Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Fish Story

It was early September and they were stone broke. For the past 3 months Pete Kadanski and Jimmy Hollis had been up before dawn, down to the dock, bleary eyed and swilling Dunkin’ Donuts coffee while heading out to the fishing grounds before daybreak. It had become a monotonous routine carried out by zombies. Whatever excitement and adventure they had felt at the beginning of this folly had long since vanished, their initial enthusiasm to make some serious cash as commercial fishermen having turned into the desperation and despair of two men with empty bank accounts, and maxed out credit cards. It was something neither of them ever talked about. It was a taboo subject, as if to speak of it would ensure the loss of all they had sweated for.
It was a fate that had befallen fishermen far more wiser and experienced, such as Dickey Martin and his longliner State of Grace, and Joey Texiera, captain and owner of the stick boat Hannah’s Gold. They were victims of The First National Bank of Massachusetts. That August institution had made predatory loans to several of the more respected, but struggling, commercial fishermen of Gloucester. Now that the economy had turned south, and the fish increasingly not where they were supposed to be (in the holds of the fishing boats), the bank was coming to take the collateral. Being Gloucestermen, they didn’t give up their boats without a fight. Dickey had tried to run a harpoon through the town constable when he was presented with the papers to repossess his boat. It had taken a can of pepper spray to the face and a beating from the city cops before they hauled him off in handcuffs to the Suffolk County jail. Joey had taken it a step further, mooring his boat in the middle of the harbor and threatening any “scumbag that tries to take my boat gets a load of birdshot right in the ass,” backing up his threat by brandishing a double barrel shotgun he took to carrying while on deck. He was joined by his wife, Hannah (a woman as every inch as tough as her husband), the vessel’s namesake, and they took turns standing watch, each brandishing the weapon in defiance of the Gods of the free market, international banking and a shit economy.
It had taken the Coast Guard and a contingent of both Department of Natural Resources and Massachusetts State Police in full tactical gear to storm the boat and end the “siege,” in a raid conducted in the middle of the night, complete with flashbang grenades and tear gas. Like they were both on the “FBI’s Most Wanted” list, maybe even sheltering Osama bin Laden in the engine room. That show made all the local Boston TV stations. Police raids always make good video. Yeah, Johnny Law got to use all his goodies on that one, and notwithstanding the two MSP cops who puked up their guts from getting seasick on the assault boat, and the one Coastie that had been kicked in the nuts by Hannah while they were trying to cuff her, no one had been seriously hurt. Justice? No, it’s Just Us.
Commercial fishermen were quickly becoming an endangered species. Nowhere was that fact more apparent than in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They had become almost as endangered as they fish they were hunting. The codfish stocks had collapsed. The swordfish fewer. And the giant Bluefin tuna, the fish the Whitefin was made to hunt for, was fast becoming more myth than reality. The Giant Bluefin was a victim of multiple factors, all manmade, all foreseeable, all ignored. It was a bad time to start out in the tuna fishing business. Only Pete and Jimmy were too stubborn, too proud, too desperate or too stupid to let that that stop them.
Like all ventures, it started out with a dream. An idea. Something that would free Pete and Jimmy from the paycheck to paycheck existence they had been living for the past year or so, ever since they got laid off from the MIC plant in Lynn. The top executives had figured that machining parts for Peregrine attack helicopter engines recently ordered by the Pentagon could be done a lot more cheaply in Mexico. They promptly shipped the jet turbine division down to a maquiladora in Juarez, while awarding themselves large bonuses for their business acumen. In the meantime, Pete and Jim, along with 250 of their coworkers, were out on the street, a pink slip in one hand, directions to the local unemployment office in the other.
They had known each other since High School, Lynn English, class of 2000, and like their fathers had gone on to work at the plant, the largest employer in town. They had been bright students, but known pranksters. The inflatable doll in bondage gear and strap on sexual aid suddenly appearing out of nowhere in midfield at the homecoming game between Lynn English and Lynn Classical, while never linked to them, had their sick sense of humor labeled all over it.
