Another “What If”
I was born into a family that at one time fished for their very existence. Therefore, it was only natural that this rite of passage be passed to me at an early age. It required a two dollar bamboo pole, which I grasped onto like a child would cling onto his mother while taking his first steps. Unlike the latter, I held tightly to that twisted cane pole long before I was stable, or totally mobile. My first targeted quarry was juvenile Bluefish, or snappers as they are commonly called. I hate to make the reference but in those days, the back bays and neighborhood canals were overflowing with them. This was also the time when their parents roamed our shores and oceans in numbers as large (if not larger) than the bison once did.
It was a short drive to the local marina, a place I had previously spent many days and nights. To a child, it was a classroom, hunting ground, and amusement park all rolled up into one magical place. If I was able to contain my excitement without running, I had to walk only a few feet from the parked car to marvel at a wide assortment of creatures that lived beneath the waves. Life began directly at the marina’s rock strewn shoreline, which regularly held a pair of mating horse shoe crabs. Without fail, these blue blooded mollusks always held my undivided attention as though I had never seen one before. During each encounter, I would carefully touch the pointed end of their shelled tails before inspecting their insect like under carriages. After I was finished with the alien like crabs, a short stroll down the dock would guarantee to yield something I had never seen prior. Even if there was nothing new to check out in a boats cockpit or on the community fillet board, I could always eavesdrop on a conversation about the fish that got away.
Listening to several often repeated layman’s versions of “The Old man and the sea,” could fill hours of my day before I finally made it to the farthest seaward slip. An old Texaco pump and extra long hose transformed it into a floating gas dock. I was not certain of the cause, but somehow a few errant drops of fuel would always create a kaleidoscope of orange and blues hues on the surface. Beneath them, I would often be lucky enough to spot a lone remora looking for a ride back out to sea.
After I had explored enough, I could create my own fish story by simply laying across the floating docks and peering onto its barnacle encrusted side. As I watched, that same dock I used as a classroom, would transform into my personal bait locker. There were mussels for chum, and if I moved my hand stealthily enough over the barnacles, there were grass shrimp to add to the end of a hook as well. With my freshly baited hook, it only required a quick drop down to the bottom with a split shot. This always guaranteed a few taps on my line before I pulled up a bergall, toadfish or porgy. At the time, it really didn’t matter what I caught… just that I was fishing. The bonus was catching something with a tail attached to it the booby prize was something catching me!
This was also the same dock where I learned the hard way not to crab the blue claw crabs that hid behind the pilings. That crab’s pincer drew a high pitched yelp from me before I shed my first blood. The combination of the surprise bite and minute amount of plasma were quickly followed by tears. The result was a gentle over dramatic finger inspection from several nurturing generations, and a reassuring squeeze of my narrow shoulders.
Unlike any other blood drawing event in which my instincts would tell me to stay away from these creatures, the dopamine running through my impressionable mind had me toss all logical reasoning aside, as I desperately tried to ensnare another one. Yet it was that tug of a bamboo pole that truly excited me. This combined with the violent submerging of the bright plastic bobber could only have meant that I had skillfully hidden the small hook under the mushy spearing signaled my prey had impaled itself.
My graduation to big game came one memorable morning after being awakened early to go fishing. I was sent scampering to the bathroom to rinse the crust from my eyes. After dressing, I was given my first grown up folk’s breakfast of a buttered roll to be dunked into a cardboard cup of hot chocolate. Along with the early hour, this particular morning was different than any other. An almost frightening mist hung lifeless across the water. The blanket of moist air made it difficult to see far, and the only sounds I could hear were an occasional gull and “jumping bunker.” These errant splashes from nowhere truly added to the mystique of it all.
The whole scene kind of reminded me of something from a late night horror movie. Back then, there was a particular series which began with a creepy animated hand that came up out of the mud while opening and closing. Then without fail, each episode included a creeping mist which always came complete with some sort of monster. I can’t explain why I would remember that the animated hand had six fingers. Nor do I know why I can still recall the soupy morning, as for the life of me, I cannot recall the day of the week, month, or even the year. Yet, imprinted in my mind forever with the mist and accompanying sounds, was that scent of low tide.
There was just something about it that made my nostrils flair in an attempt to grasp every bit of it. It was as though my nose was greedily trying to suck up as much as my young lungs could hold. I have often wondered how this over-looked sense knew decades later I would desperately yearn to once again have this scent flow through my nostrils, knowing all too well I probably never would. However, at that time, the aroma of wet seaweed mixed with a cornucopia of sea life didn’t signal low tide. It didn’t spark any fond distant memories because I was still unknowingly creating them. It didn’t yet remind me of when I was free, as I still would be for several more decades. It only meant I was that much closer to having that orange bobber floating with a spearing beneath it.
