Thursday, February 17, 2011

If They Could Talk

I'm not much for collections, though that hasn't always been the case. As a kid I collected comic books and baseball cards, but for all the wrong reasons. I read the comics and I looked at the cards. I liked organizing them and archiving them, but I didn't love them. The cards and comics represented my first investments - stuff I hoped one day would make me rich. That will never happen of course. My entrepreneurial instinct has never been very keen. I haven't sold any of them and I don't intend to. It would hardly be worth it. They sit in boxes and 3-ring binders in the closet (much to Sue's chagrin) waiting for when the time is right to be handed over to my nephews. Maybe they will be able to find the honest joy in them that I never did. (And there's always the chance Barry Bonds will be exonerated, embraced as the greatest baseball player that ever lived and his rookie card will skyrocket to be worth tens of thousands of dollars, right?)

If ever there were a pastime that produces artifacts begging to be collected, it is that of the sportsman. Antique fishing lures, ancient duck decoys, bamboo fly rods, old guns - it's all there. I know a few passionate people who collect such things and I am always grateful to see their latest finds. It gives them a connection to the hunters and fishermen of distant generations who shared our affliction. I understand the magnetic pull they exert, but I have little desire to acquire such things and decorate my house with them.

In spite of this, I do own a few relics of days afield gone by and they are among my most cherished possessions - perhaps not for their historical importance, but for the stories behind them.

When I was in middle school, we took a family vacation to Arizona one winter. Mom had a childhood friend who lived in Phoenix, who we stayed with a few days before hitting the road in a rental car and heading north toward the Grand Canyon. Like most of our outings, we didn't really have an itinerary to stick to - just follow the road and see where it took us.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped at a motel off the highway. I can't remember where it was, but if you can picture a long, isolated stretch of asphalt cutting through the darkness of the desert at night and a glowing neon "vacancy" sign, you'll know the place.

The man in the lobby who checked us in was an elderly fellow with a sparse gray beard and kind eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He was strong and leathery, like an old cowboy should look I thought. Curiously, he stood behind a glass display case filled with duck decoys and they were for sale. If you can imagine a stranger place to find and buy an antique duck block than that rundown flop house in the middle of the Arizona desert...

Regardless how they got there, I was enthralled. They might have been the first duck decoys I'd ever laid eyes on. There were all manner of types and styles - an eclectic collection of hand-carved and factory dekes. The old man had them priced at $40 apiece; didn't matter if it was a red-breasted merganser signed by its maker or a paper mache Canada goose, mass-produced for Sears and Roebuck. After we moved all of the luggage into the room, I wandered back over to the lobby. It was pretty obvious to everyone involved that I was going to make a play for one of those birds. After watching me examining his collection for several minutes, the old man asked me which decoy I liked best. There was a slick looking northern pintail drake that was almost perfect. Whoever had carved it knew a thing or two about ducks and the paint job was so good, the bird almost looked real. And there was an old, beat-up hen scaup that caught my eye for whatever reason. Her body was chip-carved, the paint was faded and her bill was broken. My dad walked in to check on me. "Hey Dad, if you were going to pick between this one and this one, which would you chose?" Dad probably gave the old man a look before he stooped over and looked in the case. "I like that pintail," he said. "That bird's got class." I considered his opinion, but my mind was already made up. "I like that scaup. It's got some stories to tell." The old man said he'd sell us the scaup for half-price and Dad forked over the $20 while I took the duck. "I think you made the right choice," said the old man with a wink as he handed me the decoy.

I've had her going on 25 years now and that hen scaup still holds a place of honor in our house. I once took the duck to a renowned decoy carver on the Carolina coast to see if he could tell me anything about its history. Without any identifying stamps or signatures, all he could venture was that it is a factory-made block of relatively little value. To me, her monetary value is inconsequential to the friendship that was forged that day and the tale of how she came to be in my living room~

My grandfather on my father's side was a fisherman. Though I cannot recall any time he and I went, my father says Grandpa dabbled in all variety of angling pursuits. One year it would be surf casting, the next it would be jigging for mackerel. His constant favorite, however, was bass and he liked nothing better than to troll balsa wood plugs from a 2-man canoe around the edges of a lake.

Long before he died, more than 10 years ago, Grandpa started handing down his fishing equipment to me. I have old Shakespeare bait-casting reels and an ancient tacklebox filled with giant spinners that must have been meant to catch muskies or pike. Most of the stuff is up in the attic, but I do keep a checkbook-sized streamer case from Grandpa's days chasing salmon in northern Maine.

