I can’t really say that I have or ever will be shipped off to war or anything really comparable. But I have to imagine that it’s not terribly unlike being shipped off to a deep sea fishing trip. I picture them both starting in the late hours on shore, then boarding with a systematic sign-up and speech from the captain. All of the men are then ordered below deck to three-foot-wide bunks crammed together like shelving units, with the only air to breathe first being circulated through the lungs everyone else first. Then waking up in the middle of the night with aching nausea, stumbling above deck to a toilet and vomiting violently. Then looking up at myself in the mirror and facing a tour of duty that only just began, with a solitary thought: “My god, I have made a horrible mistake.”
After a few hours of sleep on a bench in the kitchen I woke up to a similar war-like setting. The boat was rocking violently, and men were shouting enigmatic commands barely audible over the engine roar. The men scrambled about deck in search of their weapons and before I could grab a cup of coffee or change clothes, a similar weapon found its way into my hands and I was thrust into combat.
So there are some obvious differences here. For starters, all of the men are contractors, not soldiers, and therefore all have enormous stomachs, and facial hair of various sorts. That and there’s a shocking amount of beer on board.
Another difference is that my own father drafted me into this. I think partially it had to do with a series of deaths among family and friends in the last year. Dad’s had this new found intense desire to spend time with family. And in the fog that surrounded the death of an old friend of mine, the invitation to his annual fishing trip sounded oddly appropriate.
I mostly went for him. Dad embarks on 5 or so hunting/fishing trips a year and this is the first one in years that he’s actually pitched to me. So even if I were miserable and squirmy and sick the whole time, I’d tell him I had the time of my life, and make the old man’s year.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the worst case. The most adequate description would be two days of mild discomfort, highlighted by:
1. true misery
2. an overall squirminess that accompanies a person genuinely out of his comfort zone
3. moments of beauty and joy
1. True Misery
I get seasick. I didn’t think I did. Never have before, but there’s something about being in cramped quarters, with no light or fresh air and a violently rocking boat that makes me vomit in a way I never have on ferries, outboard skiffs or afternoon cruises. The first half of the first day, which began around 5:30 a.m., I was very sick and not happy. There were a few of us not feeling well, but I felt my lack of passion for deep sea fishing put me at a distinct disadvantage.
Dad asked me how I slept the night before, and I told him I was puking all night, and after a split second of fatherly sympathy, he announced to the boat, “Hey we have a winner!” Heh heh, yeah guys, I’m the winner. I’m the winner of the, um, puking contest? Pretty funny stuff. Inside — mortified.
I asked my dad for every kind of drug he had. I put on patches, gulped tablets, and chugged beer and Gatorade alternately. This worked for the middle of the trip but by the last night I was puking again. And puking.
So during the peak of this day one nausea, I — brace yourself — caught a fish. A huge fucking tuna. I was seconds from putting down the pole and vomiting over the side, when I got a bite. I was praying it wouldn’t hook, but it did. And in this moment of rushing adrenaline and the thrill of battling a mighty beast, I would love to tell you all of my worldly troubles faded away and I felt the true, heart-pounding meaning of life. But to be honest, all I really remember of the experience is aching, pounding muscle soreness, and a feeling I can only describe as the point of a medieval lance gnawing three inches up and left of my penis, into my intestines. That’s how you leverage the rod to reel the fish in, by jamming the butt (hilt?) into your groin. This went on for what seemed like 6 or 7 hours.
2. Squirminess that accompanies a person genuinely out of his comfort zone
Rewinding to the beginning. As the captain (who all present would later agree was stumbling drunk) gave his speech that first night, it dawned on me that I may be legitimately incapable of performing this sport. Picture being in a group of people, and an authority figure giving scary and intense instructions that everyone seems to understand, but whenever he hits a really important part, the words become nonsense.
