We stood far enough away from one another to not to tangle our lines but still be within speaking distance. Because when two men go fishing, conversation is just as essential as a pole and some water.
The last time Kirk and I had gone fishing, he had cussed the water and the fish and the pole he was using, drank a six-pack of beer, and spoke of his latest conquest—the cashier down at the Dairy Queen. Typical, I suppose, of a nineteen-year-old male. I listened patiently, waiting for a sufficient break in his bragging to suggest he grow up and get on in his life. In the three hours we fished, I barely said a word.
Four years and a few months later, we stood on that same riverbank with those two same fishing poles, and Kirk still talked. But as he spoke and I listened, I knew things were different now. Kirk had changed.
Time does that to a person. So does war.
When he told me three years ago he was joining the army, I told him it was the best thing he could do. He needed the discipline, I said. Besides, the only jobs around here were either on farms or in factories, and Kirk was cut out for neither.
We both knew what joining the army meant. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging, and every headline of every newspaper was filled with the latest casualties. But neither of us mentioned the fact that Kirk would be heading off to war. It was simply a given.
A few weeks after boot camp, Kirk got his orders. He was going to Iraq.
His mother tied a yellow ribbon on the big oak tree in their front yard, and Kirk was put on the prayer lists of just about every church within ten miles. Every once in a while I would hear bits and pieces about where he was and how he was doing, and we would exchange emails when we could, but for the most part he was there and I was here and time moved on.
Then, out of the blue, he called me on Saturday. “I’m back,” he said. “How ‘bout some fishin’?”
I never asked him what it was like. Never asked him what he felt or what he did or what he saw. I just said that I was glad he was back safe and sound. But as the afternoon wore on and the fish refused to bite, he began to share some of the things that weighed on his heart.
The things you see in the movies about war? About brave men withstanding a hail of gunfire and coming out without a scratch? That doesn’t happen. In real life those bullets are real and they don’t care whose flesh they puncture, whether it’s a soldier or a terrorist or a five-year-old girl.
And the love of country? That’s there. Always and without a doubt. But Kirk didn’t see himself as someone laying down his life for his country, he saw himself as someone willing to die for his friends. For his brothers. Because God gives you one family, and war gives you another.
Don’t read the papers, he said. Because the papers only print what they want to print, and not the truth. The truth? The truth is that you would be amazed at what’s happening in Iraq. There are schools and hospitals. There are smiles. There is freedom. If there was one thing that Kirk hated, it was the fact that the war had become less about the men and women fighting it and more about the politicians using it for their own gains.
But most of all, Kirk learned this:
We cheapen life. We no longer hold it as special. As sacred. And because we don’t, war will always be a part of this world. People can work for peace as much as they want, and they should, but in the end we are all dark inside. There will forever be the need for men and women to stand guard for the rest of us. They will sacrifice their peace so we may be able to enjoy ours.
Four years and a few months ago, I stood by that river and fished with a boy. Saturday, I stood there and fished with a man.
There are plenty of people who think of this day as the beginning of summer. A day off. A chance to barbeque and relax. But from now on, I will be thinking of Kirk. Not because of how far he’s come.
Because of what he had to endure to get there.
To read more of Billy’s writing, visit him at What I Learned Today.