The sun was hot and the fishing was slow, which tended to put the Old Man into a philosophical mood.
“They say you can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” he offered, looking at me. “You know a good bit about eating, but that saying is too nice and soft for the subject it covers.”
I’d asked him about smoking, which was his only non-productive hobby as far as I could see. His doctor and his wife had both insisted he quit smoking cigarettes, a side activity he’d pursued from daylight to dark for many decades by that time. He’d relented, though, and had taken to smoking little wood-tipped cigars just as vigorously and continuously instead. I later learned this is called obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit. At the time I thought it showed a stripe of cleverness of his own invention, one I intended to inherit.
I’d asked him about the ploy, even though I thought he’d probably tell me it was none of my business. In a way, he did, but the answer was roaming pretty far afield.
“You have to give up a thing to appreciate it,” he said, “but once you have, you probably wouldn’t trade for it back.”
I asked him what he meant.
“Well, freedom, for one thing,” he said, “and I don’t mean going to jail. Getting married you give up freedoms, having kids you take on permanent responsibilities but, once you have, would you go back and do it differently if you could? I wouldn’t. I doubt you’ll want to either when the time comes.”
I’d heard this sort of thing before and I put all my “Yes, sirs” in the right places to show I was paying attention. He went on.
“The thing about life is, every trial kills you a little bit.”
This was new, and now I was listening again.
“The hard parts break you as they come and go,” he said, “but you wouldn’t avoid them if you could.”
That didn’t make much sense then. Later on, when I’d seen more of life, the lesson started to fit and I began to understand. The fear and pain that wear us down define the parameters of the joy we can know. We’d never give them away. Still, they take their toll.
“Well,” the Old Man concluded, coming as close to an answer as he would get, “everybody’s got to die of something. What it is doesn’t matter much. The sweet times come from the difficult, and they’re what we remember if we’re lucky. You look pretty lucky to me.”
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.