Fishing in Sausalito…
My father Blackie was someone who followed his own compass in life. At no point during my childhood in Mill Valley was he ever distracted by trends or social norms. I can remember being with him in some remote location and seeing a ‘No Trespassing’ sign which would always worry me but not Blackie. He didn’t acknowledge those kinds of barriers. He had no regard for social status and our home at 10 Seymour Avenue was far from the images you’d see in magazines of American life in the fifties. He came of age in the late 1920s, 30s and 40s and his style was definitely from those eras rather than the 1950s that my siblings and I were growing up in.
The status symbols of that time in American life, like fancy cars, television sets and dishwashing machines were so far off his radar that he probably didn’t even know they existed. My siblings and I knew because of our exposure to the high powered advertising we’d see on our friends’ television sets. Blackie would not let us have a TV so we relied on the kindness of neighbours to see programmes like Disneyland, The Steve Allen Show or Ozzie and Harriet.
Black told me that he never finished high school and went to sea at the age of 14. Born into a Brooklyn family of seven children, Frederick Nelson Myers got his nickname early because of his coal black hair. By the time he was twenty years old he’d already seen more of the world than most people do in a lifetime.
The way he spoke was always entertaining to us kids. He never used ordinary descriptions of things and his use of profanity had a lyrical, humorous quality to it. Raised in a religious house where his mother was Catholic and his father Protestant, Blackie began to question his faith early on. He told me it was his father who, upon hearing him recite: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” challenged him to explain what that meant. When the young boy couldn’t, the seeds of doubt set in. Blackie’s nickname for Jesus Christ was ‘Jerusalem Slim’ and when he expressed mild surprise he’d say: “Jesus, Mary and bald headed Joseph.”
My father seemed to have a natural patience about life unlike me. Patience was not a huge feature of my childhood. As a young person I was someone with little patience. The idea of waiting for things to happen did not come naturally. And I’m afraid that neither of my parents were particularly helpful with this deficiency in my character.
Like many kids I was constantly running and tripping in the playground and this meant I regularly had scabs on my knees. A scab really should be left alone so that the congealed blood can dry out and fall off naturally but I would always pick at them. I also noticed on long walks home after school that, as my finger nails grew in length there were new layers arriving in waves on the top of each nail. Using the thumbnail on my opposite hand I would intercept these new layers, driving the thumbnail underneath them which would shave back the new layer. I was somehow not content to just let my body get on with the business of replenishing itself. No. I had to interfere with it.
The few times I engaged in gardening on our land at 10 Seymour I would have to exercise patience and it would be rewarded several days later when the corn I’d planted would come shooting out of the ground which I would find thrilling. Working in the garden, however, was not a way of life for me unlike Blackie who found it to be a relaxing therapeutic activity. But I think that Black enjoyed the solitude of such endeavours and never felt the need to introduce us to it. We had a sizeable patch of land below our house on a hill which was covered with blackberry bushes. Saturday and Sunday afternoons he would spend doing battle with the blackberry bushes and it sometimes looked like he would never win. But he did make considerable headway and eventually terraced the earth below our house with wooden planks creating beds of soil which looked like giant steps in which he’d plant lettuce, carrots, string beans and corn.
Blackie at this time was working as a ship’s clerk on the San Francisco waterfront through the ILWU, the Longshore union. Occasionally he’d return with bits of treasure from that world and one time a huge bunch of bananas came home with him to hang from a hook on our front porch. My sister Nell thinks this explained the occasional appearance of tarantula spiders at 10 Seymour Avenue.
One sunny afternoon Nell, Kate, Jim and I were all reading on the front porch when I noticed something moving on the path in my peripheral vision. A closer look revealed it to be a tarantula spider, something none of us had ever seen in the real. It was about the size of a jam jar top with light brown hair all over its legs. It was ambling slowly across our yard. Mythology about these creatures was all we knew. Harry Belafonte singing the line A beautiful bunch of ripe bananas, hides the deadly black tarantula was not lost on us and our father Blackie did tell us that he once saw a man die of a tarantula bite on a dock in Jamaica. There was a brick wall which stood between the spider and my father’s tool shed. My siblings and I assembled above this wall and as it moved slowly across the yard we began dropping rocks, bricks and other heavy items but to no avail. Nothing we dropped even came close to hitting it and eventually the tarantula simply walked away.
I do remember finding the dead carcasses of the big spiders in jam jars in Blackie’s tool shed and did also have another startling encounter one day when I was helping Blackie dig the earth down among his terraced vegetable patch. When I lifted a shovelful of earth I noticed a small hole with what looked like something moving inside it. I peered closer and taking the edge of my shovel, I prised back a big chunk of solid earth. In a flash this large tarantula spider came running at me. Just as instantly my father stabbed his shovel down cutting the arachnid in half and killing it. I was more than a bit traumatised by this incident but like so many occurrences in our family, it was never discussed.
