Melody With Fish
by Steve Heilig, January 4, 2017
Fishing was a big part of my father's life, from his childhood in Minnesota onward, and he made it part of mine too. By the time I was born we lived right on the beach in Southern California and my earliest memories are of him surf-casting for fresh dinner, beer or cocktail in hand. He usually caught something tasty. We took some family road trips just south of the border in Baja for bigger prey but for the couple decades after that, he went big: Deep sea sailfish hunting in the sea of Cortez or even further south off mainland Mexico. He even hauled in a record Marlin, almost 600 pounds - that took four hours of battle, others pouring cold water on his sweating head and shoulders while he pulled and cranked at the heavy-duty gear and line.
Usually the fish were smaller than that but still formidable - a couple hundred pounds, six or eight feet long, magnificent beasts.
This was the full Hemingway: A few middle-aged pals flying south in one of their 4-seater planes, searching out a dirt runway near a coastal village, finding a local boat and skipper who knew the sea intimately, and drinking through a few days of semi-macho male bonding. And if there was an empty seat on the Cessna, I, a lowly student at least a quarter-century younger than the rest, got to tag along, all expenses paid.
One time we went deluxe and flew to a small private fishing resort near the southern tip of Baja owned by Chuck Conners, a former Los Angeles Dodger and television star ("The Rifleman"). Bob the pilot, one of my Dad's oldest pals, buzzed the runway to ensure there were no lethal stray donkeys or other beasts hanging there, we landed, a jeep came out to shuttle us in, and we checked in to funky cabins. As usual, the bar was the next stop, and after a couple Negro Modelo beers I took a stroll before dark to check out the beach and boats.
The former was rocky and steep and the latter - a half-dozen small craft - looked very well-maintained ( this was not always the case on these trips - I once knocked a hole in a rotting cabin wall when lurching to steady myself at sea). The sea looked calm, with only small waves breaking and hissing on the grapefruit-sized stones.
Waking time was 4 AM so we turned in soon after the fine dinner of fish enchiladas. When the alarm woke us we had 30 minutes to get dressed, have coffee, and show up at the boat. There was the skipper and deckhand and the four of us, and after quick garbled introductions we were off. The trip out was over an hour at high speed, with the sun rising straight ahead and a steady him of the engine and rolling slap of the swell. I took the smallest dose of anti-seasickness melds I could to avoid too much drowsiness and sometimes it worked, but sometimes not.
This morning the motion was kind enough and soon we slowed and the deckhand was hooking frozen flying fish, about a foot long, onto four big hooks. Two rods stuck out on either side of the boat and two straight back from the rear corners of the stern; they called this the "enchilada." Each of us had a designated line to watch. The bait fish bounced along the surface, mimicking the motion of live fish. Up top, the skipper concentrated behind his shades. The boat had some sonar for tracking schools of fish but everybody knew our real "luck" lay in the skills and intuition of the guy up top.
We trolled for some time as the sun rose and the air warmed. Nothing. A couple large frigate birds drifted way up high. I popped a ginger ale too calm my stomach. Pop went below deck and emerged with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, Imported with us to avoid steep taxes. Soon we were all sitting and drifting towards sleep from the hum and the motion.
I was jarred awake by a sudden acceleration of the engine. Checking the tackle, I saw no bent rods or singing lines, so I stood unsteadily and looked forward. After just a minute or so, a strange boil on the surface, many yards in diameter, became visible. The deckhand motioned us to our stations, smiling broadly. I got into my plastic swivel seat, suddenly nervous, but looking forward could not discern what the skipper was chasing until we were just a few dozen yards away, but then I spotted them - hundreds of dolphins, leaping in unison, speeding along as if in formation.
Holy shit, I thought, this is awful, are we going to hook and torment these beautiful intelligent creatures? They aren't even really edible.
But before I could protest, we were into their moving field, and wham, all four lines snapped off their clips and the lines were whistling out at full bore. Pandemonium. We were all scrambling - usually only one big fish hit at a time - and the deckhand was shouting and motioning all of us to click our reels tight and set the hooks into the creature's mouths, and with a pang of confusion I did what I was told and trained to do.
WHAM went the thick rods, bending double, and half a football field out the surface exploded not with dolphins but with shorter, rounder, muscular fish - tuna. As we soon learned, tuna were instinctually smart enough to travel under the truly smart schooling dolphins, who in groups were so fast and shrewd that even big sharks didn't want to be harassed by them. So there was a mass of extremely tasty fish just under the surface, not smart enough to resist the frozen bait.
