By Phineas J. Stone
There’s a whole world of wonder to the East, but huge swaths of Bostonians hardly know it exists.
That place is the Atlantic Ocean, and it goes unnoticed by many of us living in the peaceful, tree-lined neighborhoods of the city.
The real old timers in Boston made the ocean a key part of their lives and can recall swimming in the beaches, bays and rivers that make up the vast waterways in our city. More of them will tell you about fishing off the Alford Street Bridge in Charlestown (a huge destination for flounder), or heading over from the South End or Fenway or Mission Hill to Castle Island about this time of year to see if one could land a monster “Striper” (that’s a Striped Bass for the uninitiated). This time of year, when the Fall starts to come, always reminds me of such trips with my father and my uncle, as the Stripers run at this time of year – migrating back down the coast from their summer home up in the Gulf of Maine. Some would try to pull in a Striper earlier in the year, but now is the time to get the real fat ones.
My father would always take a paint roller from his collection of “summer project” tools. Every old timer, as I digress, had a healthy collection of paint brushes and rollers. That was because those who didn’t have a brick house would paint one side of the house every year. That way, about every four years one side got a fresh coat. Some years he painted the side of the house; some years the front – and that’s how you saved money and kept the house looking fresh without killing yourself and trying to do it in one fell swoop.
The guys who had a brick house re-pointed a portion of the mortar every year, and everyone felt bad for them because that was hard, nasty work. There was none of the fun of painting – rolling on and brushing up.
In any case, each year one paint roller was going to be sacrificed every September to create a “gaff” to haul in any Stripers we might get while fishing from the shore. Fishing from the shore or a pier is a difficult – but high percentage – fishing. The pier at Castle Island – absent the tourists and the mobs – is one of the best places to get a good one. Before we left, my father would take the paint roller, cut off the roller part and use a grinder to whittle down the metal to a sharp point. Then you’d attach that deadly paint roller to an painter’s extension pole, grab the fishing rod and go. The sharpened gaff was used for pier fishing and shore fishing. The drill was that when you caught one and brought it close to shore, you’d extend the pole all the way down and stab the fish in order to slow it down and get it on shore.
Fish are good at getting away though.
Therefore, it was the job of the kids like myself to be useful – hanging out on the rocks below and helping to bring in a flailing, impaled fish. I can still remember bear hugging a smelly Striper in the cold, early October waters of the stinky Boston Harbor – hauling it in to the rocks on shore.
All of that is very difficult work, and eventually fortune smiled on our fishing expeditions when my uncle and dad decided to get a modest work boat. Boats are great fun, and certainly there aren’t enough regular folks putting boats out on the Harbor these days. The problem with a boat is that this time of year, you have to take it out of the water for the winter. Once you hit on some Stripers, or at least tried valiantly several times, it was time to buck up and do the dirty work of loading up the boat and prepping it for storage. Even a little boat like ours was a hassle.
The boat we had came to a sudden end during the “take out” one year. We never had one again.
The trick for a regular guy to get a boat out is to wait until just the right time at high tide to pull the trailer out on to a rocky beach, float the thing in place with the favorable tide, strap it on and go. That’s a perfect world though, and nothing about a boat is perfect.
On that fateful day, my uncle was driving the boat in and my dad and I had trailer duty. The tide was perfect, but my uncle was sentimental about the end of summer and tried to squeeze in a few rips around the Harbor to celebrate the end of the season. My father grew impatient, but there were no cell phones to call on and scream for my uncle to get to the business at hand. We flashed the headlights impatiently, but he just kept going. That’s when the motor stalled out.
Time was wasting and nearly 45 minutes went by before my uncle had it running again. My dad was furious, screaming curse words I had rarely heard him utter across the endless pool of water, which was now receding quickly to low tide.
My uncle roared up towards the shore and screamed up to us from about 200 yards away that he was still going to give it a shot. He wanted us to back out further into the surf; said it was still high enough. As he circled back around, he smacked a large, vertical rock. The boat was destroyed almost instantly – with a hole the size of basketball smashed through the fiberglass hull.
It’s a tough thing at the age of 14 to be the only thing – aside from 200 yards of water – standing between your father and his brother, whom he wanted to kill. His fury burned, and my uncle stood on the bow of the boat watching helplessly as the water rushed in. There might have been serious violence had my dad possessed a gun or crossbow at that moment. But instead he took it out on me, screaming in all directions. He demanded my uncle get back on shore and they were going to have it out.
My uncle wasn’t going to do anything of the sort.
“The captain always goes down with the ship,” he yelled back, as the boat disappeared into about seven feet of quickly receding tidal waters.
The boat sank; it was all over.
Then my uncle started to swim away, heading towards what is now Marina Bay in Quincy, looking to avoid my dad at all costs.
I’m pretty sure he made it there, but I didn’t see him for a few years.