The usual sendoff for a fisherman who is lucky enough to have a girlfriend is to wave to him and blow kisses from the dock until the boat is out of sight - then walk or bike or drive down to John's Pass Bridge and wait for them to come around the bend, under the bridge, and out to sea. You can stand out on the jetty and watch until the boat is past the horizon, or, if your eyes are bad, at least until you can't see the boat anymore. Kind of like Diane Lane in "The Perfect Storm". We knew Bobby and Billy Shaddock (Bobby was the one that went down with the Andria Gale). Steve actually fished with Billy down in the Keys until a hurricane forced them in.
But I'm getting off point here. Before my sweetlove went on to that big fishing ground (the big blue circle he called it) in the sky, I promised him that I would send him off in a way fitting to him and the kind of guy he was.
There are four things that Steve always, always had: a) some kind of hat, usually a straw hat or baseball cap, but sometimes he liked to wear what he lovingly referred to as his "Elmer Fudd" hat that his grandson, Ty, gave him. It was camoflage and even had ear flaps; b) sunglasses; c) a Camel filter (until they got too expensive and he started smoking Doral's); and d) a Budweiser. He warned me when we first met that he was "nothin' but a drunken old fisherman" . . . and that is exactly what he was. He made no excuses for it, and there was not a pretensious bone in his body. "I ams what I ams", he liked to quote from Popeye.
But that "drunken old fisherman" could work the deck of a gouper boat like no one else I've seen - and I have seen a few. He would be on the deck from sun up to until the last line was set and the deck was clean and ready to go for the next haul - no matter if it was dusk or midnight and usually long after the other deckhands had given up and gone in. And he did this not just for a couple of days or a week - an average trip is 14 days dock to dock. I was on one that went 18 (but that's another story).
Now I realize most of us have been out on a boat before. Whether it was a little bass boat or a "go fast" or a cabin cruiser. But on those boats you're sitting, unless your getting up to get a drink or use the head. It's not like that on a fishing boat. You are on your feet all the time when your out on deck, with waves hitting the boat from all sides. Sometimes little waves, and sometimes not so little waves. The boat rocks back and forth, back and forth. And sometimes it glides up on a wave and sometimes it "blams" down from aforementioned wave. I never did get my "sea legs". Steve, on the other hand, must have been born with his.
The very first trip we went on together was on a boat called the "Dixie Belle". It was an old wooden hull boat that had for sure seen better days. The Captain's name was Darrell Spence. The name was familiar to me from a story Steve had told me on our way down to Madeira, and I could have sworn this was the same captain that Steve insisted he would never, ever fish with again. But Darrell had about 3 days worth of bait he wanted to burn and he was willing to take me (the master greenhorn).
And, off we went, through the pass and out into the Gulf of Mexico. On this, my maiden voyage, I learned how to put a thread herring on a hook, how to pick the a clip out of the bait tray without getting it tangled up with the 100 other hooks in the basket. You see, when there are two setting gear, one picks the clips out of the bait tray and hands it to the other guy who then clips it on the line. This is repeated anywhere from 300 times to 1000 times - depending on how much line you have, the captain and the boat.
It turned out that this particular bait was mostly mush, and I learned the all important lesson that threads have sharp little fins that poke holes in your hands and sting for hours after your done for the day - even after a good long soak in some bleach water. Ow!
So we're catching a few here and there, which was in itself pretty exciting. Darrell hauled the gear and Steve helped me to keep up with the hooks. Empty hooks go in one basket (and with this bait there were alot of those), hooks that still had bait on went in another basket, and the ones with a fish on went on the deck where Steve would "tune him up" and gut him. Then the fish would be kept in a holding tub until the end of the line, and then put in the ice hole.
We even hooked a turtle. Pretty big one too. And I don't care what propoganda film you watch about fishermen killing too many sea turtles, my respect for my very first captain was cemented when I watched how gently he treated this turtle. It was hooked in it's fin and was still very much alive. Darrell brought the turtle as close to the boat as he could and cut the hook and removed it from the turtles fin. We stood at the gunnel and watched as it made it's way to deeper water. Pretty exciting stuff for a first timer. But it was about to get better.
