This is my spot. It’s been mine since I was a boy. The water’s choppy and the current’s swift, but I love it. This is where I come when I want to be alone or to think—or to fish, just for the fun of it, or sometimes just to drink my whiskey in peace. Of course, if I come out here and I find some joker’s got it, then I get upset, so I have to keep an eye on it. If someone gets too close when I’m out here, that’s just as bad.
This is a mile offshore at Fort Monroe, Virginia, where the James River flows into the Chesapeake Bay and meets the Atlantic Ocean at Hampton Roads. It’s right on the edge of the channel, at the drop off, where the freighters and colliers and navy frigates and warships pass through. And the fishing boats, the big commercial steel ones, and the smaller working boats, wooden ones like mine, a thirty-six-foot cabin crabber with a canopy over the deck.
I’m a Larrick, Wray Larrick, and the Larricks are watermen. We build boats and go fishing in them; fish, crabs, oysters, clams, whatever the water surrenders. We’ve been working these grounds for over three hundred years, from the ocean shelf and the rivers clear up to the York and the middle peninsula at Gloucester, since not long after the expedition of Captains Newport, Smith, and Gosnold. They stopped here, they say, near this spot, there on shore at Strawberry Banks, where the bridge-tunnel starts in Hampton and a motel now sits. It’s said they stopped there, met the natives, and explored the lower peninsula, before moving up and around the river bend to what later became Jamestown Colony. So they were here before us, but not long.
On my mother’s side, the Wainscots, they don’t fish, they just eat them. They’re school teachers, all of them. Always have been.
Everything I’ve done in my life seems to have something to do with this place. I almost drowned here when I was twelve, when my cousin Rudy pushed me overboard, horsing around. The current got me. My buddies and I used to come out here to party in high school. We cracked our first six-packs and wine bottles here–we called it “vino”–and played the bongos. The Beach Boys were big then. I brought my dates out, even had sex here the first time. In fact, my oldest child, Saralynn, was conceived on this spot, right after Annie and I were married. Before that, in 1966, during Viet Nam, when I got my second draft notice—I ignored my first one—I came out here and hid for two days, before they talked me into coming back in and doing what I had to do.
Watermen are like everyone else, they have to have a special place, too. I knew from age ten this would be mine. I earned it the hard way. I remember when I took it over, like it was yesterday.
My cousin Rudy McGuire was fourteen and in charge, and cousins Jackie, Butch, Eddie, who were all twelve, and my buddy Horace Hall, who grew up with us, were all anchored out here on Uncle Jake’s cabin cruiser and diving off and swimming around, just goofing off. After a while, we started eating lunch and baited our hooks and got down to some serious fishing. I admit I wasn’t such a great fisherman in those days, and Rudy could catch anything. In fact, my grandfather had already told everybody in the family a few days before that I’d probably never make a living as a fisherman, that maybe I should specialize in building and overhauling the boats since that’s where my talents seemed to be. And if he said something, everybody believed it. But it wasn’t like I couldn’t fish at all. Except for this particular day, I couldn’t have paid a fish to bite my line if he were in a tub and starving to death.
Everyone else started reeling them in right away. Still, I didn’t get a bite, they just hit my line and went.
“Well, you’ve never had the knack anyway,” Rudy said.
It was the way he said it that bothered me. I told him to drop dead.
Then Eddie jumped in with his two cents. “He ain’t catching ‘em, he’s raising ‘em,” he said and laughed real loud, like it was the funniest damn thing in the world. Then somebody else said why don’t I fish on the other side of the boat by myself because my fish were having a bad influence on their fish by teaching them to steal bait. Butch said his fish had a date with a frying pan, but that mine would grow up to be a fine sturgeon someday.
