Project Healing Waters is a project whose mission is : “to assist in the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active duty military personnel and veterans through fly fishing and fly tying education and outings.” Locally, the LVMAC (Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council) and the Hokendauqua Chapter of Trout Unlimited joined forces to present a day of fly fishing yesterday for local vets at the Little Lehigh Parkway in Allentown. Mike is a member of the Hokey chapter of TU and was on their Board until his heart attack. In the last few years he has worked at many of their Project Healing Waters days. Yesterday he attended as a participant. I had recalled it was coming up and phoned the chapter president on Friday to be sure I could bring him since I had not registered. He told me that at a meeting the night before the guys had decided to call me to see if I could bring him and had dedicated two of the guys, his favorite fly fishing buddies, to spending the day two on one with him. Since he’s a big guy and his disability is pretty big, they wanted to be sure he had the maximum amount of assistance. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. I told Mike (several times throughout the day and before bed too) that we’d be fly fishing the next day. Naturally, he did not recall it.
The day was glorious. A perfect day for fishing. We needed to be in Allentown at 9:30 which dictated a 7:30 am wakeup call for Mike. This is never an easy thing and the grumbling lasted about 15 minutes. When he actually realized there was fly fishing on the days agenda and we would see his old buds he got up, headed to the shower, hunted down the shaving cream and got himself ready. Now true, I had to locate the shaving cream and remove the cap from the disposable razor…but this was an awful lot more initiative than he’s been showing in the morning. We got out the door on time, stopped for egg sandwiches and coffee and headed to the parkway. As we pulled in his buds headed straight to the car to get him and his equipment out of the car and took him off to be with the guys.
There was a grin plastered on his face from ear to ear as one after another chapter member greeted him, pumped his hand and told him how great it was to see him. Pretty quick they got down to business and began to assemble his equipment. Rod…good shape. Waders…shot…and waaay too big. Wader boots? Fahgetaboutit. The soles are dryrotted off. (Guess what he’s getting for Christmas???) Equipment all sorted out…time for casting class.
While the rest of the vets, most of whom were not familiar with fly fishing, gathered in a group for casting class, Mike’s bud took him aside and tutored him one on one. Now truthfully, Mike is a better than passable fly fisherman. But his casting had suffered along with his memory. He had the fundamental gist of the thing down…but no finesse. I watched in the distance hoping he’d be able to process the instructions and follow through. It was that same feeling you have when you watch your kid learning to ride a bike or pitch in Little League….nervous anticipation, pride, the fear he will be devastated if he fails. You know the feeling right? He seemed to process it as his casting became stronger and stronger. If you scroll to the bottom of the home page and link out to my Flickr photos, you can see a video of his casting and just a couple photos from the event. Naturally, with all three cameras along with me, I had failed to check the batteries or bring backup and all three were near dead. UGH.
Pretty quick it was time to fish. Off we went to the side of the creek. He fished until lunch from the bank…I sat in the sun and enjoyed the peace and quiet.
Smiling and happy he came back with his buds to grab some lunch and a Gatorade. There was some chatting, some relaxing, and I thought surely his attention span would have been exhausted and he would be ready to go home (OK. I was hoping he wanted to go home). Hopefully, I asked him what he wanted to do. His response, delivered in a most incredulous voice as if I were crazy was, “FISH!”. But of course.
The guys got him into his waders. An extra belt was resurrected from somewhere so we could cinch them around his waist because they were so big. We got the chest pack on him…the one with the net that hangs down his back. Watching like it was his first day at school I nervously bit my nails thinking about them taking him into the creek. How would they get him down the bank? How would he walk on the rocks in the creek since his balance is so bad? How would they get him OUT of the creek? What if he fell down in the water? (They assured me it wouldn’t be his first fall in the creek which did not ease my mind one tiny bit. In fact, that nail bled.) And off they went to the upper part of the creek where they saw the trout lying.
The reality? Those two guys were as careful with him as if he were their own. They had him sit on the bank, one went in the creek, the other at his side as they eased him up into a standing position in the creek. Then both walked him to the center of the creek, one at each elbow to ensure that if he lost his footing he wasn’t going anywhere. There they stayed, helping him fish, ensuring he had a great day. When it came time to get out, they had him sit on the side again and pulled him up to standing. It was almost 3:00 when they brought him back downstream to me. He had been in the water since lunch, on his feet since 9:30. As he walked back to me, he wobbled so that they had to hold his elbows to keep him going along without falling. He was exhausted but happy. SO happy! We headed home and he was tired, hungry, but went to bed about 11:30 in spite of his exhaustion.
I can tell you, without reservation, Project Healing Waters fulfilled their mission yesterday…there was definitely some healing going on! In spite of all of Mike’s memory problems, in light of all he cannot remember, I want you to know, he can still tell me today that he went fishing yesterday. And he smiles. My cup runneth over.