Sea of Cortez Memoirs: A Mexican Romance

It was time to go home, and so my dad backed the Cadillac with the boat trailer down the launching ramp, and mom and I guided the boat up onto the trailer. My dad winched the boat fully on, then went to the car to pull it out. The Cadillac’s engine made its characteristic growling sound, and the tires scrunched on the wet concrete, and the boat came slowly out of the water. Halfway up the ramp there was a loud bang from the Cadillac, and my dad threw on the breaks.

I don’t remember what it was on the Cadillac that broke, but it was broke. My dad, the inventor and adventurer, was also a master mechanic.  He knew instantly what was wrong. The boat went back into the water and the Cadillac went to a garage. Some expensive part was needed, and there was none available. It had to be shipped down from the US.

By this time Dad was once again the boss of his own company, and we were doing well financially, so this wasn’t a big deal. It was merely a reprieve to the end of the vacation. A few days more, no problem.

Well, the part got lost in the mail somewhere between the US and Mexico, and it took something like two weeks before we got it. In the meantime we stayed at a nice little seaside hotel, and I went out hunting lizards. At night we’d have dinner in the same restaurant, and I kept seeing this most beautiful girl. She looked about my age, had long blond hair and big, bright eyes, and was sitting at a table with her mom and dad. We kept stealing glances at each other, but I didn’t have the nerve to go talk to her despite my father pushing me to do so.

During the days I would go catch lizards. I caught whiptails and geckos and those funny Zebratails, and not having a terrarium handy I kept them in one of the dresser drawers in the hotel room. Not being climbers, the whiptails and Zebratails generally stayed in the drawer, but the geckos were gone within minutes. By now my mom was used to this and hardly paid attention to lizards crawling on the walls. She’d be reading a book, glance up, and say “Jerry, one of your lizards is loose.” Then she’d go on reading her book.

All hell broke loose when one of the poor maids opened the drawer. I don’t think we had much maid service after that.

At night we would have dinner at the same restaurant, I would see the same beautiful girl. My dad kept saying, “Go talk to her. Go talk to her!” I just couldn’t do it. Just the thought of it would cause my face to flush deep red and my vocal chords to lock up. I was too damn shy. Three nights in a row we saw her there, and I still couldn’t bring myself to talk to her. She wasn’t coming to me, either, but it was obvious we were looking at each other.

The next morning I was out walking toward the beach and there she was, cute as could be in a little pink bikini, walking alone by the surf. I don’t know if she saw me first or what, but I followed her at a distance until she suddenly jumped and started screaming. I ran over to see what was the matter, and at her feet was a tiny, harmless sand crab. “Hey,” I told her, “it’s okay, they don’t hurt.” I picked up the little creature and let it scuttle across my hands. Oddly enough, she was no longer frightened. It was only a few minutes before I had it crawling over her delicate hands, and she was laughing about it.

She handed it back to me, then turned and walked away. I remember staring after her, not knowing what to do, but then something just kicked in and I went trotting after her. “Oh no,” I told her, “you’re not getting away from me that easily.” I introduced myself and learned her name was Linda, and we went walking up and down that beach just talking, getting to know each other, and then I took her to the hotel room and introduced her to my mom. My mom seemed genuinely pleased to meet her, and then Linda and I went over to her hotel room where she introduced me to her grinning mom.

We were constant companions for the next week or so, and she even thought my collection of lizards was cool. Actually I had lost interest in the lizards, and her and I ended up letting them go. I don’t know if it was because we were the only two English speaking kids of the same age, or if we were truly compatible, but we got along great and we were instant best friends. It was funny, too, because the hotel manager had a pretty daughter my age and he had her all dressed up in her Sunday best, and was introducing her to me every day, and I barely even looked at her.

One day a red tide came in so we couldn’t go swimming, so my dad said he’d take the two of us out on the boat. We were going to head out to a nice beach he’d discovered, but when we got to the mouth of the bay we were shocked to see the swells were three times as high as the boat. We quickly turned around and went back, but it was too late; Linda got seasick. A couple of days later she had to leave.

