Friday, March 7, 2008

The Complete Doc Howe

After losing both legs just below the knee while a medic in World War I, Doc Howe didn't practice much medicine, but took up fishing with a passion, and became the sometime-published fishing expert , one-time national casting champion, and all-time wizard of Bonaparte fishes. He and our Grandpa Bert, working together, located all the shoals in Lake Bonaparte and made a complete map of the lake bottom by casting lead-headed jigs and counting as they sank. Grandpa Bert was a deeply serious fisherman, and had pretty much retired at fifty to pursue hunting and fishing, but he was also a family man. Doc too had a wife, but no family to support and worry about, so his and Lillian's life centered on his fishing. Of course fishing couldn't be a cure for the loss of legs and even as an escape, the jig was up every sundown. But he fished every day like fishing was a combination of rocket- science, neuro-surgery, and truth seeking. He would not have called it religious practice. He had humor, but not religion; Lillian handled the religion. Her religion prohibited make-up, dancing, and probably a lot of other things, but not fishing.

Doc had no faith anymore either in the continuing parade of prosthetic legs he had worn out just walking to and from his boat. But sitting in his seventeen foot aluminum Gruman with a half dozen rods on the seats, a cigar in his mouth, maybe a fifth of whiskey in his tackle box, and always a can to bail with and pee into, he was just about complete.
Whenever he, or Bert, or any of their minor fishing competitors caught a particularly large fish, Glen Priest would trace it's outline on the side of one of his marina storage sheds, and write the statistics inside the outline.
When we went across to get groceries at Priest's store we boys often studied the shed wall. Doc was always ahead in the statistics.
If Doc himself was recently back from his morning fishing and still in his boat tied up at the dock , as he often was for an hour or so afterwards, we would go see what he had caught and hear about what he had lost.
In the afternoons early, he would usually be sitting outside his travel trailer up by the store.
Lillian didn't let Doc smoke in the trailer, so she would set a chair out for him beside a card table for his lunch and fly tying stuff. Doc would lean a few rods up against his trailer so that the boys who stopped by could try them.
He would give a little instruction when it was wanted. If one of his "students", as he called them, showed a strong interest and some ability with the tackle, Doc might make a date for some serious morning fishing. Most of these kids had never seen a sunrise, so it was not just an honor but a stunning revelation, to get himself out of bed while his parents lay still and even the dog slept like it was dead, to go stand at the shore in the dark of morning, and then out on the lake with Doc Howe, and (so as to throw no warning shadow) cast into the sun bursting over the horizon, and on until the dull light of ten o'clock, coming home with eyes pried wide and scales off.

Doc was a total professional. During the depression, he had fished for the market with rod and reel off the Gulf Coast of Florida, depending mostly on lead- headed buck-tail jigs, gull-watching, and his sense of smell - past exposure to mustard gas be damned.
But there were no trout in that water.
If a fish is not a trout, it is just a meal, and Doc didn't need to work that way just to feed himself.
So after the Second World War, when aircraft factories turned to making aluminum trailers and boats, Doc and Lillian bought an early Spartan travel model , and took it through the Rocky Mountain West, stopping mostly at lake-side campgrounds where he demonstrated the effectiveness of salt water jigging techniques, fishing deep for trout. And he brought out the long rods to wow the locals with his fly casting; once on a side trip to Oklahoma I was told, lassooing a duck with his roll cast for the benefit of Will Rogers.
Actually wading in trout streams is something he would never do again, and the fly rod was less effective on fish in deep water, but he loved the pure, abstracted fly casting all the more for that , went to the national competitions, and became North American accuracy and distance fly casting champions.

He had the power, he had the rythim, and he had the touch.
It was his deft violin playing in the Carthage High School Orchestra that first got the attention of the Osteopath who sponsored Doc to medical school: Osteopathy, being originally a practice meant to cure with subtle manipulations, conditions caused by just about everything but land mines, without using surgery or drugs.
Of course, Doc was very conscious of the irony in the fact that was alive and functioning thanks to surgery and drugs, and though he did practice some general osteopathic manipulations, his ambition was to be a recognized expert practitioner and author on advanced fresh-water fishing techniques.
During the fifties he wrote and published a few detailed articles on his fresh water jigging , but others adopted his methods and offered them as their own in other magazines, although the only thing they had truly invented, was the fish they claimed in their articles to have caught.
Hacks, phonies, pirates, and Liars. Doc once waited in his car outside the hotel in Cody Wyoming to see the celeberty fiction and outdoor sports writer Zane Grey arrive.
When the great man climbed out of his Sedan and Doc saw that even with his Stetson hat on, Grey was only about as tall as Doc with his legs off, Doc was able to drive away satisfied.

