A well-worn bamboo rod tells the story that one son has waited a lifetime to hear
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THE RINGING PHONE STARTLED ME OUT OF MY OFF-SEASON, MID-AFTERNOON NAP. This has been occurring more and more lately and I’m not sure whether I should be grateful or irritated.
The reason for the call, I am sure, is someone looking to book a fly-fishing trip with me. I have developed a sixth sense about what somebody wants by the way the phone rings. See, I’ve been guiding for a long time; I am really old (My grandchildren want to know if Santa Claus was alive when I was a boy.) and I am beginning to think I should retire. Then I could have uninterrupted mid-afternoon naps. However, my wife (she is afraid that I’ll stay home and try to be her little helper) thinks it’s too soon.
With these thoughts in mind, I answered the phone. Sure enough, I guessed right. It was a young man wanting me to take him fishing. I say young man — hell, they’re all young these days compared to me. I checked my calendar and we booked the trip. I got all the pertinent information I needed in order to give him a good trip and hung up the phone.
Afterward, I thought the young man had an empty, maybe a lonely sound to his voice. I filed it away in my easily overcrowded mind and settled back in for my nap. (I have a policy never to let a good nap go unfinished.)
On the day of the trip I show up at the hotel my usual 15 minutes early. I truly hate for a client to have to wait on me. I always figure it’s better to sneak a cup of the hotel’s $5-a-cup coffee and wait on my client instead. No sooner had I stepped into the lobby than I spotted a man I knew had to be my client. (No coffee for me.) He was well-dressed in fishing garb, neatly groomed and at his feet was an equipment bag and two rod cases.
I walked over to him, stuck my hand out and said, “I’m Don. Are you Steve?”
He looked at me, shook my hand briskly and said, “Yes, I am.”
A sad look in his eyes brought our phone conversation to mind, and reminded me of that emptiness I’d heard in his voice. I reached down, picked up his gear and headed for the truck. I looked over his equipment (Gear says a lot about a man.). The bag was a worn but expensive leather one. The first rod was from a well-known rod maker. The other rod was in an old canvas case, reminiscent of cases that were used to hold bamboo rods many years ago. My curiosity was raised, but I’ve been at this long enough to know not to ask any questions, yet.
Heading toward the truck I looked at Steve in his well-worn and sweat-stained gray hat, carrying a travel coffee mug that looked as if it had thousands of cups of joe go through it over the years; I noticed a vest pocket full of good and expensive cigars. It could be a great day, I thought. I was betting that, not only did he know how to handle a fly rod, but perhaps he had brought enough cigars to share with his guide.
As we buckled into our seats, I confirmed the plan. Steve wanted to fish small streams, using nothing but dry flies and see few, if any, other people. He looked at me and nodded yes; again, I noticed a sadness in his eyes that touched my soul. I wondered what it was that had hold of the guy, but I just let it lay.
Driving to the river I began the conversation with the usual questions: How long you been fly fishing? Where you from? Any family? Do they like to fly fish?
I soon learned that Steve was a man of short answers and fewer words. He replied to my questions: Long time. Texas. Yes.
Undeterred, I went to my second set of standard questions: What do you want to do today? What would make this a great day? How did you happen to call me?
Not to be outdone, Steve replied: Catch fish. No people. You were referred to me.
I was on a roll. We had gone less than a mile, been through one traffic light and I was just about out of questions. But I had one more trick up my sleeve. I’d noticed a tattoo on his arm. It was the Marine’s code of honor: Semper Fi. So I asked him: Are you still in the Marines? What did you do for them? Where?
Steve showed me he was in control of our riveting conversation by answering: No. Whatever they told me to do. Wherever they sent me.
After that, Steve got very quiet and seemed reflective. I took the hint and stopped talking. We rode in silence the rest of the way; he seemed to appreciate the silence. Of course, I was wondering if I had made Steve mad enough that he would not want to share his cigars with me. (Maybe it is time for me to retire, my priorities seem out of whack.)
Soon we were at the river; we were booted and suited in record time. Steve had obviously done this before and didn’t want to waste time. He grabbed his Winston rod and said, “Let’s go.”
I asked about the other rod. He just shook his head and said, “We’ll use it later.” He got that sad, faraway look in his eyes again. What could be chewing on him, I wondered.
We hiked downstream under a cloudless sky, with no other people in sight. I found a good spot to get into the river and he began to fish. I thought I was doing a pretty good job for Steve.
This guy’s casting was good, no, it was great. Not only could he cast, he knew how to fly fish. It soon became apparent that my job was to net fish, change flies, point out rises and stay quiet. I figured Steve didn’t want me asking any more questions. And, under no circumstances was I going to start telling stupid guide jokes or stories. I was keeping quiet. (This was hard, because I have been guiding a long time, as I told you, and I have a lot of stories.) But as a professional fly-fishing guide I know pleasing the client is the job (and I still wanted one of his good cigars).
As the day progressed Steve seemed to relax, just a bit. He never broke out laughing, but every now and then the sides of his mouth curled into a small smile. (That’s because I managed to tell a couple of my stupid guide jokes.) However, just like a teenage girl stuck with her parents and actually having a good time, when Steve saw me notice his smile, it went away. He seemed to have something serious on his mind, but didn’t know how to get it out.
