by Janet Gilmore
The men, the daddies on our block of East Tulpehocken Street, did not work together during the week, but they liked to spend time together on weekends without women and/or children; imagine that. It was around 1958.
One of them suggested a fishing trip at the Jersey shore — “down the shore,” as we say in Philadelphia. And it seemed like a good idea at the time. One Saturday morning, my father, my Uncle Seymour, my Uncle Ralph, my Uncle Aaron, none of whom were my real uncles, and some other men whose names are now forgotten, arose at 3 a.m. to drive to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to hire a boat and spend the day fishing.
I remember the idea of getting up at 3 a.m. on a weekend as a weird, awful idea, even to have fun. “You have to get up earlier than the fish,” my father said.
It was still dark at 3 a.m. when my mom and I got up and packed up my dad for the day. We were both still in our pajamas and both ready to go back to bed as soon as the men left for their adventure.
So there we were, my mom and I, most of my aunties, and a few kids, standing in the dark on the front steps, waving goodbye to our group of stalwart fishermen who were off for a manly day. Each man wore a baseball cap, and each carried a small brown paper bag that held his lunch, and off they went.
I curled up with my mom in her bed, and we went back to sleep.
We thought about my dad periodically during the day, but it was a Saturday, and I had to play.
“What do you think they’re doing?” I asked my friend Ellie. “Who do you think will catch the biggest fish?”
And even the omniscient Ellie had no idea. We had no knowledge of the food chain or the idea of fish as food. I had a goldfish that I was forbidden to eat.
Around 5 p.m., the men returned from the sea. And in the ancient tradition, women and children gathered around to see the day’s catch. My dad was very sunburned and pale at the same time. In fact, all the men were. Uncle Ralph carried a big fish, but they all still carried their brown paper bags. The story emerged.
Captain Moody had greeted them all, and they all boarded the “Old Sally” at 4:30 a.m. By 4:45 a.m., they were all seasick. Very seasick. They were men who had been through World War II and who had sailed to faraway places, but their sea legs were long gone. They stayed on deck, trying to fish as long as they could, long enough to get a bad sunburn, then several went below to lie down.
No one ate lunch. Capt. Moody had the ocean to himself. Finally the boat trip was over; the men could disembark and go home. But what about the fish? The men didn’t want to go home empty-handed.
Here’s where Uncle Aaron and I disagree. He said someone caught a fish. I remember that they bought a big tuna on the way home. The truth is not important compared to what happened next.
The neighborhood gathered in front of Uncle Ralph’s garage to watch the cutting-up of the tuna and its fair division among the families, so everyone could taste some. A table was set up with lots of newspaper on it and under it. Uncle Ralph scraped the scales off.
A round of applause from the kids. Then Uncle Ralph, the sweetest of men, cut the head off the fish. Yes, he did. The kids yelled in disgust but stuck around. When Uncle Ralph cut into the fish, the blood, fish scales and skin and fish head were too much.
Ellie and I threw up in the bushes. We had never been sick together, and every time we looked at each other between retches, we laughed. We were best friends, and now we were also barf buddies.
Several kids just left. The mothers, of course, stayed to encourage their heroes. It was dark by the time the fish was filleted and meted out, and the mess was cleaned up, and luckily, it was bedtime. I wish I had stayed awake to hear to story of the day as told to my mom. I half- remember there was a lot of laughter.
The following day was a normal day until dinnertime. On my plate was a piece of the cooked tuna from the night before. “Mom, I can’t eat that!”
“Jan, it’s the [wonderful, enormous, delicious] fish that your [darling, brave, sunburned] father caught [bought] yesterday.”
“I know exactly what it is, and I’m not eating it! It’s disgusting!”
“Just taste a bite of it…”
But no cajoling, no bribing, no threatening in the world could make me eat that fish. I would rather go to double school and have double homework.
“But Jan, you like tuna!”
True enough. I liked the tuna that came in a can with a mermaid on it. Not this shocking, awful thing on my plate.
Ellie ate hers and told me she liked it. I thought she was nuts.
There were no more fishing trips during my childhood.