis and caddis, tinsel and chenille they were as foreign to his idea of fishing as were his spurts of Bohemian — where “trout” was, I think, “pstruh” — to my idea of speaking.
I had no desire to learn Bohemian. But Dad wanted to learn stream fishing, and trout, and share that with me, and someday, maybe, even with his grandchildren. And a good share of it he hoped to do in Rapid Creek. Close to his cabin. In Silver City.
That dream ended for him when he was 56. But after resettling to the Black Hills in 2002, when I was 50, I assumed Dad’s dream and the responsibility that came with it as naturally as I have assumed, more and more each year, his physical appearance.
So I even looked quite a bit like Dad might have looked in a few more years, dressed up in chest waders and packing one of those willowy rods, as I stepped into the knee-deep flow of Rapid Creek.
“Well, here I am, Dad,” I said softly. “Back again, to your place.”
Such talk, isn't it, from a guy who is himself a dad and a grandad? But I just can't help myself. Not out there.
I was a quarter mile or so downstream from Silver City, a casual cluster of cabins and some more sophisticated homes along Rapid Creek not far upstream of Pactola Reservoir. Twenty five people live there full time. The population triples during the summer months.
It’s a place with a familiar Black Hills history, having been settled in the 1870s by miners hunting for gold and, as the name suggests, silver.
Dad went there during pre-marriage wanderings with his older brother, Frank, who would join him in a life-long agricultural partnership called Woster Brothers Farms northeast of Reliance. Both of them fell in love with Silver City long before our respective family vacations took us there.
Uncle Frank’s oldest son, Leo, who is eight or nine years my senior, knows more of the details than I do. But there were Black Hills deer hunting trips that included Dad and Uncle Frank and several Lyman County pals.
“Their hunting grounds was that area from Silver City up to around Rochford,” Leo wrote recently in an email. “I am pretty sure they would rent a cabin in Silver City on those hunts. I remember finding an old red hunting cap, and red plaid coat, Dad had for hills deer hunting. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw the same stashed away somewhere around your place.”
Indeed, I did. I even wore that cap a time or two, never realizing its significance.
Leo is a retired engineer who made a professional name and plenty of friends in Fort Pierre before he moved to Alaska. But he kept plenty of South Dakota roots, and he is part-owner of a cabin not far out in the woods from Silver City.
So in a way, my cousin is living my dad’s retirement dream. The cabin part, at least. And I like that idea, of keeping it in the family.
I am living my dad’s Black Hills retirement dream, too, the stream-fishing part, one cast after another. And I often think of my dad when I’m wading a stream, with one of those strange, willowy rods in my hand, frequently speaking out loud to him.
“This is good flow,” I said. “There’s a big fish in that deeper water up against the bank.”
There was, too. A fish of good size flashed beneath my fly on the first drift through, and took it on the second. When I raised the rod tip the thin graphite doubled over with the weight of the fish as it turned toward the middle of the stream, exposing the red side of a rainbow, probably 17 or 18 inches long.
But the fish knew where safety waited and headed straight for the undercut along the bank and an assortment of wood snags. I held the line and raised the rod higher, trying to keep the fish out the snag. But the extra pressure simply dislodged the hook, which came flying back past me to land in the willows behind me.
“Dang,” I said.
OK, it was something slightly saltier than that, for which I apologized, aloud, to my dad.
“Sorry,” I said. “I know, I swear too much.”
The willows seemed to nod agreement as I retrieved my fly.
But after that, I had little temptation to cuss. Small brown trout rose to the occasion, sipping dry flies from the surface and, once they felt the resistance of the line, dancing acrobatically across the creek.
A seven-incher. And another. Then a nine. Then a couple of about 11 or so.
That was plenty for an appropriate observation of the 49th anniversary of my father’s death. But as I fished my way upstream, there was still one deep hole between me and the pickup.
Between us and the pickup, I should say. Because I often feel his essence when I’m slogging through the muscular part of a stream, duck-walking through the muck of a marsh or similarly engaging the kinds of tangled, unkempt terrain that Pennsylvania writer Charles Fergus calls “thick and uncivil sorts of places.”
My dad loved such places. And it was easy for me to love them, too.
Such love lasts. So while I struggle this long past his death to remember things like the sound of his voice, I never lose the sense of his presence, especially in the outdoors.
Neither the years nor the cancer could kill that intimate connection.
In a beautiful essay called Winter Solstice at the Moab Slough, naturalist and writer Terry Tempest Williams describes the importance of developing intimate relationships with wild places and with people.
“Our lack of intimacy with each other is in direct proportion to our lack of intimacy with the land,” she writes.
I wasn’t lucky in the number of years I had with my father. But I was blessed by what he shared during those years, especially the many hours we spent together outdoors -- lobbing treble hooks crowded with worms into placid bass waters and firing shotgun salutes at explosive ring-necked roosters, or ice skating smoothly, as Dad always did, across the frozen stock dams of winter.
And always there was time in the pickup or along a shoreline or at the edge of a pheasant covert to stop and look and talk about the things that mattered. I wish I could have had more of those times, especially when I was older and better able to comprehend what they meant, to ask better questions than I did.
But I'm grateful for the times I had. They were among the most personal and revealing conversations I can remember with my dad. And nowhere, other than perhaps the choir lofts of St. Mary’s or St. James Catholic churches, was he more expressive about the things that mattered and the people and things he loved.
There are places, Terry Tempest Williams says, where our hearts find openings into the intimacy of the wild, and of ourselves. In showing me such places, on the land and in himself, my father gave me a gift that seems immortal.
He left too soon, of course, and many questions remain unanswered in the tiny part of my brain that stopped maturing when I was 16 -- the wounded- adolescent part, that still speaks aloud to my father as "Dad" in quiet corners of the outdoors. But he taught me enough, at least, to know where I should look for answers.
He was a man of faith. And I feel him always in prayer, and in the profound Catholic rituals he knew and loved. So I reach out to him there.
And he was a man of wild places. So I reach out to him there as well, in another manner of prayer, trying to keep our intimate connection and searching for the words to finish the story I want and need to finish.
This year, I failed again, even with the help of a fly rod. But in that last pool before we reached the pickup, I hooked, landed, admired and released a beautiful 18-inch rainbow.
"There, Dad," I said. "That's for you."
Knowing, of course, that it was for me, too.
And for our dream.