I remember being very sad that she was going, and she was crying about it. She hugged me and kissed me and everything. We traded addresses, and her parents packed her up in their station wagon and they drove off. I moped around the rest of the day, but by the next day I was out catching as many lizards as I could, knowing we’d be leaving soon too. The auto part had come in and the Cadillac was almost fixed. I had to make sure to have plenty of these exotic lizards to show my other lizard hunting friends back home.

We packed up and left. We towed the boat back up to California, and I was able to smuggle the lizards across the boarder. At home I took the lizards to school, which my teacher actually encouraged. My friends were all impressed but no one believed the stories I told about whirlpools, upwellings, and giant fish.

I wasn’t home a week before I got my first letter from Linda. Poor sweet girl, she wrote me letter after letter, and I was glad to get each one. But back then I wasn’t much of a writer, and despite my mother’s insistence I never wrote her back. I have no idea why. Finally the letters stopped coming, and after a few years I threw them away.

Sad, isn’t it?  I should have answered those letters.  She probably turned out to be a fashion model or a brain surgeon.  Even now, my friends tell me I really blew it.

Sea of Cortez Memoirs: Grouper in the Bay

While my parents were recovering from their ordeal, I decided to go snorkeling around the docks. There were these really weird diamond-shaped fish, called “triggerfish,” that had a crowded tiny mouthful of human-looking white teeth, and I was diving down under the docks to watch them eat clams and mussels. Their teeth were so strong they were able to chip away at the muscle shells bit by bit until there was a hole big enough to get the meat out of it. Some of the triggerfish were large and brightly colored, and none seemed particularly frightened of me. I didn’t get too close, though, because judging by how easily those teeth bit through solid shells, I could imagine what they could do to me.

I swam along under the docks, checking out triggerfish and the various other finned creatures hanging around in the shadows, and then down at the far end, out toward the deeper water, there was this funny looking boulder. I’d been out there before and didn’t remember it being there. It was deep in the shadow of the dock, hard to see with the bright sunlight shining all around, and I was right up next to it before I realized it was not sitting on the bottom. It had fins. Then I saw an eye, which was gold and black and about the size of my hand, and the whole thing moved slowly forward and a mouth opened. My whole head could have fit inside that mouth.

I swear to God, I shot straight up out of that water and onto the dock, all in one fluid torpedo-like motion. Just a big splash, and I was standing on the dock, looking down. It was still there, but moving out of the shadow. I looked around and saw some local kids I’d befriended, and I started shouting, “Look at this big fish! Look at this big fish!” They didn’t understand any English but they understood I was freaking out about something, and they ran down the dock and peered into the water. One was a little girl, and she screamed. The two boys grew as excited as I was. The older one ran off to get someone. I stood there with the little boy and girl and watched as the massive fish slowly cruised away from the dock, having decided that it was no longer a good place for a nap.

Later I was told that it was a fish called a grouper and that it was really rare for one that big to have been up in shallow water like that. The speculation was that it was somehow driven into the bay by the storm. Another person said it was probably sick, and came up for the warmer water. Whatever the reason, it was one of the most intense animal encounters of my life.

And now, a break from the long ass posts…

Text message I received from my older daughter this morning: 

“Fwd: Msg: I’m at a restaurant at the southern tip of Africa looking at a beautiful view. We were right next to a cloud part of the drive 🙂 love you all!”

How cool is that?  Meanwhile I googled to see if I could find where she’s at, and I’m guessing it’s here.


Dad’s Daughter Surveilance Spy Satelite Network

Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to move.  On Friday I hand my 30 day notice to my apartment office, and by July 1st I’ll be on my way up to be with Lady Savina.  For good.  No more long distance relationship!  Hurrah!

Sorry I’ve been so long winded lately.  I only have two more coming up from my childhood adventures in Mexico, and then I’ll stop.

NEWSFLASH UPDATE:  My podcast partner in crime, Melanie, brought this to my attention:

Our podcast “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” has made it to #8 on a list at iTunes.  So, fire up those iPods and give us a download.  It’s free.  And we talk about writing and stuff.  Yeah. 

