As I lurch and groan through the so-called golden years, I find myself thinking more and more about dead people.
When you attain a certain age, you apparently reach a point where you know more dead people than live ones. This appears to be one more in a long list of things about growing old that they don’t tell you until it’s too late to back out.
Referring to these people as “dead” may be dead-accurate, but it doesn’t feel quite right. These people live on in my memories, most of which are the good kind. I’ve found that I like some of the dead ones more than some the live ones. Thinking about them, I sometimes smile or chuckle about something they did or said. In fact, some of their stuff is so good, I’ve made it my own.
For example, last fall, I was salmon fishing with my wife on the Kenai River. When I hooked a fish, instead of the hackneyed “Fish on!” I broke the silence with an ear-splitting “FRESH FISH!” When Sue had recovered somewhat, she was giving me one of her he’s-losing-it looks, so I explained to her that my dad used to yell “fresh fish” whenever he hooked a fish. After Dad died, in 2005, it was my duty to carry on the time-honored tradition, I explained.
Several of my good memories are of Ken Wardwell, who died in 2006. A big, gregarious guy, Ken was the only person I’ve ever known who actually preferred to fish in a crowd. He loved combat fishing for Russian River sockeyes when the crowds were at their worst — or their best, as he saw it. “I’d rather combat fish than anything,” he once told me.
The last time I talked to Ken was on the telephone, when I called him for a report of how the king salmon fishing was going on the Anchor River.
“The catching isn’t very good, but the crowds are great!” he said. “Oh, yeah. And I’ve been using just the bottom four feet of my salmon rod. In close quarters, it’s better than using the whole rod. When other guys see me, they give me more space. Probably think I’m crazy.”
I met Ken through Doug Green, who died in 2005. If you’ve read very many of my columns, you know him as my friend with the 34-foot cruiser, the “Suq’a.” My favorite memory of Doug is one morning when we were anchored in a cove in Prince William Sound. At the time, I wrote:
The sun lit up the other end of the bay, though our cove remained in shadow. A sea otter came close enough to check us out. While Doug fried fish and scrambled eggs, I baited up the halibut rods again and set them in the holders.
I’d taken two bites of breakfast when one of the reels went, “tick . . . tick . . . tick,” and then the ticking changed to a steady buzz. Something big enough to swallow half a herring and drag a pound of sinker was doing just that. We dove for the doorway.
Thirty minutes later, we heaved a big halibut over the rail and onto the deck. It was nearly six feet long and probably weighed 160 pounds.
As we sat down to finish breakfast, Doug said, “Is this fishin’, or what?”
Several times since then, when fishing has been spectacular, I’ve asked that same question, with the same tone of wonder that Doug used. “Is this fishin’, or what?”
These people, like many others I’ve known and loved, live on and on.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.