Bringing in the Net
Here on the Eastern End of Long Island lies a small town called Quogue. In the past scholars and others have debated whether the meaning of the Algonquian Montauk word was hard clam as in the quahaug of New England or, as writ in one colonial description, “the place where the ground shaketh under foot.” This suggestion basically allied the bay land’s basic boggy topography with the prefix in the word quagmire. As a boy I knew the baymen with names like Salter, Warner, Halsey and the beach seiners like Beckwith and Phillips.
Being among the very few beach dwellers before the strand became discovered as something other then a place to bring a hamper full of sandwiches to on a Saturday morning, I came to hang about with one Herb Phillips who managed the small Quogue Beach Club, as had his father, Sid, and grandfather before him, in whose time the place was called Phillips Beach. Of great educational content were the sessions where I quietly sat in the back room behind the locker rooms at “cocktail time” after the day’s bathers had gone home. Sundry guests would happen by including the mayor, the town’s one policeman, the owner-operator of the town’s only garage that was next to the town’s only blacksmith and other hardies of all manner of employment. Everyone would sit around on wooden benches and the few chairs and drink something called Carstairs White Seal. There was a little white sea lion on the bottle’s neck. Seemingly, age made no difference and being a boy in training I was supposedly “learning to drink”, although I found the stuff rather ghastly.
One such afternoon there was a rising high wind outside. A storm was coming. Herb looked up at the old wall clock. “Five thirty. We gotta get the nets.” The White Seal went around again. Discussions were usually earthy and direct, a passage to manhood, a seeing of the world without notions or pretention. At six thirty Herb said,”Now!” The nets had been out four days and were probably loaded. I had helped him set them but he had been too busy to take them in. Herb said that those nets were worth a couple thousand dollars and if they broke loose and were carried off could not be replaced. Everyone got up and left the back room by the lifeguard’s lockers and huge laundry machines that did the towels, and went out to the beach.
Since it was before the time of surf boards, circa 1949, there was an eighteen foot lap strake dory by the lifeguard bench which was used for rescues in high seas. The shore break was up and Herb put fourteen year old me at the oars while he pushed the boat into the first waves. “Row” he shouted as he hauled himself over the rail. Once passed the shore break in the relative calm between the bar and the beach break Herb took over the oars. We managed to get out behind the bar where the net ran parallel to the beach for about forty yards. Two painted yellow wooden markers floated above the anchors at each end and a row of cork floats held the top line at the water’s surface. We pulled up the first anchor and set it gently into the boat. Then we slowly worked our way West, hauling in more fish than I’d ever seen. Sharks, bass, blues, skates, searobins and the nets were full. Herb said there was no time to pick the nets. “Just get ‘em in” he shouted. The seas were rising and we were just making it over sets that were breaking upon the bar. As we worked along the line the load of fish, nets with their corks on the top line and the oblong lead sinkers along the bottom, piled higher and higher. The dory, while high railed and stout, sank lower and lower. Herb’s expletives became more reflective of the Navy sailor he had been a few years before, during World War II. Regarding the War, Herb rarely spoke of it but occasionally he’d tell of an instance here or there so alien as to bring to clear focus how extraordinary those times had been. There was the time in the South China Sea when a Japanese kamikaze plane slammed into the bridge of his battleship and exploded. The Captain’s quarters was behind the bridge. Herb was sent up into the wreckage to try to find the Captain. “All I found was his shoes.” A tale I’ll never forget.
Soon the dory was loaded down to the gunwales. We pulled the last anchor and set it amid a mountain of fish filled nets. Herb managed to clear some space for rowing and we turned toward the beach. “Get up in the stern and if we broach, jump!” I perched upon the triangular stern and knew that the only way we could get through now continuous shore break was to ride a wave. If we broached-to half way down a wave it would be big trouble. Big trouble it was. Herb tried to go in behind a wave, on its shoulder, but the heavily laden boat was too slow and another wave caught up with us. The stern tilted up and, with Herb hauling the oars, we slid straight down the wave’s face. Gaining speed we shot toward the beach. Very suddenly the boat lurched sideways to the left, broadside to the wave, and rolled. It all happened so quickly that I couldn’t jump and got included in the tangled cargo. Several lifeguards who lived in the loft above the Beach Club and a few spectators from the earlier celebration ran into the water amid the nets and rolling dory. Both Herb and I were tangled, along with the fish, in the net. Our rescuers dragged the net out with us in it like an old time beach seine haul. After some coughing and gasping I looked over at Herb. He was laughing. Herb untangled himself and stood up. He raised his right hand and said to all assembled, “Let’s go have a drink.”