My first conscious memory is of a large red and white inflatable tuna floating on the Cedar River just outside the town of Maple Valley Washington (probably explains a lot). It was 1960, and the tuna was one of those “Charlie the Tuna” promotional toys you could get back then by sending in a few labels scraped off of Starkist cans. Playing at the river’s edge, it had gotten away from me and I remember turning to see it moving slowly away with the current, bobbing and spinning in lazy circles with each eddy caught, following the path of least resistance until entering the main current, it grew smaller and smaller and the toy passed from my life. Just before going around the bend it hesitated in one of the eddies, and the current turned Charlie to face me. He was smiling.
Somewhere it had been decided by a corporate PR department that a grinning toy tuna would sell more product than an indifferent one, but being four years old I assumed that the cheerful smile directed toward me was a sincere one and I felt bad as he finally turned away with the current and disappeared. As I walked back to our small cabin by the river, I was consumed with the thought that Charlie was gone and not likely to come back. While he was merely a plaything provided by adults in the interests of selling tuna and occupying the time of a child, I felt a sense of loss for the first time. A feeling that I should have tried to stop him while still bobbing and swirling in the slowly moving eddies, before the swift water took him down stream into the unknown.
Four years previously my father, having just graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in mechanical engineering, had moved his new bride and infant first-born son to western Washington to take an offered position with the Boeing Company. Born in 1930 in Poteau, Oklahoma, he had grown up hardscrabble in a time and region where a high school education was a luxury most could not afford to pursue, and a job as a rough neck in the oil fields was about the best a man could aspire to. His father, having dropped out of school in the eighth grade to go to work changing and balancing truck tires, insisted that he complete his education through the twelfth grade to better his chances for a higher paying job than the one in which he was now working. One he would remain in for fifty years, until taking up the fishing pole full-time at age sixty-five.
In 1950, the Korean War, the U.S. Army, the GI Bill, and my fathers twentieth birthday converged, and the opportunity to dream a little bigger presented itself. He had spent a couple of years working the oil patch and the promise of a college education in exchange for a few years of taking orders seemed like it might be a better option than following the drilling rigs through oil country for the next 45 years. His fellow rough neck friends tried to convince him that college was not in the cards for a bunch of Okies like themselves. That it was for others. They were working men, their fathers had been working men, better to just accept your lot in life than go chasing after something that can never be. He listened to their counsel, considered it I am sure, and in the end simply drug up and let himself be taken from the slowly moving eddies of the life expected and into the swift water around the unseen bend in the river, exchanging one world for another. Arriving at Camp Casey, Whidbey Island, Washington for basic training, the verdant evergreen forests and deep blue-green waters of Puget Sound confirmed to him that he had made the right decision in leaving the red clay of the dust bowl behind, and that perhaps he could, unlike those who chose to stay, leave other things behind as well.
Ten years later, as I sat by the banks of the Cedar River contemplating my loss, my father stood on the same river bank fishing for steelhead trout. Now a successful aerospace engineer for Boeing helping to design and test the most advanced technology of the day, I told him about Charlie floating off and of how I wished he had not gone away. Putting his hand on my shoulder as he cast his lure into the swift river, he looked at me and smiled. Lifting his gaze to the bend in the river, he tousled my hair and we thought of things lost, and of things gained.