It’s in a long, leather-trimmed, canvas case, worn, musty and historic, an article that speaks of honest experience. Too delicate to be referred to as gear and too refined to be called tackle, this is my father’s ancient L.L. Bean bamboo flyrod, which he lovingly called ‘the pole.’
Zipped inside the case, along with the pole, is the faint smell of woodsmoke, the distant song of mountain water, and the hush of deep woods. He’s in there, too. Younger, strong, whiskey-breathed – wild, and momentarily free from family and struggle to earn wages. He’s walking in the storied forests and wading little-known rivers, living his dreams of unfettered manhood with his flyrod, made his by seasons of use and already crusty with wear.
I’ll unzip the case now and take it out. There, as you hold the old, yellowed bamboo sections, you can almost feel the unlimbered power within them. And the frayed, silk wrapping discolored by age? . . . so crazy about casting to trout he’d have fished that rod until it fell apart in his hands if the setting sun didn’t finally send him home. And look at the worn, nickel-plated, brass ferrules used to connect the sections – my father would rub the male end next to his nostril to lightly grease it before fitting it into the female joint of the next section. Piecing the pole together was part of a ritual he enjoyed almost reverently. And one which I adopted and still honor.
I remember watching him seat his simple reel and stringing the line with great care, slowly, deliberately, pulling the smooth, tan-colored line through the curly, silver guides like a musician tuning a fine instrument. Fitting together all of the pieces – rod, reel, line – those inanimate objects became a delicate orchestration of power and finesse which spanned rivers of imagination and found longed-for places of the heart.
When I take hold of the cork grip, it feels like the inside of his palm, like his salesman’s handshake, firm and sure. Notice how dark it is? That’s the grime of ten thousand casts while water rushed under him. In those long-ago days, the wrist of his flyrod would be speckled with the silver scales of trout he had caught, thumped on the head there before he wrapped them in fern fronds and stuffed them into his wicker creel. Year after year after year.
And, finally, there’s the metal butt at the base of the rod, dinged and scarred by the rocks he crawled over to descend into nameless canyons. Part hammer, part bottle opener, that solid end grounded both the pole and him.
He loved the ceremony of it all, the preparation, the anticipation, the casting over new water and even the bone-weary fatigue he felt as he drove home. His time on the river was a complete wheel. And the pole was at the center, an exclamation point standing in the hub of the circle. To the small boy that was me then, my father’s bamboo flyrod was the scepter of legend, an emblem of fabled journeys, a symbol and a pathway to a remote world called manhood. The pole was mythical, exalted and forbidden. It was holy and his alone.
I can’t fish with his pole. It feels foreign in my hand. There’s a distance between that rod and me. We’re not connected any more than the old man and I finally were, except through certain experiences, some fondly joyous, and others so angry and painful that the very air we stood in was too thick to reach across.
Long ago the main section of the flyrod he loved so much was broken and crudely repaired. I never did know how that happened. But I finally understood what it meant, like the final, too few years that we shared together, substance counted more than form. At the center of it all, that was the way he lived and the way he fished. Unable to say it in words, he unconsciously chose symbols to express himself. Our trips to the river were lessons more than recreation.
These days, years after his passing, when I’m standing in a trout stream and there’s sixty feet of fly line singing overhead in long, graceful curls, I can be in touch with that younger man he was, younger than I am now. In that sense, and in those moments, we become more like brothers, distracted from the tangled algebra of our relationship by a mutual love of bright water, and the unspoken belief that we controlled our destinies without regard to what came before or what came after.
It is this web of memories that has joined our separate, shared visions of youth and hope and self, like the seasoned and tested sections of ‘the pole.’
As I have gotten older and closer in age to my father as I knew him, recollections of my own experiences have started to merge with my memories and stories of him – a blood knot of two lives tied into each other, a blending of things I love that he showed me, a wheel within a wheel, two braided currents flowing in the same river.
Very nice piece