Dateline: Montgomery, Ala., room 306
It's only through death that I have learned of life.
It's only through loss that I have learned of love.
It's only through putting the pen down that I have learned of people.
It's only through writing hundred's of stories that I know that none of the words matter.
What matters sits around your kitchen table.
What matters are not the words on the screen, but the people in your screensaver photo.
What matters are the people in the other rooms in your house, the people in the tiny photos in your wallet, the people you have given life to, the people who have given life to you.
All that will ever matter are those that you love.
I never knew that.
Until it was too late.
I've never been the same.
Don't want to be.
I'm a better guy because my heart was ripped out.
Replaced as it was, with a heart that now gets what it's all about, even if I don't know what IT is.
And today I met someone just like me. A connection made on stiff-arse hotel lobby chairs over the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, a storm outside, peace within.
A man who wore a flat brim baseball cap, over-the-top ugly knee length shorts, and a sleeveless T-shirt.
A man with a tattoo on his right arm. A man who calls his parents, Momma and Daddy.
A man who told me "half-assing is not in my vocabulary."
A man who twisted a chocolate chip stained napkin as he spoke, twisting right, twisting left, untwist, twist up all over again.
And here's the exact moment the connection was made, the exact words that cemented a bound between a Buffalo, New Yawk guy, and a gentleman from the south:
"db, last season I wore this necklace around my neck, and as I stood there looking down at the casket with my older brother inside, I took that necklace off and I gave it to him to take with him up above, but as I tried to give it to him, I found out that all his pockets were sewn shut, and I just stood there and realized that Tony was telling me something ... "
The chocolate chip stained napkin is now a twisted, frayed ball of paper, muzak fills the lobby, one elevator door opens, another closes, the sound of traffic outside drowns out, I am so focused on what he has to say I can hear him blink.
What he says next will tell me whether he gets it or not, knows what IT is.
" ... my older brother was telling me that you CAN'T take it with you …"
Neither one of us moved, neither head went up nor down, for fear that a hand would have to wipe an eye.
And he ate his chocolate chip cookie, and I chewed on my pen, and the front desk clerk looked up when he heard the silence, and guests came and went, and the traffic outside honked, and the construction roared, and I put my reading glasses down and said ...
"It has been death dude that has taught me about living."
And we both shook our heads yes.
Shook our heads yes together, me and Gerald Swindle.
I have even managed to shock myself on this one, this story. It's not even close to the story I was supposed to tell, went to learn about, went to write about.
Gerald Swindle and I set up this appointment thing to talk about how he spent his week before the Bassmaster postseason began.
I was proud of me, my wife was shocked — I SET UP AN APPOINTMENT, which to some folks (editors in particular) might translate to PLANNING.
Thinking ahead is a concept you might say I'm late to coming to.
In my defense, I have planned to plan, but forgot.
Most times I have no idea of what it is I'm about to do until it's done and then I know what it was I did.
Works better that way. Keeps the excitement in journalism.
So here's what Gerald and I planned on planning to talk about.
Him hunting somewhere that I forgot where he said, and him hunting in wherever that place is naked.
So to speak.
Not that he was out there in the outside in just his outsides, but that he was just out there with a buddy, walking, hunting, and sleeping under the stars, just him out there with just his wits pitted against what can pretty much kick the bejesus out of you at will.
And he has been training for his possible butt-kickin' at the hands of Mother Nature by getting up at 4:50 a.m. every morning and driving down to the local gym to do gym stuff, and then going on over to the local high school and sprinting up the bleacher stairs that have signs to warn doing just that.
Then off running wind sprints, and all types of other exercise stuff I pretty much instantly turn the channel on when the stuff comes up on the screen.
I have no idea who Jake is, or what his body is all about, but Body by db is doing just fine as long as you don't ask that body to do anything.
So we sit down to do this wits for ammo story, and get totally sidetracked when I say this.
"So Gerald, don't take what I'm about to say all offensive-like, but I pretty much don't know a thing about you, what with me avoiding research and media guides like the plague."
Most times when I tell the interviewee that, for some reason they either get all defensive, or nervous. Not sure why though.
Not Gerald, he actually starts telling me about his-self.
Works every time.
Gerald: "Grew up in a small town. Locust Fork, Alabama."
db: "Spell that."
Gerald: "We was poor. Poor as dirt. In fact, dirt was our toys."
The dude goes on to say, he never had air conditioning until he was 21. "No cable TV until I was 22." Never played a video-game. Ever.
And in one of the best examples of How Poor Was Ya he tells me this: "We used to get Fruit Loops but nothing like the Fruit Loops with that colorful bird on the box, we got black and white Fruit Loops ... all the front of our box had on it was, FRUIT LOOPS ... black lettering on white box."
Gerald had all of 87 kids in his high school senior class.
"We were a 4A High School, we only had 21 kids on our football team, and to be honest with you, three of those boys were not capable of playing football."
But it was a credit application that changed his life. "I had been fishing with the bank President of our local bank, and I needed to take out a loan for something, so I go in and fill out this loan application, and the lady who is going to approve it is reading it and suddenly stops at the occupation part."
Gerald stops eating mid-chocolate chip cookie, the four-bite cookie is suspended in air about six inches from his mouth, he's looking at it, but seeing something else.
