It was my father who gave me the Clearwater River. It was an accidental gift delivered on a hot July day in Idaho. I can remember the van ride along the river on Highway 12; I was 14 and we were on our way to put in for a river trip down the Salmon River, and we stopped along the Lochsa River, next to Lochsa Falls.
"A bunch of goddamn
trees and rocks," he said. If there was intention behind the gift,
my father hid it. But I was hooked: trees and rocks became an
irresistible affliction of the later years of my
My father was an obstetrician in southern
Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians. Born in Iran, he had
come to America to escape the ignorance and deprivation of living
in the Third World, the abuse of women and the selling of children.
He was partially raised by a woman whom the family had bought when
she was very young. Maybe he even wished to escape the notion of
charity behind the selling of children; my father often told me
that his nanny would have been sold into prostitution had his
parents not bought her.
He came to this country,
which ostensibly had law and order, truth, justice and the American
Way. He ended up in Appalachia, delivering his share of
12-year-olds having babies. He told me that he originally went into
the field of obstetrics because he thought that it would be the
happiest of all the medical fields. I don't know that he has ever
recovered from being a constant bystander in cases of under-age
pregnancy and incest.
I can remember his talking
with one of his poorer patients on the phone once. She was tired of
being pregnant and wanted my father to induce labor. But she was a
smoker, and my father was trying to reason with her, telling her
that smokers had smaller babies, and that she needed to let the
pregnancy run as long as possible, for the baby.
Finally, in a fit of anger and desperation, my father yelled into
the phone: "Don't you care if this baby dies?" " And she responded,
"It's all right - I can always have another."
My father and I had difficulties. He had a drinking problem during
much of the time I was growing up, and I had all the usual
adolescent problems, which, upon reflection, I think probably
helped to exacerbate my father's drinking
In retrospect, I believe my father was
(and is) too much like me, or rather the reverse, I am too much
like him, and the combination of high-strung, sensitive
personalities in a small space, in a world that I think neither of
us understood - he was an immigrant from Iran, and I was, well, an
adolescent - combined to make an explosive situation on more than
But that is all past us now. We
get along in our separate realms. I am happy to go home to southern
Ohio, and he is happy to see me when I arrive. I know that I am
lucky. Many children never resolve conflicts with their fathers,
and that unfortunate circumstance haunts them all of their lives. I
go home because I want to. And I think, now that the years have
passed, that I understand him a little better, too. And maybe that
matters in the long run, because he is too old to
Both my father and my mother have taught
me much that I know, as far as matters of consequence, and I have
not forgotten that debt. My father is small now, only 5'5" and
shrinking - skinny legs, gray hair, little pot-belly and
black-rimmed glasses. Old Bermuda shorts and a white tank top. He
is interested in the leftovers in the refrigerator as well as in
recycling, because, in reality, my father is the ultimate
I never knew my father young,
although I can remember his stories of riding with the Kurds in the
Alburz Mountains, wild people, feeling the power of the Himalayas
beneath small, thundering horse hooves.
He was a
political organizer, and he waged his battles with the forces of
darkness of his time - the Shah and his father. He only tells funny
stories now, but protesting the dominant order in Iran meant
torture or death, even for a young doctor, and to see my father is
to see a history of hardness.
He raised one
family, his brothers and sisters, in the worst of times before he
came to the United States on the SS France. And I think he is still
fearless, though changed. Maybe softer now, slower to react,
calmer. He can still get mad. But he pauses more before he speaks,
and conflict is no longer foremost in his mind. His hand shakes
from Parkinson's disease, and I think that my father thinks now
only of reconciliation with his children.
father is the ultimate environmentalist, though he doesn't belong
to any national groups. He does not campaign for wetlands. He does
not save the whales.
What he does do is dumpster
dive. He finds things in the trash throughout Cleveland, where he
lives most of the time, rescues them, puts some of his treasures in
his small apartment (he has 20 clocks), and gives lots of stuff to
the thrift store. One day he greeted me at the door of his place
with a hat and shirt from a fast-food restaurant. He told me he had
to do something to occupy his off-hours. He was lying, of course.
He had found them in the dumpster.
when I visited, he had a queen-sized mattress leaned up against one
wall. He already had a mattress to sleep on, so I asked him what
this one was for. He replied, "I just like it there." He told me
that he had found the mattress four blocks away, in the dumpster.
When I offered to help take the mattress to Goodwill, he refused.
He wanted it to stay.
I stopped, looked at the
mattress, then at him: small man, recovering from a coronary bypass
operation. Then I understood.
Many men, feeling
the ebb of life, suffer a masculinity crisis. I am sure that I will
not be exempt. What they then do is fly to some place like Cabo San
Lucas, charter a boat, and go marlin fishing. Marlin are huge fish,
and the effort of catching a champion can take all
After the old man has fought with the fish
and landed it, it is hauled up on a boom, a small flag is flown to
commemorate the "victory," and the marlin is hauled back to port to
be stuffed and hung on the conqueror's wall.
my father had his old man's crisis at the dumpster. He fought with
that mattress all day long, finally managing to heave it over the
edge and onto the ground. After that, he hauled it back to his
There he hung it on the wall. There
was no need to have it stuffed, since the mattress already was, so
he dispensed with that formality.
My father gave
me a present that day, though I do not think that he knew it. He
gave me the present of a beautiful fish - blue, 500 pounds, with a
long, straight bill, swimming out in the ocean on a tropical, sunny
day, chasing amberjack against an oceanic
I will never see my father's gift,
never interact with it, touch it, call it by name. But it will live
forever in my dreams, and I can feel it, cool water and hot sun.
And I will race with my fish, swimming fast, feeling the freedom of
the water. And maybe for a moment, the fish will share with me its