Words and Images from Ed Felker

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Seven.

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I asked her what she wanted to do this evening for her birthday.
She thought for a second and asked, “Anything? Whatever I want?”
“Of course,” I said. “You only turn seven once.”
Then she told me quietly, what she wanted to do more than anything else, was to wade up to her chest in the river, and stand there until the sun went down.
Who am I to judge? On my seventh birthday I asked for meatloaf.
“Let’s go,” I said. And we did.
I brought a toy to throw in case she got bored, but she didn’t.
After a while she turned to me and said, “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.”
“Wow,” I said. “Did you just come up with that?”
“I’m a dog, you idiot,” She said. “da Vinci. Read a book.”
We laughed and laughed.
Then we both turned back to the river, and watched until the sky and the water were the same color. And then we went home.


Here.

The moment the camera shutter closed on this image from the banks of the Rose River might just be when it all started.

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My friend Douglas casts for trout as the sun sinks low in the November sky. A warm day. A cold beer. An azure blue sky reflected in water interrupted only by a series of circles reaching out to Douglas from its source: A dog.

It was there, and it was then, that I first observed my friend and his dog Enzo, a lanky young Spinone Italiano. I watched Enzo explore that farm, chasing birds and sniffing trails and running and running and running. I saw the freedom given him by Douglas to roam, and the discipline given him to faithfully return with a simple command. “Here.”

Faithful. This, I thought, is what I want.

Although my wife and I had moved to a rural area, we still lived in a house on a main road with a yard. We were surrounded by country, but not yet immersed in it. So it was just a fantasy, to have a dog that roamed the property, never too far to hear my call. But my next dog, while not a Spinone, did have a beard and bird hunting in her veins like Enzo. Over time, Winnie’s beard grew, but the bird hunting in her veins faded, and that’s alright. We did get that place in the country where dogs can run free, though.

Enzo went on to be a fixture at the farm, and in the life of my friend. They hunted together, fished together and traveled together. I was privileged to take a few long road trips with Douglas and Enzo, to hunt grouse and woodcock in the dense woods of Michigan and Maine. Enzo earned the sleep he soaked in on those return trips.

But the farm is where Enzo was truly at home. When Winnie was a puppy, Enzo showed her how to run off leash for the first time. When I added Finn a couple years later, Enzo showed him how to find a chukar at a nearby preserve. Finn and Enzo were two peas in a pod. Tall, dorky, sweet as molasses and just smelly enough one could convincingly blame the other. They napped in front of that big, hot, stone fireplace after a day of running like there’s no tomorrow.

And once in every life, there really is no tomorrow. And sometimes you never see it coming. It’s almost impossible to believe that Enzo is gone. That he has pointed his last bird, lapped up his last cool drink from the gin clear Rose. And it feels like I owe him something. And it feels like I owe my friend something too. The two of them showed me what that relationship between man and dog could be. My pair roams the property now, never too far they can’t be called in. They explore scent trails, kick up birds, point rabbits and roll in God knows what. And when I’m out mowing or trimming or repairing a fence or walking in the woods or fishing in my home river, they are by my side. And when I say “Here,” there they are. Faithful. Having dogs that have earned the freedom to roam off leash has been, well, I simply can’t overstate the peace and enjoyment it has brought me.

My heart aches for my friend. To me, Enzo has always been a part of Douglas, a part of Rose River Farm. And in a way he always will be. But he will also be a part of me and the life I have built with my dogs. I can’t ever repay a gift like that.

Rest in peace, Enzo. I hope where you are there are countless wild birds, endless cool mornings and open fields that stretch forever. And at the end, a warm fire by which to rest. Hunt hard, sleep deeply. There are no more commands, you’re already here.

