The Family — Big Jim and the Slammer Jockeys

Ken Jones

Staff member
Chapter 11

Big Jim and the Slammer Jockeys
It was a Novemberish June day, a little too damp and chilly to even be given the normal SoCal appellation “June-gloom.” Nevertheless it was hoped, and expected, that by late morning the sun would break through the clouds.

Out at the end of the pier it was reveille time and Big Jim’s boys quickly lined up in a straight line at the side of the huge bait tank. While Big Jim played the bugle, Hiram and Mouse raised the flags on the 10-foot flagpole, “Old Glory” on top, a flag outlined with a picture of a halibut on the bottom. A small crowd of tourists watching the ceremony stood in silence while nearby two birds stood sentinel on the opposite corners of the bait shop—Vance, a one-legged, one-eyed sea gull, and Mandy, the resident heron.

Virginia, sequestered in the pier’s snack stand, paid the assembled group little notice while regulars, who had witnessed the performance many times before, mostly ignored them. It was, however, certainly interesting to some and might have seemed a sincere touch if Jim and the boys weren’t seen as being so insincere.

It all started with Jim! Jim Malony was the bugler and he had been born with the wrong name. At 6’8” in height, and an impressively chiseled 280 pounds, he would have been a perfect model for that old Jimmy Dean song—“Big Bad John.” His muscular frame, baldhead, and Fu Manchu mustache were intimidating enough, but what probably capped off his image was his reputation for having the loudest and foulest mouth on the pier. But even though the “big and bad” names applied, his dad had made the mistake of naming him Jim so he simply became “Big Jim,” even though the sobriquet “Big Bad Jim” would perhaps have been more appropriate. Nevertheless, his raffish character seemed of little consequence on the pier where he was considered somewhat of a local legend. He could out fish most folks and his posse was a force to be reckoned with. About the only person he feared, if that’s the correct word, was Jasper.

Although now retired, Big Jim’s day job had once been as a guard at the state prison and he told his posse that he had taken up fishing to get the stink from the inmates off his hands. To many observers, that stink, if it existed, had long ago been absorbed into Jim’s own system. Big Jim had a Cartesian attitude toward people, feelings, and pain, and often he himself displayed a nefarious brutality and sadism that, when combined with his Brobdingnagian ego, seemed ordained to eventually lead to trouble. However, the lupine brutality was hidden amidst his Rabelaisian vocabulary and hi jinks.

Jim and his followers, the “Slammer Jockeys,” were the most obnoxious group on the pier, one that both desired and demanded attention. But while visitors to the pier would be somewhat awed by the group’s frequent flights of rodomontade, the regulars looked down on the group. Many if not most of the regulars on the pier were older and had put in their time on the pier. With time came the realization that the ability to catch fish did not necessarily mean a person was a “good fisherman,” it simply meant the person could catch fish.

The distinction would have been lost on Big Jim and his group. Their motto was “big guts and big butts” and they backed up their saying with bags full of fish that were flaunted for all to see. They could and did catch fish; especially the big butts—halibut—that inhabited the depressions between the pilings. That simple fact, that they did catch fish, defined the term “good fishermen” to them and nothing else really mattered. Of course few if any of them knew that the term most frequently given them by the locals was “buttheads.”

The boastful nature of the group was clear for all to see. Fresh caught halibut would be placed on ice under a clear plastic covering. Pictures attached to a board on the side of the bait tank memorialized past catches and had become an escutcheon of sorts. And, there was almost constant talk regarding their catch of fish. Most visitors to the pier made what seemed an easy assumption: these guys are the pros; they know how to catch fish!

Unfortunately, the perceived skill of the group, when combined with the bumptious, non-stop chatter and jejune pranks, seemed to present an almost irresistible attraction to many of the youthful anglers who were new to the pier. Big Jim’s reputation, his dirty jokes, and his natural charisma heightened the lure. At times the number of young seeking to join Jim’s merry band seemed unending, a fact that caused one regular to call him “The Pied Piper of the Pier.” But the members of the crew seemed always to change; Jim could be a caustic, sadistic taskmaster to his budding padawns and few remained for more than a few months; for most, the guerdon that accompanied their efforts was not worth the abuse they received.

The fact that Big Jim didn’t particularly like the young, had little patience for youthful mistakes, and was slow to give respect, didn’t seem to matter; there were always masochistic followers willing to put up with Jim’s directions. Most of these were indeed young but perhaps immature antics are guaranteed to attract the immature?

