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  • Fishing for My Father
  • Tom Montgomery Fate (bio)

Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in.

—Henry David Thoreau

When I was 14––the same age my son is now––a single summer in my hometown felt like a lifetime. Maquoketa was a county seat––a “big” small town with 5,000 people. Our little white ranch house was a quarter mile from Highway 61, which led to two cities: Dubuque, 30 miles north, and Davenport, 40 miles south. There you could shop in chain department stores like J.C. Penney or Montgomery Ward, or even eat at McDonald’s. Beyond the highway, thousands of acres of corn and soybeans unrolled into a green sprawl of endless farmland, which was marked and divided by a reliable grid of barbed wire and gravel roads. Along those roads and fence lines, the red-winged blackbirds perched, vigilant and ferocious, ready to attack any threat to their nests. And high above them, the soaring red-tailed hawks described the wind, kiting on thermals while scanning the earth for a vole or cottontail. On those hot, dry days I would watch a distant cloud of dust slowly crawl over the horizon, cross the hill by the auction barn, until it finally hit the blacktop and abruptly reappeared as some farmer’s rusted pickup truck.

The highlight of the summer for me was always the county fair in July. My friends and I would eat hot dogs and cotton candy and ride the Rock-O-Plane and work the ten-cent cranes for prizes and huddle near the Tilt-A-Whirl, where we’d try to talk to some nervous clutch of gossipy Coke-sipping girls, who smelled of strawberry shampoo and apple lip gloss, and seemed unreachable, [End Page 91] and were. The mystery of girls being so deep, we gave up pretty easily and soon drifted over to the grandstand to watch the stock cars rev their smoking engines and wipe out in the mud. Or we wandered around the sweltering 4-H barns, amid the stink of cows and hogs, trying to find a friend who was showing a prize steer.

The rest of the summer we mowed lawns and bailed hay and walked beans and roamed the town and surrounding farmlands on our bicycles with sweaty reckless abandon under the comfort of an enormous sky. Sometimes we brought our lunch, or fishing rods, or maybe a few cigarettes someone had stolen from their parents. The days were slow. And though we all had watches and clocks, the sun too measured our lives—the rising and fading light softening the edges of each day. Stores were not open 24-7, but 9–5, Monday through Saturday. For many, there was still a Sabbath, a day of rest.

My dad was the minister at the Congregational church, so my older brother, Ken, and I had to go every Sunday after we finished our paper routes. I loved and hated being a preacher’s kid. I liked the people and the potlucks, but that summer I was in eighth grade confirmation, and Dad was the teacher. He was smart but not much fun. In those days you didn’t get treats or trophies or stickers for showing up. We had to read and discuss a lot of stuff––like the Psalms, the Beatitudes, and the Good Samaritan––and then write a paper. By the end of the class I knew I was in trouble. Not because I didn’t do the reading or write the paper, but because I didn’t believe––or not the things I thought I should. On the Saturday morning before Confirmation Sunday, I walked into Dad’s office all nervous and riding a river of hormones. My face was breaking out and my voice was breaking up, but I told him that I refused to be confirmed the next day with the other kids.

“Why not!?” he asked. I told him I was unsure, that I might be one of those “egg-nostics,” and just couldn’t answer “yes” to all the required questions: Do you believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth? Do you...


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pp. 91-96
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