Before long we had four tuna the size and shape of large footballs onboard; these were tough fish but you could usually reel them in within about 15 minutes or so. The deckhand re-baited the hooks while the skipper made a wide turn, following the frolicking dolphins and then charging right through them again. Zing went all four lines and we were into it again. We did this at least three times, maybe four, and thus had at least a dozen thirty-pounders onboard. Our deckhand was very pleased; not only were these some of the best eating from the sea, but there was far more than we could consume or send home, and his family and friends would eat well too. As for me, my arms were starting to feel like rubber from all the pulling on the rod, and I was thus OK when the skipper stepped down onto the deck and asked if we'd had enough. He also pointed out to sea, and we looked a saw it was very dark to the south. I also then noticed the boat was rolling harder than before, and saw some large swells moving towards and under us. "Listos?" asked the skipper, and yes we were ready; he looked serious and nobody argued that it was time to go.
The ride back in took at least two hours. The swells were building, coming in behind us even as we moved at a fairly fast pace, engine loud with RPMS. The motion got to me, the anti-seasickness patch was wearing off, and the pre-packed sandwich I'd eaten at dawn, never quite settled into my guts, came back up and over the side.
Some trailing seagulls dived to retrieve it. My dad had vanished below deck and the others, even the deckhand, were looking a bit green. I was just miserable and watched the horizon the best I could, but there was little of it to be seen between the big swells. In fact they were starting to look huge, towering over us. It got darker too, as low clouds moved in from behind us, faster than any boat.
Then I felt drops; rain, and wind picking up. I guessed you'd call this a real storm. Captain Bob, an old sailer with not only his own plane but a boat, looked like a zombie in his fishing seat, staring at nothing.
After forever we came close enough to see land, not half a football field away. The low buildings and dock of the resort sat there, but they vanished and reappeared, behind massive swells. The beach might have well been miles off. Skipper cut the engine low and we sat there, lolling in the swell. I felt nauseous and unstable but after what seemed like forever, as the waves built bigger, made up my mind that I couldn't take any more. Extended seasickness is about as bad as it gets.
"I'm swimming in," I announced to everybody and nobody, taking off my sweat and rain-soaked t-shirt. They just looked at me blankly; none of them were young or in shape or crazy enough to consider this. I was a runner and cyclist and surfer and in fact grew up bodysurfing the notorious Wedge, one of the most infamous spots there was. But I had no swim fins as were always used there; I just kicked off my flip-flops, said "It's been great" with fake bravado, and vaulted over the side towards the beach. A splash, at least not very cold, and I was swimming hard towards shore. I figured I might be able to sprint in between waves, or if not, catch one, bail early under the wave before it broke all the way, and wash up, beat but alive. And that's what happened; not thirty feet from shore, where the big waves detonated on the steep beach, I waited for a couple of walled-up shapeless monster waves to pass, took a deep breath, swallowed both bile and fear, then stroked into the next one, shooting straight down the face two stories to the bottom, plunging under, hoping I hadn't misjudged how deep it was, pulling a kind of turtle-like flip underwater, surfacing just yards from shore as the surge pushed me up, swimming like hell for about five strokes, feeling bottom as it started to suck back out, lunging forward, landing on the big pebbles and pulling myself up like a crawling rat. Up on the rocks, safe from the sea, I laid down in the rain, panting, almost gasping, almost laughing; stoked, even.
After a few minutes I slowly stood up and saw the boat still sitting outside, and waved to those onboard yelling "Made it!". I doubted they heard me in the roar of the surf but hoped they at least saw me.
I picked my way up the rocks to softer sand and dirt and walked over to the buildings, went to the small office and told the sleepy staffer there what had happened. The skipper had already been in radio contact with shore and they knew we were close in at least, but he looked at me in disbelief when told I had swum in. I didn't care, asked for another room key, and went for a shower and some clothes. I thought I might nap too, but as the others were still stranded out there, figured it was better to go to where there might be some news.
And, to be honest, food and drink too - we hadn't eaten since dawn, and again, hadn't kept that down as well.
Back at the office, nobody was around. I walked over to the canteen and bar. An official-looking fellow there confirmed yes, the boat was still out there, and would have to wait, maybe all day and overnight, as the waves were just too big. He made it seem like this was not unusual or dangerous, and I believed him, so I went through the doors to the bar. It was empty other than a bartender reading newspapers.
Ranchera music played quietly. I sat at the bar and he snapped to attention, coming over with a smile. I ordered a beer and some chips and quacamole, which he efficiently produced, and I borrowed some of his papers to practice reading some Spanish. Mine was not so good, but I could converse a bit.