I was there at the trailer listening and watching from outside the ring of boys around Doc who wanted to try their hand at his fly tying vice or with one of the rods. I didn't want to be at the center of attention, but I was fascinated by The long rod, and the flying line.

On windy days at Loon Island , I liked to go up on the boathouse with one of the soggy fly rods the family used to crane worms across the creeks.
Grandpa Bert and Ernie Thomas had built the boathouse on stone filled cribbing, a few yards off shore, with a gang plank leading to it, port holes on the sides, a flat roof , rail and flag pole up top so it looked like a houseboat. We would all go up there to shoot at cans in the water and cast with practice plugs.

Up above the water that far, all I had to do was hold the rod high and whip enough line out through the guides any way I could, then the wind would pick it up, and only a little help from me, make the fly dart, hover, rise , or dap the water for half an hour without breaking my trance.

I was a little shocked if a fish actually happened to be there to meet the fly when it dapped, or actually leapt out of the water as it swooped over, and I tried to avoid that happening. I suppose the non-fishing came partly from me having been caught on hooks myself once, but mostly it was that fish interfered with my flying.

The summer after Davey caught me on the Pikie Minow, he got a fly thing Kit for Christmas and soon became as obsessed with everything about flyfishing, as if trout were girls. He stayed home from the movies, saved his allowances, and bought fly rod building kit, with tubular fiberglass blanks, cork grip rings, and a level, general-use fly line. The level line was good enough for his level of refinement , but he struggled hard and not very successfully with that little rod and level line to push those big deer hair flies he made for bass fishing. So Doc Howe gave him a spare reel holding one of his well used , slightly cracked, forward- taper lines.
The weight forward taper helped, but the main problem remained, which was that Davey kept catching his back cast in the top of the cedar tree that leaned out from shore from where the gang plank was footed. I had to get out of the way when Davey was up there whipping that thing around.
The hang-ups would piss him off so that, if he could restrain himself from yanking the rod and breaking off a fly that had taken him forty five minutes to tie, he would just lean the rod against the rail and come down off the roof.

It was understood between us that if I would climb up and get the fly out of the tree, then I could use the rod until Davey came back and wanted to try again.
Sometimes it seemed like he must have been hiding in the juniper shrubbery to see just when I had freed it up for him....he always showed up soon after I got it free..... but in a few weeks, with what time I had, I got to be pretty good. I say so myself.
I didn't know anything about Roll Casting, or Steeple Casting, or Spey Casting... which are all techniques for casting a long line forward without first bringing it straight out back..... but to do that, you need some kind of magic pulley in the sky or the water, to do that.
With no idea and much Abandon, I just started with a kind of a jump. then a step and a bounce, throwing line and fly into the air, rocking, extending, rocking, extending.
Sometimes it all collapsed and landed in a mess on the roof, and sometimes I could keep it up and going, my mind on the fly, so I wouldn't even know how long I was up there...

Doc Howe had never seen me with a fly rod and no idea of my roof casting experiments, but he always noticed me at the dock or on the outskirts of the boys around him at the trailer and always said, "Howdy Tarzan," which he didn't call anybody else and nobody else ever called me.
I had never come forward to try a rod of his and he can hardly have seen any deftness or promise in me, standing back with my hands in my pockets, but there was a sympathy between us which maybe came from my having been shortened by birth as he was by war, as he later pointed out.

And then, late one morning as he boated up the Birch island channel while shoal-hopping on his way back to the marina, he looked between Turtle Island and Evergreen point into our bay, and saw me up there on top of the boathouse, step jumping, bouncing, and dancing around waving Davey's little fly rod like I was conducting the wind or else being yanked around by it.

