Passing the Torch

(Courtesy of Vocal Media) Every family needs the tie that binds. That event or hobby which brings generations together. For my family, it had always been fishing.

We fished for fluke in the bays off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey on a tiny boat with an engine more suited for a moped. The three of us—myself, my father, and grandfather wedged into the little boat laden with garage sale-purchased gear and the ubiquitous Styrofoam cooler crammed full of turkey and cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread and pony bottles of Rolling Rock beer. Any hint of a breeze would send the lid cartwheeling across the boat, occasionally skipping like a stone on the water. As a rite of passage, I was offered a celebratory swig of beer whenever we caught fish—provided I wouldn’t tell my mom. The foamy, bitter soapiness of the beer lingered in my mouth long after we had reached the shore.

Eventually, my father earned enough money to move us out of my grandfather’s house. We settled into a two-bedroom apartment which seemed palatial at the time. My mother had free rein to decorate the apartment in whatever whimsy of the moment took hold. With its lush Kelley green shag carpeting, I reenacted intricate military jungle campaigns with my plastic army men. My father indulged her with only one caveat—he would be allowed to “repurpose” the hall coat closet.

The coat closet ran underneath the stairs leading to the second-floor apartment. It was a deceptively deep room that tapered down to the floor. My father came home from work and utilized rudimentary carpentry skills to add shelves and a desk while I was deep asleep.

And then it was complete.

Like a passage stolen from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, when the coats were pushed aside, my father had created one of the earliest known man-caves. It felt like an actual cave, given the slope of the ceiling and the claustrophobic feel of the coats that draped over you as you entered.

But it was here where he indulged his greatest passion, carefully crafting his own ties for fly fishing. I sat enraptured as his nimble fingers worked the scissors like a symphony conductor. He cut threads in a spectrum of fantastic colors and wrapped hooks, turning them this way and that. Wings and tails purchased from a store specializing in fly fishing tackle were trimmed with the expertise of a surgeon. The unfortunate Blue Jay or Cardinal that met an untimely demise in the apartment courtyard found its way into the closet. The stench of the telltale decomposition enraged my mother enough to invade the closet, wielding multiple cans of Lysol.

Few words were ever muttered in the closet. The ever-present snip, snip, snip of the scissors punctuated the air, followed by a Neaderthalic grunt of approval. The smell of the model cement he used to bind everything to the hook became intoxicating. We would leave the cave and sit outside on our stoop, staring at the night sky. We reminisced about fishing trips past and planned for the future.

After college, I didn’t get to see my father as often as I liked. We still managed to fish at least once a year. His patience with fly fishing in New Jersey had worn thin. Native rainbow trout populations had dwindled. The urban exodus that unleashed suburban gentrification encroached upon all of his favorite “secret” fishing holes, which had become places where rowdy, lust-laden teens full of liquid bravado courtesy of wine coolers scared away whatever fish still lingered.

With the financial burden of college shed, my father treated himself to the one luxury that ever mattered. He bought an 18-foot Chrysler Sport Runabout. My mother acquiesced, having discovered the joy of sitting on the docked boat and gossiping with the other sea-wives on neighboring boats as they passed bottles of white zinfandel.

My father named the boat “Sea Biscuit” in honor of the tenacious, undersized racehorse of the same name. True to its namesake, the little boat worked harder than ever intended, my father frequently taking it out beyond the bay and into the rolling shipping lanes of the Atlantic.

The boat felt like an amusement ride that was less amusing and far more terrifying than I would let on as it rocked in the four to six-foot chop. Legs braced and deftly working the scissors, my father trimmed lines and cut pieces of squid for bait. The plastic handle’s blaze orange color was more pronounced against the deep summer mahogany that graced his hands and forearms.

It didn’t matter if we caught fish on those trips. A newfound sense of inner peace imbued my father, and I was appreciative of capturing these moments of quiet honesty and reflection. Shared life stories about raising kids, paying mortgages, and the inevitable passing of time.

My young son joined us on fishing trips late in my father’s life. He would wrinkle his nose as my son boarded the boat with his bright pink tackle box in tow. My son had picked it out himself and said the color made him happy. I refused to argue with either one. As long as we were fishing, gentle ribbing was allowed.

As the hands of time sped up, my father’s hands slowed. The scissors with their glossy orange handles glowed over his mottled skin and the faded Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm. The scissors remained forever reliable, but his gnarled knuckles and unsteady hands betrayed him as he attempted to cut pieces of squid.

I fought back the tears as he held out the scissors to me in silence.

The scissors had become my birthright. He was handing off a piece of himself. The scissors were a gift that would never have made its way into his will but were more precious than anything else he owned. It was a piece of history. A witness to history.

Today, I take solace in knowing that the scissors continue to be put to good use. They remain a constant reminder of my father’s presence. When they are not being used, they are safely tucked away in my son’s newest tackle box.

The orange handles compliment the tackle box’s hot pink exterior.

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