THE IMMIGRANT AND THE FLY-CASTING TOURNAMENT OF 1909: A NOVEL EXCERPT
I was still angry at my father a few weeks later when I opened the sports pages and saw a notice that said: "Come to the Harlem Meer in Central Park and watch the greatest fly caster in the world, B. L. Richards, compete in a tournament."
I wondered who was this B. L. Richards who didn't want a real first name. The image of the fly rod in the Lower East Side apartment flashed in my mind. I showed my father the notice.
"Fly-casting? I don't see any sense in that, Ian"
"I'm old enough to go myself."
"Okay. It's a beautiful day. Let's walk."
... We reached the park entrance at 106th Street. In front of us was a long, narrow cove that fanned out into the Meer. The cove was shaped like a person's neck. Strangely, the Meer - or rather what I could see of it - was shaped like the profile of a person's head. Around the neck was a gravel path. Overlooking the path, like the wall of a castle, was a steep stone hill.
We walked around the cove, then around a bend and into a second cove. This cove was shaped like a triangle. The triangle was lined with trees that blocked my view of most of the Meer.
We walked around another bend and into the end of a long line of people. The line, I saw, was divided by a long, narrow dock. At the end of the dock was a rowboat. In the boat sat two men wearing straw hats and white suits. Tied to the side of the dock were two parallel lines of rope that stretched out of my view. About seventy feet from the dock, short lines of rope crisscrossed the long lines like the steps of a ladder. The short lines were evenly spaced about five feet apart.
I said, "Let's get closer."
We walked behind the line of people, and I saw that part of the Meer was shaped like a tilted pear, and that the long lines of rope stretched all the way across the pear, to a bushy triangle of land. We walked on and I saw that the land was really a small island.
I saw a narrow space in the line of people. I squeezed in. My father stood behind me.
The dock formed part of an upside-down, capital T. A table and two benches formed the other part. Sitting at the table were two men. One wore a derby, the other a straw hat. Both wore dark suits. On the table were a big megaphone and a big gold trophy. Next to the trophy were two silver fly reels. Hanging on the front of the table was a grocer's or peddler's scale.
I wondered why a scale was needed at a fly-casting tournament.
Sitting on two benches were eight men, holding long fly rods. The men wore suits and looked more like lawyers and bankers than like fishermen. I tried to guess who was B. L. Richards. I picked the caster with deep-set eyes. I wondered if he used wax or glue to keep the ends of his black handlebar mustache as round as dimes. He looked a little evil, like a gangster from the Lower East Side.
The man wearing a derby held up the megaphone. His derby looked too small for his long, potato-shaped face. His eyebrows were so bushy they looked like little canopies. "Ladies and gentleman, I'm Howard Tucker. Welcome to the Angler's Club annual, long-distance, fly-casting tournament. Here are the rules. Each caster will use the same kind of reel, line and fly, and will get three casts. Only the longest cast will count, but only if the fly lands between the long ropes. George M. L. La Branche, last year's runner-up, is first up."
The spectators clapped. I wondered why Mr. La Branche had not one but two middle initials, and why he wanted both announced at a fly-casting tournament. He was on the small side. He had a black mustache and a cleft chin. He wore a perfectly tailored black suit, a black tie held in place by a small, ivory brooch, and a shirt with a stand up collar that looked so stiff I wondered if it would cut into his neck and draw blood. Mr. La Branche looked like a dandy.
I decided to root against him.
He walked to the table, and put one of the reels onto his fiery-orange rod. He pulled white line from the reel and fed it through the rod's silver guides. Howard Tucker gave him a small fly. He tied it on, walked to the end of the long dock, and pulled more line from the reel. The reel spun and clicked loudly. The man in the back of the rowboat grabbed the line. The other man in the boat rowed away from the dock. The reel clicked louder and faster and seemed to neigh like a wild horse. When the boat was about a hundred feet from the dock, the man holding the line dropped it between the long ropes.
