Clouds hung ominously low, like an eerie yellow gauze, as the jet that would fly me out of Birmingham rumbled down the runway.
It wasn't a coincidence my mood mirrored the weather.
An emergency message delivered to my hotel room that morning indicated my father, battling a rare and lethal form of vasculitis from his hospital bed in Evansville, had taken a decided to turn for the worse.
Lightning broke in jagged streaks and thunder rolled through the leaden skies as the jet soared into the storm. Rain rushed across the wing in solid sheets and the infrequent flyer seated across the aisle from me looked to the stewardess for reassurance.
I shifted my glance from the stormy skies, shut my eyes, and tried to envision my father seated atop a bucket on a snowy white beach in Panama City.
Flags of silver peeping out from beneath his Otter Creek golf cap, he cradles his fishing rod across his tanned, taut legs as he carefully threads a shrimp onto the hook.
For one month out of every year, Bill Bridge was the friendly fisherman, a fixture on the beach behind Largo Mar condominiums.
Each morning, just before sunrise, he would shuffle to the shoreline, park his butt on the bucket, dig his toes into the surf, and drink in the natural splendor of the Gulf of Mexico.
Friends, new and old, approached to inquire about his luck.
"Haven't caught a thing," he would respond, "but the fishing's great."
His eyes virtually twinkled with delight as he spun a yarn about the one that got away, or the one that didn't — a nine-pound redfish he wrestled skillfully and tirelessly before pulling it ashore amid the roar of the appreciative audience that had gathered to witness the spectacle.
I often wondered what he was thinking as he sat there on the deck just before dusk, gazing at the western horizon awash with a spectacular spectrum of colors.
Perhaps he was savoring the highlights of his 73 years.
This kind, gentle man had much to relish. A barnstorming pilot in his younger years, he played a few seasons of football at Notre Dame before settling down to marry the girl of his dreams.
They had two children, the eldest of which rewarded him with three precious gifts — Kari, Angie and Laura Beth.
His youngest child, a belligerent bachelor with a basset hound for a soulmate, constantly challenged his patience and tolerance.
But he refused to give up on him. In fact, he was his staunchest advocate. His love and support never wavered.
The musing was interrupted by the sound of the pilot's voice, informing the passengers it was now safe to unbuckle their seat belts and move about the cabin.
My eyes beheld a breathtaking panorama as I peered out the window. The sky was an intense, incredible blue, untainted by the turbulent thunderclouds that loomed below.
The pilot had steered us to a place of safety and serenity well beyond the reach of the raging storm.
Dad would love this.
Exactly one month later, on the 70th birthday of his beloved wife of 47 years, Bill Bridge piloted his spirit upward, away from the tubes, masks and electronic equipment that had clamped him to a bed for nearly three months.
The dedicated doctors and angelic nurses who had grown so attached to the gentle giant stood by reluctantly as he made his way to the great beyond.
He had battled and battled, but the storm coursing within his body was too severe.
I held his hand and gazed into those warm, caring eyes as he breathed his final breath.
Bill Bridge, the friendly fisherman, the chief pie-baker for the annual Bob Bridge Golf Invitational, was gone.
Someone told me when I was younger that paradise is what you perceive it to be. Afforded that luxury, I would envision my dad, the epitome of peacefulness, seated on a bucket, rod and reel in hand, casting his line into a soft-rolling sea.
Somehow, heaven seems the only appropriate place for such a friendly fisherman.
Contact Columnist Bob Bridge at 812-276-9646 or email@example.com.