BY TIM TALEVICH
My beloved great uncle Tony was in his 90s by the time he passed away. He died one day in the small, plain house in Aberdeen where he lived his whole life. He had made his living working at a local sawmill, as a cranberry farmer and at other odd jobs.
He spent his free time pulling big fish out of the Humptulips River and big razor clams from local beaches. Once, when I was recording a family history, I asked him if he ever regretted not leaving Aberdeen and seeking fortune elsewhere in the world.
The question stopped him: “Why would I ever want to leave?” he responded. “Every fortune you could ever want was right here — jobs, friends and family.”
I visited Uncle Tony whenever I went down to the ocean, more so as he got older. All it took was a knock on the front door. Sometimes you’d find him around back tending to his raspberries. One time I was happy to tell him about a recent fly-fishing trip to Oregon’s McKenzie River, where I had caught my first trout from a drift boat.
“Wait here a moment,” he said when I was done, and disappeared to a back room. He returned a few minutes later with an elegant fly rod. It was bamboo – the king of materials.
“Here, I want you to have this,” he said. “I’m not getting out much any more these days.”
I handled it with awe, admiring its honey-gold color, straight, elegant lines and unexpected lightness. I told him I couldn’t take his rod because I’m sure he would still need it, but I was asking time to turn backwards. By then, his eyes and balance were failing, and he hadn’t fished for years. He insisted. I reverently slipped the rod into its protective sheath and took it with me.
I was excited to try out this new treasure as soon as I could. I did so a few days later, on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie near my home. Truth be told, it was hard to fish with. The graphite rods of my generation had changed fly fishing and replaced bamboo, except for a handful of hold-out purists. Nonetheless, I kept the rod with the others in my collection, showing it to friends whenever I could. I used the reel with one of my rods and enjoyed having something from Uncle Tony in my gear. My closest fly-fishing friends and I all had equipment from a parent or a great uncle in our gear collection. Standing waist deep in slow-moving water at the day’s end, time and motion seem to stand still, and your mind sometimes drifts along with the river to the people who got you there.
I always wondered how much Uncle Tony’s old bamboo rod was worth. One day I spotted an ad for a traveling fly-fishing gear show, offering free assessments of old equipment. I had no intention of selling Uncle Tony’s rod, but out of curiosity I took it to the show to find its value. The collector watched as I carefully pulled the rod from its sheath. He examined it closely for a few minutes, noting a model number on the side, turning it slowly and inspecting the weathered cork grip and the guides. After a few minutes he returned it to me.
“It’s priceless,” he said.
It took my breath away. I knew Uncle Tony was fastidious in his care of old things, having grown up in the Depression and being a man of simple means. But “priceless” was beyond my wildest imagination. Who could imagine that I was in possession of such an item? Maybe it was an early Orvis — a rare museum piece that Uncle Tony had somehow come across. Stories of people finding Picassos at garage sales flashed in my mind.
What would I do next? I certainly wouldn’t sell … would I? But what if it meant paying for my kids’ college education, and having money left over to buy 10 modern rods?
“Priceless. Could you give me any kind of rough dollar figure?” I ventured. At the very least, I’d have to know what to insure it for.
“Well, priceless,” came the reply. “As in price-less. There is no real monetary value to this rod.”
The collector kindly explained that Uncle Tony’s precious rod was from the early 1930s and was probably purchased from a mail-order catalog, such as Sears and Roebuck. It was a basic, mass-produced fly rod — the VW Beetle of its time and class. Common as a Timex.
“But what’s it worth to you?” he continued.
I replied that the rod belonged to my dear uncle and had great sentimental value.
“That’s what it’s worth,” he replied.
Today the old fly rod is hung on the wall in our living room. I don’t fish with it anymore, but I do still use Uncle Tony’s old reel as a backup. The fly rod serves as a good fish story — the one that didn’t get away. And it reminds me of my beloved, old great uncle, and the river of time.
Tim Talevich is a writer living in North Bend.
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