And on it went, until I couldn’t take it anymore. It was like I had leprosy or something just because I was having a bad day, so I exploded. Probably shouldn’t have, but I did. I told Rudy to go to hell first. Then, when Eddie wised off again, I threw my can of bait at him. I wasn’t usually violent. I’m still not, but I just lost it that day. They kept teasing me and before long I was screaming and cursing at them, and they were throwing it right back at me. If they’d just shut up, but they didn’t.
I went after them, swinging. I know I got a piece of Rudy’s ear with one punch, but other than that, I don’t think I hit a soul, I was so crying blind.
“Everybody knock off the crap,” Butch said. “We came out here to fish, not fight.”
“Hell, no,” Rudy said. He started the engine. “We ain’t fishing, we’re going back in. I’m not staying out here with this maniac. Little brat. Wait’ll I tell Uncle Harry.” He was referring to my father, of course, something else to complicate things.
It was late afternoon, and I cursed them all the way back to the pier in front of my house where we tied up. They got out first and headed to the house with their big news. Then I jumped out , still dogging them, and slammed down the bucket and rod and reel. They stayed ahead of me, giggling, except for Rudy. He was as mad as I.
They went inside, all talking at once about the monster, and I, the monster, went down the side of the house to the boathouse in back, and went inside and locked the door behind me. We had the Happy Crabber up on skids for overhaul, and I climbed aboard and locked myself in the cabin. When I was sure no one was following or looking for me, I started crying. I felt like a man without a country.
It was after dark before I felt like moving. My eyes were as dry and gritty as sandpaper. Everyone was getting ready for bed in the house, so I slipped in the backdoor and went upstairs and got into bed. But I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t.
When I got up and went downstairs, it was 3:30 a.m., with a full moon. The tide was at ebb and starting out again. I sneaked out the backdoor and got some bait from the bait box in the woodshed. I had enough food and soft drinks in a brown paper bag for the long haul. I went down to the pier and jumped onto and started the Net Profit, one of our six working boats. As I pulled away from the pier, the light came on in the house and my father appeared on the porch to investigate. I’d never been allowed to take the boat out alone before and I expected him to chase me down, but he didn’t, and I was surprised by that. He just stood in the light of the doorway, with his hands on his hips, and watched. I knew there’d be hell to pay. I turned and headed out here to the spot, where we’d fished the day before.
I got here and dropped anchor, and threw my baited hook over the side. I used shrimp and a reflective lure to catch the moonlight. The current pulled the line smooth and taut. It would be easy to feel a bite like this.
On shore, the lights were popping on at Fort Monroe and people were beginning to stir around. The crabbers were coming out to tend the crab pots between shore and the drop off, where I was, and the Navy was wide awake on the Norfolk side of the channel.
I waited—not usually my strongest quality. And I waited some more.
When the sun finally broke over the water and the hunger pangs awoke in my stomach, I could see my father’s boat coming out in my direction, and I grew anxious. But I didn’t stop. I could die later but not now. As he got close enough for me to hear the engine, a crewman took the helm and he gradually veered away and, again, he did not come after me. Another surprise. He passed about a quarter-mile to my port side, toward the bay. From the corner of my eye, I could see him staring at me through his binoculars. He stared until he was almost out of sight.
I kept losing bait off my hook. Rudy would’ve gotten a kick out of this. He’d be telling everybody how the fish always preferred my place for breakfast. I could just hear him.
The sun got hotter toward noon, and the reflection from the water was blinding, but I stayed at it. I caught a couple small croaker and cut them up for bait, and that bought me time.
Shortly after lunch, my father’s boat came back into sight again. He cruised by at a distance with his binoculars trained on me, only this time, he seemed to stare longer. Another brush with death. Lucky me.
It was about 3:30 or 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon, and I had maybe two pieces of bait left. The working boats were already back in. That’s when it hit, and he was a big one. I’d probably had bigger fish steal from me before, but I’d never had one stay on the line that long. He was hooked. It was a channel bass that must have weighed at least half what I wanted to believe, and I wasted no time getting back home with it.
