It all started 15 years ago at a fishing store, where I was shopping for some tackle. An unusual and impactful friendship began. His name was Gary and I had heard from some other guys that he was a pretty good striper angler. When I found out he was in the store, I acted on a gut feeling and walked up and introduced myself. The encounter seemed to be by chance. But looking back on it, I can’t help but think it was meant to be.
Truthfully, on the surface, he wasn’t the kind of guy I would have sought out. But that’s where the surprises began. In his late 60s and thin, he looked like he had labored hard all his life. My first reaction was that he seemed pretty gruff, untrusting and skeptical – not a totally endearing kind of guy. However, as we began talking fishing, everything about his countenance and excitement level changed. He morphed into a different person on the spot. My hunch was there was far more to him than I knew.
I began fishing with Gary, and as each trip progressed I got to know him a little more. He had fierce pride, didn’t want to trust or share with many people, and was a tough guy you didn’t mess with. Funny, time on the water, and just being there together, sharing who we are at our core as well as our vulnerabilities and strengths, helped slowly open the door to Gary sharing who he really was. Underneath layers of protection he had built, he was a very sensitive guy who had gone through some incredible things in life.
The backstory began to unfold after a few trips. Things were slow when I asked about his life, the kind of question few of us really ask each other. He kinda squinted, looked at me and after a considered pause calmly said, “Rog, you know I was a top sniper in Vietnam, one of the guys who went out into the bush and took out the bad guys.” No big deal, just matter of fact. No further explanation. I could feel the weight of it on him.
Whoa … I suddenly realized that he had that added dimension and demeanor of another fishing buddy who had gone through the horrors of the Pacific landings in World War II. No wonder he didn’t elaborate; few regular folks could begin to understand what he had gone through. I reconsidered my evaluation of this man. Few knew the truth. I was honored he shared with me.
He suffered from PTSD and fishing was the one thing that seemed to take the edge off, according to his wife. Agent Orange had done a job on him, too. His health problems were so bad, he had actually “died” on the operating table – twice – in separate incidents. Doctors said he was a walking miracle, but his incredible will to survive kept him going. We took oxygen bottles and nitro with us on trips.
Over the course of the next several years, in quiet moments he would tell me of another incredible situation. I was floored by the memories he shared. He wouldn’t go to PTSD therapy or talk to anyone else about his terrible experiences. He seemed to be more at peace after telling me. The bonding of two very different people from completely different worlds, developing a deep level of trust and respect was a miracle – one that evolved while passionately pursuing a stupid fish.
One day, he turned and gently said, “Roger, when I die please don’t be upset, I’ve already died twice and it’s not bad at all; in fact, it’s awesome!” I silently cried then, and I still do. A year later I got the news he had died and I recalled his words. “We had fished together,” that says it all. He trusted me with his soul. Gary, you were an unexpected blessing! Never give up!