Hand over hand, Mr. La Branche retrieved about fifty feet of the line and piled it on the dock. He breathed deeply and crossed his heart. He moved his right foot behind his left, as if he was going to throw a ball, then bent his knees, leaned forward and pointed his fly rod toward the water. He cast the rod back, moving it somewhere between perpendicular and parallel to the water. The water, however, didn't seem to want to let go of the line. As if in a tug of war, the water pulled back and bent the top half of the rod into a half-circle, so that the whole rod took on the shape of a giant question mark. Mr. La Branche stopped the rod suddenly. His casting arm was behind his body and, along with the rod, pointed to about 2 o'clock. The line sprayed water as it flew off the surface like a bird. The rod snapped straight. The front of the line formed a narrow loop. The top of the loop was much longer than the bottom. The loop rolled backward like a wheel, the top getting shorter and shorter, the bottom getting longer and longer, until the top and bottom were the same length - but only for a split second. Soon the rolling loop resembled a sideways candy cane.
Mr. La Branche cast the rod forward, then stopped it when it pointed to about 10:30. The front of the line formed another loop. The top of this rolling loop also got shorter as the bottom got longer. Mr. La Branche let go of the line and stabbed the rod forward. The loop streaked like an arrow, then unrolled. The straight line splashed down on the water, right in the middle of the long ropes.
The man in the back of the boat counted the crisscrossing lines. He put a long ruler on one of the long ropes. "Ninety-eight feet!"
We all clapped. Mr. La Branche didn't move. He glared straight ahead like a zombie cut off from the rest of the world. He retrieved his line, finally.
His next cast was 96 feet, his last 94. He shook his head disgustedly and reeled in his line. Looking down as if he were disappointed, he walked back to the table. Though I didn't know anything about fly-casting, 98 feet seemed like a heck of a long cast to me.
The next caster stood up, and one by one the fly casters, including the one with the handlebar mustache, used the same casting stance as Mr. La Branche and tried to cast farther than 98 feet.
The last caster stood up, finally. Tall and thin, his arms were as long as a gorilla's. He was clean-shaven. His skin was almost as white as a cloud. He wore wire-rimmed glasses. To me he looked like a Sunday-school teacher. I wanted him to beat Mr. George M. L. La Branche.
Mr. Tucker held up the megaphone. "Ladies and Gentlemen! Our next and last caster has won this tournament five years in a row. He is probably the greatest long-distance fly caster on the planet, B. L. Richards."
Again we clapped.
B. L. Richards put a reel onto his fly rod, tied on a fly and marched down the dock like a soldier. When he was ready, he bent his knees but didn't cross his heart. He cast back and forth, back and forth. He stopped the rod and let go of the line. The rolling loop tightened and turned into a pointy wedge. The wedge, however, still rolled like a wheel, until the top got real short and then flipped over. The straight line floated down.
The fly landed outside the long lines.
"Damn!" B. L. Richards yelled.
"No cursing!" one of the spectators insisted.
B. L. Richards didn't apologize, as I thought he should. He retrieved some line and cast again.
The fly landed between the lines.
"One hundred and four!" the man in the rowboat yelled.
Wildly, we clapped.
B. L. Richards, however, didn't smile or nod. He cast again.
"One hundred and two feet!"
B. L. Richards stomped his foot.
Mr. Tucker held up the megaphone. "For the sixth year in a row, our champion is B.L. Richards."
"Maybe!" someone shouted. A young man carrying a fly rod stood on the top of the stone hill. He wore a long white shirt and faded, baggy pants. His hair was brown and wavy and combed straight back.
He climbed, then slid down the hill and walked right passed me. He was average size. His eyes were small and close together. His nose was long and a little hooked. In his face, therefore, I saw the face of an eagle.
He walked up to the table. "I'd like a chance." He spoke with a slight Polish accent. I wondered if he came from the Lower East Side.
"The tournament is only open to members of casting clubs," Mr. Tucker said.
To me the rule didn't seem fair, the same way it didn't seem fair that immigrants had to live in tiny apartments that didn't have bathrooms.
"But I've been practicing all year," the young man said.
