- by Linn Barnes
Birthing the Blues
The way to figure out what any group is doing is by watching them when they’re not paying attention to your watching them. Simple. It figures the next question would be something like, and where might that be? Well, at the beach, if you were sixteen or seventeen, that would be the cocktail party, the cocktail party of the late 50s, that unique gathering of loosened up adults who under normal circumstances would shy away from certain subjects, like sex, state of any x’s or y’s marriage, religion, politics and certainly anything to do with race and race relations. This was a world where colored people were not much more than an abstraction, and certainly nothing that could in any way have anything to do with your life, except perhaps the maid or entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, etc… Kids, young people, are more open to assaulting the taboos and at that point me and my guitar playing pals were moving on from the commercial style of folk music, the Kingston Trio and the like, to something a lot more profound and frankly intimidating, even dangerous, to the parental order: The blues. Me, Johnny Kerkam, Toby Thompson, Cotton Havell, Jake Mills and Randy Mason and others were all blues nuts. Why? Well, it’s not hard to understand. The black players we all admired were really great guitar players and singers, impassioned guitar players and singers. We had given up listening to or imitating the commercial stuff in favor of literally the darker side of things. The blues songs were dangerous and unusual with titles like, ‘Please See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, ‘Hootchie Kootchie Man’, ‘I’m a Back Door Man’, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Cocaine Blues’, ‘You Got To Bottle Up And Go’, ‘Keep on Truckin’ Mama’, stuff like that. They’re were no more ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry’, or, ‘The Fox’ type tunes in sight. Furthermore, the more we played this music and the better we got at it, the more curious and drawn into black culture we became. Now, this was alright with the parental minions, but where could it go, they must have been asking themselves, although I really don’t think any of them thought very much about it at all. Blues was, in a word, about as hip a form of guitar playing and singing you could ever find, anywhere. And we were eating it up, practicing like crazy, competing with each other and, miracle of miracles, it was a great way to impress the girls, which probably was at the heart of the matter. Isn’t it always?
Well, at one of these cocktail parties, while exercising my developing tradecraft, I overheard something that really fired me up. A small group of adults were quietly talking about how they would sneak their cabin cruisers up on a negro resort on the of back of Indian River Inlet bay behind Bethany, called Rosedale, anchor off shore and listen to some of the most incredible music they had ever heard. I mean, they described going with many friends, in many boats, bringing tons of drink, food, the works. Oh, it was a grand and safe party from a grand and safe perch to observe the ‘natives’ at play…I guess it was a little like ‘going up to Harlem’ back in the 20s and 30s. Great names were there, but they apparently had no idea what they were hearing, just that it was very good, and, perhaps, even better, very outlandish and daring. If they had tried to go ashore, things might not have gone well for them. They almost certainly would not have been welcomed by a society of people they had not welcomed for hundreds of years. At least they seemed to know that. I began to seriously think about this mysterious place they were describing. Wasn’t there a line in an old blues, ‘going down to Rosedale, where I can have some fun.. drink white lightnin’, gamble, ‘till my baby come..’ Well, once I had told the guitar gang about this fortuitous glimmer of intel, we all became determined to find a way to get to this mythical place.
There was this other guy, a real character, about as wild and free spirited as they get. His name was Billy Farnsworth and he and his family lived on the same street as Ned and Nancy Chaucer. His family, like the Chaucer’s, were also very wealthy, and they, like the Chaucer’s, were ‘old money’, the charm of being charmed by it long gotten used to and now pretty much ignored. Billy was not a guitar player, but he liked all of us who worked at it, and he recognized that by hanging around with us he could cash in on the girl thing we were attracting with this risky new music we were playing. He understood correctly that he could be part of this new thing called ‘hip’. And, Billy was really a very cool and funny character who managed to keep us fairly drunk on his ‘BF Specials’, a nasty devil of a drink he conjured up which was three parts rum to one part vodka, maybe more, and a dash of lemonade to sooth your conscience, all of which he would make by the gallon and bring to the beach, beach parties, house parties, he always seemed to have a stash of the stuff. And, he was funny as hell, with apparently not a care in the world. The Farnsworth place was one of the great houses at the beach. They had a large yard to manage and, it seems now, many automobiles to tend to. They also had a full time chauffeur, grounds keeper, butler, I guess, who managed the whole deal for them. This was very old school, but nobody gave it a second thought. It just was. This man’s name was Parker, just Parker. I never heard anybody refer to him any other way. Anyway, Parker was an elegant black man, obviously educated and very well spoken, who took a shinning to all the young white kids, and, especially we guitar players, we blues buffs. He was friendly and often drew us into discussions about this music we were playing so enthusiastically. We noticed right away that he had a tremendous amount of information about the players we were trying to imitate and the songs themselves. So, Parker became a kind of mentor to all of us. It took a long time for him to finally let us know that at one time he had been a major figure in the production and management of important black entertainers and that to this day he was highly respected in the black music world. This man was simply amazing, and, of course, the Farnsworth's, mom and dad, had not the faintest glimmer of an idea who he really was, which I think was just fine with him. But, he recognized and perhaps was amused that we young white kids had a real interest in black music and, therefore, black culture, which in 1959, was just about unheard of… When we finally got up the nerve to ask him about Rosedale, he was very straightforward and forth coming explaining to all of us what an amazing place for black people it was. He told us it was part of a network of black clubs and resorts jokingly referred to as the ‘Chitlin Circuit’, and that some of the greatest names in music often played there. People like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Sam Cooke, and many other luminaries among the black and white audiences. He told us many of the younger black performers on the national stage also came to Rosedale, but for some reason he refused to identify them, and he did so with an obviously sly grin, which we were unable to decipher at the time. But he did very carefully explain why Rosedale existed, and that, of course, was the pervasive segregation of the races throughout the country. He embarrassed all of us with his clear articulation of a social problem so profoundly ugly and sad that our parents never even brought the subject up. Our parents were not racists per se, at least most of them weren’t, but they were more than a little guilty of ducking the issue, thinking, I suppose, that it would somehow take care of itself. Progress was being made, my father would often say, referring to the Brown vs Board of Education decision of 1954. When I countered with how could lynching still be occurring in the south, and that southern prisons were no better than Nazi concentration camps, things tended to get ugly, not because he disagreed with me, but because he felt the same way, and just couldn’t see any quick solution. He would usually say something like ‘well, it will take time…’. Parker, and most of the intellectual black world had other ideas, and they were on the way, he frequently hinted to us… Change was indeed in the air and a lot of it had to do with popular culture, and, especially, music. The roots of change were intimately bound up in the changes in attitudes brought in part by popular music. Things were in flux in the white world. The beatniks were beginning to be taken seriously, and it looked like music, especially the blues, was going to have a profound effect at many levels of popular white music and culture. For example, it was finally becoming common knowledge that Elvis Presley had found fame and fortune playing black music. Parker was able to hint obliquely at many of these ideas without alarming anyone, but the seeds were sown in our bunch, and, I think he was enormously influential on my own education about the tragic state of race relations in the United States.
