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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Reliving my 'best day'

by Mike Masterson | November 6, 2021 at 3:17 a.m.

The question raised the other night on the program we watched seemed simple enough on its face: Describe your best day ever.

Yet with so many of my days already in life's rear-view mirror, that task proved darn near impossible, especially when I have two beloved children and the wonderful memories of the days they were born.

After this many years, each of us naturally has many fond memories of our exceptional days etched in our recollections.

Amid the crush of competing thoughts, one memory did keep rising to the surface.

It was a late-spring early morning in Harrison in the summer of 1955.

My father had roused me in the predawn with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a tackle box. At 9 years old, I'd slept very little since the prolonged excitement of the awaiting experience was palpable.

After all, I was about to spend the day with my father wading my favorite place in the world, Crooked Creek.

He had started taking me along on these adventures when I reached 6. Before then, I just knew he'd always return from the creek wafting an odd combination of Old Spice, bologna and fish.

So I knew well what to expect of the sights, sounds and smells of a day together along the crystal-clear spring-fed creek.

It was out here on warm days cloaked in pastel skies that I felt most connected with everything flowing and growing around me, as well as screeching red-tailed hawks circling lazily overhead.

For an impressionable boy filled with enthusiasm, the blend of the flowing waters reeking of bass and perch swimming just out of sight at our waists, the fragrant foliage (such as honeysuckle vines) on either bank, and thousands of smaller fish, turtles and crayfish scurrying through the rocks and rapids, life didn't get any better.

This sacred place was such a tranquil, magical world far removed from my real world.

If such appealing aspects to Crooked Creek weren't enough, the snakes, birds and wildlife from surrounding pastures and trees that relied on the creek for existence added even more thrills in the innocence of a youthful heart and mind.

But this particular day stands out all these years later for several reasons. It was the first time I can remember that my father and I shared what can be described as an adult conversation.

He told me about he and his three younger brothers had grown up without a father to take them on fishing getaways and how much it meant to him that I was with him that day.

He shared this because he'd never really known his father as a child and thus had no role model to follow. He had spent years learning fatherhood by the seat of his britches with his three children.

As we talked, brownies and their freckly Ozark bass cousins were continually striking our ultra-light lures. I lost track of how many times we each had a fish on our lines at the same time.

The thrill of seeing golden sides flashing back and forth beneath the surface was truly magical for a kid.

Before I grew up and chose to release the fish I'd caught, the sizable ones wound up attached to metal stringers hooked on our belt loops.

That meant as the day wore on, their weight increasingly dragged behind as we negotiated the rapids separating longer pools with the deeper, shady pockets amid the roots that nourished the overhanging trees.

After a few hours of wading and reeling, we paused to sit and eat the lunchmeat and American cheese sandwiches he'd prepared before dawn. I still don't recall ever wolfing down something quite as tasty, especially with a bag of chips followed by with a slightly melted chocolate chip cookie.

I remember stumbling and falling twice on the impossibly slick rocks that lined the stream bed. Thankfully, nothing was broken, including my rod. And to be honest, when I found myself lying spread-eagle in the cool creek, I had little desire to hurry to my feet.

A big part of a creek's appeal as a youngster was the joy of just being one with its flow. I closed my eyes and imagined myself as being one with the beauty around me. I recall lying face up, feeling the cool water rush around my neck and across my skinny body while I stared at the towering treetops lining the stream.

I actually became philosophical in a juvenile sort of way for the first time I can recall, wondering if the magnificence of this place would even be there if I didn't experience it. That's akin to the old saw I'd yet to hear then: If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound if you aren't there to hear it?

Later, I decided it would, since the creek was there long before I was born and would still be surging for other sons and daughters to appreciate long after I'm gone.

As that day wore on, I remember watching Dad make long, accurate casts that laid his frog-colored Flatfish at the base of roots along the bank. These aptly named wobbly lures with their green and yellow coloration and designs always captured my fantasy.

At one point, I sat in the rapids and watched Dad, just trying to learn his impressive casting techniques.

After seven hours on the creek together, it was time to begin the long wade back to the car. In those times, my legs and back were strong, which means I could handle the demanding hike with relative ease.

Then those three miles for Dad, well into middle age, became more challenging. He even slipped once and splashed into a pool as we methodically tried our best to avoid the submerged rocks coated in slick algae.

"See there, son, don't feel bad, happens to us all," he said, smiling as he arose with water draining from his clothes and spinning reel. "Happens to all of us down here."

It took about a hour to finally catch sight of the Buick station wagon parked in the shade on the overgrown logging road alongside a disintegrating clapboard barn.

Spreading bath towels on the seat, we put the cooler of fish yet to be cleaned in the car and headed back up the gravel road toward the noisy highway nearly a mile above us.

At one point, he invited me into his lap, allowing me to steer as he coached in one ear and managed the brakes and accelerator.

In reflection, it's become apparent the best days in our lives don't involve the stuff we've purchased, the meals we've eaten, the cars owned or movies seen.

Instead, the ones that matter most are those that involved quality time spent with family and the friends we love and care for.

While that may sound a tad trite or syrupy, it's nonetheless a fact that applies to each of our lives and leads to favorite memories.

Today, Dad's been gone 41 years. Yet he lives on in my 65-year-old memory of the "best day of my life" as if it were last week.

If asked, I would have said the second-best day of my existence thus far was the morning I spent on the same creek with my son and daughter, reliving similar joys to the days I had known.

There is something about a flowing stream and all it adds to existence that offer the memories of a wonderland to us in our youths.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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