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Dads who fish

I’m beginning to wonder if something sacred is vanishing. 

Throughout my childhood from the late 70s to early 90s — pre-Internet, pre-cell phone — my Dad’s arrival home around 5:30 any day of the week triggered a series of staccato sounds. First the dull thud of his Buick door, then the slap of the front screen door, followed by his dress shoes clacking purposefully across the parquet, and finally his pocket change jangling onto the marble-topped hallway table. 

By the time the coins stopped spinning, we three boys were usually thundering toward him from all corners of the house or yard. He changed quickly into jeans, and then, two or three nights out of five, we’d walk down to the DuPage River (the “Duper”), which trickled through our backyard to catch (and then release) a few catfish, bluegill, smallmouth bass, carp, sticks or rusted cans. 

At the river, Dad smoked his pipe with Borkum Riff Swedish whiskey-flavored tobacco (still does) and we boys would adjust our aluminum folding chairs in the mud if we ended up downwind from his smoke. Dad would ask us about the day, but he’d also let the silence hang as we all tended our lines. 

Having turned down lucrative downtown Chicago pay for the more humane pace of a private law practice in the ‘burbs, my Dad never took work home. Once he’d put his briefcase near the hallway table, he didn’t open it. In all my childhood, I never saw him make a work call at home.

As the head of his own law firm, he faced constant court cases, client needs, hiring and management decisions and rent, but none of this seemed to make it home. 

We all had to take piano lessons through eighth grade. The 30 minutes a day of mandatory practice could be drudgery. Dad was usually a few feet away, on the couch, drifting in and out of an early evening snooze. When we flubbed a scale, he’d momentarily come out of his sleep to provide feedback to his boys — in a vaguely disapproving moan. A well-played piece would elicit positive sounds. 

We didn’t have cable and the television seemed to hold little allure. On rare nights I was allowed to stay up late and join Dad and Mom for the only shows they indulged in: Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” and “The McLaughlin Group.” In fifth grade I sent Koppel a fan letter and promptly received a lengthy signed letter from him, which I hung on my bedroom wall. 

Mom graced us at the Duper from time to time, but for the most part it became a slice of the day that Dad owned with his boys. Now I can see that Mom was probably enjoying the first few quiet moments of her entire day, away from the mosquitos, poison ivy and nightcrawlers. 

Sometimes we’d fish until twilight and a hush would descend on the four of us. In those moments, the slap of a carp’s tail on the water in the lily pads would startle us. Sometimes a great blue heron or brace of wood ducks would fly within several feet of us, unsuspecting. The belted kingfisher made rare yet dazzling appearances, slamming into the water and emerging with dinner. 

We took it all in, we boys with Dad. 

Yes, something sacred seems to be vanishing, if we Dads are too caught up in our work to sit with our sons and daughters by a river at twilight.

Each of us might ask: where is our Duper? 

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde’s delegate for evangelization and media.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016