When my father was out on the Chesapeake Bay, put-put-putting along through the waves with onomatopoeic joy in his rented row boat, the one powered by a three-dollars-extra, one-horsepower outboard engine, he was truly in his element. He loved the water, and he loved to fish. Consequently, he taught me to hate the water and hate to fish.
Our fishing lines and the bay’s currents had something to do with it, of course. Two people fishing from the same little boat is always a recipe for trouble, especially when one of those people is a reluctant 10-year-old who’d rather be ashore doing anything but fishing. Lines get tangled, people get hooked, fish get lost, words get said—loudly.
Who to blame? Who to blame? Well, me, of course. And heatedly. My father had a string of expletives that would have made George Carlin blush, and he used them liberally until he was near hoarse and had to stop to drink a little water, whereupon the harangue would continue until we made it back to the docks, where he would grow silent, throw our gear into the back of the station wagon and drive home in silence.
The worst of these episodes happened on a sunny day in June. Well, let’s just say the day began that way. We rented the rowboat and the optional motor, and headed out into the bay through a light chop that promised a peaceful day of fishing. We were about a mile offshore and drifting with the currents when the first bad thing happened.
My father had just caught a two-pound rockfish, what you might refer to as a “striped bass,” and was eager for more, so he didn’t pay too much attention to where he cast his line, which was right over mine. The lines became tangled, forming a knot that could have been classified “largest and most creative knot” in the Guinness Book of World Records.
My father was not an advocate of cutting a fishing line, thus losing various hooks and sinkers. He much preferred struggling with knots until he was red, white, and blue in the face. As he did this, the skies began to cloud up and the light chop started to morph into two-foot, then three-foot, then six-foot swells. Finally, my father decided to call it quits and start up the motor for the return trip to the dock, with just one fish to show for our trouble. He was seething. I was soaking wet from the splashing waves.
The motor did not start. One pull, two pulls, three pulls, expletive! Repeat, repeat, repeat. No dice. Mr. Motor, he dead. And then the skies opened up, rain pouring down in torrents.
We drifted along a while with the currents, which were taking us farther out, away from the docks. Then we realized we were in the freighter lanes. How? Well, when you see a ship as long as a couple of football fields bearing down on you, you have to come to some conclusion, and that was ours.
Each of us grabbed an oar and began frantically rowing—in circles at first, but then we got the hang of it and slowly, ever so slowly, began to move out of the freighter’s path. On the way back, a returning charter boat took pity on us and towed us in.
Once ashore, my father blamed me for the tangled lines, the broken motor, the weather, and the obvious dangers of messing with the maritime trade. I, in turn, declared that day my last day on a rowboat. Heatedly. George Carlin would have been proud. I think my dad was, too.
Water: My dad’s element. Earth: Mine.