DOUBLE EXTRA NEWSFLASH UPDATE:  My daughter just send me a picture from Africa!

…um, so much for it not being a long ass post.

Sea of Cortez Memoirs: Midnight Chubasco


We made it back to port from our aborted treasure hunt and filled up with gas, and since we had a few spare days left on the vacation, my parents decided to go out and explore some of the nearby sea coast. It was only a few hours before sunset when we came across a beautiful cove and anchored off shore. This was an area of dramatic ocean bluffs, but beyond some jagged rocks there was a secluded sand beach that was lush and picturesque. We had to go ashore in my little boat because of the rocks, and we didn’t spend a lot of time there. I can picture it all in my mind, illuminated by the “beauty light” of oncoming sunset. Soon it was time to go back to the TI-KA II for dinner. After dinner I spent some time fishing, and caught some strange rockfish which we let go, then it was bedtime and soon the lights were out and I went to sleep.

In the middle of the night a storm came up, and the swells reached lord-knows-how-big (the way my father tells it, there were 40-foot whitecaps).The size of the swells pulled the anchors right off the bottom and sent the TI-KA II adrift toward the rocks, which would have smashed the boat to pieces and quickly killed us all. My dad started the engines and backed the boat away from the rocks while my mom pulled up the stern anchor, but with the waves and the turning of the boat, the anchor line got caught in the propeller. The engine went dead. The boat was dead, adrift, and heading for disaster.

So with a steak knife clenched in his teeth, my father dove overboard in the dark, in a storm, and swam under the boat and cut the anchor line away from the propeller. My mom said she watched the rocks get closer and closer, and by the time my dad climbed back onboard she thought it was too late. But he scrambled up to the helm, started the engine and threw it into reverse, backing away as waves broke over the stern and sent water streaming into the boat. When he had a chance he turned the boat into the waves and headed back toward port.

I’d gone to sleep out in the cove, and woke up – disoriented – back at a berth in Guaymas. I was somewhat upset because I was looking forward to more exploring and maybe some lizard hunting. I couldn’t understand why we were back at the dock. My parents thought this was hilarious, and they told me they couldn’t believe what I’d slept through. When they told me this story, I was glad I had slept through it.

 

Sea of Cortez Memoirs: Isle Pato


The trip started with a map. Dad pulled it out and showed it to me, pointing to a tiny pinprick of an island labeled Isla Pato floating to one side of an oblong sea. “This is where it would be,” he told me. “This is the logical place for the pirates to hide their treasure.”

“Cool!” I don’t remember which pirates he’d been talking about, or exactly why Pato Island was the perfect place for them. But I clearly remember the thrill of hearing about pirates.

“What I want to do is go down there with a good metal detector and search around. I bet we come up with some Spanish doubloons!” He looked at me with a smile in his eyes. “How about it? Want to go?”

I was about 11 years old and in the mood for hunting pirate treasure. “Yes!”

“Well guess what,” he said. “We’re going.”

At the time, Dad had a big bronze 1964 Cadillac with 5-inch fins. He’d put a trailer hitch on it and hooked it to our boat trailer, on which sat the TI-KA II, a 25-foot Trojan cabin cruiser, all wood and heavy as a house. It was Dad, Mom, me, and Taffy our long-haired Chihuahua, and an 800 mile drive down to the Sea of Cortez. I couldn’t wait because I knew there would be new and wondrous lizards to catch down there. I didn’t really think we would find any pirate treasure.

The trip down was long and boring. I spent it as I usually did, stretched out in the back seat and trying to sleep, not wearing a safety belt (back in the1970’s it wasn’t yet a law). Instead of staying in hotels, Dad would pull over to the side of the road and we’d climb up an aluminum ladder to eat and sleep in the boat while it sat on its trailer. My most vivid memory of the drive was that during one of these stops I saw my first and only Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris) which was ten inches long with a green body, a blue-green tail, yellow feet, and a yellow and black head. Around it’s neck was a “collar” of black. I couldn’t catch it, though, because it surprised me and was way too fast. It disappeared down a hole in the ground, gone forever.

