The young woman sitting next to me was sobbing hysterically. My phone was dead and friends and family were frantically calling a hotline set up by authorities to check on survivors. The war zone escalating only minutes away, and unfolding on the television in front of me, seemed surreal. I was standing right there, only moments ago. But this had to be happening somewhere else. There could not possibly be that much blood in the streets. That young girl could not possibly have lost both her legs. This must be some far-off battle-torn nation you typically see on CNN. This couldn’t be Boston.
I would wait until the public transportation lines reopened. I would wait until I returned to my hotel room. And I’d wait until the door was locked before I’d finally start crying myself.
Then, I’d go fishing.
The Boston Marathon bombing was a national tragedy. But for me, this was personal. I’ve loved Boston for longer than I could remember. I have seen more games, including a World Series game, in Fenway Park than I can count. I’d lived on Cape Cod for two years. I was at the Red Sox’s home opener the Wednesday before the Marathon. The next day I had the Boston “B” tattooed on my arm in Cambridge. My ancestors came to Boston from Killoran, Ireland. Guinness on tap, oysters on the half shell and Celtic sing-alongs with more than a few Irish brogues in the mix make me feel at home.
I spent the days that followed the bombing in a haze of unreality. On the Saturday following the Marathon, I was on lockdown. The streets were empty, restaurants were closed, and storefronts were chained. Only reporters, police, and military personnel were outside as the manhunt escalated. I had never seen Boston so empty, so quiet, so afraid. The news was inescapable. The parking garage that held my car, below the department of transportation, was locked and sealed to the public.
I would do the only thing we can do after something like this happens: talk about it and try not to talk about it. I met David Higgins, a Mayntooth, Ireland transplant to Dorchester who knew the father of Martin Richard, 8, who was killed in the blast. “You couldn’t meet a nicer guy and now he’ll never be the same,” Higgins said. Higgins finished the marathon in 3 hours, 52 minutes. “I didn’t think it was a big deal because I was there,” he said. “Of course I knew it was and is, but when you’re there…” His daughters in Ireland, ages 7, 12, and 14 were among the many on the Emerald Isle pouring out support and concern for loved ones.
Finally the insanity ended and the suspect was apprehended. Cheers went up in restaurants; strangers hugged and cheered police officers. There were only two things I could think to do, besides donate a few dollars to the fund set up to help the victims (donate here: onefundboston.org). First, I wanted more than ever to watch the Red Sox play. The Sox return to Fenway was incredibly emotional. There was Matt Patterson, the firefighter that saved a young boy by using a belt as a tourniquet. There was Steven Byrne, with scars from shrapnel in his skull; there was Dick Hoyt, who pushed his disabled son across the finish line in a wheelchair, all throwing out the first pitch.
Next, I had to go fishing. For many of us, fishing has and always will be a way to escape from the insanity of every-day life, and life has never been as insane as it was on that April day in Boston. Because I was visiting the city for other reasons, I had no equipment. But that wouldn’t stop you, would it?
Every pocket of American culture has its favorite fish. Floridians love their largemouths. In the Bayou, it’s redfish. Northwesterners love their steelhead and the Upper Midwest is walleye country. Boston is blessed with an abundance of angling opportunity. The most unique “Boston” fishing experience would make for a great “bah” debate in any Beantown pub. Stripers are beloved, bluefish are the best fighters, and tuna are wicked cool. But none of those fish are the official “State Fish.” None are served on as many plates in restaurants as, what I consider, the official Boston fish. It tastes delicious, grows enormous and it is relatively cheap to chase. It’s the cod. For many New Englanders, a headboat trip for cod and haddock remains one of their first fishing memories. And for just as many, it’s still their favorite pastime. For me at least, Boston will always be cod country.
There are more places to hop a headboat in Massachusetts than you can shake an Uglystick at, but few have the fishing history, the local lore, or the personality of Gloucester, Mass. If it sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking Perfect Storm or Wicked Tuna. But the city’s rich fishing history can’t be summed up with Hollywood hype. In Gloucester, fishing is work, fishing is play, fishing is life.
Gloucester was deeply affected by the tragedy. It seemed everyone knew someone that was involved in the incident. Boston is the world’s biggest small town. Darren Collins of Gloucester had a friend that knew the man, Steven Byrne, who was injured in the blast. “He was jumping over the rail after the first explosion,” Collins said. “When the second bomb went off he was thrown to the ground. He rolled over and saw a little girl that had lost both her legs.” Collins, who wore a full beard and went about 250 pounds, admitted that he cried watching Byrne throw out the first pitch earlier that day.
