I was 7 years old the first time I watched my dad clean a catfish. We were in the kitchen of the old ranch house in the Pocono Mountains where we’d go every summer to escape the city. He cut off its head. Even separated from its body, the fish’s lips smacked together like it was still breathing. I was terrified. And strangely fascinated. The same feeling I had had a few years earlier at my grandparent’s house on the dirt road side of Capitan Bermudez in Argentina, where my grandfather slaughtered a chicken and let it run headless through the yard.
For men like them, when it came to blood and guts, there was never any blushing or hesitation. As for me, I could not have turned out more different.
In the 1980s, my parents immigrated to Bayonne, New Jersey, a densely packed city a few miles and the New York Bay away from Manhattan. My brother, Victor, and I were city dwellers, inheriting my urbanite mother’s traits. She grew up a dozen miles away from my dad in Rosario, Argentina’s second largest city. She wasn’t present on the visit when my grandfather cut off the chicken’s head—she is terrified of livestock. My father, on the other hand, he could be left in the woods beside a river with a knife, a lighter, and a sack of red wine, and hours later you would find him dining on freshly caught Rainbow trout. “Want a piece? It’s good,” he’d likely say.
In my head live these snapshots of my dad’s efforts to ingrain a love of the outdoors in Victor and me. He took us to fish piers in Central Jersey and on the beaches of Staten Island for snapper bluefish, porgy, fluke, and striped bass. He brought us hunting with his Portuguese friends in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania and West Jersey, teaching us to handle a shotgun with care as we sought out pheasant, rabbit, and dove. After we passed our hunter education courses, he bought a simple clay thrower from Walmart so we could practice shooting. That was usually out at the ranch house, where, in the same weekend, he’d drive us to a nearby stocked trout pond, The Fishing Hole it was called, and pay for us to hook into a few fish we’d bring to cook later on the grill and eat.
It took some years for us to catch the outdoor bug I always saw as so inseparable from my dad’s identity.
“In my head live these snapshots of my dad’s efforts to ingrain a love of the outdoors in Victor and me”.
As kids, if Victor and I weren’t outdoors with my dad we were likely helping him on plumbing jobs, running copper, replacing water heaters, and installing baseboard heating everywhere from musty basements to million-dollar houses in the suburbs—when he got a call for a job, no matter what or where, he rarely turned it down. Like many immigrants (and blue-collar Americans), the outdoor hobbies he lived for were paid for with long, hard hours that stretched far beyond the comfortable 40 I’m now privileged to spend behind a desk at my white-collar job—thanks to his sacrifices.
Nearly two years ago, I decided I was going to reconnect with the outdoors. Yes, I had spent some weekends in college camping in the woods with friends. After freshman year, three of us explored Scotland over the course of three weeks. We slept in a tent in the backyards of kind strangers and even once in a valley on the beautiful Isle of Skye. After moving to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2011, I explored the Great Smoky Mountains. My brother and I took trips to the Rockies in Colorado and camped in the Grand Tetons.
Still, the outdoors hadn’t become a staple of life, yet. It took the guidance of a close friend to reawaken the spirit my dad hoped for years to instill in me. In the last two years I’ve picked up recreational shooting, bass fishing, and fly fishing in the trout-rich waters of East Tennessee. I am never more at peace than while on a small stream in the Smokies watching a dry fly float toward a rising brook trout.
No one could’ve predicted this. When I first left New Jersey after college, I rarely spoke with my dad over the phone. It wasn’t like it is for us younger generations. Old immigrants are hard; they must be that way to make it in a foreign land, not just for themselves but for the families they’re providing for. But, in the past two years, I’ve found myself calling my dad regularly for advice about the best hooks to use and shell sizes for target shooting. He doesn’t know how to use a computer, so all of his wisdom is inherited, learned on the water, in the woods, or through other outdoorsmen he meets. He isn’t shy. It’s incredible to picture the library collections stored in his head, while I spend hours on YouTube and Google searching “how to tie the best fishing knot.”
One day soon I hope my dad will join me here in Knoxville. I meet friends who are curious about a northerner and a Latino who knows something about what it’s like to hunt on opening day or descale a fish. A lot of my Latino brethren here are from rural parts of Central America. They settle in the most urban parts of Knoxville. I am not sure how many have regular access to the outdoors. I imagine their dads, like mine, spend hours hard at work, rompiendose el lomo (“breaking their backs”), to put food on the table. If providence grants it, I hope I play a part in passing on this tradition I’ve inherited from my dad to not only my children but to the many children who don’t have the same opportunities I had thanks to him.
This past August, my wife and I joined my parents and brother for a family vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My dad was excited to take Victor and me out fishing to the spots he’s learned over the last decade. On the first full day, we drove over to this jetty separating the sound from the ocean. Right where the rocks ended, he cut up fresh mullet and tied pieces to big circle hooks he had us cast far out into the surf. The wind whipped at our faces and dragged the lines into the seaweed. Then, we saw the first rod bend. It looked like the bend on a branch carrying the weight of a hanging child before snapping at the base. My dad never reels in fish when we’re around. He still passes the glory of the catch to his greenhorn sons. On the other end, a more-than-two-foot long redfish. It was one of four we’d catch together that morning—the first time my dad had ever caught redfish. It was a special moment. And it was only possible because of him and this tradition he’s worked hard for us to inherit.