Then and Now: Dreams of Fishing
The boy slept on a narrow folding bed, his arm tucked under his pillow. It was still early and the boy was fast asleep, dreamless. His father moved as silently as he could, the floor planks squeaking. Darkness had just started to unravel and patches of pink sky became visible through the narrow opening at the entrance of the tent and the small windows covered by webbing. The tent was tall and sufficiently large to house sixteen, but only the boy’s family slept there. A few simple pieces of furniture and the wooden floor created the feel of permanence. It was pleasant inside the tent in the evening, at night, and in the early morning, while during the day the heat was unbearable. When they arrived from the city, the father had been given a choice between this tent and a room in the barracks, and he had chosen the tent because it afforded more privacy and because he knew it would make his son happy. He looked at his sleeping boy, then shook him tenderly by the shoulder. The old woman in the nearest bed started coughing. On a rickety chair by her head were her glasses, a book, and an ashtray with two squashed cigarettes. A white towel was draped over an electric light bulb clamped to the back of the chair.
The boy and his father left the tent in silence. The boy was barefoot and under his feet the sand felt cold and lumpy. A copse of young trees stood a short distance to the west, beyond which stretched the Sound like a black mirror. “Did you get the gear?” the boy whispered. The father nodded, and started in the direction of the trees. From the east, the boy heard the churning of the surf. They were on a strip of land squeezed between the Black Sea and the Sound. Without looking the boy knew that the sun had risen above the horizon and over the sea and the beach was illuminated, but the water of the Sound was still dark and ghostly. He could make out all the shapes around him, but he grabbed his father’s hand for good measure. Under the trees, instead of the surf they heard the rustle of leaves, and the soft lapping of water washing the shore of the Sound. The soil was black and patches of anemic grass grew here and there. An old spade rested against a bench. There was a hole in the ground, lined with bricks and covered by a sooty barbeque grill. The father grabbed the spade, moved away from the bench, and started digging. He overturned the dirt, the thin layer of black loam mixed with sand. The boy kneeled and pulled the worms from the soil, one after the other, holding them gingerly and placing them in a small, rusty can. The worms thinned as he extracted them, and wiggled in the air and around the boy’s fingers, slimy and helpless. When done, the boy packed the can with loose dirt and a few blades of grass, and covered it with a perforated lid. The father put the spade back, took a few steps down to the shore, and unzipped his trousers. The boy imitated the father. Two parallel streams splashed on the water surface.
Far away on the cove, a barge slid in front of Ovid Island. The boy knew that Ovid was a poet who had lived in ancient times in the area. He understood the habits of birds, remembered the names of the men at the fishing pier in front of the casino, and could recite by rote the solemn oath of becoming a pioneer. The boy knew many things and he was proud of his knowledge. He was proud of his mother and grandmother, but even prouder of his father, who had agreed to work there during the summer as the construction site doctor. Near the old casino, they were going to build new hotels, with electricity and running water, for the working people. Now only sand dunes surrounded the once famous casino. A two-lane road with cracked asphalt led south to the fish house. That’s where the terminal station was for the trolleybuses that travelled to the port of Constanța. The boy didn’t know what a casino was, but he had heard that the people who sunbathed in front of it were coming from other countries. If you looked beyond the pier, far out in the sea was a square concrete jetty barely visible above the blue surface of the water. In the old days before WWII, white ships used to dock there and discharge passengers who were brought to the shore by tenders. The concrete was corroded by waves and saltwater.
The boy also knew that when the barge passed by Ovid Island, it was five thirty in the morning: time to hurry. Depending on the sea currents, he and his father needed between twenty and thirty minutes to swim to the concrete jetty.
Their fishing gear consisted of two pieces of wood the size of a pencil box, notched on opposite sides, with the line wrapped around, and the end with the lead sinkers and hooks pinned on top. The father placed the spools and the can of worms in a canvas bag tied with a string. “Don’t forget the pocket knife,” he told his son. The boy entered the tent and found the knife on a little table, between the breadbox and the glass jar with a torn label. They kept the butter in that jar, topped with water. The boy liked white bread and butter, especially as fixed by his grandmother, toasted, with a little salt. The knife was shaped like a silvery fish. He slid it in the inside pocket of his swim trunks and ran out. His mother and grandmother were sleeping.
In front of the casino, the sun, still low in the sky, cast a band of gold on the sea. The concrete jetty appeared as a thin gray line parallel to the horizon. On the deserted beach, a man in faded, threadbare clothes collected litter and cigarette butts. He waved as they approached. Several folded white canvas umbrellas threw pointy shadows against the retaining wall of the casino. A woman with pale skin lay on a striped towel to catch the morning sunrays. The woman’s skin looked unhealthy. The boy’s body was tanned and his back and shoulders were peeling. The father tied the bag with the fishing gear and bait to the hip side of his speedos, and stepped into the water. The boy followed. It was cold and the boy shivered, his body covered by goose bumps. He swam breaststroke and tried hard to keep pace with his father. When he got tired, he looked for his father’s shoulder and let himself be pulled along, resting with his head halfway in the water. He kept his eyes open and saw schools of little fish, seaweed, and sunrays bursting into trembling rainbows under the surface. As they left the shore further behind, the water became greener and more transparent. The boy closed his eyes and pictured his grandmother cleaning and grilling fresh black gobies.