Like refugees of the mist, ourselves and the others before us, we made our way down the short pier and boarded a large party boat. After a short wait and a dual blast from the ship’s air horns, the captain effortlessly piloted us through the channel. Along with the previous smells, sounds, and small talk, sea spray was added to the mix. As we traveled to the fishing grounds, the men around me readied gear that I had never seen before. There were metal leaders attached to large hooks, and most of the baits were bigger than the majority of my quarry. There were no orange bobbers attached to any of the lines, instead dangling in the wind along with half cut bunker were shiny silver bars with colored tubing on their ends.
A short trip and a few more stories later, the boats engines began to slow before the next blast of the ship’s horn rang out. I watched as those around me released their lines with the silver bars and half cut bunker into the murky depths. As they disappeared, the only thing I could wonder was what kind of monster could inhale such large or strange baits? My juvenile curiosity was running wild as I bombarded those around me with a year’s worth of questions. However, this child’s version of “Jeopardy,” was short lived as after being in the water for only a few minutes, my rod bent almost to the point of making a perfect “u” shape. Quickly grabbing the rod, my patriarch’s bicep tensed and his veins seemingly popped out of his forearms. This answered any questions about whether or not a sea monster was indeed lurking in wait for our bait. Then, as he reeled the line in, and as the monoflint strands zig-zagged while coming closer to the surface, the first thing I noticed was the monsters bright yellow eyes. The lemon colored orbs were frightening enough, but the flashes of silver appearing like bolts of lightning beneath the waves nearly terrified me.
As my alleged monster was lifted onto the boat, to my astonishments, instead of a surfacing sea monster, a rather large adult Bluefish stuffed with sand eels was pulled over the side. I knew this as it quickly spit up its stomach contents trying to shake the embedded hook. I believe we landed the boat’s first fish, however, in an almost choreographed dance every rod on the boat began to shake in unison. There were so many Bluefish coming over the rails, we were ankles deep in their slime and blood covered remains in a matter of minutes.
After dispatching the first few fish with a small wooden bat, I meekly asked my grandfather why the following one was so fat? Since he wasn’t an Ethologist, I can only assume his response that, “The fish was pregnant” was a simple answer to end my adolescent questioning. As the loads of fish continued to swing over the railing, I stood silently watching the allegedly pregnant fish desperately struggling for the oxygen it needed to survive. As its gills opened and close, and as its tail began to beat furiously against the floor boards, instead of still being in awe of the sheer size of the fish, I felt sorry for it.
In an act of childhood ignorance, I proceeded to reach down and pick it up. Thankfully I was immediately stopped, as this was no small crab and possessed a row of razor sharp teeth. Seeing my distress, in an act of compassion long before conservation was popular, my grandfather whispered that if I wanted, I could release this one pregnant fish, and possibly catch her next generation of sons another day.
It took only a nod and a smile to seal the fate of that Bluefish. I watched as my grandfather’s knuckled hands firmly grasped the fish by its tail and chin. Then he gently released it. As the fish darted back into the dark abyss, I clearly saw a smile on the old man’s face, which now matched the expression on my own. It was only a minuscule moment in the scope of my existence, but till this day, I can still picture his expression through that mist. For reasons I am not privy to, I unknowingly recorded each detail, not realizing how important moments such as these would later become to me. There was no way I could know many of my precious memories such as these would later become just a blur.
The majority of these moments have evaporated leaving gaps in time, like mud puddles in the middle of a crystal clear lake. However, if I close my eyes tightly enough, I can still picture a Cormorant dive beneath the waves to steal a hooked fish. I can almost feel the cold ocean spray hitting my face, or almost recall that scent of low tide. Looking back with the gift of hindsight, I admit to being fortunate in material things. I was privileged enough to gain access to vessels of all shapes and sizes, yet I believe I am more fortunate now that I have been stripped of everything. After all the material things have vanished, I still possess many fond memories; while many in my position have never been fortunate enough to create any.
However, as fortunate as I allegedly was, instead of utilizing private vessels, I often sought refuge on party boats, and to be perfectly honest, I never quite figured out why. It might have been something from my subconscious reliving my humble beginnings on the water, or something for more deeper seated. I believe it was the latter. Despite this question, the one thing I knew for certain was: the moment I boarded one of those boats there was no fakery, no excessive testosterone, and no dress code. It was just a place for those who wanted to spend some quality time on the water catching fish. Or in my case, hiding from whatever might have been ailing me.
