Thanksgiving With Ike: A Jersey Tale

Dateline: A Norman Rockwell Holiday

First, before any story involving Thanks, I need to say something here, and I need to say it right upfront and not hold it for some sort of PS: thing. 

I need to say this to all the victims of Hurricane Sandy…on this Thanksgiving please know that at millions of tables around this country heads will be bowed, and prayers will be said for you.  You, are in our minds, our hearts, our souls.

Our prayers.

And for the First Responders, the cops, the firemen/women, the neighbors who helped in the rescues, the Red Cross workers and for every one of you who has volunteered your time, loaded up your car/boxes/trucks and drove stuff to the victims…for you, you have shown the world just what Thanksgiving is all about.

And we salute you for it.

Now comes,

a Jersey tale…

“Little darling, come with me…”

Way past,

the Meadowlands.

Way past,

the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop.

Way past Newark, the oil refineries, the Garden State Parkway, and quite possibly, even way past Jimmy Hoffa…there lies rolling hills, farm stands, country two lane roads, ponds of fresh water with swans floating around, corn fields, woodpeckers, foxes, turtles.

Turkeys that chase joggers.

Leaves of orange, red, yellow.

Two hundred year old homes…two month old homes.

Thoroughbred horses…and Mustang muscle cars.

Way past I-95, north or south there is,

New Jersey.

Between Penn Station in NYC and the State of Pennsylvania, in between the Hudson and Delaware River…way out there past the smog, the traffic nightmares and endless toll booths, way past all that you think you know of “New” Jersey…is the Jersey of Old.

The Jersey, that looks like Kansas.

The Jersey, that looks like North Carolina.

The Jersey, that looks like where you live.

The Jersey, The Boss doesn’t sing about.

The Jersey, where the Iaconellis live.

Ike’s, New Jersey.

“…and into this life we're born…”

He lives in the middle of a 10 acre cornfield, the house is sort of new, designed for a large family of infants, teenage girls, grandfather and grandmothers.

Swans swim in the lake behind the place, every door inside the house that leads to potential trouble has been childproofed, but everywhere else leads to discovery for a child.

There are toys scattered about.

Child books to be looked at, child books to be read from, crayons and big red and yellow trucks.

And photographs.

Family photos on the wall.

On shelves.

On the kitchen island.

It is a house framed, for love.

Child proofed.

Child filled.

And yet, calm.

If in fact a large bass on the end of his line gets Mike, how you say, a little bit excited, a baby in his arms on the other hand, brings this man peace.

Michael, as I call him, Iaconelli is a very good friend of mine, both on and off the Elite tour, and I understand, and Michael and I have talked about the fact he can be a polarizing figure, he gets that, I get that, but I’m asking that you don’t solely judge Michael by what you see on the boat.

Please also allow for your judgment to be based on how I know him as well, both sides of the coin that is “Ike.”

If not, and you say something negative about him to me, I’ll get pretty polarizing in your face as well.

Trust me on that one.

Just sayin’.

“…baby sometimes…” baby sometimes we don't know why, don't know…”

In the kitchen cooking the Thanksgiving turkey we have Michael’s wife, Becky along with her mother, Sandy and her father, Roy, Michaels mother, Roberta, and my wife, Barb (aka: bb).

I’m standing at the end of the kitchen island, sitting next to me is Michael’s Mother’s older brother, Uncle Don, down a couple of island stools is Michael’s 12 year old daughter, Rylie who is listening to her iPod and singing along with the song, behind us in the family room Michael’s oldest daughter, 14 year old Drew, is rocking his youngest daughter 8 week old Estella.

Michael is holding his only son, 21 month old Vegas, upside down from the youngster’s ankles.

Both father and son are giggling.

Norman Rockwell meet Freedom From Want…2012 style.

The entire house smells of turkey, family, and the foreign, to me, aroma of…vegetables.  There are lots of green things being cooked.  I watch while sneaking bites of Honey Baked Ham.

I’m also eyeing a jar of Maraschino Cherries siting on the kitchen island, unwatched, but bb is also watching me suspecting that I can only, “Be good will you…” for so long when Maraschino Cherries are left unguarded.

The dog has somehow read my mind and is sitting at my feet.  Even be they just drips, they are still drips of Maraschino treasure.

Vegas, somehow lands right-side-up and beats me to an open bag of Marshmallows.  The closer you are to an open bag of Marshmallows on the floor the better it is to have short toddler legs.

Michael circles the kitchen island, stops at Uncle Don and they start talking…I pick up a camera, aim it at them, both look at me and smile…bam…almost instant family portrait of Michael and his Uncle…except for one thing, one huge thing…that man sitting there to the right of Michael…that man, for all intent and purposes…that man has been like a father to Michael…

…since Michael’s father died when Michael was just two.

