Sometimes there’s more to a hard day’s work than a hard day’s work.
By Angela Waldron
From our October 2016 issue.
Throughout my teenage years, my summer job was going sternman on the Penny, my father’s 32-foot wooden lobsterboat. The money was good, and I loved being on the water, but shifting from night owl to early bird always proved difficult. I’d dutifully set my alarm for 4 a.m., but Dad still had to wake me. First, he’d open my bedroom door so the baritone drone of WRKD’s weather report could drift in alongside the smell of freshly brewed coffee. When that didn’t work, he’d give me a gentle prod. And if I was still asleep after that, in a last-ditch effort, he’d climb up and jump on my bed, which I suspect he enjoyed a great deal.
I’d stumble into my work clothes and through the blindingly bright kitchen to the dining room, where Dad would be eating his cereal and toast. I usually drank my coffee in the dark of the living room, watching our reflections in the picture window, savoring the ephemeral limbo of the pre-workday.
Dinner pails in hand, we’d saunter down the lightless road to the mooring, the scuff of our rubber boots on the asphalt drowned out by the Whitehead and Two Bush Islands foghorns. The air was always thick with the smell of brine, wet wood, and spruce needles.
After Dad got seated in the rowboat, I’d assume my position facing him, crouched down in the bow, mesmerized by the otherworldly glow of green phosphorescence that exploded each time the oars hit the water. Well before 5 a.m., we’d steam out of Spruce Head Harbor toward the first string of traps.
If we were hauling offshore, I’d climb down in the hold for a quick snooze, undeterred by the clanking engine and oily fumes. Nestled into the jumble of life preservers and sweatshirts, I’d fall fast asleep. I woke instinctively to the sound of the engine slowing, a sign that we were nearing the first trap. By then, dawn would have broken, the fog lifted, and the gulls risen from slumber — flying rats we called them, since they’d try to grab a bait bag right out of your hand.
I pulled on my greasy oilskins and rank work gloves. Using the gaff, Dad would catch the rope and pull the buoy onto the winch, which yanked up the wooden trap in a spray of saltwater and a cacophony of snapping lobster claws and scuttling crab legs. My job was to open the trap, clean out sea urchins, save rock crabs for my mother to boil and pick, remove the old bait bag, and string on a fresh one. Dad, meanwhile, tossed back the shorts and notched females and measured the keepers. I plugged the lobsters’ claws so they couldn’t harm each other, worked on my quota of 200 bait bags a day, and tried to deter the seagulls.
We’d break for coffee about halfway through, after hauling 100 or so traps, and eat lunch while idling to the next string of traps. But one day, a peculiar sort of ennui descended on us, an awakening of the dormant restlessness that plagued us both. We looked down in the lobster crate, nearly full already, then at the Ritz crackers and peanut butter we kept on board, and then at each other. Dad said, “We’ve got enough lobsters for the day, how ’bout we quit while we’re ahead and steam to Rockland for some breakfast? No one will ever know.”
The change of plans felt easy, even familiar, although we’d never done it before. Dad headed us full throttle for Rockland while I finished filling bait bags in record time. Then I stood in the house with him, looking out over the horizon, lost in newfound reverie. He handed over the wheel for the next hour as we passed the northern tip of Monroe Island, Owls Head Light, and the Rockland Breakwater. We tied up at the public landing and, in our cut-off flannel shirts and high rubber boots, walked up Park Street to the Wayfarer East.
The Wayfarer, an old hotel and restaurant, was a Rockland institution. It had a dark, shabby bar that smelled of stale cigarette smoke, but it put on a good feed, served by career waitresses who knew each customer by name and order. Frances was working, a neighbor of ours — with her teased hair, red lipstick and matching nails, hoop earrings, and sparkling rings, she was unlike any of the other lobstermen’s wives I knew. Chewing gum, she looked us over and said, “Well, if it ain’t a couple of Spruce Headers. Aren’t you supposed to be haulin’?”
“Jeez, Frannie,” Dad said. “Just had to come to town and have breakfast. Don’t tell on us!” Sitting there mid-morning with scrambled eggs and sausage felt downright wicked. We drank coffee, ate, and chatted with Frances, who stopped by to give us warm-ups and ask how the family was doing, and wasn’t fishing just awful right now? No lobsterman discloses how good the catch is, and since I knew the season had been producing record catches — the very reason we knocked off work in the first place — I simply nodded. “It’s been just terrible, really.”
We had to get back to Spruce Head to sell what we’d already caught, but neither of us wanted to break what felt like a daydream. A day like any another day of lobstering had become something illicit and idyllic. It was the day I learned that a sense of fun and freedom can endure even in upstanding adults and that commitment to hard work and routine isn’t undone by occasionally seizing a moment and bucking responsibility. It turns out, we’re a lot alike, Dad and I. After one last cup of coffee, we said goodbye to Frances, feeling full, free, and happy.