One day in August of ’59 Neddie Chaucer and I were hanging out at Billy Farnsworth’s place. We were clowning around as usual, more or less on our way to the beach to meet our pal, Patty Noble, a really cute and fun girl about a year younger than me and Neddie. Everyone was in love with Patty at various degrees, but pretty much to no avail, except maybe for Johnny Kerkam, who we all suspected she really loved, but all the girls, it seemed, were in love with Johnny. Johnny, apart from being an incredible athlete, was a great guitar and harmonica player in the tradition of Sonny Terry, the great black blues harp player. He was also a great singer and showman and knew an incredible batch of songs, really weird and little known stuff. He was a couple of years older than me, Neddie and Toby, but we were all on the same blues boat. Anyway, Parker was working on one of the cars in the garage, when he came over to chat with us for a minute, as he always did. But, then he proposed something that stopped us in our tracks. He said he knew of a great musician who was coming to Rosedale that coming weekend, and, would we like to go as his guests? He wouldn’t tell us who the musician was, but assured us we would know who he was, and we would not be disappointed. I think we collectively said something like ‘wow’ and ‘yes’ and ‘thank you Parker’, all bundled up together… Saturday was two days away, and all we had to do was convince our parents that this adventure under the ‘protection’ of Parker was safe and sane. Surprisingly, our parents thought it was a ‘grand’ idea, but with the usual warnings attached. Parker told us to put together a group of our friends we thought would enjoy some really great music and fun in a very different world. He told us he would drive and we would take the limousine, and that he had already cleared everything with Billy’s dad. Well, we raced up to the beach and told Patty, who was wildly up for it. Next we told Neddie’s sister Nancy and her friend Joannie Heron, a really sharp girl and friend to all of us and another of our guitar gang, Cotton Havell. I called Toby Thompson and Johnny Kerkam and told them about it and they all jumped at the chance. We all did, and we couldn’t believe our luck and Parker’s incredible generosity.
Of course, Saturday took forever getting there, but finally we were on our way, about a forty-five minute drive inland and back down to the bay and the Rosedale resort. Billy had a jug of BF specials and we were all getting oiled but, but cautiously, and, carefully watched by Parker, who was all of a sudden a very different man, totally in control of us and the situation in general. We arrived at Rosedale at about four in the afternoon. Things were in full swing on a beautiful sunny day and everyone seemed intent on the entertainment that was scheduled, although nobody would tell any of us who it was. Parker had been busy… He introduced us to several people we all assumed were the management and things were going very well. Parker then took us into the concert hall and we were shown to a backstage area and nearly fell flat on our faces. Sitting at a piano warming up was none other than Ray Charles, the great Ray Charles. Parker introduced all of us and we meekly shook hands with him and tried to overcome the shock of being in his basically royal presence. Ray got up from the piano and asked us if we could give him a hand. We all said sure, anything. He said some of his regular crew were off chasing the ladies and certainly far into the booze and he needed some help getting the piano out on the stage, and would we give him a hand. Well, I can’t tell you how fast we shouted out a ringing something like god, yes, but was probably more of a yes, sir, Mr Charles. Parker was all grins and we all took up positions on the grand piano and wrestled it out onto the stage. The hall was beginning to fill up and many of the patrons, all black, not a white face among them, laughed at what they saw and gave us all a rousing and friendly cheer. Once we had the piano in place we fled backstage again, while Ray was getting tuned up for the show. Pretty soon the hall was jammed and Ray’s lead man took him out to the piano and the wildly applauding full house. Without a nod or a blink, he broke into ‘Tell me What I Say’, and things went crazy. Never had I imagined the full impact of huge talent and stardom. It was magic, hypnotic and surreal. Ray Charles, in front of his own people, kicked out all the jams and practically levitated the entire building. The audience was deafening when he finished and dead quiet on the slower and introspective numbers. God, what a showman. I think for all of us, players and non players, things were forever changed. To describe it as a religious experience is close but really not good enough. This was a man doing exactly what he was born to do for an enormous group of people born to see and hear him do just that.
The concert was amazing and after a while many people were out of their seats and dancing anyplace they could. Some of the young black guys came over to us and asked ‘our’ girls to dance, which was all very polite, fun and not in the least bit threatening. It was really fun, the whole deal, but, by the end of the show everybody was pretty near plastered, and Parker decided, quite correctly, I’m sure, to pull the plug, load us all up in the limo and head back to Bethany. It had been a day like no other, one I will never forget and always cherish. The whole experience actually gave me a new, powerful and optimistic vision for the future of race relations in very troubled times. As for the blues and black music…
- by Linn Barnes
There is confusion on the beach.
The birds are marching in close formation.
I strain the sand for sight or sound
and read the waves for the drowning man.
I am upended in the roaring surf,
dragged into the fleeing tide,
swept to the edge of the deep blue,
lashed to the fins of a bottle nosed giant:
Where I am flashed the horror of some past life
colliding with the unimaginable, now at speed,
dragged rudely to twenty fathoms, scraping the bottom,
finally surfaced and marooned on an unknown shore.
- by Linn Barnes
The Mystery of Rue de Montevideo
The summer of my sixteenth year events other than fishing were creeping into my schedule. I mean girl events. I had met Ned Chaucer, his brother Nattie and his older sister Nancy the summer before, and, by now, we were all old friends, these things had a predictable trajectory. Nancy was two years older than me and Ned Chaucer, who was exactly my age. Nattie and Ned, my brother, were the same age and were becoming friends. The Chaucer family was friendly and fun. They had a very beautiful house on the south end of Bethany and would come for a month or so each summer. Sonny Chaucer, Ned’s father, ran the family estate in Leesburg, Virginia with his wife, Nancy (‘Big Nancy’), a beautiful and very wise woman, although to all of us they would be forever Mr and Mrs Chaucer. They were wealthy in an old world way, exhibiting none of the trappings of the ‘nouveau riche’. They were completely free of any the pomposity so often associated with the very rich, for godsakes, they drove chevys. I, of course, fell in love with Nancy that summer and remained so for a very long time. I think she was amused by me, liked my blond, smiley facade and seemed to even think my guitar playing was special, if maybe a little weird.
