Navigable waters: In his newest book, Michael J. Tougias writes of his introduction to nature and his relationship with his father 

  • Michael Tougias, age 11 or 12, looks on as his father, Arthur, holds a bass the son caught in a Vermont lake. COURTESY MICHAEL TOUGIAS

  • The author with a fresh-caught trout near the beginning of the Connecticut River in northern New Hampshire. Fishing and the lure of nature are important themes in “The Waters Between Us.”  OURTESY MICHAEL TOUGIAS

  • The newest book by Longmeadow native Michael Tougias, who has written extensively about the outdoors and maritime disasters and rescues, is about growing up in the Valley and his relationship with his late father. Image courtesy Michael Tougias

  • Michael Tougias developed a closer relationship with his late father, Arthur, when he came to appreciate how hard his father worked and the way he supported the family. COURTESY MICHAEL TOUGIAS

  • Michael Tougias, right, age 12, with his brother Mark, 10, circa 1967 with a few fish they caught. Image courtesy Michael Tougias

  • Michael Tougias with his daughter, Kristin, at the Vermont cabin he bought and fixed up in the 1970s with the help of a loan from his father. COURTESY MICHAEL TOUGIAS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2021 2:59:05 PM

When he was growing up in Longmeadow in the 1960s and early 1970s, Michael J. Tougias seemed bent on driving his parents a bit crazy. It wasn’t deliberate, he says. But as a headstrong, fidgety kid, he had a knack for finding trouble.

He infuriated his older sister by eavesdropping on her phone conversations. A neighborhood kid who went into the woods with Tougias, who local parents considered kind of wild, was stung repeatedly by hornets, enraging the boy’s mother. Young Michael escaped out his bedroom window after his parents grounded him. By the time he was 13, he was experimenting with cigarettes, pot and beer, and was often in trouble at school.

“I was spinning out of control,” he recalls.

Years later, Tougias has made a name for himself with books on the outdoors and maritime disasters such as “The Finest Hours,” the story of a U.S. Coast Guard rescue of stranded sailors during a ferocious 1952 storm off Cape Cod (it was made into a 2016 Hollywood film). He’s also written hiking and fishing guides, histories, and books for younger readers.

But in “The Waters Between Us: A Boy, His Father, Outdoor Misadventures and the Healing Power of Nature,” Tougias tells a different kind of tale, one that looks back on his sometimes troubled youth and the struggle he and his late father, Arthur, had to understand one another.

It’s a story with plenty of comical moments as Tougias, 65, recalls some of his more harebrained moments, like trying to get a close-up photograph of a moose during a trip to Maine. He threw a rock toward the huge animal, trying to get it to turn to face him, but hit it by mistake, after which the angry moose chased Tougias and a friend through the woods.

But “The Waters Between Us” also recounts a tragedy that brought a reckoning for Tougias and his family — and his father’s response to that incident gave his son a better appreciation for his dad’s values and ultimately brought the two closer together.

In a recent phone call from his home in Mendon, southeast of Worcester, Tougias said the idea for his memoir “had been kicking around for a long time. I had imagined it bit like Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods,’ kind of a comical account of my early experiences in nature, but eventually the book morphed into what it is today.”

In particular, Tougias began rethinking his ideas for the book after his father died in 2015 at age 88.

“My dad had always said, ‘I don’t want you writing about me,’ but after he passed, I started thinking, ‘How can I write about myself if I don’t include my dad in it, and what our relationship was like?’ He was a big part of my life, so to leave him out would be untrue,” he says.

“Maybe if we meet in the afterlife he’ll be yelling at me again,” Tougias said with a laugh. “That’s OK.”

Arthur Tougias was the son of a Greek immigrant who started a bakery in Springfield in the first part of the 2oth century, and like his grandfather, Arthur put in long hours at that family business, sometimes working six days a week, rising at 4 a.m. each morning for the drive to the bakery.

As a kid, the younger Tougias, the second of four children, could not understand why his father wasn’t around much, and at times he resented his father for not showing up for his wrestling matches or soccer games after school, or not spending more time with him in the woods, whether fishing or hiking.

“Other kids’ dads might teach them how to deer hunt or instruct them on how to angle for trout or maybe even fly-fish, and I was jealous,” he writes. “Dad’s skills — commitment, loyalty, and sheer physical endurance — were not readily apparent to me.”

His father would shout at him after Tougias’ mother related a story of their son’s latest missteps, somewhat along the lines of, “Your sister and your brothers don’t cause us trouble, why do you?”

On some basic level, Tougias writes, he understood his father loved him. But their fights at home also left him with “the distinctive feeling that my father didn’t like me. And at age twelve, that can be devastating when you don’t know how to bridge the divide.”

Building a bond

It wasn’t all Sturm und Drang. A good part of “The Waters Between Us” covers Tougias’ growing love for the outdoors, from reading about the Lewis and Clark expedition and other wilderness explorations to fishing in and around the Connecticut River.

The story evokes a less built-up Longmeadow in which Tougias and his friends could roam through local woods and meadows to see wildlife, as well as a time when kids spent much more time outdoors and on their own, rather than in front of screens or in structured activities. As well, he went fishing with his father on family vacations to Vermont.

Tougias also got to know his father better when he spent time as a teenager working in the family bakery, in particular when he left Boston University during his freshman year and for a time worked all-day shifts in the bakery.

“That’s when I really came to understand how hard my dad worked, how much he provided for our family,” he said. “He was like a frigging machine, doing physical labor all day long, year after year, and never complaining.”

In addition, Tougias sets his story in context, noting that the Vietnam War and the antiwar and civil rights protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s probably contributed in some way to his restlessness.

Looking back, he says he might well have had attention deficit disorder as a kid, though he never received any formal diagnosis. His problems with impetuous decisions would continue into early adulthood, such as the early spring day he and a college friend rode a cheap rubber raft down a Vermont river roaring with snowmelt. Not surprisingly, they capsized and then struggled desperately to get out of the freezing, churning water.

The two of them stripped off their sodden clothes after returning to Tougias’ car and tried to thaw out in front of the car heater. “That was pretty much a near-death experience,” he said with a rueful laugh.

It was the family tragedy, when he was about 21, that cemented Tougias’ respect for his father. Though his parents’ lives were turned upside down, “My dad never got bitter, he never lost faith,” he said. “And neither did my mom.”

His father would also help Tougias, when he was in his mid-20s, realize a dream he’d had since he was a kid: to own a small cabin in the woods. A loan from Dad helped him buy a small cabin and land in northern Vermont that he still returns to regularly, sometimes with his own children.

As his father would say to him for years afterward, “Isn’t it good to know the cabin and land are there? Even if you can’t be there, just thinking about it is pleasure enough.”

For more information on Michael Tougias’ books, including Zoom events for “The Water Between Us,” visit michaeltougias.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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