Net Man

My grandpa was a net man.  Never mind how well I knew him.  Never mind how often I saw him.  Never mind how much I loved him.  The point is that he used rope, wove nets with his hands, hands I loved so much I never knew how to say it.    

My grandpa was a net man, a talker and a storyteller.  His life was woven with stories as much as it was with rope.  He told the stories in his deep, rich, southern voice, a voice I loved so much I never knew how to say it.  He talked about picking rows of cotton as a farm boy in Georgia during the Great Depression.  He talked about walking down to the bar to sling his drunk mother over his shoulder and carry her home. He talked about WW2, how a bomb came down the ship’s smokestack, how he was sent to pick up body parts and stuff them into a bag. 

But mostly he talked about his shrimp boat and the Gulf of Mexico.  He talked about Campeche, Veracruz, Havana, Brownsville, Key West, abandoned boats with blood-spattered decks, and hauling up nets.  Sometimes the nets were full of shrimp, he said.  Sometimes the nets were full of shrimp mixed up with seaweed and trash.  Sometimes they contained nothing but oddities and junk, and sometimes they contained nothing at all.      

My grandpa was a net man.  Never mind his T-bone steaks.  Never mind how his short fuse in youth alchemized into the easy way he had about him later in life.  Never mind that his boyhood nickname was Junebug.  Never mind that he urged me to eat a Scotch bonnet off his pepper bush, and I did, and he laughed and laughed.  Never mind the time he unrolled a giant map of the Gulf and told me all about it with a sailor’s mind and a sailor’s memory.  The point is that he had – as we all do – an unknowable wildness.  The point is that for 92 years he touched people’s lives without even trying.  The point is that now he really has crossed the Gulf.  The point is in the still of the night he left the world, and by left I mean he’s gone, and by world I mean all of this.  I mean the crescendo of his life swept back down in a broad arc, I mean mass overtook energy.   

My grandpa was a net man.  He had been a shrimper himself, and worked with the nets.  So when he opened up a shop in Key West and became a net-maker, he knew what to do.  The shape, size, and kind of net he made depended on where the shrimper would be trawling and what type of boat they used.  He worked the rope not only with his hands, but with an understanding of what was needed: the understanding that comes from time spent close to the heart of the work itself.  

The nets were dragged along the ocean floor by the trawlers, and before that they drifted down, down, down through the briny water.  But before that they had to be made from rope, the rope that passed through the fingers of my grandfather’s hands – hands I loved so much I never knew how to say it.

   

 

The Power of Character

One of the things I loved most as a kid was my Grandma Ruth’s collection of 45-records, passed on to her from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine distribution business in Oregon.  She would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, roller skating rinks, etc.), and change out the records in the jukeboxes.  That was years before I ever came along, but those records would become an important part of my childhood.

I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning, so my discovery of the old 45′s was thrilling, to say the least.  A few were old jazz and 70′s disco, but the vast majority of them were country songs, trucker songs, and obscure story songs from the 60′s and 70′s.  Songs of humor, danger, tough characters and outlaws.  Songs depicting bad guys as heroes.  Trains, knives, guns, booze, diesel smoke, and girls.  As Joe Piscopo says in his role as Danny Vermin in the film Johnny Dangerously, “these are a few of my favorite things”. I’m talking stuff like Red Sovine’s Big Joe and Phantom 309, Johnny Paycheck’s Colorado Cool-aid, and Cledus Maggard’s The White Knight. Songs in the vein of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, but not as well known.

“Where the hell are we headin’ on this saunter down pothole-riddled memory lane?” you’re probably asking yourself now (in the voice of Sam Elliott) while stroking your handlebar moustache and squinting beneath the brim of your ten-gallon hat.  Just settle yer spurs, Lefty – I’m gettin’ to it.

One summer my dad took me to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. I was eleven or twelve, I guess.

“Grandpa Buddy’s gonna tell you that you gotta be tough, and that gettin’ old ain’t for sissies,” my dad told me.  For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure.  Flying in a plane across America, I stared down in amazement at the “circles and squares” of farmland, and the silver ribbons of winding rivers.

“What kind of name is ‘Buddy’,” I thought?

Imagine my delight and surprise when Grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of the tough characters right out of those songs I loved so much.  He’d lived a life full of adventure and danger as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I’d come to idolize, and so I instantly idolized him.  He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished those stories just right when he told them to me, in his deep southern voice that sounded like Johnny Cash.  He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on those old 45 records: heroes, villains, tough guys, mercenaries, pirates and prostitutes.

“You gotta be tough,” he said over and over again.  Most of the stories ended with that sentiment – it was the takeaway, the moral, his mantra.  And in my mind, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen.  He lived in central Florida on a river full of gators and snakes.  He made shrimp nets by hand out in his workshop.  He had tattoos, a jeep, nine machetes and an earring.  Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my imagination it was definitely nine.

It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, get me the so-and-so”, “Hey buddy, I want you to do this or that, or “Thanks buddy”. And so his new name was born.

After that trip, I returned to my familiar life with my mom in our little house surrounded by farms and fields in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Depressed and bored, I stayed in bed all the next day, tears rolling.  When my mother asked me what was wrong, I told her I wanted to go back to Grandpa Buddy’s house. I was just a kid with an overactive imagination. I didn’t yet have the understanding that my grandfather was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head, he was way larger than life.

I spent the rest of the summer hating myself, because I had learned that – when it came down to it – I wasn’t tough, and probably never would be. But I had also learned something of immense value, something I would carry with me from then on, something that tied the old 45 records and my grandfather together in a more cohesive way.

I now understood the magic of storytelling, and the power of character.