We had a moment of excitement while we crossed a checkpoint down in Mexico, as the Mexican customs agent decided to search the boat and found Dad’s .22 rifle onboard. I remembered sitting in the car behind my mom, frightened, and kept asking her, “Is he going to arrest us? Is he?” and my mom kept going, “Shhh! Shhhhh!” When my dad and the guy started smiling and joking my mom relaxed. My father had slipped the customs agent $20 and told him he wasn’t about to go anywhere without a gun to protect his family, and the custom agent said he didn’t blame him, and that he would do the same. He let us go, but kept the $20 of course.

We spent some time in Hermosillo, which I remember was hot, flat, and trashy. Then we went on to Guaymas which is a port town, and we launched the boat and Dad rented us a birth at a local dock. This place was cool. I loved it! I jumped in and swam around in the warm salty water, diving with my mask, snorkel, and fins. I would swim under the boat and check out all the fish in the clear water. On the dock there was a Fanta Soda machine that took 20 centavos for a bottle, and we got a 15 centavos refund for the empty bottles. The exchange rate at the time was 7 pesos per dollar, so the sodas cost a few pennies at the most. We stocked up the boat with food and supplies, and one clear, sunny morning left on our adventure. It was one that was going to last a lot longer than my dad anticipated.

Dad had taught me how to handle the boat, and so I was an all around junior swabbie. If I wasn’t piloting, I was riding up on the bow. I was also the one designated to jump off onto a dock, or onto a beach, or into the water if necessary, with the responsibility of “dogging” the boat. That was Dad’s sailor talk for tying it to something so that it wouldn’t float away. So I spent most of the trip on the bow, getting darker and darker with each passing day until I looked like a sun-bleached-blond Mexican native. As Dad followed the shoreline, and I peered down into the clear water and could occasionally see the bottom. Every once in a while a porpoise would show up and swim alongside, giving me a big thrill. They were camera shy, though, because every time my dad pulled out his super-8 movie camera they would disappear. They probably thought it was a gun.

In the evening we would beach the boat, and I would hunt around for lizards but found mostly land crabs. They were odd, silly-looking creatures with oblong eyes, and sometimes very sharp claws. To either side of the boat were miles upon miles of virgin beach and not another soul in sight.

When we entered the straight between Tiburon Island and the mainland it was like going from the ocean to a river. It wasn’t at all that deep, and so I had to keep a sharp lookout so that Dad wouldn’t run the boat aground. Also, the big island made me nervous because my dad had told me stories about the Seri Indians who lived there and how they used to be cannibals. The rumor was, he told me, some of them still were. So as we were traveling along this wide, shallow river, teeming with sea life and the bottom littered with strangely-shaped sand dollars, I would look up to see Seri tribesmen. They wading far out into the water off the island side, fishing with nets and spears, and staring at us with an intensity that frightened me.

IslaPatoAdventure

The truth was, however, that the Seri Indians (they call themselves Konkaak, which means “The People”) were not and never have been cannibals. The rumor of cannibalism was a lie spread long ago by those who wanted to persecute them. I didn’t know any of this then, of course, and they scared me something terrible. Especially when we anchored at night.

At the north opening of the straight we could look out across the expanse of water and see Pato Island, which was nothing but a big white point. The island was so white because, as my dad put it, “It’s covered with bird shit.” But the water beyond the straight was so rough that we got sea sick and had to turn around and head back. It was decided we’d go find a nice sheltered place in the straight and recover, and wait until the seas calmed down before making our run to the island.

Dad chose a secluded stretch of beach and Mom threw the back anchor out, and as the bow slid into the sand I jumped off with the line and ran up the beach. I found a boulder to tie it to and quickly secured it. Dinner was prepared while I explored the beach and the desert beyond. Later, after the lights were out and we had settled in for the evening, I remember staring out the window and seeing nothing. It was absolutely black outside except for the stars. There were no lights on the shore anywhere.

