Fishin’

fishingJohnny Donohue was my best friend when I was twelve years old. On Saturday mornings, we would go fishing. Because we would arise at 3:00 am and meet shortly thereafter, we called it “going fishing at three in the morning.”

This particular Saturday morning when I arrived at Johnny’s house, two of his three brothers were milling about outside. His brother Terry was a year younger than Johnny and me and sometimes hung out with us, so it was no surprise to see him. But, to see his youngest brother, Matthew, who was only six, was a different story. Before I could ask Johnny what was up, Matt came running up to me and said, “I wanna go fishin’.”

Johnny approached me. “If I try to leave him behind, he’ll just follow us or make such a racket he’ll wake up my parents.” So we bowed to the inevitable and let Matt follow us as we started for the lake. It wasn’t really a lake; it was what was called a rock pit. A rock pit being a place that was once dry land until a company came along and started dredging gravel, dirt, and muck for development out west near the Everglades. What was left after they had taken as much as possible was a small lake. We were fortunate; there were two such lakes within blocks of where we lived. They were identical, about a quarter mile long and half as wide. Between them was about a hundred yards of fine, sugary-white sand.

Our 3:00 a.m. fishing routine consisted of me, Johnny, sometimes Terry, our fishing poles, a frying pan, a can of baked beans, and a stick of butter. At sunrise, we would stop fishing, clean our catch, build a fire, and cook the fish we had caught moments before. And of course, coming from good Irish (Boston) stock, the beans were always Boston Baked Beans.

As a rule, we always fished the north lake. Why, I don’t know. Probably because that’s the lake we swam in and we felt comfortable there. However, this morning we were fishing the south lake, and by the time the sun was fixing to come up over the horizon, we had caught nothing. Matt may have helped our bad luck along by throwing rocks into the water right where we were fishing. So, we decided to call it a day, or a night, or whatever. It was still dark out when we reeled in our lines and started for home.

Johnny, Terry, and I were walking along the shore of the south lake. Matt was somewhere behind us. Or so we thought. There was no need to fret about Matt. We were only blocks from his home, which he knew his way to as well as we did. And there were no “Bad Guys” to worry about. It was 1962, after all. But with what happened in the next few minutes, it just goes to show you how wrong a guy can be. At this point, it’s still pitch black out, but a gray sky in the east was only minutes away.

As we neared the bit of land between the two lakes, we heard a sound that immediately put us on guard. In those days, our neighborhood was way out in the boondocks, and we had never run into another living soul in all the time we went fishing at three o’clock in the morning. The sound was a scratching sound, immediately followed by a sound that sounded like thud, scratch, thud, scratch, thud—it had a kind of rhythm. By then dawn had broken, barely. It was finally light enough to see where the sound was coming from.

We could make out the silhouettes of two men and a car. The bigger of the two was leaning against the car, arms folded, watching the other man as he dug a hole. Those were the sounds we had heard, the scraping of the shovel as it was thrust into the sand, and the sand as it was dumped onto a slowly growing pile. As we stood there watching this strange sight, it got stranger still. The big guy went to the trunk, opened it, and dragged out a dead body. Or what sure as hell looked like a dead body.

All three of us dropped to the ground. After all, we were the first generation of children raised on television; we’d seen enough to know that witnesses always get “rubbed out” and dead men tell no tales.

Johnny and I were right next to each other, with Terry behind us. We lay in that position for about five minutes, wondering what would be the best course of action to take that would not end up with us getting shot. Johnny and I were for staying on the ground and slowly crawling away so as not to be seen. Terry was for jumping up and making a run for it. Well, wouldn’t you know it, little Matthew decided which course of action we should take, and it was neither of the above.

As we lay there conducting The Great Debate, we saw Matt walking up to the two men from the opposite direction. He must have circumnavigated the lake, and was heading in the general direction of home. The only problem being two bad guys were between him and his destination. Because he was so small, and the men were so intent on what they were doing, Matt was able to walk right up to the hole still being dug and peer into it. Even from our vantage point, we could see the men react as all reasonable men would react when discovered burying a corpse at six o’clock in the morning. They nearly jumped out of their skins.

