When I was 12, my dad and grandfather took my brother and me snapper fishing. We stopped at a gas station on the way that had a bait-n-tackle shop attached.
“Yes sir! They’re catching them. Oh yeah, good size! YES SIR,” said the mechanic, a skinny young man covered in grease and grime. His hair, in a ponytail dyed blond too many times. His teeth, pointing in impossible directions, jutted out of his mouth like yellow Chiclets.
“We need sharp hooks and good bait, Jimboy,” said Gramps.
“Two packs of snapper hooks, two bags of shiners, four bobbers, anything else, mister?” the mechanic asked as he pecked at the cash register with black hands, the staining kind of black that came from working on cars. The register rang as the cash drawer shot out to make change. Dad was getting last-minute directions to Three Mile Harbor while a mutt with dark-chocolate eyes looked up from the opening between the garage and the bait shop.
Chugging along in our wagon down windy, tree-lined roads, we searched for the fishing pier. When we saw the water, we knew we were close. “Oh man LOOK, the tide is SOO HIGH,” Pete said as he jabbed me in the ribs. Ignoring his taunts, I looked out the window finding the eelgrass barely visible, its pointed tips just above the surface. We went down several streets in search of the pier. Finally, one emptied down to the harbor, bringing us to a parking lot with a boat ramp off to the side. Tall pilings wore shingle caps tacked to their tops, framing the pier. It was a favorite perching spot of the seagulls that squawked to one another in their own language. There were moments when I felt as if I could decipher this language. Seagull laughter sounded different from seagull hunger, different from normal gull sassiness. Initially fascinated by these birds, I tired of them as they never stopped trying to steal our bait. “Go, GET,” said Pete, swatting his bamboo pole wildly.
We unrolled the strings from the poles. Gramps dropped our bucket attached by a rope to the water below. “We need to put the bait in the pail, soften it up,” said Gramps, hauling it back up after capturing enough water.
Meanwhile, Dad was helping us put on bobbers and hooks. He burned the excess string with the end of his cigarette so it wouldn’t fray. Two large commercial fishing boats were held to the pier by heavy ropes attached to enormous metal cleats. Seine fishing nets hung drying in the sun, cinched together like my mother’s curtains. I decided to fish right between these two boats in the shady water.
We were hooked, the second the bobber blinked under the water and disappeared from sight. It happened so fast! The reflex to pull up on the bamboo pole was nearly subconscious. Landing a catch left me breathless. Usually it meant the blue-silver body of a snapper reflecting in the murky water, becoming visible only after a meteoric rise to the surface. You couldn’t ever be certain of the identity of your catch. There was great fun solving this mystery.
We filled the bucket that day in August of 1986. It was simply wonderful; it was the beginning of my love affair with fishing. We pulled into our driveway with the familiar sound that tires make on stones. Swinging myself out of the hot car, I breathed in the fresh air. The smells of the ocean, fish, beach plums, honey suckle, pine trees, and even the Russian olives, all played a part in making the fragrance; the lovely perfume of the East End.
“Who’s gonna clean these fish? You guys want to go next time RIGHT?” Dad said before refreshing us on what to do. “Be careful, those top fins will stick you.” My brother jumped at the ugly prospect of processing the fish, super excited to look inside the bellies. Pete finds this sort of thing absolutely fascinating.
“Oh, boys, snappers look great. I’ll get out the pan.”
I looked upwards from where her voice had floated down, lyrical like a bird’s song. There, with her elbows resting on the windowsill, was my grandmother; a short, round woman with a full head of salt and pepper hair.
Pete dug a quick hole in the sandy ground, then proceeded to cut off heads, scale and check the contents of EVERY stomach. “Shiners, Shiners, WHOA, look at this! This one ate a baby CRAB!” Pete said, holding up the half-digested exoskeleton of a very small crab. The digestive juices had drained the crab of all its color, rendering it transparent. I’d had enough. “I’ll go get you a plate for the fish,” I volunteered.
We heard the sound of sandy feet ferrying up the stairs outside and didn’t think anything if it. It was again one of those familiar sounds. Gram was frying up the floured bodies of the snappers, turning them golden brown in bubbling oil and a smell that made my mouth water filled the air. “Watch the bones, lots of little bones,” said Aunt Donna, glancing up from her case files.
The sliding door to the deck opened suddenly and a westerly wind blew in the long, dark hair ahead of her. “SHARK, Montauk, Star Island,” my mother stammered dramatically.
“Alright Karen, speak English PLEASE” my dad roared.
“It’s all over the beach Jim. They caught a huge shark, a MANEATER,” she said, regaining her composure.
Pete’s response to the information was immediate. “Can we go Dad, PLEASE can we huh, can WE?” I quickly piled on my own pleas and together we broke him.
“Alright Karen, get your camera. Get the kids in the car, let’s go.” My brother and I celebrated with a ruckus that would wake the dead. We hurried down the stairs with machine-gun-like pitter-patter, spilling into the foyer below. Gramps yelled something that sounded angry but we hardly heard as we were out the door and already skipping on stones. We’d only seen the Great White Shark in movies or on TV.
“Should I take the high road or low road?”
“High road’s faster, Dad,” Pete said matter of factly.
“JIMMY! Keep your arm inside the car before you lose it!” Mom yelled, catching me in the rearview mirror as she turned on the radio.
“Montauk shark fishing king, Captain Frank Mundas, has done it again, returning early this morning with a world record catch. A 17-foot, 3500-pound Great White Shark believed to be the largest ever caught by rod and reel. Mundas is rumored to be the inspiration for the Captain Quint character in the 1975 movie Jaws,” said the trained voice of the newscaster.
“Dad, you hear that? WORLD RECORD.”
“I heard Peter, thanks.”
Montauk was still buzzing when we arrived. It was as if a star had fallen to earth and around the impact site there were families, news people, and the crew of the Cricket II. The crew donned loud yellow T-shirts titled “The Monster Man” with Captain Frank Mundas below it. There, lying upon a yellow net, roped off in the middle of this fray, was the monster. He was at least the size of our station wagon, and the enormity of his mouth scared me. So big and angry was this mouth frozen in death, gums exposed in the last fierce snarl of a magnificent eating machine.
“I heard him call us all DAWK rats, guy’s a JERK,” a man in the crowd exclaimed.
Mundas, with the gold earring and shark-tooth necklace of a pirate, came striding out of the shadows of a nearby garage. The real-life Quint was everything you would expect a legendary shark-hunting captain to be. He was salty and weathered, a proud man living off the breath of the sea with dried out skin like leather or jerky. He wore dark, aviator sunglasses, a skipper’s cap hung precariously upon his head.
“Come on people enough already eh? We been here all day, ok huh? Time to put this monsteh on ice,” said Mundas with the voice of Archie Bunker.
We took the low road home. The sun had set and the East End was cooling fast. Stars emerged, brilliant in the new born night. I settled in my spot, resting my head against the car door.
“Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain.” My father sang softly like a lullaby. My eyes grew heavy before closing. I could see blinking barrels cutting through the water by the force of a monster below, submerging with the sizzle of bubbles into the deep, dark Atlantic.