Friday, May 4, 2007

"big swirls in the ponds on the back nine" - golf with Mark on Tuesday


Yesterday, May 3rd 2007. Mark died in a plane crash while flying to Montana to fish the famous "mothers day may fly hatch" in Bear Trap Canyon near the Madison river in Dillon, Montana.

He received a last minute invite as a spot became available less than a week out from the departure. Mark was an ideal invite for such last minute excursions as he could nearly always be counted on to adjust his schedule to squeeze in a trip. And who could resist a float down the bear trap?

I met Mark and Sarah about 5 years ago. Ben introduced us just before they moved to Chicago from Minneapolis. We talked fishing from day 1 and ever since we've been co-conspirators in dozens upon dozens of spontaneous and planned fishing escapes, mainly day or overnight trips to Wisconsin or Michigan to chase steelhead and trout. Also a few epic trips (to be discussed in another entry) to the Madison, Smith and Mo rivers in Montana.

Loosing Mark, my fish-addict friend, is loosing one of the main catalysts in my life for joy and escape into the timeless wonder and adventure that goes along with fishing. We shared the same wonderful silly addiction: fly fishing for steel head and trout. And feeding this addiction from Chicago involves lots of windshield time between rivers like the Sheboygan (6 hr round trip) in Wisconsin and various rivers in northern and south western Michigan. So much time was shared chewing the the fat between home and rivers. I miss him severely. I cannot yet imagine how it is possible that the next span of life will be spent chasing fish, chasing life... without him.

This past Tuesday I was fortunate to spend one last afternoon and evening with Mark. He was chosen for jury duty and spent the morning at the court house. Of course, zero time was spent in court but according to Mark the morning was not a waste as he spent most of the day getting to know fellow jurors.

He was released from his duties around 2:30 pm. I got a call at 2:31 (normally this call would have gone to Joe, or Tony or others... as I'm not really much of a golfer). I didn't immediately answer... so I received in classic Mark style a series of progressively more urgent text messages suggesting that if we acted fast we might yet still be able to pull off 18 holes before dark.

We were on off the first tee by 4:10.

While on the first tee I noticed a cork handle protruding from Mark's golf bag, I pointed... he shrugged mischievously and I can still vividly hear his voice as he said, "I've seen some big swirls in the ponds on the back nine."

For the record we would have easily finished 18 holes before dark, had we not stopped to fish most of the ponds on the back nine.

Mark is a quasi-expert in the art of combining sports. "Gunting" comes to mind, stories for Ben or others to share... And of course the "cast and blast" -- a Mark outing that combines pheasant hunting and fishing in the same day; which I experienced with Bristol and Mark a few months back. There are rumors of a college golf team trip to Alabama (or somewhere in the deep south) that involved a trophy large mouth bass that Mark caught, and here's the rumor "during tournament play." Mark's not one to exaggerate... his tendency is to downplay everything... I'd love to hear the rest of this story from one of his college golf teammates.

I grew up golfing, and fishing on golf courses after dark, but Tuesday was my first experience with the integrated experience dubbed the "swing" and "cast." The course was mostly empty so we alternated between casting and swinging on the water holes. It should be noted that Mark forced me to take the rod when we saw the first really big swirl, even though it was my turn to hit. Other's who have fished and hunted with Mark will recognize what I'm highlighting here, Mark prioritized your experience before his own. Selfless. As a sportsman, Mark was skilled and lucky beyond belief (more on that topic in another entry). When you fished with Mark, he made sure you were on the "A-grade water" first. Often he would be up river, around the bend scoping out the next section of water, he'd then wave you around and get you onto the good spot.

As the round progressed, the focus shifted away from the golf (it was fairly ugly, normal for me highly abnormal for Mark) and toward one of those timeless conversations that will forever be etched in my mind, topics included eternity, culture and theology, interpretation and the problem of knowledge, God's covenant with Abraham and what would have happened if Abraham didn't call out God? and the conflicts and similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We covered a lot of ground. Our talk was stimulated by Mark's experience at the court house earlier in the day. Mark spent the bulk of the morning talking with an elderly man who was a devote Muslim. They had talked for hours about their own individual faiths, the view of America and the war from within the Muslim community, etc. Mark peppered him with questions about Islam. They discussed how both the Christian and Muslim faiths have been distorted and caricatured in the media.


St. Paul in 1 Corinthians nails the the human condition when he writes, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror." Some translations put it another way, "now we see darkly as in a mirror" a direct reference to Plato's allegory of the cave and a statement that would have made much more sense in the first century when mirrors were polished rock, or whatever they were, yielding an inconsistent reflection. St. Paul's statement describes how limited our vision is and how incomplete our interpretations are in the face of truth. We don't see or understand fully.


I picture two men, both walking and wrestling with their own relationship with God, devote in their own faith traditions, engaged in respectful horizon expanding conversation, learning and sharing about each other's lives and experiences. Both aware of the the orthodox perspectives of their own religion, which puts the other (in the end) in hell not heaven. I imagine both were uncomfortable with this unspeakable question.


St. Paul continues on with his description of the human condition "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."


During golf, Mark expressed that he was glad that it was God's decision, not his own, about who goes to Heaven in the end. He was curious about the guy he met, curious about his devotion to Islam, full of wonder and hope for his eternal soul, the soul of someone our fear based world calls our enemy. He was content to not try and figure that one out. I don't believe Mark thought of too many people as enemies (with the exception of Joe & Paige's cat).
As I reflect on my time with Mark on Tuesday, the image of his time at court speaks volumes about how he lived a life of faith. Mark was secure in what he believed and full of curiosity and wonder, he wanted to know / experience more. He lived life in constant pursuit of more. He was always reading and recommending a new book, planning the next uber-adventure and scheming / cracking some code related to fishing or hunting. He lived in pursuit of the fullness that St. Paul talks about in Corinthians. This made him a wonderful and rare human being and friend, a constant catalyst for adventure, good times and conversation. I will miss him severely.

In sadness and hope,

-Graham M. Smith May 4 2007

A quotable from the fourth or fifth hole:

Mark mutters after I shank one into the trees, "that's what you get for using the word hermeneutics on the golf course... that word's reserved for the 19th hole."

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