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PRIVATE LIVES

There are reflections in the water. Throw a hook into the calm, and the ripples spread, and with the ripples come the memories.... To my knowledge, his eyes never looked upon Tampa Bay and the way it shimmers in the early morning sun. But I swear that lately, when I look across the water, I see my father's face.

He is sitting there, a cap pushed up on his forehead, a day's growth on his tan face. He is on the clay bank of a Georgia pond, his sleeves rolled up, holding a familiar rod and reel in his right hand.

The memory is yesterday-clear. Can it really be that he died a dozen years ago?

As Father's Day approaches, I guess it would be nice to write about how famously my father and I got along. We didn't. We tried to co-exist, but there was nothing peaceful about it.

Part of it was that it was the '60s, and there was a legal requirement that a father and son argue. Part of it was that he seemed old _ mid-40s _ by the time I was born, and when my mother died five years later it left us to draw our respective lines in the dirt. Part of it was that he had a bit of a drinking problem, and I had a bit of an attitude problem.

And part of it, I have begun to believe lately, is that we played on different fields.

Remember the movie Field of Dreams? If I were to build a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield, and he were to somehow show up, he wouldn't be carrying a mitt. He would be carrying a rod and reel.

He was a fisherman, a hunter. I wanted to be Johnny Unitas or Mickey Mantle. I wanted to play catch with my friends; he wanted to go cast with his. And, as in other areas of our lives, we worked hard at rejecting each other's values.

I guess he thought ball sports were frivolous _ I can't ever remember him playing ball or coming to watch me play. I guess I thought that fishing was duller than world history.

Oh, he tried. He would drag me along, and he would attempt to pass on his love of the outdoors. But it didn't work. We never really were Andy and Opie, whistling our way to the fishing hole.

Looking back, it was probably my fault. Maybe I lacked the patience, the appreciation. Maybe it bothered me that he drank while he fished, because his mood would darken with the day. Maybe I simply didn't like fishing because he did. How much could he know? He didn't even like the Beatles.

For whatever reason I had then, I now regret it more than I can express.

He had a hard life, my father. He watched as two wives died young. He was in a world war. He spent years laboring underneath the hoods of automobiles until his health began to betray him.

So he needed fishing. My father looked at a pond, and he saw tranquility. I saw a place to throw rocks. He saw challenge. I saw a cork that seemed never to move. He felt relaxation. I felt the urge to "accidentally" fall in.

I guess I expected the fish to surrender. I gave them about 15 seconds, and if they didn't bite, I withdrew the invitation. Instead, I would scurry around the bank, dodging trees as if they were tacklers, watching impatiently until my father, finally, would begin to pack his tackle box.

There was only one way he could delay my boredom. That was with his rod and reel.

To a boy of eight or so, it was a magical wand. He had won it in a poker game, he explained, which struck me as a particularly adventurous way to acquire such a tool. It was as light and balanced as Zorro's sword, and it put a cane pole to shame.

But the best part about it was the handle, which was true art. Someone had taken apart a pistol and fashioned the grip onto the rod, and that was as neat as a pet pony. If Billy the Kid ever went fishing, I was sure, this is the rod he would use.

Sometimes, the rod would persuade me to stick around long enough to catch a fish. Still, I never fell in love with fishing, probably because I never gave it a chance. Too bad. Maybe, if I had, my relationship with my father, overall, would have improved. Maybe.

Years later _ after my father stopped asking me to go fishing with him, but not after the arguments _ I came across the rod again. The handle was cracked with age, and you could see that the sides of the grip were made of plastic. It was disappointing. As a boy, I could have sworn that grip was pearl-handled.

It has been only recently that I have stumbled again across these memories, which resurfaced quite unexpectedly after I moved to an apartment complex on the bay.

It turns out that a couple of buddies of mine _ ironically, they are about the same age I was when my father began to take me fishing _ happen to think that fishing is cooler than ice cream.

Their interest, and a little of their coaxing, convinced me that I should give it another try. Surprise of surprises, I find that my appreciation has grown. Upset of upsets, I find my patience has done the same.

Sadness of sadness, my skills have not. I'm such a poor fisherman that even the birds laugh at me.

But there are worse things than being a bad fisherman. You still get the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. You still get to sit on the sea wall and watch the landscape change as the sailboats glide by. You still get to see the dolphins wander past.

Maybe, back when I was so certain my father was short-sighted, this is what he saw all along.

Looking down at the water, it occurs to me that I have begun to resemble him. Looking across it, I find myself thinking of him more often than I have in years. Late in his life, we made our peace, and I slowly began to realize how often he had been right about life. (Except, of course, for the Beatles.)

That realization hit me again not long ago when I went out to buy a rod and reel.

I wasn't really sure what I should be looking for, fishing illiterate that I am, but I think I found a good one. It was deft, and it was light, and it was balanced.

Oh, it also had a sort of a pistol grip.

It isn't pearl-handled, either, but I think Dad would like it. I look in the water, and I swear I can see him smile.

Gary Shelton is a St. Petersburg Times staff writer. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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