“My heart was wrenched,” said Sarah from Essex. “Afterward, we were just relieved to be able to sleep.” Rick, who owns Gloucester’s Espresso Bar and Grill, is hosting a $10 pizza buffet on April 29th to raise money for the One Fund. If you’re in town, head down. Scott Barbeau (right) is a fireman that’s seen his share of anxiety. “I can’t see anything more cowardly than that,” Barbeau said of the bombings. Barbeau relieves the stress of fighting fires by chasing trout on the Deerfield River near his home in North Adams. In true Gloucester fashion, he gave me his number and told me to fish with him any time.
Tom Schmidt has Gloucester and fishing running through his veins. His parents opened up the Colonial Inn in Gloucester 43 years ago and he runs it now. He packed fish on the docks growing up. He knows about loss. His parents moved to Gloucester from New Jersey when his younger brother died in a car accident, to escape. He fished for flounder, stripers and blues growing up off the rocks of the North Shore, selling his catch to Gleason’s Tackle Shop in town where they’d smoke the blues and sell ’em fresh. “Fishing takes me to a place of Zen,” he said. “I focus on escaping everyday life, standing on those rocks at sunrise gives me chills.”
Gloucester itself has a sad history of loss. If you’re a fisherman and haven’t seen the Perfect Storm, watch it. It’s the tale of the Andrea Gail, a commercial vessel lost at sea in 1991, along with her six-man crew. But those are only the most famous of thousands of fisherman who have given their lives trying to put fresh seafood on our plates. And in case you’re interested, the Crow’s Nest is a real place, and you can really rent a (really cheap) room above the bar. The locals are tough, but start a conversation and they’re as kind as can be. A teacher’s class designed this tribute to those lost on the Andrea Gail, which hangs in the bar.
Dan Cabral from Gloucester has lost his mother, nephew, aunt, cousin, uncle and several other relatives in the last decade, and the guy is only 34 years old. It is hard to tell. He’ll buy the next round, invite you out for breakfast, and offer you his couch. He took a bite out of the heart of first tuna he caught, a fish pushing 700 pounds (that’s him in the middle). “If anyone can bounce back from this shit, it’s Boston,” he said.
I have been blessed to see the sunrise from many boats breaking the harbor, but I can’t remember a trip that felt as good as the one I took Thursday April 25. I wasn’t alone escaping to the sea. Jennifer and Chuck Lewis’ trip from their home in Saratoga, N.Y., to Boston was interrupted by the bombers. Their plans to visit Fenway for the first time failed, but they did make it out for cod. And they went home with a freezer full. When I learned what brought them to Boston and Gloucester for the first time, I said…
“That is the coolest Honeymoon I’ve ever heard of!” Even after Chuck had a rough go of his first trip out on the ocean, turning a shade of white that I thought was reserved for the underside of a haddock, he bounced back admirably. By the end of the day he was already talking about coming back again, after experimenting with different potions to cure seasickness. He pours and creates his own jigs back home to fish for striped bass on the Hudson River.
Roland Parsons took home the pool on Friday afternoon, with a cod that looked like it could push 10 pounds (not the one pictured here). Parsons, was still sickened by the events of the previous week. He lived only minutes north of Watertown, Mass., where the deadly manhunt came to a bloody end. “We just hoped they’d be caught and the destruction would be over,” Parsons said. “It was horrendous. That two people could cause that is incredible.”
Max Maternowski and I were the only ones on the bow of the boat as it punched through a turbulent sea Thursday morning. It was his third day on as a new mate, and he was learning the ropes. “What could be better than this, being out here every day?” he said. Maternowski, just 20 years old, said a friend of his, Mike, was less than a 100 yards from the blast on Marathon Monday. He was relieved that Mike escaped uninjured. Here, he peers over the day’s catch as it is filleted on the way home.
Dan Cabral’s cousin, George, had just lost his father, one of the most beloved members of the Yankee Fleet organization. They planned to have a trip organized in his honor but it was postponed due to weather. You can check the Yankee Fleet Website to see when it is rescheduled, or for any trip you want to take to chase cod, haddock, or other groundfish. Here, Cabral gives an undersized cod a parting kiss. Only places like Boston and Gloucester could produce fishermen resilient and optimistic enough to be kissing fish and joking despite the sorrow.
Unless you live in a cave, you’ve heard the phrase “Boston Strong,” repeated over the past two weeks, but witnessing it is a different animal. I fished with Steve, who saved the cod racks to make soup because “there’s too much waste in the world.” Al Wentworth, who trailered his aluminum boat to the shore from Roxbury every summer for stripers and blues, and didn’t want anything more in life. Frank, from Florida, who faithfully came up to fish with his friend from Rhode Island every spring for cod in Gloucester. He invited me to the Keys to fish with him and his friends without hesitation.
And these are only a handful of the stories from the fishermen I was privileged enough to share a rail, boat, or beer with. They helped turn a story of defeat into one of hope. They showed a resiliency that defies the imagination. They have a love for the simple, pure, and beautiful: a song in your heart, the sun on your face, a beer in your hand and the promise of future fish to fight. That’s why I love Boston. That’s why I’ll always love Boston.