I finally turned 47 when my dad died.
I’m still not sure how I found myself, a 40 year old man, sitting in my dad’s boat with an orange “Mae West” floatation device strapped to my body as we looked for his crab pots in a lee inlet within 100 feet from shore. Then again, I was fishing with my dad and something would have been amiss had I not been wearing it.
It was just the two of us and there were other perfectly good life vests in his 16 foot Lund, but for some reason he wouldn’t let me in the boat until I strapped the bright orange life preserver to my body. Dutifully hanging it over my head, I snapped the rusty clasps shut with as much anger as I could muster. There was no arguing – I had to wear the vest, but there was no way I was going to attach the strap that goes under the legs to keep it from flying off in in case you do fall in, so I let it dangle behind me like dirty white tail hook.
“Snap the leg strap, John!”
I turned without a word and walked with as much dignity as I could muster through the sunbathers, fellow fishermen, and families enjoying a pleasant day at the beach. Ignoring the snickering and pointing children and tugging at the tail strap every few feet to free it from the cracks and crevices it kept getting stuck in, I made my way to the boat. I climbed in and sat there in the bow, knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed to push the boat off from shore for fear that I might fall in or get wet.
Putting on a “Mae West” life preserver may keep you safe in the event that you get knocked out and thrown overboard, but there is a reason that no one has ever called it a “dignity preserver.” There is nothing life-affirming about wearing one. It’s like wearing a “cone of shame” to keep you from biting or scratching yourself or like being forced wear adult diapers on the outside of your pants and then having to walk down main street.
I was wearing this particular flotation device because, in my dad’s eyes, I was in a perpetual state of being six years old. Because I labored in this perpetual state of sixness I was never allowed, in his presence, to start the gas grill, lean against a deck rail, use spray paint or solvent, and, I always had to stand at the top of the boat ramp while he launched the boat by himself. If anything he owned could potentially kill me he would not allow me near it. It was like his house had been child-proofed for his 40 year old son and all potentially harmful items were removed from his garage, shop or house and stored in an undisclosed location when I came over.
It’s not like I’m totally helpless. I change my own oil, remodel houses, use chop saws regularly, drive boats, mix gas, use a snow blower, and carve a really mean turkey and never once have I had to make a quick trip the ER with a piece of my body on ice so it wouldn’t die before it could be reattached. But in Earl’s eyes I was the kid that had to wear a “special” helmet when I walked down the street in case I fell down or accidentally walked into a street sign.
His entire life he worried that something would kill me unexpectedly and his relationship to me always reflected that. He didn’t go as far as smoothing all the sharp corners in the house, but he did give away his boat, his classic car and his golf cart so I wouldn’t get them after he died. His single greatest fear was that something he once owned, that I now owned, would kill me or one of my kids. It was so frustrating and made me want to scream and run circles around him with a pair of scissors in each hand and a butcher knife clutched between my teeth point first.
Because of Earl’s morbid fear of my death, there were certain rules that I always had to obey in his presence and one of them was to never, ever stand up in a boat. This had been so thickly ingrained in me for so long that when I took a ferry ride from Seattle to Port Townsend I never stood up once.
If you have labored under this particular penal institution then you will know that there are certain things that are made extremely difficult if you aren’t allowed to stand in a boat, like pulling up crab pots or peeing over the edge. I never got good at pulling up crab pots while seated, but I became a master at the other.
NB: Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. I WAS able to stand up in a boat on occasion, but only if my dad or mom had a hold of the back of my pants, which made it difficult and more embarrassing to do the aforementioned.
As I got older I almost always patently refused to get in the boat with my dad, but he had promised that people were hauling crab by the bucketful and that he had dropped his pots the day before and would need help hauling them. I love crab so much that I was willing to endure almost anything and that is how I found myself sitting in the bow of the boat wearing a bright orange life vest on a sunny, flat calm day as people frolicked and played all around us.
The trip to the pots took all of about sixty seconds and as my dad cut the motor I began preparing to pull the pots. I stood up slowly (so I wouldn’t swamp us) and leaned over the railing to get the buoy, but before I knew what was going on his hand shot out and had me by the back of the pants. He was a very strong man and had dug deep and had such a large handful of pants and underwear that I could barely move.
I squeaked, “Dad! You’ve got to let go.”
“Grab the pot.”
“Dad! Let go!”
“You’re going to miss it. Grab the pot.”
I stood there for a second facing away from him with my arms crossed and his hand firmly clasped to my posterior, giving me an unintended atomic wedgie. Defeated, I leaned over to grab the pot and found myself stuck in a sort of limbo between the water and my struggling father. I grabbed the rail of the skiff and pulled myself closer and stretched my arm out to grab the buoy, but the more I stretched towards the buoy, the more he tried to keep me in the boat.
“Dad! You’ve gotta give me some slack.”
“You’ll be fine. Get the buoy.”
