by E. B. Fischadler
Victor Frenchstone was by far the largest man I had ever seen in a trout stream. For that matter, he was the largest man I had ever seen in the flesh. Watching him standing knee deep in the river, hunched over to reduce his visibility to the fish, my mind rebelled for a moment, declaring that’s a bear! Indeed, his size did suggest the bears that stand in rivers, waiting for salmon on their spawning runs. But no bear carries a flyrod.
I watched as Frenchstone stalked a trout some forty feet upstream. At first, I wondered if such a large man was a basketball player. He was too bulky for that. Then I speculated he might play football for a living. But if so, what was he doing here in October, fishing the blue-winged olive hatch, instead of practicing for that week’s game?
Frenchstone moved slowly upstream, barely creating a ripple as, heron-like, he stalked his quarry. He stopped for a few minutes, then with just one false cast, sent his fly upstream. I couldn’t see the fly, it was so small, but I could estimate where it travelled from the fly line’s motion.
Frenchstone’s presentation was so flawless I never saw a dimple when it landed. Soon I saw him lift the rod and again send the fly upstream. This time, I could see Frenchstone’s eyes, intensely focused on the water. Suddenly, he lifted the rod and stood up. The rod shook and bounced as the trout struggled to escape. Frenchstone calmly played the fish and soon had a good-sized brook trout in his net.
As he released the fish, I said, “Well done!” Frenchstone turned and, in a manner out of an earlier age, tipped his hat.
Frenchstone examined his fly and nipped it off the leader. He then retrieved a fly box, pulled out a fly far too small for me to see and tied it onto the leader attached to the end of his fly line.
It is tempting to think of large people as lumbering, and Frenchstone’s enormous hands caused me to think he couldn’t possibly knot a fly not much bigger than one of the letters on this page onto a leader the thickness of a hair. Yet he did so with a dexterity that I was later to learn was one of the tools of his trade: surgeon.
* * *
It was only after several such encounters that I actually met the reserved Victor Frenchstone. The March after our first encounter, I stood on the bank opposite and watched Frenchstone pursue a rising trout. Again, the enormous man was hunched over and moved patiently, gracefully into position. Just as his third cast landed, I heard a crashing noise come from upstream. Looking along the trail that ran along the stream, I was startled to see a form lying there, a low branch swaying where he apparently collided with it.
I shouted, “Are you all right?” to which the unfortunate did not respond. Dropping my rod, I ran to the prostrate form. As he did not react to my voice, I tried pinching him to elicit a response. On doing so, I discovered the man was wet and shivering. I guessed he had fallen into the water, and was trying to get to his car. The river water was quite cold throughout the year, coming from a deep reservoir. The air temperature was a bit colder. This man was going to die of hypothermia.
I was considering what to do, build a fire or get him to a car, when I heard a voice behind me. “What seems to be the problem?”
I hadn’t heard Frenchstone come out of the water and approach. I turned toward a face that seemed to be in the treetops and said, “He’s soaked and hypothermic.”
Frenchstone didn’t hesitate. He bent down, gently lifted the man and set out towards the parking lot, a good half-mile distant. I gathered Frenchstone’s rod as well as mine. The poor man’s rod had apparently been left behind when he staggered downstream.
It took me all of fifteen minutes to reach the parking lot, where I found Frenchstone and the man in a pickup truck, engine running, and Frenchstone prying the wet clothes off the victim. I jumped in the back of the king cab, and was startled by the man’s blue lips and nails.
“Get up front; we’ll both warm him with our body heat. Take his clothes off while I drive.” I moved to the front seat and we took off. Twenty minutes later, I was sweating profusely in the sweltering cab of the truck. We arrived at the emergency entrance of the local hospital, and Frenchtone carried the man into the ER. I parked the truck and went inside. Soon I saw Frenchstone emerge from one of the treatment rooms speaking with a nurse.
“That was close, Dr. Frenchstone. He’s very lucky you happened to be there,” she said. That was when I became aware that Frenchstone had a medical degree.
“Actually, it was Mister” — Frenchstone gestured toward me — “I’m sorry. I don’t know your name.”
“Harris,” I said.
“Mr. Harris is the real hero. He discovered our patient in distress. I merely transported him.”
As Frenchstone sat down I asked, “Will he make it?”
“They are warming him with IV fluids. He has a good chance.”
“I’m glad you knew what to do. I was trying to decide if I should build a fire.”
“That would have taken quite a while. We were going to have to get him to a hospital anyway, and the heater in my truck works well.”
“I didn’t realize you were a doctor. Are you an emergency specialist?”
“I’m a plastic surgeon.”
“You mean like nip and tuck, facelifts, that sort of thing?”
“Actually, most of my work is trauma repair.”
“Plastic surgery is trauma repair?”
“When someone goes through a car windshield, the glass cuts up their face. Normal sutures would leave an ugly scar. I repair such wounds with a large number of closely spaced minute sutures to minimize the scarring. Occasionally, I revise scars left by old injuries or prior surgeries. Emergency room docs are good at saving lives, but not so good at preserving the patient’s appearance.”
I considered what he said, but then a thought occurred to me. “Will you follow up on this man?”
“He’s in good hands. Besides, I’m leaving for Afghanistan soon.”
“The war. Children and adults being mangled, disfigured. No doubt you’ve noticed some of my scars. They’ve caused me considerable suffering. I can sympathize with the victims of this war. Helping them would be the best use of my skill.”
At that moment, I realized that Frenchstone had several large scars on his face and neck, only partially hidden by some sort of makeup. His wrists also bore scars.
After some time, the nurse who spoke with Frenchstone earlier came up to us. “Mr. Tomascewicz is a very lucky man. His temperature is getting back to normal, and it appears no damage was done. Would you like to see him?”