Despite their antics, they had been encouraged by their teachers to go to college. But college cost money, and for a couple of working class kids from Lynn, no matter how smart they were, going to college was as likely as going to the moon. Now, the two friends were at the bottom of the capitalist food chain. Yeah, the sharp pencil boys always make out like bandits; complete with a golden parachute for the CEO should he have to bail out if the stock price drops. Wall Street can be a cold hearted bastard. The prudent man should be prepared.
Jimmy and Pete didn’t get golden parachutes. Instead, they got an economic golden shower, shown the door by stern faced security guards, themselves aware that in the new global economy, they could be next. To get by they’d taken odd jobs, and being bright, hard working, jack-of-all-trades types, had managed to scrape by with the assortment of skills and tools they had at their disposal. They delivered pizza, installed cable TV and computer networks, debugged PC’s, built bookshelves and remodeled kitchens, basements and bathrooms for folks still wealthy enough to afford it. But it was still a struggle, and some months they earned just enough money to pay the rent, while subsisting on a diet of PB & J sandwiches and Progresso soup. What little they had left went for a few beers on Friday nights at Harry Hope’s Bar and Grill. The idea had been percolating in Jimmy’s brain for some time now, and before the evening was over, he had managed to talk Pete into it, with the aid of more beer than usual, with a few shots of Jose Cuervo thrown in for good measure.
“So, let me get this straight” said Pete. “You have this idea to make us financially solvent and earn a good deal of jack to last a good long while, and we’re gonna do it by tuna fishing?”
“Look man,” replied his friend, “It’s not like we’re gonna go to Mars or perform brain surgery or anything really complicated. I mean, what could be simpler than fishing. You remember all those times my Uncle Dave took us out on his boat, and he was as hardcore a Gloucesterman as they come.”
“Yeah, and I seem to recall he lost most of his left foot when he got too close to a Mako shark he thought was dead. Man, we’re not talkin’ about getting on a tourist boat with a bunch of geeks from Boston, jigging for mackerel off Stellwagon Bank. That’s a dangerous goddamn job! If you’re really serious about this, you need to have a plan. You got that? I mean financing, capital investment, charts, navigation equipment, safety equipment, a fisheries license, just for starters. And that’s not even considering the fact that you don’t even have a goddamn boat.”
“You know, dude” countered Jim, “ I was reading in the paper the other day there was a crew last summer on a stick boat, you know, a harpoon boat…”
“I know what a stick boat is…” interrupted Pete, his attention wandering to the slender figure of Melissa, the barkeep who kept the two supplied with alcohol.
“Yeah, sure, right. But listen. This boat, the Spartina out of Seabrook. It had 3 guys on board and they caught a bigass fish, a Giant Bluefin Tuna. I mean big, 850 pounds, and they sold that thing at auction at the Tokyo fish market a day later…”
“How the hell did they get it to Tokyo a day later?”
“They packed the goddamn thing in a box the size of a piano case, stuffed it with ice and sent it next day shipping via air to Tokyo. You may have heard of this invention they got nowadays called jet airliners…”
“Don’t be a dick” Pete said, taking another pull off his Rolling Rock.
“Stop looking at Melissa and shut your pie hole! Listen to me for one goddamn minute!” said Jimmy. “The fish dealer trucks it to Logan in time to catch the next flight to Tokyo. It arrives in the fish market 24 hours after it was landed on the boat. That day in particular they had very few fish come in, and the next thing you know, this fish is sold to the highest bidder for $74,000.”
“What did you say?” said Pete, his attention suddenly redirected from Melissa by the mention of such a large sum of money.
“74 grand. As in a seven followed by a four followed by a comma and three zeroes. Then a decimal point.”
“74 large, huh?” commented Pete thoughtfully. “That’s a lot of jack.”
“Split 3 ways,” added Jim, “The take for each guy was a little under 17 grand, after expenses, such as diesel fuel, bait, insurance…you know, all the usual stuff. And that was just one fish. That boat caught three additional fish last summer. Anyway you look at it, those guys had a pretty good season. Matter of fact, I heard a story of one fish being auctioned on consignment in Tokyo a couple of years back for over $172,000. One fish. Can you imagine that?”
