White Owls

Evening Watercolor Sketch of White Owls

Evening Watercolor Sketch of White Owls

“Dad, why do we always go to the Mississippi River to fish all night?”  We were seated in the backyard of my parents’ home, enjoying a cool summer evening.  My son was about twelve years old, had not lived with me since his mother and I separated when he was young, but an essential part of our visitation was an annual summer camp-out on the Mississippi River dike near Neely’s Landing in southeast Missouri.  Three generations—my father, myself and my son—made the journey and stayed out all night on the dike, fishing for catfish, alligator gar, sturgeon, buffalo, carp—anything that would bite on minnows or nightcrawlers.  I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, but took this approach: “Well, I guess I still consider fishing with Dad a key part of my rite of passage.”

“What’s a ‘rite of passage’?”

“That’s the transitional moment when the boy becomes the man.”

“I don’t get it.”

I looked behind me at the half-open kitchen door, checking to make sure we were not being monitored by my parents.  I had to reach far back into my childhood memories to pull out the thread that I wanted to explain carefully to my inquisitive son.

My own father never talked much.  A decorated combat veteran from the Korean War, he chose not to talk about what happened that night in 1952 on Hill 191.  We knew only that it was unspeakable, and for that he was decorated with the Bronze Star.  Getting married, raising a family and working as an auto mechanic left him weary in the evenings, and he was content to be left alone with his evening paper and the television while we did things that small children do.  By the time I was twelve, he began taking me fishing, and his profound love for that activity resonated profoundly with me.  I don’t know how much of it was the outdoors, or how much of it was the reality of being invited to spend quality time with my dad—I just know that fishing Indian Creek in southeast Missouri where my father grew up was an important part of my own growing up.

On one particular excursion, Dad had chosen not to fish, but to smoke his White Owl cigars and meander up and down the creek banks while I fished the holes for bass and bluegill.  I was using a Lazy Ike, and on one particular cast, put it too far over the hole, where it landed in a tangle of weeks and tree roots on the opposite bank.

“Dad, I’m hung up.”

“Wade out there and get it loose.”

“I can’t go out there.” (I was worried that there might be snakes in the water.)

“You know why?  Because you’ve been petted all your life.”

Those words stung me.  Enraged me.  My father never spoke much.  But on this day he did.  So that was what my silent Father thought of me!  A sissy.  A momma’s boy.  Petted all my life.  I threw down my rod, waded the creek up to my armpits, untangled the lure and returned to fishing.  And stewed.  “You know why?  Because you’ve been petted all your life.”

The next day I still wasn’t over that stinging rebuke, though nothing further had been said between us.  I approached my dad as he sat in the living room, while all the other in-laws chatted about nothing worth remembering.  But he was sitting there silently.  My father never spoke much.

“Dad, I want to go fishing this afternoon.”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“But I want to go, alone.”

“You’re old enough.”

“There are snakes.  I should take the .22.”

“You know how to use it.”

“I might stay until dark.”

“Be careful.”

I gathered up the fishing tackle, the Mossberg .22 bolt-action rifle, and borrowed cash from my mom.  Then I set out on the three-mile trek to Indian Creek, stopping first at Marlin’s store, an old-fashioned country store at a bend in the county road.

Walking into the store, I leaned my rifle against a wooden bench and approached the counter.  I was going to need food and provisions for this day-long rite of passage.

“Five pieces of bubble gum, a Royal Crown soda, two Pay Days, and a Slim Jim.”

“Will that be all?”

Looking up to the top of the shelves behind the clerk, I pointed to the stacked boxes of cartridges.

“And a box of .22 long rifle shells.”

The clerk reached up and took down a box of cartridges, setting them down next to the candy and soda.

“Anything else?”

Looking beneath the glass at the tobacco section, I added:

“And a couple of White Owls.”

The clerk set the two cigars down before my delighted gaze and asked if there would be anything else.

That afternoon, I ate my provisions, smoked my cigars, fired my rifle at phantom snakes in the weeds, and fished.  And felt large, that the twelve-year-old had become a man.

