This Guest Essay, “Some Things I Remember,” is written by Bernard Casserly, winner of the 2016 $4,000 Dan’s Papers Emerging Young Writers Prize for Nonfiction.
I am in the backyard. I am six years old and my dad is painting a bunch of buoys so that they look like shark heads. He gives each buoy a big, red mouth, white teeth, and a pair of yellow eyes.
“Why are you doing that?” I ask him.
“To scare away the seagulls,” he explains.
“Does that really work?”
“I don’t know. I hope so. Damned seagulls.”
My dad’s name is Joel. He has a mustache and always wears a hat. He is a commercial fishing boat captain in Montauk, New York. He longlines for tilefish. It is not an easy job. He works hard for his money all year long.
My dad goes out to sea for 10 days at a time, sometimes longer. Ten days seems like a long time when you are six years old. Sometimes I stare out the front door of our house and wonder where he has gone. What is he doing out there in the middle of the ocean? What is it like? I don’t know. I have never gone on a trip with him. I am too little. I have seen some pictures though. In one picture, my dad is standing on top of a huge, dead whale. The dead whale is just floating out there in the middle of the ocean, like a desert island. In another picture, my dad is standing on the deck of the boat, and everything is covered in pale, white ice. He has a shovel and he’s smacking the ice to break it. He looks cold.
My dad’s boat is called The Restless. It is dark green. It is always covered in bird poop. He docks it at the town dock in Montauk, with the rest of the commercial boats. I hang out at the dock a lot. I watch the forklift load huge pallets of fish onto a tractor-trailer. The fish are going to New York City. I’ve never been to New York City. I picture people in buildings eating fish that my dad caught. Do they like the fish? Do they think the fish is tasty? I turn away from the forklift and walk to the end of the dock. I look at the draggers with their big, silent nets. Seagulls are cackling. Everything smells like salt.
My dad always brings home fish for us to eat, whatever fish is left when he’s sold all the rest. I like to watch when he fillets the fish. He always knows just where to cut. My dad likes fish, but he doesn’t like fishing, because it means that he has to kill fish, lots and lots of fish. It makes him sad, but it’s his job. He has to put food on the table is what he says.
Sometimes, my dad keeps little fish as pets on the boat. Once, he caught two chain dogfish and kept them in a bucket in the wheelhouse. By the end of the trip he had trained them to do tricks. He’d tap on the side of the bucket, and the little dogfish would swim up to the top of the bucket and roll over, and he’d scratch their pale, white bellies.
Sometimes I go with my dad to the boat so he can get everything ready for his next trip. I sit in the wheelhouse while he works on the engine. He usually makes some Tang for me to drink. I like Tang. There is lots of Tang on the boat, lots of food in little pouches, kind of like astronaut food. Sometimes I think my dad is like an astronaut. He’s always out there in the middle of the ocean, and there’s no way to talk to him except a satellite phone that you’re only supposed to use if it’s an emergency. It feels like he might as well be in outer space.
My dad takes me down to see the engine room sometimes. The engine room is under the deck. You have to climb down a little ladder, and then open a big, metal door to get inside. The engine is humongous. I have to wear earmuffs because the engine is so loud. It smells like burning diesel. The engine shakes my tiny body. Being in the engine room makes me feel like a little boat in the middle of an ocean, like something very small floating in the middle of a swirling bigness.
There are four men on my dad’s crew. They all have funny nicknames like Glimpy, No-Neck Kevin, and Bo-Bo. Bo-Bo is one of my dad’s best friends. He has long blonde hair, faded green tattoos, and he always wears a bandanna. He only has seven fingers. He lost the other ones in an accident on the boat. He keeps his fingers in a jar on a shelf in his living room. Sometimes I go to his house with my dad to see the jar of fingers. I don’t think the fingers are weird. My dad is friends with lots of people who are missing fingers. It’s just something that happens. Sometimes fisherman don’t have fingers. Sometimes accidents happen.
I remember one time my dad had to get on a little plane and fly up to Rhode Island. His friend Chris Schumann was in the hospital there. Schumann works on my dad’s crew sometimes. My dad looked very worried before he left. My mom said that Schumann had gotten hit by a very big wave on the last trip. She said he was hurt very badly. The Coast Guard had to come get him with a helicopter and take him to the hospital. It must have been very scary.
Sometimes my mom takes me to the jetty down by Gosman’s to watch my dad leave for his trips. It is always very early in the morning. The sun is a little red smear in the corner of the sky. The rest of the sky is dark and filled with stars. We watch as my dad’s big, steel boat slips out past the jetty and into the churning ocean. My mom waves goodbye. I wave goodbye too. We watch the boat get smaller and smaller until it is so small that it isn’t there anymore. Then we get into our car and go home.
To find out who the winners of the 2017 Dan’s Papers $10,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction are, please join us at the 6th annual Dan’s Literary Festival and Gala Awards Ceremony at Guild Hall in East Hampton. This event is free and open to the public. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. and events begin at 4 p.m. Visit DansLitPrize.com.