The Family

Ken Jones

Staff member
Chapter One of "The Family" a book I hope to soon publish.
Chapter 1

Family Members

Most mornings the pier would awaken slowly from its city-imposed slumber and indeed that was the pattern repeated once again that morning. Only the lone, solitary figure of Jasper Robb, looking out from the northwest corner of the pier, gave evidence of humanity. A light breeze ruffled the top of the water while off in the distance the fleet of party boats could be seen heading out to the local kelp beds, reefs, sea mounts, and islands that attract Sportfish to their doom. Starting to fade, but still magnificent in its power and beauty was the moon settling into the western sea. Jasper’s only companions were a phalanx of herring gulls silently guarding the gate near the entrance to the pier.

The pier, benches, and railings were covered in the salty morning dew, a gift from Mother Sea, while the blood, guts and scales on the bait boards had yet to petrify with the arrival of the sun. The bait shop was quiet although the susurrus of its flags gave soft murmer to the pier. Ed would have the shop open by six thirty and immediately thereafter it would attract the early-bird locals eager to share in the latest gossip; a few might even buy some bait or tackle that they had failed to bring. By seven, Pam would have the small snack stand open and soon after the smell of coffee, and bacon slowly cooking on the grill, would overwhelm the senses of the anglers huddled at the end of the pier.

Yes, life can be good, especially at the start of the day when hope is always high that the fish gods will be watching and that they will decide to have mercy on the anglers who crowd the pew-like benches near the edge of the pier.

As usual, Jasper was the first to grace the pier. It was the same most mornings since the hours were changed. There was a time when the pier was open 24 hours a day and families and teenagers would camp out on the pier until the wee hours of the morn. Lovers, and wannabe lovers, would huddle under blankets pretending to keep each other warm while locals and tourists who had eaten a little too much, and perhaps drank far too much, would walk out to the end and back. It was magical at night with the shore lights reflecting off the water, the moon battling against the passing clouds, and the ghost-like phosphorescent waves engaged in their eternal conflict with the pilings.

For anglers, the nocturnal hours were the time for the sharays, the sharks and rays, and most nights would find at least a few of the local shark specialists out on the pier—many for the entire night. At times a prize would be one of the large sharks that had moved up from the deep-water canyon fronting the pier. More often the result would be powerful bat rays that glided the inshore grounds. Many notable battles took place at night but few in front of an audience. That was fine for those fishermen because it was the battle itself that provided the challenge and thrill that comes when you know you’ve battled a large fish. Most of the sharkers were solitary individuals who fished alone and they were really only upset when the pier’s waters were invaded by schools of fish or by the giant Humboldt squid. When that happened the rails at night would be lined with anglers and the room the sharkers needed to properly bait and battle the giant sharks would be lost.

But gangs, graffiti, and guzzlers—the three G’s—prompted the city to close the gates from midnight until 5 AM. No problem unless the gates were still closed at 5:01 AM and Jasper was awaitin’ entrance. The one and only time that happened to Jasper resulted in a series of early morning phone calls to the unlisted numbers of the mayor and city council members. The high-muck-a-mucks were furious that their somnolent inactivity had been disturbed, but the calls worked. Workers from the Parks Department were soon at the entrance of the pier with the keys and that morning a memo went out from the town offices to the department demanding that someone open the gates on time each morning. Jasper Robb didn’t bother to say thank you.

Jasper was a member of a group of local anglers who met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the pier. Some members fished on other days as well, but all members fished on those two days. The pleiad had been meeting for nearly a decade, and didn’t have a formal name, but little Martha called them the Family and no one objected.

Jasper was one of the first and although he often said little he was highly respected. He was as old fashioned as his name, a strong, antique kind of a man, ramrod-tall and somewhat haggard in appearance. Antique but not antediluvian, he had an encyclopedic mind that could name every fish, quote every regulation, and remember the name of every local angler, even those he didn’t particularly care to associate with. And though he was no wowser, he drew the line when it came to abusive behavior or language on the pier. In many ways he was the perfect loner but when the Family arrived he joined in and had become, in many ways, the lodestar and occasional paladin of the group. Neither he nor they could explain the change but it worked and that was all that mattered. Jasper did perhaps concentrate on his fishing a little more than the others, and almost always took some fish home to Kitty his cat—and his lone companion since the death of his wife.

