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Columns / Short Stories
Shep was always writing. . .
May 1967


The Voyage of the Sea Serpent
For years the voice of the sea had whispered to him from magazine stories and big-game fishing displays. Then one day it was laughing in his face.

NOT long ago I was struggling against the motley stream of lunch-goers that had spilled out onto Madison Avenue from hundreds of pastel-walled agencies that infest that area. My mind was, as usual, operating at half-mast, idling along, picking its own daisies and bothering no one. I was heading for my favorite French restaurant, "Les Miserables du Frite," where I was meeting a fellow Expense Account Cheat for another 31/2 hour lunch on the Internal Revenue Department. Now, I had passed this corner countless times before, with no noticeable traumatic effects. Today was different. Maybe it was the way the sun struck the dull glass of the canyon walls, or the smog hazily swirled above Madison Avenue like some mist from an ancient waterfall; perhaps the way the muted gray-yellow beams of light played upon the padded shoulders of the eddying throng, as upon the pelts of a herd of ancient buffalo. I found myself staring into the center window of Mr. Fitch's establishment, a window devoted solely to the express purpose of driving a man mad with yearning and insane desire. Directly in the middle was mounted a gleaming chrome-and-leather swivel deep-sea fishing chair, with safety straps, headrests, and an enormous machine-tooled brass socket for the rod which itself - the rod, that is - jutted arrogantly at a 45-degree angle up and away from the mock teakwood deck. A magnificent bronze reel, bristling with knobs and rachets, glared insolently at me, a reel that was obviously made to scream as an enormous blue marlin struck and headed for the deep water. The rest of the window was crammed chock-a-block with stainless steel gaffs capable of landing Moby Dick, salt-water streamers, platinum-fitted Danish rods, and other totally unattainable love objects. I stared glassy-eyed for a few moments and then struggled on through the crowd, past the Chock Full 0' Nuts, my mind already drifting into an old, familiar, aching groove. Dammit, this always happens. Do other guys have this curse? I have never heard them speak of it Or am I the only star-crossed nut on the street? I eased myself into the soft leather chair at the restaurant and sipped my first martini, waiting for my friend to show. It was his day to be late. We take turns. I could not rid myself of that deep yawning pain which Abercrombie and Fitch had awakened in me, the same pain I had known so well since I was 9. Some kids are hung on baseball. Some have the Crackerjack monkey on their back. Others moon over girls. I had all three gnawing at me, as well as one other curse. I, at the age of 9, was a total, complete, insane fishing maniac. I lived, or rather festered, on the fiat plains of Indiana, where the sun beat down with no mercy in the summer and brought only vast, swirling swarms of mosquitoes and the cutting winds of the Great Plains soughed endlessly in the winter, bringing only sleet and angry snowdrifts. The steel mills lay like some forlorn Alps on the horizon. The only fish within forty miles lived in the pet department at Woolworth's, sold for 25 cents apiece, and were called Japanese fantails. Somehow, I'll never know how, I had become a vicarious fisherman. While other kids read Argosy and Doc Savage, I hoarded every nickel I could get to buy FIELD & STREAM and over and over I read those incredible fantasies that paraded through their pages month after month, stories of untouched bass lakes, never before fished, where the bass jostled one against the other, shoulder to shoulder in their ravenous desire to be snagged, where old codgers, their eyes twinkling, told tales of fabled monsters that lived in secret places and had such names as Old Killer or Big Redfang, of canoe trips into untracked wilderness in search of record muskies that came screaming out of the weed beds to snap paddle blades off at the hilt. Hour after hour I secretly sweated and dreamed my way through this maze of fantasies, cursing the day I was born to live in Indiana, where the only sport was going out on a Saturday afternoon to look at used cars, where the biggest game was a family of field mice that have taken up residence behind the refrigerator in the kitchen. Most of all I devoured the stories of deep sea fishing; Zane Grey, his back arched, the sun glinting over his dark glasses as he struggled in the stern of a bucking fishing boat, battling a record marlin off the coast of Chile, descriptions of malevolent, hooked mako sharks sounding into the ancient primal darkness of the true deep. Oh God, how I suffered! Life spun on. I grew and mellowed. I sprouted twigs and took root. My bark grew thicker and tougher. I left Indiana, but never, way down inside, did the deep sea virus leave me. There is an ancient proverb that says: "To