A short story about tournament fly casting and something more ...
THE SECOND FLY CASTER
When I was a boy I thought my father was the greatest fly caster on earth, so I grew up dreaming of following in his way, and not of becoming, as my mother wanted me to, an accountant.
Now I am a man who often relives the important events in my life, but when I think back to the five state casting tournaments my father won, most of their images and sounds have melted into a murky pool. Those that haven't are as vivid as this morning. They have even ripened, though not in a visual way.
And so I'll never forget that one, very special tournament.
I'll start telling about it this way: Our small, historic-looking town was almost exactly in the middle of the state. On the outskirts of our town was a beautiful, banana-shaped lake. The lake had a long, treeless bank that was perfectly suited for fly casting. And because our obscure town was in a valley, we were shielded from the biggest enemy of fly casting: gusty winds.
Those were the real reasons the annual casting championships were held in our town, though now I'll admit there was some truth in the words of jealous people who had accused my father of founding the Casting Association just so he could win tournaments in front of his friends and neighbors.
But there was even more truth in the fact that my father won fair and square. You see, he loved practicing with his beautiful bamboo, fly rod, and trying new techniques such as holding his rod hand at different levels and lengthening his casting stroke - so much so that I times I wondered if he loved fly casting more than he loved me. But in spite of my occasional wondering, I also wanted him to reach his cherished goal: to cast far as humanly possible, perhaps even a hundred feet.
As for my mother, well she didn't seem to mind that he spent so much time away from her. I guess she suspected that fly casting and fly fishing were what really kept my father sober, so day after day, as he practiced on our lawn, I watched in awe, sure that if he hadn't hurt his elbow in the minor leagues he would have been one of the best pitchers in the majors, instead of a carpenter.
And I made sure all my friends knew. They were so impressed some even asked me for his autograph.
It was about two months before that memorable tournament. My father said I could go with him to the Casting Association meeting as long as my mother said it was okay. Later, after dinner, as my mother cleared off the dinner table, I asked her if I could go.
"You have homework tonight and school tomorrow," she answered. "That's what should be important to you, especially since we aren't as well off as others."
"I'm eleven. I should be allowed to go, especially since I've already done my homework."
"All of it?" she seemed to accuse.
"Well, most of it. I'll finish the rest when I get back."
"Then go!" she yelled.
I was surprised by her outburst. "Are you sure I can?"
She put away the bread, then walked to the sink. She turned on the water. "Do what you want." Her words were as cold as ice.
For a few seconds I didn't move, then I picked up my plate and glass, put them on the counter and ran to my father. He hugged me.
The meeting was held in our old, white, wooden church. Six other men attended. They formed a circle of folding chairs, below the stained glass window of Mary holding baby Jesus. I sat on the front pew.
For the next few hours the men talked about changing some of the rules of the tournament, like how much time and how many casts a caster should have. Before long the talk bored me, and because I was worried that my mother was still mad at me, I wished I hadn't argued with her and had stayed home. Then I'd have my radio on real low so she wouldn't hear me listening to my beloved minor league baseball team, The Fire Birds.
I wondered if they were winning, then went to the back of the church. I lay down and dreamed about becoming the greatest fly caster in the world. When I tired of the dream, I simply changed my imagined scenery and became the greatest pitcher in the world. Again and again I struck out a menacing batter, and the capacity crowd rose to their feet and cheered wildly.
My uplifting daydream was broken by the sound of the church door being opened. I sat up.
A stranger stood in the doorway. He looked old, maybe because of his long, gray hair and beard. He chewed hard on something, and wore a plaid shirt that wasn't tucked in, and old, torn, dirty jeans. On his sleeve was what looked like a tobacco stain.
My father and the other men looked at him. There was a long, strange silence. The stranger took one or two steps inside, but didn't close the door. He said, "I'm here to enter someone in the contest. His name is Shane Riley, and he's the greatest distance caster in the country." The stranger's voice was deep and powerful, and seemed too good for his hobo-like appearance.
"Does he live in the state?" my father asked.
"Since last year."
