It must have been around 1981. We'd been living hand-to-mouth in Jonesport for a few years. Peggy had cornered some part-time teaching jobs at the high school, and I was jacking all trades. We had a big garden, two slant-six Chrysler products, and a kid in the elementary. We were beginning to keep all our balls in the air.
I'd been running with a fish dealer who was speculating away his second fortune. Keller. He hailed from Long Island, and had built his empire up from the back of a pickup. Buying whole fish at the docks downeast, cutting and peddling them off the tailgate in Aroostook, then hauling spuds back for a return engagement. He'd managed to parlay some container lots of ripe flatfish off Grand Manan into quick cash in Philly, and was feeling expansive.
His wife, Confetti (I kid you not), was not enamored of Jonesport, or the misfits who'd landed there. Victor the Viking, who would turn his clothes inside out at least once a month, and was going to Destroy the World. Bo Truck, who used to loosen up by thumping his girlfriend, and cousin, Penny, or threatening his wife with the KW. Or that hairball Toymaker from up the bay. Her idea of expansive was to fill up the Econoline and blow.
So Keller moved to Boothbay, where people paint their toenails, and are more sophisticated. He'd conned some of the downeast fishermen to let him broker their catches. He had a couple rigs running to Freshwater (Boston) and Fulton (NYC). I'd been selling my wrinkles to Keller, and doing some light trucking for him, with my flatbed Dodge. Shellfish to the Americana pickup in Rockland, mostly, but Keller was on his way to greener pastures.
One night late the phone rings. It's Keller, all jammed up. All his drivers have flipped him the bird and flown, and he's got a fleet of independent groundfish boats headed for shoal water. Would I pick up Bo and come bail him? Well, it was a promise of cash money in a slow season, so I kissed the babe and the bride and rolled west.
It was a nonstop carnival. I drove the 10 wheel straight job up and down the coast, meeting boats at the dock, culling fish, icing them, running them to Boothbay, where Bo and I would load the semi, which he'd turn to Fulton. Then I did the shellfish pickups, got them aboard Americana, and played phone tag with the city dealers.
The fish business is as slippery as it gets. You put your product aboard a carrier with your tags, and the dealers' you are shipping to, attached. Then whoever wants it along the way takes it off, and you have to chase all over hell to find out who got what. "Did you get 10K of mussels from me?" Then TRY and get paid. You might figure on a dime on a dollar up front, but real game was now you see it, now you don't . The smaller you are, the longer you wait. It's only when you have something they have to have right now that the dealers spring you enough gelt to stay alive. I was spending three four hours a day with Ma Bell, chasing hijacked product, trying not to fall asleep at the switch. If I did manage to find a moment to put my head down, Confetti would insist on vacuuming around me, just to run me out of the house.
Keller had built another sand castle, of course. Pissed away his lines of credit, and he was shorting everyone, just the way the dealers were shorting him. Only you don't do that to Mainers. At least not fishermen and truckers. One of the boats Keller had talked into landing with him was Clydie's 42-footer out of Jonesport, America. One night I'm heisting tubs of cod and haddock out of her at the dock in Boothbay when Clydie asks: "You getting any cash from Keller?"
"Nope," I grumbled.
"Well, me neither." Clydie said. "Wanna come gillnetting? We'll sell 'em somewheres else." So I stepped aboard, and we ran out into the fog.
Fog? I didn't see full daylight for three months. They said it was sunny ashore, but I was never there in daytime. Or so it seemed. And what a miserable business gillnetting is. You string out miles of monofilament mesh, leadline on bottom, floats on top, couple fathom spread, mushroom at either end, highflyers with radar reflectors on surface. Let them fish over night, then haul back to read'em and weep. We did a lot of weeping.
First off, Clydie was a ladies' man. And I mean ladies, plural. His wife downeast was a sharp lady from the city , who had fallen for a hardbodied fishchaser with curly locks and a twinkle in his eye. In fact it was her money which bankrolled his boat, and it wore her name. In vain. We'd hit the landing in any port along the coast, and Clydie would have a damsel at the dock with a short phone call. I think he preferred it to the other kind of fishing.
The rest of the crew would start downing them at the nearest bar, leaving me to pick up the pieces. Clydie and the boys would totter aboard in the middle of the night, and I'd run the boat back out onto the gear. Fulltilt boogie down a Loran line in the blind. Hanging on for dear and watching the numbers roll. One night we slammed into something that brought us all up standing. But nothing leaked, so I put that diesel in the corner again. Steer all night, fish all day.
