Yes, here I am, back in the Midwest after so many years. And I realize that this is where I belong; this is where I was blessed to live the most formative years of my life (from 10 until 18); and most of all, this is the place that taught me so many things about life.
As an explanation, one only need to look back during the first summer I arrived to this sweltering state. Here we were, a mix of German/Irish/Japanese folks trying to blend into a small town. Fortunately for my two older brothers, Bob and Ron, the Asian side wasn’t too pronounced in their features; but for me, I inherited most of my looks from dear old Mom, who is full-blooded Japanese.
I hold my heritage very dearly now, but back then, it was a rather confusing time for me. We had just moved from Los Angeles, CA, where most of my classmates were Hispanic, Asian, Black, Latino, etc., and I was just one more ingredient in the great melting pot that comprised the greater southern California area.
I fit in back there…I felt like I BELONGED there.
And now THIS? Whoa.
In those days, I learned to “overcome” my different looks for the most part by retreating back into myself; other times, however, off-handed remarks about my racial heritage sliced deep, visceral cuts into my very soul. I often wondered, “How could people treat others this way?” Because I was raised to look at what was on the inside of a person and not judge them by their outward appearance, the concept of prejudice or racism was absolutely horrendous to me.
My solace from this racial divide came in the wise words of a seemingly ordinary man who was our neighbor at the time; Roy Rupp was his name, and teaching me how to fish was his game. During summer vacation of that year, and many others afterwards, this wizened comforter not only taught me the “proper” way to catch channel catfish from the Brookfield City Lake, but also taught me about God; about life; about people…and, most of all, about caring for others who were not like yourself.
Many an early morning (4 AM was our common time to beat feet and ride out to the favorite fishing spot) we would sit at the mirrored lake’s surface, lines taut as we still-fished with Beejay stink bait, chicken livers, or fat nightcrawlers. Seconds would turn into minutes; minutes crept into hours as the sun would hesitantly peek out from low-slung clouds to announce the heralding of another day. Brilliant colors would burst forth, tattooing the countryside in bright freckle sun-spots as we sat and spoke in hushed tones about life; about living; about the things he had seen or done; or about the few things I had seen or done. We spent hours talking about everything, and nothing.
As I look back on that long-ago summer, and to all of our conversations that I can remember, there was never the sense that he was anything but a friend. Not a tutor or an all-knowing adult, but the one thing that I needed during that first endless hot season that I was here. A friend. Feeling alone and set apart because of my looks, I had no one to turn to who could understand how I felt; yet Mr. Rupp was there to fill the void and become a true friend who was willing and able to listen to my thoughts, my fears, and those deep down feelings that so oftentimes we try to hide from the rest of the world. I was indeed glad to call Mr. Rupp my good friend from our first fishing trip together.
And we had some great fish stories to tell; one of my favorites in a picture of me in the Brookfield Daily News-Bulletin (as it was called then), holding a 7 1/2 lb. channel cat in all of its’ grunting glory. It took forever to land that fish, and I was so stinking tired that I just didn’t realize that the photo had me so fashionable attired in plaid pants (which conveniently unzipped just as I was holding the fish up for the camera!) and a wonderfully matching checkered shirt. Topping off my fashion statement were the always-present horn-rimmed glasses that I wore, complete with the requisite coke bottle thick lenses for my extreme nearsightedness. I was truly on top of the world that day, to be sure…until I saw the picture in the paper. Then I was mortified beyond belief, and had to endure the jokes and taunts for a few months from schoolmates when classes reconvened that fall.
Mr. Rupp would always kid me about the picture, which I still have to this day. He called it “The Trophy Catch” and made sure it was taken out at least every other day to admire. As I recall, he and his wife had it on their refrigerator for a while among the grandkids pictures and his own family mementos. He thought of me as one of his own grandchildren, which meant the world to me.
But time, that cruel purveyor of us all, marches on inexorably, and I grew up. There were days, then weeks, then months when I wouldn’t see Mr. Rupp or his wife; I would ask my mom about them and she would fill me in on their declining health and how they asked about me and what I was doing now. I made a heartfelt promise that I would go see them…and I never did.
Then came the news that I dreaded to hear, but knew would come to pass. Mr. Rupp had passed away while I was out wandering the world trying to find myself. And when I heard that, I broke down and bawled; not just crying from loss, but crying for that long-ago, innocent and eye-opening time when the hurt little boy reached out…and found a true friend.
Mr. Rupp was a kind and thoughtful Christian man; one who not only looked at the outside of a person, but was also able to discern the innermost soul through truth, love, and compassion, no matter if the person on the other end was 50, 30, or 10 years old. He was always a good listener, and an even better advisor on life and how to live it to the fullest, regardless of race, creed, religion…or anything else.
So now, as an adult reaching into middle age, I can look back on those times and try to instill my children with the same kind of Christian compassion, love, and caring that this old man taught me. I fall way short sometimes; but other times there is that glimpse; that certain look that they give me that lets me know the message was deciphered, understood, and filed away into the vast caverns of their growing minds. Maybe one day they will also look back, smile, and relive those moments as they teach my grandchildren.
And I am very grateful that Mr. Rupp spent his time being a fisher for lost souls (as Jesus commanded His disciples to do on the shores of Galilee) and reached out to a scrawny half-Asian boy with the wonderful message of the free gift of Salvation. It took some time for me to understand, but the message was finally received and accepted with gladness. Praise God! Now I have also been given the responsibility to pass along the Good News to others, and to help reach the lost, the last, and the least.
As a reminder, I go out to the City Lake from time to time and sit down at our ol’ fishing hole, and let my mind wander out over the ripples of water and time. These are special moments; ones to reflect and meditate upon as I fellowship with the Lord. And, sometimes, I almost feel like Roy Rupp is sitting there right beside me once again…watching the tips of our fishing poles intently, as he talks about God and country and people…and quietly adds another valuable lesson to the intricate pattern known as the fabric of life.
Thank you ever so much, Mr. Rupp, for teaching me the real meaning of true Christian friendship, and for helping teach me how to be a “fisher for life.”
Richard still frequents the “sacred” fishing grounds at Brookfield’s City Lake. You may reach him with any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the web at http://sliceofhome.blogspot.com. His column appears monthly in the Linn County Leader.