I already had a dread of tarantula spiders because of seeing Walt Disney’s The Living Desert up at the Lark and to see one charging towards me was the stuff of nightmares. But Blackie dealt with it and that was that. When I told Jared Dreyfus about the big spiders on our property he simply didn’t believe me. “Tarantulas in Mill Valley? Not on your life. Scorpions, yes but never tarantulas!”
The wildlife around our house on Seymour Avenue was pretty diverse. Deer were regular visitors and, as we had a few apricot trees they would regularly suck the fruit off leaving the pits hanging from the branches. There was a hill above our house with horses and whenever we had corn on the cob we’d take the corn husks and silk up to feed to them. I can remember there was a snake season when, out on the Pixie Trail you would stand very still for a few moments until becoming aware of slithering all around you as snakes of different colours moved through the grass. Also we would occasionally stalk deer. This required a pair of binoculars and a great deal of patience as it was important to be absolutely still.
There were times when patience was kind of imposed upon me like when my brother Jim and I would go fishing with Blackie. It was usually on a Sunday that we would get in his Plymouth station wagon and drive to Sausalito. We would park somewhere on the north side of town then, with our rods and fishing box, we would walk down the Bridgeway to the Ondine restaurant and find ourselves a spot to sit on the big pier which sat next to it. There was a guy with a booth on the pier who sold bait which was shrimp. We’d buy a bag for 10¢ then each of us would bait our hooks. A piece of shrimp was usually good for about four hooks. We would peel the thin layer of shell off the shrimp, cut a piece off and dig the hook into it. When it was firmly connected we would drop our lines into the water. There was a metal weight on the end of the line to make it sink.
We would sit there all afternoon with no conversation as Blackie told us that noise would keep the fish away. So we would occupy ourselves by gently pulling and releasing the line which could get pretty tedious but the tedium was worth it once you got a nibble. The nibble was such an exciting experience and it’s difficult to compare it to anything else. The feel of a fish nibbling on your bait is a totally unique sensation and there was no other way to experience it except to sit there for as long as it took. The nibble was the signal to stand up and pull your rod back and begin reeling the line in. A fish on your line made the rod bend forward. Naturally a catch quickly became the object of attention from the other fishermen on the pier and as you turned the handle of the reel you felt the resistance of the fish right up until it broke through the surface of the water. It was an exciting release.
A decision now had to be made as to whether or not it was big enough to keep. If not, you would remove the hook from its mouth and throw it back in the drink. If it was big enough you’d have to kill it by banging its head with the handle of your knife.
The fish we caught in Sausalito were rubber lipped perch and I remember one time I caught a particularly huge one. The irony for me and my brother Jim was that we didn’t eat fish at all but this didn’t stop us from being involved in the preparation. I don’t believe we ever came home without a catch of at least four or five fish. The first job was de-scaling them with a knife which was done over a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table.
I recall having goldfish from time to time and on one occasion we found one floating at the top of the bowl. Blackie took the fish in the palm of one hand and massaged it with his finger and it sprang back to life. Once we bought four little turtles from the pet shop. Sadly they fell victim to visiting racoons who devoured them all and left only their shells floating in the bowl.
Another adventure in pet keeping was when a friend gave us a male and female rabbit. Blackie constructed a big pen lined with chicken wire next to his tool shed and a smaller one over by the house. Our friend informed us that once the mother had babies we had to separate her from the father as he would be a danger to the young ones. She gave berth to a litter of eight little souls. The pigment of their skins seemed to correspond to the colour of the fur they would grow, so four were pink which grew white fur and the others were darker skinned. Three were brown and one was black. The fur grew quickly and before long Jim and I had named each one of them. There was one we called Policeman as it seemed to be more authoritarian than the others. Jimmy and I would go out first thing every morning with carrots and green trimmings for them all and would spend the longest time observing them until one morning when tragedy struck. We went out and found all the babies dead. The mother had killed each of them. My brother and I wept uncontrollably as Beth helped us put their little bodies into a brown paper bag and dig a hole down in the garden to bury them.
We had a neighbour down on Janes Street named Johnny O’Connor who was a friend of Blackie’s and he had these grey Weimaraner dogs who occasionally would break out and our property was one place they would visit and it seems that Mother Rabbit, alarmed by the aggressive canines, killed her babies.
This was, I believe, what we considered to be our first serious brush with mortality. Perhaps the deaths of the four turtles and the killing of the tarantula didn’t quite have the impact of the eight dead bunnies.
For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org