Guest contributor: Crash Barry
categories: Cocktail Hour
Comments Off on Serial Sunday: “Tough Island” by Crash Barry” Episode 24
My fellow sternmen didn’t understand my obsession with the uninhabited islands surrounding Matinicus. Tough to explain my desire to be alone, when they thought I was already leading a quasi-hermitic existence in Lower Harbor. I’d set foot on Ragged Ass, Two Bush, No Man’s Land, Ten Pound and Wooden Ball. Because of the distance, the difficulty and the law, it was highly unlikely I’d actually land on Matinicus Rock. But Seal Island, four miles to the east, had easy access and was fair game. Back in the old days, it was a practice target for military bomber pilots. In modern times, it became a bird sanctuary, with a tiny shack in the middle of the island for the occasional, official birdwatcher from the Audubon Society.
Some people might not consider our camping trip on Seal Island to be a romantic getaway, but I did. My pal Rick gave us a lift in his boat and towed my borrowed skiff behind, almost all the way to Seal. When we got close, Alice and I climbed into the skiff and rowed ashore to claim the entire 65 acres for ourselves. After setting up the tent, we stripped naked to enjoy the last vestiges of a Saturday summer afternoon, followed by wine, water, weed and food.
The only thing we were missing was bug dope. Matinicus didn’t have an insect problem, especially down on the shore where a steady breeze blew. But Seal Island was home to millions of mosquitoes, no-see ums and various other blood suckers. Nightfall came quick and forced us into the tent, where we managed to stay occupied with sex and slumber.
The next morning an amazing sunrise woke us. A gentle breeze kept the dawn air virtually bug-free. After a cup of tea, we explored the island’s shoreline of rock, ledge and bird shit. We avoided the interior, with its scrub and brush, nesting places for various winged creatures. Alone, except for Alice and the squawking birds, Seal Island made Matinicus look like Manhattan.
We launched the skiff, intending to circumnavigate the island. But instead, a seal grabbed our attention. We watched and followed as the seal approached a string of lobster buoys. The sea dog stopped and dove at each one, disappearing to follow the pot warp to the bottom, where it would attack the trap, getting both the bait and the lobsters, then surface for a breather before heading for the next buoy.
On many occasions, I’d dealt with traps robbed by seals. They’d destroy the bait bag. Sometimes they even ripped the heads – the knitted pathways lobster use to walk into the trap. A torn head often meant bringing the gear back into the shop for repairs, which was a pain in the ass.
A couple times, back when I was working for Donald, a daring seal followed us as we hauled traps in the shallow waters around Matinicus Rock. When I tossed the shorts overboard, the seal caught each one before it sank below the surface. That seal dined until its stomach was full, then disappeared. Donald threatened to dispose of the seal, but didn’t trust me enough to kill the animal in my presence. Since I was a hippie ex-Coastie, he was afraid I’d squeal on him to the authorities for violating federal law. And he was right.
Seals are the real reason most lobstermen carry weapons aboard their vessels. Guns are used to murder marine mammals, not to shoot fellow humans.
No matter how many lobsters the seals stole, I still loved ‘em. Impressed and amused by their intelligence and gumption, I understood their motivation. Why bother to hunt when the silly, noisy white man will trap food for you? Besides, the seals called these islands home long before humans.
I didn’t see it, but changed course and headed up into the cove where she was pointing. According to Matinicus lore, Frenchman’s Cove was named in honor of the drowned Frenchman found there a century earlier. As we got closer, I saw it. A corpse left behind by the receding tide. I rowed closer. Not a Frenchman, but a dead seal. We landed the skiff close by and went to investigate. The body was bloated. Part of the skull seemed to be missing.
“Let’s get out of here,” Alice pleaded, grabbing my arm. “I don’t want to see this.” She started to cry when I pushed at the carcass with my foot. “C’mon, let’s go,” she begged.
She would’ve freaked if I tried to examine the body. The seal’s head injury, and death, were probably the result of a gunshot wound. Most likely from a lobsterman from Matinicus or Vinalhaven.
We climbed back into the skiff and rowed the way we came. We didn’t see any more seals.
After lunch, Alice and I ventured to the center of the island to check out the Audubon Society’s primitive birdwatcher’s shack. The door was open. Inside we found spartan lodging: A table, two chairs, two cots and, on a shelf in the corner, a lone book with a crow on the cover.