The next morning when we woke up it was obvious something was wrong. The boat was leaning far to one side, and my dad started laughing. The tide had gone out and the boat was nearly all the way out of the water.

It turns out that the tide is extreme between Tiburon Island and the mainland, because an immense amount of water is funneled in between the island and mainland shores, and also because it’s so shallow. So this water will vary up to 25 feet between high and low tide, and as the tide is changing the current is so swift it literally looks like a river flowing. We propped the boat up and then my dad had to dig a hole in the sand under the propeller so that the shaft wouldn’t get bent under the weight of the boat. When the tide was completely out, the boat was six feet away from the water.

There was about 20 minutes when it was safe for me to go out in my little rowboat. At low tide there was no current, and I paddled around with my face nearly in the water checking out all the fish and sea life. After fifteen minutes or so mom and dad started yelling for me to watch out, and I looked up to see two large fins breaking surface. At first I thought they were porpoises, but as they went past (and they were close) I saw they were too thin and both were longer than my little boat. No doubt about it, they were sharks.

My parents decided it was time for me to paddle back to shore.

Land bound, I wandered around through the desert looking for lizards and watching out for snakes. This region had the only known “rattleless” rattlesnakes, who don’t give any warning at all before they strike. I’d read all about them and so was on sharp alert, but I didn’t see any during the whole trip. I did see a lot of very interesting lizards, mostly whiptails (family Cnemidophorus) and some funny little guys with striped tails that curled up and over like scorpions, called Zebratails (Callisaurus draconoides). The Zebratails were exciting to me because I had never seen them before.

There’s another creature that lives down there that I discovered, but it was not a pleasant discovery. As we were waiting for the tide to come back in, I was walking up and down the beach in about a foot or so of water (well out of reach of the sharks) and I stepped on something squishy. Split seconds later I was being electrocuted so bad it was like I’d stuck my toe into a power socket. My whole body vibrated with exquisite pain, and I screamed and yelled and danced around the beach thinking I’d lost my foot. Looking down into the water, I saw a flat thing go swimming away. It turns out I’d stepped on an “electric ray” which was lying buried in the sand. I really believe that, in the second or so I was in contact with the creature, my 11-year-old mind thought I was going to die. I ran screaming and crying to the boat and my parents thought I’d been bitten by a snake or something. No, not a snake. I can handle snakes … this was a little monster. After that encounter I no longer walked in the water without wearing tennis shoes.

When the tide finally came in and we could get the boat off the beach, we went back out a ways and saw that the sea between us and Pato Island was still far rougher than Dad wanted to face, so we headed back in again for another night. This time we anchored far offshore, hoping to avoid being stranded once again come low tide.

Mom and Dad woke me up late the next morning, acting all excited, and told me they’d seen the strangest rabbit on the beach. They told me it was huge, and pink, and went around laying eggs. I looked at them with first alarm, and then complete skepticism. They had to out-and-out tell me it was Easter before I realized what was going on. Easter had been the farthest thing from my mind, and it was definitely the most bizarre one I’d ever had. My parents, planning ahead, had stowed away a bunch of colored plastic eggs, filled them with candy, and gone and hidden them around in the desert next to the beach.

After my Easter egg hunt, we had breakfast and then pulled up anchor. The tide was coming in and my dad wanted to make one more attempt for Pato Island. We were stretching the gas very thin as is was, and so his plan was to ride the fast tide to the island, anchor and explore, then ride the tide back when it changed. So we were heading out there, and the current was indeed pushing us along quickly, and that’s when we saw the first whirlpool.

You’ve never seen a whirlpool until you’ve seen one in the Sea of Cortez. Of course I was only eleven, and to me it looked like it could swallow the boat. At least, it looked like it could swallow my little rowboat. In reality I don’t think it would done anything to even the smallest boat but make the occupants dizzy, but it’s definitely not something I’d want to be swimming around. I could imagine an ancient mariner seeing something like this, then telling family about it, and the family telling friends. After a week the story would go from “scary whirlpool” to some gargantuan maelstrom of water that sucked down entire ships.