he who waits, all things come," and by George, it's true. Recently, with no warning, I found myself one midwinter day strolling along the oceanside in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was incredible! I am not a Florida goer, and in fact, Florida has always seemed to me like some far-off Oz where other people went and listened to Eddie Fisher. It had never occurred to me to actually go to Florida. My vacations usually being spent up in New England, eating rubber clams and trolling for bass. Business took me to Fort Lauderdale for one single solitary day. The sun beat down. The surf murmured drowsily. Girls strolled by, wearing halters and rich-people tan. I moseyed along, wallowing in it, when suddenly, turning up a side street not a block away from the ocean, I met the Sea Serpent. She was not alone but she caught my attention as she rode insolently at anchor in that alien landscape of rustling palms and soft, seductive breezes. A great red-and-white sign loomed overhead against the blue sky: DEEP SEA FISHING ABOARD THE FAMOUS SEA SERPENT. FISH THE GULF STREAM $3.50 RODS BAIT SUPPLIED FREE. The sign was dominated by a spectacular painting of a green, red-eyed, fire-snorting sea dragon. Wow! The Sea Serpent! I strolled on. Another enormous sign - this one in neon orange and green - announced CAPTAIN CHARLIE'S BOAT was likewise available for Gulf Stream fishing. I ambled along the waterway, taking it all in, boat after boat. And then a thought, which strangely enough had not occurred to me before, took hold: "Why not?" There was only one boat for me. The Sea Serpent, of course. Timidly I approached her box office. Every boat had one, a genuine glass-enclosed box office, each with a little old lady wearing mail-order - dentures, peddling tickets. "Can I help you, sonny?" "Uh . . . How do you . . . Get to go fishing?" "Just buy a ticket, sonny." "Just buy a ticket?" The hot sun lay heavy on my shoulder blades, unaccustomed to such heat in mid-January. A thin trickle of sweat edged down my backbone. She smiled through the glass at me in that way retired schoolteachers who haven't a worry in the world do. Florida is overrun with -them. "When does the boat leave?" "The next trip is at one, sonny. In just twenty-five minutes. You'd better buy a ticket if you want to get on." I still wasn't sure, but there was something about the way her teeth gleamed and the way the Sea Serpent looked that swung it. I handed over a five-spot, she gave me my change and a square of stiff orange paper with a number printed on it. I had booked passage on the Sea Serpent. Somewhere out there in that deep green Gulf Stream there lay the enemy, and I was ready. The die was cast. It took a few moments to soak in, the enormity of the step I was about to take. For the first time in my life I was actually going deep sea fishing! Deep sea fishing. Even those three simple, innocent words sent chills of excitement down to my sweaty sox. I edged dockside to look over the Sea Serpent herself.' She lay proud and gleaming in the golden Florida light. The Sea Serpent was about 55 feet or so from bow to stern. She was painted a bright apple green, with brilliant red trim. A heavy brass rail girdled her entire middle where her cabin, a sort of flat, openwork affair, lay squat amidships. Atop the cabin was the glass-enclosed bridge that sported an enormous sign as big as a barn door, painted a screaming yellow. Emblazoned on the sign, rampant, nostrils distended in anger, eyes blood-red, flame gushing from his angry jaws, his claws ripping the ambient air, was the Sea Serpent himself. He seemed to be perched atop gigantic blue figures that read "$3.50." She rocked languidly in the wake of a passing cabin cruiser. Her hawsers creaked sensually as my excitement mounted. All my boyhood fantasies, long dormant, began to bubble to the surface of my overheated soul. Like some primal swamp, thick and gooey with long-decomposed bodies of ancient days, my mind belched forth in gaseous exhalation pure ecstasy. You'll have to excuse me if my prose is a little purple, but I know no other way to convey what I felt at this dramatic moment. Behind me the gravel of the parking lot crunched as a large aquamarine station wagon pulled in, followed by a Volkswagen and then a Buick, a Ford, and suddenly, from out of nowhere, a great horde, a motley throng of humanity was descending upon the Sea Serpent. They charged up the gangplank in an endless stream: withered ancients, toothless crones, short fat men in Bermuda shorts and derbies, pimple-faced kids. I think there was even a gorilla or two among them. I joined them. At the head of the gangplank a tall, thin, bored-looking Florida native - and there are few natives more Native than Floridians - wearing a weathered and tattered blue parka took tickets from each of the charging sportsmen as they lurched aboard. From the deck the Sea Serpent looked very different than she had from dockside. An endless bench ran completely around the rail, which, I