A Christmas Gift


Like many families, mine gets together around the holidays. My mother and my wife are the primary drivers of this effort and the ones who work hardest to make it special. They love Christmas and have the kind of Christmas spirit that makes tacky decorations and bad music palatable.

Well, almost.

We meet at my mom’s house, and usually there are just four of us — my mother, my brother, my wife and me. We’re about all that’s left of my side of the family. My wife’s family is in Japan.

Every year we enjoy a nice meal and exchange presents. My wife goes overboard on the wrapping and cards—she makes cards as a hobby—and the gifts are typically little things: jigsaw puzzles and miniature lighthouses for my mom, clothes for me and my brother, a handbag or pajamas for my wife. My brother usually brings flavored peanuts or homemade cookies from his home in North Carolina.

Because I’ve always been into fishing, and no one else in the family knows anything about fish except that they go well with hushpuppies, it’s rare for anyone to give me anything fishing related. They’re either convinced I have everything I need or that they’d never get something I wanted.

They’re probably right on both counts.

This Christmas, however, my brother brought me something special. He thought it was a gag gift—something we’d all laugh about—and he was partly right. My mother wrapped it up and put a gift tag on it.

The box was about the size and shape of what you’d need for some curtain rods—maybe three and a half feet long and about big enough for a baseball bat. I opened it and still couldn’t tell what it was at first.

It didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before.

In fact, it was a rod and reel, but it wasn’t like any other rod and reel. This rod and reel was unique … by the true definition of that word.

You see, “unique” means “one of a kind,” “different from anything else.” We misuse that word all the time, and I cringe every time I hear it butchered.

When someone says something is “very” unique, they are misusing it. Something can’t be “very one of a kind.” When a manufacturer says that its new rod is “unique,” they’re lying … unless they made only one of them.

“Unique” isn’t just special. It’s more than that, and this rod and reel is unique.

I have no idea who manufactured the reel—an old spincaster with a blue cap and a crank with a single handle. The “rod” is simply a stick—exactly 32 1/4 inches long—and nearly as thick at the tip as it is at the handle. It’s not very straight, either.

Connecting the reel to the rod are a few wraps of blue cloth tape. The handle is wrapped in white tape. The guides are missing, but they were held in place by red tape. It looks like they rusted off.

At less than three feet long, you might think the rod was broken, but it wasn’t, and I know that because the red tape that held the tip-top guide is also wrapped over the end of the rod, so it was clearly built at exactly that length. I have no idea what was used for guides, but there were once three of them, and I’m guessing they were paper clips or something like that.

When I took my gift out of the box, everyone had a good laugh … and I laughed along, too, at first. My brother explained that he had found it along the bank of a lake near his home. That’s when I realized I was holding someone’s dream of being an angler.

This was someone’s idea of a rod and reel that they cobbled together out of the best materials they could muster—an old, inexpensive reel, a stick and some tape.

I’m certain it was never much to look at, even on its best day, but there’s still pride of craftsmanship in it. The handle is the right size and shape. The tape colors are red, white and blue. I don’t think those were accidents.

I held it for a closer look. There was still mud on it. The reel handle would not turn. The few inches of line coming out of the reel were twisted and frayed.

It was all I could do not to cry.

Before you say it, let me admit to being an emotional pushover. It’s not a quality I like about myself, but my emotions tend to live very near the surface. It doesn’t take a tragic scene in a maudlin movie to make me cry, either. A sappy commercial can do it.

And that rod and reel definitely brought out the emotion in me.

It also brought out the questions.

How much did the creator of this outfit want to go fishing? It must have been a powerful desire.

Was he looking for an escape from the day-to-day challenges of life or did he need to put food on the table … or both?

I’ve loved fishing my entire life, and I found a way to build a career in the fishing industry … but has fishing ever meant as much to me as it did to the person who made this?

I think my mother and brother expected me to throw the rod and reel away as soon as we all had a chuckle over it. I’m sure they figured it was a momentary diversion at a family gathering. I’m guessing they thought that such a thing—in the hands of someone who deals with the finest in fishing gear—would be comical.

And I’m just as sure that I’ll have this rod and reel until the day I die. It will be in my office—hanging in a place of honor, as it does now—and it will remind me every day that fishing is much more than a hobby … or a pastime … or even a career.

For some people, fishing is a dream so powerful they will build it themselves from whatever scraps they can find.

I don’t ever want to take that for granted.