My grandfather’s name was Roy Glen Pollard, but to me, he was John Wayne. I know that the historic John Wayne has gotten some bad press this week, but I am talking about the American mythic creature that rides through my memory, that John Wayne.
My grandfather was tall, solidly built, with a musculature that denoted his West Georgia hard-scrabble farm roots. He had been in the army during World War I, serving as a medic in his infantry corp. Upon returning to the States, he went into law enforcement in the county sheriff’s department. He opted to leave the sheriff’s office to go to Atlanta because he was averse to arresting his wife’s brother who was a major moonshiner in the county….the stuff of a country music song.
He joined the Atlanta Police Department with Herbert Jenkins, his partner who later became a famous progressive police chief. He walked a beat downtown near Rich’s and also rode a motorcycle, the three-wheel type. He took me on a motorcycle ride when I was a kid which gave me a fascination with Harley’s, a fascination I actualized when I was in East Texas, purchasing a used Longview Police Low Rider to ride on those open Texas backroads.
I have written before about him standing up to some racist comments in a barbershop on Lee Street in the southside of Atlanta, taking himself and me out of the establishment when the N word was being tossed about. He volunteered to work within the black community as a cop before the days of integration. My granddad tried to explain his views on race to me once, couching his thinking is a pretty simple but real faith….we are all God’s children. I am not sure how he forged that out of the hard steel of Southern bigotry but it was real in the way he did life, the way he lived.
His faith pressed him to care for all people, in spite of his tight, puritanical ethics. I am convinced that he took Jesus seriously in terms of focusing on loving one’s neighbor regardless of the cultural chatter as to who counts. My grandfather answered the question of Jesus, “Who is your neighbor?” in a Christ-like way……everyone! But unlike churchgoers and religious bureaucrats, he actually did it. He walked his talk. He picked up the neighbor next door every Saturday night after Mr. Dial had too much to drink. Mr. Dial worked at Fort Mac, which is now Tyler Perry’s studio, although he suffered from PTSD long before it had a name. My granddad would pick him up and put him to bed. not saying a thing about it. It was what a neighbor does.
He sometimes led the singing at Oakland City Baptist Church on Sundays, as he loved Gospel singings in the “country”. I remember watching the Gospel Jubilee with him on Sunday mornings on WSB television before church. He played cornet in the police band, and seemed to enjoy all types of music.
His main sense of community seemed to be the Friendship Class, or “the old men’s class” every Sunday. As a young child, he would stand me up on the front table in front of the class and have me “direct” the singing. In psychiatric diagnostic manuals, it’s referred to as premature identity formation, but at the time, it was like having thirty daddies who loved on me at a critical time in my development. Maybe that is why the picture of me with the “old men” around a table, celebrating my birthday, forms a baseline for my sense of community.
His sense of humor was dry. When he would come out of the house, look on his Chevrolet which had been marked by fresh piles of bird droppings, he would remark with a Matthau-like deadpan, “They sing for some folks….”.
When he had free time, he loved to fish. He had a old white Chevy sedan he called his fishing car that he named “Betsy”. He would go out to a lake in West Georgia, owned by his friend, Dr. McCartney. Doc ran some cattle, for fun I suppose, but had a lake that was a playground for my grandfather and his friends. For me, it was like a Disneyland that I had only heard about in winsome tales among “the old men” about grand days together and the one that got away.
Early on, I had asked my granddad to take me fishing but he explained that I needed to grow up a bit, be a little older. I’m not sure what the prescribed age was but I do remember the morning getting up knowing that this was that Red Letter Day when I was going to get to go with him and “the boys” to fish.
He and I had breakfast together, strong black coffee, and sausage and biscuits, the breakfast of champions and cardiac patients. It was early morning and we were carefully quiet, trying not to wake up my grandmother, who could make it rain inside. I watched as he filled up a red and white thermos with ice water, and packed a couple of biscuits for lunch. I was so excited, I don’t think my feet touched the floor as we ate.
We met the boys at the lake that might has well been Eldorado. This was the day, my grandfather proclaimed to “the boys” that ol’ Dave was going to catch his first fish. I couldn’t be more excited as it was like a baptism-Bar Mitzvah-Graduation-Wedding combined in an extravaganza of a threshold moment known scientifically as a rites de passage, thanks van Gennep. This was MY day.
My grandfather had a plan. We would start our expedition by fishing in the shallows where the early morning fish would be biting topwater, picking off vulnerable insects floating in the water film. Then, we would take the boat out to the middle of the lake where some bigger fish would be, and then, end the day on the dam, near the deep water where the “big ones” would be holding. My grandfather was crystal clear about his goal: me catching my first fish. And he had strategically laid out his tactics, a progressive plan to make sure it happened. He had a plan in his mind, alright. There was only one thing: the fish were not biting.
