The Way We Were

Somebody told me that this is the hard part. This is when the calls stop coming and the food stops arriving. Last you heard from me, my father was battling COVID-19 in an ICU. On January 15, we lost him.

You’ll pardon me if my mind hasn’t been on fishing tackle lately.

Dad was an extremely gifted angler. He was an adept outdoor writer. But dad was also a musician with a natural talent that far exceeded his considerable skills on the water. He was something of a celebrity in the Mid-South, a mythic figure from a bygone era when local and regional stardom meant something different than Instagram fame. He came from a time when regional athletes like Jerry “The King” Lawler would sell out arenas for events that were barely on the airwaves.

In the eyes of many in the Memphis area, dad was every bit as much of a star as Lawler—but he didn’t need Andy Kauffman to get on national television.

Long before Lawler made the late night rounds with David Letterman, dad lead a high school band to New York City for a date on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, the 1960s equivalent of American Idol. Imagine Simon Cowel belting out to America in a world where there weren’t 900 channels, only three. Dad would again make the national rounds as his marching bands ventured to the Orange Bowl and the Citrus Bowl, twice each. But this isn’t an obituary or a eulogy. Those have been written and sung. 

In the aftermath of his death, The Daily Memphian tapped their lead columnist to write a poetic tribute. The Memphis CBS, ABC and Fox affiliates put reporters on the story. Newspapers in each of the five small towns across Tennessee and Kentucky that his music career impacted most gave his passing front page headlines. And the University of Memphis—his alma mater—named the championship trophy of their high school marching band competition in his honor; he only won it nine times.

In the fishing world, The Mid-South Hunting & Fishing News ran a tribute as well. They finally put him on the cover of the publication that he gave his final two decades of service to. It’s been said that he was still making calls for them in the ambulance en route to the emergency room. And Bassmaster Magazine, the publication he’d been a subscriber to since 1968, gave him three pages in an upcoming issue.

We should all be so lucky, so blessed to make a lasting impact on the world that’s far greater than the lone life we are given. Case in point?

Meet Terri McConnell.

Terri played dad’s trumpet. She played it through the tears. She played it this week in 2021 because the man that taught her how to play died. He was my father in blood, but hers in spirit. She’d played for him years ago, on a field in Wisconsin where her solo and her horn won him a national championship. 

That was in 1977, when Terri also first fell in love with Yellowstone. She drove there from Kentucky, playing her horn in the woods. And she loved it so much that her life revolved around national parks—as a guide and a professor—for the rest of her life.

Not long ago, when dad finally made it back to the Grand Canyon, retracing the route he’d taken with his parents as a kid, he called Terri for directions. He needed her to tell him where to go. This weekend, beside his own grave, he needed her again. She played his horn. And like a good guide does, she showed him the way home.

When I met Terri, an hour before dad’s funeral service, I handed her his trumpet. She picked it up, put a mouthpiece in, and instinctively belted out her solo from all those years ago. She’d never forgotten it, a section from a song called “The Way We Were.”

A year ago, we were a lot of things, weren’t we? We were gearing up for a new year, for another fishing season and another Bassmaster Classic. We were going about our lives as we always had. We were dining in and hanging out.

But the world has changed. Just in our own country 400,000 people that were here last year are gone. We don’t know everything about what Coronavirus does to those that it infects. But we do know what it does to those left behind. We see it in the papers, on the news and in the tears that a powerful, seasoned trumpet player played through this weekend in a graveyard.

Now we know…the way we were may never return. 

This week, I learned that it’s okay to take some time to slow down and process that. And while this industry can often feel like a bubble, there may be no better place to slow down than on the water.