Monday, August 8, 2011

My First 36

The memory is old but I do remember this day.

It is raw out here. The clouds are low and some drizzle has moved in and is soaking into my white Irish sweater and shorts. I am already bored. The walk from the house took only five minutes, but I am already thinking about doing something else. I watch him take several casts into the gray, featureless water. The green reel spins; the green-tinted line slacks and tightens as it retrieves a silvery hunk of metal. Hanging from this metal lure is a wet clump of hair that is barely tied on with red thread. Between casts I watch the water drip from the end of the hair. I feel sudden disappointment when my gaze is interrupted by the next cast. For a few moments I patiently watch him fish. I anxiously wait to see a ripple or a splash. I can’t see the lure under the water and this frustrates me. So I become bored. I stare at the reflections of docks at the yacht club on the opposite shore and the calmness of the water is accentuated by these. The bottom rises steeply from the depths of the gray water up to the high tide mark. There is no real beach, rather there are stones the size of baseballs and footballs. The ones closest to the low water are brown and slippery, and some are covered with small barnacles.

A few casts later and I am still bored. I start to throw rocks into the water. Stop that, he yells out to me. You’ll scare away the fish. But I am bored, I think to myself. Can I go home, I ask him. He has a stutter, especially when he is in a rush to get words out. Nuh-nuh-nuh-no! Juh-juh-juh-juh-just stay right here with me for a little whuh-whuh-whuh-while John. He takes another cast. His blue eyes are keenly studying the water as he retrieves the lure. The tide is dropping and the water is rushing out of the harbor. I know this because the rocks that I had just thrown made bubbles and they move past him. It all seems senseless to me. I am so bored that I increase the frequency of complaints. This activity annoys him and for a few seconds I notice that the color of his face is changing, as is his expression. He’s now pissed off. I don’t like this. I am wet, grumpy, bored, frustrated, and now I’ve made him feel the same way.

Can I try now? He looks at me and his face, initially angry and red, relaxes and he quickly adjusts his thick rimmed glasses (with his middle finger) and as he does this it is as if this also adjusts his disposition. Why yes, he says. I want you to fuh-fish ti-ti-too. Come over here. I walk over to him, he stands behind me, guides me through the first cast. It doesn’t go far. He’s not used to guiding me and I’m not used to casting. Our arms work in separate directions and the result is a terrible cast. I can see the lure on the bottom just a few feet away. He helps me reel it in. Again, we attempt the cast. This time it goes a little farther. We do this a few more times until at last we manage to get one a good distance out. Now J-Juh-John, reel it in slowly, not too fast. I follow his order and he takes a step away from me to light up a cigarette, a Lark. He draws from the cigarette and stares down at me. He says, keep that tip up a little more, okay, nice and easy now. There is a bit of seriousness in his voice.

Then my line stops. I tug but nothing happens. You’re stuh-stuck on the bee-bottom, let me have the rod. He puts one hand on the eroding cork handle while mine are still in place. I sigh in frustration as I loosen my grip so that I can walk away. He pauses slightly, his expression suddenly changes to excitement. You’re on! What Dad? You’re on one!

The line feels heavy to me, almost as if it is stuck on a log. But then, as I stare into the soft, shiny water, I feel an unmistakable tug. It pulls me two steps over the slick stones and up to my ankles in the murkiness. I feel my father’s elbows close in around my shoulders and his shaking hands are helping me steady the rod and reel. His cigarette is still hot and tightly gripped in his lips. The smoke is in my eyes and I breathe some of it in. Steady, he says. Keep the tip up and let it take some line if it wants to, he continues. I try to pull but the fish is stronger and more patient than I am. Steady, he keeps saying to me and several times he helps me hold the rod in place. After a few minutes of this he says, okay, let’s get this to shore now John. We take turns on the reel while no-see-ums fly up my nostrils and bite my face and neck. I pause only to brush them away and I am now quite interested in this fish. And finally, through the calm, gray water I see the first flash and the fish immediately takes off again. He’s tiring, he says. And within another minute or so the fish is beaten and my father wades to his knees, bends down, while gently holding the line from the rod’s tip, and grabs the fish by the gill. He lifts it up, but before I can take in its size, I notice the enormous smile on my dad’s face; his gold crown filling on his left canine standing out in this black and white scene. You just caught the largest striper of the year John! His words, stuttered or not, are earnest and he is happy and proud. He pauses once again to remove the single hook of the Hopkins spoon, its white bucktail hair is reddened by blood. The bugs are in my face again and I feel so relieved that we can go home now, but I’m also excited to show off the fish.

To my surprise, he immediately begins casting out into the channel again. There might be another one in there right now, he blurts out through the smoldering cigarette. I notice the two-day shadow of whiskers on his face: half white and dark, his blue eyes peering through his weekend glasses toward the end of his line, and the look of anticipation as he steadily retrieves the Hopkin’s spoon. He takes four casts, nothing. He looks at me kneeling over the fish, touching its eye with my index finger, and says alright, let’s go.

I try to carry the fish for a few steps as he insists, but it becomes too difficult and I slip onto the ground a few times, scraping my knees on the small barnacles. Its okay, he says, I’ll carry it. He points to my scrapes, you’ll be fine, he says dismissively.