"So this loan officer is looking at the application and asks me, 'What is it that you do for a living,' and I tell her ... I fish. Boy I will never forget the look on her face when I said that. So then she says to me, 'Well how am I supposed to write THAT up."
The cookie finishes its flight path.
Don't know if that loan got approved or not, but it looks like Gerald sure did, Le Ann was the loan officer … and she ended up becoming Gerald's wife.
db: "Do you have any kids."
Gerald: "I do, Whitney, she's 17 ... she's my step-daughter you know, but I say she is my daughter, introduce her as my daughter, and I tell her that I ain't your Daddy, I'm not here to replace your Daddy, what I am here for is to love you, take care of you, and to try and provide best I can so that I can give you opportunities."
And then with a grin that makes me pick my pen back up and start getting ready to do some note taking, he says, "One of the best things about our relationship is ... we like the same music, drives her mom nuts."
Whitney was here last weekend to watch Gerald weigh-in, but won't be here for the next weigh-in. "Her boyfriend is the fullback on the high school football team and she told me she has to watch him play this weekend, and I know she does, she's got to watch him play, I get that."
Gerald still fishes off the same bridge he did as a child.
Throws a line with the same boys, now men, he used to spit in the water and dream with.
"I have to tell you, there is nothing as good as coming home to a small town."
I envy him; I've spent my whole life looking for small town me. And for the heroes who live there.
"Back growing up, like I said, we didn't have cable TV, couldn't afford that or magazines, so unlike a lot of the guys fishing the tour, I didn't have heroes on it, I never saw it, never was exposed to tournament fishing, my hero was, and still is, my daddy, Tommy Swindle."
And his mother, Dell, "Mamma ... mamma she's special to me. Special ..."
The napkin fiddling starts all over again, something's up. "Is your mother still alive."
"Yes she is, just had heart surgery though, right before the Oneida tournament. Some boys were filming a TV pilot reality show with me, following me around all the time shooting my life, and I told those boys on the day of her surgery, you better pack your bags because when she goes into the hospital I ain't coming out of there until I know she is alright, don't care if it is several hours or several days ... told them they better be ready to stay."
"After surgery I go into her room and she's got all these tubes and things stuck on her, she can't talk but slowly she moves her one free arm out from under the covers and starts moving it back and forth when she sees me. The nurses can't figure out what it is she's pointing at or reaching for, and then it hits me ... she's CASTING … she's trying to tell me, Son you go fishing, it's OK."
And so he did, "but db, you talk about trying to have your head in New York, while your heart is still in Alabama... "
The napkin was placed on an end table, and never picked up again.
A brother's gift
There is a raggedy old rocking chair in my house.
When you rock in it, it creaks.
It wobbles when you move.
One slat in back is cracked, one wooden bar where you place your feet is gone. The dog has chewed up the ends of both of the rockers,
The paint on it is chipped, layers of colors underneath. It's a mess, ready for Big Garbage Day in my town.
It will NEVER be thrown away.
It's my Grandmother's chair.
When I need her, I sit in it. I have thousands of dollars of furniture spread throughout the house, but this frail 50-year-old rocker is my comfort chair.
My small town with Sears cushions.
This is the porch rocker where the wisdom of life came from. Me sitting on wooden steps, Gram rocking and talking. To this day I can't think about doing the right thing without hearing the faint creaking of wood.
Gerald has one, too.
It's the passenger seat in his boat.
His older brother is gone. His fishing buddy, lost.
Another empty seat, another empty heart.
Tony Swindle was there when it all started, should have been there when it all ended, but he died last March 14th.
He was 42.
"We used to fish together all the time ... we worked during the day together framing houses; at night we would fish local tournaments. This one Tuesday night we fished this tournament and won it, won $200 cash, I knew right then I wanted, needed to be a professional fisherman."
Since it was Gerald's boat, Tony always sat in the passenger seat, used the Livewell right behind the seat.
"After he died, it was eating me up, just EATING ME UP as to what I should do."
What Gerald did was at the next Bassmaster tournament after going through the launch line and showing the tournament officials that both his livewells were empty, standard procedure, he idled out with one still open, the left one.
And so did all the other anglers.
For big brothers now gone, for lost fishing buddies everywhere. For the wisdom that comes from the passenger seat, and old rocking chairs.
"I still think of him every time I fish, he's always with me but none more so than in that boat. When things get tough I find myself looking up and saying, come on dude, can't you help a brother out ... "
And it seems, Tony has.
"When Tony was laying in the bed dying, his last couple days, not once did we talk about framing houses, we talked about fishing together, about hunting together, about our younger brother, Eddie, our families."
And that, right there, is the secret. The IT, is what you think about, talk about in those last few hours.
It won't be your job.
It won't be what happened at that budget meeting.
It won't be your college GPA.
It'll be your dog.
It'll be your children.
Your Mamma, your Daddy, your wife, your husband, your faith.
"I learned from Tony's death ... that I couldn't see the good things in my life, but now I do ... trust me, I will fish my butt off, will leave everything I have out there on the water, but you know what, it's not life or death, if I gave it my all, and it wasn't enough, life goes on, IT IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD."
"db ... his death, the pain of it all, and me thinking about it in my mind over and over has led me to be a better man."
And that was the gift: Life happens, live it, love it and those in it, because in the end, that's all that matters.
A present from the left livewell.
And an old rocking chair.
Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.