Welcome to Panfish!

Part One Hundred thirty-eight

Randy Fratzke

First Memories

By Randy Fratzke


There are few things that stay in our minds longer than our first experience of something. One of my earliest "firsts" involved trauma, having my tonsils out when I was barely 2 years old (according to my mother). I remember the operating room, the doctors, the anesthesia, and the nice nurse afterwards assuring me the ice cream would make my throat feel better - it felt like I was trying to swallow dry, 60 grit sand paper! I remember my first real kiss: Janie (no last names here), it was springtime with the apple trees in blossom, third grade, in her garage. My first car: 1955 Chevy Bel Air, 2 door hard top, 327 cubic inch engine / 375 horses under the hood, huge headers, straight pipes, 4 speed on the floor (yes, I got into a little "trouble" with this car!) First (and only) motorcycle: 1947 Harley Davidson, a fully chopped and extended "low rider" (I only thought I'd gotten into trouble with the car!) First trout: 1977, on a family vacation, outside of Bozeman, Montana on an old spinning outfit using a 1 inch artificial minnow, caught 4 in 15 minutes (we didn't know it at the time, but they were stocking the stream just up the road from us; they still tasted good!)

I can't really remember my first fishing experience. As far as I know I've always fished. My dad fished and (almost) always took us along. Family outings, weekend or holiday get-togethers with friends and relatives, impromptu "grab the gear and go" trips, you name it, we did it. I've owned everything from cane poles to fly rods over my lifetime, including deep sea trolling set-ups. My first fly rod though belonged to my father.

He'd gotten sick, went into a nursing home and eventually died when I was fairly young. After the funeral there was the normal "get-together" at the local VFW where he'd been a member. I remember there was sort of a "ceremony" during part of the evening. The "handing down of things". At my fathers' request, I received two items, the first was a 1907 Stevens Arms 12-gauge pump shot gun that had belonged to my grandfather (and told on the side not to use it because it was in "mint condition"). The other was my dads' early 1950 circa South Bend, 9 foot, six weight, 2 piece fly rod. I can remember thinking, "Great, a shot gun I'm not supposed to use and a fishing pole I didn't even know he owned or how to use." I know it sounds a little ungrateful, but at the time I was young, dumb and didn't understand a lot of things. I was also upset that he'd gotten sick and died. I was also upset my brothers and sister hadn't received anything so I promised to share the rod and gun with them. That was the first time I ever held a fly rod in my hands. My mother promptly "confiscated" both items and I didn't see them for years.

Life went on and I eventually forgot about both items. I had a lot of "firsts." I got married, went into the Army, had a son, got out of the service and set up "our first home." Somewhere about this time my mother asked me to come over and help her move into a new house (not a "first" by a long shot). While I was clearing out her bedroom closet I ran into the shotgun and the fly rod. I can remember her coming into the room. I was sitting on the floor and had taken both of them out of their cases and was looking them over, remembering "the ceremony," and a lot of things that had happened in the family since the funeral, years before. She looked at me sitting there and told me it was time I took them home with me and almost bitterly added, "that she was tired of hauling them around" with her and left the room. I put them back into their cases and took them downstairs and put them in my car. I asked her about them but she wouldn't talk, there was just a taste of bitterness in the air for a while. Nothing more was said about them but I felt that I'd just inherited a whole lot more than a shotgun and a fly rod.

Later that night I brought them into my house and sat them in a corner. My wife asked about them and I remember telling her they were my inheritance from my dad and I didn't really want to talk about it. I was tired and dirty from helping my mother move all day and frustrated with her "mood" and headed for the shower. When I came back into the room I was pretty upset to find my son, who was about three, had gotten both of them out of their cases. My son was waving the butt section of the fly rod around like a baton in a parade and had unspooled the line from the reel and had it strung all over the living room. Lots of emotions flooded in, none of them, as I remember, were good. I remember grabbing everything up and heading for the basement, locking the door from the inside. I went down the stairs into the cool darkness, turned on the bare bulb light over my shop table and sat everything on the table. I took the old, green, Horrocks-Ibbottson reel off the rod and carefully straightened the line and slowly reeled it back on, like I was reeling my life back together. I sat there, looking at the rod; a rich mahogany colored fiberglass with green and gold wrappings on the chromed guides. I carefully put it in its case, burying it and its memories like I'd done so many years before with my father. I put it and the shotgun on a shelf, turned out the light and went back upstairs. Nothing more was said of the incident or of the two items. My wife and I eventually divorced. The fly rod and shotgun were moved from closet to closet along with me, never being removed from their cases. Eventually I met and married Rachelle.