After taking a moment to regroup, the bigger of the two, the one not shoveling, grabbed Matt by the arm, and force-marched him about ten feet before flinging him in the direction of the street. Of course, the little kid stumbled and fell. He sat there looking up at that big bully as the man pointed to the street. You didn’t need to read lips to know the guy was telling Matt to scram.

If I may, I’d like to digress for a moment and tell you about Johnny, Terry, and myself. Johnny and I were good kids. We were altar boys; we never gave the nuns at school any trouble. We kept our noses clean. Of course, as we got older and joined the Boy Scouts, Johnny made Eagle Scout while I never made it out of Tenderfoot. Johnny went on to become an FBI agent, and I went on to break many, many laws with impunity. But on that morning, we thought alike.

Now Terry, on the other hand, was a holy terror. Whenever he hung with us, we could expect to either be reprimanded by someone, or punished by our parents when we got home. All the Donohue boys, except Terry, had red hair and freckles. Terry was different, he was a blond. Come to think of it, he was different in a lot of ways. I tell you these things so you will understand why things turned out as they did.

Back to the story: When we left off, Matt was sitting on the ground with Mr. Big standing over him.

Johnny jumped up and yelled, “My brother!” and started running in the direction of all the excitement. Because he was my pal, I was two steps behind him, and Terry was a step behind me. We reached the scene of the crime and injected ourselves between Mr. Big and Matt. When he saw us, the big guy laughed and turned to the guy shoveling. “Hey, Nicky … the cavalry to the rescue.”

Nicky dropped the shovel, pulled out a gun that he had tucked into his belt, and pointed it at us. At this turn of events, Mr. Big said to Nicky, “Put the fuckin’ gun away, pick up your fuckin’ shovel, and dig the goddamn hole!” I thought Nicky was going to shoot him. I would have if someone spoke to me like that. But Nicky only shrugged, slipped the gun back into his belt, and resumed his spadework.

“So, kids, what’s the problem?” said Mr. Big. “Why don’t you be good little tykes and just run along home?” When we heard that, Johnny and I looked at one another. We knew our troubles were over. All we had to do was walk away, go home, tell our parents, and they could take the appropriate steps to deal with the situation.

As Johnny took Matt by the hand and we turned to leave, we heard, “You guys gonna bury that dead body?”

Fuckin’ Terry! was my only thought at the moment. I don’t know what Johnny was thinking, but by the look on his face, he was thinking along similar lines. With that bit of oratory, Nicky again dropped his shovel and pulled out his gun. Mr. Big stared him down until Nicky meekly put the gun away. But in an act of defiance, he did not resume his shoveling duties. So there we were: four kids, two bad guys, and a corpse. What next? was probably the only thought going through everyone’s head—except for Matt and Terry. Matt was too young to comprehend the situation, and Terry was just getting warmed up.

As we stood there in this Mexican standoff, we heard a groan coming from the corpse. Then the corpse raised itself on one arm and shook its head. Now I’ve got to hand it to Mr. Big. If nothing else, he was a fast thinker. I could tell he was just as surprised as the rest of us at the resurrection taking place, probably more so. But without missing a beat, he turned to Terry and said, “You talkin’ about Marty? He’s no dead body; he just had too much to drink.”

I was thinking, Saved by the bell. All we’ve got to do is play dumb and we can walk out of here.

No sooner had I thought those encouraging thoughts, I heard, “Then why are you digging the hole?”

You guessed it. Fuckin’ Terry again. But no one paid any attention to him. Marty was slowly getting to his feet, and all eyes were upon the Lazarus-like spectacle. The only one present who did anything was Nicky. He pulled out his gun again. Mr. Big walked over to him and slapped him on the back of the head. “Not in front of the k-i-d-s.”