A few other guests started to drift in, and there was conversation in both English and Spanish about the storm and the boats stranded out there. I got another beer and wondered if it would be bad form to go to our room and nap, but before I could decide, the door opened and conversation suddenly dulled noticeably. A truly gorgeous Mexican girl, maybe about my age, dressed like a high-fashion cowgirl, short skirt, long legs, boots and all, took a couple steps into the room, looked around, spotted me - the youngest there by quite some years - and strolled over. She gestured quizzically to the stool next to me and I nodded, mute. The bartender came over and she ordered a Coke.
"Habla Español?" she asked me, with a smile that melted pretty much everything in me.
"Uhh...Poco, pero entiendes mas," I stammered, exaggerating.
She giggled and said "That's OK, we can talk," and we were off. Her name was Melody and she was a college student. She'd never been out of Mexico yet but planned to travel widely later. She knew more about American politics and world geography and history, let along the Mexican versions, than any of my friends back home. She thought our President Reagan was a senile cowboy actor (I flinched a bit when she said this, not that I disagreed but because he was a personal pal of our host Chuck Conners). She had long dark curly hair and big dark eyes and a white men's shirt unbuttoned enough to show smooth brown skin set off by a shiny necklace. Her sparkling earrings reminded me of a corny song by The Eagles.
I'd had a prolonged painful breakup with my first true love, was dumped by my rebound attempt after just a few months, and since then was gun-shy and had basically been a fumbling loner. A half-hour into fractured conversing with Melody, and I was fantasizing about getting her a Green Card so she could come back to UCLA to stay with me, learn more English, enroll in college there, tour all the California coastal secret spots I'd learned in my young lifetime, and live in cross-cultural connubial bliss. She was very impressed by my story of swimming ashore; the way her eyes grew even huger and brighter as I told her of my swim would vaporize a tank.
The door opened again, and in walked Pop and and his old pals. They'd made it! They didn't look so hearty, but they were standing and already shrugging it off. We all laughed and slapped hands and they ordered their scotches and beers. I introduced them to Melody, who just smiled demurely and shook all their hands. They told me our fish was being cleaned and destined the grill nearby; Some of it would be packed in ice for the flight home and the rest went to the resort and the locals. I told them of riding a wave in and all were duly impressed. My dad ordered more chips and salsa and introduced me to another guest who was the Governor of Baja south. They all retired to a table in the corner; Nice of them, I thought; my dad's such a cool guy under all his scary gruff exterior.
Another hour passed with me ordering a couple more beers and Melody more Cokes. She told me of her very possessive parents and how nice it was to get away from them, but that was not easy. She'd had a boyfriend but he was not good enough for them, and so, goodbye. She asked me about my childhood and family and fishing and friends and romance and movies and books. I told her I'd read Marquez and Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz and her eyes got big again and I felt the side of her knee rest up against mine. My god, I thought, a girl this beautiful and so smart, turned on by literature and politics and -
My dad was standing on the other side of me at the bar, ordering more drinks. Having been so engrossed with Melody, I was a bit startled, but turned and smiled at him. He nodded back.
"So, lad," he said. "You know I pay for everything for us here, right?" This was more startling, as this was always assumed, and never mentioned. "Er, yes," I muttered, not wanting Melody to overhear this part. "Of course...."
"Right", he continued. "But if the hooker shows up on the bill, that's all yours." I stared at him blankly, and he shot me a look like Don't be an idiot, son. He scooped up his drinks and walked back to the table.
I sat there, staring at my beer for a moment. I felt my face heat up. But she really liked me, I thought. Melody was quiet next to me. I took a pull from my beer and looked at her. She too was staring down at the bar but looked up to meet my gaze. Her eyes were still beauteous but now different; guarded, distant. Pained? Mocking? I couldn't tell.
I sighed, looked down again, and mumbled "Yo soy estupidio."
A moment of silence, and she quietly replied "No, not at all."
Another pause, and I said "Well, no tengo dinero."
This WAS stupid; she stiffened, looked away, stood, and walked away. "Lo siento" I said after her, but if she heard me, she ignored it.
The bartender stepped over. I figured I saw pity in his gaze.
"Another?" He asked. "Yeah. Scotch, please, a double." I took it and walked over to Pop's table, sheepishly. Nobody said much; it had been a long day. But after a bit a bell rang out nearby; dinner time. I realized I was very very hungry.
Before long I would be over my embarrassment. I would mostly feel sorry for Melody. And later still, I would even feel bad for the fish, and stop fishing. But that tuna was the best I've ever tasted.