Years ago I walked into the office of my little country weekly one morning after a trip to Boston to find laying across my organized chaos a long black tube. Instant curiosity got the best of me and I quickly unscrewed the cap to find a beautiful antique bamboo fishing rod complete with both tips.
“Where did this come from?” was my question for a co-worker.
“Some guy dropped it off. He said you’d know who it was from.”
So began a long mystery, for there wasn’t a clue. No note. “Some guy” isn’t a vivid description, even in Minnesota where vagueness has evolved into a cultural art form. Whoever the mystery man was he would have to know me well enough to know that I was a fly fisher and had an appreciation for such a work of art. Later in the afternoon, I took the fly rod from the case and rigged it up with a five-weight line and laid out some line. While my practiced, piston-like casting doesn’t lend itself well to bamboo, which performs so well with an easy and rhythmic motion, there was quality in the workmanship. This was a fine rod.
Perhaps it was two years later while cooking hamburgers along the Minnesota River for CURE’s annual River History Weekend with Jerry Tilden, he lifted his spatula from the grill and said, “Say, did you ever find that package I left in your office?”
“Years ago my father-in-law owned a hardware store, and he had hung this old fly rod up over the fishing gear. When the store sold, Dixie and I brought it home and tacked it up in our house. It has been there ever since. When we decided to downsize and move, I brought it over and left it in your office,” he said, smiling.
Dixie is the missus, who I have known for years. Through her I met Jerry. As I was reading through his obituary this week I realized how little I knew about him, of all the civic groups and community boards he was not just a part of, but in all was cast in a leadership role. No, I didn’t know that side of Jerry Tilden. The side I knew was of his stepping forth as a constant volunteer. The side I knew was of his kindness and care. I also knew of his work as a Master Gardner, and of his basement dedicated to the propagation of his vast gardens along the Minnesota River in the Montevideo flood plain. To me it was ironic that a man who didn’t need a nursery had such a wide assortment of flowery gardens right next to one of the more notable nurseries in the river valley.
Yes, there were the burgers. We cooked them together for several years for the CURE event on a grill he transported himself from Bill’s Supermarket in Montevideo. Me? I mainly manned the grill. Jerry? He was multi-tasking, cooking burgers one second, then the next making sure the potato salad was in the right place, or running to assist his beautiful Dixie with some task. That was the Jerry Tilden I knew.
Then there was that Sunday morning when I received a frantic call from a nearby Chamber of Commerce woman who asked if we could quickly put together a canoe trip on the river, that there were three Hollywood actors in town who had expressed interest in doing a paddle. A call was put through to Dixie, who said the canoe trailers were set up and ready, to just come by for the key. Phone arrangements were then made and my “river truck” was aimed toward Montevideo. Dixie met me at the door with one of her beautiful and encompassing hugs, and handed me the keys. When I got to the garage under their Main Street office, there was a flat tire on the trailer.
“Dixie,” I said over the cell phone, “where can I get a flat tire fixed in Monte on a Sunday morning?”
She didn’t know, but said Jerry was on the way down to help. He drove up before I could ring off. Using a jack from my river truck, we easily removed the tire. “Let’s put it in the car,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Should I come along?”
“Just stay here with the kids,” he said, because my two exchange students were along for the adventure. Meeting Hollywood actors obviously offered more excitement than homework. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Indeed, it didn’t take him long. We positioned the tire and secured the lug nuts and let down the jack. That’s when I noticed the color of the wheel. It didn’t match the trailer, and it was obviously a different tire than we had taken off moments before. “The service station have a spare?” I asked.
Jerry Tilden smiled. “Nah, I just took it off my trailer. I’ll get the flat fixed tomorrow.”
That was the Jerry Tilden I knew. That’s the Jerry Tilden I’ll miss, the man I wish I had known better.