That was just one strange side effect of the strong tide. The next one caused us to turn back and forget about Pato Island. As we were heading out of the mouth of the straight, there was this very strange looking wave that didn’t seem to be moving. It was just this steep hill of water, and the closer we got to it the more frightening it was. It was eerie, looking like something caused by a sea monster. My dad nosed up toward it and then shook his head, and turned the boat around.

I don’t think it really scared my father, I think he was nervous about how low our gas reserves were getting. The TI-KA II was not a sailboat, and we were a long ways away from any kind of gas station. We had what was in our tanks and also some 5 gallon cans, and we were approaching the halfway point. My dad had rethought our chances of getting back, took into account he had his wife and young son with him, and decided not to chance it.

I’ve since learned that this phenomenon is called an upwelling, where a strong current underwater hits some feature on the bottom that causes the current to turn upwards. They’re not especially dangerous, just disconcerting, and we could have gone around it. But instead we turned back, and sadly never did make it to Pato Island to treasure hunt. Our adventure, however, was far from over.

 

The Magic Hole


Our first house in Stockton, which was actually one-half of a duplex, was right on the edge of town in an area being developed. Directly across the street was a large empty field, a perfect place for us neighborhood kids to play. With this huge field of dirt, all we needed was a shovel. I provided the shovel, and we took turns digging. We all wanted to see just how big a hole we could make.

The project took weeks. At first we called it “The Hole,” as in, “Let’s meet at The Hole after school.” “Mom, we’re going to go play out at The Hole.” “I did more work on The Hole than you did!”

The Hole became quite large, and then someone came up with the coolest idea. With all the construction going on in the neighborhood there was plenty of wood around (scrap and otherwise) so day by day we were able to start covering The Hole with a roof. As the roof was built, dirt was piled on top of it so that it couldn’t be seen. It was at this point it stopped being The Hole and became “The Fort.”

With The Fort in place amid all the weeds and tall grass, it was the best place on Earth for war games. We armed ourselves with cap guns, squirt guns, plastic battle axes and swords, and the filled that field with wars, insurrections, rebellions and general free-for-all mêlées. The Fort was a nexus for our little armies until summer, when a rival gang of kids (older and meaner) took it from us. Our interest in it waned, as we’d discovered new places to play (a creek with a railroad bridge, God help us) and so we finally gave up on The Fort. We let the bullies have it.

Then I remember the day we spotted a Caterpillar tractor out in that field, lumbering and squeaking through the tall grass. I stood on my front lawn with my friends, watching in fascination as the tractor pulled its plow back and forth across the field, edging closer to The Fort with each pass. Then there was this magic moment when the tractor completely disappeared from our view. From across the field came a terrific Wham!.

Little did we realize that we’d created the perfect tractor trap.

The tractor driver came up out of that hole hopping mad, and we ran. Later someone came door to door, inquiring about whose kids had dug a big hole in the field. My mom kept her mouth shut, no doubt fearing a lawsuit or something. Later it came out that the bullies who’d taken it away from us got blamed, and were in big trouble. Even to this day I still think: That’s what they get for taking it away from us! The jerks.

They had to have a big semi-truck looking rig come out and pull the tractor out of The Hole. We stood on my front lawn watching that, too. Come next summer, they’d started building more houses there and soon the field was a block of brand new triplexes. It didn’t take five years for the whole area to deteriorate into a slum.

Frankly, I liked it better as a field.

 

The Paper Airplane That Wouldn’t Land


A warm spring day in the 4th grade, out on the green grass of recess, we carried our binders out to the baseball diamond and stretched out on the ground to fold and create paper airplanes. Several designs were in our minds, but one seemed to fly the best on a moderately windy day. I made mine, threw it around a while, and the bell rang and we headed back for the classroom. One last throw, straight up, and the little white airplane glided in a large and perfect loop and was about to land on the classroom roof, but it didn’t. Something unexpected and amazing happened.

The airplane hung suspended, bobbing in the air, right at the corner of the building. “Whoa! Look! Hey, guys, look!” The airplane just hung there in mid-air, still bobbing, surging forward and falling back, caught in a wind pocket created by the corner of the roof. It was a happenstance, once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. “Look!” I yelled. “It’s still there!”

