Captain Fred E. Bird
This piece is dedicated to Captain Fred E. Bird and his family.
This story goes back to the childhood of a fifteen year old boy who finally realized what it’s like to see life crumble right before him in the place where everything seemed untouchable. The place he always thought was somehow isolated from the life he lived during the months of September to June. The place where he thought nothing bad could happen. The place where he thought life never ceased to be joyous.
Little did the boy know when he headed down to work the next morning, he would leave as a man.
The boy rode his bike down to the docks and parked it next to the Cloud’s ticket booth. As he walked towards the vessel, a Captain was sitting near the boat. However, he wasn’t the boy’s captain. That captain, who never stated his name, told the boy that Bird has died in his sleep. This place is Salivar’s dock, Montauk and the boy is me.
I don’t really remember much of that day, only a lot of crying and anger and sadness. This was my first experience with death, and I truly did not know how to react. I tried to shove my emotions deep down somewhere but they kept popping back up and spilling through my eyes. Montauk was always the place of escape, the place of isolation. I always felt safe and secure in my little summer fantasy. It was very difficult for a boy of my age to fully understand the concept of death and that bad things happen to good people.
It was odd that just one day prior there was a man who walked the same docks I did. My connection with Captain Fred Bird began years ago, even though I was so oblivious to it. Since I could walk I always found myself where the fish were, preferably where they were getting filleted. I’d catch crabs with my brothers, snapper fish with my sister, and show off my skills to the renters who couldn’t tell the difference between a sea bass and a mako. These memories all took place at the same old smelly blood-covered docks that I still walk on today.
I would virtually spend every morning down at the docks watching the boats bring in their catch. Walking the docks became routine and I soon was labeled a “dock rat” by Captain Fred and many of the other fisherman. This label made me feel as if I had been knighted. Being able to carry the name “dock rat” was a special accomplishment to a kid like me. It was amazing to realize that the people who I had admired for so long had returned the favor in a very small and unnoticeable fashion. It probably meant nothing to them, but it was a great deal to me. I finally felt a part of the fishing community.
Throughout all of my summers spent by the docks, I grabbed the attention of many of the captains, especially Fred. My skills were highly developed for my age, and I was new blood amongst the old timers. Fred saw my fishing abilities grow and found much potential in them. It was a simple equation even for a fisherman; boy who lives to fish plus a grandma’s summer home equaled a second mate. My attraction to fishing defines my identity and it took a very special person to notice this connection.
When Fred had asked me to mate on his boat The Flying Cloud, I felt appreciated by a gentleman who shared the same passion. Words good not describe the sense of success and triumph that I felt at that moment. Without hesitation I was at the boat six am sharp the next morning. I give my dad credit to all the skills I acquired, as he too spent his summers in Montauk with a pole in one hand and bucket in the other. However, I am also in debt to the man who took my talent and transformed into a profession. That man was Fred.
Working for this historic fisherman was significantly life changing. Not only did I hone my fishing talents by tying new knots and working different poles, I more importantly learned how to communicate with other people who enjoyed the same pastime. I was able to teach others about fishing and how to respect the oceans bounty. Virtually growing up in Montauk, I inherently focused my attention to the importance of its’s waters and how significant the fishing business is to the east end. This grew upon me, pushing me to encourage people about respecting the water. Fred motivated me to share my knowledge about the sea and fishing with others to make everybody a little more aware about the oceans utter importance.
When Fred died in his sleep, I was heartbroken. This was one of my first encounters with death, but this circumstance forced me to learn much about myself. I realized that although I had only worked with him for a while, the brief time with him had a powerful impact on my life. I wanted to follow in his footsteps by being courteous, generous, and most of all, humble. I understood that all good things eventually come to an end. Throughout all of the despair and sadness, I understood I could carry Fred’s legacy along with me and share my experiences with others. I felt that it was my duty to keep Fred’s name and his boat alive through me. The death of Fred E. Bird was an event that truly molded who I grew up to become. I was unfortunate to lose such a tremendous figure in my life at thirteen, but I was privileged to work for such a well-respected fisherman who taught me a lot about the man I wanted to be.
I am now a freshman in college, and Montauk has changed a lot in just a few years. Although the main focus is the night life in town, there are still a few guys and girls like me who know what Montauk is truly about. I still spend my summers doing what I’ve done since I could remember. I always find myself meandering on the docks, which have thankfully not changed much. Although another boat has taken the Cloud’s slip with Freddy’s passing, I don’t leave behind any regrets. I was able to have an experience shared by a small number of people. For a period of time, I worked with a man who loved on a boat which I loved, doing what I loved. I will always carry Fred’s memory everywhere I go, along with a small picture of him in my wallet. Despite the unavoidable evil that unfortunately happens in life weather I like it or not, I always have a place to go. No matter the tragedy or where it occurs, I have a sanctuary. That place is where it all began.