“Gentlemen, if there is one thing you need to know while you are on this trip it is this … if you do not ******* your *** with the utmost caution, and while you are ####### your ***** do not tighten it three ^^^^, SOMEONE IS GOING TO GET HURT. MEN MAY LOSE THEIR LIVES. Understand me? Good. Very simple stuff here guys. Be prepared, pay attention, %%% the @@@@@ often, and nobody gets hurt and we catch some fish” (cheers erupt, aside from me)
This lanky guy just older than myself, who I sort of made friends with, kept puking over the side of the boat. I tried to sympathize as he collected himself on a small bench on the starboard side. I found myself bonding with people who seemed either similarly unskilled, or apathetic as myself. This left me the teenagers who were brought along by their dads, and the people who likely were suckered in by co-workers. Or in this case, a city slicker who wanted desperately to be a sportsman, but just didn’t wear the suit all that well.
“Feeling a little green?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah, little green baby, little green.” he said, again kind of proud of it like my dad was.
Later he would catch a fish and tell me, “Man that’s just the greatest feeling in the world. Makes up for all the barfing don’t it?” Um, yeah I guess. Sure does.
I mentioned the lance pounding into my groin. Well, to be fair, there’s a belt most of the men wore around all trip that prevented that injury. I was too proud to wear one at first because, frankly, it looked unmistakeably like a strap-on. All of these middle-aged men, with big leather dick holsters snug around their hips. And not only did they wear them, they seemed to revel in it. I kept thinking, am I the only one here who sees something really fucked up and dick-like about this piece of equipment?
I mocked and I mocked, and then once I suffered what I was positive was a hernia from the butt of my rod, I wore the damn strap-on. And then I was a man.
The lanky guy I mentioned above had two T-shirts that were particularly hard to stomach. The first was a white shirt with small images of various handguns, and a caption: “Celebrate Diversity.” The second was a heather grey shirt with big block letters across the middle: “NOBAMA: Keep the change.”
The cabin had satellite television and a flat-screen TV. It makes it sound a lot cushier than it really was. But they did have a handful of DVDs. I really wanted to watch Jaws one night, but we settled on Shallow Hal. The captain came in during the movie and asked what we were watching.
The son of one of the contractors, known for wearing a white hat turned at an angle and giant fake diamond earrings, said, “Shallow Hal. There’s a lot of really hot girls in it. They’re all supposed to fat. Or ugly.” He really missed the point of the movie.
After I caught my fish, I felt like all of the bones had been removed from my upper body. I also felt even more sick than before. I looked down at the fish I caught on the deck, bleeding out. A massive football of pure muscle flopping around, exhausting itself to death. I felt, not guilty or triumphant really. Just done. I’d killed enough fish for the trip and this was the only fish I needed. Two waking hours into the trip, and I decided I was completely done with deep sea fishing, and I never really wanted to do it again.
I stumbled across the deck of the boat, and my dad, grinning, extended his hand to me. “You’re hooked now, aren’t you?” he said. “Oh yeah,” I said.
A minute later, I asked a deckhand the limit on fish I could I could catch. “Well, it’s five a day. You’re out for two full days. So 10 fish. You can catch 10.”
3. Moments of beauty and joy
This 20-year-old kid of one of the contractors, who wore a white baseball hat at an angle, and massive fake diamond earrings, hooked a marlin on day two. His pole started to shriek like a chainsaw and curled into a half-moon. The deck-hands smiled and didn’t really do much. They usually jump into action.
“You guys going to help him get it on the boat?” one guy asked. The fish shot its body out of the water, an electric gleam of silver and blue. It seemed like miles away. The kid was running out of line.
“Nope. None of our poles or line are close to strong enough for a fish that big,” answered a deckhand, who looked like a sunburnt cross between Heath Ledger and Patrick Swayze in Point Blank. “None of the gaffs are big enough to lift it on board. He’d have to fight that thing for hours before it got tired enough to reel in.”
The water was dark blue, and sky light blue with little foamies cresting the swells. The bow of the boat dipped up and down with the current. A pack of 20 contractors watched as this kid pulled and pulled staggering along the railing. The fish threw itself into the air, over and over, it could have been laughing. If it knew fear it fooled us. The line ran out and snapped like a violin string. Twoiiing. The pole straightened out. The kid smiled huge, his earrings and white hat shining in the sun, an electric gleam.
The second day, I slept in late because the day and the drugs allowed me to. I ate some food and went out to check on Dad. “Hey there he is. You missed the action.”