However, these vessels were not just a place to catch fish, or relax while unwinding from a difficult day or life. The boats mixed crowd was a melting pot of humanitarians who were more than happy to share an extra once of kindness to a complete stranger. Now these boats became a classroom for adults. The patrons on those vessels ingrained many valuable lessons to my core. I learned patience while waiting for a blitz, and understanding as I worked out a tangled line the moment the fish hit. I learned never to take a short fish, even if no one was looking. The most valuable lesson was to be generous to those who were less fortunate. Along with learning how to catch almost anything, I learned to instantly recognize those who fished for sport, and those who fished for food. In addition, there were a few seniors who could always bank on a fillet or two – even if I bought them. I often wondered if they knew the chance of my catching Chilean sea bass or mahi-mahi steaks while on a November mackerel trip was about as likely as me ever receiving parole. To be honest, it didn’t matter to me if they knew or not, only that I discreetly extended what I had to those who were in need. I also learned that I didn’t have an exclusive on telling little white lies, or creating my own “fish stories” to feed seniors. This practice was widespread, and I can pretty much say with certainty, each of us that had fished has done this in one fashion or another. Now this sport forced me to recognize that generosity didn’t end the moment one stepped foot on shore.
In my case, it even extended into the prison system and of all places, while I was in the hole. For those of you that are fortunate enough not to know what that entail’s, remove all of your possessions from a walk in closet, add a toilet, sink and metal bunk… then call it home for a few years. I was on my second of a two year stint, when I decided to comment on an article written in a well known fishing magazine. I never imagined there would be a kind response a few weeks later, and they even included several hard covered books to occupy my idle mind. One afternoon, those books simply appeared through the slot in the steel door. There was a crab on one cover, and the next one had someone chasing a rather large marlin. Thumbling through the pages, I could almost smell the diesel fumes mixed in with the ocean’s spray. In the time it took for a book to hit that frigid cement floor, I learned when it comes to those who fish, It’s not about right or wrong. In my case it wasn’t about guilt or innocence but simply that someone who fished thought I was in need. They were absolutely correct in this assumption. It’s at this point of the story I would love to have written something I learned on one of those outings caused me to grow into a fine human being. However, considering where I am writing this from, that might be a bit of a stretch. Yet as dark and ugly as I allowed my life to become, I realized I am far more generous than most in my situation, and generosity of this kind could only have been learned in one place.
A perfect example of this generosity is the patience I’ve shown in adopting a few children during my incarceration. I assure you this is far different from deciding to mentor the troubled kid next door. Adopting kids in prison is the equivalent to going to the ASPCA and informing the receptionist, “I want to adopt an animal who has already bitten six of its last owners – and enjoys chewing on furniture as a pastime.” In short, you know what you’re getting and hope you don’t get bit in the ass as well. I have risked this only a handful of times because the majority of these kids are already set in their ways. Then, even though I hate to admit it, in most instances there are no fairy tale endings either. Most of these kids continue down a path of destruction, and simply get shipped off to another prison far worse than when they arrived here.
At present, I have been fortunate enough to be in the company of one kid who has been around for the past half of a decade, and adopting him has been one of the only a handful of life changing decisions I don’t regret. This young convict who we named Peanut because of his size, appeared just like the rest of them do. He simply showed up one night during a trip to the yard. Aside from his face being a new one, he was easy to spot as he had a bewildered deer in the headlights look. However, at his particular age of only 17, with a prison sentence that matched it, I guess this was to be expected. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think much of him that first night. He was just another seriously scrawny kid with a type A, high strung personality that was in the process of getting swallowed up by a system designed to be selfish, cold and absolutely brutal. I knew if I got involved, he was going to be a handful. Especially, after being informed, prior to prison, he went out of his way to make certain he broke all of the Ten Commandments… and then some. It was as though he checked each of them off as he went on a childhood outing sponsored by Lucifer himself.
