An Ode To Anthony

Anthony with a bass caught right near his family’s home in suburban Chicago. His diabetes diagnosis offered his dad Tony (below) some perspective. (PHOTOS BY TONY ENSALACO)

The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY TONY ENSALACO

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

These are some of the lyrics that John Lennon used in his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).” This simply means our lives don’t always turn out the way we expect they would. The story goes that the late, great former Beatle borrowed the phrase from another author, but he definitely made it popular.

Whatever the origin, it seems to accurately describe what everyone has been going through over the past few months, and is an apropos expression for what was about to become of my life.

Something that has remained constant in my ever-changing world for the past two decades is my annual spring steelhead pilgrimage to Southeast Alaska. What started out back in 2000 as an exciting new adventure eventually became a mandatory escape from the unreliable spring steelhead runs throughout the Midwest.

The numbers of fish returning to the Great Lakes tributaries have been down for several years, making it extremely difficult to time the run because of the small window of opportunity that anglers have to work with. Also, the region can receive heavy volumes of rain at this time of year, which negatively affects the spring run-off, so finding decent water levels almost always becomes a perennial issue.

The only consistent fishing I usually hear about in my neck of the woods happens for the guys who pillage and plunder the spawning gravel. Their game is to search for the aggressive males that are holding adjacent to the egg-laden females and then try to pick them off by swinging a fly at their noses. Some initially bite, but most are flossed. No, thank you!

These “sportsmen” attempt to justify their actions by convincing themselves that sight fishing is a rewarding challenge.

Yeah, right – targeting animals when they are the most vulnerable. Personally, I have more respect for a pickpocket or a two- bit criminal who steals little old ladies’ Social Security checks, rather than a self- proclaimed “steelheader” who makes his bones every spawning season by assaulting the unsuspecting fish holding in shallow water while they are consumed with their mission to procreate.

Someday, I’ll tell you how I really feel!

Anyway, the Alaska trip has become an accepted part of life with my family, so much so that it is automatically marked on the calendar every year. It is routinely observed in our home like other major holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. That was until this year, when my hopes of making it back in April were crushed when Alaska Airlines sent me an email.

“All travelers are required to quarantine for 14 days after travel.”

I had expected the trip to be aborted, but it still was a kick in the spawn sac when I received the bad news.

Anthony shows off some of his loves – the Chicago Cubs, Chicago Blackhawks and fishing – from his hospital bed. (TONY ENSALACO)

I WAS UP EARLY the day I was supposed to leave for Alaska. As I sat alone in my living room drinking coffee and staring out my front window at the neighborhood pond across the street, I couldn’t help but think about what could have been if somehow, some way, I would have been able to board that jet and manage to sneak my way back to Yakutat.

Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I was able to come to terms that my dreams of steelheading in the Last Frontier was not going to happen this year. Meanwhile, I had nowhere to be, so I figured it would be best to get off the couch and social distance myself in a remote corner of the pond.

Lucky for me, it is located on private property, and as long as I don’t get too close to other people, the police tell me that I am allowed to be there. And since I’m out there anyways, maybe I’ll grab some gear and try to coax a few bass into hitting. Just then, my son Anthony came downstairs and volunteered to keep his old man company. How could I say no to one of my favorite fishing partners?

It took a couple of dozen casts before I finally felt the familiar tug of a largemouth picking up my plastic worm. As soon as I set the hook, I knew by the way the rod doubled over that it was a good one. I immediately instructed Anthony to put down his rod and take mine. He worked the fish like he had been competing on the tournament circuit for years.

When the bass looked like it was about to jump, Anthony jammed the rod to the side, making sure the fish’s head stayed in the water. When the fish tried to run towards the bushes along the bank, he instinctively changed the rod’s angle to steer it away from the trouble.

It was fun watching my kid counter the fish’s every move. After a few nerve-wracking moments, I was able to corral the bass and hand it over to him. It probably weighed just a little south of 5 pounds – a great fish for these parts.

As I proudly stared at Anthony holding that monster bass, I forgot about the trip that I was missing, and for a moment, things felt right again. There was no way of knowing then that our lives were about to change forever.

Tony hopes to get back to Alaska again soon. (TONY ENSALACO)

TWO DAYS LATER AT breakfast, my wife noticed that something wasn’t quite right with Anthony. He seemed a little despondent and was definitely lethargic for a boy who normally can’t keep still.

He also complained that he had a sore throat and his stomach was bothering him. We immediately called the doctor’s office to make an appointment for the physician to see him, but because of the virus, the receptionist didn’t feel a visit was necessary. She thought it sounded like Anthony had a simple case of strep throat.

When the doctor returned our call, she assured us that it was most likely strep and she was going to prescribe some amoxicillin. She also instructed us to make sure that he got plenty of rest.

By mid-afternoon, Anthony’s breathing had become irregular and he was being unresponsive to our questions. Several more calls to the doctor’s office resulted in a different prescription, but the doctor still didn’t think she had to see him. She did say that if it made us feel better, we could take him to an immediate care facility to have him checked out.

My wife and I both agreed that there was something more to this picture, so she rushed him to the emergency room. That decision probably saved his life. Without going into the horrendous details, Anthony arrived at the hospital in pretty bad shape. It only took a second for the initial physician who saw him to suspect juvenile diabetes.

After the tests confirmed the preliminary diagnosis, it was now up to the skilled crew of nurses and doctors to make Anthony right again. It took all night and part of the next day to bring his glucose level down to where he was no longer in danger, but they were successful.

