The following is an excerpt from the book, “Opening Days,” by Richard Chiaponne (Barclay Creek Press; Hardcover; 232 pages; 6×9; June 2010). It is from the chapter titled, “Perfect: A Fly Tier’s Beginnings.”
reprinted with the written consent of Barclay Creek Press
Like many neophyte fly tiers, I experimented with labrador retriever hair and orange cat fur, with limited success. Rabbit and muskrat were fairly easy to obtain locally, and grouse and pheasant feathers were common enough, as many of the men on our street hunted avidly. Of course, there were always plenty of large Norway rats down at the cement docks at the Niagara River at the end of my street, free for the taking by a boy with a pellet gun. But rat fur was short and greasy and never lost its rodenty creepiness. Once, I found a dead squirrel in my driveway lying there like a gift from heaven, a neat round hole burned into one hind leg where it had touched the power line overhead. I may still have that tail somewhere in my fly tying desk.
It was not just the rare birds that were a problem. Certainly peafowl and ostrich were a little scarce in Niagara County, but even a decent rooster hackle was impossible to find. In the industrial neighborhood where I lived, chickens were no more common than jungle cocks. I despaired of ever having the materials I needed.
Then one winter night, lying in bed, not yet asleep, I felt a small sharp pain in my cheek and discovered the quill end of a tiny feather poking out from the fabric of the pillowcase. I tugged on it and found myself holding a lovely chicken hackle, creamy white with a dark brown band along the stem.
I crawled out of bed and neatly folded the hackle into a Kleenex, and set the tissue on the little nightstand between my bed and my brother Michael’s. I put a small rubber dinosaur, an ankylosaurus, on top of it to keep the feather from drifting off when the furnace kicked on. In the morning before leaving for school I opened the tissue and bent the hackle stem around my finger once again just to see those hairy fibers stand up like the buggy little insect legs they would imitate. Then I carefully rewrapped it, set it back on the nightstand and spent the day sketching dry flies in the margins of my notebook while Mrs. Neuman attempted to interest in fractions and adverbs and ancient wars fought long ago by people who didn’t even fish.
Despite the fact that I had been sleeping on a pillow filled with chicken feathers for years, finding that hackle right there on my pillow case seemed as miraculous as if I had discovered the face of Jesus there. After school, I ran home through falling snow and raced into my bedroom and straight to the nightstand where I found the little ankylosaurus sitting alone, his rubber feet planted firmly on the varnished pine surface. There was no sign of the Kleenex with the precious feather inside. My mother had tidied up.
“I thought it was a used tissue,” she said, peeling an eggplant at the kitchen counter of our tiny two-bedroom house.
I groaned. I sulked. I moped.
The Kleenex was at the bottom of one of our three garbage cans, under who knew how many pounds of household detritus. The precious feather was entombed now beneath piles of crumpled newspapers and discarded homework, Campbell’s Soup cans and empty cereal boxes, fragments of pork chop bones and strands of pasta sticky with congealing meat sauce.
I acted as though it had been the last feather on the last chicken on earth. “It was perfect!” I groaned.
My father came in from work in the middle of the drama. “A feather?” he said, stomping snow off his boots in the doorway, hanging up his coat, his hat. “Like from a bird?”
I tried to explain. But to a man who worked in a graphite plant all week and then played accordion at weddings on the weekends to put food on the table and shoes on the feet of his seven children, the appeal of fly fishing, let alone fly tying, remained a mystery all his life. I was in the middle of a whiny tirade about the scarcity of hackle feathers in my life when my mother sighed, “Oh for Pete’s sake, Richard.” She squeezed past my father and out the kitchen door, as though she could not stand the pressure of my emoting inside the tight confines of that little kitchen any longer.
My father said, “Are you happy now? You made your mother go out into a snowstorm. For a feather. In her apron!”
I said, “I’ll go get her.”
But I hadn’t gone two steps before she came back in through that door, new snow clumped in her hair. She was holding a wadded Kleenex between her thumb and fingertip. She laid it on the kitchen table. My father and I leaned around her, watching as she gently peeled back the crumpled corners. There was the magnificent hackle feather, still nestled in the tissue, kinked, but otherwise intact.
“Now,” my mother said, “do you mind if I make dinner before the baby wakes up?” There was always a baby in the house. She rolled her eyes and turned to wash her hands in the kitchen sink.
My father picked up the hackle feather and held it up to the ceiling light, studying it. The stem was bent into a ninety degree dogleg. He said, “You call this perfect?”
I went up behind my mother at the sink, wrapped my arms around her waist, gave her a hug and thanked her.
“Yes,” I said, to my father. “It’s perfect.”