By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
When I was a little boy my Dad bought our family a canoe. I had seen and had been in one of these simple little boats before—my Grandfather had taken me out on short fishing trips many times before. But, now, we had one too.
Canoes are nifty little boats. While highly maneuverable, and easy to carry from car to river or over obstructions in the stream, they are not very stable in the water and have a nasty habit of capsizing if great care is not taken when standing up. They were, however, my granddad’s “boat of choice” when he went fishing. And, hence, it was also my Dad’s favorite means of scouting out the best “fishing holes” and negotiating the currents on an overnight float trip.
Back when my father was a young man he and his brother, father, and mother would go on long float trips down the Mountain Fork River in eastern Oklahoma. They would have someone set them out on the river 8 to 12 miles up stream from their camp-sight and then would float down the river, fishing all the way. They were all proficient with the Fly Rod, so their journey was steady, taking turns fishing and paddling. They would spend hours, working their way down the banks of the river, fishing in the most likely-looking nooks and crannies for blue-gill, goggle eye, bass, you name it. Sometimes the water was deep and ran smooth. Sometimes its was shallow, swift, and choppy. Sometimes the flow reduced to a trickle, and they would have to get out and carry their canoes through the “narrows” to where the water was deep and wide enough to support them. These trips were adventures, and when my brother and I grew old enough my Dad invited us to share in the experience.
The stories my Dad and grandaddy used to tell about these trips are always amusing, sometimes rather “tall,” but on the whole I believe them--mostly. Especially the story of the “Five Mile.”
One day my grandfather and Dad were fishing their way down the Mountain Fork River, taking their time about it as it was a beautiful summer day and the fish were biting. As one might expect, the hours were getting away from them as they made their way down the river, and soon the daylight began to wane as the hour grew late. Curious, and somewhat concerned as to how far they had to go before reaching their pick-up point, they pulled over to the bank where they had spotted a lone old man, “lolly-gaggin'” by the riverside.
“Howdy, sir. How far is it to the low water bridge?” my grandady asked.
“What bridge?” asked the man.
“You know, the bridge that crosses the river at the Farm road”
“Oh, that bridge . . . you can’t get there for here.”
Frustrated, my grandfather scratched his head and said, “Sir, it’s the low-water bridge.”
“Oh!! THAT BRIDGE! It’s about five mile down the river.” (note,that’s five mile, not miles ... no “s”)
Stunned, and quite worried about being late, my father and grandfather would set back out, putting their fishing tackle in the boat as they both paddled their way down the river. Arms straining to make up for lost time, they would build up quite a head of steam as they headed on down the river. With only an hour or so left of daylight, they didn’t want to get stuck out on the water at night!
Huffing and puffing, they paddled their way toward the next bend in the river, less then 500 yards away; and, as they came around the bend . . . there stood the “low-water bridge.”
Turning to look back behind them, I’m certain my dad could see the old man waving.
“Five Mile” became the name of the Neal-family canoe. Granddad stenciled it on the front side of the boat, with an arrow underneath to point the way. And, I remember when my father stenciled the name on the side of our new canoe; I asked him what it meant, and he told me the story.
He then added, “The next time we made that same trip, and we pulled up to the bank to ask another old gentleman that same question, he opened his mouth to say `about five mile ....’ then caught sight of the words on the side of our boat, smiled, and said ` just around the bend.’”
We don’t know what the bends in the river of this life have in store for us. We all have a sturdy canoe (the church), and a lot of fishing (evangelism) to do. And, even though the day appears to be getting short, and the distance appears far, don’t let some by-stander tell you you’ve still got “five mile” to go. God’s bridge will show up soon enough.
© 1998 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.