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Blue Collar Cane, Part 2

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

Many years later, or so it seemed - though when I do the math I realize my back-to-back experiments with the navy and urban life totaled only a half-dozen years, an eon in those days, an eyeblink now - a search for something real led me to Maine, looking for a chance to realign my front end with trees and fields and wild rivers. And to do justice to those wild rivers I needed a new fly rod.

I went to Dakin's Sporting Goods, an old-time Bangor institution where in the 1930s the Brady Gang's fumbling attempt to buy tommy guns in what they assumed was a dumb hick town ended in a spectatular shoot-out with G-men, where central Maine sports had bought rods and reels and shotguns for years, where the shiny and new mingled seamlessly with the dusty and old. I flexed and wiggled and sighted down shafts, and I came away owning a seven-foot Fenwick Ferralite. It was the latest thing, the hottest rod of its day - and it was only five dollars more than the seven-foot F.E. Thomas Dirigo that sat beside it on the shelf and in test-casting on Market Square came alive in my hand like a thing possessed. But it was dusty and old-fashioned and I was still agog with shiny and high-tech. I try not to remember, when I look at the scabrous old Fenwich leaning unloved in the back of the rod closet, that the fourty-dollar Thomas is now worth something like twelve hundred bucks. Or that Dirigo, the Maine state motto, means "I Serve." I don't know what Ferralite means.

My brother and others like him weren't fooled. When the rest of us bought into the future they looked solidly to the past. When the rest of us were selling for peanuts our old Heddons and Edwardses and Grangers, snapping them up left and right. When the rest of us were moving into graphite and obsessing about line speed, my brother was fishing a seven-and-half-foot Orvis Battenkill so persistently that it gradually slid down the line-weight scale from five to one.

When I began looking for affordable cane about ten years ago, I got catalogs from the numerous dealers specializing in preowned fly tackle and was impressed with the wide selection and detailed descriptions. Anyone wanting to dip a toe in the old-cane waters can call folks like Martin Keane, Carmine Lisella, or Bob Corsetti and find just about anything imagineable. But there's no sport in it, no thrill of the hunt, so chance of finding a screeching bargain - and at the particular stage in my life when cane-lust resurfaced, little chance of finding a rod I really wanted for a price I could afford to pay. So I did what all Mainers of modest means do when the need arises for an affordably edition of anything from a fly rod to a size 16 wedding dress, "guaranteed never worn": I bought a copy of Uncle Henry's, a swap-and-sell magazine that is more than a Maine institution; it's the cornerstone of the blue-collar economy.

Most ads for "valuable antique bamboo flie rods" turned out to be uncastable Japanese knockoffs or bottom-end Montagues with split ferruels and delaminated sections. But one ad sounded promising, mentioning solid blue-collar names like Grangers and even an Orvis. I dialed the number and got the seller's friend, who knew nothing about cane rods himself but assured me his buddy, who didn't have a phone, "had a whole trailer full of 'em. He don't like them graphite jobbies a-tall, but he just loves them old bamboo fly poles." I made a date to see them the next day.

The directions led me through one of those dreary dying mill towns notched into Maine's western foothills and into a chain of increasingly dilapidated roads, until I finally came to what my notes described as the third dirt road after the burned-out gas station sixteen miles from town, the first trailer on the right.

Two longhaired bearded men in flannel shirts and oil-stained jeans hovered over a 1950s-ear Gale Buccaneer exhausting itself in a watter-filled barrel marked DANGER - TOXIC. They were the kids who could fix cars in high school but could not conjugate verbs or even see the reason for trying, now grown up and left behind by an economy with no place for people good with their hands but not at following instructions. An old trailer disgorged a swarm of scruffy children into a bare yard filled with discarded auto parts and broken toys, and the smell of gear oil and beer hung like a cloud in the damp April air. I fought back a sneer of class-consciousness, an unfortunate legacy from my plantation-bred Maryland mother - something I hate in other people and positively despise in myself, having met far too many upper-crust pinheads and trairler-trash saints.

The rods were up at Dave's trailer. "It's up the rud a bit; hope you don't mind walking'," he said, smearing outboard oil on his pants before shaking hands. The kids piled into the back of his rusted-out Toyota and bounced happily along with a tangle of smelt nets, gas cans, and chain saws as I followed Dave around hair-pin turns and across washed-out culverts on a two-track spiraling up into a landscape just emerging from the dull wet slosh of early spring.

We stopped next to a pair of pallets lying across a flooded ditch and headed up a steep narrow trail that wound through cutover woodlands overlooking the broad valley of the Androscoggin. At trail's end sat a sagging trailer propped precariously on chunks of cordwood. "Dragged it up here over the snow with the skidder," Dave said, sweeping his arm proudly back at the vista. "Got me 160 acres of woods up here."

A big chocolate Lab snarled at the end of a short chain shackled to a rusted-out school bus filled with auto parts; bits of snow machines and a disassembled skidder littered the yard; a bowl of fresh smelt heads on a wobbly pattet porch drew mangy cats and buzzing flies and anorexic chickens. A hawk circled lazily overhead, and the boys ran inside for an old Red Ryder BB gun and began firing at it.

Inside, the trailer stank of kerosene and mildew and past-due laundry. "Scuse the the mess. Wife run off down to Portland last year. Lemme light one of these lanterns. Ain't got 'lectricity up here yet."

The soft lantern light revealed a museum of sporting goods: deer- and bearskins covered the furniture; deer heads, moose antlers, and large mounted fish covered the walls. Battered felt hats with flies stuck in the brims hanging from spikes; stacks of rod cases and bamboo rod parts stood in the corners; piles of old fly reels and fly boxes and lures covered tables; ancient greenheart and lancewood fly rods and double-barrel shotguns with Damascus-twist barrels and exposed hammers lay across deer-foot gun racks; a display case knocked together from pallet scraps held silk fly lines in their original boxes, gut leaders in silver soaking trays, a nickle-silver collapsible drinking cup marked ABERCROMBIE & FITCH, a minuscule Abbey & Imbrie casting reel, a Heddon Woodpecker plug in its original box, a boxful of tiny Heddon fly-rod plugs, a Carlton Ideal fly reel with a new silk line, a minnow made from white leather with a silver submarinelike diving plane in its original Kingfisher package, a jumble of perfect Maine streamers stuck on cards autographed with names like Herb Welch and Carrie Stevens. It was the combined wealth of a hundred years of Maine sporting tradition collected from countless garage sales.
~ James R. Babb

Concluded next time!

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