My earliest contacts with girls had been juvenile and on the mysterious side. In France, in 1953, in La Varenne, outside of Paris, when I was ten years old, I had a crush on my best friend Billy Ellis’s sister, Joannie, a year-plus younger than me. She was a beautiful little girl with wide eyes and a big heart. Childhood loves are wonderful and mysterious. You just have no idea what to do, say or how to act. Nothing makes any sense, and that’s the way it was for me. After we moved into Paris proper the following year, a very strange relationship developed, after a fashion. We lived on Rue de Montevideo in the 16th arrondissement, which was the re-doubt of what remained of the French aristocracy in Paris and the rising new class of wealth and prosperity which developed after the nightmare of 1789. We lived in a townhouse several stories high and across the street from an almost invisible Jewish Synagogue, whatever that was. One day while returning from my fancy little Jesuit school, École Gerson, situated not far away in the Rue de la Pompe, I saw a beautiful young girl with an older woman walking on the other side of my street. I had no chance to say anything, nor any reason to, but we for some reason exchanged eye contact for a brief moment before she vanished into the doorway to the Synagogue. The shocking thing was that she had smiled at me. The Synagogue was not in any way obvious and from what my parents had told me about the way the Jewish people had been treated, I was not surprised. I asked my father about the Jews in France and he carefully avoided any direct reference to what I was to soon understand to be anti-Semitism on a grand scale in la belle France, anti-Semitism that persisted to that day, in spite of the fact that Hitler and Hitlerism had been soundly crushed by the combined allied forces. I asked our lovely Bretonne maid, cook and housekeeper Leonne, a wonderful woman who had been living with us full time for more than a year and was an indispensable part of our family operation, if she could tell me anything about Jews in France. Without batting an eyelash she told me that the ‘youpin’, which I would later learn was something like ‘kike’ or ‘yid’, were not really welcome in France, but there ‘were still a lot of them’. She pretty much gave me what I would soon discover was the usual ‘Jews are really not human and, anyway, they killed Jesus’ mythology. I was eleven years old and had no idea about what I was hearing. It would be years before the full impact of what she had told me finally sunk in. That it was not just the Germans who wished ill upon the Jews, but most of Europe, and a large percentage of my own country, as well. Anti-Semitism, I would eventually learn, was wide-spread in the western world and beyond. But none of this could dampen what I had encountered in the rue de Montevideo across the street from our house. I could not erase the image of this beautiful, dark haired little girl, about my age, with flashing dark eyes and a secret smile with whom I had exchanged a momentary glance. Our living room was on the first floor, that is one floor above street level. There were large windows onto the street below and which looked directly into the upper floors of the Synagogue across the street. I had taken to perching in one of the windows for a while each day after school before dinner was served. Then it happened. One day I looked across the street and there in a window parallel to me was the beautiful girl I had seen in the street. She noticed me right away, graced me with a lovely smile and vanished. This happened periodically for the next two years. I was, I suppose, hopelessly in love, with no hope of ever even meeting this divinity across the way. I was being initiated into the mysteries of women from which I was never to recover.
When we returned to Washington in 1956, I was enrolled in Alice Deal Junior High School near where we lived in North West Washington, DC. There were all kinds of kids in that school, including a significant population of Jewish kids. I gravitated to that crowd almost immediately. I was thirteen years old, and surrounded by absolutely gorgeous, sexy and unimaginably mature Jewish girls, who for some reason had taken a shining to me. One of them, a dark haired sultry beauty, even called me her young ‘French prince’. I dated and was in love with Jewish girls all of my junior high experience. Here I was, this Irish-Catholic refugee from the streets of Paris, France living a profoundly real enactment of what I had begun to think of as ‘the mystery of rue de Montevideo’. Finally meeting these creatures of my dreams, from whom I had been so carefully segregated from ever meeting, was and remains one of the most dramatic experiences of my life. However, at the core of all of this was the profound love of the mysterious which, one way or another, would define the rest of my life.
The beach was a heaven for teenagers, boys and girls. My luck at having gotten to know Nancy Chaucer was astounding, but not limited to her. There were other what I can only describe as dream events taking place. For instance, I would regularly, especially on rough days, when the fishing was less than optimal, go sit on the boardwalk near the bowling alley or a little south near a coffee and doughnut joint that was very popular in the morning. Families would be gathering on the beach for the day and it was a fine scene to watch from a distance. I loved to speculate about the families arriving, where they were from, how old the kids were and so forth. I think I was eighteen when one day I noticed an extraordinarily beautiful girl arrive with her mother, father, and I assumed her brother, who appeared younger than her by a couple of years. She was a vision of purity and youth, about five five, long black hair, sparkling eyes and teeth, an amazing perfect body stem to stern and a wide open smile that could bring you to tears. I sat spellbound on the boardwalk watching her, amazed by her, really quite lost in the vision of her, when all of a sudden she looked up and caught me in the act. I quickly turned away, deeply embarrassed to have been nabbed in basically a voyeuristic act. I thought about leaving, but I just couldn’t, so I stuck it out, pretending to be occupied with something or other happening off to the north. I was concentrating so hard on not noticing that I failed to notice she had come over to the boardwalk just under where I was perched. She laughed a little, which I heard, and asked me if I liked the beach. I gagged, caught in my childish reverie, and said something banal like, I guess, and, how about you, or something pitifully lame along those lines. Then we both had a short laugh and the heat was turned down a notch or two. She was certainly younger than me by at least two years, maybe three, but she had that certain unmistakable confidence that beautiful and smart girls always seemed to exude. They really were a different species, only allowing we males to stutter and make fools of ourselves in front of them until they vanished, never to be seen again, which is what I was sure would happen, so, I tried to make the best of it while it lasted. We both revealed that our fathers were government people, her's, an Air Force officer, mine, here I had to hem and haw or a second or two, a foreign service officer. We spoke a little of our respective travels with our families to mainly Europe and, in her case, many Air Force bases throughout the country, as well. She said she lived in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, while I explained I lived in the city. And then she smiled that same smile, turned and ran off to her family and raced to the water with her brother, diving repeatedly into a large inner tube they had dragged along. She reminded me of a porpoise, gracefully leaping over the tube and vanishing into the churning sea, only to re-appear and do it again, and again. I was mesmerized and she knew it. I watched her for a long and painful time until I just plain got up and forlornly headed home. This pattern of marginal contact, none really outside the shadows of my own head, continued for a week, until finally one day she did not appear. I went day after day hoping to see this lovely creature, but it was not to be. She was gone. But not the memory of her, which bore into my mind with an alarming power, as helpless as it was. It reminded me intensely of the encounter many years ago with the ghostly Jewish girl on the rue de Montevideo, in Paris. I could not possibly even guess that I would see her again, years later in Munich, Germany.
‘Mysterium mundi gravitas est.'
- by Linn Barnes
This morning I went out a little late to the same spot I began fishing with my father maybe 75 years ago. It is just off the south end of the Bethany Beach boardwalk. The weather had cleared and it was a perfect September morning with a cool and building breeze from the NE. There was one other fisherman and his family on the beach. I watched him as I was setting up my rod and chair and he was not engaged.
I baited with bunker I had filleted the night before, threw a pretty fair cast, and almost immediately got a hit and pulled in a very small blue, which I thru back. Several casts later, with the sea and wind rising, I got a substantial hit, let him go for a second or two and hit him hard and it was game on. This was a powerful fish who I had to play very carefully for about ten minutes. Although he was strong, I could tell by the way he fought that he was neither a blue, striper or weakfish (sea-trout). I knew he was a shark by the way he moved and used his weight to fight me. Out of nowhere a small crowd of on lookers had assembled just as I was bringing the fish to shore. I saw him in the waves and confirmed that he was a sand shark, and looked to weigh about twenty-five pounds or so. Without too much trouble I was able to drag him onto the beach. The trick at this point was to get him unhooked and back in the sea without harming him. I got him on his back and was able to extricate the hook with pliers that I carry for just that reason. This critter may have been small, I guess less than the 'lethal' version of sharkdom, but you did not want to allow that mouth full of very serious looking teeth anywhere near you. All went well, a nice guy took a couple of pictures and off he went.
Nothing else appeared the rest of the morning. I packed up and went back to the house. I would soon be back.
