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Seeing the world with Al Bell

In spite of the high price of gasoline and the multitude of bridge repair projects taking place everywhere, the vacation bug seems to be on the rampage across the country.

Whenever I hear of travel plans, I can’t help think back to Al Bell. He was the man who brought exotic lands far from home to school kids back in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Each year he would bring excitement to more than 400 Iowa schools. Al’s visit stimulated so much excitement it became known as “Al Bell Day.”

Recently, Al was honored at the State Historical Building by a special Al Bell Day, featuring a collection of artifacts and movies from those school visits.

The excitement of Al Bell Day actually started days before his arrival each year. Our teacher would pass out mimeographed strips of paper informing our parents of Al’s upcoming visit. They were also instructed to send 15 cents for admittance.

Over the next several days, the suspense would build. Where had Al been and what was he going to bring? It was almost as exciting as drawing names for the Christmas gift exchange.

Looking back on it now, I guess the reason Al’s trips seemed so special was his ability to make them interesting to kids. This was especially evident in the goodies he brought back: tomahawks from Alaska and a birchbark canoe from Canada … great stuff. Probably the most exciting souvenir I remember was a shrunken head from the wilds of New Guinea.

Of all his programs I attended, his trip to Scotland might have had the biggest affect on me. I remember his description of fly fishing. He featured an old fisherman who explained how he would tie flies to imitate the insects fish were feeding on. Al then zoomed in on the hook as the old fisherman used bits of leather and feathers, connected by brightly colored string, to resemble the insect.

That sent my mind in motion. After school that day, Slick and I rushed home and raided my father’s fishing tackle box. We grabbed all the bare hooks we could find and took them to the desk in my room. We rigged up a makeshift clamp to hold the hook on which we would apply our decorations.

The next order of business was to find some feathers. Naturally, my father’s chicken house was the ideal place for such accessories. We scared the wits out of the chickens as we groped around looking for the proper size and color of feathers. The leather we needed was more difficult to come by. We finally decided upon the tongue out of one of my mother’s old shoes. For the next couple of days, Slick and I created several dozen custom flies.

The next Saturday found us biking out to Big Creek to test our bait. Lacking fly rods, we used fishing string tied to old limbs. After several hours of tossing flies into the creek, we both came to the conclusion that carp and bullheads aren’t nearly as fond of flies as trout. The closest thing we’d had to a bite all day was when Slick got his hook caught in my trousers.

I guess the important thing to remember is that Al had succeeded in getting something across to his audience. Sure, we didn’t catch any fish, but it did teach us how to try something different. To this day, I still experiment with every lure in my tackle box.

(Ed Rood is former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Cambridge.)

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