From the early morning shallows, to the boat, to the dam, the fish simply were not biting. Applying scientific method, my grandfather opined that it might be the way I was holding my mouth, a favorite Southern colloquial saying. Regardless, he was not going to give up on this vision he had of me catching my first fish.
As the day wore on, even I could sense the desperation setting in. Now, this was years before I lived through many seasons of being an Atlanta Falcon fan, but I knew the smell of failure even then. It hung in the air.
My grandfather was undaunted as we stood near our original spot on the bank of the lake, near the shallows where the cattle would cool themselves during the noonday sun. Just like so many times before, I cast my worm, fixed on its steel J hook crucifix, out as far as I could. By then, I had grown tired and my spirit was flagging. I was watching the red and white bobber on the slick, still water, like I had grown accustomed to, not really expecting anything.
And then it happened. The cork begin to slide slowly to the left, and then submerged under the water, indicating the very strike it was designed to display.
“Reel ‘er in, boy!” my grandfather shouted, making no attempt to disguise his enthusiastic agenda for the next few moments of my life. He was being very directive, in coaching parlance,
I leaned back on my little Zebco rod with all the force and weight I could muster. The reel began to scream a high-pitched sound indicating the tension from the weight of the fish on the end of my line. I instinctively began to turn the crank on the reel, trying to retrieve the fish toward where I was, as opposed to where the fish was wanting to go, a classic struggle of wills. It was the proverbial fight of the century…or at least the afternoon.
“The boys” were gathered around, yelling Baptist-appropriate encouragement. I could feel some success as I was slowly succeeding in my efforts to do what my grandfather directed. But then something unexpected happened, something I had never seen before. The fish jumped up out of the water, revealing spectacularly a large bass, the kind Napoleon Dynamite might catch for you to eat.
As the fish broke clear of the viscosity of the lake water, it was like slow motion on the Wide World of Sports. He seemed to be shaking his head at me, saying, “No, I will not be your virgin catch, young man!” and then he descended back into the depths of the water.
I remember continuing to reel the fish in, finally getting it near the bank where we were standing. I could finally see him. It was the biggest fish in the history of humankind. It was, as someone of note recently claimed, “perfect”. It was definitely a “he” as he was sporting a moustache, well trimmed.
As I got him to the bank, his underside seemed to drag on the red clay silt of the shallow water, causing a brief second of release of the pressure on the fishing line to the hook in his lip. Even inexperienced, I could see and feel the hook release from his mouth, in about six inches of water. The fish seemed as surprised as me at his regained freedom, as he stopped and held there in the water.
In that moment, I saw a flash of color to my right in my peripheral vision. It was my grandfather diving into the lake to try to capture my fish by hand. There was an explosion of water as my granddad hit the water, leaving me holding the rod and reel, with my mouth open. When the dust settled, or should I say, the water cleared, the next thing I saw was my granddad sitting in the lake, with water streaming off his head, with a big grin on his face.
Now, I think this is one of the first stories I ever told in a sermon. I remember it as the first story I told at the Cathedral in my initial sermon from that storied, vaulted pulpit. I remember my early nemesis, Mary Parris, a buttoned-down proper Church Lady, opining that a story about a fish was inappropriate in such a regal locus as an Anglican Cathedral, while my friend Conroy blessed it as a fine, even epic Southern tale, bordering on Moby Dick status. More importantly for me, he laughed. Jury was in, Atticus.
In that initial telling, I remember intentionally withholding the outcome of the story, making the poignant point that it did not matter if my grandfather was able to grab the fish. The point I was wanting to make was that he tried. He dove in. He was so clear about what he wanted, he was willing to do whatever it took to get that fish for me, his grandson. I refused to tell the end of the story in order to drive my point home.
It’s funny how the story continued to live on and be relived and rewritten years later. That’s the way of a good story. It lives on, is retold, and finds new ears, and hearts. I told it on numerous occasions and in every parish that became my home. But the heartbeat of the story lived on in another way.
When my family was visiting Georgia for vacation, during our Texas sojourn, my son, Thomas caught a rainbow trout, his first fish, near our cabin on the Cartecay River in Ellijay. His fish got off his hook as he had an environmentally-woke barbless hook, that supposedly would not injure the fish. On that summer afternoon, Thomas’ fish dragged on the river gravel near the end of his retrieve, providing the break in tension for the fish’s esacpe. This time, I am the one who dove into the river, trying to save my son’s first fish.
The imprint my grandfather put on me took. Not only did he teach me by example that all people were of value and to be respected, he taught me to dive in after something I wanted, regardless. He taught me that race was not a determinant in human worth, that no mere descriptive adjective trumped the definitive noun, person. He taught me to tend to those who had fallen, who hurt with the pains of life. He taught me to love music and the mystery of nature. His imprint goes to the marrow of my bones and the depth of my soul. He taught me to dive in to life itself. And in this season of remembering, I am thankful.
And, just to be clear, I caught that trout that day, diving into the cold water of the Cartecay. Like grandfather, like grandson.