I dragged a big cardboard box of assorted junk out from under a shop table, unfolded the flaps and looked inside. Piles of waxed cotton line were wadded around hooks and swivels. Here and there, dried bits of bait from summers past clung on. For good measure, several of the scrap railroad spikes we used for weights were heaped in too, just to make sure nothing blew away.
“What is all this?” I asked the Old Man, tilting the box toward him.
“That’s a trotline that got snagged on a log,” he said. “It’s not worth untangling, but the hardware on it is still good.”
“There’s three or four different shades of line in here,” I said.
“Well, underneath the trotline that got hung on a log is one that got hung on a stump,” he said. “Somewhere in there is one that got into the trolling motor prop.”
He stepped over and poked around in the pile.
“I’m not sure what happened to the rest of that,” he added. “Something bad, looks like.”
“It sure is a mess,” I said.
“Sorting it out would be a good job for somebody with nothing better to do on a rainy afternoon,” he said looking at me, and I took the hint.
Back in the house, I dragged a chair up in front of the fireplace, put a trashcan on my left and two small freezer boxes on the hearth to my right. Alternating between scissors and a sharp knife, I cut the hooks and swivels free of the line and plunked them into boxes for use another day. When I came to a railroad spike, I cut it free and stacked it in a pile I was making on the bricks. The job was easier than shelling butterbeans but harder than shelling peas. Most of the hooks were too dull to do much damage, but the wax on the line had fossilized in many places and worrying it free was making my blades duller by the minute.
“You’re not using your Grandmother’s fabric shears for that, are you?” the Old Man asked, and I assured him I was not.
He pulled up a chair opposite mine and began tinkering with a fly rod that looked like something from the Dark Ages. It wasn’t made of wood, but it didn’t look like any synthetic I’d ever seen, either. Several of the rod’s eyes were bent or missing, and the line on it seemed to be made from woven fabric. A long time before I was born, the Old Man had lived in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and fished streams where equipment like this worked well, but that had been eons ago and I’d never seen him use it.
“Are you going fly fishing soon?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
After a long pause, during which it became apparent he wasn’t going to offer more, I asked, “Why are you working on it, then?”
“Just remembering a little,” he said. “Rods and such are a part of the things we do, and so they’re a part of those memories. Those memories become part of who we are, and so old gear like this that we’ve held in our hands gets to be part of who we are, too. I don’t have any plans to use it again, but I’m not about to throw it away.”
He sprayed WD-40 into the threads on the rod’s butt until the cap could be turned. This loosened the reel seat and he slid free the pocket watch-sized bit of precision machinery it held. With a tiny screwdriver, he removed one side of the arbor and put a few drops of 3-in-1 oil into the works.
“After you’ve used something like this for a while,” he said, “just holding it helps you remember, and you can go back in your mind to places you’ve been and visit with the people you knew there.”
He put the side of the reel back on, gave the handle a twirl and it rolled with a motion smooth as fog through a notch in the mountains.
“Besides,” he added, “old fishing gear is a lot like the old fishermen who’ve kept it. It looks beat up and weathered, knotted and tangled, because getting through life is no easy trip. It’s sculpted by what it’s done, by what we’ve been through, and that’s the goal. It’s a heck of a state to end up in, I admit, but a fly rod doesn’t get worn out sitting safely in its case or hanging on a wall. It takes a lot of days in the field to make something this good look this bad, and that’s good.”
As I sorted out this last bit, I couldn’t decide if he meant the gear or himself. Eventually, I decided he meant both, because each was a part of the other.