The Old Sea Dog
Nick Charley didn’t like his daughter’s fiancé much. He knew it the second he shook his limp, damp hand. Nick often made quick judgments about people and his judgments often proved to be right. He didn’t see why this time should be any different.
But Laurel Lake was blue and beautiful underneath the late morning sun and Nick told himself to keep his mouth shut. He told himself he’d catch a damn big fish and be nice to the kid for his daughter’s sake. Scratching the stubble on his chin, he looked at her standing there along the bank, raising her hand above her eyes as she looked out across the lake to the tree-lined shore on the other side.
A slight breeze trickled through the pine trees near the water’s edge and Nick closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The grass was damp from last night’s rain and he liked the smell and he always fished well in the morning after a rain. He looked at his daughter again as she and her mother began feeding pieces of bread crust from the picnic basket to a duckling that had climbed the bank by itself in search of food.
Yes, thought Nick, it is a good day to fish. He reached into the back of the pickup and took out the wooden tackle box and handed it to the boy standing before him.
‘Heavy,’ said the boy, bending his knees to set it on the ground.
Nick said nothing. If this kid made his little girl happy that was fine with him. He pulled his cap lower over his eyes to keep out the sun and opened the can of bait and began threading a worm onto his hook.
‘Know how to hook a worm?’ Nick asked.
‘Yes, sir,’ said the boy.
Nick handed him the other rods and they hooked the worms in silence as the breeze picked up off the lake.
‘Say,’ said the boy after a moment, as if he’d been searching for the words, ‘You hear what Nixon did? That rat…’
Nick had heard about it that morning on the radio and it meant nothing to him. He looked down toward the dock at the two women chatting and glancing back at them. He reminded himself to be nice.
‘No wonder this country’s in a pickle,’ the boy was saying, ‘Our boys over in ‘Nam killing innocent children and—’
‘You missed the draft, then?’
The boy paused for a second and then finished hooking the worm. He smiled and looked down at his shoes.
‘I’m a student,’ he said, ‘At Penn.’
Nick Charley unfastened the ties and then took one end of the canoe and motioned to the boy to take the other. They lowered it from the roof of the truck and began walking it down to the water’s edge.
‘Exactly thirty years ago,’ Nick said, ‘at the age of twenty, I joined the United States Navy. I didn’t want to get one of them letters, you know, one of them letters that said I Want You.’
The boy smiled politely.
Nick continued. ‘They made me an officer, not sure why, maybe because I had some education, could spell my name and count to ten.’
The young woman came up and put her arms around her fiancé. ‘Oh you’re not telling war stories again are you daddy?’
The wife brought the life vests from the truck and put them aboard and then Nick and the boy slid the big canoe into the lake. Nick stood there for a moment watching the ripples move across the smooth surface. Then he turned to the boy.
‘Yes sir, I’m an old sailor. An old sea dog. They checked my eyes, ears, and ass and then sent me to the Pacific,’ Nick said, ‘To fight the Japs.’
His wife rolled her eyes but he paid her no mind.
‘When I reached the base at Guam I already had Cat Fever, got it stationed in Frisco. You know what Cat Fever is?’
The boy said he didn’t.
‘Caught stationed in Frisco. Then I reported to headquarters in the Pacific, this officer of twenty, walking down the red goddamn carpet with just my suitcase in one hand and my balls in the other. I told em, “Nicholas Charley reporting for duty.” They looked at me and said I was early and to come back tomorrow. So I’m walking out, down this fancy red carpet, and guess who’s coming towards me.’
The wife and daughter looked at each other and sighed and then the boy asked, ‘Who?’
‘Nimitz and Halsey,’ said Nick.
‘What did you do?’ asked the boy.
‘What the hell you think I did? I got my ass off the carpet, dropped my suitcase, and saluted. They were probably askin themselves what the sam hell the Navy had come to, a twenty-year-old officer. It’s a damn wonder we didn’t lose the war.’
‘That’s a nice story, dear,’ said the wife, ‘Now let’s finish putting these things in the boat.’
The boy tied the canoe off to a tree while they loaded the reels and picnic basket and tackle box. But Nick Charley wasn’t done with his story.
‘Clear as day I remember it,’ he said, scratching his stubble again.
‘What’s that, sir?’ asked the boy.
‘Daddy…’ said the daughter.
Nick looked at the young man whom he did not like. ‘The day the war ended, of course. I was second in command on the ship, it was an envoy ship… You know what an envoy ship is?’
‘No, sir,’ the boy said.
‘Envoy ship goes ahead of the battleships, guards the flanks and takes care of any Jap submarines or mines. Second in command on a goddamn battleship envoy, twenty years old. I was the gunnery officer and didn’t know a goddamn thing about em, couldn’t even shoot one myself, come to think of it. I tell you honest I don’t know how we won that war.’
‘You were saying about the war’s end, dear…’ the wife said. They were all in the canoe, waiting to push off, and the sun was getting hot.
Nick brought the paddles up and handed one to the boy at the other end of the canoe.
‘Well, I was inside the control room on the radio and the news came in from HQ. They said it just like that, all matter of fact. “The war’s over.” I put the radio down for a second and then picked it back up and said back to them, “Are you shittin me?” They said “No sir.” I put the radio down and went out onto the deck into the sunlight. The men were all sweating and some had taken their shirts off. It was a real hot day with no breeze. We’d been out there for almost two years. Like I said, I was only second in command but I clasped my hands round around my mouth and hollered, “Now hear this, now hear this, the war is over. I repeat, the war is over.”’
Nick Charley looked at his wife and she looked back at him fondly.
‘Now the captain,’ he continued, ‘was none too happy about me making that announcement to the crew before I reported it to him. But we were good pals, he and I, and I just looked him square in the eye and said, “Goddamnit Bill, everyone on this ship deserves to know at the same time.”’
The boy looked at him and said, ‘That’s some story.’
‘Now let’s go fishing,’ said Nick, and he shoved them off from the bank with the paddle. But the canoe didn’t go anywhere.
‘What the hell you doin back there,’ said Nick, ‘Row.’
‘I am,’ said the boy, and he began rowing even harder. But still the canoe didn’t move.
‘Jesus H. Christ,’ said Nick, ‘Hand me the damn paddle.’
The boy handed him the paddle and Nick swiped it down forcefully into the glassy water. But still the canoe remained where it was.
Then the wife spoke. ‘I think we’re still tied to the tree, dear.’
The daughter laughed, and then the wife, and then the boy.
For the rest of the day, the wife from time to time looked at Nick Charley and gave him a mock salute.
‘Aww, what the hell you doin,’ he said finally.
‘Nothing,’ said the wife, ‘Just salutin an old sailor. An old sea dog.’
And they all laughed. Except for Nick Charley. He fished steadily and quietly that day and though the others caught nothing, by sunset he had filled his cooler with five large-mouth bass, each nearly two feet long.