noticed, was equipped with a hundred or more rod sockets. I huddled near the bow, crushed between a large matron lady of uncertain age and poundage and a short, angry, hatched-faced man who muttered. It seemed that in an instant the Sea Serpent was literally crowded to the gunnels with a jam packed compress of humanity. From somewhere deep below her engines rumbled. We were off! The Serpent threaded her way for a short distance through the Inland Waterway, past squatting millionaires' mansions that would have made a Pharaoh quail, and out into the open sea. The conductor moved among us, handing out battered plastic rods; short, stubby, and highly functional. The reels, worn and salt-encrusted, held spools of thick, yellowed nylon line. My rod had been painted blue with house paint some years before. Each rod came equipped with two enormous blue-steel hooks, upon which was threaded a large dead fish as bait. Not being a salt-water type, I can't really tell you what species this fish belonged to; quite possibly it was of a breed produced only for the purpose of being strung on a hook aboard the Sea Serpent. This fish was larger than most I had seen exhibited as prize catches from Midwestern lakes of my boy-hood. I became conscious of a general hubbub of conversation among my fellow sportsmen. There must have been at least sixty or seventy of them, most of whom seemed to know each other. I had the vague feeling of being an intruder in a private party that had been going on for some time. I noticed one weather-beaten type wearing a long-billed baseball cap. He was totally encased by a heavy set of waders and carried his own equipment, a rod stout enough to mast a schooner mounting a reel more like a heavy-duty winch than any reel I had ever seen. He stood spread-eagled, propped in the stern, staring stonily out to sea, his very presence exuding dedication. I never thought I would actually see Ahab in the flesh, but here he was, on the Sea Serpent, still searching for Moby Dick. Old Stretch, the name they called the conductor, had now fully equipped us with rods and bait and had fallen into some sort of stupor, propped against the wheelhouse like a bird of prey dozing in the sun. The Sea Serpent throbbed steadily as the shoreline receded, a proud row of gleaming white and glass hotels and condominiums in the Florida style. The sea grew heavier and heavier moment by moment as the Sea Serpent edged into the Gulf Stream. A lone pelican skimmed a foot or so above the wave tops past our bow and cast a fishy eye on us as he departed. Now all was still. The Sea Serpent stopped thrumming. We were there. Old Stretch returned to consciousness and once again moved among us, saying over and over: "Let out 'bout sixty ahm lenths of lahn." The old harridan next to me already had her line out. She hunched gloomily over her reel. The entire ship bristled with stubby rods like some sea-going porcupine. Silently we drifted, combing the seas for a victim. I glanced up at the bridge and saw the Captain dozing fitfully in the warm air. Old Stretch was now in the Soft Drink business. He dispensed Cokes and cracker humor along the rail, making change as he went. Silently we rocked in the jade-green Gulf Stream. The sun stood high in the heavens, hot and golden. As far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon, hundreds of other Sea Serpents, Captain Charlies', Dragons, Green Dolphins, and whatnot rocked in unison, each carrying its freight of $3.50 deep sea fishermen. I wondered idly what Zane Grey would have thought of all this as a helicopter banged overhead, followed by a 707 jet bound for New York. A line of four Navy mine destroyers wheeled as they executed practice maneuvers further out to sea. We rocked quietly in the gentle seas. A few of my fellow fishermen dozed off into a trancelike state. For long moments nothing much happened. Occasionally the candy machine mounted on the bulkhead clattered as someone popped for a Baby Ruth bar. A man in the bow began flipping pieces of bread high into the air over the water as a flock of gulls performed miniature dogfights, snapping and catching the crusts gracefully. I began to realize this was the greatest three dollars and a half that I had ever spent in my life. A magnificent 40-foot Hatteras cabin cruiser purred arrogantly by, her three inhabitants pointedly ignoring the Sea Serpent, as though somehow we had no right to be on the same ocean with them. The old duffer in the waders gave them a brief malevolent glance, hawked juicily, and spat noisily into their ocean. From somewhere off in the middle distance a buoy clanged steadily. I became aware that directly behind me a tourist lady of the Dreadnaught class was mounting a steady thrumming attack of complaint. Her husband, a thin, balding man wearing carefully pressed white ducks, fiddled apologetically with his rod. She had been drinking. She wore gold-colored wedgies with ankle straps and a high, bouffant coiffure. Silently the rest of the mob fished on, our vast