Cambrian: Slice of Life

BEST OF: Unlikely fish story

BEST OF: Slice of Life

Usually, I leave the realm of the fish story to friends who fish, because I don’t. But, I can’t resist sharing this very unlikely story of a fish that didn't get away.

We have a photograph in our albums — a picture of our son, Sean, who had one arm around the neck of a Capt. Norcross, and the other around a 178-pound marlin. Sean was hugging a fish, and he looked ecstatically happy.

When I first received the photo, I double-checked Sean’s face, just to be sure somebody wasn't trying to slip me a ringer. You see, anyone who spent any time at all at a dining table or in a restaurant with him during his childhood knows he was not an easy child to feed.

Sean was convinced that mushrooms were a subversive element in a plot to overthrow his stomach; he didn't much care for whole­-wheat bread; he'd run screaming from a lima bean; you couldn't even keep him in the same room with the edible innards of any animal; and he was most emphatically not, NOT a fish lover. Far from it.

Between birth and the age of 18, he might have willingly eaten half a fish stick. Anything else fishy was consumed under extreme duress, if it was consumed at all.

A classic Sean/fish story involves a time when Grandpa and Grandma took the two little boys, then maybe 6 and 7, to a now-long-defunct restaurant in Los Osos, which served fish. Period. During the meal, Sean tried really hard to survive on French fires, until Grandpa caught on and firmly insisted that Sean consume at least one bite of fish.

So … Sean put a small chunk of fish in his mouth and started to chew. He chewed and he chewed (mind you he'd ordered fish and chips, not calamari).

Everyone else finished their meals, Grandpa paid the bill, they all hopped back into the car and everybody took a nice leisurely drive home to Cambria.

When everybody climbed out of the car at the house in Cambria, Grandpa discovered that Sean was still disdainfully chomping on his requisite bite of fish.

Things improved a bit once he got to high school. He no longer retched when somebody brought a pizza with mushrooms on it — he just wouldn't eat the mushrooms. He actually tried something in his salads besides lettuce and Thousand Island dressing. He even managed to order an entree other than a hamburger when we went out to eat at a restaurant (but if he was going to eat steak, did he have to pick the filet mignon?)

Even though he had relaxed and matured, gastronomically speaking, he still wouldn't touch fish.

However, immediately after he’d finished high school, Sean and his best pal moved to Maui to work on the tour boats that scoot out of the Lahaina dock every day, each carrying a load of visitors who wanted to experience a little Maui magic.

It took a while for Sean to get his feet on the ground . . . er, deck. And times were a tough. Food prices in Hawaii are astronomical, and in the case of two young mainlanders, those prices made the purchasing of food somewhere between unlikely and impossible, at least on a regular basis.

Push met shove. Sean’s lifelong aversion to fish met the immovable object of an eighteen-year-old appetite. You see, they had fishing poles and even lobster traps. It didn’t take long to figure out that eating free fish sure beat going hungry.

Back to the photo we got in the mail. It was the culmination of a forty-minute battle between Sean and the monster marlin, the very first marlin ever taken on the Coral See, one of the boats Sean worked on (and would later captain, after he earned his Coast Guard license before the age of 21!).

The crew hadn't been expecting to catch marlin, so the reel they’d set to troll for ono was small, and it blew apart as soon as the big beast hit the line. Sean and three other crewmen fought that 178-pound beast in hand over hand, 300 feet of line worth, yard by painful yard. (When the boat pulled into the harbor, as local tradition demands, the four ecstatic fishermen all mooned the dock and then got tossed into the harbor. I guess it’s related to ripping the shirt off the back of a pilot who’s completed his first solo flight.)

These days, our former fish-hater is a sophisticated fish-person. He even eats sushi and sashimi and loves it.

But I sure would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that first Hawaiian dinner when a very hungry Sean knew without a doubt that there was nothing else in the house to eat but fish. And then ate it.

This column ran first on Sept. 18, 1986.