By Simon Hollander, Power of Story Student02.08.17
Simon Hollander is retired from a career on the computer side of the financial services industry, where he was a technical writer, web designer, programmer, and business analyst. He is an avid writer of short stories, essays, and screenplays, and is a video maker and editor as well.
Simon has been taking courses at The Jacob Burns Film Center since 2012. He credits the JBFC’s Anne Marie Santoro and her Power of Story courses with helping him to fully realize his writing skill and kill off the never-satisfied self-editor who sat on his shoulder and criticized everything he wrote. (Rumor has it that the self-editor is now part of a landfill at an undisclosed construction site.)
Simon resides in White Plains with the love of his life, Janet.
Leaf Smoke, by Simon Hollander
If you were to ask me, I would tell you that autumn is the most beautiful season, and the most poignant. What always symbolized autumn to me was the scent of burning leaves, but air quality concerns led to a 1972 ban on open incineration in any New York State municipality that was populous enough. Mine, New York City, topped that list. Since then, the scent of leaf smoke survives only in my imagination, and autumn feels empty, the season poorer without it.
A lifetime ago, homeowners gathered fallen leaves into piles in the gutter or in metal trashcans. Then, a wooden rake was the preferred tool for large-scale leaf collection, its handle burnished smooth and gleaming faintly after years of use. The rake produced a distinct rasping sound as it was wielded, a hand-tool-at-work sound, soothing and rhythmic in its repetition. And, if you paid attention to the rake’s scraping song, it told you that leaf gathering was part of something far bigger than the act itself.
When the day’s raking was complete, a flame was touched to the leaf pile. The flame spread with loud pops until the entire mound became a smoldering mass and the smoke began to rise. Decades later, it is easy to convince myself that I can smell the aroma from those leaf fires, rich, redolent and heavy with substance, gathered by the passing breezes until it seemed that the very atmosphere carried the scent.
I watch as the last leaves skitter along the sidewalks like dry bones ahead of a stiff northerly breeze. Cold, bleak sunlight fans between the exposed limbs of the hardwoods, the memory of burning leaves fades, and the gray landscape rests as it waits for the next inevitable change.
Fishing With My Father, by Simon Hollander
I will confess at the outset that my father and I never wet a line together. The timeframes of our respective interests in fishing never overlapped. My father grew up fishing the waters of the San and Tanew, the two rivers nearest his home town of Ulanow, in eastern Poland. As a boy from a struggling family, the only equipment he could afford consisted of a branch, to which he tied a piece of string that was itself tied to a bent pin taken from his mother’s sewing kit. Bait was a freshly caught worm or insect, bread being much too precious for something as uncertain as fishing. His gear was crude, but it was inexpensive; and it sometimes added a brown trout, grayling or carp to his family’s typically meager larder.
When he grew into his twenties, the exigency of staying alive in Eastern Europe consumed his energy and that of his girlfriend, the woman who would become my mother. Persecuted and terrified, it was a struggle for them to survive from one day to the next. When he fished, it was a desperate act of self-preservation, a chance to obtain fresh food.
Through a combination of faith, wits, and luck, both survived, reunited, and, in 1946, married in Russia. Two years later, they moved to the United States. In the ensuing years, between taking care of a wife, two young sons, and a business, my father’s thoughts of fishing were few and his fishing trips fewer. By the time I was in college, though, he was secure enough to take some time for himself on summer Sundays, and he procured his own spin-fishing gear.
My father fished for carp in a manmade lake on the grounds of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, in Flushing Meadows, New York, just over five miles from where we lived. It fell to me to drive him to the lake on those days, in the half-hour before dawn. I usually helped him carry his gear to lakeside, and I always watched for a few minutes before I left (I was not a fisherman then, as I disliked the taste of fish, refused to eat them, and felt that, for me, angling would be the height of hypocrisy.), as the men nodded silently at each new arrival, the ends of their lit cigarettes describing a blurred red line as they raised and lowered their heads in acknowledgment. Like my father, most of the men who fished with him were immigrants, and often dressed as oddly as he did for a fishing outing, in combinations such as a sleeveless white t-shirt matched with sharply creased dress slacks, or, perhaps, a pair of shorts with long black socks and shiny dress shoes. Specialized fishing garb, proffered by the likes of Orvis and L. L. Bean, was unknown to them, as were private, fly-in lakes, with shore-side lodges and five star chefs. Besides, if they had known, they would not have cared.