The steps carved in the four corners of the jetty were slippery. The son and the father waited for a wave to lift them onto the steps. Once on the top, they unwrapped their fishing lines and tied the free ends to one of the steel docking cleats. The boy put a worm on the hook, swirled the other end of the line with the hook and the heavy sinker over his head like a lasso, and threw it far in the water. The bite of the gobies could be felt with the finger. Once hooked, the fish pulled the line away from the jetty and tried to hide under rocks on the bottom. The father caught the first fish, then the boy, and then again, the father. They strung the fish on a line with a stick at the end, through the gill and the mouth, and lowered them in the water. Soon the sun burned their skin like fire, and they each dove into the sea to cool off and climbed back onto the jetty. Far away, on the beach, the world was getting crowded.
Two dolphins swam by slowly, jumping in and out of the water.
The shore of the Potomac River where its waters join the Chesapeake Bay becomes a narrow strip of land that ends at Point Lookout, a spot marked by a knoll with a stork nest on a wooden platform. The muddy waters flow lazily to the southeast. Driving down, the river’s shores are green and lush; as one approaches the bay, they open wide and then completely vanish. Two sets of buoys, red on one side and green on the other, define the navigation channel. Highway 5 runs along the shore and stops a few miles before Point Lookout. Isolated houses and little villages are strung along the highway. Every morning tens of vessels sail on the channel delineated by the buoys and spread out on the seemingly endless breadth of the bay.
I took my 11 year old son fishing there. I called for reservations in advance and when we arrived, I picked up our tickets at a restaurant in front of a little harbor. The surrounding houses looked old and battered by the elements, but business was booming. In the shadow of large oak trees a parking lot stretched between the restaurant and the pier. A large ice house, tables for cleaning fish, picnic tables, a few grills, open air showers, and two soda machines surrounded the parking lot. The captain, bearded and blue-eyed, welcomed us as we boarded the boat and suggested we stake out a place in the shade, on the lower deck, and make it ours for the duration of the trip. We were chasing bluefish in the brackish waters a few nautical miles south of Point Lookout. I trusted that a satisfying fishing expedition awaited us. Our vessel was equipped with radars and modern depth finders that allowed the crew to spot the fish. They also radioed with other vessels, and advised each other on the best locations.
It was cool on the lower deck, and it smelled of detergent and spent fuel. Every surface was painted white, shiny and spotless. The main cabin was equipped with tables and chairs, and a small counter where one could buy sandwiches and soft drinks. Fishing rods were stacked on wooden shelves under the ceiling. Eight more passengers joined us. Two young stewards, most likely students trying to earn a buck over the summer, were there to assist us. Soon after we left, a motorboat approached and the crew retrieved two baskets overflowing with small fish. They placed the baskets at the stern and started cutting the fish on a stand with an inclined metal surface, the meaty part stashed aside as bait, and the heads and spines collected separately. Through the PA system, the captain announced we could start fishing.
The stewards gave us fishing gear and showed us how to use it. Made of stainless steel and fiberglass, the gleaming poles were strong and flexible. The Swedish spincast combo reels had double rotation mechanisms with action control magnets. We cast our lines while the boat was moving. They call this ‘trolling,’ since the hooks and the bait are dragged behind the vessel. My son caught the first fish of the day. The blues are relatively small, eight to twelve inches, but they put up a fight when you pull them in, and his pole curved and the line stretched and vibrated. The boy flexed his arms. He propped the butt of the fishing pole against his stomach, and, leaning backwards, turned the lever on his reel as fast as he could manage. His face relaxed only after the fish had flipped and splashed on the deck in front of him. Drops of seawater shone on his glasses. The steward pulled the hook out with a metal tool that looked like a spreader. The blues have very sharp teeth, and we had been cautioned to watch our fingers. He threw the fish into a large ice box and said to remember how many each of us catches.
The captain lowered the anchor. The sun rose in the sky, and the day became hot and humid. Not too far was a small island surrounded by reed. Gray pelicans flew in formation over the boat. The crew put the fish heads and bones they had separated earlier through a massive meat grinder. A viscous brown liquid flowed through a metal trough over the handrail and spread on the water. We were ‘chumming.’ Seagulls gathered and started pecking at the fish leftovers. Inadvertently the wing of a gull got snared by a fishing hook. The bird tried to fly away and, tethered by the nylon string, hit the side of the boat. A steward managed to grab the desperately shrieking and flapping bird. Liberated, it flew high in the sky, performed a large loop and dove towards the chum floating on the water. Hunger was stronger that fear.
We returned many hours later. For a few dollars, the stewards filleted our fish. They used well worn wooden knives with sharp blades and sliced the fish with precise and graceful gestures. They threw the scraps in the water. I remembered my grandmother who grilled the fish and used the bones and heads for aspic and chowder.
At the restaurant we bought a bag of ice and two cans of coke. We had a long drive home, all around the Washington D.C. beltway at rush hour. The boy looked tired but content in the car, and he fell asleep almost immediately. At a traffic light, I leaned towards him and brought my lips to his cheek. He smelled of marsh and his young body shivered, his light sleep animated by dreams of fishing.