April 01, 2018At age 13, I never lacked for things to do as I became legendary in our tiny town for fixing just about everything. These things came easy for me as it was never a problem to figure out what to do. My course of action on a project was always clear.
One Saturday morning, my friend Freddie came over to my house, yelling his usual comical arrivals, "Can Mikey come out and play?"
Freddie was a tall, lanky, 55-year-old gray-haired man who hated his wife and mother-in-law but was possibly the best fishing buddy any kid ever had, next to my dad. I mowed his lawn every week in the summer and shoveled his snow every winter.
Fredric Finedel worked as a concierge and desk clerk at the fanciest hotel in Chicago and he commuted from our little town in the 'burbs to the Loop every day. But Fred had a plan and a secret no one knew about, not even me.
Freddie was standing on our porch one day wearing a big floppy hat, with his waders in one hand, a spinning rod and can of worms in the other. Mother laughed at him saying, "Kids come in all sizes, small, medium and large."
Running out to the front door, I said: "Give me two minutes to grab my stuff and I'll be right with you." We only had two blocks to walk to the lakeshore back then. Right behind Gene's Park Side Tavern were the kind of lake weed beds where big fish stories and local legends were born.
My magic wand of choice was a split bamboo fly rod Dad had bought for me on one of our infamous train rides to small town USA, just to have lunch and get a haircut.
The author in his happy place, making old rods look beautiful and functional again or creating a new rod from scratch just like he did back then in his dad's workshop. Author photo
Freddie and I reached the water's edge and we rigged a night crawler harness adorned with small spinner blades and a small bobber to our rods. We waded out to our chest and paced about 30 feet apart. The action started in only a few minutes with Freddie hooking the first black bass.
We never expected anyone to join us, but I heard splashing on the shore and turned to see what was up. A stranger waded out to fish nearby. He noticed the bamboo rod in my hand and said, "I wish I knew someone who knows how to work on those kinds of rods." He explained that he had been given one from his father.
Without hesitation, the words just blurted out of my mouth, "I'll fix it!" The stranger asked, "What could a kid like you know about fixing bamboo fly rods?"
Freddie waded over saying, "If Mike says he can fix it, I promise you he will. Why not give the boy a chance and see what he can do. If he ruins your rod, I will pay you the full price out of my own pocket," and he put his hand out to shake on it.
The stranger agreed to the deal. So, I gave him my address to bring the rod over to my house. Late that afternoon, the man brought the rod over and handed it to Dad, with an explanation of what happened at the lake. Pop took his name and phone number to call him when the rod was ready to be picked up. Dad, Mother, Fred and my friends always had faith in my abilities to accomplish anything I set my mind to.
First thing I did was go to the public library and I asked the lady at the desk, "Is there anything on bamboo fishing rods or how to make them or fix them?" She looked up a reference guide and found a book from the Herter's Company in Waseca, Minnesota. After reading it cover to cover several times, I learned that only basic hobby tools from a workshop were required. My dad had a 16-foot lighted work bench in our basement.
The bamboo rod was a Heddon #20, in poor condition, so I took the rod completely apart. Ferrules were removed. The cork grip, the reel seat and each of the three pieces had six segments that were delaminating and had to be re-glued. Dad ordered the proper adhesive, ferrule glue, new line guides, thread, and a cast iron rod wrapper plus a small bottle of varnish and sealer from the Herter's Company. I used an old long bread pan with a notch I cut out and filled it full of sand, then I heated it up on the stove top to remove the cork grip and reel seat.
It took me a week to strip off the old varnish, re-glue all 18 segments together, bind them with twine and get them straight by hand. I then scraped, sanded and varnished the completed sections. The ferrules had to be re-glued and the retaining pins replaced. The cork and reel seat were put back in place. I cleaned up the stripper guide and taped the new snake guides temporarily in place on the rod's new spine. I learned how to wrap the thread on the guides and when finished, I sealed and varnished over the wraps.
Five weeks had passed due to trial, error, and school. I had ruined two shirts and a pair of pants with glue and varnish. I learned how to take out a set and find the new spine. But now it was finally finished and Dad called the man to pick up his fly rod.
What happened next surprised even me. The owner of the rod showed up at our house and looked over his reconditioned fly rod in amazement. He took it outside, placed his reel on it and began to lawn cast it. Satisfied with the condition and cast-ability, he disassembled the rod saying, "It's perfect," then looked at me and asked, "How much do I owe you, young craftsman?"
I replied, "Not one dime because I just got an education of a lifetime and I will probably fix many wooden rods for other people in the future."
The rod owner said, "Mike you should keep this rod as it will be put to better use and it will be a lot safer here than at my house," then handed it back to me. Sixty-one years later, I still have the Herter's book, the rod wrapper along with that Heddon #20 and it is still in solid fishable condition.
At the time, I didn't know how prophetic my statement about an education of a lifetime would become. I love being at my workbench with the radio on, listening to the oldies on the radio. At 74, I'm in my happy place making old rods look beautiful and functional again or creating a new rod from scratch just like I did back then in Dad's workshop.
From 1957 to 2018, I have restored and rebuilt over 1200 bamboo rods. And, from 1986 to 2018, I have built 477 new bamboo and hardwood fly rods. But the real fun for me is, I get to test cast every one of those rods in my yard, on a stream or off my dock.
If you're wondering whatever happened to Freddie? Two years later in March of 1959, Fred just disappeared from home and work one day. But later, I got a birthday card from him telling me he met a beautiful, wealthy, widow lady and they were living together in a small mansion, with his own personal lake, in Eastern Pennsylvania.
There was a PS note on my card asking me to keep his whereabouts a secret.
Freddy also had faith in my ability to see things clearly.