David Carlson: Ode to an old friend

Jim and I had a lot in common.

We were both educators, Jim at the high school level, I at the college level. We were both fathers of only boys. We both loved the Northwoods of Wisconsin and all the things we could do at the lake. We both had small sailboats, and I could set my watch by Jim going out every day at forty-thirty in the afternoon.

Jim introduced me to fly-fishing by taking me out in his rowboat and showing me the basics. Fishing, especially fly-fishing, became the bedrock of our friendship. In the years that followed, each of us had our favorite spot on the lake for fishing — Jim liked to fish near some reeds, while I preferred fishing in deeper water over some rocks. Yet, many times I’d fish near Jim, as much for the conversation as the fishing.

When we fished near one another, Jim and I would frequently talk about theology. That was Jim’s choice, not mine, but I was a happy participant. I haven’t known a whole lot of men who like to talk about religion, and Jim and I both liked to talk about religion and politics. Jim went faithfully with his wife to Mass, but his spirituality was seasoned with healthy questioning. He also made it quite clear that he liked short homilies and made a point of thanking priests who agreed with him on that score.

Jim was a teaser, and maybe that was why, on his porch on a summer evening, he’d invite people over who held different political views. He had a knack for raising a thorny issue and then sitting back to watch the sparks fly. Yet I don’t remember Jim disliking anyone, and I know few who didn’t like to be in Jim’s company.

I have a lot of fishing memories with my friend Jim. One I cherish occurred one summer when I was tracking a smallmouth bass on the rocks where I fished most evenings. I say “tracking,” but what I mean is that I had had the fish on my fly line a number of times, but the fish had always outsmarted me. Then one night, Jim kayaked over from his favorite spot to mine and began casting his fly.

You can probably guess what happened. On one of his first casts, Jim hooked the bass and after playing it expertly, brought it into his net. I looked at the fish that I thought was mine by right and had to laugh. To tell the truth, I didn’t laugh immediately, but I eventually got around to seeing the humor in Jim holding up “my fish” for me to admire.

Over the past six years, Jim began to slowly leave us. It wasn’t noticeable to everyone at first, but gradually those closest to him sensed that he was declining. He sailed, but less often, and several times I had to help him rig his small sailboat. What had once been second nature to Jim now puzzled him.

Jim still worked in his garden most mornings and especially enjoyed giving produce to everyone he knew. And Jim knew a lot of people. But the last time I saw Jim standing by his garden, he looked lost.

The last hobby that Jim hung onto was fly-fishing, always at dusk and almost always in the same spot in his last years. We didn’t fish together much then. I suppose there wasn’t much to talk about.

Jim’s wife did all she could to preserve the Jim we knew. She’d wake him up when he nodded off in a conversation, and she was the one who made sure he took his medications on time. But then last year, his wife died, and Jim was less and less with us.

Jim died this past week. It feels inadequate to say Jim will be missed. This summer, I plan to kayak over to the reeds and cast my fly where Jim liked to cast his. I won’t be alone. As the sun begins to set, I’m sure I’ll hear Jim’s fly line swishing through the air, his fly landing just where he intended. And who knows, maybe it will be my turn to catch a big fish in Jim’s favorite spot. If I do, I’m sure I’ll hear him laughing.