I never cared for fishing. I liked catching, mind you. It's fishing that is boring.
My stepfather loved to fish. It must have been a carryover from his childhood, when fishing was the only acceptable excuse for not being in the fields, planting, hoeing or picking. Pop's idea of a good day fishing was to get there before the sun came up and stay way past sundown. Many a time, I was told to go to the front of the boat and hold a flashlight so Pop could navigate back to the landing. Those were long days on the water for a boy.
The only thrill of fishing was getting to drive the boat. When no other boats were around, and there was nothing to run into, Pop would let me steer. Alan Jackson sang a song about this, with a line that said, "I was king of the ocean, when Daddy let me drive " Still, steering the boat for five minutes out and five minutes on the way back was a small part of the day. Pop would usually pack some crackers and sardines (breakfast of champions), some Vienna sausage and some Little Debbie snack cakes.
When I was 13, I thought I was old enough to stay home instead of fishing. I told my parents this, and I was told I was going, and that was that. I pleaded to bring a book. I was told there was no need for a book because I would be fishing. You can't fish and read at the same time.
We left the house at six in the morning and were on the water by seven. Pop loved to fly fish. I was casting, getting hung up on stumps and cattails. Pop caught two or three small ones, Momma had caught one, and I had caught nothing. We had a Little Debbie break about 9:30, crackers and Vienna sausage at noon, and the fish still weren't biting.
I had enough experience to know the only thing that would drive us off the lake was a thunderstorm. About 1:30 in the afternoon, I started to pray for rain. Reluctant teenage fishermen make for fervent prayer warriors. I bargained with God, telling him I would never covet my neighbor's donkey (it was easy; our neighbor didn't have a donkey). I promised God I would never force my servants to work on the Sabbath (also an easy giveaway). I was working my way up to more extravagant promises when I saw a small black cloud in the distance.
We were fishing on Lake Arbuckle, right on the border of the Avon Park Bombing Range. My little slice of Florida is the thunderstorm capital of the world. In 15 minutes, the wind was blowing hard, and whitecaps were forming on the lake. Pop told me to pull up the anchor while he stowed the gear. Then he did the strangest thing. Pop told me to crank the boat and steer it to the landing.
I thought I misheard him. Me? Thirteen years old? Drive the boat to the landing in the face of a storm? Still, this was an opportunity too good to miss.
Ever tried to outrun a storm in a 15-foot boat with a 65-horsepower outboard motor? It's not as easy as it sounds. I had to steer straight into the wind. The boat rose on each wavecrest and then slammed into the trough. The waves were getting higher, the wind was blowing stronger, and raindrops the size of quarters were popping on the water, on the boat and on our skin. You could see the rain sheets moving across the lake. God was answering my prayer and then some.
Despite being 13 and bulletproof, I was scared. It was one thing to steer the boat when the lake was calm; it was another thing to navigate through the storm. Surely, I thought, any minute Pop would come up and say, "Better let me drive." But I never felt the tap on my shoulder. I began to calculate the odds of my reaching 14.
We slammed down into another trough, and the rain shifted to a driving flood that stung. I heard something in the boat come loose. This would be the moment Pop would come and take the wheel.
I looked behind me, and on the back-bench seat of the boat was my stepfather, his arm around my mother - laughing.
When I saw him laughing, I decided this storm wasn't so bad after all. If my father was laughing, this was an adventure to enjoy, not a tragedy in the making.
We made it to the landing, loaded the boat and went home soaked to the bone. But I will always remember the lesson of that day: When your Father is laughing, there is no need to fear the storm.
No matter what storm you face, your heavenly Father can be with you. You might even hear him laugh.
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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