I woke to the gentle roll and retreat of the Atlantic. Blinking my heavy eyes, I saw through the vertical’s narrow slits, the sunrise cresting the horizon. Arching up, I looked to see that Cheryl and Kaleigh were still sleeping and they were. I smiled. Slipping on my shorts and ball cap, I grabbed the key, let myself out, and headed down in the elevator.
On my way I stopped in the supply shop. The small bell over the door announced my arrival and I exchanged “mornin’” with the equally unshaven, similarly wrinkled and casually attired Pierman tending the counter. The place smelled pleasantly of sea, fish, and fresh coffee. I grabbed the carafe, poured myself a cup, and approached the counter. The friendly elder Pierman asked if I was fishing that morning and if I needed some supplies, poles, shrimp or any other bait, sunscreen or some such. I declined and indicated that I’d come down to just sit and take in the morning with my stepfather who indeed would be fishing enough for the both of us.
After paying for the coffee and getting bid a genuine goodbye, I rang closed the door and walked on the ocean safely suspended on the sandy, creaking, weathered-gray planks of the Springmaid Pier.
Outside, the morning’s slanted rays revealed the faithful. Lines baited and casted, poles leaned against the handrails; all ages eyed their rigs and listened to the sea’s hypnotic, timeless hymn. White five gallon buckets sat beside many who awaited with hopeful eagerness the day’s bounty. As the sky stretched out in pastel hues of blue and pink, a soft southerly breeze blew lending a certain peace, calm, and pleasantness to the rise of the day.
As I made my way down the ocean walk, I spotted him first. Dressed in Carolina blue shorts, a striped matching knit shirt and a worn flowered dish rag partially stuffed in his pocket, he was looking seaward on the pier’s starboard side, hair dancing in time with the wind. “Well, hey there, John boy. Good morning,” Bud said as he turned and greeted me in a rich and resonating baritone. Not his normal speaking voice, each time I heard that tone I was reminded of Conway Twitty’s, “Hello Darlin’,” and each time I heard it, no matter my whereabouts, I knew I was home.
Drawing closer, I could tell he was pleasantly surprised to see me, awake and about at the hour, and the delight shown in his face. Bud asked me if I came to fish and I said I simply wanted to share the morning. I leaned against the pier railing on which I sat my coffee. Bud’s two lines ran down and disappeared into the small, bobbing white caps of Myrtle Beach.
After a few moments Bud turned and introduced me to a gray headed lady not far away whose name I can’t recall. Her leathered, tanned skin and gruff voice betrayed as a veteran, a long timer at the pier. They traded stories of what had been caught, on what, in the remote and recent past and lobbed good natured exaggerations of what had been lucky enough to get away.
Before leaving to tend her own lines, she suggested switching to shrimp to make the morning’s efforts more worthwhile. As he sniffed, cleared his throat and simultaneously hitched up his shorts, Bud replied that he was having no luck on the bait, adding with a momentary pause and wry smile, yet. Not knowing whether he and the old fisherwoman had just met or had long been friends, with Bud you could never tell as the one was treated very much like the other, I just listened, taking it all in, and felt the moment etching itself in my history.
Once again we returned to the sea, sipped our coffee, and talked. We spoke of many things; of family, of work, of frustrations, of faith. Bud mentioned how wonderful Cheryl was, how he enjoyed having us all there, how much he loved both Savannah and Kaleigh and how proud he was of them. He spoke openly and freely and I enjoyed it.
As we talked, I absentmindedly picked up a rod that seemed to be getting a slight nibble. Sure enough, as I reeled in the line, the sea yielded a small, spunky little white fish with a dark, diagonal stripe across its flank. Of course Bud knew the name of the fish, which I forgot or proceeded to ignore, and to which I continued to refer as “little fighters.” As I released the fish back to the sea and Bud re-baited the line with cut shrimp, the other rod tipped heavily downward. I instinctively grabbed it, and jerking it skyward, set the hook, knowing immediately by feel that whatever was on the other end was big.
While I had not done any fishing, freshwater or saltwater, pier or surf, since I was a teenager, it occurred to me and I told Bud how embarrassing it would be if I’d broken into a light sweat reeling in a mound of heavy seaweed, or worse, a scrappy two inch mullet. After ten minutes of reeling in, the drag straining for hold, and the whir of the line returning out in response to the pressure and movement of the thing, I was assured that whatever it might be, a mullet or minnow it was not, but something worth the dance.
Finally, the ocean parted in a huge, angry swell and we both realized why the rod was so taught, nearly to the point of breaking. Attached was a shark about six to eight feet in length. Others gathered as I strained to bring the animal out of the water – only to be disappointed, or relieved, as the line broke under its weight and the shark retreated downward with a splash. Bud and I were both open-mouthed from shock and excitement. We laughed in amazement as Bud re-rigged the broken line, and just as waves of adrenaline coursing through me began to ebb, the other line hit yielding a larger, feisty little fighter. Unknowingly, he and I began this symbiotic team work. As Bud would re-bait one rod, I would get hit after hit on the other by the little fighters.
On what became my last cast, I caught another little fighter and Bud was just beside himself. He remarked that all the time he’d been there by himself he’d not gotten one nibble, nothing to show for his efforts and here I was, not even intending to fish, and was “catching ‘em right and left.” I just chuckled in agreement as I reeled in the last little fighter. In doing so, I took my time and let it linger in the water, leading the fish far right, left, and then back again – intending, albeit good naturedly, to kid Bud a bit. Bud looked over and said that now I was just showing off.
Once I had the little fighter about a foot out of the water, another shark, equal to or bigger than the first, launched out of the sea and snagged the fish in mid-air breaking the line in the process. We both went crazy at the surprise and doubled over in full belly-laughs. Bud called over anyone who could hear him to show the broken line and tell them about the second shark. The Hello Darlin’ baritone returning, genuine delight radiated in his voice as he told the story over and over to the others on the pier. In fact, he told it to anyone who would listen, and with each iteration of the telling, the shark seemed to grow…just an honest inch or two.
Deciding our luck that morning had run its course and knowing within the hour the girls would awaken, we packed the gear, said our goodbyes and good-lucks, and made our return.
Three years gone, as I sat on a different shore watching Cheryl take Kaleigh into the shallows of the surf, hearing her squeal in childish delight at the waves lapping against her legs and looking down at Matthew fully contented in scooping sand and pouring it over my feet, laughing with each successive dump, this moment came back to me.
While Bud’s absence pained my heart, I still remembered in vivid detail and reflected on Bud’s happiness that day. He was in his element, in his bliss, and the peace shown on his face. As if in a series of still frames, I remember his smile and laughter, the excitement, pride, and support in his voice, and his unselfish willingness to share the joy. He praised and took the greatest of joy and pride even in the smallest of my accomplishments, even then…even when I couldn’t seem to allow myself the same freedom of expression and peace.
When I think of Bud, I think of many, many times and places but especially of this. It’s a moment which captures Bud’s delight in the simplest of life’s pleasures and symbolizes all the qualities which were natural to Bud as a person, family man, friend, and mentor.
Each of us are vessels which carry his spirit with us each day, and should we listen closely enough, we can hear his voice and know he is never far. The wind, the sound of the sea, or just walking along the shoreline and seeing footprints in the sand, the imprints of those moments brings me home, and brings his voice to me.
This moment is a special grain of sand, but only one of many we all shared, which when combined with others, forms the textured shore of our time together. It fills and strengthens my soul against the ceaseless, unyielding pull of the tides, of time’s erosion, until once again we share the morning.
Until then, I have the sand and for that I am eternally grateful.
Written 24 July 2005: Memory Album