"When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky ... "
Dateline: A Birmingham Block
Walk with me.
Just a couple of blocks. Through the Birmingham night. From the Bass boat service yard to my hotel.
I walk slow. Got me some hips, knees, ankles built mainly for sitting.
But no talking. I need to listen to the night. The night is where I find the answers for tomorrow.
Night is the comma in my life.
The dark enlightens me.
My night vision, batteries not included.
Tonight, it's a tungsten moon. Boulevards of orange. Parking lots afraid of shadows. Brick buildings with plywood eyes.
Around a corner, under a highway, past walls of granite, concrete, glass.
I am in a city of thousands of people, and I am alone.
Under the tungsten moon, I have a shadow. In the middle of the night.
Of looking for the night, in the night.
Of voices ...
"In Iraq all I used to do was eat, sleep, go on missions, and study fishing," said Cpl. Will Bennett, a few weeks this side of combat in the sand.
... where the alleys ...
"I would like to be a pro-angler, or a fireman." Ryan Foster, a 14-year old who dreamed of coming to the Bassmaster Classic while getting his latest Cystic Fibrosis treatment.
... used to be.
And a puppy dog.
Walk with me.
Under a Tungsten Moon.
In the light of a Birmingham night.
Corporal Will Bennett
Barbie, no need to be shopping for a birthday present for me.
Got it already.
Came by way of the escalator. First the feet, then the legs, black fleece jacket, knit hat.
And under that knit hat, the face of a child with a goofy grin. A soldier child.
Standing at the bottom of the escalator, 20-something year old Cpl. Will Bennett. Fresh from the land of sand that did the best it could to try and kill him.
This warrior without whiskers. This birthday present wrapped in fleece.
I'm thankful of the dim lights and long escalator. My left hand gripped the rubber rail as I tried to pull the metal steps to a stop. I wanted to back up, I wanted to walk in place on these metal steps.
I needed these metal steps to stop. And run in reverse, with Cpl. Will Bennett riding them. I needed to take Cpl. Will Bennett from combat in the sand, to the sandbox in his backyard.
But the steps just kept moving.
Childhood interrupted by the sandstorm of war.
Then the handrail was gone and I stood before the mountain of man-child fleece.
And saw my son.
And saw my daughter.
Saw your son.
Saw your daughter.
I did what you would do, I put the reporter's notebook and pen in my pocket. Then I gave him a hug.
And I said what you would say, I said what hundreds of people told me to say, I said what America wants to whisper in ears of those on the tarmacs, those in base parking lots, those in fatigues walking through airports.
I said, "Thank You."
Then I got up on my tippy-toes, and I whispered ...
"Welcome home son, welcome home."
And Cpl. Will Bennett, hugged me back.
This weekend, Cpl. Will Bennett, became, Will.
This weekend, Will, would get to be a child again.
"db, this is like the best Christmas ever."
I laughed and asked, "Huh, why?"
"Because it was all fishing, I didn't get any socks for presents."
No he did not. Instead of socks, Will Bennett was given the opportunity to join the regional pro-staffs of both Strike King and Viscous. Chris, the guy at Strike King, told me basically that it wasn't based on what Will has done, but what it is he can do.
Not the soldier he was, but the man he is.
A man weary about driving under bridges, still fearful of the bombs that were thrown at him, a man who lead others like him who prayed to a God above, through hell.
A man who fought through Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome with the help of learning about fishing.
A man who told me, "That if you want to learn about how to catch the owl you must first study the mouse."
This weekend whenever I saw Will, and his girlfriend, Amanda, both wore smiles above their fleece. Both held hands, sent whispers back and forth, giggled.
The war behind them, the escalator only going up. Follow your dreams. Become a pro bass angler, and someday cross this Classic stage.
But first, do me a favor. Go to your local hardware store, and buy a sandbox.
Put the sandbox in your backyard.
And play son.
Make A Wish people, here's my wish. We don't need you.
My wish is that long past us, out there in the future, no child will ever tell whoever is me when me is gone, this: "My lungs don't work."
