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Just For The Doing Fishing with his father gave the author a different view of athletic pursuits

June 28, 2004
June 28, 2004

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June 28, 2004

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Just For The Doing Fishing with his father gave the author a different view of athletic pursuits

It was sports (with an s), not sport (no s), that clutched at our
hearts in Mississippi back in my highly charged growing-up
days--the '50s. Of course, sports (with the s) was a reflection
of politics, which became a version of sports again. Sports was a
metaphor that championed winning, calculable results achieved
through modes of extreme competition: many touchdowns, many, many
baskets, more home runs than the other team. And it meant more
ducks downed, more quail, more deer, more wild turkeys shot, way
more doves killed than anyone would've imagined possible. Field
sports.

This is an article from the June 28, 2004 issue Original Layout

Sports was scoring. And by scoring's mean calculus one computed
one's worth, even one's pleasure. Sports in the Magnolia State
back then, of course, didn't entail fellowship or camaraderie or
even genuine competition--not really--since there was that
entire disapproved race of potential competitors across town,
Negro sportsmen we didn't test ourselves against. Sports meant
exclusion and extremity, just like the politics of those days.
It's better today, thank goodness, but the warping absurdity of
those race relations--those race nonrelations--seems now to have
been near the heart of the strenuous atavism with which we
pursued our sports; as if by banging, banging against each
other, but not those other boys, by galloping terribly, as the
poet said, against each other's bodies, by winning, defeating,
scoring, totting up victories, championships, crowns, laurels,
we could force it all to make sense and be sporting after all.

Not surprising, then, that sport (minus the s)--that more
idealizable endeavor, the thing you do just for the doing and not
necessarily to score or rain defeat on opponents or
wildlife--that good and novel idea, came to me from different
quarters of my Mississippi life. That gift I owe to my father,
who took me fishing.

My father was a commercial traveler--an occupation all but gone
now--five days on the road, two home. There wasn't much time to
fish, to cultivate equipment options, to scout the choicest
waters. There was just weekends to get in the car and go, from
the time I was six till I was 16, when he died. And we did go. We
fished in old cutoff river channels in the Delta, in pay-to-fish
ponds in Yazoo County and Copiah County, in brackish backwater
bayous on the coast, in great marly reservoirs, in unpromising
mud streamlets we passed over on the way to someplace else.
Almost always we caught nothing, or we snagged fish too small or
too ugly and unrecognizable to think of keeping. We lost our
bait--crickets and worms and half-dead minnows. We broke off our
last hooks. We snagged our line. It was just cane poles and
rickety rented rowboats with numbers painted on. My father was a
country man, but neither he nor I knew a lot about fishing--no
more than I knew about football.

Oh, I knew even then it was supposed to be different. I dreamed
lush dreams of lunker bass, slab crappies, slick, whiskered
catfish too brawny to handle, of my father and me smiling,
nodding in mutual admiration as the golden Mississippi sun sank
below the cypress, and the stringer grew heavy. It's a fair
survival skill, though, to make pleasure be the thing you do,
instead of wasting life competing with the things you're supposed
to do, or can't. And that's what I did with him: cultivated the
doing, the going, the trying, the patient waiting, even the
failing, all those less extreme particulars--the sport of
it--since, inasmuch as I wasn't much of an athlete, those other
results, the standard big victories, weren't meant for me.

I won't propose a grand theory of sport learned by lacking this
or lacking that. We learn what we learn often haphazardly. It
just happened to me this way. Sport, or what I came to know of
sport, made me forget about the other--about sports. And
Mississippi, my birthplace, my home forever, came to mean not old
hallowed and dubious ground, but something better, a sweetness
riven into these lessons I learned from my father when I was
young.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

Richard Ford, who was born and raised in Jackson, won the 1996
Pulitzer Prize for his novel Independence Day.