“You’re making this shit up, aren’t you. No fish is ever gonna go for that much money.”
“Here’s the article, brother,” said Jimmy, pulling a folded piece of paper out of his shirt pocket. “I printed it off the English language website of Asahi Shimbun. There it is, man. Look at the size of that fish.”
Pete took the printout and unfolded it, and as Jim had said, it was all there. Yes, the fish story was true. It had been sold for such a large amount of money. The picture accompanying the article showed a magnificent looking animal, steel blue and shaped like a torpedo, a perfect underwater speed machine, all 940 pounds of it. 940 pounds. Now, that was a big fish. And it had been caught just 60 miles from where they were sitting right now, at a place called “The Cat’s Paw” off the coast of Newburyport.
“Well, that’s all well and good,” said Pete, after a few moments reflection. “But that still gets back to the essential problem of investment capital. Or should I say, lack of. Where you gonna get your hands on that kind of cash?”
“Look, I have a plan, OK. Just trust me on this. We can do this thing. You let me handle the finances, and you take care of the rest. I know the basics, but you know about electronics, and diesel engines, and all that other stuff. We can do this thing. But it has to be the both of us.”
So it was in Harry Hope’s Bar and Grill that Pete and Jim decided to go into the commercial fishing business. That was in late January, and they needed to act quickly. Working capital had to be raised, a suitable boat found, equipment acquired, knowledge gained. Pete started looking for used boats, evaluating their seaworthiness, all the technical wonkish stuff he could really get into. Jim was responsible for financing the operation, devising a more imaginative approach to financing this particular venture.
Using a copy of his old MIC plant ID, he was able to bluff his way past the joke of a security detail that guarded what was left of the MIC plant in Lynn. Scouting out the executive offices, he found the general manager’s office not only open, but empty. Jim had gained intelligence from a source within the plant that the general manager was having an ‘staff meeting’ with one of his more junior employees, and also knew that it was right around that time of day that he and his colleague would be in the throes of passion, mounted on the large oak table in the executive conference room.
As expected, Jim found the general manager’s expensive leather briefcase by his desk and left the plant undetected, carefully avoiding or shielding his face from the multiple security cameras arrayed about the plant to protect our nation’s secrets from theft. The plant manager had conveniently left his wallet and PDA in the briefcase, along with his cell phone and company ID. Within the hour, after altering the various picture ID’s with his own photo, Jimmy donned a nice looking suit he had purchased at the Salvation Army for 20 bucks, and managed to talk his way into office of the vice president for loans at the First National Bank of Massachusetts. Within 30 minutes, he had managed to wrangle a cashier’s check for a personal loan in the sum of $35,000 from the accommodating Vice President for Loans. The check was subsequently laundered with the help of an Italian acquaintance of Jimmy’s who had rather strong “family” connections. A certain favor was owed to Jimmy by this individual, and a favor owed is as good as money in the bank.
The way Jimmy Hollis saw it, the rat bastard of a general manager deserved it, especially after he had received more than twice that amount as a year end bonus for all the cost savings he had accomplished at the plant, namely by having Jim and Pete laid off, along with all those other folks. To Jimmy’s way of thinking, karma has a way of coming back and biting a person in the ass when they least expect it.
And so it came to pass that working capital was raised, and a suitable boat was found. It was an older boat, a 30 foot Crosby Canyon. The engines were beat, the electronics outdated. It had been put in storage on land for the better part of two years, in need of a buyer. A price was negotiated, papers were signed, money exchanged, documents filed, and the boat, renamed Whitefin, was theirs.
In addition to their day jobs, they spent every evening and weekend getting the vessel ready for the rigors of a workboat. Among other things, the stuffing boxes had rotted out and both diesel engines required complete overhauls. But over the months, the work was completed and the boat, their boat, was ready.
That was back in early June. Now it was the first week of September, and they had succeeded in catching not so much as a cold. With the end of the fishing season approaching fast and absolutely nothing to show for their labors, Pete and Jimmy were men on the verge of madness. Rough weather, engine breakdowns, foul smelling bait and just plain bad luck had pushed them to the limit. They figured they had just enough fuel to make one more day on the water. After that, no more cash. No more credit. No more fish. As if they even had a chance in the first place.