Ryan Foster, 14 years old, from upstate New York, has Cystic Fibrosis.
I will NEVER write that sentence again.
Ryan is NOT Cystic Fibrosis, Cystic Fibrosis is NOT Ryan. We are not what we suffer from or suffer with. We are children young, we are children old.
We are just people.
Leave the labels for products, stuff.
Look at Ryan and see this, a cute young child with shaggy black hair, oversized T-shirt, scuffed sneakers and backpack.
And a love of fishing. A love of fishing, and a dream. To meet Ike. Bass pro Mike Iaconelli.
In the tunnels of the arena of the Classic, a dream came true.
Ryan meet Ike. Ike meet Ryan.
In the tunnels of the arena of the Classic, a moment in time will live forever in a young child's mind.
And for Ike.
Ryan went with Iaconelli right into the television interview room, and then across the hall into the Media Room.
Let me explain how big this was to Ryan, before this, out in the parking lot Ryan got a glimpse of Ike DRIVING BY in his boat on the way to the Bassmaster stage.
Ryan told me, "It was the coolest thing EVER."
At that moment it was.
Cooler things were about to happen, in a tunnel of the Classic arena.
Ike: "So Ryan, I hear you like to fish."
Ike has his arm around Ryan's shoulder, Ryan is looking up at him, both his tiny hands are clasped close to his chest, Ryan is frozen. Frozen in the moment, frozen in time, frozen from the problems.
Ike: "Would you like to go fishing with me."
Ryan carries with him a fishing pole where ever he goes, "Especially if I find out there is water nearby."
Ryan is the child within every pro out on the stage.
Then the child looks at his aunt and uncle who brought him to his dream, looks up at Ike, and turns and looks at me, the question in his eyes, "Is This True?"
In a tunnel of the Classic arena, I nod my head ... yes. And a tear drop hits the reporter's notebook in my hand.
Ryan, get your fishing pole ready buddy. You're going fishing with Mike Iaconelli!
When I was asking Iaconelli if he would take Ryan fishing, before I was even done with the question, Mike said this, "Done."
One word, the result, will be remembered forever.
This September, off Montauk, as part of the ESPNOutdoors Saltwater Series, Ryan, will step on a boat and go fishing out at sea.
With Michael Iaconelli.
With the man he hoped just to see.
For that one day, his day of dreams, Ryan, will be just a child with a fishing pole.
And with nothing else.
Comes Love, With No Name
We can't see it.
But we can feel it.
Look for it, and you will never see it.
We may talk of calories, energy, physics that gets us through life. MPH and the face of time.
But it's love that moves us.
Gravity helps, but it's love that keeps us together. And the universe has given us a billboard so we never forget that.
And that billboard is ... tails.
Every time you see a dog's tail wag, it's the universe talking to you, saying this: "It's about LOVE stupid."
And then the universe will lick your face.
And go pee on a tree.
The universe, disguised as a 12-week-old Yellow Lab puppy, hit Mark Menendez upside the head with the love stick here at the Classic.
In front of full house.
The universe, with long lanky legs and huge paws, walked up to Mark, and licked his face.
And Mark, I know you were surprised. Mark didn't know it was going to happen, and was somewhat taken back. Still in mourning, Mark is, for his recently departed friend and guide through life Barkley.
Barkley, a yellow lab, who fished with Mark, who never left Mark's side, who loved and was loved, passed away. Not as a dog, but as a buddy.
Mark, how lucky you are to have loved and been loved by the universe, and to now have been licked in the face once again.
The universe never lets love leave.
That's why it gave us tails that wag.
Puppies, who with every lick of your face, every wag of their tail, brings with it buddies of the past.
Proof is in tails that can wag.
And so goes 2010 Bassmaster Classic.
Dreams come true, on stage ...
... in the stands surrounding it ...
... in the tunnels beneath ...
... in the grasp of a puppy's leash ...
... in the sandbox in the back yard.
When the universe stands on its tippy toes and whispers, it tells us, "Love Wins ..."
"Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone."
You'll Never Walk Alone
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.