The hook hung suspended just below the surface of the water. In the eyes of a five-year-old, the red and white bobber seemed the size of a hard-boiled egg, floating in the brown-green water below our feet. My Granddad and I sat on the precipice of the dock, waiting for the catfish to bite. It was Texas warm, the kind of warm that makes your skin feel like it’s sun burned, only the sky was cloudy. The details are still vivid in my memory because on that day my Granddad confirmed to me that he could do anything.
“You see, number-one grandson, the trick to landing catfish is to use magic. Regular fishing’s for suckers.”
Then the magic show began. Granddad slowly lowered his rod until the hook kissed the lake, sinking about a foot until the stopper halted its descent. My eyes fixed on the center of the concentric circles emanating from the line that pierced the watery plane.
“When are they gonna bite, Granddad?” I asked.
“When I say the magic words,” he rationally replied. “Alaca-ZAM!”
It happened so quickly–less than an instant–that I don’t remember the order of events. All I know is that with the utterance of Granddad’s incantation, a furiously flopping creature leaped from the lake and into our white bucket filled with fresh-drawn lake water. Before I could process what had happened, the catfish Granddad plucked from its home was resting de-hooked in our makeshift cage. I couldn’t believe what I saw! But there was a part of me that was not surprised at all.
“Do it again, Granddad!” I screamed with glee. I was too young to know one can’t expect lightning to strike twice. But my magician grandfather was up to the challenge. Experienced fishermen know when the fish are biting, so he seized the opportunity to create a Texas-sized childhood memory I would never forget. Without baiting the hook, he whisked the line back from whence it came. A slight pause, a serendipitous wink, and another Alaca-ZAM! What?!? The unthinkable had transpired. Had history repeated itself? The previous scene magically unfolded once more, so thoroughly similar that to this day it is nearly impossible for me to distinguish the two separate catches.
Childhood is life through the eyes of wonder, discovery, and the impossible. Every adult was once a child, but not everyone recalls what makes childhood special. For me, childhood is the only time when magical memories are forged. Rationality, cynicism, skepticism, and the buildup of life’s experiences inevitably erode the wonder that children find naturally in the world.
I was at the park one day last fall with my family when I caught a glimpse of life’s wonder through the eyes of a child. We were running around the park playing ball games–foursquare, catch, and basketball. My older three were begging me to play with them, but really wanted me to do whatever they wanted. After they grew tired of me playfully pushing back on their persistence and teasing them, I fetched my two-year-old and headed to the seven-foot basketball hoop.
My son, barely older than a toddler, begged me again and again to lift him up to the basket rim so he could dunk his ball. Like a baby shaking a rattle, he never got bored with this routine. But after 20 lifts and 20 “Yeah’s!” following successful shots, I needed a break. So I shuffled over to my wife who was nursing our youngest to chat. But it wasn’t long before “basketball boy” wanted to play again, and little kids aren’t known for their patience. Especially mine. So when I asked him to wait a minute, he pitched a fit.
“Rrrr!” I murmured under my breath. “OK, you want to play ball? Then go get it!” I wasn’t really mad or irritated, just doing a little acting mean and making the point that I needed a breather.
In one motion I snatched the ball from his hands and heaved it across the court toward the hoop. It sailed high and far, like a stone shot from a sling out into the ocean, appearing to suspend in mid-flight against the backdrop of a sunset horizon.
Sports are a funny thing. They have the unique ability to focus our attention, to wildly swing our emotions, and to clarify those moments in life that have the potential to be memorable–even magical.
The very moment that ball left my hand, rising in the air like a missile careening toward its target, I knew it had a chance. Immediately I grabbed my wife’s attention. “Look at that!” “Look!” My young son didn’t need me to show him what he fully expected would happen. The scene was unfolding (surely in slow motion like my granddad’s fishing magic trick years ago) with all the reality of a 3-D motion picture. With my wife, son, and I gazing at the orange sphere descending back to earth, we witnessed the ball and net kiss with the sound of a swoosh, 78 feet from where I stood.
For a moment, I was back in high school shooting the winning goal, with the worshipping crowd chanting, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” Throwing my hands up in victory, I paraded before my wife and son (who was now a fan of his wonder-full dad). But my fantasy didn’t last long, as my son peered up at me in delight, then leaped into the air shouting, “Gin! Do it again!”
Alas, I, unlike my Granddad, am not a magician. But hopefully my son will remember me as one.