I didn’t find out until later how critical Anthony’s health had been and how things could have easily gone differently if we had waited any longer to bring him in, and, well …

PHOTO BY TONY ENSALACO

MY INTENTION IN SHARING this story isn’t because I’m looking for sympathy – lord knows I throw a pretty mean pity party when I’m alone. No, I’m sequestered at home, pecking away at a keyboard because there are some individuals who need a helpful and much-needed reality check.

I have been watching the news and reading various posts on social media sites that people are saying that the emergency travel bans and the stay- home and shelter-in-place restrictions that our elected officials have imposed are unfair, or even unconstitutional.

Fishermen have been exceptionally vocal about their displeasure, and some have been intentionally disobeying the orders. As an avid sportsman, I get why they feel they are being mistreated and why they might think the local government is overstepping their legal boundaries. I mean, what harm is there if some people want to enjoy their endless free time outside?

For those of you who are responsible, there probably isn’t much risk. The problem is the small minority that doesn’t use common sense, which makes the authorities have to step in and enforce the rules.

There have already been multiple occasions this year when I have witnessed local anglers in my area breaking the social distancing guidelines by showing up to a body of water without bothering to keep their required space from one another. Most recently, I was coming home from the pharmacy when I watched three adults – probably in their 30s – crossing the road, carrying rods and heading towards a series of small ponds.

There was only a single vehicle in the parking lot and they were walking shoulder to shoulder. I don’t know any of their backstories, but I would bet a couple of 8-weights that they live in separate households and were instructed to stay apart. It’s a no-brainer that they have no business being that close to one another and were violating distancing guidelines.

And if this is happening in a Chicago suburb, a location that isn’t really considered a mecca for fishermen, imagine what is going on at the popular boat ramps and well-known access spots across the country that attract high numbers of anglers?

It’s pathetic that some people feel they are above the law and who show a blatant disregard for the rules. This type of behavior should concern all Americans.

AS MOST ANGLERS KNOW, fishing seasons are just around the corner, so it’s going to be difficult to obey the shelter-in-place orders. People are running out of patience being under house arrest – that is to be expected – but we still have to do the right thing, which is continue to practice social distancing – even if we’re lucky enough to have some fishing available.

No one feels more anxious than me when the fishing starts to heat up and I can’t get to the water. Normally, I have no problem making myself scarce from my responsibilities when there is a hot bite going on, but these are different times and I know there are more important things than catching a few fish. I hope people can understand the magnitude of what’s at stake, and what could happen if they unknowingly spread the virus because they are not taking the proper precautions.

The one thing I refuse to tolerate is when people say the closures are unfair and their lives are being ruined because they can’t go fishing. Although I do respect people’s right to protest and I understand where they’re coming from, I’m not buying the message.

People are frustrated; I get it, but that doesn’t give them the right to disobey

the temporary guidelines. When I was younger, there were times when I didn’t bother to take into consideration how my actions could affect the people who care about me. I would risk my safety and drive for hours in terrible blizzards on unsafe roads, or I waded through rivers in fast-moving currents – just to catch a fish. In my defense, I was naive and didn’t think I had to worry about anyone other than myself.

Now that I’m a husband and a father of two small children, I understand there is more to life than self-gratification, and I make it a point to put their needs before mine and will do everything in my power to keep my family safe.

And now that Anthony has diabetes, we are realizing that his condition makes him vulnerable to variables that would never have concerned us before he was diagnosed.

What’s hard for me to accept during this pandemic is there are things in this world that I can’t protect my family from, and now I have to rely on other people to do the right thing, or else something bad can happen. That’s why it’s disappointing

to see so many good people acting responsibly and all of their efforts could be suddenly wiped out because there are a handful of selfish jerks who are willing to throw away months of hard work.

I know everyone is anxious to have life go back to normal, but trying to normalize it too early can set us back to where it all started. If you want to roll the dice with your health or possibly your life, that’s your decision. But there is more at stake. When you put someone else’s life in jeopardy – my family’s lives – I have a real problem with that.

You want to talk about what’s unfair? I should be standing knee-deep in a world- famous steelhead stream, brawling with ocean-run rainbows that just came in on the morning tide. Instead, I’m learning how to calculate and administer life-sustaining insulin doses for a 9-year-old boy.

And even with this lifelong obstacle my family just started to confront, I am fully aware that there are thousands of families worse off than mine who are suffering, and some who have lost loved ones from this pandemic. I also realize there will be more cases, more sadness and, unfortunately, more deaths. That is the real injustice, and that is why I plan on doing my part by staying put until the restrictions start to ease up.

We need to look at the big picture and do what we can in our power to help stop the spread, rather than satisfying our immediate needs. We have to keep telling ourselves this will be over – hopefully sooner than later – and that life will start to go back to normal.

Personally, I know in my heart that Anthony will be back on the pitcher’s mound “chucking bullets” or skating across the blue line “deking benders” and “lighting the lamp” in the near future. Just like the hunters will be invading the woods or storming the fields, while the fishermen will be pummeling the water from sunrise to sundown. And that I’ll get back to Alaska next spring and do battle with a chrome-bright steelhead.

We will be able to do the things we love again. Take it from a lifelong Chicago Cub fan who saw something extraordinary in the 2016 World Series: Normalcy is going to happen again; I just can’t promise when. ASJ

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