His had been a long and romantic marriage, one that had ended with his wife’s illness and death. Jasper had honored her wishes and kept her at home during her final months where he personally took control of her care. His devotion was total, and his care tender, and though he could not prevent her death he had kept her comfortable and her mind filled with love. The death and the need to find an activity that would take his mind off his loss prompted him to once again take up fishing after an absence of nearly thirty years. Unfortunately Mal de Mer, common seasickness, was Jasper’s singular weakness so boats, whatever the type, were out. At the same time the jetties and surf were a tad too hard on his arthritic legs. The pier offered an attractive alternative and once he found the Family he never again ventured elsewhere. Jasper Robb was full of secrets but only time would tell if the secrets would be revealed.

George and Martha were both the elders and the aliens of the Family and sometimes when George had caught just a few too many fish—in comparison to the rest of the family—someone would suggest that he might want to return to Manila. “George you should go back and spread the fish among the masses, you’d be famous.” George would scrunch up his mouth and a bullet of liquid amber would be shot with precision into the can adjacent to his rod. “Don’t need to feed the masses there, just need to take care of you poor folk.” The bantering would go on for hours because everyone loved George and Martha. Actually, everyone adored Martha. No one would argue that she couldn’t be the mother of the country, any country. She was small but tough, funny, gregarious, compassionate and insightful. She was also one of the best fishermen although she preferred the title “lady angler.” After all, she was a lady.

Their personal stories too were discussed but only rarely. The stories of what they had seen as youth in Japanese-occupied Manila in World War II, the loss to their families, or the pain they themselves had experienced. It was now history and though they had learned lessons for life during those years, they preferred to focus on the present and the future. Martha in particular would lament that “we cannot change the past but our actions can help teach our children the correct path for the future.” And to Martha, her definition of children included not only her immediate family but also any youth that crossed her path. Some might have felt she was a meddler but it was good-natured, nurturing, and with a purpose because she never again wanted to see the hate she had seen in the days of her youth.

Ellen was a local legend. At age three her father had first brought her to the pier and by age five she could cast her miniature pole as far as anyone, and catch just about as many fish. By age seven there was no doubt that she was a special angler, a prodigy of sorts, and one who didn’t mind embarrassing the young boys—all of whom she out fished. She adored her father, the owner of the local pharmacy, a lady’s man who was handsome, charismatic, and careless all at the same time. She was his “sunshine” and he was her “hero” until the day he died at the wheel of a fast car, his second passion after fishing.

Young Ellen was devastated but returned to the pier. By age eighteen she was the cook on the boat Easy Sea and by age 25 she was part owner of the Mornin’ Dawn. By thirty-five she was a partner in the local landing and within a few years the 105-foot-long Sunshine together with its twin doppelgänger Hero were the fastest and most comfortable boats in the area. Love was another matter! By age 55 she had tired of her fourth husband and finally realized, and accepted the fact, that no man could replace her father in affection. No one knew why she returned to the pier but as always she could fish and she too was accepted into the Family.

Tim was perhaps the most reticent of the group and he rarely discussed his past. Although he had an easygoing personality and was jocular at times, he could also seem to shut down depending upon the direction of the discussions. At such times a wall would seem to spring up and his sole attention would switch to the fish. He wouldn’t discuss drugs nor how he had spent his youth but over time he gained the respect and affection of the group.

His silence on his past was needed. At a fairly early age he had entered the world of Tim Leary and his Brotherhood of Eternal Love down in Laguna. Mystic Arts World, the group’s head shop, became his second home. Soon he was involved in the production of Orange Sunshine, the potent orange acid tablets so popular among the youth of the south coast. He bought into Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers and gathered with others to meditate in the secret room before the Taxonomic Mandala. But when the so-called sex rites (aka orgies) and vegan kitchens evolved into an even greater use of drugs, along with an intricate pipeline of international producers and distributors, he began to have some doubts.

By the time the state and federal authorities began to rev up their investigations of the “Hippie Mafia,” Tim had already decided to move on. But it wasn’t easy due to the knowledge he possessed. He decided that only a total break would do and fled to Utah, a state far from the hustle and bustle of his former seaside home. Its people too seemed far different. Many were Mormons whose emphasis was often on their families and family values. Given his tumultuous youth, and the break with his family, it provided new perspective—and peace. Thirty years later he decided it was time to go home and to confront the ghosts of his past, within reason. Although by now he was a far different person, he did retain his caution and rarely joined groups. But as a youth he had fished the local piers and now he returned to that relaxing sport. One day he had fished next to the Family, another week had seen the same, and soon he was invited to share their mid-morning meal. Somehow he too became a loyal member of the Family.