“Do you remember you father…”

“db…unfortunately not…you know I do through photographs I see of him…him and me together…but I really don’t remember him, I was so young.”

“Sorry man…what was his name.”

“It was…Michael.”

“…baby sometimes we don't know why, don't know…”

I didn’t ask much past that about his father…respectful of black/white photographs of a dad long gone…and a Thanksgiving in motion. 

His mom, behind me, never married after her husband died 38 years ago, and to her space, her holiday, I would leave her, her peace.

R.I.P Michael Iaconelli Sr., hope you are watching and feeling proud.

But it is the man in the photograph today, the man Michael has his arm around, it is to that man that I raise a glass to toast.  And here be the toast:

“To Uncle Don, on this day of thanks, thank you for stepping up for your sister, thank you for stepping up for a two year old who lost his daddy, thank you for stepping up…and stepping in, standing in for fatherhood.  You sir, have earned the right to be called…dad.  Peace man.”

It was Uncle Don who did the things of Dad with Michael, and who has been there for him, with him, all his life.  And now is there with him cradling Michael’s children, helping Michael’s wife, Becky, and above all, it is Uncle Don who turned Michael into a…

…geek.

A big time, proud to be called…geek…actually make that, GEEK, with capital letters.

GEEK.

Yep…

…just sayin’.

“…time seems to go by so fast…”

“The first thing I ever collected, were, you know….butterflies.”

Nope, Michael.

Nope, Michael….didn’t quite know that.

Nope.

Didn’t know that.

I knew it was going to be a bad week to give up drinking.

“You know db, the bugs, I started collecting them, pinning them on a board, beautiful colors…”

Nope…didn’t know…didn’t know that.

“Then Uncle Don and I started collecting old ink bottles…started digging around in privies looking for the bottles…you know what a Privy is right…”

Yep, yep got that covered, yep know exactly what a privy is….

“…we would get old maps to property lines…find the back outer corner of the property line for a house from the 1800’s…get permission and start digging.”

The results of those privy digs sits in an old cabinet in Michael’s home office…right across the room from his Bassmaster Classic and Angler Of The Year trophies.

“db, some of these ink bottles go back hundred’s of years…to the 1800’s and even earlier.”

He has hundreds of bottle…bottles that look like and are called, “Turtle” Shape,  school house bottles…black bottles…you name it he has it, most found while digging in the ground with, “Uncle Don.”

“db it’s like fishing…you find the spot…you start working the spot…and then suddenly when you are in the spot…there it is…you see not the whole bottle but just a tiny sliver of it…like this…”

Michael folds his hand over one of the ink bottles to show me what it would look like sitting in Privy dirt…

“…and there it is…the treasure…it’s just like fishing…the find…the find is the coolest part of it…catching the fish is great…that’s the money shot…but finding the fish in the first place…that…that’s where the adventure is…that’s what gets me all jazzed up.”

Later, as the turkey was still cooking, and most of the family were standing around talking in the kitchen, Michael and I sat at the unset Thanksgiving table.

Alone, just the two of us.

And we were talking about, The Find.

 

Just two guys…one 40 years old…one 60 years old…friends…and as we talked I said to him this:

“Michael…the universe, the universe she does some crazy things, most of which none of us really understand…but what of this…what if knowing what was going to happen to your dad…what if that was the reason Uncle Don was placed in your life…not just Uncle Don, but  a guy with the qualities of Uncle Don…special qualities…what if Uncle Don was one of The Finds of your life…one of the biggest…”

And sitting at the end of the unset Thanksgiving table, Michael switched his eyes off mine…off to my left, and when I turned I saw he was looking at Uncle Don standing in the kitchen doorway…

…and it was then that I knew what the answer to my question would be.

“…in the twinkling of an eye…”

Down there at the end of the kitchen island.

Down there amongst the mystery of the green vegetables, down there where even the dog won’t go as long as there are still Maraschino dreams up by my end of the island, down there sitting talking to Becky…is the no-doubt-about-it, down there is The Find, of my life…bb.

When she smiles, I give thanks.

When she looks at me, I give thanks.

When I sit up in bed at night and watch her sleep, I give thanks.

When I couldn’t even Find myself, the universe found her for me.

And is my find, so be it Michael’s.

I believe, The Find, in my friend’s life, to be his wife, and also my friend, Becky.

Beckonelli, as I call her.

A founding member of, The Breakfast Club…along with Kerry Short, Julia Kennedy…and me…wives..and me..who get together with each other…and the kids…after the Elites launch…and who act as The Find for each other while on the road, while on the road through life.