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The Longest Day

I don’t have the words. Hell, maybe there are no words strong enough, respectful enough for this. But more likely, the right words have been cheapened over time, overused. Heroes don’t play football. Well, a few did. Saving the World is such an over the top concept it sounds like a video game tagline. The world sometimes seems like an awful place filled with pockets of evil always ready to flare up and get out of control. Yet it never quite does. People of my generation, of all generations since the Greatest one, go to bed at night perhaps worried about the world at large, but the sun always comes up the next morning. Families are still there. Neighbors and friends are still there. I don’t think we can truly imagine what it was like in the months leading up to June 6, 1944. I won’t speak for everyone, of course, but I can tell you that I can’t imagine, and I really try. I can’t imagine being called upon to do even the smallest fraction of what so many in this country did in the war effort. Entire industries put completely on hold, converted to factories to build planes, munitions, vehicles, to sew parachutes, to package meals, countless — truly countless — sacrifices before we even get to the biggest sacrifice of all.

Pearl Harbor lit a fire, yes. But it’s one thing to be for something, or against something. When you are called to act in the face of massive, well-equipped and well-trained evil, how do you summon the courage? I have no earthly idea. But they did. In massive numbers, young men from the United States, Great Britain and Canada summoned more courage than they even knew existed. They stormed the beaches of Normandy seventy years ago today, and many were dead before they even felt sand under foot. Many more fell dead in that sand. But enough survived to fight and crawl and run and scrape and dive and duck and make it. In ten minutes they had witnessed more hell than any man should be forced to bear, but they had work to do. So they kept coming, each landing made easier by the sacrifices of those who landed before. And they took that beach, and then they took the land behind that, and then the land behind that. And that’s how it started.

I shared recently how lucky I am to live in a place that gives me the opportunity to mark important National occasions. One of those places is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The Udvar-Hazy Center is the museum’s annex at Dulles Airport, and houses examples of some of the most important aircraft of World War II. They also are currently showing a fantastic film, D-Day: Normandy 1944. It is exceptionally well done, with incredible graphics blended with live action and tells the story of what happened on that day and how it unfolded in a way that’s compelling and easy to understand, but also very informative even for those who have read much on the subject. I learned quite a bit in this 43-minute long feature.

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So if you can get out this month to either the Dulles Air and Space Museum or the original one in Washington, DC, I highly recommend seeing this in the Imax format. It’s absolutely appropriate for kids. While I still don’t think it’s possible to wrap your brain around what that beach was like seventy years ago, it’s good to be reminded that real, regular people did astounding, brave things, and in doing so, secured a future so bright and prosperous that those who live in it — through no fault of their own — are incapable of comprehending what it took to get here. Then enjoy the proud history on display in the museum, it is a spacious, well-designed museum you could easily spend half a day in. Flight simulators are there to try (though I haven’t been in one yet), as well as neat kiosks throughout the space where you can see the view from the cockpit of most any plane there.

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I started my visit with the on screen telling of our bloody start to the war. And I ended it with the last thing I always stop and gaze upon when I’m here, the B-29 Superfortress that ended it.

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God bless the Greatest Generation, and those courageous, terrified young men that took that blood soaked beach, and made everything that followed, to this day, possible.


Blood on the Pages

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Over the years, my friend Guy Neal Williams has introduced me to many things that remain important parts of my life to this day. He is the one who first put a fly rod in my hand, teaching me the basics of how to cast at a pond near his Winston-Salem home, and triggering in me a lifelong passion. He convinced me that I could create woodcut prints despite having no carving or printmaking experience. He shared books that remain on my shelf today and music that has shaped everything I now listen to. He loved music so much. The fact that he was nearly deaf was such a cruel injustice. But his greatest gift was the first thing I knew and loved about him: Guy was a storyteller.

A strong voice, an easy laugh, an infinite supply of stories and a deep desire to share them made Guy a human campfire. Friends and strangers alike would gather around his warm glow as he weaved truth with fiction, humor with sadness. His spoken words were slow and deliberate. When I first met him I was enthralled. The topics of his stories didn’t even matter. Potato guns. Cave paintings. Fish. He told me once in great detail how to prepare carp on the grill. The process entailed soaking a cedar plank in saltwater, wine and peppercorns, carefully filleting and seasoning the fish just right. He told me exactly how the coals should look and when to know the fish was ready. When it was done, he instructed, “carefully slide the fish into the trashcan and eat the plank.”

