In the spring of nineteen fifty-five my great grandfather and I spent a lot of time together fishing for that elusive rainbow trout, Pops favorite.
As I now look back on that time it was both an honor and privilege of knowing him and my great grandmother. My great grandfather passed on in his late eighties, my great grandmother passed in her mid-nineties. All on my mother’s side, mom’s dad my grandfather was in his nineties, grandmother early nineties, see what I’m saying here is some do make a claim that longevity has been in our family for generations?
However let me tell you a story about my great grandfather who was affectionately known to me as Pop Weeks, and his eight-year old fishing buddy. See Pop would pick me up in his Model T Ford to spend some time with him on those bright sunny days in late spring. When the cherry trees blossomed and the tree buds were popping out all over. Pop loved his fishing, and he would take me out of school to go sit on a bank and cast in a line or two. While my friends sat in class I was unknowingly then spending time with a piece of walking history.
Our best fishing hole for that elusive fish known as trout was just east of Saint Claire’s Hospital in Denville. That stream was much larger then especially to an eight year old fisherman. This is the same stream that still runs under the bridge leading into Mt. Lakes. In those days there were no parking lots nearby and the hospital wasn’t quite as large. Each spring the cherry blossoms bloomed all along its eastern bank. Back then it had a road running ran along the eastern side under those blossoms where we would park that Model T for our several hours of enjoyment. All around us were woods and for me it was a seemingly large forest. Along with a pleasant warm afternoon sun it always made for a picture perfect day for the both of us.
The fishing there was always great never did we leave empty, our one creel full. Then at the day’s end I would sit behind the wheel of the T as Pop would crank the crank to get it started. Then it was off to go home; an end to a splendid fishing trip. We would go back to Boonton make that first left over the bridge and then on to his home in Powerville. This of course always ended in his being scolded by his daughter my great Aunt Nellie, my grandmother’s sister. Who would come looking for me to find out why he once again had absconded with me. To just sit alongside a bank and fish on a sunny day in June when I should still be in school. I guess Aunt Nellie never fished? Of course I was always on Pop’s side of the argument. But for a child in second grade I didn’t have much to say in his behalf that would get him out of trouble. Then with a hug and a wink I would be off. To sit in class the next day only to daydream the day away waiting to run down to see Pop and hopefully go for another fishing trip even if it meant just walking across the street.
What I miss about those early days in my life besides the caring and love I found from him, as well as the delight of bringing in a trout or two. It was his stories about his life and what growing up in America was about for him. Pop was in his eighties at the time and he had a garage and a gas station. Not much if any gas was in those cans tucked above your head by his house. In those days his gas pumps, were best described as long barrels that hung above his head as the hoses drooped down along the side of the tube running up to make it all happen in a gravity feed system. His garage was somehow attached to the shack next to those pumps I could never quite figure this place out and I never had time to explore it either. But it sure had enough fishing and hunting stuff in it. It was filled with magic to an eight year old.
But in the car or on the road or just sitting by the stream he would tell me about life, his American life. He’d talk about the big War’s the Spanish American War his war, and the First World War, my grandfathers and the Second big one my dad’s, then he would ask if I knew about Korea. I said I just knew that Uncle Bud was there, and that my brother Pete and I were airplane spotters at the Harmony firehouse and he got paid fifty cents a day. Who knew that in my future my war would be called Viet Nam and my sons Iraq? Smiling at me then Pop said that wars were ugly, miserable foul things that separated the shaft from the wheat. But they needed to be fought in order to save our way of life. What Pop then said, well it was for our Liberty? I smiled then because I of course knew of the Statue and I knew of the flags that proclaimed; Liberty or Death with the cool looking snakes on them. As I thought I understood all about Liberty he just smiled and asked me what about this part of it. As he then began giving me my first lesson on his meaning of the word. I do remember it was a bright sunny day and we had just gotten out of the T and threw our lines into the stream. I turned from the position I was sitting in to listen as he explained it to me this way.
