Life’s dreams do not always die when we do…
Copyright 2010 Erik F. Helm
The fire had died to a pensive glow and the three bottles of scotch were at half-mast that cold spring evening in Larry’s cabin on the West Fork. The fishing had been poor, and the conditions so brutal, that the five of us hearty anglers sought refuge earlier than we had liked. The Blue winged olive hatch had not come off, but the hatch of self-pity was in full force.
There is something about the company of men around a fire that brings out personal details, admissions, and tales that never before had seen the light of day. For some reason, like kids at a summer camp, we had strayed to telling strange tales and yarns. Bob had just admitted that he believed his house was haunted, and explained in detailed histrionics the spectral visions in the attic, and strange unexplainable sounds coming from under the old covered well in the cellar. This led to a rather long pause, as my turn came, and I considered whether to relate the strange events surrounding a small estate appraisal of a few pieces of vintage tackle I had performed out of kindness in the late 1960s in England.
Pouring more scotch into my old tin cup, Allen egged me on. “You gotta have somesing to tell dats wierd,” he slurred slightly.
“O.K., sit back and listen then,” I started, “It’s a long tale, but worth hearing. If I wasn’t there, I never would have believed it myself.”
I took off my hat, moved closer to the fire, took a powerful pull of scotch, and began.
“How I came to be fishing England’s chalk streams is unimportant. Suffice it to say that it was on an invitation from an angling club based upon the stipulation that I write a feature travel and fishing article about my adventures for my column in Field and Stream. It is because of what I am about to tell you that I never actually got around to writing the article, and because of this, was never invited back.”
“It was 1967 or ’68 when I flew over to Britain. In America, it was the summer of love. In Britain, it was the summer of fog and labor strikes. The angling club was charming and comfortable, the members and hosts relatively friendly, and the fishing very technical. I made mistakes, botched hook-sets, and spooked more fish than I am comfortable telling. I certainly gained a new respect for a stealthy approach on spring creeks. Some of the better fly-fishermen crouched or even crawled along the side of the river, hiding themselves in reeds and grasses.”
“It was along on the third or fourth day that I took a break to catch up on correspondence, and to that end, visited a local P.O. to mail off postcards and letters. I was completely unaware of the fact that, having come directly from the stream, I was still wearing a hat festooned with flies. That was an observation not missed by a middle-aged man with a well-worn coat, the squinty eyes of someone who has spent his entire adult life working in an ill-lit factory, and a pleasant crooked smile. He introduced himself, although the name now escapes me, and asked me if I was fly-fishing. As the line slowly wound forward towards the only service window, we engaged in a nice banter. After I had told him my profession, he took off his hat and scratching his curly coal-black hair, wondered aloud if I had any expertise in antique fishing tackle. In those days I got asked that question more than my name. It seemed that everywhere I went, somebody or other had some old bent and worthless rods and rusty lures in a closet somewhere, and were convinced that they were ‘worth a fortune.’ Some actually were, but most were the run of the mill general or hardware store types. The reason he asked, he explained, was that he was helping out an old widow that lived down an adjacent lane dissolve some of her household goods, and she had several ‘fishing-poles in wooden tubes’, and other stuff I may want to look at before it went to a local auction, and the widow to a room in a pension.”
“I’m a soft one for old tackle, and so, even though I had a busy schedule, I agreed to the short rail ride to the little town of Sassoon the following evening after fishing. As the train car clattered its way down the line, I looked at a map, which showed Sassoon as not more than a junction. When I dismounted, it was already getting dark, and shadows played off the dark stained brick of the small square. The man I had met the day before was dutifully sitting on the lone bench, smoking a foul-smelling cigarette. He smiled at me, and leading the way, began walking down a narrow and damp lane. After several twists and turns and nodding wordlessly to a group of urchins sailing paper boats in the stagnant water running down the center channel of the cobblestones, we arrived at a leaning stone portal with a decayed wooden sign hanging by thin wire with the words ‘Graves Lane.’ The irony was not lost on me.”
“‘Here we are,” he said, pointing to a small stone house through the portal. The name fit the place I thought. At one time there had been a garden. How long ago that may have been was anybody’s guess. What grew there now was an assortment of brown feral weeds. It may have once been a victory garden, but now it certainly looked defeated. The house itself was tiny and not much to look at, save for two window boxes bearing bright red poppies. Mr. Whatshisname begged off, and left me with the words that Mrs. Higgins was expecting me.”
“As I walked through the neglected yard toward the house, A shadow passed before the dimly lit and dust filled windows; that shadow proved to be Mrs. Higgins herself, who opened the door carefully, and stood in the failing evening light like a frightened candle afraid of the wind. She was slight and bent and wore a gray frock and dress that once may have been a floral print. The brightest things about her were her pure white hair, which she wore long, and her bright blue left eye. The right eye was filmed over white with cataract.”
“She may have been as ageless as the trees, but when she spoke, her voice was immediately one of kindness and compassion. It was also as clear as a bell. ‘Of all days of days…’ she murmured, ‘Welcome and thank you Mr. Allen. Come in out of the dark and have a cuppa.’ She stood aside as I entered a tidy sitting room and attached kitchen. A cheaply framed and yellowed sacred heart of Jesus hung above the fireplace, which admitted a slight but pitiful glow of a single coal. Mrs. Higgins seated me on a wooden chair seemingly designed to torture backs, and went to fetch the tray of tea. As I glanced around the room, a sense of pity filled me. It must be the same anywhere. Poor widowed women living in isolation with some meager pension, alive only in the past and with nothing to look forward to but death, surrounded by memories in the form of old photos of their husbands, children, and friends in better times. The furnishings were sparse, well-used, and obviously repaired and cared for carefully. The wing-back that Mrs. Higgins carefully lowered herself into with apologies to me for the lesser chair due to her back, had doilies covering up the frayed upholstery on the armrests.”