The wind was coming in from the west, as usual, and wasn’t gusty  –  it was an even, steady flow of air. The angle and speed of the flow and the shape of the roof were just right. The airplane just happened to insert itself into a kind of invisible bubble, trapping it, keeping it aloft. It hung in the air like a miniature kite.

My friends and I stood around it, looking up in amazement. A few of them, mindful of the bell having sounded, tore themselves away and went to class. I remained there in a sort of hypnotized state. I had never seen this happen before, and knew it would probably never happen again.

“Hey,” I told one of my friends, “go get the teacher!”

He ran off without a word, and a minute or so later returned with our teacher. She was a very kind, caring woman who was concerned that something had happened. When she first arrived she didn’t understand what we were looking at. When she realized she’d been pulled away from class to look at a paper airplane she was angry, but as the airplane continued to hover, her anger drained away. She, too, got caught up in the amazing sight, especially as it became apparent that it wasn’t going to end anytime soon.

“That is something,” she said. “Look at that.”

The paper airplane stayed where it was for maybe ten minutes total, then the wind gusted and broke the spell. The airplane surged upwards and then turned, and floated off to land in the dirt. I ran over and picked it up and then went with my teacher back to class.

The event caused a paper airplane craze at the school, much to the consternation of the janitorial staff. Try as we might, though, we were never able to duplicate this stunt. Sometimes the airplanes would hang for a moment or so at the corner of a building, tantalizing us, but then turn or drop away. It never happened again.

 

Near Death in Seattle

I was about 9 years old when my dad took my mom and I on a business trip to Seattle, Washington, and we stayed in a high rise hotel. I had never been in a high rise hotel before, and I was fascinated with the view.  Especially since, directly across the street, giant cranes with wrecking balls were smashing away at an old building.

What is so fascinating, I wonder, about the sight of a building being torn down?  Especially to kids.  I watched for hours upon hours.  The huge ball of metal would swing, smash into concrete and brick.  Dust flew, debris fell.  I waited breathlessly for large sections to break loose and tumble to their doom.

Back then, you could open high rise windows.  You can’t do that anymore, they’re all bolted shut.  When I found I could open the window, a whole new world of fun blossomed.  I proceeded to take all the hotel stationary, fold it into paper airplanes, and send them flying through the air toward the deconstruction site across the street.

Again, why is this so fascinating?  But to a small boy such as I was, I couldn’t imagine anything more fun.  Every scrap of paper I could scrounge flew out that window as one type of airplane or another.  And then, watching one, it flew right into a window across the street, right into the doomed building being torn down.  In my excitement, I forgot the window was wide open, and I leaned forward and fell out.

We were about 20 stories up.

I heard my mom scream and my father jump. He caught my legs as I was going out the window. I have a very vivid memory of seeing the gray sidewalk below, my hands stretched out in front of me. Little people walking on the sidewalk and small cars driving on the miniature street. Then I was flying backwards as my dad yanked me back through the window.

That was close.  I mean, really.  If my dad hadn’t had such quick reflexes, this would have been a really short life.

 

My Lucky Pole

 
My father’s friend, the opera singer Ted Novis, gave me my first fishing pole. It was just after we’d moved to California. In Tucson the only open water you’ll see is either in a swimming pool, or raging down an arroyo during a flash flood. Neither is good for fishing, and so I had never fished before. This is why, when Ted took my father and I out fishing in the San Francisco bay, I didn’t have a pole to use.

Ted picked one at random out of his huge bundle of poles and handed it to me. “Here!” he said. “You have a fishing pole.”

“You mean, for keeps?”

He laughed. “Yes, for keeps!”

He and my father showed me how to set up a hook and sinker, and helped me bait it, and we threw our lines out and sat waiting. Not only had I never been fishing before, but this was also my first time in a boat. It was cold out in the bay, and I wasn’t used to the rocking of the waves – it made me a bit seasick.