- by Linn Barnes
Tomorrow we leave for 10 days at Bethany Beach, Delaware, where I learned to surf fish with my father almost 70 years ago. Allison and I go twice every year, once in June, then again in September. June is usually a bomb for me, but September has had it's high spots. The fishing can be very good, or, as I suspect it will be this year, thanks to Ms Florence, non-existent. However, that will not dampen my 'will to fish' ( wonder if Freddy N would approve?). I shall be en place chaques jour sur la plage, same spot, same bait, same everything, as I shall do until I can no more. Those of you who fish will understand this sentiment. Those of you who do not fish will probably get it too, only for other reasons, mostly pathological I would guess.
I am hoping to work on the fishing book as well. I've had some good luck with writing at the beach. I think I'm about four chapters from finishing the first draft. If the weather really closes in I'll be at it. If it's nice, and if I'm lucky maybe I'll get to it anyway. Best plan is no plan.
We always take a bucket of musical instrument and even some recording gear. In the past we've come up with some new stuff, stuff we've liked a lot and later recorded. It's also a good moment to plan and create the winter programs for Dumbarton and Castleton and anything else that materializes.
- by Linn Barnes
Sometimes There Is Nothing
by Linn Barnes
I got to the beach once again very early on what promised to be a good day. The wind was steady, off shore on the oblique from the east and slightly to the north. It was late September and good to be alone at five am, in the early starless morning waiting for the light to take the edge off what was left of the night. I set up my little camp as I had done hundreds of times before, surprised at how much I always enjoyed the simple ritual of installation which always brought me a degree of comfort and ameliorated some of the ever present discomfort with the close to total darkness I had to operate in. It was as if I was establishing a perimeter, a safe fortress against whatever might materialize in the dark. First the rod spike to hold the very long surf rod was installed in the wet sand, while I unfolded and planted my canvas chair, equipped with back, arms and cupholders. Then I removed my vest, a fresh water fly fisherman’s vest, with many pockets to hold all the gear I needed. This made it possible to not bring a tackle box, one more heavy item to lug along over the considerable stretch of sand to the water. The vest, which was loaded with assorted rigs, lead weights, extra knife, glasses, cut and whole mullet for bait, anything I could imagine I might need for the morning, including a couple of pieces of thick buttered dark bread that my wife, Allison, had baked the day before and a small thermos of strong black coffee, was dropped over the back of the chair to keep it from blowing away should the wind pick up. I planted the thermos in the sand next to me next to the bait board. I put on the windbreaker I had brought along tied to my waist over my hooded sweatshirt and finally sat for a moment. I poured myself a small amount of the strong coffee and listened to the ocean, hardly discernible in the dark, the waves breaking a mere ten yards from my encampment, which I would soon have to move back further up on the sand as the tide gained ground. This was the perfect time to be here, installed and ready for what the sea might offer on an early Fall morning.
My father used to scale the mullet before threading it onto the hook. I did so for years, until I finally realized that the scales if left on the flesh would help anchor the bait to the hook and, in addition to securing the bait during the cast, make the attacking fish strike more deliberately to get to it, which would in the end help me to properly set the hook. Most fishermen talk about ‘which’ bait is correct, but it seemed to me it was much more important ‘how’ you baited the hook, how much bait to use, the size of the hook and how to most effectively thread it on the hook. If you were convinced only small ‘snapper’ blues were your prey, keep the portion of bait small, as well as the hook. On the other hand, if you had any evidence of larger fish, you used larger hooks and larger baits, up to, with certain special rigs, an entire mullet. You wanted the fish to attack the entire presentation, bait and hook, before you reacted. Otherwise, if the bait or the hook was too big you were doomed to a day of ‘nibbles’ and ‘nudges’, which would after even a long session result in nothing but annoyance and frustration at a lost morning. Like everything else, deliberation and careful analysis really mattered. And, perhaps more importantly, you had to be willing to change what you thought you had perfectly figured out. Eyes, ears, migrations of porpoises north and south and flights and concentrations of sea birds were your tools. One thing was certain, this was not a passive activity, as people sometimes thought fishing to be. Not in the least. Full concentration was the order of the day. Anything less, and you were just ‘on the beach’, which, of course, had it’s place, but not for the serious fisherman. Fishing seriously had a way of bringing you not just ‘onto’ the beach but ‘into’ the ‘idea of the beach’ and the sea, scribing a pallet of manifold possibilities, both exterior and within.
I made what I thought to be a good cast into the dark, listening for the weight to hit the water, but hearing nothing but the wind and the waves. I could tell however that it was a good cast by the amount of line that had peeled off the reel. I let the rig anchor itself, waited, standing, for a couple of minutes and returned to my chair and coffee, after securing the rod in the sand spike holder next to my chair. I always arranged the rod close to my right arm so that I could be in constant contact with the rod even when I was having coffee or eating. It was absolutely necessary that you consider the rod an extension of your body equipped with all the requisite muscles and nerves. Of course, it was possible for a fish to hook itself by the ferocity of it’s attack driving the hook firmly into the flesh of its mouth, but not as likely as when you were in control of the many variables which were presented to you on any given occasion.
I waited a long time. And, then a very long time. I reeled my line in, checked my bait and concluded nothing had touched it. I cast again. And I waited, again. Nothing. Not a nudge, not a nibble. Nothing but waves and encroaching tide, now forcing me to pull my camp further up on to the beach. Re-situated, I poured myself more coffee and made myself comfortable for the long run. Time went by, slowly. The sun was rising and burning into my face. I pulled my hat over my eyes and my collar up against the increasing wind. The sensation of heat from the direct sun and the cold wind simultaneously assaulting me was a little bewildering, but I had seen it before. It was only the ocean, sun and wind, no more, nothing else. Although it did give me the impression that I was not welcome on this morning. Unwelcome by who, or what? I felt a little unglued, but in control, nevertheless. I checked the line for the tight bond I needed with the bait and weight on the other end. And then I did it again. And, finally I began to relax, to sit back in my chair and let the sea have its way. It was all way beyond my control. The truth was simple. I was happy enough just being there, a witness to all of it. I thought about how much everything had changed since my arrival before dark, and how long ago that now seemed. I had the clear sensation of evolving with the morning, changing with the tide, the sand and the wind. I felt more akin to the gulls floating on the wind near me and the fish in the sea not far from me than my own now foreign and distant world of things and fellow humans. I began to imagine myself strapped to my chair, an obligatory witness to all events unfolding before me, the sirens in the waves singing madly - strange melodies unimaginable by any human, known only to the sea and the fish I was there to kill and devour. Once again the tide was coming close, my feet now covered by the encroaching waves. I wanted to move back, but I did not. The sea was gaining ground and I chose to stay in place, for what reason I had no idea. Finally when I glanced at my feet now submerged in the water, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my thermos of coffee was afloat and about to be carried off by the tide, and, only then did I break the trance like state I had fallen into, rise from my chair, recover my errant thermos and retreat further back up on the beach with my rod, rod holder and chair now on safer ground above the reach of the incoming ocean.