There is one final push to carry the rod and tackle bag over the mat of straw and seaweed along the high tide line and we emerge from the boat ramp at the end of our street. I look up as we traverse the small asphalt hill and see our house. There are no trees, just a few houses, vacant wetland lots, and marsh. It begins to rain and the bugs subside and I watch the bloody water drip off the fish that my father is proudly carrying home.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Gulf

I am somewhere near 27.5 N and 91.5 W, a long way from Duxbury Bay. The water here is blue like you can’t imagine. It is also quite deep, about 6,000 feet. The colors are vivid, as are the sounds of diesel engines that power both the propulsion of the vessel and the large generators that keep the power on 24/7. The loudest noises come from what are called bow thrusters which is part of our dynamic positioning system (keeps the ship at one spot by fighting the drifting caused by winds and currents). The dynamic positioning system, better known as the DP, will wake you up, no matter where you are on the vessel, and it also jolts you into levitation, just briefly, if you are sitting in the galley having a cup of coffee. We work around the clock when things are working and the weather is not so terrible. We’ve had some poor weather with wind-generated swells to 7, maybe 8 feet. This was a week or two ago. Swells of this size make it difficult to sleep, take showers, or do anything else that requires more than a half second of steadiness. Most of us need that half second more than we realize.

But right now it is relatively calm out here and the work is moving along swiftly. The cook is busy on lunch (what will it be?), the night shift is wrapping up a mid-morning station, and the day-shifters (me included) are getting up and ready for our noon to midnight date with the sampling nets. Each day, when we are busy, is basically the same. Being busy seems to make the days go quickly and not being busy, or being ashore waiting on things, drags time to its slowest pace, and this weighs on everyone’s patience.

We see things that people rarely see throughout their lives. We see a wide variety of juvenile fish, gelatinous organisms like salps, deep-sea creatures, flying fish, shrimp, crabs, and things that you can’t really imagine and that I can’t describe very well. We see the sun rise and set across the most definitive horizon, oil rigs big and small, water that changes from mud brown to crystal clear blue, dolphins, birds that take refuge on the decks, miles of floating Sargassum weed, and we see and feel the ever constant ocean swell. The latter has been responsible for several upset stomachs and brains.

I look forward to getting home next week. To seeing my family and friends, to picking up where I left off, to eventually getting back on the water and hooking some striper, flounder, and mackerel. If I say “what?” a lot it is because of the bow thrusters and the DP system.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Wild

Today is Jack London’s birthday. But that doesn’t matter much to him right now because he would have been 124, a feat way beyond his abilities. But he did have abilities and, unfortunately, didn’t have much of a chance to see them all the way through. He died at age 40 in, most probably, a terrible manner. I was reminded of him today via Garrison Keillor’s website, The Writer’s Almanac. And I thoroughly enjoyed, as usual, the summary of today’s subject, Jack London. When reading Garrison’s piece I was immediately reminded of my aunt Kate, who, on February 11, 1979, presented me with a fresh copy of The Call of the Wild when we were snowbound in the small town of Chester, Vermont. We were staying at the Chester Inn which was, perhaps, a popular location during Jack London’s days. In fact, the Chester Inn was quite old indeed. There were antiquated electrical outlets everywhere, lamps, furniture, and wallpaper that definitely originated from the very early 1900s. It was, to a thirteen year-old, a depressing place, but I remember it fondly nonetheless, because it represented dual periods of time that really don't exist anymore.

We were there for a couple of nights in February of 1979. It was cold as hell and the snow drifts were up to my waist. It was an odd meeting of people. My mom and I customarily trekked up to Vermont to ski in this general area. But this trip included my friend Kenny Jaffe and Kate, and I am not sure whether we skied or simply explored the area. I do remember it was a good time.

What I remember the most is Kate. She was an amazing person. A couple of years younger than my mom, Kate was single, vivacious, and had a unique and almost incomparable burning desire to explore and experience life. She extracted all of the freedom that a responsible life had to offer; she traveled and met people, came home, then did it all over again. She was extraordinarily kind and generous too. On top of this she was beautiful.

Kate pulled me aside one night during this stay in Chester, and she handed me the book. We were alone and she looked into my eyes, quite earnestly, and said something like, “John, I want you to read this book because it reminds me of you and the things you like to do. You’ll get a lot from it, I promise.” And then she gave me a verbal preview of the story and told me about Jack London. He was perhaps the kind of guy that I could be like, she said, but then again, he did live a hard life and died early. I received the book from her outstretched hands without hesitation. Kate taught literature at the Breadloaf School at Middlebury College, and then afterwards at Worcester State College, so I took her suggestions to read this seriously.

On the evening of Easter Sunday, in 1981, she was working the desk at the Howard Johnon’s Hotel in Dorchester, Massachusetts. A man walked in, she was on the phone with a close friend, he demanded money, and then he shot her. She died immediately.

Right now I have that copy of The Call of the Wild in front of me. I read some of it today, a stormy day with snow and high winds. The conditions were like those I remember from Chester in 1979. And I could not help but think about Kate Downey and the days we spent together in that special capsule of time, that remarkable short period when, without any readily identifiable reason, she gave me the book. She was the best of her kind.