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A Return to Passion

by Dana Garrett about a month ago in veteran

By Dana Garrett

A Return to Passion

She had lived a rich and full life, hectic and crazy busy as it was, in the Navy. It seemed she was always in demand by senior leadership in her specialty as an interpreter and communications specialist. Only a handful of people in the Navy could speak the number of languages she knew fluently. There were even fewer who had the skills in the Navy and its allies' various communication systems. In short, she was a spook and a highly trained one at that.

Now, she was a retired Navy spook. After 30 years of service in more countries than she could count, Anita was retired to a remote cabin in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains just outside of Carson City, the state's capital. The hard part about retiring after so many years of active service is retraining the brain to go from a million miles a second to a slow walk because all of the responsibility and authority one gains as one advances to the higher ranks is lifted; gone in the blink of an eye. All the demands of the service are replaced with overwhelming decisions, such as figuring out what one is going to wear for clothes from one day to the next. The difficulty of filling the now vast amounts of free time bears almost as heavy as those of the pressures of serving one’s country.

Anita was now exposed to these unforeseen pressures and was having difficulty adjusting as many do after retiring from the military.

She knew the veteran suicide statistic all too well. Twenty-two veterans committed suicide every day. The mortality rate for veterans went down for those with long careers as the adrenaline feed went from ‘screaming’ to zero in a matter of moments when one was piped over the side at their retirement for the last time.

Anita was determined she was not going to be a statistic.

She had always been an outdoorswoman enjoying hiking, camping, canoeing, and fishing. Especially fishing. Anita was a catch-and-release type and felt the act of fishing was actually more important than catching fish.

Anita loved the mountains she had decided to call home. She decided to retire in the Sierra based on a short leave period spent near Lake Tahoe. She worked with a colleague who had a small cabin in Tahoe City, California. Anita immediately in love with Tahoe's mountains, that magical jewel of a lake tucked between the Sierra's mountains. She found the altitude a little challenging to adjust to and had to pace her outdoor activities, but not many naval stations are 6200 feet above sea level. All in all, it was a leave period she never forgot and determined a few years before her retirement that she would live in the area when she left the Navy instead of returning to her home of Rochester, Minnesota.

She was not taking retirement well and recognized she was falling into the trap of depression and anxiety that many veterans fall into after their service is over. She began seeing a counselor at the local VA Hospital, advising her to re-engage in activities she had liked historically before her service. She was taught several ways to ground herself, so her anxiety over having “nothing to do” didn’t overwhelm her. Not being overwhelmed was not always an easy thing to do, but she was working on it.

Several months after she had started seeing her counselor, and more than that, after retiring, Anita was going through some of the many boxes of her last move and discovered her old fishing creel. It was one of those forest green pouches with the metal spring opening at the top with drain holes and a faded green strap she used so many times while fishing in the streams and lakes of her home state. It instantly brought back memories of those peaceful times where she was hip-deep in rivers with her waders on and playing the line on her fly rod to entice fish to believe the tiny fly on the end of her fishing line was a tasty snack. She began looking in earnest for her other fly-fishing gear, eventually finding her poles, reels, and fly boxes among multiple boxes.

After finding her gear, she took it to her dining room table and set it out separately so she could inspect everything and determine if anything needed maintenance or replacement. After careful inspection and a few notes to remind her she needed new fly lines and tippet material, she was determined she was going to hit the streams and lakes that were in abundance around her area.

When she had the new lines and her new fishing license, she set out for the Truckee River to try her hand at catching the variety of species in the river. She had spent time in her driveway relearning how to cast a fly with a paper clip on the line instead of a hook. After more than a few missed attempts (paper clips won’t hook you, but they hurt when you miscast on the forward cast), she felt ready to try her hand. Driving to a fishing hole one of her veteran friends knew of in the small town of Patrick, she found herself on the Truckee bank with a little rapid and a large deep pool of water. Anita got her chest waders on, cinched a belt near the top of the waders to prevent water filling them if she inadvertently lost her footing in the river and fell, and with her creel hanging from her shoulder, her fly box in her pocket, and her pole and net in hand, she took her first step back into a river to fish in years.

