Dustin Barber arrived at the boat ramp early – earlier than he would if he were fishing in one of his tournaments – hoping to see, or meet even, his heroes, KVD, Skeet, Ike, Edwin, Ish – Ike especially.
“Our personalities are complete opposites,” he told me. “Until I get out on the water! I’ve been known to ‘Go Ike!’”
Standing quietly nearby, his mouth not agape in awe like his buddy Dustin’s, was James Armstrong. Tall and bearded, wearing mostly camo, he stood in contrast to his friend, who sported a high-and-tight haircut and fishing-company logos on his hat and shirt. As the bass pros rolled up, Barber was among the locals that approached with Sharpies and hats in hand, seeking a signature.
“I’ve heard of some of these guys, through Dustin, but I don’t need to meet ‘em,” James told me. “I just like to go fishin’.”
I asked James and Dustin if they could go fishing right then, on a small body of water nearby. I’m a fishing-company rep, I explained. I wanted to show them a new product and let them use it, see how they like it and make a video for youtube.
Despite having been sent by my company to record videos of our pros endorsing our new product, I had called an audible. As much as I love the bass pros – and know them to be fine, honorable men – I know also that there’s a good many weekend anglers that remain skeptical of “celebrity” endorsements. “They get paid to say they use that stuff,” is a common refrain. So I bailed on the pros when James and Dustin took me up on my offer to go fishing with the new product.
Dustin’s bass boat was parked a hundred yards away, on the trailer, rods rigged and ready on the front deck. I named the lake and we were off.
We launched the boat and within minutes – before I’d even tied on a bait – Dustin hooked up. I high-fived him and threw down the gauntlet.
“As soon as I quit messing with this video camera, I’ll show you how’s it’s done!” I boasted, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, somewhat serious. “You might have gotten first-est, but I’m gonna get biggest and most-est!”
And it was on. I was no longer a fishing company rep; I was in competition mode. James embraced my challenge. “He’s calling us out, Dustin!” he said, acting offended. “We gotta show him how we do it in in our neck of the woods.”
James hadn’t hooked up yet. His rod looked to be an entry-level model, not a pro-endorsed, name-brand stick. He hadn’t donned a derby jersey, as Dustin had.
“James, would you say you’re a more of a novice or intermediate angler?” I asked.
By the look on his face, I immediately realized how wrong my question came off. It wasn’t good-natured smack-talk, it was marginalizing and I knew it. So I felt terrible as he said, "Well, I’m no pro, but I can fish. I wouldn’t say I’m a novice.”
He said “novice” like it was a dirty word.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that to be offensive,” I replied. “For story-telling purposes – for the video – it’s helpful to know if you’re a beginner, expert, intermediate, or what-have-you, so I can work that into the story. Like, if you’re more of a beginner than Dustin, and you start hooking up left and right, that really tells a story about how well [this product] works.”
“Oh, you need a story?” James said. “I’ve got a story.”
“Remember that Fort Hood shooting a while back?" James asked. "I got shot three times in that. I go fishing to take my mind off stuff.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Hell, I had been punched in the gut. Suddenly, it all seemed so small. All of it. The PR. The tournaments. The boat wraps and multi-color NASCAR-style jerseys. With the camera still rolling, I asked James some follow-up questions, but my mind was reeling.
Before long, I turned off the camera. It didn’t feel right. I shouldn’t – couldn’t – make a commercial that exploited James’ tragedy. I shouldn’t – couldn’t – turn his post-trauma R&R into PR. I put away the camera and tripod, making some excuse about the battery not being charged right or something and told James and Dustin not to worry about having to catch fish on film and offer feedback on the new product.
“We’re just three guys fun fishing now,” I said.
“Fun fishing” – it’s what the bass pros call fishing outside of the confines of a tournament. Like when they go fishing with their parents, children or best buddies. A day in the sun. Good times. Stress relief.
“I just like to go fishin’. …? I got shot three times … I go fishing to take my mind off stuff.”
James’ words echoed in my head. Back at the motel, after my day on the water with my new fishing buddies, I googled “James Armstrong Fort Hood.”
I learned that James indeed had a lot of “stuff” to take his mind off. From an LA Times article:
“The worst horror movie you could ever see," said Spec. James Armstrong, who was shot in the leg and back. "Blood everywhere … bloody handprints smeared on walls where people tried to get up … bodies on the floor."
Armstrong said the gunman shot a captain from a few feet away.
And in another published report, this:
… despite his wounds, [Armstrong] helped others get out of harm’s way.
The word “hero” these days is both over-used and mis-used. But James Armstrong is a hero. And James Armstrong fishes. For fun, not for prize money. Fishes to forget about stuff. Meet my new fishing hero, James Armstrong.
Nov. 5, 2014 was the fifth anniversary of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead and 32 wounded, including James.
I hope you’ll consider James a fishing hero too, right up there with your favorite bass tournament pro. If you do, consider making a donation to a veteran’s cause like the Wounded Warrior Project or DAV. Or, if you haven’t got extra funds, take a veteran fishing. Make a new fishing hero of your own.