As I finished relaying this rite of passage story to my son, I turned and noticed a movement beyond the kitchen door behind us.  Someone had been listening.  My dad wouldn’t do that, but Mom probably would. And if she heard, there is a good possibility she would pass it on to Dad.  But he would not be the type to say anything about it.  Dad never talked much.

Four o’clock came early the next morning.  Bleary-eyed and silent, the three of us loaded the Chevy pickup and piled into the cab.  It was still dark, and we had a two-and-a-half-hour drive before us.  Stopping at a convenience store to gas up, my dad and son got out.  I knew my son would want to go inside for soft drinks, candy, etc., and Dad would be filling the tank and then going in for coffee.  I chose to stay in the cab and doze.  A few moments later, I was startled awake by the thump of a package tossed through the open truck window, landing in my lap.  A package of White Owls.

Dad never talked much.

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16 Responses to “White Owls”

  1. Barbara Tyler Says:

    Your post reminds me so much of memories of my own father. He’s a good-ol’-boy type so, unlike your dad, he actually talks a lot, but never really says anything. He used to tell me I was lazy and it hurt. When I would go out to help him I would work really hard to impress him but he never seemed to notice. It took me YEARS to realize that it didn’t matter how much I tried to gain his respect, he never really cared. Then, not long ago, I painted an image of his father on a large panel. It was part of my final in Intermediate Painting at UTA. After the class I gave the portrait to my dad. He couldn’t stop starting at it and even cried a little. It’s the first time I felt he was genuinely proud of me. He keeps the portrait in his workshop and loves to show it to friends and other good-ol’-boys.


    • davidtripp Says:

      What a wonderful story to pass along, Barbara. Thank you. My dad had ways of letting me know, later in life, how proud he was of my accomplishments. And I’m glad that his retort on that particular day didn’t tear me down–it just made me defiant enough to do something about it.


  2. raehering Says:

    Wonderful story, and well told.


  3. Deanna Tennent Masterson Says:

    This is a charming chronicle! I loved it! You brought your 12 yr. old self to life, & the White Owl cigars heighten the tale for me re the symbolism of insight, protection & wisdom related to owls.


    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you Deanna. I’ve loved the imagery of the owl and its wisdom. I always loved the insight of Hegel: “The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.” This story is very personal to me, and I’m glad to re-tell it.


  4. Cheryl Rose Says:

    Beautiful story! Your words painted a visual of your journey!


  5. reid rogers Says:

    Excellent excellent story David! If I wasn’t so late for work I would say more; just a really enjoyable insight into your history.


    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you, Reid. Just returned from St. Louis and wanted to pass on a story that means a great deal to me. Kicked out the quick watercolor sketch last night.
      Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


  6. Bonnie Says:

    My dad was quiet, too…yet he’d always give “a look” that showed he cared…and loved. I enjoyed your story. Sometimes short remarks can push us further than we would imagine. (I’ve had some of those, too.) But was a few overheard words, quite a few years ago, that made me realize my mother was proud of what I do. It warmed my heart to the core! Thanks for sharing.


    • davidtripp Says:

      I enjoyed reading that comment, thank you. I knew my Dad was proud of me when he started bringing his mechanic friends into my bedroom to show them my artwork tacked up all over the walls and scattered across my desk top. They would stay for 10-15 minutes, looking through all the work and commenting (though nothing ever was said to me!). But I knew, and appreciated the gesture.


  7. Xraypics Says:

    Yeah. Great story. My dad too was proud as punch of his four boys, but he showed it with a strict, hard, and tough Victorian approach that I never understood until he was within a week of passing away. It convinced me to rear my children with as much gentle love as I could muster. Thanks for sharing, and thankyou for reminding me to take some time and sit for a moment to ponder on my parents once more. Tony


    • davidtripp Says:

      Hi Tony. It means a great deal, thinking over times spent with parents, things that were said, things better left unsaid. I’m glad you took that time, and thanks for sharing it with me as well.


  8. coreyaber Says:

    A good story. Well told. I like the painting with it and am looking forward to following this one.


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