“After we had exchanged small talk and finished our tea, she retrieved several wooden rod cases and a cardboard box from the kitchen. ‘Here it is,’ she said. ‘These belonged to my late husband William.’ As I unwrapped the cases that she had obviously treasured and kept dear, she retrieved an old photo from the mantelpiece and handed it to me. Staring out of the cracked glass was a handsome young man in uniform. His hat was cocked slightly, and his smile was beguiling and hopeful.”
“The rods consisted of a bait caster made from solid wood, a 7-foot cane trout rod, and a three-piece salmon rod from an Aberdeen maker. All three were in immaculate condition. As I nodded in approval and complimented her on the care of fine tackle, she told me the story of her husband.”
“‘He enlisted in the Great War in 1915, only three years after we were married. William was a smart man, even if his education was limited. He trained first with a standard infantry regiment. They only had fake wooden rifles to practice with then, he told me; the real ones were needed at the front. This picture was taken just before he shipped out. He had to wait to have the picture taken due to not even having a uniform. After a few months of drill, he was transferred to a fusiliers regiment. He was so proud!’”
“‘He loved to fish for trout and salmon. It was expensive even then, but he had an uncle that had some rights on a river in Scotland, and he shared his fishing with William. I still remember baking a salmon for him that he caught and had shipped back to me on ice. Only time I have ever had it. He was proud of his fishing equipment. He had saved for it for two years while working in a warehouse on the docks.’”
“As she continued, I opened the box, revealing three metal containers of flies, and half a dozen large minnow lures. The flies were mostly rusted and the feathers eaten away, but the lures were in passable condition. Under the boxes of flies were two reels: a bait caster made of brass, and a tiny trout reel. Both were serviceable.”
“I explained to her that this collection could fetch the maximum number of pounds in a London auction, and not some provincial town, and wrote down both what I thought the range of prices might be, and the names of three creditable auction brokers. She thanked me repeatedly, and reaching for her purse, fumbled with some pound notes. ‘Please, I protested, no charge… I insist! It is privilege enough to just get to see such fine tackle so well preserved.’”
“It was then that it dawned on me that there were three rods and only two reels. ‘What happened to the salmon reel?’ I inquired cautiously. She paused a moment, and again lowered herself into the chair. ‘That reel is the one piece of his fishing things I will never sell. You see, it was my wedding present to William. It is also very special, for, well… sentimental and other reasons. I have it in my dresser, If you are willing to stay a bit longer,’ she said looking at her watch, ‘you may come to understand.’”
“She went into her bedroom and returned with a cracked leather case. She laid it down on the small center table between us. Along with the case, she brought a bottle of wine and two glasses. ‘Currant wine’ she explained. ‘I always have a glass at this time every month.’ She carefully measured out the homemade wine, and sat back.
“‘William loved that reel’ she said, raising her glass in a toast. ‘He hoped to get leave and fish it once again with his uncle.’ She carefully unbuckled the leather strap and took out the reel, setting it on a piece of velvet in the middle of the table. I knew right away it was a Perfect Reel made by Hardy Brothers. It had an ivory handle, and a hand-leaded finish.”
“‘William was sent with his regiment to France in the spring of 1916. I still have a dozen letters from him. I knew him well enough that, even if he didn’t write it directly due to censors, I knew something big was ahead. He was excited and nervous. In mid-summer I got a letter and a visit from an officer. I knew what it meant. The papers were filled with ‘Our gallant day’ and the ‘Big Push” that had spelled the beginning of the end for the Jerries. But I knew better. Women were crying and wailing. My neighbor lost her son and her husband at the same time. On July 1st, William and 57, 000 others of our best and loved went over the top of the trenches at the Somme, and fell before the Jerry lines. Their feet got tangled in barbed wire that the artillery was supposed to cut, and they got mired down in mud. The Jerries were anything but dead. Our generals were sipping champagne back at their French villas. They thought it was all going marvelously.’”
“‘It is just about time,’ she said, leaning forward toward the reel and looking again at her watch. ‘It does it on every first of the month at 9:27 PM. William must have laid a-dying the whole day in front of the German wire. They found him the next day. He had crawled forward towards their lines, dragging his satchel of grenades behind him. Machine gun got him they told me.’ At that very moment, the handle of the reel began to turn on its own, emitting a 'tat-a-tat-a-tat' sound from its check mechanism that exactly matched the sound of a maxim machine-gun. ‘1912 model,’ I mumbled, the hair on my neck standing up and shivers running down my spine. ‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘the year we were married.’
“I understand,’ I reassured her as I left the small house in Graves Lane.
“What ever happened to the reel?” Larry asked with rapt attention.
“I never found out, nor did I inquire. In some ways, I am glad for that. You would have had to be there to hear that eerie machine-gun noise that the reel admitted all by itself. I guess William did not want to let his dreams die so easily. Perhaps this was his way of protesting to future generations the bitter futility of war.”
“To a whole generation that were butchered and damned." Eric Bogle, from the song ‘No man's land’
Author’s note: This story was inspired by a discussion I read on the classic rod forum regarding the early Hardy perfects and some speculation as to what became of their original owners due to the reels being in remarkable shape for their age. I took a walk, mused a bit, and came up with this. The reader may recognize the names of Sassoon and Graves, which I borrowed on purpose. These refer to Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, two English poets and authors who became outspoken critics of the war, and the way it was being conducted with disregard to the wholesale waste and sacrifice of human life.