Ten With Good Behavior by Mark Usyk

Twenty something years ago I was on the shore of Lake Arrow Head in Texas. A foot away a small fire was burning in the middle of a likewise small ring of rocks, a pile of scrounged wood, most likely mesquite from what I could tell was gathered off to the side. It was cold, and I knew there was never going to be enough wood to keep the fire going through the night. I rolled up in a wool blanket that I’d pulled from my dorm room closet back on base and covered my face with a nit hat. I remember thinking how much warmer my own breath felt on my face trapped under the blanket than the fresh night air. And I can still hear the voices of my camp mates as I drifted off to sleep. “How the hell can he sleep out here like this!? He’s nuts. We better get some more wood.”

The next morning I woke up and pulled the wool from my eyes to find a light dusting of snow covering everything, including me. The other three guys I was with all stood along the water’s edge with their backs to me looking out over the lake, swaying in place, their arms crossed over their upper bodies and hands rubbing their biceps trying to remember what it felt like to feel warm. Their breaths hung in the air in front of them like the steam that rises from factory smoke stacks carrying and finally dissipating. The tallest one, his name was Thompson, turned to see me and walked over. Even though there was four of us out there, Thompson is the only one I can remember today. He was tall and lanky, and spoke in a southern drawl. I’ll never forget the day I saw him get mail from home and me questioning the address. “Wait a minute, you’re from a town called “Cut and Shoot?” He confirmed it, he was from Cut and Shoot Texas, a tiny town with barely a thousand people in it, and it was named after a fight at a church or something along those lines. That’s probably why I remember him out of everyone there. You just don’t forget something like that.

Anyways, Thompson walked over and kicked the ashes in the fire with the toe of his boot, there wasn’t so much as a single red coal left. Ash dust billowed around his boot and settled back down like the particles in a snow globe. “The fire died hours ago, none of the wood we could find on the ground would hardly burn with the snow and all. We were going to wake you up to leave, but nobody wanted to touch you. They thought you might be dead.” He chuckled. I grinned, stood up and re wrapped the wool blanket over my shoulders and looked down to where I’d been sleeping. Snow covered everything except the perfect outline of my body. Thompson just stared at me. “I don’t know how the hell you slept like that, but I guess you Yankees are tougher than we think.” I still hadn’t gotten used to the idea that I was in a place where even though I was in the same country, people thought of me as something other than just American. I grinned again, for a lack of anything else to reply with. “You’re going to end up like Crocodile Dundee just living off the minimum someday aren’t you?” That’s honestly the only conversation I can remember having with Thompson besides the one about Cut and Shoot Texas. I was nineteen years old.

For the rest of the day I tried fishing for bass from shore and for the huge alligator gar at the bottom of a dam. I failed at the latter but had some seriously memorable and exciting encounters with them to say the least. Alligator Gar don’t eat people. Thankfully. Because I definitely gave them their chance. You haven’t lived until you’ve looked a six footer in the eye as you both flail in the water in a panic... Another story for another time perhaps.

I’m forty-two now. Since then I’ve been trapped in the same old everyday routine that ninety-nine percent of us come to find ourselves in. We go to work. We come home. We pay bills. We go to work. Maybe we grill out with our friends on the weekend. Maybe we take our family on a little vacation here or there, but most of us never get to do the things we dreamed of when we were younger and full of hope. Today I find my hope at the end of every cast and that seems to be about the only place it exists. I’ve been quoted as saying “You only live once” on many occasions, and “This life is taking too damn long” on a few others. I know exactly where I am in life, yet I’m still lost. Unless there’s a fly rod in my hand.

With a fly rod in my hand I’m exactly who I am, where I’m supposed to be. And there’s really nothing else that matters. A house, a car, a job, child support, laundry, the left over pizza and last stale swig of a beer left on a table since yesterday, none of it matters. There’s only the water, the loop of the fly line as graceful as any one thing can be, and hope. I think in about twelve years I’ll sell my house and take a long walk. Crocodile Dundee called it a walk-about. In twelve years my child support payments will be gone, ten years if at eighteen years old Carter decides to move out on his own or go in the military like his father or something brave and foolish like that. So we’ll say twelve years, ten with good behavior.

Jacob built his own fly rod over the winter for a school project. Trout season just opened, which leads to all the other seasons in turn. It’s time to put that rod in his hand, and get him ready for the rest of his life. Your life is shaped by the decisions you make. No one else’s, yours. If he decides to cast to the right places, he could get ahead in life a lot faster than his old man did.  

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready for purchase here in JPRossflyrods.com. He's currently working on his next two books. Stories about life, where fishing happens.