Generations My Father, the High Line: A Fish Story
My father never shared with his family the story of the time he reeled in a 457-pound tuna.
My mother found the photos in a crisp envelope tucked in the top drawer of my father’s dresser. She claimed she hadn’t seen them before, which in itself was remarkable. She was always opening that drawer, moving things around, stacking my father’s laundered socks. If anyone were to nose around and happen to riffle through that envelope, it would have been her.
The photos were out of order, but the sequence was easy to figure out. And luckily, there were newspaper clippings folded along with them that filled in the rest—a fishing trip off Gloucester’s Cape Ann, a boat full of men, and my young father standing next to a giant tuna that he caught, its weight announced on a handmade sign: 457 lbs.
Photographs provided by the writer.
My memory of my father sits most evocatively in sounds: the light whistle through his teeth whenever he fidgeted with a gadget; the vibration and screech of his table saw from beneath the floorboards of the living room; the mock-aristocratic accent with which he would greet my mother, pronouncing her name as Mrs. Saahr -ven; the fart of vinyl as he shifted in the recliner.
He was forty-one when he married my mother, a woman ten years his junior who, at the time, was raising a ten-year-old son on her own. I was born six months later, in August 1975. And it’s only now that I’ve reached my own forties that I realize how much life must have been contained in those preceding mid-century decades, reduced to resumé lines, old actor’s roles. My father talked little about them. For one thing, we never knew about the tuna.
The phone call would come just after seven o’clock, the second-shifters’ lunch hour. My father worked in the jet turbine division at the General Electric River Works Plant in our home city of Lynn, Massachusetts. River Works was one of the first two manufacturing plants that GE had ever built, and by far the largest employer in a city of 80,000 people. It was the kind of place that had earned a definite article: If you lived in Lynn, you knew people who worked at the GE.
Dinner would be over, I’d be on the floor watching TV, but on some nights I’d pop up and run to the kitchen to beat my mother to the phone, just to be a pest. The conversation on these nights would naturally be about me—my day at school and whatever ridiculous bit either of us could come up with to generate a laugh out of the other. My mother would beg me to hand her the phone before my father’s dime ran out. In the background I could hear the dull hum of industry, the occasional blast of a loudspeaker, and the hollers of men on break. I never asked about his job. Everything at the GE was proprietary, so he couldn’t tell me much to begin with. It was just work.
Down cellar, in his workshop, he kept a few clues. Pinned to the wooden door leading to the crawlspace were the gag posters that his coworkers had passed around for laughs. I remember a yellowed Xerox of Sylvester the Cat—a bootlegged, hand-drawn version—pointing a claw to the side, with a caption: would you be very upset if i asked you to take your silly-assed problem down the hall?
It seems as though most American fathers of my dad’s generation had workshops, since every friend’s house had a workbench, with a vise bolted to the frame, as part of its infrastructure, even if it was just a place to store the house’s tools. My father’s workshop was greater than what we would now call a “man cave.” It was an actual shop, the base for the tactile projects to which he devoted himself. He built, among other things, the cradle I slept in as an infant, and a bench with a hinged lid where I stored my toys. He built and wired a miniature fence that encircled our Christmas tree, with light sockets in the posts. Some forty years later this fence miraculously still works, its lights ringing the tree in my house.
His space was the logistical product of an engineer’s vision. His tools were arrayed on a pegboard in a way that made sense, and loose parts like washers and eye hooks were sorted out in a cabinet of drawers that he had labeled with a label maker. Between projects, there was a lot of puttering around, and occasionally a visit from his bored son.
It was on one of those visits that I noticed the tackle box. I opened it once or twice while I was snooping around, Dad ordering me to shut the lid before I hurt myself on a fishing hook. It didn’t really interest me other than the fact that it existed at all.
In the photos, my father looks trim in a sports shirt and light-colored slacks, his black hair oiled and combed, a swinging eligible bachelor at twenty-nine. He’s standing there in the boat with the other men, looking up at the fish tied up on the winch like they have no idea what to do with the thing.
