Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Fish Wars


         Long before Clancy came out to shoot the dogs the Fish Wars had been escalating at a pretty rapid clip. What had started as a simple case of bald-faced trespassing had grown ugly over the past few summers with a touch of class-warfare, a few thinly disguised physical threats and at least one nasty screed nailed to the door suggesting in its nearly indecipherable illiteracy that the place might just come ablaze if I didn't back off. For months now the low rumble of trucks coming down the long, dirt road at dusk – different in pitch from the lobstermen and trawlers beating their way around the Point – signaled the arrival of the motley caravan of bait-fishermen heading to the beach below the Bluff for a night spent swilling coffee brandy and checking the viability of a half drowned eel, hooked through its leathery lips and tethered to a twelve ounce sinker ten yards out past the breaking surf. Gates had been dismantled, cables had been cut, signage ripped from trees and posts and cast into the roadway in an unavoidable, personal rebuke.

   Some nights I'd trudge up there in futility to confront them; winding my way through the fleet of rusted Rams and F-150's, the panel-vans and box-trucks flagrantly bearing the logos of local seafood wholesalers pulled off the roadside in a jumble and crushing whole swaths of rugosa and bayberry, lichen, lady-slippers and tiger-lilies. I'd shuffle my feet and stare off at the sun-red western horizon while hot rage crept up my neck as one or another of these guys would offer up a feeble excuse or belligerent retort. At the time there was a ban on commercial fishing and a one fish limit on these mammoth bass, but this seedy crowd were gut-hooking fish on live eels, keeping everything and, rumor had it, shipping fish to Fulton Street under flats of haddock and flounder.

   Fishing the rocks and beaches by our place had been a major draw for the summer tenants who rented the cottages and the notion that the best spots had been hammered away at all night long could be pretty discouraging to someone on a week's vacation who'd made the effort to rise before dawn and slip away to the Bluff at sunrise armed with little more than high hopes and a plastic lure. Indeed, most mornings you could follow the trail of quarter-sized fish-scales down through the gorse to your favorite spot to find the eviscerated remains of foot-long eels entangled in a mass of discarded monofilament as thick around as a pencil, designed for catching sharks and tuna. On one such August morning a guest woke me well before dawn with news that there was a drunken man sitting atop a mountain of beer cans shooting at bluefish in the cut below the Bluff with a revolver. As this appeared to be a confrontation I could not avoid, I pulled on my boots and slicker and set out through a warm, gentle rain before the fog of sleep had lifted sufficiently for me to wonder what I might say to an armed and surly inebriate. 

   As I topped the Bluff I could see the birds still working furiously over the fish seething below a man in chest-waders, splayed out on the barnacles and crushed Pabst cans. I could hear the click of the empty chambers as he pulled the trigger and tried not to flinch when he waved the gun in my direction. He told me he'd go where he wanted and do as he pleased. I told him he had half an hour to pick up his mess and clear out or I'd call the cops. He told me he was a cop, in Bath, and that his father, Clancy, Senior, was the town Constable. I turned my back and started home, muttering something about calling the State Police. Clancy, Junior muttered something about somebody getting hurt.

   I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised a few days later to find my mother and sister, pale and shaken, after Constable Clancy's unexpected appearance. Mom liked to fish on occasion but preferred her filet atop a bed of watercress, under a blanket of champagne sauce to the mild violence inherent in actually hooking, landing and cleaning the beast. My sister was a vegetarian with no interest in angling and, as a consequence, neither had any idea what Clancy's visit was in regard to. He had simply come all the way down that mile-long, dirt road to the back of beyond to pick a fight with me and, finding me absent, cast about before the perplexed women for some trumped up violation that might serve as vengeance. Eying the aging dogs, he informed my mother that, as they were off the leash and technically within the confines of the Town of Phippsburg, he had every right - nay, obligation – as Constable to shoot them. While my sister pulled and prodded the two flatulent labs back in to the kitchen, Mom must have shamed old Clancy, as I'm told he rode off in a huff without firing a shot.

   One bright and lovely, early morning after the beach and air had been scrubbed clean by a heavy passing storm, the dogs and I set out for the Bluff. Cresting the rocks a few yards ahead of me Sam and Gus suddenly began mewling and barking frantically, breaking away and bounding down the blueberry path towards the beach below. The tide was low and incoming beneath a cloudless sky and a thick, vaguely chilly mist had just begun to lift above the vast expanse. At first I couldn't quite make out what had set the dogs off and, laying down my rod and gear I hurried after them, fearing it might have been the ubiquitous porcupine or skunk. In a second I stopped short as the rising mist revealed a pair of legs, encased in waders, jutting straight and stiff and lifeless from the sand. I scrambled down the rocks and weed in a panic, shouting at the dogs to stop as they began to dig. Creeping slowly towards this horrific scene I mustered up the courage to touch one swollen, rigid thigh before dropping to my knees and joining the dogs at their work. The last person I'd seen wearing waders just like these was Clancy the younger and he'd been sprawled out on those rocks not thirty feet away. It wouldn't have taken much of a wave to fill those waders, sweep Clancy off his perch and pummel him up for a few days before thrusting him from the waist up into the beach.