I sat for a long time. The passivity and therefore persistent danger of the ocean dominated my thoughts. It was all a question of ebb and flow, no more, just the tides. There were no metaphysics involved, no volition, no plan. The ocean was overwhelming, sometimes shocking and more dangerous than you could imagine, without ever being anything more than what it was. It was a very strange thing to say, ‘The sea giveth and the sea taketh away’, which you frequently found in various sea going cultures. This is a serious confusion, ascribing a form of consciousness to what is the weight of water and the moon rocking around our tiny orb, a speck lost on a distant wing of a minor galaxy, but one which is our very own. To understand our existence here and now requires no more than an understanding of the elegance of a good cast and with luck the retrieval of a beautiful fish.
But not on this morning. No matter the wind, waves and tide, all perfect. No matter the bait, the line, the weight and the cast, all perfect. On this morning there was nothing, as it so often can be, in spite of the wind and waves and perfect tide, in spite of all things, there was still nothing.
- by Linn Barnes
The Angry Sea
An angry sea
The tidal remains of
Another day in the foaming surf
The sky burst from
Bundling clouds above
The wind howled as
Seabirds attacked the waves
Lightning murdered the shore
Exploding the boiling sea
In waves of roaring thunder
In bolts of dying energy
And then it was over
The evening sun appeared
Low in the western sky
The storm raging out to sea
Leaving only blackened sky
Thunder and retreating whitecaps
Storm shadows fleeing east
Lightning hammering distant waves
- by Linn Barnes
by Linn Barnes
The wind has been blowing hard out of the north east for the last five days. Meteorology bets we’re in for two more days which may include a lot of rain. It’s not perfect, but it will have to do. It could be thundering, with shards of lightning knifing the dark sky and raining in horizontal sheets. But it is not. It is a major blow out of the north east, that will not let up for a while, and that’s that.
But, I came to fish. And, fish I have, each day, in a raging surf which is letting me know in no uncertain terms that I have no business out there. There has been very little optimism about my fishing endeavors. Most of the cognoscenti I’ve spoken with in these parts are down and out about the whole deal. Some have said the ocean is ‘unfishable’ until this storm passes, while others swear it’s November we must wait for, when the large fish make it to shore…There has been a lot of talk about fishing the back bay at high tide, hiring a boat for the day, or casting from one or the other of the jetties, either north or south, at Indian River Inlet, which as far as I’m concerned is as close to certain death on the rocks as I can imagine, especially in the kind of wind and high seas we are having. The place is a menace. If you fall between the rocks, you don’t just break your leg, you break your leg off. Then, since nobody else is around, and why would they be, it’s into the drink for a final swim with the fishes, who without any doubt or hesitation, perhaps even with a wry, saltwater fish-ish grin, will welcome you with open greedy jaws, once you’ve stopped twitching, and that won’t take long. But, so far I’ve managed to fool all of them, even the sea, by catching a few small blues each day and having them for our lunch. I’m easily satisfied. I don’t need trophies, but I do like fresh fish, when I can catch them myself. But, it has not been easy. I’ve been using eight ounces of lead, that’s a half a pound, for godsakes, and still not holding bottom in the ferocious tide. I usually try to fish the high tides, but not now. The water has been eating up the beach, leaving nowhere to stand, except in the water, and eventually being pushed back into the dune fences, which can get tiresome. So, I’ve been fishing the low tides, and still getting a few fish. The low tide works in my favor at my chosen spot: as usual, south of the south end of the boardwalk, more or less opposite Journey’s End, the ancient Inn. At low tide a shelf of sand is exposed making it possible to walk out fairly far before it drops off to six feet or more, before casting. This gives me reasonably good position, if there’s anything around, which, I admit, is not especially likely, but the glamour is nevertheless there. However, it can be dangerous, although worth it since a decent cast will get me in fairly deep water. On the other hand a slip and fall can land you in serious current, where just about anything’s possible. So, I stay on my toes, and cast quickly once in position, and I’ve spotted a lull, however minor, in the cavalcade of waves, and retreat to the edge immediately following the cast, peeling line out as I make my way back to the safety of my chair, my tube and spike rod holder buried next to me deep in the wet sand.
Sitting in my chair at the edge of spectacular turbulence in full force is better than most anything I can think of. The waves are tumbling and crashing right in front of me and washing up to my feet. The overwhelming impression is of a strange warmth and cocoonish communion. The world behind me is no longer part of my perceptible reality. I have north, south and east, while land and the west are dim memories. And I have the wind gusting to thirty and forty knots creating a wall of spray with the pounding waves, which arrive in unpredictable sets. Sometimes there are as many as three of four waves incoming before their retreat, lined up one after the other, like maniacal charging waves of Napoleonic hussars doomed at Austerlitz to not much luck, then falling, dying, the decimated remnants drifting back out to be re-claimed for the next assaulting charge of white water, rising higher than the last in the unrelenting and screaming gusts of wind, the ocean’s clarion call to battle. This drama is repeated again and again, the rhythm an incantation bringing you into intimate contact with the core of the sea and the power of the storm. It will continue until the storm finally blows itself out. There will be no end until it folds up and dies, vanishing into the vast wilderness of turbulence, tide and wind, wind slowly backing out of the northeast, swinging this way or that, finally deflated for a breath or two, before being reforged to blow from another quadrant, perhaps more mercifully, perhaps not.
- by Linn Barnes
by Linn Barnes
The beach before any light early
Dark and loud the ocean a mystery
The late night early morning wind
Spiking you to the very core of you
You dig in your sand spike
Secure your rod in the tube
Unfold and dig in your chair
Arrange your bait and board
Then you sit for a moment
Listening to the waves
Shuttling in the morning tide
About an hour to full flood
You bait a single hook
The sea is agitated but
Not rough in the rising chilly wind
Three ounces of lead will suffice
Then you cast for the first time
Always the most promising
When everything is possible
Into the mysterious dark and beyond
Once the lead has reached bottom
You trim in some and check the
Star drag firm but not too tight
As you stand waiting in the dark water
The waves washing over your waders
In the cool September sea
The tide flooding fast now
On a growing north east breeze
The dark begins to yield to a glow
A lightening shadow piercing the east
A long low line at the horizon
Emerging and picking up speed
This birthing of new light
Feeds your fertile imagination
Now synched to the generative force
All bringing the day into being
The light is sparking more wind
Cutting through your outer shell
The wind is pouring in the tide
Now crashing into your legs
The lead now freed from the bottom and
In motion bouncing slowly to the south
You keep the line tight and focused
Seeing only the now rising light
A fiery red saber on the horizon
Cleaving into the night
Bringing the new light
On a collision course with the day
Then a nudge a tentative taste
A scent for something out there
Hungry in the rising light
Focused on the fresh cut flesh
Nothing for a long instant
Then a hit doubling the huge rod
You wait not daring to strike back
Until you do burying the hook deep
The strike staggers you back in the sand
You recover and dig in your boots
The fish is swimming through the drag
And you let him have his way
There is a lull and you reel
Recovering some lost line
The fish swims for the deep
Fighting the punishing drag
The fish stops and then
Turns north parallel to the shore
The line peeling out
As you tighten the star drag
This is a great new weight
Which the fish does not understand
He knows only this strange slowness
Where all he knew before was speed
You sense his coming weakness
And pull the rod high to recover line
The fish turns toward the shore
For a moment free of the pressure
You now reel as fast as you must
To sustain the deadly symbiosis
To ensure he cannot spit the hook
He is probably not even aware of
But the fish is no where near finished
He turns hard to the south with the current
Vectoring at maybe forty five degrees
Off the shore back toward the deep
Now you must turn him again
You tighten the drag punishing him
You reel in with all your strength
Your arms and legs on fire now
He turns again toward the shore
Then north parallel to where you stand
He is now closer to the crashing waves
And the fiery new light is rising
Then in the spray now clear in the wind
The fish leaps into the salted air
Twisting and shaking his perfect body
And crashing back into the spray and the waves
You use his leap to recover more line
Now with the rising sun burning into your face
You manage to muscle him past the breakers
And into the shallow water in front of you
He is a beautiful large striped bass
Maybe fifteen pounds maybe less
With the rod in your right hand
You dive for the huge fish
You first grab him by the tail
But it is too slippery for any purchase
You spin his head toward you with the line
And stab into his gills with your left hand
The fish is still fighting madly
As you drag him to shore
Knowing you could easily lose
Him with the merest hesitation
But you do not lose him
You administer the coup de grace
With the priest hanging from your right side
And you collapse spent to your knees
Into the wet sand and shallow surf
The waves booming with the rising wind
The sea spray mercifully anointing you
At this fiery dawning of another day
- by Linn Barnes
I think my imagination was initially kindled by the picture of my mother, Alice Barnes, and Carolyn Hughes standing in the doorway of an Inn at Bethany Beach, ‘Journey’s End’, called ‘Fort Maggie’, for ‘Auntie’ Margaret Hughes, the proprietor during the war years when the husbands were otherwise engaged in Europe and Asia. The Delaware national guard was busy guarding against the possibility of a German invasion on the Atlantic coast, so the Inn had been, at least, partly, ‘mobilized’ for the ‘duration’. The two young women were dressed in semi military attire, grinning and saluting the camera. It’s a great picture, full of life, humor and, maybe most important, a healthy dash of silliness.