The flies are bedraggled at best, but as of 25 years ago, they still caught fish. I remember using the impossibly long bamboo fly rod Grandpa gave me (its location now a mystery to me) and teaching myself how to cast on an open stretch of the Charles River, just south of Boston. With his instruction echoing in my head, I cobbled together a serviceable blend of rotted fly line, sun-brittle monofilament leader and one of those threadbare salmon streamers you see above. I rode my bike down to the river nearly every day after school and flogged the water with sledgehammer presentations. I will never forget the day I felt a strike as I stripped the great streamer across the current. The fish was strong, as I remember, and I had visions of a giant brown trout coming to the net. After what seemed like an "Old Man and the Sea"-like effort, I managed to beach the 14-inch sucker, which I'd foul-hooked just above the tail.

Shortly after that great struggle, I reasoned the flies and tackle should probably be packed away for safe-keeping and posterity. The L.L. Bean leatherbound book of streamers, however, will always sit on my bookshelf, reminding me of nothing in particular, but important to my connection with the past nonetheless~

I own few guns; a rifle and a 20-gauge slug gun for deer hunting and a 12-gauge shotgun for everything else. They are utilitarian - tools for the job, nothing more. Given half the chance to trade any of them for something more effective, I would do so without remorse. When Sue's father, Hank, decided to give me his old shotgun two Christmases ago, I was happy to have it for the simple fact of adding another tool to my arsenal. And then I took it out of the cloth sock it was wrapped in.

The gun is a double-barrel L.C. Smith Field Grade in 16-gauge. It is light, it swings beautifully and it flies to my shoulder when I mount it. I am in love.

From my research, the model was produced by L.C. Smith between 1945 and 1950. There were more than 53,000 made during that period and they are considered to be fine guns of considerable value. When I took the shotgun to a local gunsmith to have the rust and pitting rubbed out and the barrels re-blued, he acted like one of the celebrity appraisers on "Antiques Roadshow" when they are presented with something particularly special. "This gun has value," he emphasized as he handed it back to me. "Thank you for bringing it in and letting me work on it."

In it's current, restored condition, the gun must be as beautiful as the day it was when my father-in-law received it as a teenager. The only thing about it that isn't "factory" is the finish on the receiver, which Hank apparently took a blow-torch to to make it look cool (or whatever the 1940s equivalent to cool was). I have no intention of packing the gun in oil and sticking it in the closet for safe-keeping like a pack of baseball cards or a stack of comic books. Fine old shotguns are not meant to be retired, they are meant to be shot and I mean to do just that in the years to come. This particular piece of history is going to keep on living for as long as I am its caretaker~


  1. I hear steelhead love those fancy looking streamers.

    I can't believe you never offered to rig up that ole scaup decoy to catch the eye of some tolling ringnecks.

    The gunsmith you hooked up with did a spectacular job!

  2. I've got a drop line fishing rig that my grandfather made me to fish with. Out of scrapes he had around the workshop I'm sure. I used it a few times fishing off the docks with him but thats about it. He died and I hardly ever fished in the ocean after that. Most of my fishing was local ponds with my zebco but that drop line was always in my tackle box. I'd almost forgotten about it when I was going through some boxes of stuff not long go.
    Might not be worth much to anyone else but the connections to the past are priceless for us whose memories it sparks.

  3. Carolina - steelhead might eat one of those streamers, but I hear they'll eat just about anything, given a proper presentation (wink, wink). You know, I never even thought about adding her to the spread. I wish that we would have. Thanks for noticing the fine work my gunsmith did. The barrels look great, but what he did to the stock is damn special.
    Moose - You know, I used to have a "drop line" or two in my kit (though we called them handlines up North), and I used to catch pollack and tommy cod with them from the docks around Boston harbor when I was a kid. Nope, they're not worth a thing, but they are precious aren't they?

  4. What amazing collection of beautiful outdoor gear. I have an instant soft spot just seeing that L.L. Bean leather-bound book of flies. Amazing!

  5. The oracle at OBN speaks! I wish I had a better sense of the value of these things, but then again, I'm sort of glad that I don't.

  6. Just saw this blog while surfing for bluebill decoys. Yours was factory made in Pascagoula Mississippi by one of a number of factories that evolved there circa 1950. Padco, Victor to name a few. It is made of tupelo and for its day was the standard. I have a number of them and still use them. Not fancy but functional.