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The Educated Fly Rod (Part 1)

When I was rummaging around my garage recently, I found an interesting five-foot long box. The garage is packed as it houses two cars, cupboards, power saws, woodworking tools, workbenches, sanders, a sink and, of course, many treasures that I am going to use or may need some day. I was looking for a small umbrella that fastens to a chair when I came across the box.

The box was intriguing for it was a long-lost treasure chest. It contained pieces of old fishing rods I hadn’t used in decades, mostly of split bamboo, a rusty steel telescopic rod and one fiberglass butt. All of these were going to be repaired someday during my retirement. Mixed in with all this stuff was a real treasure from my youth, my “educated fly rod.”

What’s an educated fly rod, you may ask? Well, it’s been to school a lot and, being a rod, it is assembled from many sections, while a fishing pole is just one long piece of cane. This rod made many visits to my high school classes in the 1930s and has a long history and an equally long story.

This was my favorite: a five-piece rod made of split bamboo. The nickel plating on the ferrules have corroded, the butt plate is missing, the guides have been removed, the silk wrappings need replacing and there are several scars of burned areas, but what memories it brought back!

Being of five pieces, each section is only 22 inches long. These short sections are what made it so important. Lost in my memory was where and how I got it. It wasn’t new when I acquired it, so I probably traded for it as money was so tight during the Depression. It’s at least 70 year old. Most split-bamboo rods were made in England, France, Japan or the United States then, and were eight to nine feet long when assembled, with each section normally measuring 36 to 48 inches long. About the only place one sees them today is fishing museums and expensive sportsmen’s catalogs. The action when casting a fly with a long rod is much better with long sections, but mine had a major advantage: it was easily hidden!

My high school education may have taken place in hard times, but the students still managed to dress quite well. The girls wore wool skirts, Angora sweaters, bobby socks and white saddle shoes. Apparel for a boy at Los Gatos High was a white, open-necked shirt, slacks and either a sport jacket or a block LG sweater. (I was able to afford such luxury by hitchhiking to a small town near the Stanford campus where the college students would hock their clothes and I could get real bargains and excellent quality for a pittance.)

The beauty of my five-piece, 22-inch section fly rod was that it would fit into my back pocket, under my sport coat and no one knew it was there, particularly my mother and the Dean of Students and Discipline, Doug Helm. Mr. Helm and I developed a friendly relationship because I saw him so often; he had a special name for me: “Not YOU Again.”

May 1st brought the opening of trout season every year, and the torturous itch to leave school and go out fishing was sometimes too much to bear. Next week I’ll tell you how this urge to fish nearly got me and my educated fly rod in big trouble one year.

Fish and Snakehips’s Romantic Adventure

It is hard to realize today, when teenagers go to their proms in limousines and plan to spend a thousand dollars plus to attend, but in 1938, it was a whole lot different. It was in the ancient days, during the Great Depression and before World War II, when I was a young boy approaching manhood. The Junior Prom at Los Gatos High was approaching and my buddy, Bill “Fish” Hildebrand and I discussed attending. (When I was in high school, nearly everyone had a nickname. Bill was always called “Fish” and I was known as “Snakehips” because I was so skinny that if I turned sideways to the sun, I didn’t create a shadow). Bill and I were both on the football team and had earned our block sweaters and felt it was time to impress the ladies (Bill was a pretty good player and I kept the bench warm).

The proms were always held in the tiny school gym, which was decorated with crepe paper for the event, and the bids cost $3.50 per couple—a fortune at the time. In our family, there was no such thing as an “allowance,” and while I had heard the term from some of the rich kids, we had to work to earn the fee. In fact, in my family, I always thought that an allowance meant that your folks let you spend the money you earned for school supplies and clothes.

We invited two girls we had our eyes on. Bill invited Lois Lane, or “LL” as we called her, short for “Luscious Lips,” and I invited Shirley “Twin Peaks” Macadoo (she had earned the nickname for obvious reasons). To our surprise, the girls both accepted and we were full of anticipation.

The week before the dance, the gossip around school centered on what corsage each of the girls would wear. White gardenias were the most popular choice, while some of the rich boys were giving their dates a beautiful orchid. There was much discussion amongst the girls and panic set in with Bill and me. This was an unexpected expense and we had already spent all our money to pay the three and a half bucks, and it was out of the question to ask our folks for this extravagant waste of money.

