Bamboo Bonzai

Blue Collar Cane

Excerpt from: Crosscurrents by James R. Babb
Published by The Lyons Press
123 West 18 Street, New York, NY 10011
Phone: (212)-620-9580 Fax: (2120 929-1836

True nostalgia is an ephemeral composition of
disjointed memories . . .but American-style
nostalgia is about as ephemeral as copyrighted
deja vu.
- Florence King, Relections in a Jaundiced Eye

As we never-gonna-grow-up baby boomers lose our race with biological inevitability, we submerge ourselves in the trappings of our youth, as though to preserve it like a fly in amber. That's why nostalgia is the hot marketing phenom de jour. Just watch TV: We're still Bewitched, Dreaming of Jeannie, Leaving It to Beaver. Songs to which we once danced naked in the mud now sell us life insurance. Soon we'll see Mick Jagger pimping for denture adhesives, a laxative commerical backed by "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," an adult diaper ad alluding to the Dark Side of the Moon.

Smart Shoppes fill theirs shelves with so-called antiques marketed to forty-somethings who bought them years ago with pocket-change allowances, or unwrapped them beneath Eisenhower-era Christmas trees and set them out for curbside pickup at the onset of their Clearasil years. Even McCarthyism is back in style.

And then there are automobiles, America's cultural icon. Across the country, wherever cool sea breezes blow or leaves lose their chlorophyll, scenic highways fill with congo lines of old MG's, VW Beetles, and chopped-and-channeled cruisemobiles, and behind their obsolete wheels sit middle-age Americans, within whose slumping bodies throb the hearts and minds of horny little teenagers.

When I was of the age, the object of desire was the 1953 Chevrolet, with its snarling, high-revving V8 and sharply modern looks then so startling after years of plodding dreary dough-dishes. Perhaps more than any other token of the era, a good '55 conjures memories of more innocent times; frenetic pep rallies, fumbling first dates, drive-in restaurants, drive-in movies, clandestine drag races, poodle-skirt spelunking in off-road passion pits.

Which is why nominally sane middle-aged men think nothing of spending upward of fifteen thousand dollars for a thirty-five-year-old car that handles like a tank and has only an AM radio. Denial is not just a river in Egypt, and if we can deny the passage of time with inanimate objects - or at least convince ourselve that we can - well, what the hell?

So it's no wonder that an aging fly-fishing obsessive who learned to cast with a nine-foot Montague while wearing a coon-skin hat and singing Born on a Mountaintop in Tennessee finds himself entering soft middle age with dreams of cane fly rods flexing through his head. I don't mean those frighteningly expensive works of art from Messrs. Gillum and Garrison, but the comparatively affordable blue-collar cane from Horrocks-Ibbotson. Montague. South Bend. Phillipson. Heddon. Granger. When I pick up one of those workingman's rods I am transported instantly back to halcyon days on the stream and long evenings around the campfire, listening to the grown-ups talk about fish and rods and life.

There's more than just nostalgia at work here. I own a number of top-end graphite rods and fish them whenever they're the most appropriate choice: tossing big streamers on long lines in icy spring gales; plopping big dry flies into heavy pocket water; drifting daisy chains of weighted nymphs and a fat indicator through deep secret runs; doing anything that involves salt water or travel in an airplane. But fishing graphite makes me hyperactive, as though I had just chased down a Halloween bag of Miniature Mounds with a quart of espresso. I come home from a day on the stream wired, crazed, out of breath. With my old cane rods I fish differently: slower, languid, almost dreamlike. I come home relaxed and at peace.

Not to put too anthropomorphic a twist on this, but a cane rod feels alive, like the stalk of the giant grass from which it is split. And cane rods glow with a quiet inner warmth that comes only from organic materials shaped by the hands of artisans. Compared with my favorite old Heddon, a cheap rod in its day and not terrifically expensive now, most of my five-hundred-dollar graphite rods - hyperefficient marvels of space-age engineering though they may be - are as sterile and uninviting as a speculum.

You can thank (depending on whether you're aflame with the religious fervor of a recent cane convert) or blame (depending on whether you're scanning the used-rods list for the good eight-footer for less than five hundred bucks) another famous baby boomer for the modern renaissance in cane fly rods. In his many books, John Gierach writes often and convincingly of the tangible and intangible advantages of fishing cane, and in fact even devoted an entire book - Fishing Bamboo - to the subject.

I have John's books to thank and/or blame for my own conversion, or perhaps more accurately reconversion to cane a decade or so back, when I found myself fishing more and enjoying it less and wondering exactly what was missing. Turns out what was missing, at least for me, was a deep-remembered cadence and a totem - "the powerful mystique,"as Gierach put it in his first book, Fly Fishing Small Streams, of fishing bamboo.

Like my father, I abandoned bamboo for fiberglass shortly after casting the wonder of its day: the Shakespeare Wonderod. That lithe little seven-footer bought on time with paper-route earnings from Wilburn's Hardware cast a pair of wet flies more easily than did my creaking old nine-foot Montague, and it didn't need careful nightly drying or monthly waxing or annual revarnishing; you could lean it against a tree overnight without it morphing into a parabola; you could cast it all day without your rod hand turning to lead. And it was by-God modern.

That it was also a plug-ugly white noodle mattered little in the era's mad drive for modernity. Jets painted conrails from horizon to horizon. Cars sprouted fins. Little round monochromatic televisions became big and rectangular and spewed living color. A bleeping satellite named Telstar chased one called Sputnik across the night sky.

Who cared about the authentic past in those synthetic times? Who cared that those nightly fireside rituals of cane-rod maintenance were communal busywork that oiled conversation in a way merely staring into the fire did not?

Some folks cared. As we propped our plastic rods against trees and idled aimlessly around the fire, we laughed at the holdouts in our crowd, wasting their time drying and hanging and inspecting and puttering with those old-fashioned sticks. That they talked of good times gone by and we talked of days yet to come hardly seemed significant. We were modern. We didn't care. Even when they began fishing by themselves. ~ James R. Babb

Continued next time!

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