Even when his arthritis got so bad he could hardly walk, he still liked to pilot the jon boat we used to fish the White River for rainbow trout. Strength had left him, so he could not help much when putting the boat into the water or hauling it back out again. In recent years, my father-in-law also gave up driving his truck to the river since backing the trailer onto the landing proved too difficult. Still, Arlis did like to run the motor and put the boat where he wanted it.
My job in that old, faded green craft was to be the anchor man. When we found the right spot, I pitched the anchor overboard in hopes it would catch a rock or a snag and hold us in place while we caught our limit.
The middle seat belonged to Damion, my son-in-law, who spent a noticeable part of his fishing time starting the motor, taking fish off Arlis' line or stringing them up, or untangling lines that got twisted together in the current.
Now things will never be quite the same in that boat on the river. Arlis passed on a week ago tomorrow. He lived a good life, and made it to the remarkable age of ninety. Throughout most of that time, he was able to do the things he really enjoyed like fishing, or hunting, or just poking around outdoors.
During the thirty years that I knew him, he taught me the majority of what I know about trout fishing: where to find them, how the rise and fall of the river affects their feeding, where the river channel creates deep holes and makes it easier to navigate.
And I learned patience. I'm not nearly as good at it as Arlis was, but I try.
Probably the majority of what I know about deer and quail, squirrels and rabbits, wildlife in general, I learned from Arlis. Their movements, their habits, how to answer a bob-white's call, how to wait out a jumped rabbit who will most always make a big circle and return right to the same place again.
And I learned to appreciate the outdoors. Actually, more than appreciate, I learned to love the outdoors.
We didn't usually talk a lot. Mostly we discussed whether the river was up or down, which hunting season was approaching, what the weather was going to do next, what we might expect to have for dinner. He typically wore a smile that could twist into a sly grin when he was up to something. In his early years, his nickname was Happy. It fit him well.
He could be inconsiderate, like always positioning the boat so he got the best angle. He could be funny, like the time he amused himself (and me) trying to lure a wild duck toward the boat using the bait on his fishing pole. He could be concerned, like the time we saw a heavy rain shower coming and he uncharacteristically laid open the throttle to escape that pursuing wall of water. But he was always Arlis.
Nothing in this life is meant to last forever and changes are inevitable. The seasons, the depth of the river, how deaths and births alter our own lives. The next time I head out to the river to rainbow fish, I'll be in that old jon boat. But the seat assignments will change. I'll be running the motor and piloting, Damion gets my old seat as anchor man. In six months, my first grandbaby will arrive. And the middle seat of the boat will pass to him or her.
I'll do my best in the driver's seat, just as Arlis did his best. And someday, hopefully a long time from now, the seat assignments will change again.