Fred Rogers once said something to the effect that one of life’s great challenges is making goodness attractive. As a writer and journalist over these last decades, I’ve come to realize it might not be that challenging after all. This is a theme I’ve returned to again and again in my career: A good person finds him or herself in a horrible, often tragic situation, often through no fault of their own, but somehow manages to endure and to transcend.
So many stories come to mind now. Lauren Surratt, who never lost her hope or sense of humor as leukemia slowly took the life of her young son. After Ian died, Lauren went on to become a nurse in the same pediatric oncology ward where he had been a patient.
Dr. David Donahue, a pediatric neurosurgeon whose choice of professions was inspired, at least in part, by the brain disease that ultimately took the life of Donahue’s brother. Years ago, I shadowed Donahue for a week at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, one that challenged him as a surgeon and as a person. He eventually achieved a very positive outcome for his young patient.
I wrote about the remarkable Kevin Curnutt in this space last week.
The latest example is the subject of my coming book, “Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team.” The book is the story of how Fred overcame great obstacles in his baseball life, and later a devastating cancer diagnosis, facing them with remarkable fortitude and character.
These themes have carried over into my two attempts at fiction, a novel of the Greatest Generation called “Every Common Sight,” and my one short story, published in 1997 in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It was inspired by my love of the mountains, and a tragic loss experienced by friends of mine. For some reason, in these challenging times, it seems appropriate to dust the story off now. It follows below.
Hope you enjoy. Happy May.
My Favorite Place On Earth
After the old mining town, they turn into the high country on a rutted dirt road, climbing toward the clouds through thick stands of spruce and aspen. John exults in the cool breeze and the smell of pine that drifts in from the open window.
These mountains are his second home, the place where he has come for years to clear his head of the brokerage firm and the exhaust fumes of Fort Worth. But as the sun dips behind the peaks, it seems as if he is seeing the Rockies for the first time, only now through the eyes of the thin boy beside him who gawks out the window. After several bumpy miles, John turns from the dirt road onto a grassy path that once led to a silver mine. The trees part into a meadow covered in evening shadow. Great peaks loom above man and boy, seeming close enough to touch, turning pink in the dusk.
“I found this place on a hike a few years ago,” John says, shutting off the engine.
“So is this wilderness?” Jess says.
“As close as I care to get,” his dad replies.
They pitch their tent beneath a canopy of pines. Jesse gathers dead branches for kindling, and John digs a pit at the edge of the wood, surrounding it with large rocks. A large fire soon crackles and orange embers spit into the gathering dark.
They eat hungrily on metal plates, canned spaghetti brought from home. Jesse slips a ski jacket over his Texas Rangers sweatshirt. He pulls out his pocketknife and whittles bark from one end of a long twig he had picked up for roasting marshmallows. John observes the boy from his seat on a stump, sipping a cup of instant coffee.
Jesse is tall for a 10-year-old, blond and willowy and beautiful like his mother, and wholly engrossed in his task by the fire. The marshmallows burn Jesse’s mouth as he eats them from his stick, and the boy takes hurried swigs of water from a canteen.
“Take one,” Jesse says, extending a steaming marshmallow toward his father.
John swallows and drinks to keep his mouth from burning.
“Ready to turn in?” he says. “A big day tomorrow.”
“I’d like to stay up for a while, if that’s OK,” Jesse says.
“Up to you,” John says. “I’m glad for the company.”
“Are you?” his son says.
John’s breathing catches. He looks at Jesse, sitting on the ground Indian-style next to the stump. Darkness and the long brim of his cap hide his eyes.
“What kind of question is that?” John says.
“You always come here by yourself,” Jesse says, staring at the fire as it burns down. “I thought maybe the only reason you brought me along this time is that you felt like you had to.”
John sits down next to his son and drapes an arm around the boy’s thin shoulders.
“Just the opposite is true, son,” the father says. “This is my favorite place on earth and I’ve wanted to share it with you since the day you were born. I just had to wait until your mom thought you were old enough.”
They sit quietly.
“You know, Dad,” Jesse says after a few minutes. “I used to think you came out here by yourself just to get away from Katie and me. You always used to say, ‘You kids drive me crazy.’”
John squeezes Jesse’s shoulder.
“Sometimes you did.” John says, smiling into the darkness.
He feels tension leave the boy’s shoulders.
“Mom said that you come out here alone because it gives to time to think,” Jesse said. “I don’t want to interrupt your thinking.”
“You won’t, Jess. I promise.”
They listen to the spit of hot logs and the squeal of crickets. John had often felt anxious sitting by himself so close to the impenetrable blackness of a mountain forest at night. He had fleetingly imagined the weight of a bear paw on his shoulder and hungry breath on the back of his neck. The mountains at night were towering black silhouettes barely discernible in the darkness, and they made him feel feeble.
But on this night there is only a sense of wholeness, that creation has finally perfected itself. Jesse yawns and rubs his eyes. They load leftover food and garbage into the back of the Bronco to keep it away from the animals.
