Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Aucoot Cove, Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.
This timeline made by the Mashpee Wampanoag says it.
There is a power to growing up in the land of Massasoit, in southeastern Massachusetts. As William Faulkner wrote, here the past is not the past. The present is some college kid at a clam bake talking away while an old person is patiently trying to tell a story. The present is also the old person telling the story, since they were once that young kid, talking over an old woman or man. Ultimately, the present and past is the story itself, told and retold, each time with some loss and perhaps with a useful embellishment. The story never fully dies, since its source will always be that spot where the water laps against the sand on which the storytellers and listeners stand.
If we are young enough when we first hear this story, if our ears and eyes are not yet closed, we remember this story not as words but as smell and sound and sight at night. The smell is of saltwater and a fire of dried, burning eel grass against a granite fire pit with Sagittarius rising over Bird Island as we kids drift asleep in the sand to the whisper of the waves. The sound is that eerie, faint bong of a bell buoy way out at Centerboard Shoal late at night, or a nylon rope lightly clanging off the aluminum mast of a sailboat moored on the sandbar when the remnant of an ocean swell pushes the boat briefly up and down. The sight, very late at night, is the weird luminescence of heat lightning from a summer thunderstorm way down near Cotuit (they must be getting belted), and the blue-white sparkle of plankton that follow the shape of a wooden oar as it dips into the water just outside the breakwater, when the seawater is warmer than the air. And then there's the feel, of a scratchy wool blanket over your salt-encrusted skin as the June Bugs bounce off the screen door next to the yellow-bulbed light.
Like June Bugs, we of Aucoot Cove are always trying to come home, bouncing off that rusty screen.
If you look at a satellite photo of Buzzards Bay, it's a strange, jagged gash. But to me it's like a picture of my hand. I know every curve and spit and point of it. Not really, since I've never actually been to Scraggy Neck or Squeteague Harbor. I learned about them from a big map.
From when I first could read, a map of Buzzards Bay framed by a 1 inch rope was my map of the world. We were on the west side. The rest of the world was on the east side.
Our world was Aucoot Cove, Strawberry Point, the Holly Woods, Converse Point, Seal Rocks, Hiller Cove, Butler Point, Bird Island, Ram Island, the Bowbells and Centerboard Shoals. It's as far as we could go. But not as far as we could see. So as a kid I sat in the sand and seaweed by day and night and looked across Buzzards Bay to Scraggy Neck and Wings Neck and wondered what it was like 'over there.' And I wondered what they thought when they looked back at us. Did they even look at us? Did they speak the same language and eat the same food?
The other side of the world I could only see by faint, blinking blue lights at night; by day by telescope, the heat making mirages off the water making the beach cottages at Wings Neck and Cataumet look like Arabian Estates glistening in a weird Saharan heat.
Cleveland's Ledge was the border of the unexplored world to the south. Mr. Bob Moore next door said that soldiers would walk back and forth standing guard on the Cleveland's Ledge Light.
Through a telescope, everything always seemed to look better on the other side of Buzzards Bay. Through binoculars, one day, I think I thought I saw the soldiers standing at attention at Cleveland's Ledge, dressed in full Navy blue and white.
Later I learned that Mr. Bob Moore was fibbing, like when my Uncle Ollie pointed to oyster shells glued to the rocks where we swam and said sharks came in at high tide and ate the tops off them.
By age 10 I knew every spot, spit and point on Buzzards Bay. Wampanoag names. Sippewissett. Sippican. Aucoot. Weweantitt. Tihonet. Cohackett. Cataumet. Agawam. Mattapoisset. Mashnee. Pocasset. Nasketucket.
In Buzzards Bay on Route 6, a neon motel sign said, "Vacation." The next neon sign said, "No Vacation." I thought some motels welcomed people on vacation, but others did not.
Later, my father told me those signs said "Vacancy."
One July morning, my father said to my cousin Paul Hurley as we drove over the Sippican River to Wareham to buy some clam necks for scup bait, "Can you drink? No, but Sippican."
