Uncle Joe would always take me to Broad Channel in the Rockaways. He knew the grizzled old man who rented the rowboats, and they commiserated about how their wives were driving them crazy. I used this time to transfer the fishing gear from Uncle Joe's two-tone '54 Chevy into the boat. Rods, reels, bushels, crab nets, and of course, a cooler filled with cans of Ballantine Beer and Cokes in the bottle. Uncle Joe would walk out of the boat shack carrying the bait fish we would be using for the day. "Let's go Junior" he would say. We rarely spoke except maybe to comment on the fishing. Uncle Joe chain-smoked Camel after Camel, lighting one with the stub of its predecessor. Like my Dad, he died of lung cancer, a smoker to the end.
When Uncle Joe's health began to fail, I was handed off to cousin Pete where my fishing education continued. Pete lived upstairs from us, and out of all my cousins, I liked him best. He was an ex-sailor and always seemed to be in a good mood. Pete took me to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn where the big charter boats left for a day's fishing. We'd pack a lunch and leave very early in the morning. Typically the boats left the dock at 7 am and came in at 11 am or 3 pm depending on whether you paid for a half-day or a full-day's fishing. They supplied tackle if you needed it, but we usually brought our own.
The people on these charter boats were very companionable...young guys in groups interested more in drinking beer than fishing; veterans who fished almost every day and sold their catch to the restauranteurs who were waiting at the dock on our return; fathers, sons, uncles, grandfathers, even an occasional girl who had to turn a deaf ear to the colorful language that flew whenever a fish got away. It would take an hour or so to reach the fishing grounds, during which time most of us slept. We fished for flounder, fluke, porgies, and when I got older, fighting bluefish. My father hated fishing, so I was lucky enough to have Uncle Joe and cousin Pete to fill in.
Some years ago we visited cousin Pete, his wife Leah, and their daughter Maryellen and her family in Tempe, Arizona where they moved in the early 1960s. Shortly after the move, Pete's son Peter was killed in a motorcycle accident, a tragedy Pete never got over. It was a great visit, spent reminiscing about Pete's days as a pizza chef in Sportsman's Cafe on Fulton Street. Sadly, Pete was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's at the time, but as is typical of people with this disease, remembered more about the past than the present. They didn't get to see much of the family after moving west, and I know our trip meant a lot to him. I didn't get to tell him how much the time we spent together fishing meant to me, but somehow, I hope he knew.
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