A Lobster Tale

 

In the summer of '68, Jim Anketell popped into my life. He married (at 19) my cousin, on my mother's side, Linda Quade. After a few drinks at a family function, Jim told me of his dream to supplement his income by lobstering, specifically, by diving for them.

"You're going to need a boat for diving anyway, why not build traps as well as dive; it'll be the best of both worlds."

"I just got married. Money’s a little tight."

"Not if we joined forces."

"You’d do that?"

"Sure." I'm afraid I was always impulsive by nature, but this went to the limit.

Jim was my height at six-foot but skinny as a rail, fair-haired and light skinned with residual acne. His only failing was an inordinate love of the weed. He was always stoned.

Jim worked for the Eastman Gelatine Co. in Peabody. He lived next to Tilly’s Greenhouse, about a half mile from the plant. Eastman Gelatin brought in Argentinean steer bones by the trainload. They were turned into capsules for vitamins and medicines as well as film coatings. They used Argentinean steer bones because they were 'free range', not chemically and antibiotically raised like ours.

Jim got me a summer job there where I worked the Bone Crusher. This was a contraption the size of a small roller coaster. A train car would be brought into the building. The cars were packed half full with loose bones that we would shovel onto the conveyor to the crusher. Other times, the car was filled to capacity with burlap bags filled with bones. These bags weighed 100 pounds each and the tops were sewn. We were given knives that we honed to a razor’s edge with stone and strop. We’d pull a bag onto the landing, stand it upright, and slit it open. The contents would be dumped onto the conveyor and on to the bone crusher.

One morning, I came in with a slight hangover. I grabbed the bag of bones with one hand and sliced with the other. Unfortunately, I started cutting where my hand was and that resulted in a trip to the clinic. The medics there stitched me with butterfly bandages instead of stitching the wound (something new at the time for clean cuts). I carry a good-looking scar to this day.

So, next up in the process of lobstering was diving certification. We attended a school run by New England Divers. It was conducted in a pool that was 20 feet deep. The course was run by an instructor who had recently retired as a marine basic training TI. He treated us like shit, yelled constantly, and was one of the best teachers I’d had in years. He taught us to respect water depth and safety procedures so that they became second nature. Do I remember his name? Hell no, I had enough trouble remembering my own. I think it was Steve something.

Getting a boat and diving equipment turned out to be easier than anticipated. A guy named John Sabotka who worked with Jim at Eastman is the one who originally put the lobstering bug in Jim’s ear. John was selling his boat and two sets of diving suits with masks, flippers, depth gages, weight belts, and two sets of double air tanks complete with regulators and mouthpieces.

I think his wife wanted him out of the business now that he had young children and responsibilities (in other words, she was a bit of a bitch). John knuckled under and we reaped the benefits.

The boat was a double ender, so-called because both the bow and the stern came to a point, or, more succinctly, the bow looked like the stern. The boat was 24 feet long, had a cabin, sleeping accommodations, and a flush toilet. She was seaworthy and needed only coats of pain. The engine, like the boat, was about 30 years old and made by a company called Gray Marine. The unique feature was that it used saltwater as a cooling system. In the time we had the boat, it never left us stranded but it could be fussy.

Finding a place to moor it posed another problem. There were no openings available at a reasonable price (for us). Jim finally found us a mooring on the other side of the Congress Street Bridge in Salem. Before they built a new and higher bridge years later, you could only pass under it at low tide. The mooring was owned by an 85-year-old retired fisherman named Jake who lived in an old school bus with wheels that had been removed and the whole thing rested on cinder blocks. He had no electricity, and, from the smell of him, had no indoor plumbing either. The rent was $20 a month and split two ways, it only came to $10 each.

We also bought a cheap 10 ft. unfinished  pram that we dragged along behind the boat in case the engine ever conked out.

Now all we needed were traps. First of all, they were major league expensive, so, we decided to make them. Jim said there was plenty of scrap lumber around Eastman that could be had for the asking. He claimed he asked, but the quality of the scraps often made me wonder.

Making gill nets for the traps presented another problem. I could easily make a design for the traps. The hardwood Jim supplied would be used for the frame. Bundles of wood lathe could be used to cover the sides of the frame. Jim, however, if not always realistic, was usually resourceful. He went to Gloucester down near the fishing piers. He walked around the lobster boats until he found two lobstermen who were making gill nets for traps. It took him a couple times going up there, but he got their confidence, and, in exchange for making 10 nets for them, they taught him how to make them.