This last day they had anchored off “The Curl,” a spot on a chart 40 miles out, with a steep drop off below where the bait fish would congregate at high tide. The first tide had come and gone at 6 am, and they were waiting for the next tide to come so they could finally stop this madness once and for all, call it quits, and go home.
It was late afternoon that Jimmy, at the helm watching the depth finder, noted some large blobs on the view screen, each blob representing some sort of marine life. They had been plagued by seals earlier that day, eating the chum, the baitfish that Pete had been cutting up like an automaton and dumping overboard in an effort to bring the fish to their 300 pound test monofilament lines, hanging adrift in the water, suspended 30 feet below the surface from black plastic trash bags filled with air.
They were too poor to afford proper rods and reels, equipment that costs thousands of dollars. Instead, they were using 2 handlines, 200 feet of 1 inch manila rope spliced to monofilament, each handline carefully stored in a large milk crate and attached with a 1 foot diameter orange ball, a kind of inflatable buoy.
Pete, sitting on the stern rail said “Hey Jimmy, it’s your turn to cut up this shit. I’ll take the helm for a while.”
“I got something spotted on the depth finder,” replied Jimmy. “Dump out some more chum.”
“Man, how many times you been sayin’ that this past summer? ‘Keep cutting up the chum, I see some fish on the monitor.’ Screw you! I’m tired of cutting of this foul smelling shit we got for bait. No wonder we ain’t catching any fish. No fish would come near the foul smelling stuff we’re using. Besides, it’s probably just that same goddamn seal that’s been eatin’ our…”
Pete was about to continue in his tirade when a sudden explosion of water occurred about 20 feet astern of the Whitefin, with the sudden disappearance of the starboard black trash bag, followed instantly by noise of starboard handline zipping out of its milk crate. Only one fish hits a line like that, a Giant Bluefin Tuna. And the fish was already running away, the 2 inch hook mouse-trapped into the mackerel bait deeply set in his jaw.
“Jesus Christ!” yelled Pete. “FISH ON!”
“Shit, Shit, goddamn….SHIT! Get on that line! I’ll get the other hand line in!” yelled Jimmy. What followed was Chinese fire drill of an affair, as Pete grabbed a pair of heavy leather gloves and tried to take control of the handline running off faster than he could have imagined. Jimmy, stumbling on the step down from the helm, fell and smashed his knee on the deck, cutting open a large gash which proceeded to bleed profusely. Jimmy didn’t notice the wound. All he wanted to do was get the port handline in, drop off the anchor with the quick release, fire up the engines and chase this fish that by providence, by God’s grace, by karma, the Whitefin had somehow hooked into.
“Don’t hold onto the line!” yelled Jimmy, ripping off his T shirt to use as a makeshift bandage around his leg. “That bastard will take you over with him, Pete.” Jimmy fired up both diesel engines, and engaging both screws, started to turn for the fish, to catch up to the animal. Pete, on the handline, yelled “Man, this one is big! He’s got almost all the line out! Get this boat moving you son of a bitch!”
What followed was an exchange of language so profane and vulgar that it shall not be repeated in these pages. They were sailors, and they lived up to their reputation in that regard. Pete stayed on the handline, pulling and letting go, letting the animal run itself out. Jimmy pursued it, maneuvering the Whitefin to force the animal to exhaust itself, literally to the point of death. Time passed, minutes, then an hour, and finally, at the end of one hour and 25 minutes, Pete had managed to bring in all but the last 25 feet of line. That’s when they saw it surface, a perfect creature, a Giant Bluefin Tuna, a big one. What little life it had left in it was ebbing fast, and grabbing the monofilament line, Pete hauled in like a madman while Jimmy jammed the craft in neutral, grabbing the harpoon and jumping to the transom. The fish was brought alongside the boat, and Jimmy rammed the harpoon home, the barb striking firmly into the flesh of the animal just behind the head.