If you are like me, you are lots of things to lots of people. Spouse, parent, sibling, child, employee, supervisor, supervisee, co-worker, friend, parishioner. The list gets very long.
And if you are like me, you enjoy some of these roles more than others.
One of my most favorite roles is "Uncle Richard."
Uncle Richard exists for about a month, cumulatively, a year. Uncle Richard is the role I'm in when my family goes back to my hometown in Pennsylvania, where my parents, brother and sister live.
Jana and I have two boys, ages 13 and 10. My sister and her husband have two boys, ages 12 and 11. And my brother and his wife have four boys, ages 14, 11, 8 and 1. You can do the math: When we visit home there is a gang of seven boys between 14 and 8. And the person usually at the center of this whirlwind is Uncle Richard.
For some reason, over time Uncle Richard has become the social director of this group of boys. If there is fun to be had, I'm supposed to make it happen. The incessant calls for "Uncle Richard" during vacation are so constant that my two sons start calling me "Uncle Richard" by the end of vacation.
There are times when this always being "on" for the boys can get tedious. But overall, I love the role. If there is one thing keeping me young at heart it is life as Uncle Richard. My personal highlights from this summer as Uncle Richard:
- Teaching the boys how to play Texas Hold 'Em.
- Walking in the woods to find Bigfoot.
- Organizing the game we call "chase." (It's kind of like capture the flag but played in the dark. Rather than speed it requires dark clothing and the stealth of a ninja.)
- Tramping through woodland creeks.
- Looking for beach glass on the shores of Lake Erie.
- Organizing walks to ice cream stands and timing the walk home to perfectly coincide with the fireflies coming out.
- And then catching those fireflies.
- Starting water gun fights.
- And, finally, catching sharks at the beach.
But four years ago we were at the beach alongside a guy fishing. And he caught a small black tipped shark. About 12-18 inches or so. Suddenly, all those minnows weren't so cool anymore. There were SHARKS out there! So the inevitable request came: "Uncle Richard! Uncle Richard! Could we catch a shark?"
But here's the problem. Uncle Richard is a bookish college professor who was raised in a northern city. I don't know how to fish. Let alone how to catch a shark.
For example, when we first went to our church retreat on the Frio River in Texas we saw that a lot of people brought their fishing rods. Brenden wanted to fish as well. So we bought him a rod for the next retreat. But he was little and would need help. So, to help him out, I thought I'd educate myself about fishing. So I do what university professors do: I went out and bought a book. It was Fishing for Dummies. Yes, I know.
Anyway, I bring the book home and proudly announce to Brenden that I was going to read this book so I could help him fish at the next retreat. Brenden, very confused, says, "But Dad, you don't need to read a book to learn how to catch fish. You just put a worm on the hook and throw it in the water."
In short, I'm an idiot when it comes to fishing. So how was Uncle Richard going to catch a shark?
Luckily I have a good friend, Dwayne, who does a lot of fishing, fresh and salt water. So before our summer vacation I asked Dwayne to come with me to Academy to help me get what I need to catch a shark.
In Academy I push a cart, following Dwayne up and down the aisles. He fills the cart up because I have absolutely no equipment. Nothing. So I buy a rod, reel, line, leaders, weights, hooks, tackle box, knife, pliers, and gloves. Gloves were absolutely necessary, because I don't like touching fish. I know...I'm barely a man. But it is what it is.
After shopping Dwayne and I go home where he shows me how to get the line on the reel and how to do simple things like tying a knot in a fishing line. To fish from the beach you need to put a weight on your line and throw it and the bait out past the waves. The weight holds the bait, keeping the waves from pushing it onto shore. This needs to be practiced, so Dwayne and I take this huge surf rod (it's like 12 feet long) and practice casting this weight up and down the street. Luckily, it was dark so my neighbors didn't see me. Lord knows what they would have thought watching me cast up and down the street. My biggest worry was casting the three ounce lead weight through someone's car window. With the leverage of those surf rods you can throw a weight a very, very long way. Which is kind of the whole point on a beach but very dicey in a residential neighborhood.
Anyhow, I eventually, kinda sorta, get the hang of casting. Lesson over. It was time to head to the beach and try to catch a shark!
Problem. I can't fit the surf rod in our small car. The thing is huge. So...I strap it onto the roof.
Now we're off!
And wouldn't you know it, we did catch a shark. Over the next three years we'd catch about 1-2 little black tipped sharks every day (along with fish and an occasional stingray). We were out of the minnow business!
But wouldn't you know it, those boys got tired of 12-18 inch sharks. Human nature I guess. Habituation. I should know this, I lecture on it every semester. So this year, in year four of sharkfishing, the boys start clamoring for a BIG shark. "Uncle Richard! Uncle Richard! Can we catch a big shark this year?"
Well, how does one arrange such a thing? But we try. And over the week on the beach we catch over 20 little sharks. But no one's satisfied. They want a bigger shark.
So finally, in the final hours of the last day of vacation, something takes the line. And I can tell that it's big. Well, bigger. Which is all I really want. Soon I can tell that it's not a ray as whatever it is swims toward me and then away from me. Rays are just heavy and they don't move much.
So I think I got a bigger shark on the line. And the boys start running to me, searching the surf. "Do you have a shark Uncle Richard!? A bigger shark!?" I say, "I don't know. But maybe."
Gradually, I reel the line in, praying that it doesn't break. And, then, finally, I pull the shark onto the beach. And guess what? The fishing gods smiled upon us: It was a bigger shark.
Here is Uncle Richard surrounded by his mom, two sons, three (of seven) nephews, and one shark:
A better look at the shark:
It was a highlight of our summer. We had caught a bigger shark.
And it was all worth it. I might be the world's worst fisherman, but I love making those boys happy.
I love being Uncle Richard.