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november/december 2008

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Ten o’clock to two o’clock.

As far as the geometry of fly-casting goes, that’s all you need to know. The rod tip describes an arc from about forty-five degrees above an imaginary plane extending forward from your waistline—the ten o’clock position—to about forty-five degrees behind—two o’clock.

There are variations, nuances, but we won’t go into those because this is not a treatise on fly-casting or fly-fishing. This is about redemption, or more to the point, about a way for the returning warrior, scarred body and soul, to find redemption.

A psychologist would say “to reintegrate himself into civilian society,” or some such; a guru might speak of the “healing process.” I prefer “redemption.”

It’s a search that goes back to the times when men fought in phalanxes, with swords and spears and shields. In Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas offers to carry his father, Anchises, out of the ruins of Troy on his shoulders. But he asks Anchises to carry their Penates—the family’s household gods—because:

In me, it would be impious, holy things to bear,
Red as I am with slaughter, new from war,
Till in some living stream I cleanse the guilt
Of dire debate and blood in battle spilt.

It is not that Aeneas did anything wrong; he bravely defended his native Troy against the invading Greeks. Nevertheless, he feels that as his deeds have stained his hands with blood, so have they conferred a moral taint on his soul. He is unfit to handle hallowed objects until those blots are washed away.

The redemption Aeneas seeks isn’t freedom from sin and its penalties. Nor is it forgiveness or atonement. It is instead a restoration, through a ritual cleansing, of his flesh and spirit to a condition in which he is once again fit to touch the sacred.

I believe an analogy can be made with the modern warrior’s quest for reintegration—not so much with civil society as with himself. For the experience of combat causes a disintegration of the self. I can best illustrate my meaning with a mention of my own state of mind when I came home from Vietnam in the summer of 1966.

I was suffering from what I called, in A Rumor of War, “combat veteranitis”: an intolerance of loud noises, an inability to concentrate, alternating spells of depression and rage, disturbing memories so vivid they weren’t really memories but a re-living of firefights and ambushes, with all the attendant emotions of fear and fury. I couldn’t sleep at night without a light on and a loaded shotgun at my bedside. Night, after all, was the time of maximum danger. So there I was, lying in the same bed in the same room I’d occupied as a kid in the same quiet Chicago suburb, but with a loaded gun at hand. I was home. Except I wasn’t. In my mind, I was still in the rank, black jungles, listening, watching, waiting, on one-hundred-percent alert, my senses so keen I swore I could hear the blood rushing through my veins.

I recall going on a date to a Chicago restaurant called Papa Milano’s. I was having a good time when, suddenly and for no reason, a blind, cold rage seized me as I looked at the other patrons, laughing, talking, stuffing their faces. What right did they have to be enjoying themselves while their countrymen fought and died in the Asian mud half a world away?

I was, as it were, incarcerated in a cell of anger, and I could not break out. I was afraid that at any moment I was going to get up and smash somebody in the mouth, break a bottle over somebody’s head. Abruptly, I paid the check and told my date we had to leave. She looked at me, baffled and frightened, as if she didn’t recognize me. Indeed, I did not recognize myself. I thought I was going crazy.

We now have a name for this suite of symptoms—post-traumatic stress disorder. I have some problems with that term: It is too clinical, lifeless, and mushy, especially when compared with the harsh directness of its World War I antecedent, shell-shock. (Of course, shell-shock—a mental and physical paralysis brought on by extremely heavy combat—is a different thing altogether: It occurs during the event, not afterward.) I also wonder if the delayed reaction to what we generalize and euphemize as the “horrors of war” is really a disorder. Maybe it is a perfectly normal reaction to an experience so far beyond the usual as to be like a trip to an alien galaxy, and not a pleasant one. Fact is, I sometimes think that those who come home from a war and pick up their lives as if nothing has happened are the ones with the disorder.

In his novel of Vietnam, Close Quarters, Larry Heinemann observes that first the war works on you, then you go to work on the war. In battle, the soldier’s moral being, his very character, is repeatedly violated by the sights he is forced to witness, the bloody deeds he is forced to do, the indignities and fear he is forced to suffer. But the warrior is not, by training or nature (and his nature is largely formed by his training), a passive victim. He is an active agent. One way to end the “rape” of his inner self is to learn to like it, to mesh with the madness, to become one with it and, in a manner of speaking, fall in love with the rapist.

