M y family’s dynamics changed in late December, a day before the final page of this past year’s calendar flipped. My mother passed away then, leaving me the oldest of the Pikes.
Not of all the Pikes. But in my immediate family, I’m now the end of the line. Among other things, that status renders me official family storyteller, so I thought I might share a few outdoorsy ones in this space.
My father, who died 23 years ago, wasn’t a great fisherman. He recognized my passion for the sport, however, and got me onto the water often from the time I was three. Fishing fascinated me, and Dad took full advantage of that obsession.
I grew up in southwest Houston, Section One of Sharpstown. On weekends when there weren’t early baseball games, he’d load me into the Chevy, swing by the bait shop on Highway 90 in Stafford for a carton of nightcrawlers, and haul me to the edge of some little lake or creek.
Once the hook was baited and I’d swung my cane pole to deliver its wriggling payload near a stump or mat of grass, my father knew I’d sit still until that cork danced and dove. It was during those pauses that he delivered his teachings on honesty and integrity, respect and compassion. On never starting a fight, but defending yourself whenever and however necessary.
In hindsight, I’m convinced he sometimes took me places he knew would be short on action. Important lessons took longer to share, and bites interrupted their delivery.
By the time I was a teenager, my dad was in a knock-down fight with alcoholism. He was never mean, but the disease certainly impacted our family. He ultimately beat that sickness and lived the final 20 or so years of his life in full control of body and mind.
On rare occasions, alcohol’s influence manifested itself in a story worth retelling.
My dad and some friends returned one summer afternoon, for instance, from a catfishing trip on which they’d finished off quite a few beers. Dad clumsily propped his rod between two chairs in the den, then sat in one of them. A small piece of chicken liver, half-dried, was matted onto the hook and dangled freely off nearly a rod’s length of line.
We didn’t smell it, but our cat did and made a beeline for the bait.
The cat, its name escapes me now, grabbed the line. My dad saw the bend in the rod and, instinctively, set the hook. The poor cat did a somersault and landed on all fours with that hook cleanly punched through its upper lip.
To the credit of my dad and his friends, even half lit, they managed to get a towel around the cat and a dishcloth over its eyes. More gently that anyone expected, they worked together with wire cutters and soothing voices to clear the cat.
One of only two times in his life that I know my dad went hunting was in the late 1960s, at the invitation of some Louisiana oilfield executives for whom he worked. Four men were loaded into a float plane and delivered onto a marshy island.
The pilot instructed them to load their shotguns, hunker in the grass, and listen for the plane. Ducks would be flying low ahead of the plane, he said. He’d repeat the fly-by drill a few times, retrieve everything and everybody, then leave.
Dad knew nothing about duck hunting. He probably didn’t hit any ducks, either, but the other guys did—lots of ducks, enough to fill several burlap sacks, however many ducks that is.
After the pilot retrieved his hunters and their ducks and landed them safely back where the trip started, one of the guests commented on how much fun he’d had and asked if they could return to that island soon.
The pilot didn’t speak, but the group’s host did. Afraid not, he said. Turns out, they’d been ushered into and out of, hastily, some federal ground where no hunting was allowed. That always bothered my dad.
On the other hunting trip I know he made, the two of us chased deer and elk on a 120,000-acre private ranch in Utah. Neither of us shot anything, but we had a great time.
My mother, in hindsight, put up with a lot from me. As a child, I once accidentally stepped (not too hard) on a Houston toad and got her to help me put a tiny Band-Aid on its scratched leg. We built a little “recovery room” in the flower bed and kept watch over that toad until it hopped off.
During my high school days, friends and I routinely brought whole fish into the house and cleaned them in the kitchen sink. We plucked geese on the patio and never did develop a way to secure all the feathers.
Longtime friend Jack Horsman and I once went frogging, with pellet guns and a dip net, and wound up hanging six or eight fat, dead bullfrogs on my mother’s backyard clothesline.
There’s other family stuff that will remain so, stories I’ll share someday with my son once he’s old enough to understand them. He’s a little young yet to comprehend how all the pieces that make up our family puzzle fit together.
Until then, though, I’ll keep taking him fishing and rock-turning, for walks in the woods, surfing trips to the coast and half loops around the golf course. I’m game for anything he wants to do outdoors. All I ask in return, on the drives to and from those places, is that he listen to his dad’s stories.
Email Doug Pike at [email protected]