Regardless of his history, I decided to take a chance, and, against my better judgment, placed him under my wing. It was slow going in the beginning since children don’t come with instruction manuals, including already broken miniature convict ones. Yet as he became acclimated to his surroundings, and comfortable with me, his life story began to emerge. However his story isn’t what interested me since it was as basic as all the other stories of young convicts. It begins with a nonexistent parent, (or a set of who were present without being present). Add in a heaping portion of abuse, mix it with a pinch of drugs, and it winds up being a fully cooked, extremely violent adolescent. In short, without being shown an ounce of compassion, or given ant guidance, this kid didn’t have an iota of a chance at a normal life. However, as the actual person behind the façade began to make an appearance, I quickly realized there were many things that separated him from the pack. To begin with, Peanut was sharp, witty and most importantly attentive to whatever I taught him to ensure his survival. In a short amount of time, his mannerisms began improving, and I watched proudly as he began being polite to those that were deserving, while stoned faced to those that were not.
This kid never blamed anyone for his actions, and had a carefree attitude about the horror he called a childhood. This so called childhood might not have appeared to bother him, but I silently cringed as he nonchalantly allowed the atrocities to roll off his back as a duck would shed water. He became passionate about attending church services. This wasn’t a case of a convict getting a temporary conscience, and then behaving like an animal the moment he left church. As a matter of fact, this kid was so serious about his religion, he even encouraged me to show up for Easter Mass as he received his first communion. I managed to wrangle up a pew’s worth of convicts, then I watched the ceremony like a proud parent; and I honestly felt like one.
I witnessed him being compassionate in ways he should not have known how to be. I saw this firsthand, after he came to me with a problem with which he needed assistance. I was unsure what his request might be, but instead of asking for something for himself, he asked me for guidance in order to help another miniature convict – and this one was already swallowed up to his neck. I explained why I was reluctant to get involved, however instead of giving up, he carefully articulated his request again. This time he added, with or without me he had to try. Like the day I stood with my chest puffed out at that church pew, I stood proudly in that dirt covered yard, as he was right to try helping someone else in need.
I might have initially saved this kid a world of grief, but that single comment did far more for me than I could ever do for him. It became my equivalent to the mahi-mahi steaks I had given to those seniors. As the same way I had left them wondering if I had caught those fish, now I wondered if he knew how that single statement had affected me. In short, this kid managed to nourish my soul, and he often did the same for others that were around him. After thinking I could give myself a pat on the back for many of his new found ways, a single untold story changed my perception of how he could have become so compassionate. During the course of an uneventful evening, I spoke of donating money to send a child in need on a fishing trip. It was then Peanut admitted during one of his many times living in a shelter, that the same organization I planned to donate to, had taken him out for a day on the water. He smiled and began explaining how several men unknown to him, were especially kind during the choppy boat ride out. As the vessel neared the fishing grounds, a different set of men showed him how to hide the hook within the bait. Then, after dropping his line into the water, he waited patiently while listening to several fish stories.
It was only a short wait before his rod began to arch, and with a bit of coaching, and a drop of cheering from the other fisherman around him, he struggled to pull in what he assumed to be a monster fish. However, as it came closer to the surface, it frightened him, as the last thing he was expecting to see was a creature with a set of wings. He had hooked what he could only describe as, a “flat dirt covered bat.”
After the creature was on board, and Peanut was assured of his own safety, he ran his hand across it and felt the coarse texture of its skin. He emphasized how both of its sinister black eyes were staring angrily at him. Yet, after turning the fish over to remove the hook, curiosity forced him to inspect the animals white underside, before running his hand down its pointy tail. From his description, I could only assume he had caught a sting ray, or what most fisherman would regard to as a trash fish. However being edible, it was kept, filleted and fried for dinner by his mother. It was the single time in his life he was able to provide for his family, and it was a simple meal he will never forget.
Perhaps it would have made better reading if he had released the sting ray unharmed after taking a look at its smiling mouth. However, as I also wrote many fish for food, and this ray was necessary for his families survival. It was an honorable way to put food on their table. There is no fairy tale ending, instead I had to add my adopted son’s story to the pile of “what if’s,” floating aimlessly in my head. I had no choice to ponder, what could he have grown into if he went out to sea regularly with the same humanitarians we both initially encountered. Unlike myself, he could have easily escaped his prison journey with more time at sea.
I am not certain of the numerous “what if’s.” I am positive by the time I receive these kids, they are already broken human beings just trying to exist in a world far darker than the one they discarded. My final “what if” is, before they unravel, what if you-the reader-gave one of these kids a chance? Your compassion, or a drop of your time could go a long way towards helping a troubled, disadvantaged darkly influenced young person. You probably will never be recognized or appreciated for doing this good deed, but it might prevent an entirely different set of questions, as the next batch of “what if’s”… might be your own.