The water was cold, and the pressure of the flow on the back of her legs took her by surprise as she entered the river. She took tentative steps feeling the slippery rocks under her feet as she moved carefully to an area of shallow water over a shoal just above the rapids. Once there, Anita situated herself taking her time to get used to the current and standing there in awe of the river's beauty and the banks that held and caressed the flow downstream in the rivers, sinuous path that would take it to Pyramid Lake.

Once situated, Anita pulled out her fly box and selected one of the flies recommended by the guy at the sporting goods store told was pretty successful for this river. Tying a fly on a line in the middle of a river is a little more difficult than tying it on at one’s dining room table, but she got it finished, not without a bit of consternation and colorful language.

She made her first cast: directly into the bushes of the edge of the far bank. If anyone has ever heard someone else swear in the civilian world, it is nothing like the torrent of cuss words a Navy sailor can string together. It becomes even more lengthy and colorful as Anita was fluent in half a dozen languages. She went to the bank to retrieve her fly from the clutches of the villainous bush it was lodged in and discovered that the water to her left became rather deep and was more forceful than she had anticipated. Stopping to compose herself with her face in a grimace looking at the water at her feet, she resigned herself to the fact that she would lose this fly and must start over. This was not an auspicious start to a return to her passion.

With a deep sigh, Anita gave the line a firm tug, and with a green leaf attached, she was able to retrieve the fly miraculously. She reeled it in, cleaned the greenery off it, and prepared to cast again. Her next cast didn’t land where she thought she was aiming, but it was safely in the water and had avoided the seemingly stretched out branches of the vegetation lining both sides of the river. Now, this is more like it, she thought as she played the fly and began to slowly hand line it in. Her next cast was closer to where she was aiming, and by the time an hour had passed, she was nailing the landing of the fly nine times out of ten.

As the sun began to climb into the sky, erasing the coolness of the morning, Anita decided it was time for one last cast. She cast precisely into the area she aimed for and began teasing the fly against the current.

As she slowly retrieved the line, the water boiled as fish of decent size took the fly and began running with it. At first, the water slick line began to strip through her fingers at a considerable pace.

She recovered from her surprise quickly enough, so the fish didn’t hit the end of the line at full speed and snap the delicate nylon tippet to which the fly was attached. As she applied the brakes, the fish began zigzagging, racing across the stream towards her and darting away from her all in the blink of an eye. At several points during the fish’s attempts to flee, it came entirely out of the water, the sun turning the water droplets off its body into shiny liquid diamonds and fully displaying the trout's vivid colors. It was a brown trout and was more than a foot long. It was one of the biggest fish she had ever hooked, and the thrill of the hunt was sharpened.

It took only minutes, but to Anita, it was closer to forever to tire the trout and get it close enough to net. One of the aspects of fishing Anita had not prepared for beforehand was how to keep a fish on the line when you are using a 7-foot-long fly rod and unhook the net from your belt at the same time without losing the fish. From the viewpoint of an observer on the shore, her attempts to accomplish this were nothing less than hilariously comical. However, Anita managed to release the net, keep the fish, and not fall into the river with no minor effort. Upon retrieving the fish in the net, she stopped to take in its beauty and vitality. With the gills pulsing for oxygen, the coloring of the brown trout was a sight to behold.

She then carefully removed the hook from the fish's lip, held its fidgeting form bent down closer to the water, and released the fish back into the wild. As she did this, Anita spoke softly, with tears in her eyes, and said a quiet, “Thank you.”

After standing back up, she thought about giving it another go and decided against it. She had done something she had not done in decades. She had returned to her youth and her passion. She had come home, and things were never going to be the same. They would be better.

Dana Garrett
Dana Garrett
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