Death in the Afternoon on the Way to Fishing

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The afternoon was hot but the truck air conditioner was doing its job. Good trout fishing was about 60 miles down the road. Well, I hoped the fishing would be good. I tuned the radio to NPR.

Anyone who has spent much time on interstate highways knows that NPR and at least one local Christian radio station can always be found somewhere on the radio dial, even if there’s no more than a solitary old barn within eye shot.

This morning NPR took about five minutes to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s suicide. My wife and I had seen Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” earlier in the week. Hemingway is a major character in the movie so the man and his writing had been on my mind.

The actor who played Hemingway in the film read a few sentences from Hemingway’s short story “Indian Camp” during the NPR piece. The subject was death. With Hemingway the subject was always death. Maybe for that reason alone, he had to end his life as he did.

I read “Indian Camp” when I was a junior in high school. It’s in a collection of Hemingway stories called “In Our Time.” It wasn’t a book I had to read for English class. Someone gave it to me, but I can’t remember who.

With my truck pointed toward Caney Fork River and the man on the radio reading a Hemingway short story, I had to think about his “Big Two-Hearted River” stories. Since the first day I turned those pages in high school, the images of Nick Adams threading those grasshoppers onto his hook have lived with me.

The trout are just as beautiful today as they were when Hemingway was fishing the cold, clear rivers and streams in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sometimes the fish can be caught, sometimes they can’t. Two weeks earlier on the Caney Fork, I was catching big trout, mostly browns with a few rainbows mixed in. It seemed easy, almost embarrassingly so. On the anniversary of Hemingway’s death however, the trout wouldn’t join the dance.

The man on the radio said Hemingway was just a couple of weeks shy of 62 years old when he killed himself. Since I’m not quite 60 years old yet, I took some comfort from that bit of information.

Maybe that’s wrong. But, it seems like I’m beginning to size up some intangible aspect of my life by measuring it against lifespans of people I have known or admired who have already died. John Lennon didn’t make it past 40. A friend from my kindergarten class died of AIDS in his 30s.

Since I’ve become an older adult, the yearly Oscar show tribute to film stars who have passed away during the year has moved from silent film actors I never really knew, to the entertainment icons of my generation like Lynne Redgrave and Dennis Hopper. How much you care about the people featured in this yearly tribute is a very good yard stick of your age.

As my truck cruised along, I passed signs by the side of the road. The faster I went, the more quickly the signs came up. That’s what it’s like as you get older and start thinking about the people you’ve known who are now dead. There are more memories and they come faster.

According to the NPR tribute, toward the end of his life Hemingway said he couldn’t write even one sentence worth reading. That’s where he and I differ. Since I was 20 years old a part of me has wanted to write something worth reading, but I never felt like I knew enough about life to say anything worthwhile. At least nothing worth committing to paper.

With 60 years almost gone in my life, I’m beginning to think I’ve observed a few things and learned a few truths that might be worth a story or two. And although I may not be as obsessed with death as Hemingway was, I have given the subject a lot of thought over the years.

That time, the moment of death, will come and we’re all closer to it today than we were yesterday. A couple of years ago I started to mull over a truth about death and it has become a thought that finally, for some odd reason, has given me consolation.

In the entire history of man, everyone has successfully met death. I will too. I don’t have to worry about it. Even if I fail at every other thing I do in life. I won’t fail at this. Neither will you.

One less thing to be concerned about.

That’s good. I’ll relax a little more when I go ice fishing (use ice picks guys!). Maybe next week when I head to the river NPR will be droning on about green energy or something, and the subject of death will keep its fair distance.