My father held up a registration form. "Have him fill this out and mail it in with ten dollars."
The stranger marched to the front of the church. His boot heels banged on the squeaking, wood floor. He took the form, looked it over, then, without saying thank you, stuffed it into his shirt pocket and grinned. He strolled back towards the door. He glanced right at me. His eyes were blue and deep-set. They seemed to glow like small lights. He nodded slightly then left, leaving the door open behind him. His bad manners made me angry.
I got up and closed the door.
A half-hour later the meeting ended finally. My father took me by the hand, and we headed home. He didn't say anything, so neither did I, but when we turned onto our street I asked, "Do you think that this Shane Riley is really the best fly caster in the country?"
"Son, I guess well just have to wait and see."
"His name doesn't even sound real."
My father smiled.
I thought of asking: Are you scared that Shane Riley will beat you? But I guess I didn't want to know his answer or reveal that, even if he wasn't scared, I was. So for the next few months I kept my question and fear all to myself, right up until the morning of the tournament, when I walked to the lake, holding my father's hand and his fly rod.
The bleachers were almost full. People came up to my father, shook his hand and wished him luck. Our fat mayor, Bill Reems, told him how the whole town was counting on him.
"Mayor, I'll try not to let you down."
The Mayor rubbed my head. I resented being treated like a kid.
My father took his fly rod from me and shook more hands. Suddenly I felt lost, so I walked to the bleachers, looking for my mother. I didn't see her. I wondered, will she come and watch?
I sat down by myself and looked for the stranger with the long, gray beard and hair. I didn't see him. I thought, maybe Shane Riley chickened out.
I turned to the lake. A long narrow fire seemed to burn on top of the water. The fire didn't spread or go out. It just stayed the same and hurt my eyes. Wishing I had good sunglasses, I squinted, and for some reason I wondered if there really had been a burning, talking bush.
Stretching across the lake like the yard lines of a football field were six lines of ropes, the distance markers. The closest line, I knew, was fifty feet, the farthest a hundred. I prayed, God, even though I don't always believe in you, and even though sometimes I'm sometimes bad, please, please help my father break a hundred feet. But you don't, don't let Shane Riley beat him. Because if he does, what will I say to my friends after boasting so much?
My father sat down with the other casters on the bench borrowed from the church.
I studied the faces of the three casters I didn't know, and wondered which belonged to Shane Riley. I guessed the young man with curly, red hair and square jaw. He was lean and looked athletic. I hated him and didn't care if my hate was wrong.
My friends, Mike and Bob, climbed down from the top row and sat next to me.
Joe Dingly, the Tournament Director, picked up his battery-powered megaphone and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, let's begin the distance competition. I'll call the casters alphabetically. Tom Brolan will go first."
I again looked for my mother. I didn't see her. I wondered if there was still something bad and dark between my parents.
Tom Brolan's best cast was eighty feet. None of the next five casters beat him. Finally, it was my father's turn. He stood up and looked at me. He smiled.
I yelled, "Show them, Dad!"
My father pulled line off his reel, then re-piled it on the dock. He cast the line back and forth, letting more and more line slide through his thumb and forefinger, and therefore making his casts longer and longer. (Fly casters call this shooting line.) My father stopped casting and let the line fall on the water. He bent his knees, crossed his heart, and got into his casting stance. He cast his fly rod up and back, and pulled down on the line. (Fly casters call this hauling.) The line lifted up off the water like a plane taking off, and formed a long, wide, rolling loop that streaked back and up. The top of rolling loop got shorter and shorter. Just before the loop opened and unrolled, my father rotated his shoulders and hips, and cast his fly rod forward, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until he stopped it abruptly. The line formed another rolling loop. The front of this loop, however, tightened and formed a sideways V. My father, I knew, then shot about seven more feet of line. When the top of the unrolling front loop was about three feet long, my father again cast back, then forward. When his casting arm was straight and all the way out, he stopped the rod abruptly and let go of the line. The front loop soared over the eighty-foot marker.
I was proud.
The fly turned over perfectly and landed gently on the water.