Of course you had to pay your dues. Whenever a young angler would crowd in to the railing space and try to “join in,” Jim would present him an ultimatum: “strip to your skivvies and dive in!” Most quickly followed the order. If the youngster hesitated or refused, Jim had a fairly quick response of his own, he would simply pick them up and throw them from the pier. Soon they hopefully would be treading their waterlogged selves into shore. It turned out a couple couldn’t swim and had to be rescued; they failed the test.

The net result was that Jim, like many bullies, was surrounded by a plethora of seemingly brave but subservient and sycophantic followers; he demanded respect—and obedience—and got it. Once into the club (since the term gang just didn’t seem right for an ex-officer of the law), the new members would indeed be taught how to fish and would be able to use the live bait ensconced in the amazing, larger than a bathtub-sized aluminum bait tank that was dragged out onto the pier each morning for the group’s use—a key to success for the predatory halibut.

Most members quickly gained proficiency but most also ingrained the attitude shown by Jim and the posse, an attitude of superiority and conceit that was displayed to most of the other fishermen on the pier. The exception to the rule was the begrudging respect shown to the Family. Jim’s young followers didn’t necessarily acknowledge the power of the Family, or understand why it received special treatment, but they left the Family alone. Jim had made it clear to stay away from Jasper and his friends.

As for the Family, they mostly ignored Jim’s posse-gang. Its fishing prowess was admitted from a distance, and Jim’s practices were discussed from time to time, but Jasper and none in the Family had actually ever seen his most egregious behaviors, they had just heard occasional rumors. Unknown to the Family was the fact that Jim purposely avoided such behaviors when the Family members were around. In fact, Jim purposely planned his most outrageous stunts for the weekends when tourists were most abundant and the Family, including Jasper, was absent.

What finally got Jasper involved with Jim, and prompted him to take action, was the threat posed by Jim’s group to two other groups on the pier. The nexus point of conflict was an ongoing, friendly competition between two of the pier’s gangs—the “Tommy Dreamers” and the “Junkyard Dogs.” The two groups had carried on a halibut competition for three years with braggin’ rights accrued for most halibut and largest halibut. The contest was kept low key and among themselves because they were friends and could keep things in perspective.

However, the “Slammer Jockeys” had never been asked to join in and that fact eventually began to gall Big Jim. All of the anglers involved were good anglers, but Jim accepted the fact that his group had to be better and the only way for that fact to be acknowledged was to be invited into the competition—and to win.

Jim and his legions began to pester the “Dreamers” and “Dogs” to be allowed into the game and though there was little enthusiasm from the original participants, the persistent haggling, and not so subtle intimidation, finally caused a summit of sorts to be held. Noble Harris, the leader of the “Tommy Dreamers,” and Mikey Jones, leader of the “Junkyard Dogs,” met with Jim one hot and sultry afternoon on the pier.

Both Noble and Mikey much preferred to keep the contest amongst their own groups but they were also tired of the constant hassle from Jim and his followers. Jim argued long and loud and said it was simply a matter of fairness; why were they afraid to allow his group to join in? Although uneasy, both finally agreed to allow the “Slammer Jockeys” to enter the fray. But there were still unanswered questions: who would earn the title of “Halibut Kings” and how would the “Slammer Jockeys” react if they lost.

The “Tommy Dreamers” took a lead early in the year for the number of halibut caught while the “Junkyard Dogs” was catching the biggest hallies. The “Jockeys” were behind and becoming more restless each day as the results were posted at the side of the pier’s bait and tackle shop. Jim, in particular, wasn’t pleased and was determined to change the results. Still, for once Jim didn’t give instructions; he simply let the group know that if they didn’t win he would find a new posse. That was enough for Hiram, Mouse, Sinny, Sprinkles, Two Eyes, Chevy and Chuck Man, the group that was there that day. They would come up with a plan.

Halibut fishing isn’t rocket science! You’ve got to know where the flatfish prefer to wait in ambush for their prey, know how to rig the live bait that’s preferred by the strong fighting fish, know how to fight them so they aren’t lost in the pilings, and have a good person handling the net. All of the members of the three teams knew the basics and all could catch fish. The only difference tended to be the age of the first two groups (generally older than the “Jockeys”) and the close attention they paid to their fishing rods. They had as good a time as anyone but they never let the friendly bantering distract them from their lines or the bait swimming down below.

