“You’ve got to go where the fish are,” Clarence said as we headed across Greenwood Lake in his fishing boat. “And the fish are likely under that bridge, so that’s where we’re headed.” He steered the boat toward the bridge as Raymond (my father-in-law) and I sat in the back finishing off our sausage biscuits.
I’ve heard a lot about the sad state of race relations in our country. I’ve taught United States History to high school students, with subjects ranging from slavery to civil rights to economic disparity. I’ve seen news reports about protests and rioting following real or perceived acts of police brutality. I’ve seen commentaries either for or against the display of the Confederate flag. I’m aware of “black churches” and other churches which are entirely white. Same goes for neighborhoods. I’ve pondered why a Black History Month is a good thing while a White History Month would be frowned upon. I have been shocked by racial stereotypes and at other times have been guilty of them. Race can be a complicated thing.
As we approached the narrow gap between the water and the bottom of the bridge, Clarence told me to get as low in the boat as possible. When I considered the narrow passage, clearance height, and my own size, I lay back in the boat as far as I could, quietly said my goodbyes, and prepared to die. As we passed under the first beam, I looked like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix movie. I was close enough to kiss the beam, but chose not to because it was covered in spiders and my fellow fisherman might have considered that weird. We miraculously cleared the first beam and I proudly sat up just as two fleeing pigeons buzzed me. Clarence told me to get back down because the next beam was approaching. As I quickly lowered myself into the narrow gap between the two seats and placed my head on the tackle box, I reminded myself that fishing is fun. I regretted eating two sausage biscuits that morning, and not having taken Mrs. Whitley’s yoga class during Teacher Appreciation Week earlier this year. But I managed to clear the second beam and, as cars roared by on the bridge above us, Raymond said, “Alrighty, let’s catch some fish.”
I don’t know whether race relations are getting better or worse in our country. The optimist in me says things have certainly improved since the times of slavery and even since the incredible racial strife of the 1960s. The pessimist in me notes that, too often, people choose their friends and perhaps even their politicians based more on skin color than on the content of their character. Clearly, we still have a long way to go.
As for Raymond and Clarence, my fishing buddies under the bridge, allow me to give you their back-stories. On the surface, these two men have very little in common. Raymond, an 81-year-old white man, was born in Roellen, Tennessee, and attended college at Freed-Hardeman University. He served in the Army for two years, but spent most of his life preaching the Gospel at congregations in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. He also served for many years as a missionary, primarily in India. Clarence, a 61-year-old black man, was born in Whitmire, South Carolina, and pursued a career teaching Health and Physical Education and coaching baseball and football. He was quite a talented pitcher himself, having been drafted by the Chicago Cubs, but chose not to accept their offer because they wanted to use him as a relief pitcher. While pitching for South Carolina State, his roommate on the road was none other than Donnie Shell, who would later become an All-Pro NFL strong safety and member of the Steelers famed Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s.
It would seem Raymond and Clarence have little in common. They are twenty years apart in age. They are different races, pursued different career paths, and were blessed with different talents. If that weren’t enough, they live in South Carolina, home of the Confederate flag controversy and its fair share of racial strife. And yet, in spite of all that, Raymond and Clarence are not just good friends…they are best friends. For the past fifteen years, they have formed a friendship that is as deep and strong as any you will ever run across. Like an old married couple, they can anticipate each other’s actions and finish each other’s sentences. They would do anything for the other, to include donating an organ or taking a bullet. Their friendship is a special thing to witness. Everyone would be blessed to have at least one friendship as deep and fulfilling as this one.
So how do we explain such a close friendship in a society so torn apart by racism? I would attribute it to two things:
1. They share a common bond as brothers in Christ. They share a love for God first and foremost, and then a love for their fellow man, regardless of race. Acts 10:34 tells us that God does not show partiality, and Galatians 3:28 reminds us that we are all one in Christ Jesus. While many can read and understand these verses, Raymond and Clarence seem to have taken them to heart.
2. They share a common passion for fishing. Rather than focus on the potential issues or activities that could divide them, they choose to focus on an activity that brings them together. When they are together under the bridge reeling in fish, all is right in the universe.
After clearing the beams, we threw our lines in the water and began a great day of fishing under the bridge, ultimately hauling in 27 fish. We engaged in some friendly banter over the relative sizes of fish that we caught, and shared some stories about fishing and life. I learned that on their weekly fishing trips, Clarence prefers catching a lot of fish while Raymond prefers hooking “the big one”. I learned about the time Clarence made a prank phone call to Raymond, disguising his voice and asking Raymond to marry him and his girlfriend “because that girl loves me a lot!” (Raymond politely refused.) I learned about the time there was a water moccasin on the shore near the boat and Clarence asked Raymond to kill it. As Raymond wildly swung a paddle at the snake, Clarence was sure he was going to either fall out of the boat or hit Clarence in the head with the paddle. According to Clarence, the snake wasn’t phased a bit. Each story seemed to have two versions, and I suspect the truth lay somewhere in between.
The realist in me says we will always have racial problems in this country, just like we’ll always have crime and poverty. Racism and prejudice are not just problems that get solved and then we move on to something else. But I do believe race relations can improve, and I believe it begins not in big government programs, but in individual relationships like the one between Raymond and Clarence. These men overlooked whatever differences might have divided them, and forged a friendship based on a common bond in Christ and a love for fishing. This is not just an ordinary friendship but a friendship for the ages…the kind each of us should get to experience at least once in our lives.
A lot of good things can happen under a bridge on Greenwood Lake in the middle of South Carolina. Not all of them involve fishing.
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