But not enough fish, or dollars. And this was the way everyone was going to get rich. Remember? The feds passed the 200 mile limit, running those foreign fleets off our banks, and every swinging dick in Maine was going to be waist-deep in groundfish and silver. Yup. The banks threw open their vaults, the boatyards were jumping, everyone rerigged for finfish, eeehaw. Only those fleets had had a pretty good swack at the stocks, for starters, and the city dealers weren't about to risk glutting a controlled market, for enders. If you caught fish, the price was pitiful, if you could collect from the likes of Keller, or worse.
Oh there were some as made money. Killer always had his bunks full, and got top dollar. But Killer is.. well.. a killer. He also would lay over on his gear, haul right back in the AM, not let his fish spoil. We were too busy sniffing into some gunkhole after femininity and lager, so we often got caught by the weather with our gear down, and our trousers, too.
Let me tell you about two day sets. First the fish in your mesh strangle and die. Then the slime eels go in through the eyeballs and assholes. You're hauling up these lovely looking fish, only to discover they are hollow bags full of bones, and nasty stinging eels. That's after 36 hours. Don't get back on your nets for three days, and the sea fleas eat the skins away, so all you're left with is a tangle of skeletons knotting your mesh. It might take half a day to clear a single stinking net, knowing your others were down and dirty, too.
And, if we did manage to haul back some live ones, they might all be dogfish. Worthless bastids. Shaped like torpedoes, with a wicked spike in front of their dorsal fin, these little sharks would nose through a mesh until they hung up, then they'd roll, and plunge, to escape, weaving through the net like a shuttle. I counted where one sweetheart had threaded through 8 times.
There was a very limited market for dogfish. Jackson, the guy who made a potful in elvers the first year the Japanese bought them, set up a dogfish factory in Rockport. We'd get a radio tip that he was buying, and we'd set up the kidboards and shovel the babies in. Only someone else would invariably beat us to the dock. One night we dumped 10,000 pounds of dogfish into Moosabec Reach.
I could tell you tales. About lying on our nets on the Jones Ground, illegally over the Canadian line, and having the big Bluenose ferry blow by within spitting distance in the night, waking us completely. About humpbacks going through our nets like they were gossamer, or dressing Makos for swordfish, or having a big blue shark run up the net and broach like Polaris at the rail. About having a big pot full of jumbo lobster meat on the galley stove at all times.
But all too often our ice would melt and our catch sour before we got to market. We were run out of Northeast Harbor by the harbormaster, for being an offensive nuisance, and we hadn't even noticed the whiff. Half the time we had to sell what we landed to for saltfish. Whitefish, they call it, where it sells cheap, in the Caribbean. After some trips the fish gas was so bad I was the only one willing to get down in the hold and fork up fish. They'd keep a hose on my head to stop me from passing out. Phew.
This, as you might imagine, was not too good for the family life. About the only cash I was seeing was for the tub full of choice fish I'd peddle around door-to-door, on my way up the bay. Here I was, trying to get our winter nut, and all I was bringing home was ripe laundry.
Finally, we got skunked. And spooked. Nobody was doing regular maintenance on the boat. I was trying to stay ahead of the oil and electrical troubles, but didn't have a clue about the hydraulics. My stepdad, who did, came aboard for a trip, and told me they were running so hot, he was afraid they'd blow. With a bilge full of oil, that might be a quick invitation to go swimming. When we got home from that excursion, with our pockets empty again, I jumped ship. She sat at the dock for a couple weeks after, and the next time she went out, she did catch fire and burn. The boys got off. They were in sight of another local outfit at the time. Clydie collected the insurance. Funny about that.
I wasn't laughing. Working a fishboat was the top of the tree, downeast. You might cut pulp, rake berries, dig clams or worms, pick wrinks, do some gypsy carpentering, etc., etc., but the best paying opportunities were on the water. Every time I'd gone for crew, we might have some dry patches, but we'd eventually have a hot spell, and I'd make my nut. This time: nada.
So I sat down and thought it over. I'd been carving "toys" and other amusements for a dozen years. There wasn't much market for such truck in a fishing village, even in tourist season, but it was what I did best, and most joyfully. I'd discovered a big arts festival up in Brunswick, and sold out everything I'd taken to it, before the gates opened on day one. So it was possible to make the odd dollar there. I decided: if I wasn't going to make any money chasing the big catch, I might just as well be home doing what I loved. We'd get by. We'd already proven we knew how.
I became Bryce the Toymaker fulltime, again. Instead of doing what the local logic said was the way to go, I chose to follow my heart, and my imagination. I'd walked away from good sense before. Why pretend to know any better now?
No. I didn't catch any big fish. Or make any serious money. But I found a life which has its own crazy kind of sense. Which is why I'm grudgingly grateful to Clydie, and Keller, and Jonesport. If we hadn't struck that rock, I might still be chasing a maritime dream, instead of snorting sawdust. Instead of a wet butt, I'm home and dry. Sometimes your worst mistakes are your best beginnings.