An excerpt from my memoir The Kid in the Kaleidoscope.
When I was a kid my dad often took me and my older brother David to the Cement Boat. Originally designed as a cargo transport in 1918, the Cement Boat missed action in World War I. She was made with a material not recognized for its floating capacity—cement—and how she managed to float is still beyond me. During the Great Depression she was run aground at Seacliff Beach near Santa Cruz and a pier constructed so people could fish from her.
We would get up long before the crack of dawn to drive through the Santa Cruz Mountains to the coast. Along the way I’d chatter nonstop and earn the nickname that would stick to me for the rest of my life.
“Dad, are we going to catch anything at the Cee-ment Boat today?”
“I hope so.”
“Do you think there are any reeeaally big fish out there?”
“If I catch a marlin, can we have it stuffed like that one Mr. Simons caught in Mexico?”
“There aren’t any marlins here. We’re too close to shore and marlins like warmer water.”
“Okay, but if I do catch one, can I have it stuffed?”
“Yes, if you catch a marlin, you can have it stuffed.”
“David, did you hear that? Dad says if I catch a marlin, I can have it stuffed!”
I was ten years old and my older brother looked at me like I was bacteria. He said, “You’re an idiot.”
He was probably right. Even though the closest marlins were thousands of miles away in Mexico, it might have been easier to catch one if I’d kept my line baited and in the water. For me to catch a marlin, it would have to swim from Baja California, jump onto the Cement Boat and impale itself on my baitless hook. Still, anything was possible.
I didn’t have the patience required for fishing and when I got bored I’d count the planks in the pier. The beach snack bar was a short distance from the Cement Boat and I’m told I helped put the owner’s children through college.
We usually headed home as the sun began to set, our faces sunburned and our hands stinking from bait. Nothing major was ever caught at the Cement Boat, except once in 1962. We’d brought the new fishing gear we’d received for Christmas a few months earlier. Even Dad had gotten a new fishing pole and a shiny chrome reel.
The day dawned without a hint that anything unusual was going to happen. We spent an uneventful morning cursing the fishless sea. After lunch, Dad decided his new reel wasn’t winding as smoothly as it should. He laid a clean cloth on the weathered deck of the Cement Boat and proceeded to methodically perform an autopsy on his reel. Before long it was in pieces, Dad carefully oiling each part.
My brother spotted it first, a darkening in the sky near the horizon. It couldn’t be clouds—there weren’t any clouds in the sky that day—and it was moving too swiftly. Birds. Thousands of them, maybe millions. And there was something more, just beneath the surface of the water. And headed directly for the Cement Boat.
A leather-faced old fisherman shouted, “It’s a school of anchovies; the gulls are following ’em.”
I hated anchovies, especially on pizza. Now we were catching them by the bucketful. The birds weren’t the only ones following the anchovies. Something else was chasing them. Suddenly the pier began to shake as a school of white sea bass squeezed tightly together as they passed beneath the pier. Fishermen who didn’t have their hands on their poles saw their gear spring into the air and arc into the ocean when the bass struck. Nearly everyone caught an amazing number of twenty-pounders that day, including me, although I needed help hauling them up. Only one fisherman didn’t catch a sea bass that day, because his reel was in pieces—Dad.
Several weeks later, we returned to the Cement Boat. Dad wanted to redeem himself. This time, instead of taking his reel apart, he just added a little oil here and there. It was another crisp morning on the California coast. Not many people were on the pier yet, just a few old Italian and Portuguese fishermen. David got things going that morning by hooking a boney rockfish. I lost interest when I noticed it wasn’t a marlin. Nothing else was caught that day. By late afternoon clouds began building, and the water was getting choppy. Dad continued to bait his hook, even though it was time to go. This was his last chance to catch something.
He checked his weights and added a few more. He squirted a bit more oil on his reel. He positioned himself for one last cast. He arched his back and, like Mighty Casey, took his swing. Dad was in the middle of his perfect cast when it happened. His hands were slippery with oil. The new rod and reel, now perfectly lubricated, catapulted from his hands and sailed through space out over the ocean. With hardly a splash, Dad’s Christmas present disappeared beneath the waves.
Dad just stood there looking out to sea. People were pointing and laughing. An old Eye-talian fisherman approached with a toothless smile and a mile of line connected to a large gaffing hook. Together he and my Dad took turns swinging the big rusty claw out toward the spot where Dad’s rod and reel sank. Miraculously, they snagged Dad’s gear from the sea bottom. Dad offered to pay the old-timer for his efforts, but the man declined.
Later, after arriving home, Dad once again took his reel completely apart to clean away the salty brine. He said it had to be done, and it had to be done right; otherwise the whole thing would corrode and turn blue. He never talked about what happened, and I learned a valuable lesson that day: not everything needs to be chatted about.
Naturally, I never took time to clean my reel and it wasn’t long before it became corroded and unusable. I never really liked fishing, especially after I caught the legendary Supertrout one summer in the Santa Cruz mountains. Folks are still talking about it, but that’s a story for another day.
Do you like to fish? What's the biggest fish you ever caught?