The Word Murph Taught Me. Holding on and Letting Go in a Post 9-11 World.
I was waiting for the traffic light on Route 9 to turn green on a sizzling day, earlier this summer. I had taken shelter in my truck, the windows closed, cold air blasting from the dashboard. To my right, Lake Pohatcong was motionless; an nforgiving sun scalded its glassy surface. People walking or jogging often frequent the boardwalk along the lake, but that hot day it was almost desolate… almost, but not quite.
Not far from my truck window, a group of 4 kids stood in a tight circle. They were all holding separate fishing rods straight up in the air with all their lines knotted into one. At the epicenter of this tangled mess was one older gentleman with a short white beard, he was probably the grandfather, I assumed.
Even in the heat and even in the face of a knotted tangle, the grandfather’s expression was calm. And his eyes were sharp, his fingers nimble, he tackled the tangle one line at a time. Before my light turned green, the older man untangled the first line. A broad smile spread across a young boy’s face, he broke free of the group, checked his bait, then tugged his orange float and cast his hook into the lake.
In my mind, I could hear the “Ker plunk” sound of a fishing rig hitting water and I could see ripples spread in widening circles around the orange float. Wider and wider, the circles grew across still water. I felt a smile growing on my face and then I remembered a young man I met some years ago. Long time ago, I thought, but it didn’t seem that way…
His father called me at home one evening in late spring and told me his son had bought a beach home and needed advice on the home inspector’s report. And he said his son may need some help with a few things. This was back when I was building. I had worked for his father in the past and the man was good as they come. I arranged to be there the following day.
With good directions, there was little difficulty finding the modest home on a quiet street in Beach Haven. A young man stood on the gravel driveway, his head turned when he heard my truck. Then he walked up the driveway. No socks, brown loafers crunched through stones, his right hand extended. Then we introduced ourselves with a quick handshake. His name was Murph.
“Sorry I’m late… the traffic lights”, I said. “Don’t sweat it”, Murph replied. “Come on”, he said. Murph wanted to show me some work he had completed himself “Let me show you what the home inspector told me to do”. Murph was pointing at a foundation vent, “The home inspector told me to add these”. I examined the vent. “I’ve installed them around the foundation perimeter”, Murph continued.
The vent seemed properly installed and it was neatly caulked. “I think the inspector was right. Ventilation is important”, I told him, “But you need to remember to open them in warmer months”.
Murph pointed to a coil and louvers, “They sense the temperature and operate automatically”, he said. “I never saw those before”, I told him, “Automatic is good, if you don’t have to remember something, then there’s no way you can forget it”. Murph cocked his head, then made a smile, “I suppose that’s true”.
“Come on”, Murph said. We moved to the back of the house and stopped at a large pile of rubble mounded near the crawl space hatch. Some of it was recognizable as old building material and all of it was ancient. “The home inspector told me to pull this garbage out of the crawlspace”, Murph said, “I guess it makes sense, but it’s not fun work”. I was glad Murph did this part of the job himself. “Its nasty work” I replied, “but it’s never good to feed the termites”.
Murph’s eyes fixed on the pile of debris, then his eyes darted quick around the base of a set of stairs leading to a second floor deck. “Where’s the conch shell?” he said, speaking to himself. Murph was clearly annoyed by a missing seashell. “I put the upstairs key in the conch shell next to the steps…” Murph pushed some debris and sighed in relief when the shell appeared. He pulled the key from the shell. “Let’s go”, Murph said and he bounded up the staircase to the second floor deck. I followed.
Murph put the key in the lockset, turned the door knob and opened the door, “Come in”, he said. I stepped inside and Murph moved his arm in a slow sweep across the second floor. “Here it is”, Murph said, “But my wife and I have a five year plan”.
“Five years?” I said, but it wasn’t really a question.
“Well, yes. Five years… maybe six, but we think we can do it in five”, Murph replied.
“Do what?” I asked.
“This home is a two family home… it’s a duplex”, Murph told me.
“Yes it is”, I answered.
“But we want a single family home”, Murph said.
“Then why did you buy a duplex?”
“For the rental income” Murph quickly answered. I scratched my head. Murph elaborated, “We need the rental income now, but in five years we are planning to be in a better position” I nodded my head.
“It’s not about money”, Murph continued, “It’s about that”. Murph was pointing to a half dozen assorted fishing rods and reels stacked in the corner of the living room.
