Bamboo memory

Discussion in 'Bamboo, Fiberglass & Classic Reels' started by wadin' boot, Apr 8, 2007.

  1. wadin' boot Donny, you're out of your element...

    Posts: 2,033
    Wallingford, WA
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    Bamboo Memory

    There’s a rattle and a twist needed to drive the skeleton key in. With a turn, the tumblers fall true and the bolt frees from the jamb. William O’brien needs to put a little shoulder into it, but the door opens into Uncle Jed’s house. Just to be sure, Will calls out a hello, the only answer a background patter of rain on the tin that covers the awning. It’s a comforting sound.

    It’s musty, though dry, lots of boxes are lined along the floor half packed, or never unpacked, and the walls are decorated in a Japanese style. There are delicate watercolors of waterfalls, rivers, floating lanterns. And photos, lots of photos, framed and yellowed, mainly black and whites, but some with the colors starved and bleached with inks never meant to last thirty years. Will closes the door behind him and throws his bag by Jed’s shoes, all lined up like he got religion. The bag slides and throws the neatness off.

    Jed doesn’t need his shoes neat anymore, he’s dead. This house is now Will O’Brien’s. Before Jed died he said there were a few things the old owners left behind, by that Will expected something like yard tools, paints, and so on. He never expected the house to be full of ghosts, still staring out from pictures at him.

    The photos draw Will the most, Jed’s not in any of them. They show a Japanese family, more than one generation. The older the photo the more Japanese they look. Not in terms of their bones and eyes, but their context, what they wear, the trditional kimonos and wraps, frozen poses, and pinned hair- perhaps the 1890’s, the neat formal attire of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and then a jump in time to progressively more Americanized. Tengu derby grins, graduation photos, white prom dates. The most recent photo appears to be an Amerasian kid high-fiving his grandma, both blue-jeaned. The kid’s wearing an Uncle Tupelo T-shirt. And the woman is the same one that, if you looked closer, you see in many of the photos. She’s younger but maintains a dignity and grace at every age that you’d be a fool not to call beautiful.

    It’s a small house, a master room, a kitchen, a bathroom, the water almost evaporated out of the toilet. Will flushes it, making sure the hotcase food he’d eaten from the gas station on the way down has an escape. (It was moving through him faster than he anticipated, damn those chimichangas are good though.) Finally one last door, partially open. It’s in this study, that Will finds what he’s looking for.

    There’s an old desk covered in the riff-raff familiar to anyone who’s ever tied flies. The materials are ancient, they look like a museum diorama. A wood-thread vice, tiny faded paper bags of hackle, yarn, felt, fur and feather. Small pouches and tins of hooks. Surgical forceps and scissor, and a pair of old loupes, their bakelite handles chipped in places and one lens cracked above the meridian. There’s a name on the sides, Eve Tanaka.

    A corrupted banker’s light, single bulb and a shade of delicate paper, sits on the desk and lights the room. With the light off the shade’s coated with watercolor waves and fish, and with the light on, they vanish. Someone’s glued a collection of canned-fish labels onto a piece of salvaged marine ply, some of the labels are half peeled. And the photos here are almost predictable, shots of a boy and girl holding fish, of rods, of the rod, a backdrop of fir and cedar, and snow-capped mountains, it could be Japan, but the cars and boats in the background give it away.

    In the corner stand blanks and splines of bamboo, warped and still waiting to be matched, straightened, glued, and bound, and along one wall are the pins and racks for doing just that. The blanks, at first glance, look ready to go, but it’s only threads of spiders that give that illusion. Tools for shaping, bevels, files, and tiny hand planes hang neat, like the shoes, in order of size. A simple chair is turned to let someone work. No one has sat here for years.

    In the other corner are three rods, complete, and one looks fully ready to fish. Will recognizes Jed’s familiar green reel and yellow line, but the rod is unfamiliar and ancient, more of an artifact that a fishing tool. It was just as Jed had described.

    “Will, you’ll find the finest rod I’ve ever fished in the shack.”
    “A rod’s a rod, it’s the person holding the rod that matters.”
    “Hey, you’re here to be schooled, not the other way around. All’s I need you to do is listen. And the tool you use does make a difference. Cheapskate like you is bound to miss out on life’s joys with that attitude.”
    “Where’d you get it?”
    “It’s not something you’d ever think twice about using. It’s bamboo, homemade probably. Looks like crap. All bent and sloppy. I found it in the house when I moved in. I only tried it because I was desperate.”
    “Does it work?”
    “See that’s the thing, I gave it a try thinking it would have all the action of fence-post, but it was unbelievable, unlike anything I’ve ever fished.”
    “How do you mean?”
    Jed looked off, out the VA window over the fairway and towards the city. Golfers were teeing off.
    “Look at those guys down there. What a dumb, self-indulgent sport golf is. The only thing cool about it is sound of the ball being struck.” I didn’t mind golf, or golfers. They seemed harmless enough.
    “Jed, you’re losing me again.”