Right then, like it was drawn by the hand of Leonardo DaVinci on the sky over my head, he told me, he saw the schematic of the leg extenders.
I didn't know about schematics or Leonard, but within a week of Doc's vision of me (which I was totally unaware of at the time) Grandpa Bert took me over for the fitting of a one-leg proto-type made with bamboo rod parts arrayed around a beef shank bone.
And by the next week there were two legs. Each was a bundle of ten rod sections, fiberglass this time,. and connectied to rings which slid on the tube to stoppers at each end. The bottom of the steel tube accepted the knob top of a regular shoe stretcher, which had its joint tensioned by a steel spring.

The two men got me up on these new legs, but every move I made on them was magnified so I could hardly stand still, and when I tried to walk, I staggered like a drunk baby.

Doc said that was o.k. We could go easy on the walking for now.
And then he handed me a rigged and ready fly rod.
The fact is that those Extenders weren't made for walking so much as for distance casting.

In those days, the orthodox fly casting cliche was "it's all in the wrist."
The student victim was given a book, which he must hold against his body with the elbow of his casting arm, to insure that it really was all in the wrist.
Well, Baloney!
I had a very good wrists, mostly from walking around on my hands, which was a thing Davey and I did a lot but I did better because I don't have the big leg overhead. And Doc also had strong wrists, not just from fly casting but from powering himself around with those canes strapped onto his forearms, but he didn't buy the all in the wrist business. Even though he himself compensated with his wrists for what he couldn't do with the rest of his body.
And seeing the way I coped with the rod and leg problem, he had realized that I was "a little something of a Wise-Body".

I probably did add twenty or thirty feet to my cast with those extenders on me, right there that day, before Doc took the rod back as if maybe I was going to over do it somehow.
He suggested I should practice back at the boathouse and see him in a week, but he didn't say anything right off about how he thought I could someday become the next North American Fly Casting Distance Champion .
And I did practice up on the boathouse but I couldn't climb up the ladder with the stilts on, so I had to strap them on and take them off while up there, And I couldn't wear them around Loon Island, because the ground was too uneven there and I couldn't wear them in the boat, because that was dangerous.

Once or twice a week that summer, Doc would pick me up to fish some in the morning and then bring me over to the marina to practice cast after Lilian gave us some lunch.
When the family was ready to head back to Ithaca at the end of that summer, I went first with Daddy Ernie to see Doc, who told me to keep practicing with the legs.
And I did practice back on Ithaca, but not so much for casting as for racing around.
With experience I was getting better at really stepping out and the extenders were really good for the streets. I could easily beat a dog up any hill in Ithaca, or make twenty foot bounds across an open area, as long as the there was no uneven ground or obstruction, but people would be very distracted by my bounding in traffic, or even on the sidewalk or the playground,.
The East Hill Cemetery was my favorite Ithaca place to use them because of the privacy and because the steep and monument studded landscape added to the interest. but I was lucky, ricocheting around there, that I didn't come to my final resting place at the base of one of the tombstones.
I did have a few moving accidents with them, and it was clear to parents that the helmet I was made to wear for roller and ice skating was not going to help much if I accidentally vaulted into a gorge or the path of a bus, so after a small incident with a tree, my Dad took over the care of the legs (standing beside the guns in the the master bedroom closet, then on the top shelf of the closet, and later in separate bureau drawers) except when he released them to me for practice, or when I snuck them out to bounce around. As it was, I had plenty of minor accidents which didn't break any part of me, but were plenty hard on the devices, and I had to wrap a couple of splits and wire up some dislocations before Doc Howe made replacements the next summer.

Ten years ago last year, the legs (still in the guitar case I had been carrying them in every since leaving Aunt Sammy) were stowed in a stone hut I had laid up in a not remote enough side- gorge up on the Ithaca Watershed. Some jerk stumbled on my place and, carried off the case, super legs and all.
Probably thought he was getting a guitar. Sorry but no guitar, And anyway, even if he was after the legs Doc Howe made, he didn't get them either because, over the years, I replaced every piece of both legs , some pieses several times.
And beyond that, I doubt that anyone but me would have any kind of use for them and if the leg thief gave them a good try ( to which I don't object) he has probably already killed himself.

I lost contact with Doc and Lillian a year after he made the legs, and I never entered into fly casting competitions, but those extenders weren't just toys to me.
There were even times, like when I bunked at the old Number 9 fire station and occasionally got to the fire before the truck arrived , and once before the arsonist left, when they have been socially redeeming. I'm not saying I was ever any part of a super hero. Just another could-have-been, like Doc Howe.

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