When I think of my childhood in San Francisco, I often think of fishing. I loved fishing, and some of my most vivid childhood memories are of the times I spent “sitting on the dock of the bay.” I owe these memories to my dear mother.
Like too many other children, my parents were divorced. I was 8 years old when I found out what divorce was. The next two years were a difficult and turbulent time for my sisters and me. We would find ourselves with Dad one weekend and with Mom the next. Plus, our parents would have different boyfriends and girlfriends; and then, we had step-moms and step-dads, step-brother and step-sisters and eventually half-brothers. Exchanges from one household to the other were usually very awkward and emotional. Finally, in the summer of 1957, the decision was made that I (and three of my sisters) would stay with our mom. I loved both my Mom and my Dad, but I remember how very happy I was to finally be settled with my mother.
Now, in her concern that I not be denied the rights of youth, my mother began encouraging me to learn to fish. That first full summer with her, I spent many hours working to earn the money needed to purchase my own deep sea fishing gear. Of course, mom subsidized my purchase, but I was able to earn some of the money and pick out my first deep sea rod. Then one Saturday, there was the trip to Pacifica and the home of Mom’s friend Ruby. Ruby’s husband (Jim) was a quiet gentleman who liked to work in his garage where he made his own fishing tackle. I spent most of the day there with Jim in his garage watching him work. He sent me home that night with some good tackle and good advice.
Soon, after a few preliminary trips to the beach for casting practice, I was ready for the big event. I was 12 years old. It was a Saturday and my mother planned that I would spend the day fishing under the Golden Gate Bridge. She would drop me off early in the morning and pick me up around dinner time. Much to my surprise, I was able to wake up that day at 4:00 am and still found my body reasonably functional. I was very excited. Of course, mom was up too and seemed to be as excited as I was.
It was still dark when we climbed into the car. But, by the time we got to the Presidio of San Francisco, it was light enough to see the many wild rabbits looking for their early morning meals. When we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge there was enough light that the drive down the narrow road to old Fort Point beneath was not too difficult. At the bottom of the hill, we came to the quayside along the very edge of the bay. Then, we drove on the old road that led along the water’s edge to old fort under the bridge. As we neared it, we saw two or three older men already fishing.
Fort Point was built in 1850 as a defensive position to protect the San Francisco harbor. It was strategically positioned adjacent to the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge was built in about 1935, high above the fort. When I visited the fort that day, still visible above the large old wooden doors were the words, “Fort Point,” with the year 1850 also visible. Later in the day, I would be able to find a little diversion from fishing by looking through the gaps in the large bolted doors and by imagining the history that must have gone on behind them. But my first and primary interest that morning while under the bridge was to get my line in the water.
I selected a spot between two of the men, took the gear out of my mother’s car, and kissed her good-bye for the day. I soon found that I had chosen a bad spot. A wave crashed against the quayside and rocks and rose some 15 feet over my head. I immediately moved closer to one of the men. He introduced himself as George. George was an older black man who had lived in the city his entire life. Apparently, he came often to fish under the bridge. His car was backed up to the quayside and his little area was all set up for the day. He spoke kindly of his wife whom he said allowed him to fish each Saturday. George was a large man with many layers of clothing. He wore warm gloves, but he had cut off all the fingertips exposing his fingers so he could work his fishing line and hooks. George was very kind and clearly a seasoned fisherman. He was also very kind and friendly to me. He packed a lunch and snacks and was very willing to share his lunch with me, the kid who forgot to bring lunch. He must have been humored by me, a skinny 10-year-old boy with inadequate clothing and little experience as a fisherman. By the end of the morning, George proved to be a good friend and a willing teacher.
We spent most of the day together. We didn’t talk much. George was a quiet man. Mostly he was just kind and friendly. Plus, he taught me how to tie my leader, bate my hooks, cast out, and reel in my line. He also knew exactly where to cast his line without getting it tangled in the rocks below. As for me, I got tangled too often and had to cut my line many times losing my leaders and hooks. And, it seemed that for every fish I caught, George would reel in four …plus a few crabs.
After that day and for some time into the fall, George and I met nearly every Saturday morning for more fishing. My fishing skills didn’t improve all that much, but I gained a lot from being there with George. We sat and fished and talked a little. We also listened to the sounds of the waves, the cries of the seagulls, and the blaring of fog horns …sounds that comfort me (then and now). I returned many times to fish with George …and, to think about important things. I thought, and fished, and thought some more. Looking back on it now, I sometimes wonder if my mother ever knew just how important those fishing days were to me. At a very difficult time in my life, I met George, a quiet man who taught me to fish and gave me personal examples of goodness, kindness, and stability. I wonder if George knew.
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