My very first memories are of Bethany Beach, although I can’t really be sure, of course. I was born during the war in 1943. When my father, Ned Barnes, an officer in the OSS, shipped out to Burma and India, Alice, my mother, and a couple of other women in Washington, who were lucky enough to have been friends of Carolyn’s, discovered they could move to Journey’s End in Bethany with their infant children in a few cases, for a large chunk of the year. They went from March to November. Everything was cheaper there, war rations for everything went further and the companionship they shared in that lonely time was wonderful and rare. Carolyn Hughes, who was married to Marcellus Hughes, a US Army officer who was taken prisoner by the Germans in North Africa in the battles against Rommel early on, was a sorority sister of my mother’s at The Western High School in Georgetown. Their son, Christian, was almost exactly my age, and, from what I understand, my best friend…This all smoothed the way for extended and very inexpensive stays. There was also Caroline Aitcheson, from Washington, everybody’s best friend, also from the sorority at The Western High School, and Betty Thompson and her son, Toby. Her husband, Charlie, or Chic, was a doctor serving in the Navy, landing and dealing with the on going nightmare in the North African and Italian campaigns against the Germans. We were all packed into dormitories, and apparently nobody seemed to mind. We kids were a mutually guarded and reared semi-feral mini pack of infants at that time, crawling all over the place, on or off the beach. Days were spent on the sand and in the water, eating and sleeping our way through the cool of Spring and the Summer heat and sometimes stormy weather and high seas. While I don’t remember specific events, I have had strong impressions and deep associative feelings about Bethany, forever… But I suppose that would have a lot to do with the fact that I have continued throughout my life to come to Bethany Beach as often as possible, both with my parents and brother and, later, with my wife, Allison Hampton. When I look at infant photographs of me groveling in the sand with a bucket and a shovel, my mother sitting with her hat pulled down in the summer sun, grinning and talking with her friends, it just plain rings a very true bell.
My father returned from the war in late 1945. From then on, until 1953, when we de-camped for Paris for three years, some portion of each summer was spent at Bethany. But first we had to get there. After carefully packing the car in Washington with every imaginable gadget that might be useful at the beach, including, one time, even the garbage, we would drive across the city to the Annapolis road. The trick was going as early as possible. That way we would be at the ferry dock across the bay before the lines began to form. If all went according to plan we’d be among the first to board. The five nautical miles over the water began at the spot the bridges now span and was wonderful and exhilarating for both adults and kids and took about an hour and half. And, more importantly, the sea voyage drove home the fact that we were going to an altogether different land, the ‘Eastern Shore’, a land as mythic as ‘Xanadu’ for the small boys, and, for that matter, the adults, who were all spellbound by the glorious Chesapeake Bay, birds diving at the ship and fish leaping all around them, while the boat plowed through all manner of seas, calm or rough, until they finally landed on the far shore, the other place… When you drove off the ferry, and especially if there had been any weather, it took a moment or two to get your land legs, further driving home the indisputable fact that you were on foreign soil. All things seemed instantly different, an anotherness. The change affected everyone, including my mother and father, for whom there appeared to be a palpable relief at being now truly distant from all the things that the drama of Washington, DC represented. Then, in 1952, the bridge was completed and it was goodbye to a lot of that…
It was the summer of ’47, when I was all of four years old, that I became a serious and lifelong surf fisherman, under the capable tutelage of my dedicated and obsessed surf fisherman father. Our lives were all about bait, tackle, coolers, water temperatures and hunches about the tides. At first, in my fourth year, I would be handed a light rod that had been successfully cast to what I perceived to be an unimaginable distance, well beyond the breakers to the sea beyond where the ‘big ones’ lived. I anchored the rod in my leather cup belt rod holder which fit around my waist, after a fashion, although to fit me it had to be cinched impossibly tight. But, it was sensible, even for a child. If you got a strike, you had a solid post and grip. And, then, if you set the hook properly after the strike, you could begin the retrieval of whatever unfortunate fish that figured your bait was his dinner who was now on his merry way to being yours… We did really well. It seems we always had fresh blues or croakers for dinner, or, maybe the occasional striper, which was a fairly rare gift. Sometimes, and only sometimes, one of us would land a nice big flounder, the great delicacy of all the seas. My very savvy mother, had somewhere heard about the famous French recipe for ‘sole meunière’, which had the fabulous fish fried whole in a large pan swimming in browned butter, filleted at the table by my father, first one side, then the center backbone removed, and then the other side, creating four beautiful and delicate fillets which were doused with a sauce of additional butter, a little very dry white wine, parsley and lemon slices, all of which was dazzling and maddeningly delicious. This was a good part of the compelling impetus that got us back on the beach early each morning.
