* * *
I was a bit nervous about meeting Alden for lunch even though Irealized this was ridiculous. But I wondered how Alden, aftertwenty-five years of being on the offering end of advice in ourfriendship, would react to listening to what had become a majorconcern of mine: his health. Twenty-seven years my senior,Alden considers himself wiser than me, and I suppose in mostmatters this is true. However, this truly tough, outspoken mentorof mine does not always use good judgment when it comes to hisown well-being, and I had become worried to the point of beingscared. Anyone in his right mind who had undergone heart surgeryand understood the doctor's prognosis that Alden had receivedwould be timid about getting out of bed in the morning,never mind climbing aboard a boat and heading offshore to haullobster traps until well after dark. Today, I had vowed to myself,would be the time to broach the subject of Alden's retirementfrom fishing. This would not be easy.
Having spent most of my life fishing offshore, I tend to see theworld through salt-rimmed glasses. My friend, far saltier than I,claims to have "pissed more saltwater than you have sailed over,"and this might be true. Fishing is not what Alden does for a living;it is what he is. The fact that Alden had been diagnosed with congestiveheart failure and had barely survived the installation of variouspieces of hardware and a pacemaker/defibrillator was anindication to me that fishing might well be the death of Alden.Even lobstering can be brutal work, and Alden too frequently goesout alone. But suggesting to Alden that he give up fishing was likeasking him to give up life. My best friend's entire identity and lifeare killing him, I thought as I drove to Portland; what a quandary.
Walter Alden Leeman Jr. has been my best friend since 1979.People always look at me strangely when I introduce Alden tothem as "my best friend." They smile politely and shake his hand,but their eyes show thoughts of disbelief like, "You're kidding,right? This short, fat old man is your best friend?" I have beenwitnessing this reaction from others ever since the start of ourfriendship, and now feel compelled to explain what most folks regardas an unlikely pairing.
Readers weary of books in the inspirational mode can relax.Although I do often refer to Alden as a mentor, I am quick toqualify. I have received some of the worst advice (professional andpersonal) from my best friend, Alden Leeman. While his friendshiphas enriched my life, his influence hasn't all been for thegood. Apparently, it never was intended to be all good, as is evidentin the amount of pride Alden takes in claiming to have created"quite a monster."
In the realm of bad advice, Alden's has been the best. Thefirst pearl of wisdom Alden gave me was the instruction not tobother paying back my student loan. In his opinion, no one paidthe government back for college loans and I should not be asucker. "Hell, if you wait 'em out, you'll receive amnesty like allof the others." The only things I received from the governmentwere interest and penalties. Alden was at least consistent in his financialadvice, urging me to treat American Express similarly. Itcost me a small fortune to square with the IRS, and there's not acredit card company that will touch me. Even the Money Storeand "Credit for Losers" laugh when I apply.
Alden's counsel for me in the personal-relations departmenthas not been stellar. How many times have I endured the followingunsolicited recommendation: "You have a lot to do in this lifetime,and you do not need a man dragging you down. You get tooserious with some jerk and he'll be like an anchor around yourneck. And never get married until you are just too old to do anythingelse."
In addition to receiving poor advice, I have learned most ofmy bad habits from my observations of, and association with,Alden. To his credit, Alden never set out to teach me to drink likea fish or swear like a pirate-those attributes just sort of rubbedoff during our many years of friendship.
The many years began when, at the age of nineteen, I signedon as a crew member aboard Alden's swordfishing vessel. Commercialfishing was, at that time, a summer job to help pay mycollege tuition. I literally fished my way through school withAlden as my captain. Looking back twenty-four years, I am unsurewhether my initial infatuation was with the captain or withthe lifestyle of the blue-water fisherman. But I don't suppose itmatters much now. The first eight years of my fishing career werein the employ of Alden, and he gave me my first shot at being acaptain. I can say with confidence that Alden Leeman is one ofthe savviest fishermen (or boat people, in general) that I have metin all my time on, in, and around saltwater. I have learned morefrom my best friend than I have from everyone else from whomI've learned anything-and that's saying a lot, as I can learnsomething from anyone.