“It’s about storage space for fishing rods?” I asked.
“No, it’s about fishing.”
“Fishing?” I said.
“Well, yeah… fishing… and crabbing too. Maybe catching a few clams. But fishing… mostly… It’s about taking my kids fishing… when they’re old enough. It’s a wholesome thing to do. There are a lot of wholesome activities here”, Murph replied. The word “wholesome” sounded funny coming from Murph and I was beginning to grin. Murph sensed my reaction, “What’s funny?” he asked.
“Wholesome…” I said, “I guess the word sounds funny coming from a young guy”.
Murph had a puzzled gaze so I continued digging the hole I was already in, “It sounds like a word used to describe old television shows. Or it’s like a health food word. Something I’d hear on a Quaker Oats commercial”, I told him.
Murph smiled, “I suppose I have been using the word a lot lately”, he said, “I’ve been thinking about things differently, it came with the kids”.
He paused for a moment, “Wholesome food, like Quaker Oats is good for physical health. But people are more than physical beings. There’s social and mental health to be considered. There is moral and spiritual health too. Wholesome activities promote good health for all the components of a person. Wholesome memories give adults something to fall back on”. Murph was on a roll and I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.
“Wholesome memories are memories worth remembering”, Murph continued, “I remember my dad taking us fishing when we were kids and I lost my rig on the first cast… I felt helpless watching that hook sail out of sight and I felt like crying. But dad had another hook and sinker tied to my line in no time… And he had a hand on my shoulder and some fatherly advice on proper casting.”
“Yeah, I remember fishing with my dad too”,
I said, “Good memories”.
“Yes they are”, Murph replied, “Wholesome memories are very much like Quaker Oats, they’re good for you”.
“Do you remember how your father’s shirts seemed warmer than your own when you were a kid?” Murph asked.
“Yeah” I said and I was surprised Murph knew that about my dad’s shirts, “When I wasn’t feeling well, my dad’s shirts were always much warmer than my own…and my kid sometimes uses my shirts.”
“Exactly”, Murph replied, “That’s what wholesome is”.
“Murph, you’re right”, I told him; “The word ‘wholesome’ is not a funny word at all.” Murph just answered with a smile and a nod, and then opened a small door to his right. “What can you do with this bathroom”, he said, “I don’t want anything fancy; it just needs to last…”
“Five years?” I interrupted.
Murph chuckled, “You’re getting the idea”.
I walked away with a nice job that morning, but I also walked away with a new word to use in my vocabulary and maybe even a different way of looking at things. And I walked away with an appreciation for this new customer. How could you not admire a young father who dreamed and planned for the day he would take his kids fishing? I made sure Murph’s bathroom was ready for summer.
That summer went as summers go. Planning and preparation… all focused on a few short weeks of long warm days. Warm days in warm sand pass quickly… with September lurking like a thief that no one wants to see. But September always comes and takes summer when she goes.
Some summers vanish on a blustery day of northwest wind and other summers linger, slowly fading, like leaves in late October. But one summer was ripped from our chests like our own beating hearts and thrown at our feet while we stared in disbelief.
Consumed in smoldering ruins, summer was slain before our eyes. Smoke rose like a summer’s pyre, rising to an unforgiving sky. Many people wouldn’t be seen after that day. And Murph was one of those people.
Pain always comes first and pain came that day. But pain turns to anger. And anger turns to rage. And rage… like dust and smoke, rage will settle too… and leave us with a tarnished sense of calm. The years pass. Anniversaries make their way around the sun and memorials have their place.
And maybe for a while, five year plans seemed futile to me. And maybe I lost the words from my vocabulary. Words like “hope” and “humanity”. Words like “wholesome”. And more so than the words, maybe I lost their meaning in my life.
It seems those things are changing, now. Like the winds and the tides, things always change. But one thing stuck with me and I hope it always will…
I think of Murph every time I see a kid fishing.
…then I heard a horn blast behind me and realized the light turned green on Route 9. The grandfather continued working on the tangle, still surrounded by three kids. The other kid was leaning on the boardwalk rail, watching his bobber floating on the lake. I stepped on the gas to appease the horn blower. “Wholesome”, I said quietly to myself and smiled, “You’re damn right, Murph”.
This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2011 issue of The SandPaper. Karl F. Held is a lifelong resident of Southern Ocean County.
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