"Ninety-seven feet!" Bill Smyth, the official on the dock, yelled out. It was my father's all-time, best tournament cast.
The spectators stood up and cheered. I was sure that I had the best father ever.
Now if only he could break a hundred feet!
He didn't. Again I was scared that Shane Riley would.
The next caster was called. Since I didn't know him, I was relieved when his first cast barely broke seventy feet.
Three casters were left. The two I knew were not as good as my father, but the one with red hair - yes I was right. That was Shane Riley!
I crossed my fingers, but didn't want my friends to see. I stuffed my hands into my pockets. Suddenly I was a little lightheaded, and felt as if I were floating like a balloon and watching everything from high above.
Joe Dingly picked up the megaphone. He cleared his throat and called, "Shane Riley"
The red-haired man didn't stand.
"Shane Riley," Joe Dingly called again.
No one in the bleachers stood up.
I saw my mother sitting by herself on the top row of the bleachers. I smiled and waved to her.
She didn't see me.
"Shane Riley forfeits his turn," Joe Dingly said.
The air went out of me. I floated back down to the bleachers and turned to my friends. "Shane Riley chickened out."
The red-haired man's name was called. He walked to the bank. I stuffed my crossed fingers deeper into my pockets.
His first back cast formed a wide, circle-shaped loop. I knew right then that my father was champion again! I took my fingers out of my pockets.
When the competition was over my father walked over to me, pulled me by the hand and led me to the official's table. Again the spectators rose to their feet and cheered.
My father hugged me, handed me his fly rod, then picked up his gold-plated trophy and held it above his head. He smiled like a boy, and I saw the space where he had lost a tooth. I wished I could fill it. My father looked up at the sky and said, "Thanks God."
After the tournament my father, mother and others headed towards the picnic area. The bleachers emptied, and suddenly I again found myself alone with my father's fly rod. I walked to the bank of the lake and began casting. Even though I barely broke fifty feet, in my mind, every cast set a new record and brought the crowd to their feet.
"You're pretty good," someone said.
A tall, young man, with blond hair stood behind me. "That looks like a fine, fine fly rod," he said. "May I try it?"
I didn't like the idea of handing my father's rod to a perfect stranger, but there was trust in his face and in his soft, soft voice. I handed him the rod.
He stripped off more line, then made a perfect roll cast. He started his back cast. The sun flashed off his gold bracelet. He hauled straight down - longer than my father, and as I watched the line shoot straight back I knew he was special.
His second back cast was lower than his first, the way my father's was. The line unrolled. He rotated his hips and shoulders like a spinning top and snapped the rod forward. He hauled the line well behind his thigh. He let go. The front of the fly line took the shape of a sideways V. It flew like a rocket, parallel to the water. The line unrolled. The fly landed just passed the hundred-foot marker.
He handed me the rod. "If I were you I'd save this rod. One day it will be real valuable."
"How did you do that?"
He smiled and in his warm, blue eyes I saw the eyes of the stranger who had walked in on the Association meeting. The stranger, I now knew, was his father.
"Here's a secret," Shane said. "When you make your back cast try to keep your casting elbow in a little more." He turned and walked away.
I followed him. "Shane!"
He turned back towards me.
I asked, "How come you forfeited your turn?"
He looked up, stared into space, then right at me. Scared, I wanted to look away, but a voice inside me told me not to, and then - whether it happened in my mind or in his face - I saw his stare soften and seem to reach out to me.
"I knew who your father was from a picture in last year's newspaper," he said. "When I watched you holding his hand and - well, I guess the way you looked up at him that, that - he certainly is a great caster."
"But not as great as you."
He again smiled.
I thought of asking him if he had ever been ashamed of his father for drinking or for anything else, but somehow I just couldn't get the question out. I cursed myself for being a coward, then told myself I would ask Shane if I ever saw him again, though deep down I kind of knew I never would.
I was right, and so my father won two more casting championships.
But then something I didn't understand happened: My father started drinking again. Though my mother often held me and told me it wasn't her or my fault, I sometimes wondered if it was because I was small and not a great athlete.