How old did this guy think we were that we couldn’t spell kids? But that was cool, if he wanted us stupid, we could be the stupidest sons-of-bitches you ever saw. But unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to exhibit our acting skills. Just then, Marty said to no one in particular, “You fuckin’ assholes. You tried to kill me!”

“We ain’t done trying yet,” was Nicky’s retort. With that brilliant statement—in front of witnesses nonetheless—Mr. Big lost his cool. He turned to Nicky and shouted, “Alright, just shoot the bastard once and for all. Kill him before I kill you, you sorry sonavabitch!”

Nicky grinned from one end of his face to the other. “Right, boss,” was his reply, just before he raised his gun and put two right in Marty’s head. The rest of those assembled, with the exception of Mr. Big, jumped a foot in the air with the explosion of the first shot. Marty did not take it so well. He was flung back against the car and stared at Nicky for a long moment before he collapsed like a wet dishrag. Us kids were frozen to the piece of earth we each happened to be standing on at the moment the shots were fired. Even Terry couldn’t think of anything stupid to say.

As soon as Marty hit the ground, Mr. Big ordered Nicky to pull the body away from the car. Mr. Big got behind the wheel and yelled for Nicky to hurry up and get into the car. Standing at the passenger side window, Nicky asked, “What about the kids?”

We were still rooted to our respective pieces of earth, so we were close enough to hear Mr. Big’s reply. “Nicky, fuck the goddamn kids, fuck Marty, fuck you, and fuck this miserable town! Get your ass in here or so help me, I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off right where you stand.” With that, Mr. Big pulled out his own gun and pointed it at Nicky’s head. Having his boss point a gun at his head didn’t seem to faze Nicky, not at all. Before getting into the car, Nicky turned to Johnny and me and winked. “See ya, kids.” He then got into the car and Mr. Big backed it out onto the street, driving out of our lives forever.

But wait, the story isn’t over quite yet. After our friends had left, we formed a circle around Marty. We stood there looking down at him. He was lying face down in the fine white sand with a small pool of crimson-colored blood forming next to his head. Terry said, “Cool.” Johnny looked like he wanted to throw up. I was paralyzed and Matt was building sand castles. After a few minutes, Johnny said, “Let’s go home.”

The walk home was the least eventful part of that entire morning’s fishing expedition, at least until we arrived at Johnny’s house. When we got there, he said, “You guys wait out here. I’ll go in and tell my parents what happened.”

A few moments later, we heard a scream, followed by the exclamation, “My babies!” Within seconds, Mrs. Donohue, wearing an old blue bathrobe and with curlers in her hair, flew through the front door, stooped down, and like a mother hen, enfolded Matt and Terry into her arms. After a few moments and a few sniffles, she stood up and, while pointing at the door, shouted, “Get in there, misters, before I beat you!”

After that, there was nothing left for me to do but make my way home. I was hungry; we hadn’t caught any fish that morning. And, for some reason, we were never again allowed to go fishing at three o’clock in the morning.

Ellis

 

Something I’m working on:

 

Prologue

 

Long after the mighty sheets of ice known as glaciers retreated back from whence they came, leaving the primeval stone of the island both smooth and scarred, the first of the Dorchester men landed at Half Moon Bay.

They did not last long. The land was not suited for farming. The dense forest precluded clearing land before winter descended upon them. And even if they had cleared the land, inches under the soil lay the pervasive granite that was the island.

Three years later, the men of Dorchester abandoned their short-lived colony and fled to nearby Naumkeag, which in later times would be known as Salem. However, within two generations, men were once again living on the island they came to call Gloucester. They named their county Essex after the Earl of Essex and they called themselves Gloucestermen. They were tried and true Englishmen.

In 1614, another Englishman by the name of John Smith, subsequent to his encounter with Pocahontas and while exploring the land he had named New England, came upon the island. He named it Tragabigzanda after a Turkish princess. However, at the request of Prince Charles, Smith renamed the island Cape Ann after the prince’s mother, Anne of Denmark.