Fishing on the beach in the surf became a way of life. Everything about it drew me into the fold. We rarely hired a boat to go ‘deep sea fishing’, or, bought day tickets on the ‘head boat’ out of Indian River Inlet. My father instilled in me the love of the quiet, the wind and the crashing surf. The waves lapping at and burying your feet, the birds diving for your bait, screaming and battling each other in the air when we occasionally threw a desiccated mullet head to them. We really did not talk much, at least not until I got a strike. Then, he went into action, coaching and encouraging me to let the fish have his way for a while, especially if he seemed large. I began to learn how to play the fish carefully and not let the fish break the line. He taught me how to use the star drag to make sure the fish could pull away from me, but also tire in the process. My favorite moment was ‘swimming’ the fish through the breakers to shore, and carefully getting control before he had a chance to spit the hook out. It was tricky, and lots of fish were lost, but before too long, lots were taken. When a good fish was caught there were congratulations all around. But, it was done in a reserved manner, maybe a quiet kind word, a sincere smile or a handshake, that’s all. He seemed to think that humility when taking a life was very important, and honored both the fish and the fisherman. He further taught me to dispatch the landed fish with a short heavy club he carried with his other tackle which he a called a ‘fish priest’, never allowing the fish to suffocate on the shore, in the dry sand and hot sun. Many mistakes were made my first couple of childhood years fishing, of course, but, because of the intensity of the experience, and, mostly, my father’s unwavering passion for the event, most were not forgotten and established the beginning of a kind of on going life’s log of these important experiences.
By the time I was six I was beginning to really get the hang of it. I’ll never forget the first time I actually got a respectable cast just a little beyond the breakers, but good enough. I looked over at my father who was fishing right next to me, with a big smile. He responded with a smile and an affirmative nod. A moment later I had a solid strike, bending the light rod in half, almost picking me up, he gave me a quick concerned look, but then nodded once again and motioned for me to set the hook and fight the fish to shore, which after a while I managed to do, to my great delight and satisfaction. It was a respectable blue, about three pounds. After I landed him, and, with my father’s help, removed the hook, I gave him a final tap with the ‘priest’, which my father solemnly handed me with a serious nod. Later on I scaled and cleaned the fish right there on the shore, in the running tide, the waves breaking just beyond me and the birds overhead swooping in for whatever might be left behind, which I would throw in the air for them. There was never a better dinner than that wonderful, beautiful blue, the entire fish, the head left on, grilled over a very hot charcoal fire. It was perfect, and remains an important and powerful memory.
The following year my brother, Ned was four, and it was his turn for the apprenticeship in the sand. He had the advantage of witnessing my foibles and mistakes for a year or so. He was a happy little kid when our father strapped him up with a rod holder, cast a line for him and went through the same set of instructions I had received a couple of years earlier. Much to my dismay, he was a lot luckier than I had been at that stage. He just plain had the knack for fishing, and even that young he was very strong. The three of us on the beach with Marcellus Hughes, now liberated from a German POW camp, and his and Carolyn’s son, Chris; ‘Chic’ Thompson, who was, by this time ‘everybody’s’ doctor, and his son, Toby; Jimmy Masters, a USMC officer, who would eventually become a three star General and commandant of the Quantico, Marine Corps base, and his son ‘Champ’, were all a tight knit gang of dedicated surf fishermen never missing an early morning or an evening right off the south end of the boardwalk, opposite Journey’s End, where we always set up our camp. The women, Alice and Carolyn, and her and Marcellus’s daughter, Marcie, ’Aitch’, Caroline Aitcheson’s nickname, Betty Thompson, Dottie Masters and many other families and friends would join the group and cheer on the fishermen when things got hot, when the blues ‘blitzed’ down the coast and we couldn’t get our lines in the water fast enough. Those were the miracle days. There would be great fish fry dinners after sundown, the adults having cocktails while we kids raced around telling wild tales of the sea, our sea, to any and all who would listen. It seemed each miraculous fish you cooked and ate was an important and sacramental part of your life and subsequently, your history. We celebrated each fish with its own elaborate story, who caught it, and, especially in minuscule detail, how.
While others body surfed, splashed and swam, sun-bathed, paraded up and down the boardwalk, threw footballs and baseballs and set up badminton and volleyball nets…
A small, but steadfast band of brothers, fathers and sons each wonderful day until the end, and then, again…and again…
Early Teen Years
In 1953, my father, a former OSS officer during the war, who now worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, was transferred to Paris, France. We spent three very nice and very bewildering years there. My brother and I went to French schools, at first in the countryside, in La Varenne, then the following two years in Paris, proper.
When we returned, much of my ‘Americanism’ had either vanished or been effectively subsumed by the intensity of living so very much exclusively in French culture. It was very odd, even shocking for me in the Spring of 1956, the year we returned to Washington. I mostly wore short pants, I spoke English with a French accent, I had no idea who Bill Haley and the Comets or Elvis Presley were and I did not have a ‘coonskin’ hat. I was a bit of Monsieur Camus’s ‘Stranger’, although less dramatically…and certainly way younger. School, in Washington that Spring, was confusing and foreign. The ties that bound my schoolmates were long established, while I had been uprooted at an important time for normal social integration when you’re a kid. I was kind of ‘group-less’, I guess, and I felt out of sorts. My parents, noticing some of this, decided I needed to learn to play the guitar. I was not sure why, except that my uncle George was a fine musician and I idolized him very much. Lessons were arranged with Sophocles Papas at the important redoubt of classical music on the guitar, The Guitar Shop, on M Street, in Washington. I loved playing, and took it very seriously. The focus you must bring to a musical instrument is a sure fire remedy to a great many psychological problems, especially at thirteen, although I have found this to be the case throughout my life.
That August, we moved to Bethany for the entire month. This changed things dramatically for me and for my brother who, while three years younger, was experiencing some of the same ‘malaise’.
Quite amazingly Bethany proved to be the exact panacea to whatever was ailing me and my brother, and I imagine, at least to a degree, my parents. My feelings of connectivity with the ‘Beach’ were so strong and immediate, that I felt quite improved after only a couple of days. However, I’m pretty sure it was the fishing that really did it. I clearly remember walking with my father and my brother to ‘our’ spot just south of the south end of the boardwalk, opposite Journey’s End, and casting. I had not fished in three years and I was shocked at how far my cast propelled my bait, and what a great joy it was. The ocean was a little high that day, so we were using about five ounces of weight to secure us to the bottom. Even so, there was some movement, but not enough to make much difference. The tide was pouring in, which is what we had calculated for, and every few minutes we had to dig out of the sand which was drawing us in with the passing of every wave. When I walked out to about chest level to cast, the force of the riptide made itself known and threatened to take me down. This was, of course, happening to all of us, so we kept a pretty good watch on each other each time one of us went a little deeper to cast. I remember the clear blue sky, the way it always is after some weather has passed. It was mesmerizing in the warm and comforting August wind, slightly chilled by the remnants of the storm.