I picked it up and read the title aloud: “The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda.” I opened to a random page. “Wonder what it’s about?”
I flipped through the book and my eyes were drawn to words: Peyote, datura, mescalito, flying, and then, in bold print – non-ordinary reality. I knew I needed to read this book.
“Look at this,” I said, excitedly, to Alice. “It’s all about hallucinogens.”
“I’ve heard of him,” she answered with a sneer. She wasn’t a fan of psychedelics. “There’s a whole series by him. He’s a fraud.”
We returned to camp and I started reading. Immediately sucked into the alleged tale of a sorcerer and his modern-day apprentice, I spent the rest of the afternoon learning about the Yaqui way of knowledge, until dinner, wine and weed. When darkness came, so did the bugs and we rolled into the tent. Alice wasn’t happy when I pulled out the book and the flashlight.
Alice was my first real girlfriend since high school. I’d been with many women before and during the Coast Guard, but nothing serious. We were working on an odd long-distance relationship. Since I lived 20 miles out to sea, getting together was often difficult, especially considering that hooking up always depended on the unpredictable weather. By this point, we’d been dating a year, but barely knew each other. Except for the time I spent with her after Donald fired me, and a couple weeks in the summer, our meet-ups averaged once a month. Our dozen weekends were devoted to sex.
She was a very nice person and we had fun together. But if she wasn’t around, I barely thought of her. Except when loneliness and depression struck. Then I penned sad letters, desperate for love.
“Why are you dating her? What are you looking for? What do you want?” my mother asked in rapid-fire succession. “Another mother?”
We were walking along the grassy trail leading to South Sandy Beach. My parents visited Matinicus in the middle of August, at the height of the fog season. They had hoped to fly out from Owls Head, but the fog was thick, so they had to endure a three-hour voyage aboard Captain Dick’s slow boat from Rockland. By the time they reached the island, they were both nauseous from the waves and the boat’s diesel fumes.
We had decided to go for a stroll while Alice stayed behind to cook in her grandparents’ cold, damp house. This was the first time my folks met Alice. My mom found it odd that Alice was nine years older than me.
“Well,” my mother said. “What are you looking for?”
“Ummmm,” I stammered. Didn’t like being interrogated. “I don’t know.”
Unfortunately, it was still too foggy to see the Rock, the ledges, the islands or the sparkle of open sea, so the scenery couldn’t be used as a way to change the topic. As we approached the spot where I wiped out on the Hondamatic, my mother slipped on the slick grass. My father reached for her to stop her fall, but he too lost his balance and she ended up pulling him down to the ground with her. For a couple seconds, they lay silent and motionless. On their backs. On the grass.
I helped them to their feet, knowing there was no salvaging their visit. Wet and cold, they were both grumpy. I didn’t blame ‘em. The lack of a flush toilet, coupled with the dampness and general disrepair of their rustic accommodations, didn’t make for a good time. Luckily, we had lobster for supper, which temporarily boosted their spirits. They were in bed by sundown.
The next morning, the fog lifted. Worried the sun wouldn’t last, my parents decided to fly off Matinicus that afternoon, a day earlier than planned. After breakfast, we walked down to my fishhouse. They were disappointed and perhaps even a little disgusted by my living quarters.
Their mood improved again when my father and I rowed out to Edwin’s scow and packed a hundred pounds of lobster for them to bring home. Edwin was gonna truck the lobsters and their luggage up to the airport, so my parents and Alice and I could enjoy a leisurely stroll.
Up near the crossroads, one of the island pirates approached, driving a beat-up truck without a windshield. He stopped the truck in front of us.
“Crash,” he drawled, “you got any idea who was driving around with a shotgun last night? They shot out all my truck windows. Probably a little after 11…”
“Nope,” I said. “No idea. These are my parents. Visiting. We’re walking them to the airport.”
“Nice to meet ’cha,” he said, doffing his ball cap. “You hear anything, you let me know, OK? You guys need a lift?”
“Nope,” I said. “Thanks, though.”
At the airport, my parents hugged Alice and me goodbye before boarding the plane. I knew they were glad to be leaving.
Click here to read a Bangor Daily News interview with Crash Barry about his writing influences and more. Visit marijuanavalley.com to buy signed copies of Crash’s books about the seamy side of Maine life.
To read all the previous episodes of Tough Island, click here.