One morning, at about 8, my father had gone back to Easton to work trimming doctors' wives shrubs and gardens on the west side of Brockton. It was half tide on a still July morning. Buzzards Bay was calm and the water was 70. You could canoe across to Cuttyhunk. The air was like drinking chamomile tea. I said, "Ma, I'm going swimming" and she said okay. I swam and dove all along the rocks of the breakwater trying to see sea perch and scup and blowfish and maybe an eel or a horseshoe crab.
There was no sound except the tiny lap of the remnants of waves from Nantucket Sound feebly hitting the barnacles of Aucoot Cove, at Eel Rock. Once I was underwater, all sound from above stopped. I liked this. No one could yell at me or tell me to come in. If they tried, I could come up to get a quick breath and go back down underwater and pretend I never heard them.
Being underwater in Aucoot Cove became my sanctuary and my world. I learned how to keep my eyes open in saltwater and how to get used to it and how to hold my breath for as long as possible.
Every minute or so, I came up for breath and went down again into the eel grass and sand beyond the breakwater. I was by myself underwater in Aucoot Cove, looking for moon snails and starfish and bluecrabs and whatever I could find. My mother was in the beach cottage, making toast. The sun was coming up higher.
My father was working on the Promised land, at Bassetts Island, at Dr. and Mrs. Benedict's on Pocasset. It was the promised land for my Dad. He would plant a shrub and then walk down to the rocks and cast out a 1 ounce Atom purple and white popper into the surf beyond the rocks and catch a 20 pound striped bass. And then he would go back to work, filling in the soil around the arbor vitae he was planting. It was a place I would only see once, when I worked for my dad.
Dr. Benedict's house was one of those faint blue lights we only saw at night across Buzzards Bay from Aucoot Cove.
When we drove up Route 6 from Mattapoissett to Buzzards Bay past the neon signs of the gift shops selling Indian baskets and shells and salt water taffy and then down to Mattapoisett past the giant 40 foot metal sea horse, I sat in the back seat of our grey 1971 Impala, at dusk, wishing we could stop at all these places. We did always stop at the A&P in Mattapoisset where they put your grocery bags on a conveyor belt with steel wheels. We always stopped at the bait shop on Rt. 6 in Mattapoisett where my brother wanted to buy hooks the size of horseshoes to catch Jaws in our 8 foot skiff. We also stopped a lot at the little grocery store in Marion, Jimmy's Variety, next to the cemetery, run by the Asian family, which was the first Asian family I had ever met. But we never stopped at the Short Wave Grill.
At the beginning of Aucoot Road everyone was dark complected and named "Alvarez" and "Souza" -- but when you got near the water most people were more white complected and named "Moore" and "Mostrom" -- except for the Italians from Needham, Al and Elva Zaffini, and Fiorina and Henry Baldelli, and their friend Carl "Carly" Cardenali, the serious, laconic, athletic fisherman with a faded blaze orange sweatshirt cut off above the elbows. When I was 8 years old I wanted to be like Carly when I grew up. A Man of the Sea.
Al and Elva Zaffini and Fiorina and Henry Baldelli are an example of brother and sister marrying brother and sister. Al Zaffini married Henry's sister, Elva; Henry married Al's sister, Fiorina. Fiorina's brother-in-law was also her real brother, Al; Elva's brother in-law, Henry, was also her real brother.
The temperament between Al Zaffini and my dad could not be more extreme. My dad was a quiet, soft-spoken Swede and Al was hmm ... a bit louder. Poor Henry could never get a word in edgewise and Carly just never said much. Al was the megaphone of Harbor Beach. If he wanted to ask someone a question, he just stood on the seawall and yelled it across three beaches. Al was also quite competitive when it came to striper and bluefish fishing. He came up with the 'three-cast' rule down in the cove. We'd be down there at the big rock at the back end of Aucoot Cove at sunset casting plugs, which was my dad's favorite fishing spot, and Al would come roaring down in his 9 hp Evinrude, stop a few hundred yards away, unhook his casting rod, make three casts with a popper, and yell over to us, "Hey Allan! if you don't get a hit after three casts, they're not down here!" And then he would start up the motor and go out to Converse Point or Bird Island or back to the beach for supper. Then we'd keep casting 'til dark and usually catch some.
