One Night Out on the Lake
The best time to fish for walleyes is the last half-hour of sunlight. Every fisherman worth his weight in nightcrawlers knows that. It is also the best time to be out on the lake for any reason, or even better, for no reason- the wind dies down, the temperature drops, the sky presents a tapestry of extraordinary colors, all is quiet and still, and it is enough to just be there. Marty knew this better than any man alive, and he took full advantage. He was there so often even the fish recognized his boat. The occasional cherry on top was a full moon rising above the pines, and on this memorable, spectacular night, Marty had it all.
The hum of his 10 HP Merc broke the silence and floated across the lake as he cruised toward his favorite spot. Marty shut down the motor and glided another 30 feet before he dropped anchor. He sent his minnow to an inglorious fate at the lake bottom, pulled it up a few feet, opened a beer, and took a few puffs of his cigar. Heaven on earth. Why not?
The sun set, the moon took center stage, and the cloudless sky was splashed with a spectacular umbrella of stars. It was as quiet as an empty church at night.
Marty didn’t notice the slight tugging on his line. His eyes and full attention were on the approaching light steadily moving across the lake’s surface. It was just a few feet above the water, but it didn’t appear to be a boat as he saw no red and green running lights, just a single bright white light with a hint of a diffuse glow around it. Marty heard no sound, and there was no sail, only the bright white light heading straight for him. Curiosity and fear were vying for top billing in Marty’s brain as the object drew closer.
The light of the full moon revealed something that appeared to be more earthly, but just as strange. Marty saw the silhouette of a person standing on the bow of an old wooden boat. The fact he wasn’t paddling or rowing added to the mystery.
The old man’s boat stopped just feet from Marty’s boat and held in place despite a slight breeze from the north. Fear dissipated into the warm night air as Marty sensed no threat from the man, and he was now consumed only by the who and why.
It was an old man with a full beard, dressed in a long white robe. He was holding a lantern that emitted a perfect circle of bright, white light around both boats, and Marty felt a shudder run from head to toe.
“Are you Marty?”
“Uh…yes, I’m Marty.”
The old man looked at a crumpled piece of paper.
“Yeah, they told me I’d find you here. I guess you like to fish. It says that right here.”
‘They’, thought Marty, who are ‘they’? Marty was too puzzled to think and uttered a mindless response.
“Yes…I think this is the best time for fishing.”
“Couldn’t agree more. Fewer worldly distractions. It’s easier to focus on what matters in life, so yes, it’s a good time to be out fishing.”
The mystery of the man grew as Marty had no idea what the old man was talking about.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you out here before. Are you from around here?”
The old man laughed.
“Oh, that’s a good one. No, I’m not from anywhere.”
Marty of course found this to be an odd response and thought the old man might have “issues”. And as the watercraft appeared to be only borderline seaworthy, the old man standing on the bow of a rickety wooden boat riding low in the water made him nervous.
“Your boat is a little… different. I didn’t hear a motor, there’s no sail, and…”
Marty peered at the inside of the unusual stranger’s boat.
“…and I don’t see any kind of a battery or electrical device. How the heck is that thing powered?”
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. Not my department. He doesn’t always tell us everything.”
“He? Who is he?”
“If you don’t know who ‘he’ is, you’re in bigger trouble than I thought.”
Marty had little time to digest the comment as the tip of his fishing pole was suddenly yanked downward. He grabbed the pole, and pulled hard to set the hook, but felt no resistance.
“God dammit! I lost it.”
“Watch your language! One more of those, and I might lose you!”
“Listen, nice meeting you whoever you are, but I came out here to fish, so…”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m out here fishing too.”
Marty took another quick look at the old man’s boat.
“Uh…you don’t have a fishing pole. How do you expect to catch a fish if you don’t have a fishing pole?”
“I’m a fisher of men.”
Now Marty knew he was dealing with someone not quite right in the head.
“How nice. Look, you should go back to town. You’ll find a lot of them there.”
“You’re telling me? I’ve been there. We’ve all been there, but tonight’s assignment puts me right here. You should feel special. We do a lot of group therapy with regular visits to this world, but this is a very targeted mission. Not everyone gets a one-on-one. You must show promise.”
“Uh…you visit this world? Like you’re not of this world…like an alien or something?”
“Well, we’re normally not called aliens, but I guess you could say that. Yes, I am not of this world.”
Marty thought the guy was nuts, but the boat…the boat that moved without power and seemed to move effortlessly over the water…made him wonder.
“I’m sure this will all seem a little odd to you, Marty, but I hope this turns your life around.”
“Turn my life around? What do you…and by the way, how do you know my name?”
The old man again looked at his notes.