Mr. Tucker grinned. "Are you saying you can beat the greatest fly caster in the world?"
"I'd sure like to try."
"Have you ever cast in a tournament before?"
"Where'd you get your rod?"
"The rod is legal. It's eleven and a half feet."
"Let him cast!" a spectator demanded.
"Rules are rules," B. L. Richards stated.
"What are you scared of!?" another spectator shouted. "Only God," B. L. Richards insisted. "The young man can join my club, but he'll have to pay five dollars, like everyone else."
The young man reached into his pocket and took out money. He uncrumpled two bills. "All I have is two dollars."
"Sorry," Mr. Tucker said.
I pulled my father's arm. "Dad, can I have my next two weeks allowance?"
"He's a stranger who probably won't ever pay you back. Are you sure you want to give up your allowance?"
I thought of all the baseball cards I wouldn't be able to buy; and how I still craved the card of the greatest shortstop of all time, Honus Wagner. "Yes, I'm sure. Please?"
"All right." He gave me three dollars.
I took the money and ran up to the young man. "Sir, here." I held out the money.
He glared at me, and in my mind I saw long claws coming out of his eyes and trying to grab me. I stepped back, looked at his red fly rod and wondered if it was tinted with blood.
"I'm not a Sir, and I'm not a beggar," he stated.
"Whatever you are, do you want to cast or not?"
He closed his eyes, then opened them and grinned. "Thanks, kid." He took the money and walked away from me. He turned back. "What's your name, kid?"
"Ian Mac Bride. What's yours?"
"Are, are you from the Lower East Side?"
"What do you know about the Lower East Side?"
"I was there. My mother took me."
He smiled. "Good for her. Where'd you get those freckles, Ian?"
"I don't know."
Izzy put the money on the table. "My name is Izzy, with two z's, Klein."
Izzy set up his rod. Hunched over as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, he walked down the dock, but then the world must've lightened because, step by step, he straightened up and seemed to grow taller and taller, until he reached the end of the dock.
I walked back to my father. He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled warmly. I thought that maybe I still loved him.
Izzy bent his knees, but unlike the other casters, his right foot wasn't far behind his left. I crossed my fingers, but not wanting anyone to see, I stuffed my hands into my pockets. Izzy moved the rod back, perpendicular to the water. He stopped the rod at about 1 o'clock. His casting arm, I noticed, pointed straight up and hadn't passed his head. Izzy, for whatever reason, cast differently than the other competitors.
The line rolled behind him. He cast the rod forward, then back again. This time as the loop rolled, he pointed his fly rod a little lower, then he rotated his hips and whipped the rod forward. He straightened his arm all the way in front of him, stopped the rod and raised the handle about 6 inches. The rod pointed in the direction of the streaking fly line. The front of the line tightened into a wedge; and I was sure Izzy was going to win the tournament.
I yelled, "Go!"
The top of the wedge dropped down and tangled with the bottom. The whole line crashed onto the water. People groaned. I looked at B. L. Richards. He grinned. I wanted to punch him. I wondered if I was stupid for believing Izzy could win.
Izzy smiled, surprisingly, and retrieved his line.
My father said, "I think this guy is going to do it."
"The way he rotated his hips and transferred his weight. Remember what I taught you about throwing and hitting a baseball?"
"But Dad, this is fly casting."
"The same principles apply to many sports."
I hoped my father was right.
Izzy cast again, and again the line formed a wedge. I wanted to yell, but I was afraid of jinxing the wedge, so I didn't. The wedge kept its shape and unrolled.
But the fly landed outside the ropes. Izzy smiled again.
I looked at B. L. Richards. His mouth hung open, as if he had just seen a ghost.
"The cast will not count," Mr. Tucker stated. "Klein has one more cast."
Izzy looked right at me. I held up my crossed fingers as high as I could. He nodded, retrieved some line and got into his stance. He didn't move, as if he were an insect trapped in amber for all eternity, but then he looked up at the sky and said something.