“Mickey,” is what Pop called me; I guess it was the long form for Michael? “Liberty” Pop said is much more than that. See once there was a need to shout the word, shout it out as loud as you could. So your knees didn’t shake too much. This was done by the men to help them find the courage to die, because see these were the first men to die for the freedom that created America. My great, great grandfather was one of those men and my great grandfather told me all about this word Liberty and what it meant to his father and grandfather. He told me this was the word that created America. It was a word that men would talk about silently in the pubs over a hot mulled cider; it was one they talked about between the fences that separated their lands. It was a word that grew a nation and helped it in its infancy to survive. Pop said no other word could do that for a man, as it was a strong and powerful word. Wow and all along I thought it was just a statue. No Pop said it was a word that separated countries from one another for centuries. From a country that no man was allowed the freedom to find a way to even feed his own family, to one were proud and decent men could make a family live a life in freedom. Liberty Pop told me well it could also make kings humble and humble men kings. It was a word shouted throughout this world’s history to proclaim enough is enough to those who wouldn’t listen to the will of men who wanted to be free. That word Liberty equated to freedom and freedom was the best taste of life that one could swallow. Sometimes Pop Weeks talked a little over my head, just sometimes, but I came to recognize that he truly loved his freedom and his Liberty. Maybe it’s why he lived over the garage by the pumps and Nana lived in the house on the hill. So I listened as intently as any eight year old fishing buddy could to his great grandfather speak about his love for his country. Liberty said Pop Weeks was my one word I needed to understanding freedom. That anyone at any time under the disguise of Liberty could speak and create laws, that these very laws could actually usurp the real meaning of Liberty. Now I was lost and said so. Smiling I could remember this conversation sitting there as it was nearly time to go home, with an early sun setting past the roof of the hospital, but we at least had caught three trout that day. But for some reason I wanted him to finish this story before we had to leave. So I pressed him a little further and I said that none of this made sense to me. How could you lose Liberty by using Liberty? Then he taught me about freedom. He said we had the freedom to speak and to do whatever we wanted to do within the frame work of the law of course. I agreed saying that we couldn’t blow up the water and take all the floating trout home. Then ignoring that statement with a frown, he said that is exactly right. We had no right to do whatever we wanted to do but we did have a right to fish for all of the trout in the river. So that was what freedom was about fishing I asked. No Pop said that was just one type of freedom. Our freedom was that we could in our new country become who ever we wanted to become. That no one was going to tell you to not live your life enjoying all of the fruits of your labors. In this new country a man could earn a decent wage and get an education and become someone that in other countries he could only dream about. A man was worth his word and his word was his bond. That the price of this was paid for by our forefathers and that one day he also spoke to his great, grandfather who had fought for that freedom in a war that had made America. Wow I proclaimed how cool was that? Then he continued and said that it was important that his great grandchild knew that it had cost us plenty to be able to openly discuss freedom and Liberty without the fear of being hunted down as a criminal. That his very own great grandfather wanted more for his family and was willing to die for it as well in the war of eighteen twelve once again against the British. This was the reason why he and his friends shouted Liberty as loud as they could. As they struggled for years to overcome their fear of losing what they had started. Because having rights that couldn’t be taken away on someone’s whim was important to him. Freedom to do what he wanted to do with his labor and his life was important to him. Starting a new country was important as long as no one was made king and everyone had to abide by and live by their new declarations and Bill of Rights, and the constitution for this new nation. No one religion was best but everyone believed in God and now country. No Mickey my great grandfather told me that only those who would come to believe in these two simple words Liberty and freedom should be allowed to lead it where it needed to go. I smiled at him as we pulled into the downstairs part of the garage house and with a hug and smile I left him to go up to Nana’s to wait for my Aunt Nellie to pick me up. I never had the chance to say a real goodbye to him after that fabulous day. By the end of that week Pop got sick from a spider bite I was told and he went to Heaven. I missed my fishing partner immensely for a long time and I have never forgotten those times we shared, and the words he spoke.
Just today I took out two of my grandsons to go fishing. So now I sit with my young fishing buddies as the stories about the ones that got away make the homecoming news. But more importantly for me is that one day I hope to tell them about the meaning of the word Liberty. How a long time ago I sat on a bank casting in a line with their great, great, great grandfather and how he told me all about that word and what it means to our family.