Then come the trophy shots—the catch hooked up on the pier above a sign: caught on cape ann . Local schoolboys gathered around, impressed. The achievement made the newspapers, but my father, ever so humble, didn’t get into the picture. A man named Joe Laffey, the outdoor sports columnist for the Lynn Daily Evening Item , arrived straight from the downtown office in a suit and bowtie.
One of the other men in the photos was my father’s friend Ziggy. If I ever met Ziggy, it was when I was too young to remember him. I only knew about Ziggy from helping my mother address Christmas cards to his family every year—a task I took up proudly, his Polish last name a clutter of consonants that I delighted in memorizing.
The catch was a local media sensation, featured in papers from the Item to the Boston Herald , who published a cartoon about it:
If that’s not incredible enough, the story was made even more sensational by the fact that the tuna was mysteriously up and filched from the dock overnight, where the captain of the charter boat, Ellis Hodgkins, had left it to be re-weighed in the morning.
It was the kind of scoop a reporter would dream about, if only for its color. Henry Moore, a columnist for the Herald , was on top of the caper, a yarn straight out of a Ring Lardner novel:
Things have come to a pretty pass among the clean, hardy sportsmen who go down to the sea in ships to fight big fish when a guy can’t leave a 500-pound tuna he sweated six hours to catch hanging on the dock overnight without having some crumb come along and swipe it.
The tuna is described as a “giant boated by William Severn [sic] of Lynn after a running battle lasting from 2 p.m. to 8:10 p.m. off Salisbury beach.”
Six hours to reel in a tuna. It’s hard not be smacked in the face by the irony. Fishing is the classic boaster’s sport—so much that, as far back as the nineteenth century, we have employed the phrase fish story to mean an exaggerated claim that cannot be verified; the outsized fish is always the one that gets away. You shoulda seen the size of it . Literature brims with the tradition of men stretching the stakes of their tussles, and the sea makes for a limitless challenge. “It is always better to keep clear of miracles at sea I believe, sir, when the people are to be spoken to,” says a character in James Fenimore Cooper’s Homeward Bound, or The Chase: A Tale of the Sea (1838).
Given the opportunity to boast of a prize catch and back it up with evidence, along with some cat-and-mouse hijinks to boot, my father remained forever silent, leaving us to discover the story only after he was gone, folded along with his tube socks.
With its bevy of ponds and rivers and a coastline shaped appropriately like a hook, Massachusetts is rife with destinations for recreational freshwater and marine fishing. In spite of that, I never had the desire to go; never tugged on my father’s shirt and asked, never tagged along with any of my friends and their fathers. I was not a child of the outdoors. I was more likely to be found in my room, playing Nintendo or sorting through baseball cards, or in a bowling alley. Nor do I recall my father ever toting that tackle box anywhere, either by himself or with friends. When he wasn’t puttering in the cellar, Bill was either putting up stakes for his tomato plants or dropping in for a quick one at the Four Winds Pub.
We weren’t unusual in this regard. Recreational fishing as a whole saw a sharp decline in the later part of the twentieth century. In response, the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF) was incorporated to develop outreach and communication as part of the Sport Fishing and Boat Safety Act passed by Congress in 1998. Among the RBFF’s channels were a website, takemefishing.org , and a series of TV commercials depicting fishing as an activity silently bonding parents and children. “Take me fishing,” says a young girl in one spot, “because my wedding will be sooner than you think.” “Take me fishing,” says the quivery voiceover of an elderly man in another, “because I miss my boy.”
We Servens were nominal Protestants who ate pot roasts and haddock and potatoes and brown gravy and canned vegetables. On the North Shore, seafood restaurants, like corner roast beef shops, are almost as ubiquitous as Dunkin Donuts franchises. On Route 1, the narrow and congested highway that zips past Lynn, there is, amidst the gentlemen’s clubs and antique shops and neon hotel signs, a destination seafood restaurant built to look like a giant ship. It’s changed ownership a few times, but when your restaurant looks like a ship, your menu options are pretty much set. For a while it was called The Ship, then The Weathervane. Now it’s called The Ship.