Bill’s mother came to our rescue two days before the event. She had once worked in a flower shop and even had two unused gift flower boxes. Mrs. Hildebrand said that if we could locate suitable flowers, she would make the corsages. We immediately set out to find flowers and stopped to see neighbors who had a lovely garden. After we described our plight, they generously offered anything they grew. Mrs. H. wanted the flowers to be fresh, so on Friday afternoon, Bill and I picked the most beautiful gold and pink, double hibiscus blossoms and rushed them to the Hildebrand house. Mrs. H. did us proud and made beautiful corsages—so big that the girls had to wear them on their wrist instead of a breast.

LL and Twin Peaks were duly impressed, so much so that they bragged to the other girls about what their escorts had given them. Everything was going wonderfully and Bill and I were the toast of the ball until about 10 p.m. when the damned hibiscus blossoms thought it was night and closed themselves. Of course, the first to notice were the other girls, and pointed remarks were cast in our direction. “What happened to your flowers, dearie; are they supposed to look like that?”

Our dates couldn’t wait to get rid of the two cheapskates they were with and it was our last romantic adventure with Luscious Lips and Twin Peaks.

Dirt (Part 5)

After World War II, I returned home to college and normal life in “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.” Agriculture was still king, but waste from the industry overwhelmed the sewage system, which was unable to carry it all to Alviso. So, truckloads of tomato and fruit waste were hauled there and dumped in huge piles. These piles fermented and developed hydrochloric acid fumes that were borne on the wind southwards. If you owned a building that was painted with white lead paint (very common in the 1950s), it could turn gray overnight.

The problem was recognized by dynamic San Jose City Manager A.P. “Dutch” Hamann. Dutch went to each of the cities surrounding San Jose and proposed that they help pay the huge cost of a new sewage disposal plant. With the exception of Santa Clara, each of the other communities said: “To hell with you, Dutch—you’ve got the canneries; it’s your problem, not ours.”

Even though Santa Clara agreed to pay a share, San Jose didn’t have enough sales tax revenue to finance the cost, so Hamann started the program called “strip annexation.” San Jose incorporated the revenue “strips” into the city to finance the disposal plant, which made for a hodgepodge city, but it worked and the plant was built (the other towns who wouldn’t participate—Milpitas, Campbell, Los Gatos and Saratoga—now pay a fee to use the facility).

Everything was in place for a big change. We had the land and great educational institutions, the year-around climate was delightful, and now, a big sewage disposal plant to clean up the water. The land became expensive for agriculture but cheap for industry and things happened fast. NASA came to the valley, IBM moved a large division here from New York, and some of its employees started other high-tech companies. The excellent educational institutions—Stanford, Santa Clara University and San Jose State—developed graduate programs for the tech industry.

Now our beloved, wonderful dirt is covered with concrete and there is a multimillion-dollar system to use the reclaimed water to irrigate parks and golf courses. By the way, has anyone noticed that all of the redwood trees in Museum Park are dying?

Dirt (Part 4)

I learned some valuable lessons working on the land in the local orchards. When I was about 13, I worked for Dr. Seikman, a woman chiropractor who owned ten acres of fruit trees near the San Jose Los Gatos Road. First we picked apricots and then, after a lull, prunes.

When the picking was finished, Dr. Seikman asked me if I wanted to earn $3 by digging around each tree, depositing parabensachlorine, and then mounding up the dirt around them. Well, to me, $3 was a lot of money and, without further investigation, I agreed. However, at the end of the first day, I hadn’t finished one row of trees, much less ten acres.

That night, I went to my dad and told him my problem and explained that I was going to quit. My dad asked me what the doctor had said and what I had said. He explained that when I said that I would do the job, I had made a verbal contract and that I was bound to finish it. Well, I worked for weeks digging around each tree, but that $3 paid off many times later in life when I ran Smith McKay Printing and was asked to bid on a job. The question that always came back was: what don’t I know about this job?