Cassidy was as tough as nails and as fragile as a rose petal. Her veneer was tough and coriaceous although with her flowing blond hair and Scandinavian features she retained a grace and prettiness in the European sense. Her mannerisms reflected a patrician background and she had been married once, but widowed, and rarely discussed the marriage. She needed no one, or at least that is what she said, and she would work out the answers to life’s various puzzles on her own.

It wasn’t clear why she had first visited the pier but somehow she had found the Family, they had adopted her, and now she shared an honored spot with Martha. In fact, it was she and Martha who fixed the holiday “vittals” and made sure that the family would never go hungry. And it was Cassidy who was the first to assuage the slightest hurt. She too was the one who, with an emollient approach, would slowly and patiently teach the youngest visitors to the pier the proper way to return a fish to the water. She would rarely admit her tender side, the karuna, the compassionate nature that helped give her strength, but the Family knew and valued her all the more for her dual character.

The Professor, as George P was called (can’t have two George’s in the group), was indeed a retired professor. George P had taught at the local university for over thirty years until the day he quit in protest. If Jasper Robb was old fashioned, George P was ancient, a fossil from a different time. He had quit when the English Department decided to change the required readings. An outside group had suggested the change saying they wanted more diversity and relevance. They argued that even if it was true that the newly suggested titles did not have the prestige or agreed upon weight of traditional works, it was far more important to provide relevance to the students? Wasn’t the self-image of the students more important than readings such as Chaucer whose words and vocabulary were dated and hardly understood by modern students? Soon they included Shakespeare in the list of works to be omitted.

Within a few months the university and his colleagues in the department had agreed to the demands. George P was not only shocked but in awe that fellow professors would agree and capitulate so quickly to the pressures of the outside group. To George P it was an intellectual and personal insult and he refused to compromise in either area. The easy path might have been to acquiesce and serve out his years to retirement but George P was as hard on himself as he was on his students and so he resigned. Although he would miss his students, he would not miss such administrative nonsense or the political correctness than ran amok in the faculty.

It took “The Professor” several years to finally hit upon pier fishing as the requisite pastime and several more months to discover the Family. It took him even longer to feel comfortable joining in the jocular bantering that characterized the family’s days at the pier. As a result of his classical upbringing his tweedy nature was somewhat reserved and reverential. He dressed just a little too smart, talked just a little too professor-like, and admittedly was stuffy. Cassidy once said he was given to prolix comments, a style both excessive and boring, but the term itself was lost on all with the exception of Jasper. But George P was a good man and the Family sensed that simple fact and accepted him—even though Martha, after one of his disquisitions—said he was so stiff that he had probably never even enjoyed a good fart in his life. She said George P, a life-long bachelor, needed to get laid by a strong woman and winked at Cassidy. Cassidy just shook her head. She did however give herself the personal mission of loosening him up even if she wasn’t quite sure how she was going to do it.

Yes, it seemed a strange group, one that would never have formed let alone last as long as it had. The only thing they seemed to have in common was age, since none of the coetaneous members was younger than 50. But there was also an understood agreement that the goal was to have a good time at the pier; personal backgrounds and stories would only be exchanged if the member so desired—and there it stood. The mix worked and as time went on the bond became even stronger. It almost seemed that the Family was an actual family and truthfully, although it may be hard to admit, sometimes the friends and family you adopt really are closer than your blood siblings. You are born into a family but get to choose your friends and, depending upon your family, may find greater peace and devotion to those you choose.

These seven were the core members of the Family, they rarely if ever missed the Tuesday and Thursday meetings at the pier.

At the same time, all who visited the pier were members of the larger pier fraternity, the “Pier Rats,” an extended family of sorts, and the stories of both groups provide a glimpse into one more, even larger family, that of the world around us. Their connection, their home away from home, was the pier, a structure that had undergone transformations and renovations over its more than a century of life. It served as a homing point for local anglers as well as a stage for events and stories that are, unfortunately, rarely chronicled.

Home is a place to which one is attached by myriad habits of thought and behavior—culturally acquired, of course, yet in time they become so intimately woven into everyday existence that they seem primordial and the essence of one's being.​

—Yi-Fu Tuan, Escapism
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Well-Known Member
Great first, chapter, Ken!
I hope you post more of the story. It has the flavor of Steinbeck's Cannery Row. One of my favorite lines is from the introduction:

"How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

I look forward to seeing your characters' escapades ooze out and, "crawl in by themselves."