    He did that more than ever now, the tumor spreading through his frontal lobes, cutting his attention, removing his inhibitions, overtaking cell-by-cell a deep-seated self-loathing. That personality change proved a surprise and delight. Stories, tips, no more stoic, irritable, self-conscious, alcoholic Jed. A tradeoff for his insight was thought tangents. His legacy was delivered, hour by hour, in these semi-lucid conversations with his nephew.

    “What do you think is more selfish, fishing or golf?”

    He turned back to Will.
    “Use it, you’ll see what I mean. You need to use it.”


    The rod’s made of bamboo, lacquered brown like long-steeped tea, a one piece. Some of the wrapping is frayed, one of the runners is loose, and there are cracks in between the splines just before the cork handle hides them. That cork is worn leather-smooth, it’s freckles and dimples long since flattened in the grip of calloused hands. The steel tip is greened a little, like it might have seen some salt, and Jed has left his fly on. The leader is kinked tight over the last guide, a phantom streamer, its hook violating the cork.

    The rod has memory. When you hold it up and look along its spine, you’ll see it’s not true, there’s a warp where its been placed against the wall of this shack. Deeper, within its parallel fibers you might see how the bamboo once grew with a helix twist, it was never straight or clear.

    It was one of Kano Tanaka’s prides, the other being his wife and children. Taken as an afterthought, he’d packed a live bamboo cutting deep in his suitcase from Suki’s garden prior to leaving the coast, he'd wrapped it in a wad of wet cotton and again by an oilcloth. And like their few jewels, his father’s watch, a journal and their photos, it was carefully stowed for the unknown.

    It took two years, during which Kano and his eight-year-old Eve carefully tended and watered the shoot, babied it during cold snaps with blankets and a lantern, shielded from the harsh insults of summer sun, desert winds, and worst of all, the balls and terror of children who knew no meaning or use of bamboo other than for play swords. They talked to it too, whispered words of encouragement. It grew twisted, but tall and quick. Kano’s stem from which the blanks were taken improbably made it to ten feet. There was no other alternative for a rod, bowed and turned as it was, it would have to do.

    Tule Lake is a harsh place in the Northeastern head of California. From 1943-6 Kano Tanaka and his wife Suki, their two children Alan and Eve lived here, along with ten thousand others of Japanese descent. Confined so as not to threaten other Americans. In context it was easier to understand than it is today.(1,2) Imagine a world where gardeners, children and fishermen are incarcerated. Maybe golfers too.

    In the frustrating boredom of camp routine, Kano worked on his rod, splitting the cane, drying the blanks, beveling them straight. He recognized there is nothing so dangerous or devastated as a man unoccupied, however mundane those tasks were, he needed everything to stay level.

    Named Kano, after the God of waters.

    He poured love and energy into construction, and Eve watched most all of it and Alan, younger by two years, helped where he could. They handed him tools and scrounged around for parts. She found him wire for runners, silk thread for binding, even jars of dope and shellac. Alan cannibalized a noteboard for sheets of cork. Even Suki worked on it, chiseling pine housings for a tin rectangle cut from can, hammered flat, a crude plane to taper the length with.

    One time a bobbin of silk fell from the table, unwound as it rolled across the floor, and when Eve tried to pick it, a birds-nest of tangle formed. She tried to unravel it but she pulled things tight. She fully expected to be told off, she would have been back home. But here, she sat on Kano’s knee, as they worked their way through.

    “Eve, every tangle like this is a serious of loops, some big, some small. You have to search for how to bring the loop back through where it’s trapped. Sometimes they’ll twist, and sometimes they’ll tie, but most of this is just loops. Either you find ends and work them backwards through the path, or you start with the loops and work toward the end. It’s easier to do the loops.”

    He would push them through, and in what seemed like minutes they’d be done, back winding silk to the spindle. Kano made it seem like magic.

    As they worked, Kano told Eve and Alan stories of the Cascades, the San Juans, the rivers and the fish that held within them. But not just of the familiar, he passed on ghost tales of Gaijin men, legends of mountain witches and wandering priests, grey whales moving on the currents like whispers. Sad tales of lovers forbidden to fall for one another, of tiny children thought to be slow or sick or dumb who ended up heroes. And funny ones of orphans (kids love orphan stories) helped by a rotating cast of sometimes foolish, sometimes sage, birds, bears and monkeys. Some of them acted out like Coast Salish dances. These imagined characters figured in games Alan and Eve would devise on their own, out by the boundary fences.

    Most often there were more stories than work. These were echoes from Kano’s own childhood, from his family, an oral history that was as deep and rich as Tule Lake was silt-clogged, desolate and windblown. But Kano told better stories. New ones made up with pieces and fragments of their days at the camp. Stories that matched the migrations of birds, the puff clouds of a late Summer thunderstorm, or the purple hands and frost-breath of a winter morning. Stories that covered big issues: inevitability, injustice, love and loss, of ambition and change, pain and humor, fish and their pursuit, confinement and sickness. And tragedy too. It was one of the few ways they shared moments, imaginary at first, but over time, and with routine, they were wrapped together, bound up, glued tight. And if they were a little too serious or scary, then Kano tickled them loose, with laughs and shouts before kissing them good night.