We entered one of the treatment rooms, where Tomascewicz was sitting up in bed.
The nurse introduced us: “These are the men who brought you here, Mr. Tomaszewicz.”
“I don’t know how to thank you both.”
“No need,” said Frenchstone.
“Glad we could help,” I said.
Tomaszewicz explained that he was wading downstream to keep a decent-sized trout he was fighting from tangling in a blowdown, and he fell in. Some small talk followed. We discussed rods, and learned that Tomaszewicz was fishing a Sage 4 weight that day. Throughout, I could see Tomaszewicz staring at Frenchstone. Apparently he was struck by Frenchstone’s size and extensive scars.
Frenchstone and I returned to the river and after an hour’s search found Tomaszewicz’s rod and reel. Victor brought the gear to the hospital while I drove home. That was the last I saw of Frenchstone that year.
* * *
About a month later, a package arrived for me. Opening it, I was astonished to find what appeared to be an antique bamboo rod and a note written in an elegant, almost antique hand:
My Dear Mr. Harris,
In appreciation of your kindness and friendship, please accept this rod built by Hiram Leonard. I acquired it some time ago and have derived great pleasure fishing with it. I would be most pleased if you were to catch many trout with it on ‘our’ river.
All the Best
I thought that before I fished with such a gem I should have it examined. Realizing that Leonard built rods in the 1800s, I was fearful that I might ruin such an old rod by fishing with it. Besides, if it was a genuine Leonard, it belonged in a museum.
Tomascewicz and I kept up a correspondence after his unfortunate experience. Among other things, I learned he was quite well versed in classic flyrods, so I took the rod to him for an opinion.
“I can’t believe it! An actual Leonard!” Tomaszewicz took the rod and flexed it gently, listening for the telltale crepitus that indicated cracking or delamination of the bamboo strips that made up the rod. He sighted along the rod, declaring it without a set, then began a minute examination of it under a magnifying glass.
“It’s been refinished,”he said, “but otherwise it’s intact and seems original.”
He dwelled several minutes on a spot near the grip, then said, “There’s an inscription above Leonard’s signature. I was wondering why the rod wasn’t numbered. It turns out this was a custom rod.”
“Custom rod?” I asked.
“The inscription is faded, almost looks like someone tried to remove it. I can only read part of it. I think it was built for an ancestor of our friend Frenchstone. Here, look at the inscription.”
Built for V. Frenc
* * *
Two years later I ran into Frenchstone alongside a stream.
“You’re back from Afghanistan,” I said.
“Only temporarily. I have a few patients who need surgery that can only be performed here. When they are done, I’ll return with them.”
We chatted about the fishing for a few minutes.
Noting the graphite Sage rod I was carrying, Frenchstone asked, “Did you receive the rod I sent you?”
“I did, thank you. It’s beautiful. When I discovered it was a genuine Leonard, custom built for one of your ancestors, I didn’t dare fish with it. I couldn’t take the chance of damaging it.”
I lifted the Sage rod to show him. “This one was a gift from Tomaszewicz.”
“Built for an ancestor? My ancestors never left Europe. I acquired that rod from the builder myself.”
“Really? There’s an inscription on the rod. It seems to be to you, but it’s dated 1888. Was it built for your grandfather?”
Frenchstone frowned. “The man lived his entire life in Switzerland. Perhaps you read the inscription incorrectly.”
“That could be. It was a bit faded.”
The next week I mentioned the conversation to Tomaszewicz.
“I don’t see how Hiram Leonard could have built it for Victor. Leonard died in 1907. On the other hand, the Leonard Rodmaking Company still builds rods in Maine. I’ll contact them to see if they have any record of a custom rod built for Victor.”
A few days later, I received a call from Tomaszewicz. “There is no record of the Leonard Rod Company building a rod for our friend Victor.”
“So what does the inscription represent?”
“That’s the interesting thing. The guy I spoke with also had access to the records going back to the 1800’s. Back in those days, Leonard kept pretty careful records of his production. It seems Leonard built very few custom rods, but he did build one in 1888 for — this is incredible — a Victor Frenchstone. Are you sure it wasn’t one of our friend’s relatives?”
“Victor told me that he is the first member of his family to live in North America.”
“Well, maybe there was someone else named Victor Frenchstone back then. Seems like one hell of a coincidence. That leaves us with the question: how did Victor come by the rod he gave you?”
“He said he got it directly from the builder.”
“It’s signed Hiram Leonard. The style of the rod is consistent with his work from the 1800’s.”
“Could it be a knock-off?”
“It could be. I’d like to show it to a friend who’s an expert on Leonard’s work.”
So we took the rod to Ray Ford, Tomaszewicz’s friend. After several minutes of detailed examination, flexing and running a hand along the rod, Ray said, “This is Calcutta cane. Nobody works with it nowadays. The style is consistent with Leonard’s work. The grip, the wraps are correct. Gentlemen, I think you’ve come upon an original Leonard. How did your friend say he got it?”
“He says he got it directly from the builder. But if that’s an original Leonard, he couldn’t have. I’ll have to ask him about it next time I see him.”
I came home from Ray’s thinking about Victor Frenchstone and Hiram Leonard. What if, by some miracle they had met? Could Frenchstone have been alive in the late 1800s? In that case, he might have met some of the historical figures of fly fishing: Theodore Gordon, who brought the sport to America, or perhaps Charles F. Orvis, founder of the Orvis Company. Victor would have been around when the brown trout was introduced to America in 1884. That would mean he was at least 120 years old. That’s impossible. How could Frenchstone be that old?
I resolved to ask him just how old he was. But Victor returned to Afghanistan with his patients before I got the chance. When Dr. Frenchstone gets back, I thought, I’m going to have a few questions for him.
Copyright © 2016 by E. B. Fischadler