I had a hero when I was six.
He wasn’t a hockey player, a rock star, a comic book hero or even a movie star. He was a mechanic, a tall, slender, chain-smoking grease monkey who smelled of oil, tobacco and Old Spice aftershave.
His name was Joe Tacknyk and he was a Ukrainian Canadian.
He was a quiet, thoughtful, reflective man who cackled when he laughed, spoke of Jimmy Rogers, the Old Chisholm Trail and life during wartime, and he was my foster father.
I came to live with him and his family when I was five. He saw the fear and the confusion in me from that first moment and did what he could to make that disappear.
He’d come for me early spring and summer mornings. He’d scratch at the soles of my feet with a wooden spoon and hush me to silence with a finger to the lips.
Then, while everyone else slept, he made an elaborate game out of sneaking me out of the house with our fishing gear and into the old green pickup truck in the driveway.
We’d drive out of Kenora, Ontario, on the gravel road that ran north out of town and he’d slip me a cup of coffee and warm pirogies wrapped in a napkin.
We’d watch the land roll by and the silence we sat in was as profound as any I’ve ever experienced. There was nothing to say. Mystery.
We sat in the hold of the mystery of the land and there were no words to describe that feeling.
When we got to the marina, my job was to load the gear while Joe hooked up the gas tank. Then, we’d pull away from the dock and he’d look at me.
I’d scan the water of the river, pick a direction and point and he’d head us that way. He’d find a cove or a bay or a rock point somewhere and we’d start to cast.
Wordlessly. Always. The only language we needed was the quiet way of fishermen, the nod, the gesture when we needed tackle, each of us content to look at the land and the water and the deep endless bowl of the sky.
I landed a huge jackfish when I was six. When it hit my bait, the rod literally bowed under the keel of the boat and I could feel the whale-like pressure of the fish at the other end.
Joe sat and watched me. The only words he offered were cautionary ones, cryptic tips on how to play it. After 20 minutes or so, he netted the exhausted fish and hoisted it into the boat.
It was enormous. My hands were sore from clenching the rod but I held that fish up by the gill case and felt proud and noble and strong.
Joe smiled at me, ruffled my hair some and went back to casting, but I knew he was proud of me. That made the effort worth it.
We let that fish go. I sat in the boat and watched it heave for breath and something in me understood that it was the battle that would be memorable and that the fish deserved to live to fight another day.
Something in me understood that I’d been graced with some of the spirit of that magnificent creature and that it could be free again.
I asked Joe and he looked at me quizzically for a moment, then nodded and helped me ease the fish over the side of the boat.
We never spoke of it after. Never shared that moment with the rest of my foster family. But there was an unspoken bond between us and I knew that I had earned his respect.
I could see it in the way he looked at me when we were on the water, like an equal, like a partner, like a man. I’ve never forgotten that.
Joe understood that I was Ojibway. He understood that I needed a connection to the land to feel safe, real, right. He also understood that there were things in me I could not express and he gave me the language of fishermen so I could start to find the words.
Of all the men who came into my life when I was growing up, Joe Tacknyk was the one who fostered ‘father’ in me — he gave that word meaning.
I wish every kid who undergoes interracial adoption had a foster dad like Joe Tacknyk. See, Joe understood that we all have one basic human right coming in — the right to know who we are created to be.
He took the responsibility to show me that in the only way he could.
For me, at six, fishing was as close as I could get to my roots. Joe made sure I got it. He got me to the land because he knew that there was where my spirit could renew and reclaim itself. He knew that who I was, who I was born to be, was directly connected to the land and its mystery.
He got me there. Always.
Every displaced kid needs a connection to their history and the people they sprang from — it’s their most fundamental right.
Interracial adoption isn’t a bad thing — there just needs to be an open doorway to culture and history and language, a doorway to who our children were created to be.
Joe is gone now. Cancer claimed him a year after I was adopted. I was 10.
When I heard, I took a long walk on the land and breathed it deep into me and the tears that landed on the grass that day were tears of gratitude. Joe Tacknyk was my hero and I would never forget him.
These days I don’t fish as much as I once did, don’t get out on the water as often as I might like, don’t surround myself with the mystery of the land nearly as much as I should but there’s never a moment when I don’t feel Ojibway and I can thank Joe Tacknyk for that.
Richard Wagamese is the author of Dream Wheels and Keeper’n Me.