On People Who Change Your Life Without You Ever Realizing It

House in Semmes

When my family moved out to the “suburbs” of Mobile, AL, I spent a lot of time by myself. Most afternoons, as soon as my dad got home, I was expected to work with him in the yard, or help him with some never-ending project on the house, until dinner or dark-thirty, whichever came first.

We bought our five acres, which to this day still sits in the middle of a large wood, from a family member whose first name was simply, “Joe.”

By the time I met him, Joe was already an older gentleman, complete with a ruddy complexion and an impressively portly belly. He was also the father of my step-mother’s brother’s wife, making us distantly related by marriage. Joe owned a huge swath of land around our property, which included what I called a lake, but which was really just a large pond. A poorly maintained dirt road connected the end of our county-maintained dirt road at the end of our neighborhood to the lake about 3/10 of a mile back in the woods. From there, the road continued on around Joe’s expansive property. As I got older, that property line became my dirt-bike trail, with the added benefit of providing a fire-break in case something sparked in the middle of a long, hot Alabama summer (it never did).

I really didn’t know Joe all that well, nor he me. My step-mother and I spent a few summer days as guests at his home, by invite of his daughter (my step-mother’s brother’s wife) swimming in his pool. I can only guess that’s how he got to know that I even existed.

One day Joe asked my step-mother if I would be willing to work for him cleaning out the logs and other debris that floated up from the bottom of the lake, which tended to be a lot. When the lake was built, they roughly scooped out the hole, leaving a great many exposed tree roots that rotted away from the bottom of the lake as the years passed. He offered to pay me what I considered an obscene amount of money at the time, $50. All I had to do was pull the logs out of the lake and pile them up in one spot off to the side. Of course, I had to get my father’s permission to do this since my working for Joe meant I wasn’t available to help him. When my father agreed to let me work for Joe, it was an “Aha!” moment for me. For the first time in my life someone was willing to pay me to do something I would probably have been just told to do by my father if Joe had asked.

The days turned into weeks and over time, after school, a few hours here and there on the weekend, I did the work. I must have done a good job because Joe also invited me to come to his house and do other various jobs–scrubbing the accumulated grime from his pool walls and cleaning up his own lake. Again, for an obscene amount of money–$100.

Then, I didn’t see Joe for a while until one day he drove up late in the afternoon. Now, I had been told that Joe was a wealthy man and in retrospect, I believe that was likely true. Also likely true, most of his wealth was tied up in real-estate. Joe lived well, but not THAT well. I met his wife all of twice, and neither time did I get a feeling of warmth from her. What I did get, was a sense based on her appearance, her sparing glance at me, and barely a murmur of pleasantries, that she had expectations for how she lived and presented herself to others, which her husband, Joe, did not share.

Despite his presumed wealth, Joe drove an older model, light green, generic Chevrolet car. Most of the time he had the windows down even in the heat of summer, from which out peeked a couple of fly rods. He dressed like a man who had departed years ago for a laid-back African safari wearing khaki shorts, a light-colored short-sleeved button-up shirt, and work boots, having only lately returned wearing the exact same clothes, only very much the worse for the wear. Oh, and a straw hat. That was Joe.

This particular day I heard Joe pull into our driveway even before I saw his car, the limestone rocks my dad had deposited and I had raked out smooth, making a satisfying crunching sound under his tires. I had evolved a sort of sixth-sense and could detect the sounds and vibrations of vehicles coming down our long driveway well before you could see anything through the trees. It was a talent I put to good use whenever I heard my father’s truck come home of an afternoon. At which point, I’d quickly turn off the TV, throw away the detritus of my abundant snacks and run to the kitchen table pretending like I had been studying.

That day, my father was already home, and having heard/felt the car coming, I’d gone outside to see who it was. As soon as I saw the car, I knew who it was, which only served to pique my curiosity. Joe and my father were never friendly, despite our having purchased our land from him. I heard someone offhandedly comment once that the general feeling was, since we were charitably considered “family”,  we should have gotten a better deal than we did on the land. But, as a kid none of that mattered to me.

I figured Joe wasn’t there to chat up my father, so I cautiously stayed in the confines of our screened-in porch while Joe extracted himself, oh so slowly, from his car. Part of me was a little fearful I’d done something wrong down at the lake and that Joe was there to revoke my fishing privileges, which at the time consisted of me and a basic rod and reel and whatever earthworms I could dig up. But, as Joe exited his car, he reached into the back through one of the open windows and pulled something out and brought it over to the door where I was standing just inside.

Joe had brought me a fly rod and was inviting me to come fishing with him. I was speechless. This older man I hardly knew was showing me a kindness I’d never really experienced from anyone outside my immediate family and for a moment, I honestly didn’t know what to say. I did know that a fly rod was something sacred to Joe. I had seen him rhythmically casting out on the lake in his little green Jon-boat and I knew that fly fishing was, to him, something of a religion, complete with rules on the kinds of fish you should and shouldn’t take from the lake in order to maintain the delicate eco-balance.

Joe invited me to come learn how to fly fish and after incredulously getting  approval from my dad to “take the day off” we hopped in Joe’s car and headed back to the lake. Between the two of us, we dragged his boat down to the water, launched it and paddled out to the middle of the lake; a safe place where a novice fly-fisherman was unlikely to snag anything he couldn’t easily un-snag. All the while, only exchanging a handful of words. That was also “Joe’s Way.”

That day, Joe taught me how to tie a hook on a line and he taught me the basics of fly-fishing; how to hold the rod, how far back to take my wrist before whipping it forward in that rhythmic hallmark of fly fishermen everywhere. I didn’t catch anything, but that day I discovered my love for fishing. I also learned you don’t talk much when you’re fishing. It’s a very serious endeavor.

Joe and I only fished together a few times, but we did other things together. Joe knew all about maintaining the right balance between the types of fish and other aquatic animals and Joe assured me of two things: 1. If you catch too many bass out of the lake, the brim will overpopulate and then nothing ever reaches a size worth catching, and 2. Turtle are the bane of any lake’s existence.

Joe hated turtles. But since there aren’t many natural predators for turtles in Alabama, Joe made himself into a predator. He would bring his 22-rifle and together we would sit on the far side of the lake, aiming towards the woods and away from anything within miles that might catch a bullet. There, together we would scan the lake, patiently waiting for that tell-tale tiny turtle head to come up out of the water and when it did…POW! We missed more often than not, but we had some help from the resident alligator (which someone shot and killed years later), and together we maintained that critical balance. By the time I left home, there were easily seven-pound bass in the lake.

Once I turned sixteen, I never saw Joe again. Either my schedule or his conflicted, or maybe I just hit an age where he lost interest in trying to be friends. The marriage tie that bound us also deteriorated into a divorce, so perhaps that was the true cause of the dissolution.

Joe has surely passed away by now, and I don’t have any contact with his family, although I could probably find one of his grandsons if I tried hard enough. I wish I could tell Joe how much of an impact his simple kindness had on a lonely kid who felt overworked and under-loved. Thinking back, at the time Joe didn’t have any grandchildren, so maybe I filled that gap in his life, however small and for however brief a time. If so, I’m hopeful he derived some small pleasure from spending time with me.

Joe made an indelible mark on my life, in more ways than one. I think that’s one thing about getting older; you tend you think back and look deeper into the motivations of people, their actions, and the consequences of those actions. Whatever Joe’s were, it meant a lot to me then, and now. Rest in peace Joe. You did well.

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