    Kano’s family would make their way back to the Pacific Northwest in the Summer of 1946, they would find their beach shack unchanged, weathered some, but fundamentally sound. Suki’s Garden was a wild mess, windstorms had blown weak firs down. As a last act, just before leaving, Kano split his clump of bamboo and dug a trench over the drive, and planted a long line of shoots right across, sparing only the one that he packed away. It had become a living fence when they returned. It took three days of pickaxe and shovel to dig it up again. Relief work came so easy.

    Kano taught Eve and Alan to fish with this rod. Before the internment camp, he never thought they were ready. But they sure were now. The fished off the beach, the point, in the rivers and lakes nearby. One would fish and the others would watch, Kano would call out when it was time to switch. And every exchange they would comment on what they had seen. It was a peculiar way to do it, but for the three of them, they developed a common, hypervigilant style. It didn’t seem a relaxing way to do it, but the lessons taken from those days would serve Alan and Eve well, and for them it was a joy to do something together and well.

    Kano died in the worst of ways. His mind stolen in his early fifties, one week at a time, with an insidious dementia. Each week his memory a little worse, the reminders more exacerbated, and the personality less vivid. And the stories repeated themselves, at first comforting, but then the details, as familiar to Suki, Alan and Eve as the rhythms of tide, became dull and confused. At first it was surreal and funny, a coast raven for instance would end up playing sneaky games in a Japanese moral tale about a mountain priest and a village thief. Soon though, they were nonsense.

    In the ten years it took Kano to die, Alan moved on to college, but Eve stayed to help her parents, her mother didn’t cope with his change well. She had her own frailties. At some point a threshold was reached, where Eve, for she was the only one who had the patience, would tell her father the same tales she had heard decades earlier.

    Eve would take Kano to fish for searuns and silvers from the beach or the point that lay some three hundred yards away from where they’d converted the study to Kano’s room. They’d fished the beach hundreds of times. But these days Kano’s line would fall should, his casts were all false, and his knots poor on account of his tremor. How ironic it was that deep within his hippocampus, tangles and corrugated sheets of tiny, evil proteins were accumulating like little waves and rafts of seagrass, suffocating his good cells, corrupting his engines of memory. Alzheimer’s disease. Waves and tangles, the familiar, the once navigable, were killing the seahorse.

    When at last he refused his food, Eve and Suki decided there was no merit to spooning fish and rice mush into a hole that dribbled. For a week she sat by him, tied flies in her vice while he slept. Told him some of the stories she’d helped invent. He’d stare blankly, and then she’d tickle him. His mind unoccupied. He was mute for most of it, but when he no longer giggled, she knew his time had come.

    Suki wanted him cremated, his ashes spread over the garden and into the water. They didn’t say much and the relief was great. Liberated, Eve went on to college, to Med school, she excelled in surgery. She had seen death, and would go on to excise it nearly every day. In her spare weekends, she went to visit her mother, and fished the familiar waters, tied flies until late in the night, laughing with her mom when they thought of her father dancing like a monkey, or flapping his wings like an eagle while she clung to his back. She visited at least until Suki herself passed, a point which corresponded with Eve’s own career momentum.

    And much as I’d love to tell you that these sweet memories were held close by Eve Tanaka, they too eroded over time. Not by dementia, but by the weight of her own responsibility and success. Like layers of silt in the last grand delta, this house, her gear, this bamboo rod are fossilized in Eve Tanaka’s mind. Take her here and she could bring it all back, but in Seattle there was only the present, the living and the dying. There was little to be gained in thinking about the dead. And for her this was comforting, divorced from nostalgia and sentiment, she never found herself sad, concentrating on tasks at hand. She sold the place as is to Uncle Jed.

    So when Will O’brien lifts this bamboo rod he looks it over and concludes it’s bent because it lay against a wall. But that’s not the full story, the rod is bent and hardened, tempered and full of stories. Now Jed’s also, and soon, Will O’Briens. He has come here, after all, to recover, and tomorrow he will fish.


    For tomorrow’s day of fishing please see:

    http://www.washingtonflyfishing.com/board/showthread.php?t=38891



    (1) http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/anthropology74/ce15c1.htm
    (2) Dave Guterson’s outstanding novel Snow falling on Cedars does a good job in illustrating the circumstances and aspects of that novel remain influences on this piece.

    For background on Jed or Will O’Brien: http://www.washingtonflyfishing.com/board/showthread.php?t=38266
    http://www.washingtonflyfishing.com/board/showthread.php?t=37983
    http://www.washingtonflyfishing.com/board/showthread.php?t=37357
  2. fredaevans Active Member

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    White City, Oregon, USA.
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  3. andyk Wannabe Senior Member

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    Seattle, WA
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    WOW is right!