“It’s all right here, Marty…name, tracking, sightings, sins, wandering off the path… I’d show you, but that’s a no-no.”
“My sins, tracking…who are you?”
“Peter? Peter who?”
“Just Peter. You know, the way they do for really famous people like Elvis or Madonna. Or you could throw in a Simon if you wanted to, Simon Peter. There’s also a nickname I was quite fond of- ‘Rock’. Did you know I was the Rock before the Rock was the Rock?”
A boat that moves without power, sins, a long white robe, Simon Peter, a fisher of men…the light bulb went off. Marty laughed.
“Hey, I went to Catholic grade school. I’ve read the Bible. I get it. You’re supposed to be St. Peter, but you’re a little early for Halloween. It’s only September. The boat’s a nice touch. You’ll have to tell me how you do that. And why practice on me?”
“That’s not funny, Marty. This is serious stuff. Do you want to catch fish or save your soul?”
“Wait a minute. Is this something like those Jehova Witness people coming to your house to preach the Bible? Man, you are really going that extra mile…the outfit, the boat, coming out on a lake in the middle of the night. I got to hand it to you, but I’m all set with the religious stuff, so you can move on to the next house…or boat. Thanks for coming.”
The old man shook his head in frustration.
“They told me you’d be one of those more difficult cases.”
Curiosity made a comeback; Marty had to ask.
“More difficult? What do you mean?”
“Well, take the really evil ones, the bad people. It’s easy to point out how they need to shape up and change their lives. Even they know they shouldn’t be doing what they’ve been doing. The ‘Tweeners’ are more challenging.”
“Yes, you line up like a lot of people, not doing bad things, but not really doing good things. You’re just sort of here. And that’s not acceptable, Marty.”
Marty was getting drawn in.
“And the challenging part?”
“It’s harder to get people to do good things than it is to get them to stop doing bad things.”
As strange as it was for an old man to show up in the middle of a lake in a boat that seemed to move on its own, Marty’s mind was now contemplating the man’s words. Good things, bad things…how did it all fit into his own life? The message sufficiently piqued his interest that he wanted to know more about the messenger.
“Alright, all very good, but you’ve got to tell me who you are and what you’re doing out here.”
“It’s true that I’m not of this world, but I’m not your typical run-of-the-mill alien; I’m not even of this Universe. I am St. Peter.”
The seriousness of the moment slipped a bit as a wry smile appeared on Marty’s face.
“Fine, I run into this all the time. What do you want for proof?”
Marty thought for a moment.
“Well, since we’re out on a lake, how about you do the walk-on-water thing?”
“That wasn’t me, you ninny. And you said you read the Bible. Oh, my goodness, you should have been paying more attention to Sister Martin’s religious instruction in 7th Grade rather than harboring those impure thoughts about Susie Parker.”
Marty’s eyes popped wide open, and he almost fell out of the boat. Sister Martin, 7th Grade, Susie Parker…impure thoughts. The old man nailed it!
“How…how do you know about any of that?”
And as an afterthought to defend himself…
“And I never had impure thoughts about Susie Parker.”
Marty struggled to figure out how the old man knew such things.
“You must know my family or someone who went to school with me.”
“Sure I know them. I know everyone and everything about them. I know everything about you, Marty. Maybe that will convince you. Try me.”
Marty accepted the challenge.
“My favorite color?”
“Pizza. Come on, Marty, you can do better than that.”
“Ok, my pet turtle’s name when I was a little boy?”
“First girl I kissed?”
The old man laughed.
“Well, we know it wasn’t Susie Parker. Angela Jones, ninth grade, in the alley behind Billy Johnson’s house.”
Marty was running out of ways to not believe. He gave it one final shot.
“Biggest walleye I ever caught?”
“Seven pounds, four ounces, and twenty-nine inches. You caught it right here on a red and white silver spoon. It rained that night.”
Marty had no words as he stared at the old man in disbelief.
“Could you maybe do a miracle or two, you know, just to make it more believable?”
“Oh ye of little faith, sorry, I don’t do tricks. I just know things, like the day you copied off Bobby Carlson’s paper on that 5th Grade math test, or how you lied to your Dad about eating all your navy beans, or the times you tried to peek down Susie Parker’s…”
“Ok, ok! That’s enough. I believe.”
“I’m sure this must come as a complete shock to you, Marty, but I am St. Peter, the first disciple, a fisher of men.”
Marty’s head had fogged up. None of this seemed possible.
“Alright, let’s say you are St. Peter. What are you doing out here, and why now?”
“Why not here? Why not now?”
“Ok, then just why?”
“Even if you mistook me for the one walking on water, I have to believe you’ve heard the words, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ Well, Marty, you’ve been called, but you’ve not been chosen.”