“Put on clean clothes,” John tells his son. “You smell like burned marshmallow. We don’t want the bears confusing you with a midnight snack.”
“You always said there were bears here,” Jesse said. “I thought that was just to scare me.”
“Nope. They’re around, but won’t bother us if we’re careful, and don’t smell like sugar.”
“Mom would be mad if a bear ate me out here,” Jesse says.
“I’d have some real explaining to do, that’s for sure.”
Their laughter echoes off the trees. Jesse changes into clean sweatpants and a T-shirt, shivering in the cold. He unzips the front door of the tent, and quickly slips into his sleeping bag. He is asleep in an instant, exhausted from the long trip and the cool air. His father hears distant thunder in the mountains, and the light patter of rainfall on their tent. The rain dislodges pinecones that fall from the branches, hitting the nylon with a louder thwack than the raindrops. Jesse never stirs.
John lays next to him, too happy to sleep. He spends most of the night listening to the rain and the sound of his son’s deep breathing.
The next morning they eat pancakes and bacon and hike about a mile to poke around the abandoned silver mine. On the walk back, they interrupt a massive mule deer stag and two mewling fawns, drinking from a small brook.
John and Jesse drive from camp in late morning, timing their arrival on the stream with the hour that the mayflies hatch and hungry trout come to gorge. The stream winds through a canyon of great granite walls that block out the midday sun.
They hear the gush the moment they step from the truck — the cold, clear water rushing over smooth rocks. They pull waders over their jeans, assemble their fly rods and set off toward the sound. John stops and plucks wild strawberries from a bush, handing a couple to his son.
“Bear food,” he says, grinning.
They hike parallel to the stream as John studies the water, searching for the perfect hole. He knows that Jesse will be smitten forever if he lands a trout today, but failure might mean a lifetime of ambivalence toward the sport. John spots quiet water between two large rapids.
“That’s where they are, Jess, resting in that calm water,” John says pointing. “They’ll be facing upstream, waiting for lunch to float down to them. We need to sneak behind them to the bottom of the pool. Catch ’em while they’re looking the other way, in other words. In water this clear, the fish can see us, and will spook if we’re not careful. Ready?”
“Ready,” Jesse says, his brown eyes intense beneath the bill of his cap.
“When we get into the water, cast up beyond the hole and let the current take your fly back to the fish, just like we’ve talked about.”
Jesse nods. They wade slowly into the racing, knee-deep water that is ice cold through the thin rubber of their waders. Jesse whips his fly rod back and forth, as he’s been taught, his line stretching into a long arch. He lands the imitation mayfly at the far side of the pool.
“Perfect,” John says. “Just let the current float it back to you. But keep your line taut to set the hook.”
Halfway through the pool, a fish rises up to swallow the fly, flapping desperately on the surface when realizing it has been tricked.
“I think I’ve got one!” Jesse yells above the noise of water.
“Keep your rod up, son,” John says.
He fights the temptation to take the rod himself.
“Let him run a bit. He’ll tire.”
The rod bends nearly double. John wades out in front of Jesse as the boy outlasts the trout. John finally plucks the fish from the water, holding the slippery little trout beneath the belly. His son stands in the stream, exhausted but wide-eyed and exultant.
“Congratulations, buddy,” John says.
“He’s a beauty, isn’t he Dad,” Jesse says.
“A real fighter, on your first cast, no less. That red stripe down his side means he’s a rainbow.”
Jesse looks up at his dad.
“So now we let him go?” Jesse asks.
“Catch and release.”
“Good,” Jesse says.
“But I need you to hold this guy for a minute. Take him underneath with both hands. And smile.”
John wades a few steps away in the stream and takes a camera from a pocket of his vest. He frames his son with the small trout, the roaring white water, shadows on brown canyon walls. He returns to where Jesse holds his fish, and carefully removes the small hook from the rainbow’s lip. The boy returns the trout to the water and watches it swim away.
John hears the forest service ranger before he sees him, a clinking sound that echoes from the woods. The ranger is a large man with red hair and a sun-darkened face who smiles at John as he emerges from the forest. He wears a green uniform, a green ball cap, and carries a heavy leather pouch full of tools.
“God, that bacon smells good,” the ranger says.
“Afraid you’re too late,” John says. “Nothing left but a pan of grease. But you’re welcome to some coffee.”
“That’s kind of you,” the ranger says. “The soil samples can wait, I figure. Dennis Murphy.”
“John Booth, from Texas,” John says, rising from his stump and shaking hands.
John pours boiling water into a foam cup, spoons in instant coffee and stirs. He hands the cup to the ranger.
“Quite a spot you have here,” Murphy says, blowing on the coffee before he sips. “You alone?”
“Mountain solitude is good for the soul, is what I’ve always thought,” Murphy says. “Guess it explains my choice of professions.”