Rather than farm the land, the Gloucestermen farmed the trees of their island. They cleared great swaths of the forest for the building of sailing ships. They fished the bay for their sustenance, but did not venture far from shore. At least not in those days.

Years before Englishmen first set foot on the island that would one day be called Gloucester, the great schools of codfish of the George’s Bank were known to the fearless explorers sent out by Queen Elizabeth. The cod were so plentiful along the New England coast that the Mariner Bartholomew Gosnold changed the name of Cape Saint James—a sandy peninsula he had explored in 1600—to Cape Cod.

In 1680, the men of Gloucester “went down to the sea in ships” to fish for cod in earnest. At first they fished the George’s Bank, one hundred miles to the east. But in time, they made their way to the Grand Bank, one thousand miles from their home port.

By the early 18th century, it had become obvious that the ships they sailed were not ideal for fishing the numerous cod. The ships were slow and their holds could not contain enough salted fish to make the two-thousand-mile round-trip journey profitable.

In 1713, Captain Andrew Robinson designed and built a ship that had a larger hold for supplies and the multitude of fish he hoped to catch. Her sails were bigger and set higher to gather more wind. She was a two masted fore-and-aft rigged vessel. All the better to get to the banks faster and get home all the more quickly where the cod could be sold before the other ships returned, hence getting the best price possible.

As she was being launched, a spectator exclaimed, “See how she scoons!” At the time, scooning was the act of skipping a flat rock upon the water.

In response, Captain Robinson shouted, “A schooner let her be!”

His schooner was an improvement over the fishing ships of the day and it was widely copied both here in America and in Europe. But it did have one flaw—it was top heavy. Between 1866 and 1890, three hundred and eighty schooners were lost at sea, taking 2,450 men to their watery graves. In one day, August 24, 1873, nine vessels, carrying one hundred and twenty-eight men, were lost over the Grand Banks.

In 1882, in a published article in the Cape Ann Weekly Advertiser, Captain Joseph Collins asked the rhetorical question, “When will the slaughter cease?”

Still the men of Gloucester went down to the sea in ships.

It was not until 1902, when Captain William Thomas commissioned a ship with a short deep hull and a rockered keel for stability, that fishing the Grand Banks became somewhat safer. The design was copied and used in the construction of fishing schooners until the days of sail were no longer.

Still the men of Gloucester went down to the sea in ships, but now their ships held no sails.

From this tradition—from this fearless and audacious heritage—came forth a man who would be the embodiment of the Gloucester fisherman.

 

Chapter One

 

The year was 1949. The boy was out of bed and getting dressed, even though the sun had not yet come up over in the East. It was summer, but there was a nip in the air.

This was the day. The day that the fourteen-year-old boy had looked forward to for weeks. He had saved the money he made from his paper route, delivering the Gloucester Times, to finance the adventure. He and his friend, Peter, had eagerly anticipated this day. For today, they were going to show the men how it was done.

Gloucester businesses were all about selling fish and outfitting fishermen. But it involved mostly codfish. However, there was another fish that preyed the vast underwater banks of the North American continental shelf. This fish was worthless in the eyes of the Gloucester fishermen. The average weight of the fish ran to nine hundred pounds. It could take hours to land one of the monsters. And for what? Its flesh was worthless. You would be lucky to get three cents a pound after all your trouble. But the boy was bound and determined to land a bluefin tuna that day.

The path down the hill that led to the Ipswich River was well known to the boy. He had traversed it many times. The darkness did not impede his progress. There was a slight fog, but it only added to the mystique of a magical day.

Peter was waiting for him at the river’s edge. “I’ve got the bait and the hooks we bought last night. Did you bring your father’s hand-line?” Without a word, the boy showed his right hand which held said object.

Silently, they climbed into the small skiff and shoved off. The boy sat at the bow with Peter aft. It was Peter’s boat, so he had the honor of pulling the starting cord on the ten-horsepower outboard engine. The engine caught on the third pull and he sat down to steer the little boat downriver.

Although it was still dark out, there was enough ambient light for the boys to make their way through the marshes.

