Northwest Airlines willing, when this column appears I will be about as far away from Memphis as you can get and still be in the U.S.A.
Unalakleet, Alaska, is 400 miles northwest of Anchorage on the Bering Sea at the edge of the Arctic Circle. I am told the sun shines 22 hours a day this time of year. I am told that by my son Jack, who is a fishing guide at Unalakleet River Lodge and my benefactor for this trip. He promises to watch out for grizzlies while backtrolling and putting me on some monster salmon, grayling, and Dolly Vardens.
Honestly, this is a waste of high-grade talent and expensive tackle on a rank amateur. I don't know a Dolly Varden from Dolly Parton. My fatherly knowledge of hunting and fishing consisted of "pull the thingee and it goes bang" and "if you can't tie good knots, tie lots of them."
When Jack was growing up, summer was all about baseball. We spent our evenings in the living room with Greg Maddux, Fred McGriff, and the Atlanta Braves. Summer weekends meant tournaments, car pools, "it's our turn to bring the drinks," and "will we ever beat Germantown?" (No.) This lasted about 10 years, from coach-pitch to kid-pitch to high school.
Then suddenly it was over. Really over. For 95 percent of baseball players, the game ends before they even reach their physical prime. Tennis players, swimmers, and runners can compete and get better well into middle age. Basketball players can get a game at the gym until their knees give out. For most baseball players, though, high school is the end of the road. Try rounding up 18 guys next weekend for a pickup game. You might as well put your glove and spikes on eBay.
Jack got a last trip around the bases. He tried out at the University of Tennessee, threw 87 miles per hour once he got one close enough to the plate for the gun to measure it, and impressed Coach Rod Delmonico enough to make the team. In the spring of 2003, he pitched three innings in three games at Knoxville, Baton Rouge, and Johnson City and sat on the bench for what must have seemed like about three years. My wife and I would pick up the broadcasts of the games on the Internet, our hopes rising and falling with every blowout. One year of that was enough for us and for Jack, too. He quit the team.
He would throw no more strikes. Instead, he would strike out alone like Thoreau (Henry) and Theroux (Paul) for the woods and distant places. End was beginning.
Fly rod replaced baseball glove. Time spent in the weight room and on the bench became time spent fishing the French Broad, the Hiwassee, the Cumberland, and streams in the Smokies. Then he traded his fly rod for a passport.
In a year and a half, he hiked the Gower Peninsula in Wales, played rugby in Swansea, rode the Heart of Wales railway at midnight, made the last bus to Cardiff and the Snowdon Sherpa to Snowdonia. He fished the Wye, got loaded on Guinness in Galway, and watched punters on the Thames. In Argentina, he drove a rented Fiat 1,700 kilometers to Tierra del Fuego, saw Che Guevara's motorized bicycle and Butch Cassidy's hideout, picked Malbec grapes for $15 a day, watched the evidence of global warming on the glaciers near the Strait of Magellan, smuggled a puppy from Chile, taught English, learned Spanish, froze in the howling wind of the Glaciers National Park, and fished the Limay, Chimehuin, Malleo, Arrayanes, and Rivadavia. He came home for six days last month then took off for Alaska.
"I'm learning a lot about outboard motors, salmon runs, waterfowl, the Eskimos, and the Arctic. I'm having fun, eating well, and staying healthy," he wrote.
Four years after Jack threw his last curve ball, I can see things in a different light. There is a huge gulf between good and great athletes. Once in a while a few of Jack's contemporaries make the sports page. Paul Maholm from Germantown High pitched against Roger Clemens when "The Rocket" made his return to New York. Matt Cain from Houston High was the losing pitcher against Maddux a few weeks ago. Luke Hochevar from U.T. was one of the first picks in the draft last year. I hope they make the Hall of Fame. And Rod Delmonico got fired. Serves you right, Coach. And thanks.