As a child of the ‘50s and a member of the Baby Boomer era, I was raised around war veterans. Nearly every dad in my neighborhood served in World War II. They didn’t talk about it much unless you stumbled across their footlocker in the garage. Even then, you didn’t get the stories that a kid raised on John Wayne movies wanted to hear.
When I was seventeen, I sought out that footlocker again because I knew it held a pair of Navy bellbottoms. Remember, this was 1969 and those things were the epitome of cool. To my surprise, they actually fit.
“How could the old man ever shoehorn himself into these?” I wondered, incapable of seeing my dad as a young man with his entire life ahead of him. It was a classic case of youthful myopia.
Unfortunately, the days of carefree summers and girls and cars were quickly evaporating as the specter of my eighteenth birthday approached. No longer could I ignore this strange little country on the other side of the world called Viet Nam, nor could any other eighteen-year-old because our birthdates were bouncing around on ping-pong balls in Washington, D.C. In those days, your draft status depended on when your date was drawn. The lower the number, the sooner you went. I’ve never been lucky at raffles and nothing changed here, my number was 12.
But, I was lucky, for no other reason than my parents could afford to send me to college. A two-year student deferment gave me some breathing room and the country enough time to collectively turn against the war. Like many of my generation, when our status was then changed to 1-A, we simply shrugged our shoulders and hoped to least get a degree before exchanging polyester for olive drab.
The problem with my generation and that of my parents was this: We all wanted to forget Viet Nam and, in doing so, we forgot the vets. When the guys who did the fighting came home, they came back to a big bag of nothing. No help, no support and no expression of gratitude for their sacrifice.
Thankfully, America has changed. Regardless of political persuasion, somehow we all realized that sending young men and women off to distant places comes with a very important responsibility. They are not the politicians or the corporate masters who make the decisions, simply the grunts who do the heavy lifting. We owe them our respect and recognition.
There are, however, people who take things a big step further. One of them is my good buddy, Mike Nemec. Six years ago, he started a Wounded Warriors tournament that has spiraled up into a 100-boat event complete with valet service to launch and load, a drive-through weigh-in, barbecue, awards and free stuff. Oh yes, plenty of personal, face-to-face thank yous for those who serve.
The minute I returned to my California roots after a decade in Texas, Nemec was one of the first to call and welcome me home. And to make sure I put a big red circle around Saturday, May 18 at Diamond Valley.
I have to admit, I had some trepidation. Now, it was my turn to deliver. They had done their part, now I had to put them on fish. Silly? Perhaps, but that’s how I felt. I will never know how I would react in combat, but dammit I know this bass fishing thing. Having spent a lifetime covering tournaments and competing in a few, I’ve never felt this unique brand of pressure. Telling yourself that the veterans are only after a fun day on the water doesn’t make it go away.
Quite frankly, I have never worked so hard or thought so clearly in a bass boat as I did last Saturday. Now, I was the old guy looking at two Marine sergeants who could be my sons. We talked, we laughed and, in the face of a tough bite, we caught some fish.
Sgt. Chris Smith of Michigan, someone who admitted he hadn’t done much fishing, hooked one of those bass. At five pounds plus, it was his personal best. As the fish streaked under the boat, pulling drag, all I could think was “I hope I tied good knots this morning.” When the net went under the fish, my hands were shaking. I’m not sure who was happier, Smith or Jones. What I did know at the end of the day was the feeling of being emotionally and physically spent. And, you know what? It felt really, really good.