Fishing, gear, seamanship, navigation, boats, rigging-allvery important aspects of my education, but nowhere near as interestingas the life lessons Alden has unknowingly shared. Andnothing is more fun for me to talk about than what I would referto as the "incidental education" bestowed upon me in my alliancewith Alden. Perhaps one of the more poignant revelations thathas come to me from our relationship is that there is quite a varietyof bases on which to pin a friendship. The barometer forfriendship covers a wide range. If asked to explain my friendshipwith Alden, I would answer with something like, "Alden has beena great mentor in my career, as well as a confidant in my personalaffairs. Alden has always been there for me (yadda, yadda ...).He has helped me out financially on many occasions, never askinga single question as to why I might need several thousand dollarsat any given time." Alden, if asked the same question about me,would respond, "Linda is my best friend because she has bailedme out of jail more than once, and pulled me out of the oceantwice too." Alden has not learned a single thing from me, nor hashe ever asked for my opinion or for my advice about anything. It'snot that I haven't had any to offer, but, unlike Alden, I have neverbeen one to push unsolicited into someone else's business. Todaywould be different.
One of the neatest lessons I have soaked up in the course ofour friendship is always to recognize the special look in a man'seyes just before he punches another man's lights out. It is a veryparticular and definite look, and one that I have witnessed manytimes just prior to my friend getting the shit beaten out of him ina barroom. Alden is adamant about never having hit another manfirst, but I am usually around to remind him that he also has aknack for taunting the most innocent and gentle person intoswinging a roundhouse to his nose. The word "goad" comes tomind when contemplating Alden's social graces.
In spite of his bad habits and shortcomings, Alden is the mostamazing man I've ever encountered and has been my most loyalfriend. I feel privileged to have been influenced, both negativelyand positively, by our friendship-and I wonder how I could everthink of him in the past tense.
Today, damned close to the age of seventy, Alden has fortunatelymellowed to a state that allows some people (in addition tome) actually to like him. Although this helped me feel relativelysure that we would not be tossed from the Dry Dock bar, wherewe had agreed to meet, I nervously hoped that Alden had maturedenough to take to heart the advice I would soon be givinghim. That our relationship had ripened was evident from the maturenature of the topics of our conversation while alone. In thecompany of others, we Were as adolescent as ever, all talk being ofboats and fishing.
As I entered the bar, I was disheartened to see it was crowded,so I anticipated more shoptalk than the pouring out of hearts. Iwasn't surprised, just disappointed. Thanks to a combination ofgreat location and great food, the Dry Dock is seldom quiet. Locatedon Portland's Commercial Street, the Dry Dock is a shortwalk downhill for merchants and bankers and lawyers whoseplaces of business are in the Old Port section of Maine's largestcity. To its east is a ferry terminal that accommodates boats servicingthe islands of Casco Bay, and to its west are working docks.So, there is always an interesting mix of patrons. I poked my headaround the door and saw that Alden had also just arrived. I firstnoticed that his hair, which he wears as short as possible withoutactually shaving his scalp, was totally white. When did that happen?I wondered. His face was as red as always and his eyes thesame deep blue. I nearly made the mistake of mentioning his personalpatriotic display of our flag's colors, but bit my tongue. Ihad a mission, and didn't want to get off focus. Alden wouldnever forgive me if I were so foolish as to mention his failinghealth in front of anyone. So, I would have to be careful. It wouldbe a chore to get Alden to share anything other than his many seastories.
Almost everyone loves a sea story. And unless it's the deck of aboat, there's no better forum for sea stories than a barroom. Thebeauty of the barroom is the audience. A waterfront watering holelends itself to top performances in that the storytellers must reacha broad audience. It's a challenge, really, and the most successfulevents begin one on one, two fishing buddies sharing a beer.There's a special knack the best storytellers have that draws an audiencein, and a real pride they take in watching total strangersstrain to listen while pretending to carry on their peripheral boredom.The greatest talent is exhibited by those who inspire uninvitedparticipation from what was once the audience. No one isbetter at gathering a crowd than my friend Alden.