The “Jockeys” on the other hand had a habit of hanging around Jim somewhat like a dog seeking a pat on its head from its master. The inattention to their rigs meant that strikes were often missed. Some of the halibut that struck their baits would still be hooked, some but not all. The group knew the problem but they just couldn’t help themselves. What could they do?

Generally Jim’s posse fished as a group at a mid-pier location on the south side called “halibut alley” while the “Dreamers” and “Dogs” rotated around the pier, the location dependent upon where they found the bait to be most thick. Staying in your spot, and fishing with your crew, was the generally accepted rule, especially for the “Jockeys” since they wanted to be close to their live bait tank. Nevertheless, various members of the “Jockeys” began to move into the areas being fished by the other two groups. One or two members, usually Mouse, Hiram, or Sprinkles, would barge right in amongst their rival groups and start non-stop conversation designed to distract their opponents. The hullabaloo they created—distractions and flouting, insulting, in-your-face behavior—would eventually cause commotion, a loss of temper, and heated exchanges.

The egregious behavior finally convinced Noble and Mikey to approach Jasper. What should they do? Both were quite willing to let things escalate if it was needed to prove a point but neither really wanted to see anyone hurt. Fishing was supposed to be fun, not a drama filled excursion where a person risked a fight. And, if truth were known, Big Jim’s young troop would have been annihilated if a real fight broke out.

Since most of this action was taking place on the weekends, the visit by Noble and Mikey, and the story they told, caught Jasper somewhat by surprise. On one hand he liked to believe that most conflicts on the pier could eventually work themselves out. At the same time he was a realist and knew that in this case violence was a distinct possibility. Based upon his understanding of Jim, and how he operated, it was easy to place the blame for the recent actions. Jim’s youthful followers might be doing the deeds, but they were simply pawns in the larger game that Jim liked to play with his followers. Only Jim could put a halt to the proceedings and Jasper knew that only he had the power to stop Jim. Jasper agreed to talk to Jim.

Unknown to others on the pier, Jasper had known Big Jim since high school. Early on Jim had shown his dubious character and been involved in cheating and a scandal that brought disgrace to both his family and the school. Jasper had followed those mistakes and kept track of Jim’s misadventures through the years. Jasper knew Jim as a young man who had narrowly escaped conviction for rape (and Jasper never understood how Jim had gotten his job as a guard at the prison). Jasper knew the Jim who had shown cowardice the one time in his life when courage was demanded. Jasper knew Jim as a sadistic guard allowed to retire with benefits rather than be charged with crimes that might soil the reputation of the Prison System itself. Jasper knew Jim as an effete, wife-beating husband who had driven his wife to drink, drugs and eventually death. And Jim had known the wife Holly as a simple and loyal young girl who never deserved such a fate.

Jasper had long detested Jim but also realized the pier was a public place open to all and had avoided confrontation. But enough was enough. If these facts were made known Jim’s entire persona and reputation at the pier would be destroyed. And now it seemed the time had arrived to use Jim’s own past actions as the passe-partout to gain his cooperation.

The next Saturday, Jasper paid a visit to Jim on the pier and quietly told him he would meet him at Jim’s car at 4 P.M. Sure enough, there was Jasper waiting for Jim when he left the pier and soon after Jasper had taken Jim for a walk. When they returned Jim was ready for the drive to his home. Jasper had given him two choices, either change his ways or move to a different pier. Jim had started to object but Jasper gave short shrift to those objections. Jim himself had created the problems and now it was up to him to solve them. It was his choice, but Jim knew that Jasper didn’t bluff; he meant business.

It seemed almost too easy, and anticlimactic, but the next weekend Jim and the “Jocks” were nowhere to be found and a peaceful tone seemed to settle over the pier. Within a few days word reached the pier that Jim and his boys had moved to a sister pier just down the coast. It wasn’t a perfect solution since the shenanigans would undoubtedly be repeated at that pier but at least they would not be taking place on the Family’s pier.

As for the halibut contest, it was won most fittingly on Christmas Day itself when Nemo and Daily, two of the most proficient “Junkyard Dog” gurus, caught nearly twin flatties of 26 and 26 ½ pounds. All seemed happy except for Big Jim who was over at his new pier when he heard the news.

There's a whole lot of people in trouble tonight
From the disease of conceit,
Whole lot of people seeing double tonight
From the disease of conceit,
Give ya delusions of grandeur
And an evil eye
Give you idea that
You're too good to die,
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit.​

“Disease of Conceit”— Bob Dylan​