Dad and Ted were talking about adult things, which excluded me. I kept peering over the side at the water, wondering how deep it was. Minutes passed, then a startling thing happened to my fishing pole. Something down in the water was yanking hard on the string, and the reel began spinning and making a whining noise.

“You got a bite!” Dad was yelling in his loud, exited way. “You got a bite!”

“Reel it in, boy!” Ted yelled.

I was flustered and excited and didn’t know what to do, and whatever had a hold of the other end was threatening to yank the pole out of my hands. So I said, “Here!” and handed it to my Dad.

Dad laughed and cranked on the reel. “Whoa! You got a monster!” The fish was fighting hard.

“You’re gonna lose it,” Ted was saying. “Play it out a bit.”

“No, I got it.” Dad reeled it in, and Ted netted it. It was a fish about the same size and shape as a large frying pan.

“A halibut!” Ted said. “Look at that!”

Talk about a weird fish. My dad pointed out to me that it had two eyes on one side of its head. Born looking like a normal fish, one of the eyes migrates over time from one side of the head to the other. It was like a freak of nature, and it made me nervous.

Under my Dad’s direction, I baited the hook and let the line out again. It wasn’t ten minutes later I caught another fish. It was a 2 pound catfish, which confused Ted because he was sure there were no catfish in the bay. He’d never seen one in salt water before, and he didn’t like the yellow color of its belly. We threw it back.

I got bites for the rest of the trip, but no more fish. Dad and Ted didn’t catch anything at all. That night, Ted cooked the halibut and I ate some of it, but back then I didn’t have much appreciation for seafood.

I was hooked on fishing, though.

Over the next few years I caught a whole array of strange fish using that pole. I caught baby sharks, sting rays, rock cod, and a really odd thing called a needle fish  –  a yard long but only an inch wide, and boy did it fight. Every time I went fishing, I caught something, even when no one else did. In Sacramento, I caught a 15 pound striped bass (my father was very proud of me for that). Up at one lake I even caught a turtle.

I thought it was normal to catch a fish every time I went fishing. This was truly a lucky pole. There’s no other explanation.

Years later, up at Lake Tahoe, I was I huddled in my sleeping bag on the back deck of my Dad’s boat with my fishing line out. My lucky pole was all the way in the boat, with only about 5 inches of it hanging over the transom. It was within easy reach of my right hand in case there was a bite.

I was just barely awake when it happened. My parents were asleep. I was squinting up at the stars, because they’re bright up at Tahoe.

Something grabbed the line of my lucky pole and yanked it out of the boat. I heard and felt it being dragged up over the transom, and I sat up in time to see it sail off through the air and splash into the water about 20 feet away. My yelling and screaming awoke my parents and my dad came scrambling out onto the stern, dressed in his flannel pajamas. “My pole!” I was crying. “My pole is gone!”

After I explained the details to Dad, he shook his head and said it must have been a giant mackinaw trout. He’d heard tales of these giants, and he was sure that’s what took it. Since then I’ve looked them up: The biggest on record is 37 pounds, but divers have reported seeing 50-pounders. Clearly these are big enough to yank a pole completely out of a boat. 

Also, there’s an ongoing story of Lake Tahoe having a monster. This monster is probably the result of some sturgeon that was released in the lake years ago. Sturgeons are known to reach lengths of 10-14 feet in the right environment (longer, actually – the record is 24 feet!), and they DO look like some sort of pre-historic monster.

Searching through the Internet, you’ll find dozens of Lake Tahoe midnight-pole-stealing fish stories. I have no doubt there’s a big nocturnal creature in that lake dragging dozens of fishing poles around through the water … and one of them is mine! My one and only lucky pole.

I’ve since wondered, what makes a lucky pole lucky? The smell on the line? The sound the reel makes when winding – does it attract fish? I wish I knew.

I haven’t had one since.

 

And so…

I woke up at 5 in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep.

Positive person that I try to be, I labeled this as an “opportunity” and made myself a strong cup of coffee, and sat down at my word processor and put in a good chunk of work on my novel.

Color me pleased with myself.  And now, off to start the day.

Hope yours is a good one.