They were elemental fisherman, who smoked and swore while they fished. No one believed in artificial lures. My father, for example, baited his hook with boiled, mashed chickpeas, but others employed bread, worms, and secret, home-made concoctions. They used rods of every style and length, from stout saltwater casting rods to delicate nine-foot freshwater fly rods, and they usually mismatched them to the wrong type of reel. Like my father, they didn’t care; they were meat-on-the-table fishermen and, out of necessity, used whatever combination of fishing tackle they could cobble together. Finesse and “correct” equipment were strangers to their collective technique.
Once he cast his line, my father placed the rod in a U-shaped holder that had been dug into the bank, near the water. Then he settled into his folding lawn chair to chat quietly with the others, all of whom spoke broken English, while they watched their bobbers, to smoke another cigarette, or to doze in the gathering warmth and humidity brought on by the rising sun. And, usually, my father had fish to bring home, to eat, to freeze, or to fertilize his backyard tomato beds.
My father retired in January of 1983 and my parents moved to a condominium in West Palm Beach, Florida. Three steps beyond the back storm door, a man-made lake beckoned in the bountiful sunshine. Now my father had new waters to probe with his baited hook, and he did so enthusiastically.
In Florida, he adopted new “official” fishing clothes, official for him, anyway. If it was at least 80 degrees outside, he wore shorts and a sports shirt. Gone were the sleeveless T-shirts and dress shoes. But when the temperature fell below 80 degrees, he considered it to be “bitteh kuld,” as he put it. Instead, he sported a plaid wool shirt, long pants, loafers, and a baseball cap, which he referred to as a “het.” Apparently, spending six years in Siberia did not keep him from often feeling cold in the midst of Florida warmth.
In 1993 my father began to show gradually increasing signs of confusion and dementia, early indications of what turned out to be Parkinson’s disease. He fished less and less, partly because my mother, brother, and I didn’t want him manipulating sharply pointed hooks. Eventually, though, he lost interest in fishing, and, gradually, in everything else.
In the spring of 1999, eight months before my father died and many, many years too late, I took up fly fishing. It’s an expensive, arcane method of self-inflicted insanity, full of stream-inspecting, a seemingly infinite number of flies from which you hope to choose one that entices a fish, and, fortunately, a rich literary tradition in which a reader can take comfort on a snowy night. It was some of this literature, read purely for its observations, reflections, and overwhelming sense of peace, that unexpectedly spurred me to buy a fly rod and perhaps subconsciously to try to preserve a piece of my father and peace within myself.
My father would have laughed, chuckling broadly at the sight of me in my green waders, creeping across the rushing, tugging current, endeavoring mightily to cast a minute insect imitation while trying to keep from falling in the river. His fishing had no such ado; it was bait the hook, chuck and duck. He would never have understood why I was happily spending money on a narrowly specialized form of madness with precious little to show for it. Now, I would gladly fish in his style, just to spend a little more time with him.
In the corner of the basement where I keep my fishing gear, my L.L. Bean fly rod, disassembled and carefully packed in its shiny aluminum storage tube, leans against a wall. Next to it, out in the open and unprotected, stand my father’s well-beaten rod and reel, assembled, strung, and ready to go after giant carp. I often use it when I fish the still waters of a lake or pond, drifting with the breeze in a rowboat, watching the sunlight sparkle off the calm surface, hearing nothing louder than the water lapping at the boat’s hull. I think about how much my father would have enjoyed this scene; it was his kind of place and his kind of fishing. It gladdens me to know that the rod’s cork grip, which I hold in my right hand, also felt his right hand, and that I shadow him in casting with the same motion that he did. But it breaks my heart to know that this is the closest I will ever come to fishing with my father.
Dedicated to the memory of my father, Isaak David Hollander, August 12, 1912 – February 18, 2000
To see a visual accompaniment for Simon's piece Leaf Smoke, watch the video embedded above this post. For another example of Simon's work, visit his Vimeo page to see Fishing With My Father.