“I’ve thought that, too,” John says. “Ever since college I’d come up here by myself for three or four days to fish and hike. But there was nothing like sharing it with my son, and he came to love the mountains as much as I did. We’d come every summer together. Have for nine years. Since he was 10. This is my first trip without him in all that time.”
“Away in college now, I’m guessing,” Murphy says.
“I dearly wish that were the case.”
John tosses what is left of his coffee onto the fire, causing a small hiss.
“He was killed six months ago,” John says.
“My Lord. I’m sorry,” Murphy says.
The fire crackles at their feet. It rained the night before and night crawlers surface through the mud. A robin comes to feast, taking the fat worms in its beak and flying off to feed babies.
“A sleet storm one night last March,” John says finally. “Jesse was the best boy I’ve ever known. Honor student. A better fisherman than his dad will ever be. Never gave his mother and me a minute’s trouble. But he had a lead foot the way kids that age do. Why be careful when you’re 19?”
“Too many kids learn the hard way,” Murphy says softly.
“Learn what, Dennis?” John asks. “What are the lessons here? I don’t think there are any. Just a fine boy who will never be a man, and his dad alone in the mountains, determined to feel sorry for himself. If anything was true, Jess and I would be down on Spring Creek right now, carrying on with those trout.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Murphy says.
John feels a sneer cross his face.
“My mother told me when I was a kid, ‘What you put into life is about what you get out.’ So I made sure my kids were in church on Sunday. Did volunteer work. Paid my taxes. Was faithful to my wife. And sure enough over the years, there seemed to be a certain order to it. My girl, Katie, in graduate school. Beth and me still happy together after all these years. The boy and I taking off every summer to fish and hike up here in the mountains. I watched that kid grow up here, Murphy.
“But now all bets are off, aren’t they. My notion of order was an illusion, a joke.”
Murphy stared at the fire.
“Listen to me,” John says, looking back at him. “I’ve said more to you about this than anybody. My wife says I won’t talk to her anymore.”
John stands and faces the mountains, orange in the September sun.
“You sure it’s good to be alone now, John?” Murphy asks.
“Prefer it that way, frankly,” John says. “As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of staying up here for a year or so. Get myself a room down in town. Find odd jobs. Fish until the streams freeze. Just let things settle. Some time alone might be good.”
“What would your wife think?” Murphy asks.
“Frankly, sir, I don’t much care what she or anyone else thinks right now,” John says. “I just don’t care.”
“Hmm,” Murphy says.
After a long silence, the ranger sets his empty cup on the ground near the fire.
“Could I ask you a question, John?”
John looked at him.
“Is this what your son would have wanted?”
Murphy has stood and turned toward the forest.
“Best of luck,” he says. “Thanks for the coffee.”
Murphy turns and walks toward the trees, then stops and retraces his steps.
“You know, John, I read this somewhere a long time ago, and it’s always stuck with me,” Murphy says. “Once there was this fellow, a good man like you, who suffered a loss like yours. This other guy had a young wife he adored, and she died way before her time. So this guy writes in his journal, ’And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.’ And I have no doubt he felt that was true at the time. You know who wrote that, John?”
“I guess you’ll tell me.”
“Teddy Roosevelt. Some years later, he was elected president.”
The fire crackles during another long silence.
“I’ve never walked in your shoes, but this much I’ve seen,” Murphy says finally. “People push on. I don’t know how, but most do. Old Teddy did. I suspect you will, too.”
Murphy takes a business card from his wallet.
“If you feel like a home-cooked meal, give us a call,” Murphy says. “We would be glad to have you.”
The ranger is nearly to the edge of the forest when he turns again.
“I’m awfully sorry about your loss,” he says, then disappears into the trees.
It rained hard overnight and the peaks are white with new snow when John loads his wet tent into the truck and heads down a muddy dirt road into the canyon. He sits on a rock near the water and watches bumblebees hop from one faded wildflower to another. John remembers the boy’s question.
“Are you?” Jesse had asked him.
A light rain falls, and John shivers in his shirt sleeves and fishing vest. But he cannot resist the water, the quiet pool where Jesse had taken his first trout. Wearing only old Nikes and jeans, he wades into the stream, wincing at the cold, and throws his fly to the top of the pool. Four times it drifts back to him untouched. His legs and feet are numb as he casts one last time.
A fish hits the fly at the bottom of the pool. John toys with the trout before bending to take it from the water. It is a small rainbow, and for a moment John imagines that it is the same fish Jesse hooked on that magical day so long ago.
“A beauty, all right, son,” John says out loud.
He removes the hook and returns the fish to the stream. After watching it swim away, he wades to the bank and leans his rod against the trunk of a pine. He had carried the cardboard box in the pocket of his vest. He opens the box and turns the contents into his hand, letting the ashes sift through his fingers and into the stream.
Someday the ashes will flow through the Grand Canyon, he thinks. He picks up his rod, hikes back to his truck, and begins the long drive back to Texas.
Dedicated to the memory of Brock Olson.