Home from the battlefields, I felt as out of place as an undomesticated pitbull at the Westminster Dog Show, a feeling I’m sure was shared by many veterans. It seemed that I knew things—about the human animal in general and myself in particular—it would have been better not to know; that I had seen things it would have been better not to have seen; done things it would have been better not to have done. Yet, a big part of me missed the war. Despite all the fine principles I’d been taught in parochial schools, I’d enjoyed it even as I hated it—the danger, the hot adrenal rush, the killing. In combat, one is both god and beast, which means one is no longer fully human. A door had opened for me in Vietnam, and I’d peered into the heart of darkness, and the heart was mine.

“All good things, from trout to eternal salvation, come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy,” wrote Norman MacLean in A River Runs Through It. Art, he was saying, can save us, not for eternity but for the here and now. Fly-fishing is an art, and a grace of a certain kind comes by it. And so, in that summer of 1966, I decided to remove myself from civilization for a little while and go into the woods to fish for trout. This was to be the first step in a long journey toward self-reclamation. To a degree, I was borrowing a page from The Big Two-Hearted River, Hemingway’s great short story about his fictional alter-ego, Nick Adams, who has come home psychically wounded from World War I and retreats to the forests of northern Michigan.

It had been a long time since I’d cast a fly rod. Anyway, it seemed like a long time. I took mine out of the attic and went to a park to practice. Fly-casting is a lovely thing to watch when it’s done correctly; it is truly poetry in motion. It requires some muscle; but more, delicacy and coordination and a tranquil spirit. If you are angry or upset or agitated, you will make a mess of it. Whenever I see someone casting a fly rod really well, I know I’m looking at a person who is centered, calm, and in control.
Ten to two.

I stood in the park with the rod pointed at the ten o’clock position, my right arm partly extended and bent at the elbow, my fingers around the cork grip, thumb on top. I held a loop of line in my left hand. In fly casting, it is not the weight of the lure that makes the cast but the weight of the line; the average dry fly or streamer is not much heavier than a grain of sand. This is the motion for what’s called the single-haul cast. Really, it’s two motions, blended smoothly into one.

First, as the left hand gives a smart but economical tug to the line, the right arm snaps the rod upward, stops when the rod is pointed directly overhead, and allows it to drift back to the two o’clock position. The line and the leader—a length of gossamer monofilament—unfurl behind the angler on the backcast, or, as it’s sometimes called, the “pull” phase of the entire cast. Then the angler pauses for a fraction of a second, so line and leader roll out straight. There should be no shock waves in the line; it should look as taut as a telephone wire.

Then comes the forward cast, or “push” phase. With the line still in the air, the angler’s right arm pushes crisply forward, maintaining the same plane as on the backcast. As the rod tip approaches ten o’clock, he tips his wrist ever so little, an inch at most, and stops the stroke, releasing the loop of line in his left hand at the same time. The line hisses through the air in the shape of a “U” lying on its side. The energy stored in the rod has been transferred to the line, so that, at the very end, the upper leg of the sideways “U” flips forward and gently drops the fly on the water, simulating the delicate landing of a mayfly.

When making long casts, let’s say beyond forty feet, or when practicing, it is necessary to false cast; that is, the fly is pulled into another backcast before it’s delivered to its target. That’s what I was doing in the park in Westchester, Illinois, that summer afternoon forty-two years ago. Back and forth, back and forth. There was a kind of hypnotic Zen to it. Back and forth. Pull, push, ten to two, two to ten, all in a single fluid movement. Swinging a tennis racket, golf club, or baseball bat was not nearly as satisfying as casting a fly rod properly. The virtues it called forth were the opposite of the warrior’s—gentleness rather than brutality, serenity rather than fury.

A few days later, I was near the town of Paulding, Michigan, fishing Bluff Creek, a stream I had fished before I’d put on a uniform and picked up a rifle. It was the living stream in which I could begin to redeem my mind from its captivity to the war. Bluff Creek was the color of strong tea and flowed through silent forests of fir and spruce, and just being there was a balm. I felt my old, pre-war self. Standing in a deep, still pool formed by the pilings of an abandoned railroad bridge, I cast a streamer back and forth, back and forth, and eventually caught two big brown trout. The catching of the fish wasn’t the point, however. Doing it right required concentration. Therein lay the grace granted by art: I couldn’t think about Vietnam. Those obsessive memories of blood and fire were, for the moment, forgotten.



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