His real talent, though, his genius, was in his written word. Here, too, he was a storyteller. Okay liar. He was a liar. I was tempted to say lying was like a game to him, but somehow that doesn’t give it the necessary respect. You wouldn’t go to the Masters in Augusta and tell the greatest golfers in the world they were merely playing a game. No, lying to Guy was a sport. And he was a hall of famer.

He used to like to challenge his friends by writing three essays. Each was skillfully crafted, impeccably detailed and utterly unbelievable. But only one, he warned, was a lie. The other two were true stories. It was impossible to discern fact from fiction in these tests, as his astonishing gift of storytelling was equaled only by his impossibly colorful real life experiences.

My God he loved a story.

He had the ability to paint a scene, to put you in it, to lead you down whatever path he wanted you down, then jump out from behind a bush of his own creation and punch you square in the gut. I had never seen, or even imagined, that someone with world-class writing skills would use so much of that power to simply entertain his friends. We all wanted him to write a book. Not so much because we needed more of his stories, but I think because we felt his stories needed a bigger audience. But a bigger audience isn’t what he was after.

He once told me a story that I cannot repeat here. (Okay he told many stories I cannot repeat here, but that’s not what I meant.) It involves a tattered photograph and a legendary fish. The story is so fantastic it almost certainly can’t be true. Yet it contains enough verifiable details that it just might be. It involves a secret so sacred that it must now remain with me until I die. It’s hard to explain how, or why, he did this. But he told a Perfect Story, a spectacular story, a story he could have easily published anywhere, a story any number of people would declare the best story they had ever heard, but one that could never be shared. I instantly regretted having been told it. If it’s a lie, it’s an epic masterpiece. If it’s true, I wish it had died with him. But he told it to me, an audience of precisely one, and asked that I never tell anyone. Hell, who knows. Maybe he privately told the same story to everyone. But I’ll keep his secret, true or not, and the burden of not telling a soul will be a reminder of his gift to me.

I never thought about writing before I knew Guy. But being exposed to his words made me think for the first time about putting down my own thoughts. I found myself writing for fun, trying to find words to describe a scene or person or feeling. I wrote with more care, more effort. Perhaps most importantly, I didn’t save that care and effort for particularly important topics. I learned through Guy that there is great value in taking the time to describe the smallest observations. My early attempts were just an awkward mimicry of his writing. But I like to think that along the way, I found my own voice, my own passion for spinning a yarn, my own desire to lead someone down that path. Guy Neal Williams taught me that it is a noble pursuit to sweat over choosing the right words, assembling those words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into stories, for the pure joy of it. Just to make someone laugh, or cry, or to simply relate to a shared experience.

“Books are better,” he said once in response to a movies-versus-books discussion. “Books are better because there’s blood on the pages.” Movies, he said, are creative endeavors by committee, and as such were diluted. But books, written in excruciating isolation, were painful pursuits. He wrote of pain. He wrote of burying his beloved dog, Augustine, until you swore you could feel the worn shovel handle in your hands and smell the moist clay through your own tears. There is blood on those pages. He wrote of love. I’ll never forget the first description I ever read of his wife, “a tiny engineer with ice blue eyes.” Jesus, it’s probably been twenty years and I know with certainty those are the seven words exactly as he wrote them. But mostly he wrote of beauty. The beauty of the natural world, or the human spirit, or math, or science or enduring friendship. Of music. Beauty, to Guy, was everywhere. But he wasn’t just an observer of it, he created his own beauty from whole cloth.

He loved art, numbers, music, friends, bullshit and cigarettes with limitless enthusiasm. He was a genius. A spectacularly flawed genius, but a genius. He had his share of demons, and took on a few extras to make it a fair fight. The demons are all silenced now, and I hope to God that silence is forever filled with music, clear and bright and loud.

This morning, the first of my days on an earth without Guy Neal Williams, I plugged my phone into the car stereo. The first random song that played was a Patty Griffin song I thought a lot about yesterday. I have a thousand songs on my phone and this played first. Thank you Guy for your friendship, I am different and better for it. And thank you for your words. All of mine have you in them.

The song is Goodbye.

Today my heart is big and sore,
It’s tryin’ to push right through my skin.
I won’t see you anymore,
I guess that’s finally sinkin’ in.


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