“Dad, lighten up. Let go!”
“Get the buoy.”
He was like the counter-balance to my 200 pounds and my pants were the fulcrum. I leaned as far as I could and felt my pants reposition. Cold air greeted areas of my body that were not used to the elements and I knew that I was exposing my white shininess for all the world to see. I was giving Earl a harvest moon in the middle of the summer and it made the indignation somewhat easier to bare (sic).
As I struggled, the “Mae West” ran up around my ears (effectively shutting out all sound) until all that could be seen of me was my hat and eyes. The muffled world that I was now lost in gave me a renewed focus and all that mattered was grabbing the buoy. I was vaguely aware of Earl’s voice, and assuming that he was telling me not to kill myself, ignored him and pushed off hard with my legs, stretching my entire length and catching the buoy like a rider catching the ring on a carousel.
I held it up in triumph and grabbed for the side of the boat to pull myself in, but the extra weight of the buoy and wet line tipped the scale in my direction and I felt my pants slip down quite a bit more. I was floundering, literally, as I flailed to catch my balance. I made a last ditch effort to fling my arm over the rail and as I twisted, the belt on my pants gave way and I hove into the water with a near perfect entry (except for a large splash that would have resulted in a 5/10 deduction from the Russian judge).
The “Mae West” is designed to flip an unconsciousness victim over in the water to keep them from drowning. It worked as designed and I bobbed once face down and then, against my struggling will, was on my back looking into a clear blue sky. I was also looking at a ski boat filled with people, none of them wearing life vests, mind you (in fact there were one or two women wearing less than life vests).
I bobbed there between the boats trying desperately to keep my pants from falling down and trailing beneath me like a Portuguese Man-of-War. It was impossible to re-embark into my own boat with one arm holding my pants up and if I used both arms I was sure to burn up on re-entry. My dad (all thoughts of me gone from his mind) was having a pleasant conversation, telling these nice people where the best fishing and crabbing was.
Ever the gentleman, he pointed to me.
“Any of you ever been to Pullman?” he asked. They all nodded. “My son runs WSU. Go Cougs! Right John?”
I feebly waved and tried to tell them that I worked at the bookstore.
Dad interrupted me to tell them where he had once caught a huge salmon. He pointed and gesticulated with my belt and even gave them his number to call him if they needed further information. For the life of me though I didn’t see any fishing gear on that boat. They waved, turned off their cameras and sped away.
After they left I pulled myself over the side of the boat like a walrus beaching itself (Dad was still waving and yelling, “Go Cougs!, Go Cougs! Go Cougs!”). I struggled to reattach my belt to my wet pants and thought of pushing him in as he watched them speed off.
“You know,” he said without turning towards me, “nice people. I’ve never met anyone from WSU that I didn’t like.”
I hadn’t let go of the buoy when I fell in and it sat at my feet. I stood to pull the pot and dad’s hand instantly reached for me. I spun towards him and held up my finger (my index one in case you were wondering).
“Uh uh! Don’t even think about it.” He turned away slowly and then quickly back again. That trick hadn’t worked in 34 years and I hadn’t moved. Defeated he sat down, rummaged through his bag and poured himself a cup of coffee. I flinched instinctively and began pulling up the pot.
It was heavy and when I finally got it to the boat I could see that it was stuffed with crab. I hefted it over the rail and the crabs ran all over the boat. I deftly picked up the little ones and the girls and tossed them over the edge. The legal ones I plopped into a 5 gallon bucket.
My dad sat on the back seat and pulled the bucket between his legs and began cleaning the crab by ripping off the shell, breaking them in half and washing them in the water.
I was still chasing the small crabs around the boat and trying to clean the star fish and sea weed from underneath the seats when my dad let out a blood curdling scream and strung together the finest pearl necklace of profanities that I have ever heard anyone utter.
I turned to see him making a valiant effort to shed a crab that had reached up, in a last act of defiance, and grabbed a beautiful clawful of the tender skin right smack in the middle of Dad’s inner thigh. If the Dungeness had reached for the low hanging fruit I would have felt terrible, but as it was it seemed to me to be about the right amount of retribution and I smiled inwardly, a warm glow filling my heart.
With a spring that only joy can produce I leapt over the seat and with a hard tug pulled the crab from his leg (like ripping a band-aid off of a hairy leg, quick, but not pain free). Dad howled in agony as the crab came free and he leaned back, gripping the bleeding spot with both hands. When his back was turned I slipped the offending crab over the edge of boat and plopped it into the water.
Dad turned, looking with death in his eyes for the crab.
“It slipped out of my hands, Dad, and fell into the water.”
“Well, shoot.” Only he didn’t say shoot.
He looked in disbelief over the edge of the boat and watched as the crab sank slowly to the mirky bottom. My cheerfulness left me as I saw the pain in his eyes and I reached up and grabbed firmly onto the back of his pants – just to be safe.