Editor’s note: This is a reporter’s essay about fatherhood.
RANGELEY, Maine — It was just he and I and a carload of gear on our way to a fishing weekend with the guys.
It had been a long workweek for me and included a milestone for my 5-year-old son, Caleb, who had just finished his pre-kindergarten year. My wife, eight months pregnant with our second son and for once not up for an adventure, borrowed a stack of romantic movies and pushed us out the door with instructions to have some fun.
The sun had ducked beyond the mountains at almost 9 p.m. last Friday as we turned off Route 4 in Rangeley, headed northwest toward Richardson Lake’s Upper Dam. From Caleb, as usual, came a stream of questions such as, “Why do windshield wipers push the water in front of the driver instead of the other way?” and iPod requests ranging from Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” to the Allman Brothers’ “Southbound.”
Northern Oxford County, particularly the strip of rough country around Richardson and Aziscohos lakes, is a place I know well. I’ve spent a lifetime fishing and hunting there, tagging along with my father on innumerable guys’ weekends, family camping trips and slow trolls across the lakes. Many of those days ended with “Moose Patrol,” when we’d pile into the truck at dusk and drive around searching roadsides for the gentle beasts with near 100 percent success.
Taking Caleb into this paradise of my childhood, I knew that the time was right for moose sightings and Route 16 was the perfect place.
“Moose like to stand in the muck on the sides of the road, just like right here,” I explained, pointing to a swampy area. Just then a large cow ran to the edge of the roadway in front of us and the boy in the back seat gasped. “Daddy, it was just like you said!” With the cell phone signal fading as we neared the place where I didn’t care if it worked or not, Caleb called his mother.
“Right when Daddy was telling me there’s a lot of moose right here, we saw a moose,” he told her in that awe-stricken staccato that only an excited child can produce. “Daddy’s a HERO!”
A hero? My first thought was that he needed help understanding the word, but then I realized that Caleb knew exactly what he was saying. As almost any parent will tell you, a child’s view of his father or mother comes through a lens of utter fascination and unbridled trust.
That’s how it was for my dad and me, especially in this place that we loved so much. Driving toward it again, the memories flashed by. One evening maybe 20 years ago, I was fly fishing near a boat landing on Upper Richardson Lake. Dad was loading our boat on a trailer after a long day fishing. I knew there were fish around but there were no bites. Dad came over and gave me a smaller fly and the next cast brought a fat salmon and the best catch of the day.
Another time, we were trolling the far northern reaches of Aziscohos Lake, miles from a family friend’s camp. We had a fixer-upper boat Dad bought sight unseen after it had been salvaged from the bottom of Sebago Lake. The old, struggling Evinrude sputtered out and we were faced with a setting sun and a lake just big and remote enough to be dangerous. I had little faith in Dad, a plumbing and heating tradesman, as he pulled the cover off the motor. But he found a place on the carburetor where a screw had rattled loose and fallen who knows where. We found a right-sized replacement holding down one of the seats and, as I remember Dad saying, we were “back in business.”
In a child’s eyes, feats such as these — or pointing out a muck hole where we might see a moose — are as heroic as Superman flying or Spider-Man swinging building to building on webs shot from his wrists. But heroes die, as I learned when cancer claimed my father three years ago. My trip to Richardson Lake last week was my first return since he died.
“This place we’re going is very special to me,” I said to Caleb.
“Because my father used to bring me here when I was a little boy. We did lots of special things together.”
“You mean Grumpy?” he asked, using his nickname for the man I’m not sure he can remember.
“Yes, Grumpy.” I knew what was coming next.
“Grumpy died, right?”
We rode along in silence for a few minutes. I thought the conversation was over, but it wasn’t.
“Daddy, I want you to show me all the things Grumpy showed you,” he said. “OK?”
As I drove through the deepening dusk, scanning the roadsides for moose and chatting with my own 5-year-old hero, a tear rolled down my face.
“Yes,” I said. “Of course, I will.”
“And the baby, too?” he asked.
“Yes, and the baby, too.”