Steve fished us back to the truck and asked me if I minded if he changed rods for the rest of the day. I assured him it was his day and he could do what he wanted as long as it was legal and he had fun doing it.
“That’ll be a nice change,” he said, with the sad look in his eyes returning.
I filed that comment away, thinking it might be important later.
I watched Steve reach into the back of the truck and pull out his other rod. He removed it from the case and what I saw was the most beautiful bamboo rod I had ever laid my eyes on. It was old. It had the weathered look of a well-used and cared for Winchester model 12. Steve handed it to me to hold while he got another water bottle. I cradled it as if it were a piece of Waterford crystal. It was that special.
Steve took the rod back and we headed out for more fishing. My curiosity was at an all-time high. Where had Steve gotten that rod and how long had he had it? I stood at the side of the river and watched him fish all afternoon with the vigor of a maestro conducting an orchestra.
Around 2 o’clock Steve strung his fly up, looked at me and said, “I have some questions for you.” I was thinking fly-fishing questions; was I ever wrong.
Steve pulled out two cigars (finally). He handed one to me and lit them both. Not only was the guy a great fly fisherman, he was also a gentleman. He sat down and told me to join him. I did. He told me that I needed to know some background information about him before he could ask me what he wanted to know. I drew slowly on my cigar (a really good one) and went into my listening mode.
He began by telling me his father had gone off to war in 1967, a very unpopular war, before he was born, and had never come home. His helicopter had been blown to pieces on his second day of active duty in that far-off place. There was nothing left of his father to send home. Steve’s dad had been an only child and his parents had died when he was in college. He had no living relatives. Steve’s mom and dad had been married barely long enough to conceive him before he went off to war. The only living person who knew his dad and could tell him about this brave man went to her own war shortly after his father had been killed. She fought a losing battle with drugs and alcohol and joined her husband when Steve was only 10. The only thing Steve inherited from his parents was his father’s bamboo rod. After that, while he was bounced from foster home to foster home, one of his foster dads taught him how to fly fish. This became his salvation. As Steve spoke of his foster father he told me how this gentleman, in an effort to get into Steve’s heart, had given him the Winston rod from his birth father. At that time the bamboo rod went into its case, to stay until this day.
At this point, I asked Steve what he had been doing for the last 20 years. He said he had followed in his father’s path and been a Marine. He alluded to being a Marine recon. Steve said he had searched all over for anyone who had served with his father, someone who could tell him anything — anything — about a man he had never known. The search had been fruitless. Since Steve’s father had died only two days into a year-long deployment no one remembered him. His father’s military records told him nothing. I nodded, acknowledging his predicament.
Now came the question. Steve handed me the bamboo rod and said, “Tell me about my father.”
I looked at Steve and said, “Unless I’m mistaken, I never knew your father. If someone told you otherwise, they have played a cruel joke on you.”
He smiled his sad smile. He told me he had done lots of research to find just the right guide. Steve said, “Time after time your name came up as a guide with great insight.” He said he had been told I could make a fly rod — any fly rod — perform like a ballerina. (Those are his words, not mine, I’ve never been to a ballet.) Steve went on to say that people told him I was a guide who treated clients with dignity and respect, and their equipment like objects of art. He continued, “I watched you when I handed you the bamboo rod. Your eyes came alive, your heart skipped a beat, and yet your hands held the rod as if it were a newborn child. You recognized the rod for what it was, and is. You knew, in your heart, what type of man would own and use that rod. Please tell me about the man that owned it and took care of that rod. Please.”
Now, I’ve been around a long time. I’ve guided rich and famous, those wanting to be rich and famous, and those just wanting to fly fish. Just when I thought I’d seen and heard it all, this came my way. I sighed. I should have retired last year, I thought.
Pondering, I asked for another cigar. I was stalling; I took a long time to light it. While I searched for what to say, Steve remained still, like the sniper he probably had been. He patiently waited for me to speak.
Finally, I took the rod, closed my eyes, and ran my old hands over this beautiful piece of art. I put my fingers on the cork grip that had been indented from years of use by his father. I looked at the nicks in the bamboo and the thread that had lost much of its shine and luster. I drew on the cigar, looked at Steve, and began.
“Steve,” I said, “I believe your father was of small stature; see how my fat fingers don’t come close to fitting into the worn grip? He was a man that fly fished often; nicks and thread wrappings without luster don’t occur when someone leaves a rod in the closet. I believe your father was a man who took care of his equipment and thus other things in his life. See how all the nicks from use in the brush are rubbed smooth? And if he took care of his equipment he would have taken care of you and your mom. He probably was a man that paid attention to detail. See how the guides run straight, and did you notice how smoothly and snugly the old metal ferules went together? I’m sorry to say many of the new bamboo rods aren’t built with this type of pride and craftsmanship. I would also bet your father was a man of great happiness with a sense duty. You can’t fly fish that much and not be happy. As for a sense of duty, the Marines, unlike the Army at that time, didn’t draft; your dad volunteered. Steve, that’s all I can surmise. Does it help?”
As the single tear rolled down his cheek it gathered and took the sadness from his eyes with it. He looked at me and said, “Thanks. No one has ever done this for me. People weren’t off the mark about you.”
I asked Steve what he was going to do now. He smiled, a really great smile, and said he was going home to tell his son about his grandfather.
I guess I’ll guide for another year or so.
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