network of glistening nylon lines stretching out into the seas as we slowly drifted with the current. Hell hath no pain in the ass like a lady bored, and this lady was bored. I stole surreptitious glances at her as she keened on. I could see her world clearly. It consisted mostly of beauty parlors, willowy male hairdressers, bridge mix, and cutting her husband down to size. How he ever got her aboard the Sea Serpent in the first place was a mystery. I returned to serious fishing, clutching my rod and staring at my line as I toyed with the star drag. A soft reverie enveloped me as the gulls squawked and the deck rose and fell so rythmically. For the better part of an hour or more we drifted with no luck. I was yanked back into wakefulness by a short, sharp blast of the Serpent's whistle. Stretch called out, "Haul in yew lahn. We're gon' to try anothuh spot." The reels hummed as we all cranked furiously. Again the Serpent's engines rumbled. The deck quivered. The wedgied lady took a new tack, her voice rising, rasping and shrill above the engine. "Herbert, my line's hooked on the bottom. Don't just stand there, do something. I'm getting tired of this foolishness, d'you hear me, Herbert? And now my line's hooked!" Herbert silently reeled in his line, murmuring placating platitudes to her as he did. Stretch, approaching through the throng from the direction of the stern, saw that there was a little trouble brewing with the lady's line. Her anger grew as she yanked roughly at the rocklike nylon line. Herbert spoke above the wind and engine noise. "Here, dear, I'll take care of it. Give me the rod." Her face set grimly in her all - the - rotten - things - I - have - to - put - up - with expression, she gave her rod a mighty, angry, disgusted yank. For a brief instant the scene hung still and sharp, like a tintype. Suddenly, from the peaceful heaving jade waters of the Gulf Stream, the flashing, writhing, silver-blue arrow body of a magnificent sailfish arched skyward, sail flapping. He danced on his tail for a split instant and then, with a mighty splash, dove into the sea. In an instant he was in the air again, shaking his bill furiously, making the nylon line snap and sing. The entire mob aboard the Serpent, shocked into silence, could scarcely believe what was happening. Stretch sprinted toward the bow, gaff in hand, calling out as he ran, "Marty! A sailfish! Shut 'er down!" The engines fell silent. The sailfish sounded briefly and took to the air again. The lady, glaring out at the fish with the same pinched anger that she felt for all her enemies, blamed Herbert for this latest development. "There's a silly fish hooked on my line! How do you expect me to get this line in? This is the last time you'll ever get me out on a thing like this!" Herbert, his eyes glassy with excitement, pawed ineffectually at her rod. "Here, dear, let me take it." "Get away, stupid! I'll get this thing in!" Stretch hung over the rail, his gaff ready, barking superfluous advice. It seemed to be all over before it began. There on the deck of the Sea Serpent lay as beautiful a sailfish as ever came from the Gulf, glistening like oiled blue steel, his sail flapping wetly on the flooring of the boat. "Now what am I going to do with this silly fish?" the lady asked the unanswering air. Stretch, astounded that someone aboard the Serpent had actually caught a sailfish, darted to and fro talking to himself. The great sail was carried triumphantly to the stern. The engines roared into life. We moved on to another spot. The lady, finding a transistor radio in her bag, treated us to a full hour of rock and roll while she sulked, refusing to allow her line to go back into the ocean where another silly fish might grab it. For the rest of the Sea Serpent's voyages that afternoon not a single strike was obtained, and finally, as the sun was dipping lower toward the horizon, we chugged in to the dock. As I ambled down the gangplank, old Ahab, his waders sloshing truculently ahead of me, stared gloomily at the golden wedgies of the lady going down the plank before him. His shoulders drooped. It was obvious he had been fishing the Gulf Stream for forty years and more from the deck of boats like the Sea Serpent and had never come close to a sailfish. Stretch called out, "Ma'am, what about yew fish?" She barked over her shoulder, "You can keep it for all I care. Or throw it back. Silly fish! Come on, Herbert, let's go." A photographer snapped our pictures as we left the Serpent, hawking his wares as he did so. I took a deep breath of soft, rich Florida air and walked on down the palm-lined street toward my hotel, thinking of dinner as I went. My tour of duty aboard the Sea Serpent was over, but it was great while it lasted. I had fulfilled an ancient dream. I had fished the deep sea and had tasted the salt spray and the winey wind of the Atlantic. And for only $3.50, too.

Copyright: 1967 Field and Stream Magazine

Links to Further Information:

May 1967
May 1967 Field and Stream

Courtesy: Max Schmid