It may be Mother Mary who brings peace to Paul McCartney…but for Michael…it is Becky…who in times of trouble…

Barb told me on the ride back to Connecticut, told me this, I was driving not taking notes so it may or may not be a correct journalistic quote but I’m going to put the quote marks around it anyway…

“You know I went there not knowing much about Mike other than what I saw on TV, thought he would be this hyper kind of guy, but all I saw was a peaceful, calm young man, very pleasant family man, dad, husband, you know.”

Yep, I know.

And I know why.

Family.

In fact, the first time Michael took Becky fishing…it was their third “real” date…he took her to the exact….I mean EXACT spot on the Schuylkill River in downtown Philadelphia where his Grandfather and Great-Grandfather fished.

The comfort of three generations fishing the same bank, the same ledge, the same spot.

Family.

THE Find, in Michael’s life.

“…let's enjoy it while we can…”

As is Elite tournament fishing NOT about the fish, but the MEN who fish, Thanksgiving is not about the bird, but those who gather around the bird.

On the day that Barb and I sat at the Iaconelli Thanksgiving table, two good friends of ours back in our Connecticut town of Farmington, Skip and Inger were driving north to the upper reaches of New York State and the military base of the 10th Mountain Division, Ft. Drum.

They were on their way to pick up their youngest son, Stephen…Stephen who just stepped off a plane from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.  Their oldest son, David, now recently out of the Army, also served a tour or so in war zone combat.

At breakfast the day before I left I told Skip, “Dude, you just had two sons go through war zones, and come out alive…”

Skip looked at me and all he could say was that what I just said sent chills through his body.

Ask Skip and Inger if Thanksgiving is just about the bird.

As a non-family member invited to a family shindig, I have no dog, so to say, in the fight.  No vegetables either.

I am the fly on the wall.

I could have had Thanksgiving with pretty much any Elite angler I wanted to, may do it again next year with another friend, but this year I picked Michael.

I wanted to see Michael away from the crowds, away from the fans, away from the fish.

Away from the Ike.

Ike-less.

And this is what I found,

he is the New Jersey, you never see.

“…and help me sing my song…”

He is not,

Soprano’s New Jersey.

Nor those goofballs of Jersey Shore.

Or those embarrassing Housewives of New Jersey TV shame.

Neither though is he Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, or some kind of weird human version of Lassie.

He’s me, or you, on a good day.

He’s me, or you, on a bad day.

He’s a guy who lets his Father-in-law carve the turkey.

He’s a guy who lets his Mother-in-law cut the turkey on his plate because he can’t do it with one hand while sitting at the head of the table holding his 8 week old daughter.

Putting his daughter Estella down never entered his mind.

He’s a guy that lets his 12 year old daughter, Rylie, share his seat at the table and who grins ear to ear as she tells me what her favorite music/tv shows/movies are.

He’s a guy like me who has somehow managed to out punt our coverage in life.

In love with his family.

In love with what he does.

In love with his fans, with the sport he plays.

Norman Rockwell, 1943Before we broke bread at the table, before one bite of the bird, everyone around the table, took a minute to tell everyone else, what it was they were thankful for…it is an Iaconelli Thanksgiving tradition.

Everyone at the table gave thanks out loud.

Almost everyone, to a person gave thanks for basically the same thing.

They gave thanks for family.

They gave thanks for friendships.

Coming to thankful involved love.

Except when it came to my turn, most at the table know me, know what a sap I am for that kind of stuff, I have been accused in print of being “sappy,” and to those that accuse me of that, I say, “Thank You for the compliment, if you have come through all I have in life and not become “sappy” at this point of it, I feel sorry for you.”

When it came my turn to come to thankful I said simply this, “I am Thankful we live in a country where this is possible.”

Amen to that.

There are countries out there where families, based on faith, or other things, can only come together in hiding.

Coming to thankful.

We just had an election in this country, 100-million or so of us left our homes and voted for whom we wanted to run this country, regardless of whom you voted for, what your political views are, 100-million of us did that…and we did so without any tanks pointing at us in the streets.

Iaconelli Thanksgiving, 2012Coming to thankful.

Every man or woman who has ever served this country for us, they are the ones who protect our right to give individual thanks.

Coming to thankful.

To all those who respond to help others in need…firemen/women, cops, EMT’s, Nurses, Doctors, researchers looking for cures, social workers, teachers.

Coming to thankful.

To wives, and to the husbands who love them.

Coming to thankful.

To our children.

Coming to thankful.

But most of all, to the biggest table we all sit around,

the table called the universe,

coming to thankful,

for giving each of us,

each other,

along with the gift,

of being able to care.

Of being able,

to love,

all those seated here with us.

“…little darling, come alone

on the bright side of the road.”

Bright Side Of The Road

Van Morrison

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for the opportunity you have given me.

db

 

[See more photos from this story here]