From way out, I could see my parents sitting on the front porch with the binoculars. When I got close in, they went inside. I tied up at the pier and got out and walked up it and across the lawn to the house. I guessed they must have gone inside to get something to beat me with, even though they’d never hit me with anything before. I figured if I was going to get it, I might as well go out in a blaze of glory. I stood at the foot of the back porch steps and yelled through the screen door.
My mother came to the door, and I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry or what. I looked at her face for a clue, but drew a blank.
I lifted up the bucket and let it slam down on the ground hard. Water splashed all over me. If the fish wasn’t already dead, he’d be too goofy to know it by now.
“Where’s Rudy?” I said, and I wasn’t smiling.
“They’ve gone to ball practice,” she said, referring to Rudy and Eddie. They lived just next door anyway. I sensed no anger in her tone.
“This is my fish,” I said. “If he comes back here, tell him I said not to touch it or he’ll have to deal with me.”
“I’ll be sure he gets the word,” she said, unimpressed.
“And I caught it in my spot, too. And if he doesn’t like it, he can lump it. Far as I’m concerned, it’s just as much my spot as it is his now.”
“Oh, really,” she said. “Come inside and get cleaned up.”
I didn’t see my father until I came back outside to look at the fish. He was standing over the bucket, looking down at it.
“Wray, don’t ever take that boat out alone again. You hear me?” he said, not looking up.
He took out his pocket knife and cleaned at his nails a bit, then put it back in his pocket. “What are you going to do with him?”
“I’m going to shove him down Rudy’s throat,” I said.
He gave a little chuckle. “Get in the car, fisherman. We’re eating on the street tonight. Your mother’s got a meeting to go to.”
We tooted the horn next door and picked up Uncle Jake, Rudy’s father, and went into Phoebus, to Fuller’s. It’s a storefront place up on the corner, a couple blocks from the water. It’s been there since the turn of the century, 1905 or so. The ceiling was high, so it was cool from the fans overhead. They say my grandfather was there the day it opened and ordered the first bowl of vegetable soup ever sold there. The ceiling was high, so it was cool from the wooden paddle fans overhead.
We sat in our favorite booth and ordered beef stew. Dad and Uncle Jake ordered a beer for themselves and an RC for me.
I asked if I couldn’t have a beer, too. Uncle Jake laughed. My father, he didn’t think that was so funny. He just kind of rolled his tongue around in his cheek and stared at me like he wanted to smile but didn’t dare.
I figured I could wait a little longer before I worried about ordering a beer. This was his spot anyway; mine was out in the water. You have to respect someone’s place.
. . . . . . . . .
Rudy and I had some disagreements over this place over the years, some friendly, some not so friendly. “I’m just letting you share it,” he’d say. “Don’t get any bright ideas about it being yours.”
And then I’d tell him, “You don’t have to share it with me, it’s mine anyway.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Like hell it is.” And so on it would go.
Heck, it was just a spot. The water was full of them. Either one of us could have moved on, but we wouldn’t budge. I was stubborn, and he was tolerant. I sensed this and took advantage, plain as that. There were times I’d approach it with an uneasiness when he was here, because I knew he could whip me anytime he wanted, his being bigger and older, not that it would have kept me away. And there were a few times we arrived here about the same time with our respective friends, and pulled alongside one another, and partied together. But sole propriety had never been resolved, not even during his college days, when I was in high school, nor after.
Rudy had gotten the spot when Captain Tommy Jenkins, Sr. died two years before. There was no one in his family to take it over, so Rudy asked Mrs. Jenkins if he could have it, and she said yes. He’d gone out with Captain Jenkins and helped him a few times on the water, and they’d fished here some, and he liked the place.
