The Big Catch
We grew up in the projects in New York, at a time when the kids sat on the stoops with their parents, who talked about getting away from the city over the weekend, for an excursion. The “Excursion,” as it was affectionately called, was typically a fishing trip to escape from the summer swelter. Our apartments were air conditioned but the buildings were old, and to save money, we apartment dwellers did whatever we could to get to the ocean. My mother, who was the leader of the fishing day trip adventures, spun her stories about the “Big Fish” that our gaggle of neighbor kids could catch on the boat, and she described in detail the perilous journey of luring in a monster size fish. There was always a trophy for the prized lure, and my sweaty drippy face friends sat wide-eyed in anticipation of the outing.
At 7 am sharp we arrived at the dock paid our admission, and walked the creaky planks on the pier to get to our fishing bus. On this day I was trying to keep up with my mom and her cronies, who were carrying large bags of food loaded with salamis, cheese, and long bread loaves packed with meatballs. These sandwiches were dangerous because, if you got too close you would get bread smacked. I reached out to grab a tip of the loaf, and then tripped In the middle of the onlookers, serious fishermen, and all of my friends, onto a small pocket size black notebook. I was pretty embarrassed but slipped the book in my pocket, because it was a found treasure. I stuffed the bread in my mouth and stood up to recover from my fall.
The next thing we heard was a familiar growly sound of the cigar smoking captain, who wore a denim blue hat cocked to one side, and offered an apprising look with his squinty blue eyes. “All hands on deck…place your bets, in the big bucket, for the winner of the biggest fish, and the big catch of the day”. “We will have two winners today”.
After loading into the boat, we were told to sit like sardines on wooden benches. The waves often overtook the boat and the kids were warned to hold on to the railing, when fishing with their drop lines. One wrong move on a slippery deck, and the unpredictable waves could knock us overboard. The captain warned that he didn’t want the deep sea fish to swim away with us. We were a fearless bunch, and couldn’t wait for the adventure, especially knowing that someone would win the ante for the contests.
Captain Ed was a big part of the day. He told tales of his fishing adventures on the high seas, and described creatures that we had never seen or heard about at school. He took out a black notebook and showed us rough sketches of fan tailed fish that could jump over the boat. His pelicans wore palm woven hats, and had names. Somehow, we felt that he knew these animals. My child’s mind could imagine the creatures you would only see in the movies. He always ended his fortuitous stories with, “I hope you catch the Big One”.
The parents had their own mission as they kept a close eye on the food, and bated our hooks with the creepiest of Centipede looking worms. There was nothing like a fishing adventure, as we tested our youthful nerve and sinew against the elements.
At the end of day, we always came home with bucket loads of flounder, yellow tail and floating trinkets. The fish was shared with our grandparents and neighbors that were too chicken to go on the boat. On one of the trips, one of the kids and his parents won the prize for the biggest catch. The biggest fish catch was always a miniature of what our grand imagining of the giant fish was.
I left every fishing trip a little more connected to these voyages. At night I was hypnotized by memories of the ancient quality of the ocean, and was lulled to sleep dreaming of the Big Catch. I was a believer. There was a deepening connection to finding the trail for the Big One. The Captain always reminded us, to look for the huge eyeballs of a surfacing fish. “These eyes, would tell stories of the beginning of time… they are just like us in a way, and share the great waters.” Chills ran up my spine, as these words became my battle cry, then, and always.
A few weeks had passed since our last expedition, and I decided to navigate my room to find the buried treasure I put in my jean pocket. Once I found the little black journal, I went down to the cellar where we did our laundry, and went to a quiet corner where the old rocking chair was. I climbed on and examined the book. It was a beauty, weather whipped and etched by time. I put it up to my nose, and it smelled like seaweed and cigars. This was my first clue. As I turned the pages slowly, I knew a mystery was about to enfold. Toward the end of the book, I found sketches and notes scribbled with a black ink pen. The descriptions revealed creatures that only a sailor connected to the sea could find. They were the same characters that Captain Ed described. One thing was for certain, I had to get the black journal back to the Captain.