Darrell, like many captains, did the cooking, so I washed the dishes. After dinner we would play cribbage. Well, Steve had just taught me how to play, so I was all wanting to "show off" my cribbage acumen, only Steve kept mouthing to me "let him win". I didn't understand why, but I went along with his wishes and threw every point card in my hand to Darrell, who still managed to lose. Well, I gotta tell ya, I've never seen someone go as balistic as this guy. He threw the cards in the air and I think he may have thrown the cribbage board over the side. It was really pretty funny. But at least I understood the "let him win"!
The second night on the boat Steve woke me up and said he heard a "funny" noise coming from below. He didn't know what it was, but he didn't like it. He "had a feeling".
The next morning the water was calm and there was a nice breeze blowing. Darrell was out on the deck with Steve and I was sitting in the wheelhouse in the captain's chair when all of a sudden something went "whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrr". Darrell came running into the wheelhouse wanting to know if I had touched anything. "Of course not", was my reply as I jumped out the the chair. He yelled to Steve to check the engine room. It was filling with water and mixing with the leaking diesel fuel which made this strange yucky stuff. We gathered up all the 5 gallon buckets we could find and started a bucket brigade with Steve in the engine room handing up full buckets of gooey water to me which I threw as far over the side of the boat as I could. Since I was on deck I could see another boat off in the distance, and since Darrell was on the radio, I was sure he was talking to the other boat. But poor Steve was down in the engine room absolutely positive we were going to sink. The one time he came up on deck and saw Darrell leaning back in the captain's chair with his feet on the dash talking on the radio he went a little haywire - to say the least. But Steve's instincts were right on.
I suppose I should have been frightened by all that was going on. But I saw the other boat getting closer and closer, and I totally trusted both Steve and Darrell. I never once thought that I might end up in the water - not until much later.
The other boat turned out to be the Sally Rose - Captain and owner Shithead (no lie, that was his name and I never did learn what his given name was), and deckhand, Marcus, who fit the description "strong like bull, smart like tractor" to a tee. I never saw Marcus wearing anything but the tightest pair of cut off jeans in the universe. The term "painted on" comes to mind.
I got to experience another first - crossing boats. I've got to admit I don't really remember how I managed getting from one boat to the other but there were 3 strong guys to help me so I must have. I ended up cooking a pot roast for everyone while the guys busied themselves with securing the Dixie Belle to the stern of the Sally Rose and began to tow her in.
She sank at the dock three days later.
And thus ended my initiation into the wonderful world of commercial fishing. I lost all my clothes to the clean up on the Dixie Belle (no rags on board) and ended up with a shiny pink one piece bathing suit and a long, white country skirt. But I gotta tell ya, I was hooked (no pun intended). Made $100 too.
Now that I've told you that story, I will return to the main point of this post. For several years Steve's main mode of transport was his bike (in the picture). He loved that bike and during his later years would not have been able to go anywhere on the beach without it. Soooo -
I filled a tall Bud can with his ashes along with a little of the other bud and ducktaped that to the handlebars. I also sent along a hat, sunglasses, a picture of me and one of his daughter, the key to his bike lock and the key to the house, and the fisherman's cross that I carried in my wallet because I just never got around to getting a chain. We had to fill the cooler with bricks and tie a couple of sashweights on it for weight. And he was sent off to his favorite tune - Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell". We talked about this weeks before because he kept wanting to give his bike to different people and I kept saying no. He finally asked why, so I told him my plan and he was pleased.
I'm grateful to captain and crew of the Jill L that took him out. And in true tradition, I waved and threw kisses until he was out of site.
This is not easy for me - just ask my coworkers - but I am joining a grievance counceling group through Hospice, and I have found that there is so much support for me at work that I am more grateful for than I can express in words.
Take care - and hug your partners every day - because you just never know . . .
K (aka Mad Beach Maven)
Postcards from Boston
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