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On The Fly

On the Fly - Memorial Day reminds fisherman of what true heroes are made of
Sunday, May 27 2007, 11:37 pm
Hugh Koontz  Shelby News Article
 
With the South Holston River’s frigid water embracing my legs, I let the morning sun wash its warmth over me. The air tasted sweet as Southern iced tea. There was no one else out, even though it was nearly past 8 o’clock. I flipped a little pheasant trail nymph into the current, let it sink a little, and watched the flyline swing downstream. I felt a little bump. Then another bump shook the rod, which then bent its shaking tip as a rainbow trout fought to get loose. He didn’t.

Fishing was good. By the end of the day I had caught so many trout with so many flies that I lost count. That’s a good thing. By the end of the day I also had turned into Lobster Man, with bright red forearms and face. I had forgotten the sun screen.

TODAY, I’LL be back in the water somewhere, casting flies for trout. I’ll also be smothered in sunscreen.

The redness disappeared with time, and my burned skin flaked off like a snake’s.

I was almost that red 40 years ago while sitting inside The Raven, a popular beer tavern in Virginia Beach. I was getting geared up for my trip to Parris Island, S.C., and Johnny, sitting with me in the booth with our girlfriends, was regaling me with horror stories from Marine boot camp. Johnny had just finished Officer Candidate School.

I was headed for South Carolina; Johnny was headed for Southeast Asia.

We had been buddies on the high school wrestling team at Maury High in Norfolk, Va. He was the underweight heavyweight, weighing 185, and I was the usually overweight lightweight, weighing at least 3 pounds too much at match time. At least I got to wrestle guys my size; Johnny took on monsters of the mat. Heavyweights, even in the 1960s, topped 200 at the least.

JOHNNY WAS AN overachiever overcoming all odds. He wasn’t that big for a football lineman, but he won all-district honors and a scholarship to the University of Tennessee where he played college ball for four years.

At Parris Island, he was the top recruit in his company, and when he left the island, he had won a set of dress blues. I lasted two weeks as the top recruit in my company, but on one early morning run I heard the D.I. holler, “coluuuummmmm leaaaaa” when he actually hollered, “coluuuummmmm rahhhhh.” I went “leaaaaaa” and the company I was leading went “rahhhhh.”

As quick as the sun bouncing off a brass belt buckle, the D.I. had disengaged the flag from my hands and was in the process of clearing my throat with his vise-like grip.

I left Parris Island with a green uniform. I was not the top recruit.

Johnny and I had great fun that night at the beach. I know he had a ball scaring me. We laughed, our sunburn blinding the waitresses with its intensity. We gave off heat like high-watt light bulbs left on too long. Cold beer never tasted so good.

I TOOK OFF later for South Carolina on a bus. Johnny took off for Vietnam on a plane.

I never saw him again.

He became a statistic.

A name on The Wall.

I hated that day when my Dad told me he had been killed.

Still do.

Today, I’m escaping from Memorial Day parades and memorials and picnics and such. I’ll go into the forest and pray for Johnny and those other Marines and soldiers who did not make it home.

I’ll also pray for those boys who came home alive but full of demons deep inside, the kind that eat at you slowly until it kills you with the whiskey or the drugs or the self-inflicted gunshot.

That damn war didn’t kill ’em all in Nam. Some warriors died slowly, over years, at home.

I HOPE THE fishing is good today. It’s Memorial Day, and I’ll be tying dry fly with the red and gold of the Marine Corps. I don’t even have a name for it.

But I have a prayer for those slain Marines who today would have been fathers and grandfathers teaching little children how to play football or wrestle. I’m sure Johnny would have made a great dad, perhaps even a great coach.

Instead, he’s a name on a wall. What a shame. I’ll not forget.

And today I will be flyfishing in the shade.

Semper fi.
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