Our usual greeting of a warm bear hug assured me that hehadn't lost his tremendous strength, and the joy in his face indicatedthat he was in top form and ready to have a good time. Heseemed to sense my intention to talk about something unfamiliar,and that this made me uneasy, and was at the top of his game insteering the conversation and all attention elsewhere. But one ofthe many lessons I have learned from Alden is persistence.
* * *
FREQUENTLY USED EXCUSES FOR NO FISH
1. The bait was rotten. 2. The weather was unfishable. 3. Inferior gear or tackle. 4. They weren't biting. 5. Incompetent crew. 6. Broken or outdated equipment or boat. 7. Wind from the east. 8. No fish around. 9. Spot fished out. 10. Too many sharks.
EXCUSE NEVER USED FOR NO FISH
1. I'm a lousy fisherman.
* * *
Unless the weather is awful enough to keep Portland's fishingfleet tied to the few remaining commercial wharfs, the lunchtimecrowd at the Dry Dock is mostly the type that wears businesscasual. Well, it was just before Christmas, and the weatherwas bad enough to line the bar with some familiar fishing facessupported by necks braced in hooded sweatshirts-the men withneckties huddled in twos and fours at the many sturdy woodentables forming the next band out from the core of the bar. Todaythere was a definite third ring, at the perimeter windowseats and far corners, comprised of shoppers with bags at theirfeet, island dwellers waiting for the next ferry, and a table offour women who had the look of a luncheon bridge club. Theyappeared to be taking a break from a rigorous morning of cardsfor the best haddock sandwiches in town and glasses of wine."Sit at the bar?" Alden asked, nodding toward the only emptystools.
"No, let's wait for that table," I responded with a nod in theopposite direction. There was a young couple who seemed to bepaying their bill.
"The bar would be more fun."
"We're not here for fun. We're here for lunch. And besides,look who's at the bar-George Pusey and Tommy Tucker. Noway are we sitting near them." I took a step toward the table aboutto be vacated by the young couple and prayed that the two fishermenwould not see us. They might possibly behave like humansin this atmosphere, but why take a chance? I considered the probabilityof sounding paranoid, and decided not to mention my theorythat these two men had been following me for the past severalyears. I thought I had seen the last of them when I left swordfishing,and then they showed up on my island with a leaky old wooden lobsterboat. They weren't any better at catching lobster than theyhad been with swordfish, so they resorted to becoming handymen.When the Island Boys repair and maintenance business wentunder, George and Tommy left the Island for Portland and founda couple of rusted slabs with which to attempt fishing again.
"G.P. and Double T, I'll be damned ... I haven't seen themin a million years. We should say 'Hi' and buy them a drink,"Alden suggested. Was his memory really that poor? I wondered.Turning to face my friend, I crossed my arms at my chest andstared into his eyes, hoping not to have to remind him of a previousencounter that had left him unconscious. Of course, that wasin another bar on the other side of Commercial Street, one of the"three doors of hell," as the fishermen refer to the three raucousdrinking establishments stumbling distance from the Dry Dock. Isuspected that George and Tommy's presence on this side of thestreet might have been due to their having been banished fromthe rowdier spots. I couldn't remember a single time I had everseen either of the pair leave a bar unescorted by bouncers or menin blue uniforms. I had a vision of blue flashing lights in our nearfuture. A spark of recognition was followed by a broad smile asAlden had a change of heart about where we should sit. "Let'sgrab that table before someone else gets it." So, we took seats at anewly vacated table next to the ladies' bridge group.
As I hung my jacket on the back of my chair and sat down, Icouldn't help but notice that Alden looked tired. I was certainthat he must be consumed by concern for his health and might berelieved to have a candid conversation with me, sharing worriesand perhaps finding some consolation in confiding his deepestthoughts and fears. Alden surveyed the room like a cowboy lookingfor a gunfight and finally sat with his back against the wall. Iknew Alden well enough to realize he would never initiate dialogueon a subject he would generally regard as "soft" or "girltalk." Real men don't discuss their health problems in a barroom.Over a drink with a buddy, real men speak only of snow tires andbaseball and fishing.
Excerpted from All Fishermen Are Liarsby Linda Greenlaw Copyright © 2004 by Linda Greenlaw. Excerpted by permission.
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