I wondered what. The ground seemed to tip over. I felt I was back on the H.M.S. Bounty and seasick. I closed my eyes, and even though I didn't believe in God, I whispered, "Land between the lines. Land between the lines." I squeezed my crossed fingers. Suddenly I felt numb and light, as if I had turned into a hot-air balloon.
But the gravel path was still beneath me. I opened my eyes and watched the line roll. Maybe the line hypnotized me. It seemed to roll slower and slower. Finally it straightened. Izzy cast the rod forward; and in my mind I saw a man waving a magic wand and making a snake circle back and forth.
Izzy stopped the wand and raised the handle. The snake seemed to turn into a long-winged bird. Then the bird disappeared into a straight line. The line floated down and landed right between the long ropes!
People cheered and clapped wildly.
"I think Izzy did it!" my father said.
The man in the back of the boat measured the cast. "One hundred and eleven feet!"
"Check his rod!" B. L. Richards demanded.
Izzy marched down the dock and laid his rod on the table.
Mr. Tucker took a measuring rope out of his pocket and measured Izzy's rod. "Eleven and a half feet!"
"Weigh it!" B. L. Richards demanded.
Izzy pulled off the fly, took off the reel, and twisted apart his rod. He placed the two pieces on the scale. The scale's long, black needle jumped upward.
"Five and three quarter-ounces," Mr. Tucker stated. "The rod is legal."
B. L. Richards stared down the long line of people. He closed his eyes. I wondered what he would do. He opened his eyes suddenly and looked at Izzy. "Congratulations. I don't know where you came from, but wherever you did - heck, it doesn't matter. You were the better caster, today." B. L. Richard held out his hand.
Izzy shook it and smiled. The other casters formed a line, and one by one they shook Izzy's hand.
"Ian, you got your wish," my father said. "It's late. We'd better get home for dinner."
"I want to talk to Izzy."
I ran through the scattering crowd. Izzy was surrounded by a circle of people, but unlike the people circling the peddlers' carts on the Lower East Side, no one waved his arms or yelled.
I stood outside the circle, feeling lost and hoping Izzy noticed me and pulled me into the circle.
He saw me, finally. "Ian, I owe you."
"No. Just tell me: Where did you learn to cast like that?"
I wondered what he meant, but I didn't want to seem stupid, so I didn't ask. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around. My father said, "We'd better go."
Izzy talked to Mr. Tucker, and seemed to have forgotten about me.
I turned away from Izzy. My father and I walked toward Fifth Avenue. The gravel path was clogged with people. We all walked slowly, slowly enough so that Izzy could easily catch up to me.
But he didn't.
I stepped off the path and looked back. Izzy climbed up the stone hill. He carried his fly rod, but not his trophy. He reached the top of the hill, walked into the woods and disappeared. I looked at the table. The trophy was still on it.
"C'mon Ian," my father said.
"Izzy didn't take his trophy."
"Maybe he just forgot it."
No, he didn't, something told me. But I couldn't explain that something to my father, or even to myself. I walked out of the park, hoping, praying that, somehow, somewhere I would see Izzy again.
I suppose I did - in my mind, I mean, because during the next few days I kept seeing him make the long, beautiful, tournament-winning cast. Then I saw myself making the cast. More than anything, I suddenly wanted to become a great fly caster, but since I didn't have a fly rod, I soon went back into make-believe time and dreamed of helping Fletcher Christian lead his heroic mutiny. But I guess make-believe time isn't meant to last, because soon I dreamed of going forward in real time, and becoming a great baseball player or a great lawyer, like my father.
Suddenly I realized I should be proud of my father, especially since instead of choosing to play baseball in crowded stadiums, he chose to argue right and wrong in small, half-empty courtrooms. Maybe his choice was his way of also leaving a trophy behind. And maybe my choice was to love him for at least trying to do what, for him, seemed right.
So even though the tournament didn't change my father, he looked different. Strangely, what the tournament did change - the course of my life - looked the same.
Copyright 2007 by Randall Kadish. All rights reserved.
From the back cover:
Making peace with the world. Sooner or later most of us have to.