From the news clippings I discovered that Ziggy, my father’s friend, had his own seafood restaurant in Lynn, called Frank’s Sea Grille. He was the one who had organized the fishing trip. And the “stolen” fish, meanwhile, turned to be nothing more than a big misunderstanding, as Henry Moore wrote:
The explanation for the “theft” of that 500-pound tuna from the Rocky Neck sport fishing dock in Gloucester Tuesday night is as simple as the original vanishing act was inexplicable. The members of the Lynn fishing party who caught it sent a truck back for it and took it home. Voila.
The only hitch was they failed to make known their decision to either the dock officials or Capt. Ellis Hodgkins, on whose charterboat, Cape Ann, Bill Severn [sic] of Lynn fought and whipped the fish after a rugged six-hour battle.
FISH CAUSED LYNN TRAFFIC JAM Hence, while the Gloucester waterfront was being gumshoed for some trace of the missing fish, it was hanging in awesome splendor all day Wednesday—and into the evening under a spotlight—outside Frank’s Sea Grille on Boston street, Lynn, where it caused a traffic jam that hasn’t been equaled since the bus strike.
The tuna would be a special on the menu at Frank’s Sea Grille for as long as it lasted.
If my father and I were ever to find a bonding activity, it would most likely have been in the workshop. In the years before junior high—back when a woodshop course was required in public schools—I took up my hand at amateur woodworking. Dad leant me some tools that he wasn’t using, offering occasional tips. But I turned out to be terrible at woodworking—my arms tired easily from maneuvering the saw, and I grew frustrated when I was unable to execute a clean cut. Dad didn’t seem disappointed. He may have been a little relieved. It meant he could be alone and putter as he pleased.
But, had I stuck with it, the workshop could have provided the setting to hear the stories he held in reserve, the ones that revealed themselves only later in the artifacts that turned up. During the Korean War, my father had been stationed in Spangdahlem, West Germany, as a mechanic repairing reconnaissance planes. He never talked about this part of his life, either—again, because I never asked—but there are fascinating relics, like the beer steins he kept on his dresser to hold quarters, or the steamer trunk he used to ship his belongings home, with his name, rank, and address stenciled on the top in white enamel. I still have this trunk, even though my mother, tellingly, urged me to get rid of it because the inside was “musty.” It was the same trunk that my roommates and I used as a table for poker games in college, on which we spilled our beer and cigarette ashes.
After my father died in 2009, my mother opened his safe deposit box. Among the mementos she found inside was a painting of my father, wearing a bomber jacket and visor hat, done on silk. It was the first image of him of any kind that we had seen from that era. Why hadn’t he shown it to us before? Privately, my wife and I arrived at a conjecture: that it had been painted by a girlfriend. Something my father knew would have upset my mother.
When I brought the photos back to my home in western Massachusetts, the first thing I did was scan them and post them to Facebook, giving them a level of visibility that I felt the accomplishment merited. My friends were awed by the story of the tuna, but they were more struck by how much my father resembled me.
Contrast that to my father, who in fifty years never once had the urge to share with his family the story of the time he and his buddies reeled in a 457-pound tuna off the coast of Gloucester. His reasons for being quiet about it will never be known; perhaps he feared that opening such a box of memories would shed light on some of the less fond ones. Maybe he feared it would become reduced, warped into something less amazing, as it got told and retold, as family stories tend to do.
But one conclusion I’m willing to draw from his decision is that it might say something about his contentment with his post-bachelorhood life—that he never leveraged it against his freewheeling twenties, when he was shipping off to Europe and getting his back slapped by his fellow mechanics, with whom he ducked in and out of the rathskellers of Spangdahlem. He was proud of my brother and me, always, and consistent in reminding us of that. The guy who reeled in the giant tuna and repaired planes during the Korean War wasn’t someone he needed in his life anymore. I sometimes wonder if that guy would have gotten along with the man I knew.