He taught Alan to fish, and almost every day the two of them would set out for the water returning in the evening with a fish to fry over the campfire. Later, I would also be dragged along, taught to hunt for bait. My dad always said, "It doesn't make sense to buy worms when all we have to do is lift some stones." I'd wield the old fishing pole, gingerly dangling its rudimentary hook into the ocean. Catching a fish mortified me. I found it traumatic looking into its glassy eyeballs as my father put the flapping creature in the bottom of the canoe and on occasion when we had one in a plastic bucket. Later, Dad would filet the fish with the same knife he used to peel fruit, jabbing slices of apple and not hesitating to take a bite right off the blade.
Dad would often take us canoeing, even on the occasional weekends he was home in Greenwich. He'd drag the rickety old metal boat out into the river and beckon for us to hop in behind him. He taught us how to handle the canoe and use the anchor, which was shaped like a disk. On hot days he would climb out and swim beside us, sometimes disappearing under the surface only to pop back up and upend the canoe, sending Alan and me laughing and shrieking into the water. The only thing that could keep him out of the water was a serious lightning storm, and even then, the bolts would have to be striking all around for him to quit. I have a clear memory of one winter afternoon when we took a family walk along the river.
Lucky, the Shetland sheepdog, was with us, and as he tried to climb the riverbank, he slipped and fell into the frigid, fast-moving water. Frantically, he splashed about, desperately trying to keep his head above the surface. "Swim to me!" my father shouted at Lucky, but the dog was too frightened and disoriented to obey. In an instant, my dad simultaneously pulled his shoes off and jumped into the river, powerful arms throwing up sheets of water as he raced toward the dog. He quickly towed Lucky back to shore. My father never made a big deal about it. But I remember it vividly. The brief but harrowing experience it made me keenly aware that he could save me if I needed saving. A shivering Lucky, however, was scarred for life, and never went in the water again.
My father was indeed rugged. After their divorce, my mother told me she always loved knowing that he could protect her and take care of the family. She never worried about anything bad happening when he was around. But I realized that my father's vacation activities were all dedicated to teaching us how to do things that he felt might help us get through life, just in case he wasn't there when we needed him. Dad also taught me never to take no for an answer. He and my mom always told the story of the time we were camping in upstate New York when I was little more than two years old. I developed a dangerously high fever, and Dad marched through the thick forest at night, with me in his arms, my brother and Mom in tow, with only a small, flickering storm lamp to guide us to our car. When we arrived at a nearby doctor's office in the middle of the night, the doctor said, "Office hours are over, we are closed." Dad said, "Then give me the address of a real doctor who'll save my daughter." The doctor opened his doors and took care of me.