Later, beginning when I was 14, I worked for a retired doctor, J.H. Pond, in the hills above Los Gatos. He was to have a huge influence on my life because he was the man that told my parents that I had to go to college. I worked for him for several years and was put in charge of a motley crew of boys to pick the fruit. We had a well-tended upper orchard and an overgrown lower one. Here, the fruit just dropped to the ground, but the doctor wanted it picked up. In order to get the fruit back to the barn, we had to travel a narrow hillside trail. Dr. Pond had a 22-year-old white, swaybacked horse named Lila whose only job was to drag a sled loaded with fruit boxes up the trail to the barn.

Dr. Pond called all his young workers together and asked who knew how to drive a horse. I volunteered that I knew how—a terrible, mistaken statement. The only think I knew about horses is what I had seen in Roy Rogers movies. The good doctor helped me hitch up the horse to the sled, load up the empty boxes and drag them down to the lower orchard where the crew and I picked ten boxes of overripe prunes onto the wooden sled. All was going fine until, on our return, we came to the first bend in the trail and Lila decided to make a new trail up the side of the hill. I yelled, “whoa, Lila, whoa,” but disaster struck as Lila panicked, stumbled backwards, and sat on the sled and boxes.

My fellow prune pickers disappeared and I was left with an injured Lila and the squashed prunes, boxes and sled. I unhitched Lila, walked her back to the barn, carried the ten, 40# boxes of prunes to the barn by hand and, finally, dragged the broken sled to the barn. I then went in search of the doctor to explain what happened. I dreaded this as I was sure that I would be fired.

After explaining the situation to him, the good doctor came from the house carrying his small black doctor’s satchel and together we walked to the barn. There, he got a stool and showed me how to remove the slivers wood from poor Lila’s butt.

Thus, I learned that when you are in charge, you are responsible.

Dirt (Part 3)

The policy imposed by the Missions was that the Indians should work, tend the fields and care for the animals. This was a concept that they didn’t like or understand. (Locally, the Indians never had permanent settlements in the valley and their gods Eagle, Hummingbird and Coyote lived in the mountains—Eagle on Mt. Diablo and Hummingbird on Mt. Umunhum.) The Missions also separated the unmarried Indian men and women at night, another concept they didn’t like.

In the dry summers of the early 1800s, Mission Santa Clara’s Franciscan fathers needed water for the fields, so they sent a detachment of Indians down to the confluence of Los Gatos and Guadalupe creeks—where the San Jose Arena stands today—to dig a canal, or water ditch. The “acequia,” was three “varas” wide by one and one-half deep, or nine feet by four and one-half feet. The ditch ran on the northeast side of what is today’s Alameda, making five distinct turns on its course to the Mission Santa Clara fields. It was a navigable body of water, deep enough for small boats to travel upon. In order to keep the Indians working, soldier guards were posted near them.

In the early days, there were artesian wells to irrigate the fields. All types of crops were introduced by the Mission fathers: apricots, peaches, mission figs, olives, wheat and vegetables. In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and the Missions were secularized—that is, the Mission lands were taken and given to the local ranchos. The original intent was to give the land to the Indians, but they didn’t want it. There was one exception in this area. Land was given to “Roberto,” who built an adobe on what is now Lincoln Avenue. But he kept the grant for only two years and then he sold it.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848 and the world stormed here. Among the early seekers were Frenchman Louis Pellier and Swiss immigrant Giochino Yocco. As partners, these two men sought their fortune in the northern mines near Redding, but they were unsuccessful. Gold mining was cold, hard work and only one in every five miners made expenses. Giving up, Pellier and Yocco traveled to San Francisco where they were surprised to find that apples were selling for a dollar apiece. Pellier had experience as a farmer in France, so they came to San Jose together, acquired property west of Market Street and south of St. John Street, and started City Gardens Nursery where they planted apricot, pear and peach cuttings.

Louis’s younger brother, Pierre, joined him, but soon became lonesome for his fiancée back in France. Louis sent him back to get married and return with prune, pear and grape cuttings. This was the start of the great fruit industry that thrived in the modest climate and rich soil. The dominant orchard tree was the French prune, or “Petite Prun d’Angen.” It could be harvested, dipped in a lye solution, and dried in the sun. Vineyards ringed the foothills to the east, south and west. The fruit industry boomed and canneries prospered. And the sun shone!