   Alas, no such luck. What we'd come upon was indeed a pair of waders, packed with sand but entirely devoid of Clancy. They might have been his; they could have belonged to anyone and I made no effort to hide my disappointment from the dogs who must have felt the same way as they began a tug-of-war that had soon ripped the things to shreds. They might have been his, and he might still be out there; I never saw either Clancy again. As the fishing diminished under such round-the-clock pressure and the economy began to improve, the Yard hired half these guys back on the night-shift, the trucks gradually stopped coming and the interlopers became more manageable and respectful. Some years later I read in the Times Record that the elder Clancy had been caught with a young boy, buns-up-kneeling in the bushes along a notorious stretch of the park and had absconded to Florida. No one has ever been able to tell me what became of Junior.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Tangled Web

   Before dawn I'd awaken to a faint and tinny pitch for National Speedway or Playland in Far Rockaway and slide the tiny plastic wheel to “Off”. Pulling the battery from its harness, I'd swab the acrid anodes lavishly with my tongue, convinced that this would breathe a bit of life into the dying nine-volt. The transistor radio tucked under my pillow, tuned to Cousin Brucie and lulling me to sleep with “Sweet Talkin' Guy” or “Mr Lonely” had doubtless come from the duty-free shop at the airport in St Thomas where men like my father lined up to buy primitive electronics and cases of booze. We'd visit for a week or so each Spring, loaded down with Noxzema, Sea & Ski and bags of cheap, colorful plastic gadgets Dad had picked up on Canal Street to distribute as baksheesh to the bell-hops and cabana-boys he'd encounter along the way. Assuming the Islanders were out of touch with current, mainland technology, these bags of swag might contain flashlight fountain-pens, watches with alarms and timers, compasses, egg-timers, coin-sorters and imitation Swiss Army knives. To complete the import-export circle, he'd load up on duty-free Mount Gay and Old Grandad as well as the latest in solid-state from Bell & Howell, Zenith, Kodak and Polaroid. Later, Dad would spend hours squinting at complex diagrams and unintelligible instructions, feeding bits of tape or film through Sprocket A and Loop B in an exercise of futility and frustration that often ended in a tangle and a tantrum. If operating these contraptions was supposed to get easier with the advent of the Super-8, the 8-track and the Land camera, this simplicity was lost on Dad, who finally backed away from flashy electronics around the time the answering machine became ubiquitous and steadfastly refused to accept a VCR, Walkman or Naugahyde-swaddled camcorder no matter how desperate we might have been for a Christmas gift. He never lost the mortifying urge to dole out colorful gizmos to the locals, long after such trinkets had been eclipsed by the mundanity of a pervasive, global advance.

    A few of my classmates in those early days had fathers at the forefront of technology, and whereas receiving as a party-favor a scrap of quilted textile destined for the Apollo spacesuit was interesting enough, having Mr Morita-San hand me a presentation-boxed, Sony radio-pen after a birthday party for his son was pretty spectacular. No one I knew had ever heard of such a thing beyond the wild imaginings of Dick Tracy, and most of us had our pens confiscated almost immediately as one classroom after another erupted in sudden bursts of muffled radio static during somber recitations of the Lord's Prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance. In the early 1960's, when we were all poised atop the cusp of an unimaginable future, a mason jar of severed snake-tail rattles and a shoe-box full of Spanish moss and squirrel hides from a sojourn in the South could still sway the crowd at Show and Tell.

   With the advent of component stereos, digital watches and the Radar Range – spectacular in their excessive complexities and priced accordingly – the cascade of innovative technologies began in earnest just as we were heading off to Art School. With one foot planted in the dim and dusty world of Maroger medium, rabbit-skin glue and lead-white, those of us who still regarded Frank Stella and Mark Rothko with suspicion were totally unprepared for the future unfolding around us. In a matter of months we attended incomprehensible workshops on Holography, struggled to fathom the appearance of truncated dodecahedrons limned by lasers in the night sky and rushed to sign up for time on the first-of-its-kind color Xerox, which was so precious and expensive to use that it was monitored night and day by a testy adjunct. Now, of course, the virtual realities promised by Holography have been overtaken by the GameBoy, the laser is a toy used to blind drivers from the overpass and the color Xerox has fallen to the emergence of the twenty-five dollar printer from Costco.