“Did we catch some fish?” I asked. “Big fish?”
“I caught a fish,” he said. It was his first one. He caught one the day before, but it got away when the cook was trying to get it with a gaff, a huge pole with a sharp hook on the end they use to bring the fish on board.
“Alright Dad, nice work!”
“It’s time for a post-fish beer,” he said. It was about 10 a.m., but if there’s one thing my dad loves about being on an outdoorsy vacation, it’s drinking in the morning, and then all day long.
“Yeah it is,” I said, and cracked open a Miller.
“Atta boy,” and he patted me on the shoulder. “Let’s get some bait in the water.”
I had a bit of a revelation, as I started to get along with the people on the boat, better and better. I know, I know it’s trite. In this crazy partisan country we’re in these days, a weekend on a boat with Republicans teaches liberal that we’re all basically the same. No, not really.
But one morning I put on a T-shirt and looked down and noticed that it was a shirt representing a lefty group I had worked for in Oregon. And then I looked around later and saw all of these other guys, wearing shirts of their tiling, framing, roofing companies that most of them either keep afloat or started themselves. And then a couple of other guys with right-wing humor shirts. And it’s pretty hard not to feel like you’re just the other side of a coin.
And then I also had a handful of somewhat heated debates about politics with my dad. He was a pretty liberal guy in his 30s and 40s. Definitely a proud Democrat. And as he aged and his parents died, he found himself growing increasingly backward looking and old-fashioned. But mostly I just think he’s given up on politicians. Hope? Change? He’d be happy with someone who won’t completely fuck everyone over just for once. And so we’ve split politically.
But by the end of these conversations, we found ourselves talking about issues with the term “we.” As in “we just have to get development in the Valley under control,” or “we have to find a more reasonable way to get energy in this country,” or “we have to stop electing these small-town rednecks to Arizona legislature.” We didn’t find much common ground as to the how, but it sure did feel a lot nicer than trading militant email forwards.
When I caught that fish that first morning, choking down vomit afterward and focusing all of my will on not collapsing on the deck, I mentioned my dad extended his hand to me. Let’s be clear my dad and I hug all the time. We say we love each other and all that. We’re modern enlightened men. But in all honesty, we aren’t close. Not like when I was young, or like a father and son should be.
So in a strange way, extending a hand to me seemed much more affectionate than a hug. I was all flustered and weak, and reached across and grasped his hand, but kind of missed and only grabbed three of his fingers. Three of his fingers after a life of working with his hands are just as big as one of my little keyboard-pecking paws. It was a weird, great handshake. He smiled a genuine smile at me, like we’d shared something he’d been wishing we could share for a long time.
“Nice job son.” he said. “You’re hooked, huh?”
“I think I need to go sit down for a little while,” I said.
“I bet you wish you were wearing that belt I gave you, right?”
Later we would be sitting at the back (or as seamen know it, the starboard) of the boat. This became where Dad and I liked to stand around and drink beer for much of the trip. Something about those waves, man, he was asking me about my love life, about Jamie, about my older sister. Like all he needed to be an invested father and all I needed to be a responsive son was to be trapped on a boat 50 miles out to sea. How could we have missed this?
The final day, around 5 a.m., we docked and took our fish meat from the crew. I had a huge bag of yellowfin meat, packed with delicious bloody flesh. He had a tiny little one, even though he caught two fish and I only caught one.
“Son, I’m real glad you came along,” and now it was time for the hug. I had slept about two hours when not hurling up a chicken dinner into a tiny toilet. The back of my throat was raw. I was on dry land now, concrete to be exact. But it felt like I was still on the water, as it would feel for two whole days.
“Yeah I’m glad too Dad. Thank you for bringing me,” I said. We started to walk to his truck with our dead fish.
“Look at all that meat you got from your fish and look at me with this little bitty bag,” he said, laughing.
“Well you shouldn’t feel bad, Dad. It basically boils down to the fact that I’m just pretty lazy. So instead of having to reel in two fish, I just decided to catch one big one,” I said, but he didn’t really laugh.
“Oh, it’s fine,” he said. “But I caught three. I’m counting that first one the cook lost. That one counts.”
“Oh, totally counts.”