Gloucester was coming to life. The occasional house they passed had its lights on. Soon the sun would drive out the darkness and they would have to share their world with others. But for the moment, they were the only two human beings extant on the planet.

The boy in the bow stared straight ahead and fidgeted with the hand-line. Peter knew not to speak when his friend was in deep thought.

The boy was thinking of the tuna he was setting out to kill. Did the tuna know he was coming? Did the tuna know this was to be its last day swimming in the cold waters of the North Atlantic?

The boy weighed ninety pounds. The tuna he was out to catch—with a hand-line nonetheless—might weigh a thousand pounds or more. It was just as likely that the tuna would pull the boy out of the skiff and drag him to the bottom of a very cold ocean and to his death. The boy figured it would be an even match. Let the best species win.

After an hour, they came to the mouth of the river and entered Ipswich Bay. They were headed for open sea. The bay was calm which meant the ocean would not be too bad. By now the sun had risen; its rays glistened on, and reflected off, the water. The boy raised his hand to shield his eyes from the brilliance as the small engine pushed him toward his destiny.

In due time, they were ten miles off the coast. It was time to fish.

They’d only enough money between them to buy three mackerel, so they would have to husband their bait and hope that a tuna did not snatch it and make off with it, leaving an empty hook. They had only three shots at the prize.

The boy baited the line as Peter looked on. This was the boy’s show. Peter was only there to document the struggle and declare a winner … whoever that may be.

The Atlantic is a mighty big ocean, bigger still if you’re in a fourteen-foot boat. The expanse of nothingness that lies before you can be daunting to the most intrepid men of the sea.

The boy let out the line … slowly … three feet … ten feet … twenty feet … forty feet. When the line hit the sixty-foot mark, he put on his gloves and sat down to await his fate. Would he return still a boy? Or would he return a man, trailing a thousand-pound tuna in his wake?

The day wore on. There was very little conversation between the two friends. The sun continued on its journey across the blue sky. Time was running out. They were only boys, they had to be home before dark or people would worry. The star we call our sun showed no mercy on that day. Still it moved at an alarming rate across a clear sky.

Late in the afternoon, the line jerked. The boy instinctively knew it was a bluefin. Through his gloves he felt the line running out to sea. It was a good feeling. He waited … he waited until he was sure. Then he jerked back on the line. He was almost pulled from the boat.

He had set the hook.

Now it was a waiting game. Darkness was fast approaching, but no matter. The boy would not return to Gloucester until he had won the battle.

The great tuna took off to the north. The boy held fast to the line. An hour later, the tuna turned east. The boy held fast to the line. His shoulders were aching. The line was wrapped around his hands, and despite the gloves, it stopped the flow of blood to his fingers. They were numb. Still he held on to the monster.

He thought of the great fish below the surface, fighting for its life, and he felt a pang of guilt. Did he have the right to take this beautiful creature’s life? That was his moment of doubt. He would have cut the line if doing so would have allowed the fish to live. But that was not the case. Even if he had cut the line … with a hook in its mouth and trailing sixty feet of line, the fish was already dead.

The boy set his jaw and said a prayer for the bluefin.

At length, his adversary tired. The bluefin had run for hours and now it was full dark. The boy pulled in his line. His hands were numb, his arms were on fire. The bluefin was dead. It had died from lack of oxygen. A bluefin must continuously swim for the oxygen-rich water to be forced through its gills.

The boys tied the fish to the stern and started the engine. They were going home.

They had been missed. The Coast Guard had been called out. The local fishermen cranked up their boats and were crisscrossing the bay looking for the wayward youths. Somehow, the little skiff made its way through all that activity and docked up the Ipswich River.

The boy found his fair share of trouble when the adults caught up with him. But he had caught his tuna … all 750 pounds of it.

Around Gloucester—from that day forward until he became an adult—he was known as “The Boy Wonder.”

However, he was no longer a boy, he was now a man. His name was Ellis Hodgkins and what follows is his story.