   I recently came across and ad in SkyMall Magazine for a manual typewriter that, among other virtues, “recalls the thoughtful, well-written correspondence of yesteryear.” Without considering the availability of such anachronistic necessities as white-out or ribbons, the machine retails for nearly $200, despite the fact that the dump-shacks, thrift-stores and yard-sales are choked with Coronas and Olivettis any vendor would be happy to get a few bucks for. For a guy who could never grasp the complexities of the F-stop, the Fractal or anything whatsoever to do with the Cloud, the fact that people seem to want to surround themselves with vinyl records and manual typewriters is welcome news. Later this week I'll have to drag the flat-screen back out to the cottage for the summer tenants and begin the arduous, annual task of untangling the mare’s-nest of cables and wires devoted to affording wireless internet access and cable TV to a handful of guests who once upon a time were delighted to relax for a week on the rocky coast devoid of such technologies and now seem unable to relax without them. This process will involve endless hours on hold awaiting the cheerful aid of a voice from Bangalore, one or more trips to the Comcast office in Brunswick and the very real prospect of ending the day in a tangle and a tantrum.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What's My Line?


        There's an ad running about the airwaves offering a device or an app that would allow you to discover that you've plagiarized before your professor does. This strikes me as just another bit of unnecessary, cyber- nonsense, as it would seem almost as unlikely that you'd forget you'd plagiarized as that you'd forget whether or not you'd actually been shot down in a helicopter over Tikrit or taken fire over Sarajevo. Indeed, some among our current crop of leaders and role-models seem to have forgotten whether they'd ever lifted someone else's words, served in the military, or even whether or not their family had emigrated calmly to the United States in advance of Batista's fall or fled Castro's Cuba in an overcrowded, open boat. Why people under public scrutiny continue to imagine these indiscretions will go undiscovered, particularly in the age of the microchip, is a mystery.

   On the other hand, I'm quite sure I was a serial plagiarizer in High School and yet have absolutely no recollection of doing so. Faced with having to write a paper on “Siddhartha” or “The Rainbow” -  let alone actually reading such dreary tomes in the first place  -  I'm sure I would have opted for an easy out. With so many other more interesting and less taxing options available for a sunny afternoon, I don't doubt that a few forays into the library's dustier, less traveled stacks may have produced just the right bit of purloined prose to flesh out an otherwise worthless treatise on Christ-figures in Anglo-European literature. After all, once I'd rummaged through my tattered bag of  Wherefores, Therefores, Howevers and Notwithstandings, there would still be pages to fill with something a bit pithier than what I might have been able to glean from a Classics Comic. In the pre-PC era, of course, plagiary actually took time and effort and I doubt it ever occurred to me that I might have properly fulfilled an assignment in the hours or days it took to wing it. Over time the lies we tell ourselves and others acquire a ring of truth and fade into the fog of memory to the point where we may not be quite sure if they were real truths, slightly embellished, or made entirely of whole cloth. So, if I can't recall a specific incident of plagiarism on my part, I'm sure I'd know it if I saw it and instantly remember the event as the hot flush of mortified chagrin crept up my neck.

   Just the other day, my old friend Nick sent me a copy of a poem he'd shared with me once some forty years ago. Written by the occasional poet Cord Meyer, the verse is titled “Beauty” and begins: “Beauty she wears carelessly like a bright gown, lent for the night by some indulgent guest...” I've never forgotten this line; or, rather, I've never forgotten what I'd always remembered as this line. Reading it just once, I've imagined it as: “ Beauty she wore like a gown, left behind by some indulgent dinner guest...”. Setting aside the fact that my version makes absolutely no sense, that this snippet has been rattling about my brain for nearly half a century, kicking and screaming for release without once convincing me to drag it out, breath in some life and parade it about as my own must say something about the boundaries I've set for myself. All the self-indulgent love-letters and odes to the unrequited I've written across those decades could only have been improved by such a lovely spot of doggerel. And yet I stifled the urge to tread on what I, at least, had always known to be another's legacy. Not that I haven't been tempted, just as I'd been tempted by the obscure love poems of Kenneth Patchen or Sullivan Ballou's immortal letter to Sarah on the eve of Bull Run.

   There's little question that anything I might have written upon Cord Meyer's “faulty” foundation would have been entirely my own. Almost. And if I'd taken the plunge years ago and composed atop the line some tender verse in a futile effort to win that unrequited heart, I know it would have surfaced last week as an e-mail attachment or social-media post.