Just like Dad promised, it was dark when he woke me up. Pitch black, like the middle of the night. Getting up at that hour was something I wasn’t really used to, even when I had to get up early to serve my Sunday Bulletin papers. The sky was usually lit up a bit by the time I set out to pick up my stack of newspapers.
But this Saturday, we had to rise at the inky-skied hour of 4:30 a.m. because it was going to be a long ride to Barnegat Light, the coastal town where the charter fishing boat would be waiting for us. We’d have a couple of hours to drive across the middle of New Jersey to meet the boat, stopping along the way to pick up a couple of Dad’s buddies.
Dad loved deep-sea fishing. Once a year, or maybe twice if he was lucky, he’d go off to the shore for one of these day-long fishing expeditions. He always came back with a bushel of flounder, all on ice, and would proudly display his day’s catch to Mom. Her eyes would roll around and soon a gaggle of kids would gather around to take in the sight of deformed fish with two eyes on one side of their heads. The weird sight plus smell always elicited a big "Eeeew" until Dad shooed them away and got down to the business of cleaning the things.
Somewhere along the line, when I was maybe 13 or so, Dad decided I should go along too. Maybe he figured there’d be one less "Eeeew" voice to listen to when he got back home if I went along. More likely, he wanted to give me a whack at deep-sea fishing and see how I’d like it. I happily agreed to go and got up with reasonable speed and eagerness when he came in to get me up. A quick breakfast of cereal and juice and we were in the car, which Dad had packed the night before.
The ride to Barnegat went pretty fast, or at least seemed that way considering I slept most of the way. The sun was well up by the time the town’s famous lighthouse came into view, and soon Dad was parking the station wagon. The men got out of the car, stretched their legs and unloaded their lunchboxes and gear. I joined the group as they sauntered over to the dock to say hello to the captain. The smell of the sea’s salty air mixed with diesel exhaust sent a signal of what lay ahead and added to my excitement.
The skipper gave the word to come aboard and our group of a dozen or so walked up the gangway. Behind us a couple of crew hands carried cases of beer, soda and ice. When I spotted the cases of Coca-Cola following us up the plank I knew this would be a pretty good if not perfect day. I heard some men talking to the captain and the word "wreck" kept coming up. I asked Dad about this.
"Wreck? What about a wreck?"
"That’s where we’re going. About 30 miles out, where the fishing’s supposed to be real good. Right over a wreck of an old boat."
I did not know if that was a rowboat or the Andrea Doria or a charter boat just like ours, but the idea for some reason seemed appealing. I was ready to fish over the wreck.
We were soon under way. Dad gave me the safety warnings, telling me not to climb on the rails or lean over. The men unpacked their rods and gear and the crew handed our buckets of bait. I got my pole and Dad ran me through the steps of baiting, dropping the line and reeling in. Basic stuff.
I went through a couple of cans of Coke as the boat made its way past the pier and to the deep. The lighthouse soon disappeared in the morning haze and soon there was nothing around us but sea. As we moved forward, the boat plowed through light swells and the ride up and down was something I had never quite experienced.
The sun had devoured the haze by the time we got to our destination. The engine’s hum eased up and the boat began to slow down. Dad gave the signal that it would be all right to cast a line. I managed this quite deftly for a novice, I thought, and waited for a bite. The boat slowed down more, which seemed to make the ocean’s swells bigger. I noticed I wasn’t feeling quite right. It was nothing another can of Coke wouldn’t fix.
Now we were stopped cold and the anchor went down. The swells were unrelenting. A couple of more sips of Coke, which now wasn’t tasting so good. I stuck with the task at hand and reeled my line in to check the bait. It was OK, but my head wasn’t. I let the line go in again and told myself this thing - I wasn’t going to call it what I thought it was - would pass. Another swell took us up and dropped us down. And another. Then another. And another.
That was it. I leaned over the rail like I wasn’t supposed to do and showered the sea with Coke. I was dizzy and nauseous and needed to get out of there. But the boat was going nowhere. I was stuck.
Dad took time out from his beloved fishing to show some pity. He took the rod out of my hands and walked me to the cabin, down the ladder and showed me a bunk.
"Lie down a while," he said. "You’ll feel better soon. Don’t worry."
Brave words, but being inside and out of view of the waves didn’t help a bit. Dad showed me where the head was in case I needed to use it. In case? It was going to be my best friend for a few hours.
What bothered me most was my disappointment and embarrassment; although the men out there fishing and drinking beer apparently took no joy in seeing me in my sorry state. I lay on the cot and tried every position I could to feel better but nothing could improve my situation. I imagined myself turning green, and thought about baseball, girls, fast cars and movies, but nothing helped. I was hopelessly ... feeling bad. My hopes that the swells would die down vanished about the second time I visited the head to throw up. I mastered the hand pump that works the flush but began to worry that I would soon have nothing left to spew out. What next, my guts?
I knew this condition would have no cure as long as we were bobbing like a cork on a gale-whipped sea, making it a kind of private hell. I hoped, at least, it would absolve me of things I had done wrong in the past and swoop me straight to heaven if, God willing, I should die right here and now. I even tried praying, but that only made the swells seem bigger. Nothing, nothing, could ease this misery, not even a little.
But I was wrong.
I heard steps coming toward the cabin. The bright sun streamed in as the door swung open. One of the fishing guys was helping another victim down the steps and showed him to the other bunk. The guy was really sick, afflicted with the same thing I had.
It’s amazing how someone else’s misfortune can seem like a blessing when you’re in the state of utter discomfort I was in. The other sick sailor, I think they called him Bob, was pale as could be, the color of his face matching his white hair. He moaned a couple of times, turned, and was soon on his feet headed to the head. He made this trip several more times, as I did, as our fishing trip from hell continued.
While having a barfing mate did nothing to ease my queasiness, it provided a shred of satisfaction. It erased the notion that this wasn’t just kid’s stuff, it could happen to a man as well. I may have been sick as a dog, but I felt a little more like one of the guys.
After something of an eternity, I heard the engine fire up. The sound gave me a sense of hope and anticipation that we would be moving again, hopefully back to shore. The boat’s forward movement eased what seemed like mountainous swells, but the pitching and rocking continued. My hopes dimmed when I heard the captain say, "We’ll fish here for a while," signaling that we would sit in place once again. That’s exactly what we did, but given the way I felt it couldn’t make matters worse. After maybe an hour more of stationary bobbing, the engine started again, and this time we were headed back to land.
Bob moaned a few more times and I made a few more gagging runs to the head, but in an hour or I could feel we were on flat water again. Still, this did not bring immediate relief.
I lay still as the crew tied up the boat. Dad came down.
"You all right?"
"I’m alive, I think."
"You’ll be OK. Come on up now. Bob? You OK?" He moaned once more and turned over.
I held the railings as my wobbly legs did the best they could to get me up the ladder and sucked in some fresh air. It felt good but my stomach was still pretty upset as I made my way toward the parking lot. The men repacked their gear and got into the car. On the ride home, they kept the kidding to a minimum and Dad told me he was sorry it turned out this way, but it happens to everyone sometime. That made me feel better.
The straight-ahead movement of the station wagon didn’t bother me much, but every turn brought back the old feeling up the boat’s up-down, up-down motion. We dropped Dad’s fishing buddies off and Dad told me what a great day’s catch he’d had. He told me he even pulled a few up with the rod I had used ever so briefly, so they were mine. "Not a total loss, eh, son?"