Mom was game to pile the neighborhood kids in our car, and drive to the pier the very next weekend. We knew the lost journal would be missed. We arrived on a Sunday, and felt a sudden fall chill in the air. Something seemed eerily different about the boat. Usually, Captain Ed was the first person to welcome his crew. His lanky frame, with pants that were tightly belted, and his crooked smile and salute, was the first image we saw at the admissions booth. No Captain. We asked where Captain Ed was and there was a dismal response. “Ed hasn’t been around for weeks”, one crew member said. Another person chimed in. “Ed made it out to the high seas and he is in search of the Big Catch”. I still had his book in my pocket, and wondered where he could be. I was both fascinated and sad at the same time, but didn’t question our findings.
For years, I kept Captain’s journal as an amulet, always thinking it would bring me good luck and maybe I would find the sailor in one form or another.
At sixteen, my family still lived on the East Coast and had never seen the mountains of Arizona or Nevada. Mom decided to take us out West, on a fishing trip, to a small beach along the Colorado River, to get out of the gripping cold of New York winters. The beach was a secret place that not many people knew about in those days. It was touted as ancient hunting and fishing grounds, for the people that lived on the land, thousands of years ago. The mountains, carved petroglyphs and essence of quiet, stopped us in our tracks. Something bigger and greater absorbed our attention. We knew nothing about navigating in the changing currents of the Colorado, but mom was determined to get us into an adventure, so we hopped into a rusty framed motor boat and headed out.
It was early morning as we set out on the Colorado River. The light peeked through the mountains, and filtered and fractured through to the water. Beams of light telescoped the water in every direction. As the engine puttered along, we got stuck up against the mountains, in a place where the water formed shadows hundreds of feet beneath the surface. There were no boaters in sight, and no Captain to yell to for help. I pulled out the journal and clutched it to my chest. At that very moment, the boat began to tilt back and forth, and I swear, I saw a large shadow lurking deep beneath the boat. I couldn’t put a size or shape on it, but there was something there. If we got back to shore in safety, and were not carried away by the current with my frantic brothers and little sister, I promised I would research the folklore of the depths of the Colorado River. It would be the least I could do to honor the Captain and his folk legends.
I always kept my hand in fishing adventures, along with my teaching responsibilities. On a good day, I found fishing holes in upstate New York, after a long work week. This year, was rough for so many of us, but my neighborhood buddies that I grew up with, always had an easy going attitude about life. No matter what was going on, they always found some fun. We needed to see each other, and fish for the “Big One”, tell Captain and Mom stories, and laugh the whole night long. So we did.
We met, at the same Colorado Beach desert location, in Arizona, that I visited at sixteen. Ten of us, put in 2,000 bucks in a yellow bucket, as a prize for the first person who spotted the Big One. If it even existed. For some of us, it was the last of a slush fund, typically used for a vacation. “No more nonsense” was our moniker. We waited too many years, to pass up this opportunity. One of us was going to find that fish, for the $20,000 win.
We camped out, drank enough wine to tank a vineyard, and laughed till the break of day. This time, two river worthy boats set out in the early morning, in calm river water. Both boats, were filled with adults that became kid like again, as we motored to the spot that I remembered from yesteryear. The coordinates were examined, as well as the water depth, yearly temps, surrounding geology, folk lore, and common fish caught in the location.
It must have been fate, because at a serendipitous moment, our boat sputtered just as it did so long ago. Sometimes areas of the Colorado form whirlpools, but what we saw spiraled down below the surface, in concentric circles, and gelled into form and shape. What I saw was the great eye of a fish surfacing. My mind whirled as I scanned the length of the fish, and found what looked like a tail weaving figure eights. This was an impossible sighting, for a river creature. All of our crew, saw this inevitable phenomenon, just moments after my viewing. Excitement riveted us, and we turned our boats around, and headed back full throttle to shore. What were we going to do? Who could we tell without the whole world showing up? We all kept our level heads as we agreed not to share this with the media. Although our experience was deeply moving, and offered a connection to prehistory, we decided to keep it under wraps. I was offered the yellow bucket with the win, and heard my friends cheer, “You caught the Big Catch”. My answer was, I think, the Big Catch caught me, therefore it belongs to all of us. We all dipped back into the bucket and prepared for our next Captain adventure.