That winter, I built 30 traps in my cellar and Jim made nets. By spring, we were ready to launch the boat and set out stringers of 15 traps each. We baited them with junk fish like Pollock and bottom dwellers like Flounder that we caught or were given to us.

Diving for lobster didn't produce much because in those days, the water was murky, and you could only see six inches in front of your masks. So, we pulled traps 85 percent of the time and dived only 15 percent. That is, until I had a brainstorm. Why try to find where the lobsters are? Why not let them come to us? I had Jim get 20 of the cheapest bricks he could find; cheap because I knew they’d be porous. Next, we got a thirty-gallon container with an airtight seal. I placed a half-dozen dead fish with a gallon of water into the container set on the deck of our boat, dropped in the bricks, sealed the container, and let it stand for the weekend.

Monday, after I had finished teaching classes at Bishop Fenwick High School, Jim and I headed out into Salem Harbor to a spot we knew lobster would frequent. We anchored and donned our diving gear. I told him to stay away as I popped the top of the fish and brick container with a large wooden pole. Steam escaped, the smell was overwhelming. I looked inside. The fish had liquefied and soaked into the bricks. We filled four nets with five bricks apiece. Sky rats (seagulls) appeared out of nowhere. They circled around the barrel and the boat. We ignored them and dove down 20 feet to a rock-strewn bottom. We arranged the slimy bricks in a circle leaving a space of about two feet between them.

I then placed a marker buoy painted with our colors of acrylic orange, fire engine red, and bright yellow. The buoys were 4" X 4" oak 18 inches long, affixed to enough nylon rope to compensate for the tide and secured to a rock on the bottom near our circle of bricks. I suggested to Jim that we wait 24 hours. A day later produced a bounty of 15 lobster, this at a time when the lobstermen were getting very few lobsters between them.

And that's when the trouble started.

For a week, we were coming in with a lobster bounty while others were only getting one's or two’s. One day during our second week of diving the circle, shots from what we later thought to be a couple of M-14’s whistled by us. We waited until our tanks were nearly empty to surface. We couldn’t see anything when we broke the surface and it didn't appear that the boat was touched. It was a warning we didn't heed until it was too late.

Now, a bit of background before the denouement.

The lobstermen’s co-op was a consortium of North Shore lobster trappers who banded together to protect their livelihoods as lobbyists for their interests at the State House in Boston and also to help stabilize market prices. The co-op became concerned when diving became a popular fad in the late '60s, early '70s. Some of their concerns were not unfounded. Some divers had been caught raiding traps. This was tantamount to cattle rustling in the old West. Lobstering was a tough enough way to eke out a living without having to worry about thieves. Besides, they couldn’t depend upon the too few harbor police to create a deterrent so the lobstermen turned to vigilante justice.

An armed lobster boat was as common as a truck gun rack in south Texas. The culmination was when the Coast Guard discovered an empty boat that was dragging an inner tube with a divers flag attached and pulled by a rope behind the boat. The occupants were never found. I assume occupants because two pair of shorts, shoes, and socks were found intact in the boat.

And that brings us back to Jim and I bringing in our lobster carr every trip out with at least 10 to 15 lobsters. Man, were we ever naive.

Jim called me one afternoon in a panic. The boat was gone. A note was left behind with the old man whose mooring we rented. It said:

‘Your boat was scuttled in 60 feet water. Don't try to find it. Don't get another.’

We had no hull insurance because the yearly premium would be more than we paid for the boat. I called the police who referred me to the harbormaster who was a political appointee who couldn't or wouldn't help us.

‘Revenge is mine, sayeth the Lord’, but why quibble over Scripture. Revenge like justice, to be effective, must be terrible and swift. As soon as I finished teaching the next afternoon, Jim and I rented a motorboat from the pier at Salem Willows. We went out into the Harbor and cut through lines of stringers to about 400 traps. We had a good idea who the culprits were but after cutting the traps, I had pangs of conscience and had to prove their guilt to myself.

The ones we suspected hung out in a bar in Marblehead across from the Warwick Theatre. When we walked in, the atmosphere went from high hilarity to dead silence. That was all the proof I needed. I was carrying a shopping bag that I placed on the table next to the suspected perps. They stood up. I said, "I want you to know that you made a mistake. Jim and I never raided your traps; we just had a new way of gathering lobster by making a circle of bricks that had been dipped with rotten fish. You didn’t have to sink our boat."

They didn't say a word, either to affirm or deny, and the tension in the bar was as thick as maple syrup.

I dumped the contents of the bag onto the table. Four lobster buoys of different markings scattered on the table.

"We’re even" I said as Jim and I walked out.