“What?! I’ve led a good life. I…”
“Let me stop you there. You’ve led a ‘not bad life’, Marty, not a ‘good life'. A lot of people make that mistake. A ‘not bad life’ does not equal a ‘good life’. There’s quite a gap between the two. But fortunately for you, we’re strong believers in second chances. I mean, Mary Magdeline, the Penitent Thief, Jean Valjean…”
“Jean Valjean? He wasn’t a real person.”
“We cast a wide net. But that’s beside the point. I know I’m going out on a limb here, but do you know this one? ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me. Whatever you did not do for the least of my brothers, you did not do for me.’ You scored pretty high on the scale of not doing bad things to people, Marty, but you kind of washed out when we looked for the good things you’ve done for people.”
“Wait a Catholic grade school minute. I’ve avoided sin my whole life…well, at least the big ones, the mortal sins I think you’d call them. That’s all they ever said I need to do.”
“That only gets you halfway there, Marty.”
“Well, I’ve done lots of good things, too, like I’ve worked hard and provided for my family. We have a nice house, good cars…”
“I need to stop you again, Marty. Those are things you had to do, the bare minimum. You are obligated to support your family. And the house and cars? Those are for you too, Marty. Let me help you out here.”
St. Peter again looked at his notes.
“I see here…you play softball twice a week in the summer and bowl once a week in the winter.”
“Have you ever coached one of your kids’ T-Ball, baseball, or basketball teams?”
“Bingo! Have you always had a nice Thanksgiving feast with your family?”
“Have you ever volunteered to serve Thanksgiving meals at a homeless shelter?”
“I kind of see where you’re going with this, but could you maybe please stop saying bingo?”
“Certainly. Do you keep your sidewalks clear of ice and snow in the winter?”
“Have you ever shoveled the snow in front of the widow Jenkins’ house?”
Marty lowered his head.
“I guess I’d rather go with ‘bingo’ if that’s alright.”
And so it went. St. Peter went through a long list of volunteer activities that would qualify as doing something for the least among us: checking in on sick or elderly neighbors, foster parenting, tutoring a child, adopting a child, Big Brothers, fundraising for charities, pen pal for a prison inmate, Scout Troop leader, pro bono professional services, volunteering at animal shelters, Feed America, blood donor, help out at kids’ sports events, Habitat for Humanity, neighborhood litter cleanup, visiting lonely souls in nursing homes, mow your neighbor’s lawn, and so on. Anyone within earshot might have thought a rapid-fire Church Bingo tournament was going on out on the lake, with a sheepish ‘no’ from Marty followed by a near celebratory response from St. Peter: “no- Bingo!; no- Bingo!; no- Bingo!” When St. Peter set down his list, the score was a disturbing 99 Bingos, 1 Gottcha’, and zero “Attaboys”.
A dejected Marty spoke in a barely audible tone.
“I guess I could have done more.”
“More?! You haven’t done diddly-squat! With your big score on the ‘Don’t-Bee’ table, even the bare minimum on the ‘Do-Bee’ scale would have put you over the top. What have you been doing with your life?!”
“I’m sorry. I wish you…or someone…would have showed up and told me all this a long time ago.”
“Marty, we’ve been here all along. We’ve been talking to you every day. You just weren’t listening. Take heed of the message, Marty. You have time.”
St. Peter’s boat slowly started to turn.
“I have to go. I’m really booked up. We all are. You earth people are keeping us busy.”
“I’m curious. If you’re not of this world, not even of this Universe, where do you go?”
“It would be hard to explain. It’s a place that you could not imagine, but you’d like it there. That’s the best I can do.”
“Will I see you again?”
“See me? No, but I will be able to hear you. And you’ll hear me, Marty, if you’re listening. I’ll be rooting for you.”
St. Peter looked at Marty with a sympathetic eye.
“This is critical stuff, Marty. Do you understand what I’ve been telling you?”
“It’s a big part of why you were put here, Marty, to help others. I'm sure you remember hearing these things as a child- 'Love thy Neighbor' and 'It is better to give than to receive'. Those words still apply, Marty. They will always apply."
Marty looked at St. Peter, then at the awesome, humbling canopy of stars above, and a hint of a tear formed in the corner of his eye as he measured his place in this world and thought of all the things he had not done in his life.
“I think your heart’s in the right place, Marty. I’m confident you’ll turn it around. Just be more aware of where you may be needed, what you can do for others, how you can fulfill your purpose.”
Marty saw a bright white light in the distance, slowly moving across the lake’s surface.
“Look, Peter, there’s another light out here.”
“That’s my brother Andrew. Like I said, you folks are keeping us busy. Everyone gets a second chance at receiving the message. Do you know anyone who needs a visit?”