Then, while still in this reverie, I saw out of the corner of my right eye, my father’s rod all of sudden buckle over. I watched him wait a second or two, then strike back, setting the hook firmly into whatever kind of fish had so forcefully taken his bait. The rod stayed bent almost double. The fish, whatever it was, was running full speed for the deep blue water out beyond the sand. His line was peeling off at an alarming rate. I watched him tighten the star drag, which apparently slowed the fish some. Just as he was about to run out of line, the fish turned parallel to the shore and began swimming towards me. I pulled my line out of the water as fast as I could, as did my brother on his other side. My father walked slightly to the north with the fish to try and recapture some of his line, which he successfully did. Then, the fish turned again and began to swim full bore toward the breakers, trying, we all believed, to relieve enough pressure on the line to eject the hook. This was a trick we all knew well. But, it did not fool my father, who kept the line tight and focused. It had to be a blue, and a very big one. Once nearly into the waves, the fish turned south and, then, we all saw him in the crest of a breaking wave. It was a very large blue, and he was tiring, his beautiful shinning body outlined and illuminated by rainbows of color spawned by the crashing spray from the breaking wave. My brother and I stood silently witnessing this battle. I showed my father that I had grabbed the gaff from our tackle, and he nodded his approval. He was bringing the huge fish closer and closer to the point where the waves would work for him, to where he could ‘swim’ the fish into the sand. The gaff I had was a short handled device, with a great hook at the end of a shaft of hard wood, which meant I had to be very close to secure the fighting fish. When the fish finally appeared in the shallow water inside the waves, I lunged for him, planting the gaff firmly into his tail section. Between my father pulling him with the line and me with the gaff, we finally landed this wonderful blue. He weighed in at close to twenty pounds, and was the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. Ned ran over to our father and handed him the ‘priest’, with which he finished the fish with one heavy blow to the head. We took the great fish further onto the shore, and, along with a growing crowd of amazed witnesses, took in the otherworldly beauty of this perfect blue. We shook hands with my father, who remained quiet and pensive, as if he may have slightly regretted taking this beautiful mature fish. But, that didn’t last for very long, especially when my mother and our many friends ran up to congratulate him on his great catch, after which he was all smiles, although it was clear he was still a little shaken. It was all a bit overwhelming, but, more than anything else, infused with high drama and pathos. My brother and I were lost in the glory of the moment, and proud, beyond all understanding, of our noble father, the great surf fisherman.
My brother and I cleaned the huge fish in the surf, one holding the fish by the tail, and the other cutting from the anus to the gills, and removing the insides, saving the heart, the liver and the roe. It was a female. The rest of the entrails we left in the wet sand for the eager gulls flying at arms length from us, crying out and fighting each other for the best position.
That night my father and mother cooked the huge fish, stuffed with herbs and olive oil, salted and peppered, with its head still on over an open fire trench, the charcoal banked to make sure the fish would cook through. They oiled the fish on the skin to make turning on the metal grate, also lightly oiled, easier, without losing chunks of skin. The trick was to make sure the first side had firmly charred so it would not stick. Once we successfully turned the fish, we covered it with a couple of frying pans and sheets of tinfoil to create the kind of pervasive oven like heat, which would ensure, with the banked charcoal, a thorough cooking. It took a while. And, it was worth it.
My parents invited everybody they knew for the feast. People brought corn, tomatoes and green beans, all at the height of their season. There were soft drinks for the kids and buckets of freezing cold beer for the adults. There were toasts and praise for the fisherman, who, very generously, included me and my brother as his indispensable mates. Life was indeed very good at Bethany Beach, in the summer of 1956.
Then I discovered the boardwalk. I mean the boardwalk for kids. And, of course, by that I mean the bowling alley on the boardwalk, the center of the known universe for teens of every age at the beach. It was located toward the north end of the boardwalk and it faced right out on the ocean. The bowling was the ‘friendly’ variety, that is, ‘duck pins’, not the larger, more intimidating, ‘professional’ type of bowling balls with holes for fingers to hold and release them. Anybody, almost any size, could get a good grip on these smaller, much lighter hole-less balls. They were great fun! The prestige job for a kid was ‘pinboy’, since they’re were no electronic devices to re-set the pins after a ball was launched and they were knocked down. These were jobs almost impossible to get unless you were on the inside of something, somewhere. It was hands on, and the pinboys, leaping around the balls and resetting pins with speed and grace, were sort of celebrities. Everybody played, young and old, and the competition was friendly, but fierce. Families played families, and people just plain chose up teams, like you might for a pick-up basketball game.
But for the young it was much, much more. They had a built in social club at the bowling alley, which everybody belonged to. I quickly got to know hordes of kids my age, and younger, and older. Every evening after dinner, I would walk, usually by myself, although sometimes I would take my brother Ned with me, to the bowling alley. Occasionally, I would play, and other times, actually, maybe most of the other times, I would just hang out with my new pals. We’d drink cokes and listen to the ocean, in the dark, in packs on the boardwalk, on windy nights, the cold spray soaking the night air. When there was very little light left, the breaking waves flashed momentarily, picking up the last of the setting sun in the west, silvery crescents rising and disappearing with the perpetual booming of the waves, the glorious orchestration of our timeless sea.
The next morning at dawn we would be on the beach in our usual spot. First light, when the tide is right, is the best time to see the Bottlenose porpoises ranging up and down the coast, sometimes well within casting range, although there was never any fishing them. They would swim right past our baits. My father explained their enormous intelligence to us. He seemed to think they could have ‘shore fished’ for us, had they taken a notion. They were, and still are, among my favorite shows. I never tired of them, and they were always performing in some new and fascinating way. Sometimes, it seemed, they would drive the fish we were after further out, when they were swimming close to the shore. Or, when they would pass us at two hundred yards out, we got more strikes, it seemed, from the smaller fish fleeing in toward us to escape them. I often wondered if they were playing ‘tricks’ on us. I am pretty convinced my father thought so…In fact, he every now and then intimated that a proper prayer to the porpoise Deity would not be a wasted effort. He used to joke that if we only knew their language, we could make a deal, and be up to our eyeballs in blues and stripers, croakers and flounders, weakfish and even sharks, day in and day out…Now that got some laughs. But, I remember mumbling various spontaneous ‘mumbo jumbos’ just in case any aquatic critters might be tuned in. Never seemed to ‘work’, but one time…
Watching the birds became an obsession. One or two seabirds cruising overhead was normal and didn’t get our interest. However, gaggles of gulls close to shore, either north or south of us was, as my father would say, ‘actionable intelligence’. If the birds were diving again and again, it was not for sport. The big fish, almost certainly blues, were driving the terrified bait fish to the surface, right into the voracious beaks of the diving birds. The bait fish, the menhaden, mostly, got a very bad deal, but they told us a lot about where the blues were, and what direction they were taking. All we could do was wait. When we felt sure they were on a trajectory that would bring them within range, lines were quickly brought in and baited hooks were exchanged for buck-tails, spoons, Hopkins lures or any shiny lure to catch the fancy of the maddened blues, gorging on anything that moved. Jimmy Masters, the Marine General, always advised a little ‘gypsy fish bait oil’ on anything, including cut up old shoes, during the blue fish feeding frenzies. I remember him once ‘anointing’ all of our bucktails as we waited for the feeding fish to approach. Lure fishing was different. There was no casting and waiting. It was highly energetic, even athletic, casting the lure and immediately retrieving as fast as possible to imitate one of the panicked baitfish. And then, casting again. When they were in range and we were dropping the lures in their midst, we had a fish almost every cast. We needed, and had, a ‘ground crew’ to deal with the captured fish, while we ran down the beach along side them casting and catching them until they finally vanished, or, we simply fell down from exhaustion. As when I was younger, before Paris and all of that, this was the crowning moment for we fishermen, as maddened by the out of control harvest as the voracious blues were about their unrelenting feeding. At moments like these, time compressed and virtually stopped. We were suspended in a ‘warp’ between the land and the sea. Later, I wondered if this was anything like the experiences some of the medieval mystics described, the suspension of temporal reality, and the ultimate dissolution of the ‘Self’ into the vastness of the great and, in this case, watery universe.