My dad had his own Zaffini-like rule, which was kind of the opposite of Al's, which he invoked when I was getting tired and hungry down in the cove. He'd say, "Okay, five more casts, unless I get a swirl or a strike." A swirl got 3 more casts, a strike got 5 more. But a 'swirl' behind the popper or rebel was kind of hard to define, especially at dark, so sometimes I think my father called 'swirl' just to get 3 more casts even if none of us actually saw a swirl. Sometimes I think he just jerked the rod back to make a swirl even if there wasn't one, then he'd say, "See, I got a swirl: that's three more casts." And Timmy and I would say, "Dad, that wasn't a swirl, you just made it my twitching the lure real hard." And then we'd all argue about the 'swirlness' of the alleged swirl for another half hour and by that time it was pitch dark.
Al Zaffini and Carly had a beautiful navy blue and white boat called "Noni" with a MacKenzie Cuttyhunk inboard, that they would take out to Quicks Hole every Saturday and Sunday morning and come back at 3 or 4 with about 5 barrels of stripers and blues that they would sell at the New Bedford fish market to pay for the diesel fuel it took to get out to Quicks Hole. Until all the fish got caught in the 1980s. Then they only needed one trash barrel, then none, and then they just stopped going out. All the stripers and blues were gone.For about eight years you couldn't even catch a 14 inch striped bass in Buzzards Bay.
My dad died of a massive heart attack in Aucoot Cove, in July 1996, just like his own dad, Edgar Watts, did in July 1974. They were both in a boat, right near the shore, over a sand bar, with eel grass waving up at them. The last thing they saw was the eel grass and maybe a conch and a little eel. Their stories about Aucoot Cove stopped when they went into it and didn't come back up.
On Sundays in the summer our relatives from around Brockton would invade Mattapoisett for a cook-out after church. But my brother Timmy was so intent on fishing every hour he was not asleep that he would sit with binoculars on the rocks and look out across the cove for any sign of breaking fish. And if we saw some, he and I took the wooden skiff and would row out to attack. Sometimes the breaking fish were small bluefish, maybe 3 pounds. These were not tinker or snapper blues, which were only about 10 inches long, but a year or two bigger and, as they say, 'fit for the sporting angler.'
One afternoon, we got out to the little school and chased it and Timmy caught one but the hook was a ways deep off its lip. We needed to unhook it to catch some more, which we threw back anyways. But still. Fish on !!! And the school was moving fast across the cove. I was the oars-man. So Timmy went into our dad's tackle box and found a wooden match, broke it in half and used it to prop up the bluefish's mouth like a tent pole. He almost had the hook out when the wooden match collapsed. Timmy's fingers were in the bluefish's mouth down to his knuckles and the bluefish started going "arghh ... argghh ... snap ... arghh" on Timmy's fingers. Then we sat in the little boat and looked at his fingers and I said, "Wow, you're really bleeding a lot." And then we started rowing to where the school of blues had just moved to.
It wasn't until a few years later that we saw, for the first time, really big bluefish destroying schools of menhaden off Bird Island. They scared the crap out of us and broke all our tackle. We could never get one in the boat. Then one day Timmy caught a truly big bluefish on a live-lined menhaden, fought it for a half hour, got it near the boat, where they always broke off in the past, and our dad grabbed the line and tried to bring the bluefish in the boat and as soon as it came out of the water the bluefish did a head shake and tossed the hook, Timmy screamed like a Red Sox Fan when the groundball went through Bill Buckner's legs in 1986, and then my dad leaned out off the back corner of the boat and went into the water up to his shoulders and cradled and scooped the bluefish out of mid-air just as it was falling backing in the water and somehow got it into the boat with about 5 gallons of water. I still don't know how he did it.
That year (1975) was when we also caught quite a few squeteague near Bird Island. My uncle Jimmy Watts caught a number of them. It was a big fishing year. A clam neck could get you a 14 inch scup at Centerboard Shoal.