We were moving into our first house when she came out of my apartment bedroom closet carrying both items. She stopped in the living room where I was packing things up and asked what they were and where they'd come from. I sullenly responded with, "They're my inheritance from my father, just put them in the truck." Later, as we were unpacking the truck at our new home I noticed she placed them in the corner of the living room. I picked them up and was headed for the bedroom when she asked me to stop and explain what was going on in my head and why I wouldn't talk about the two items. I said I didn't really want to get into it at that point but she wouldn't let the issue be buried. So we sat down and I uncased both items and talked. Other than marrying her, I think that talk was one of the best things that ever happened in my life. In the end, she convinced me that rather than burying the fly rod in the closet again I should learn to use it. "If nothing else", she said, "it'll get you outside and maybe air out all of the 'ghosts' that were associated with it." I begrudgingly agreed.

The following Friday evening she came home a little late from work with a small package and a big smile on her face. She handed the package to me with a kiss and said it was a "house warming present." I opened it up and inside was a book on basic fly fishing, a spool of line backing, a spool of fly line, a package of leaders, a couple of packages of tippets and a couple of flies. I looked at her, smiled and said, "Looks like it's time to clean out the closet and get rid of the ghosts." She nodded her head and got out the rod. It was the first time she'd touched it. I took off the old line and backing while she read me the instructions on putting on the new line. We worked together on the knots joining the different components of the line to make sure they were "proper." It was like tearing something bad apart and rebuilding it into something good and usable, like our old lives and new marriage. The next morning we loaded up the truck and headed for a park in eastern Iowa that they stocked with trout.

Rachelle sat on a bench along the stream and read me the basic fly casting instructions, I practiced what she read. She corrected my "technique" using the diagrams. I remember both of us laughing a lot and having fun. I had her try casting for a while and both laughed when she realized "reading" was one thing and "doing" was another! We didn't catch any fish that day but I know we certainly didn't bring any of the ghosts back home with us either. The rod did not go back into the closet.

Rachelle and I now have six or seven fly rods between us that we use for fishing. Living on a river, we fish together often. Many evenings she'll come home from work, sometimes tired or frustrated, and find me down on the river bank casting. She'll walk down, still in her work clothes. I'll hand her the rod and for a little while say nothing. I'll watch her cast and unwind from the day. It always does the trick. We'll talk things out while we take turns casting, make plans, discuss and solve all of the worlds problems, catch a few fish, unhook them and put them back into the river splashing their tails or maybe keeping a couple for supper. Regardless of whether or not the fish are biting, it's a time of unwinding and rewinding.

I no longer use my fathers' rod and reel, but it's not closed up in a case in the back of a closet. It hangs on the wall above my fly tying bench, on brass hooks. I take it down quite often, dust it and clean it. It caught a lot of fish for me. Trout, blue gill, crappies and bass have all been taken with it. It's given me hours of pleasure and memories, both told and untold. My son has handled it and cast it and caught fish with it. It was the first rod my grandson was handed, when he was only a couple of months old, my son proudly helping to steady it as he held his son in his arms. My son knows it'll be passed to him when I'm gone. I hope when that time comes I've taught him some of the things I've learned in life and the rod won't be put into a case and stored in a closet to become my ghost. People don't live forever, but their memories and some of their belongings do, with the people left behind. I hope my sons' memories of me are good ones and there aren't any ghosts that need to be locked away in a closet. I also hope that all of his "firsts" are remembered. ~ Randy Fratzke

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