Things were on hold for awhile. Rudy had graduated from V.M.I. and was on active duty in the Army, just as I was entering William & Mary. I was not a great student. My grades weren’t up to their standards, in Williamsburg, and my SATs looked like basketball scores. The only reason I got in was my mother was an alumna and on the board of advisors for the Education curriculum. If it hadn’t been for that, I couldn’t have gotten my head admitted to one of those wooden stockades the tourists play with up on Duke of Gloucester Street. It was English that did me in. Nobody passes freshman English at William & Mary; it’s against the law. It broke my mother’s heart.
So I helped my father work the boats.
When Viet Nam started up, I began getting draft notices, so I volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps, since I had to go anyway. That way I could always likely be close to the water and fairly close to home, at Camp LeJeune, down the road a piece, in North Carolina. Better than being in a desert with the Air Force or on top of a mountain with the Army.
Rudy was ready to get off active duty then and get back home so he and Uncle Jake could start up a wholesale seafood business, like they’d planned for years. In fact, my father was planning to turn the boats over to me so I could tie in with them, since he wanted to semi-retire. But the Army asked Rudy to extend his tour for a couple more years because they were short of experienced officers, and he was Special Forces, just what they needed in Viet Nam. He didn’t want to, but he agreed to a year, a year-and-a-half at the most, no more.
After recruit training at Parris Island and Camp Geiger, I was in the infantry and sent to Okinawa for more training. Rudy was near Saigon. We wrote one another a couple times, even talked by phone once when a buddy of mine in communications patched us through. I was a lance corporal and Rudy had made captain by then.
After a few weeks of jungle warfare training, then waiting around for orders, I injured my shoulder in the field one day and ended up in the hospital, in traction. My mother went nuts. She and my father came over to visit me a few days. She was extremely upset and wanted to take on the entire U.S. Government for putting her son in harm’s way. She’d been in favor of our involvement in the war, until then, pushed the limits of the law to help elect Byron Whitfield, hawk of hawks, to the First Congressional District seat. Funny how things are when they hit home, but at least it looked like I’d be returning.
Rudy wrote when he heard I was hurt. My parents were still with me when I got the letter. He said it looked like I’d be going home first, so I’d better stay away from his spot because he had some serious partying to do when he got back, and he didn’t want the place contaminated by some washed-up jar head.
“That boy’s going to whip your rear end one of these days, just to set things straight,” my father said.
A couple weeks later, after my parents had been home awhile, I got a call from them one morning. They told me Rudy was missing in action. His unit was overrun by the Viet Cong and he’d been wounded and taken prisoner. He was last seen, walking unaided, and being taken into the forest. So he couldn’t have been hurt too bad, they’d believed.
Four days later, a package arrived for me in the ward. It was from Rudy. He’d sent it several days before he’d gone missing. He had been in Saigon on a little R & R time. One of the guys helped me open it. It was a plaque, a brass-inscribed plate mounted on teakwood. The card with it read: “Happy Birthday, Joker. Thought you’d like it. Most apropos, don’t you think? Keep your head down—Rudy.” (Apropos. Rudy was an English major). The inscription read: “Lance Corporal Wray Larrick, the worst fisherman in the world, but a pretty good boat builder. And I should know, because I know him better than anyone.”
I mounted the plaque over the cabin door of the Happy Crabber. It still gets a laugh, occasionally.
Yesterday, Uncle Jake and Aunt Ruthie received notice from the government that Rudy had been declared officially deceased. That’s routine after ten years anyway, lacking anything else to go on. That doesn’t mean he’s actually dead; it just means he’s officially dead. Some accept it, some don’t. Who knows.
But I’ve already decided that, if Rudy ever comes back and is of a mind to want it, I’m going to let him have this spot. It’s rightfully his anyway. Until then, I’m going to keep an eye on it, like it’s always been mine, and guard it with my life till the day I die, if necessary. After that, if it comes to it, someone else can fight over it. That is, if it means anything to them.
* * *
Dan Coleman is a native of Tidewater, Virginia, and lives in North Carolina. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a graduate of Christopher Newport College. His murder-mystery novel, Foul Shot, a Wray Larrick Mystery, is available on Amazon.