Soon my father lost his job. My mother had to go to work as a cook. Several times I found her sitting by herself in the kitchen and crying. I knew enough not to ask why.
Then things got even worse in my house: yelling, fighting, blaming. So when I shot up four inches in height, and turned eighteen, and the Viet Nam war ended, I turned my back on following in my father's fly-casting way and faced my own: joining the Navy, seeing the world, qualifying for college tuition and eventually becoming a CPA. To my surprise, however, I often found myself waking up with a hangover.
I just got back from the sea. I walked into my barrack with my friends. A yellow telegram was on my bed. It stopped me like a punch. The telegram was from my mother. It read: "Your father is very sick. Wants to see you."
My friends tried to console me. I thanked them, then got a pass from my commanding officer. I headed home.
The house was empty. A note was on the dining room table. I picked it up, then ran to the hospital.
My father lay in bed. He was emaciated and pale. Tubes went into his arms and nose. I almost didn't recognize him. My mother held his hand. She looked at me with heavy, heavy eyes.
Cancer," she said.
"Thanks for coming," my father muttered. "There's something I want to tell you. You know that old elbow injury of mine?"
"Well it never happened. The truth was, the truth is: I wasn't good enough to make the Major League. I only wish I could have accepted that and not lived a lie."
I stated, "That doesn't matter anymore. Just because you lied to yourself about one thing, doesn't mean you lived a lie."
I asked, "Do you remember that casting tournament when Shane Riley forfeited his - I mean, didn't show up?"
"I was so scared that he would beat you."
"You know, so was I."
"Maybe he never really existed."
My father's eyes opened real wide. "Oh, he existed, somewhere in our world, and I wish he had showed up, because the truth I've come to see is that fly casting isn't about competing against others. It's about competing against ourselves, and then one day accepting that we've done the best we can. I'm sorry if that sounds a little corny, but at least it isn't a lie."
"Dad, it doesn't sound corny at all."
He closed his eyes and squeezed my hand.
The next day he died.
Two years later, after I had been honorably discharged from the Navy, I went up to my father's attic and looked through a beautiful hand-carved wooden box of newspaper stories about the fly-casting tournaments my father had won. I read the last story, then saw folded sheets of writing paper on the bottom of the box. I unfolded the sheets. They were my father's handwritten notes on the techniques of long-distance fly casting. Suddenly I told myself I would study the notes, practice and win the next tournament for him, but after two weeks of practicing with my father's bamboo fly rod, I lost interest in competing, probably because, unlike the bright students I envied, I needed more and more time to study so I could maintain good grades.
I put my father's fly rod in my closet and out of my view, but weeks later, out of nowhere it seemed, the vision of Shane Riley making that long, beautiful cast came into my view, again and again. That night, as I sat over a book in the library, I wondered why Shane, after sacrificing so much to become a great fly caster, forfeited his chance to compete in a tournament just so I, a boy he didn't know, could hold on to an idealized image of my father. It just didn't make sense, until one night as I lay in bed and in the dark, I realized that maybe, in Shane's eyes, it wasn't about a boy holding on to an image of his father, but about a boy holding on to an image of himself, an image he would need to make it through the swirling, often dangerous eddies of life.
The next morning I again studied my father's fly-casting notes, then I took his fly rod out of the closet, walked outside and started practicing, and even experimenting with my own casting techniques. A few months later, [img2="left"]http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51K-GO5WGhL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_.jpg[/img2]
when my name was called on the megaphone, I walked to the bank of our banana-shaped lake, without looking at the people sitting in the bleachers. I started my first back cast the way my father taught me: slowly and straight back. I kept my casting elbow in and hauled down straight and hard. As the line unrolled behind me, I broke my wrist backwards for more power, and on my first cast I became the second tournament caster in our state to break a hundred feet. The crowd cheered wildly, just as I always dreamed they would.
And I never got drunk or cast in a tournament again.
THE SECOND FLY CASTER
My novel about fly casting, The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make Peace with the World,
is available on Amazon.com
Copyright (c) 2007 by Randy Kadish