Born to Run (2016)

BOOK TWO

BORN TO RUN

FIFTY

REGRESAR A MÉXICO

Right before the Born in the USA tour, I bought a home in the Republican stronghold of Rumson, New Jersey, only minutes from the plot of sand that once held the old Surf and Sea Beach Club, where we “townies” had been spit on by the children of my new neighbors. The house was a rambling old Georgian-style “mansion” on the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Ridge Road. I went through my usual buyer’s remorse, but I held out, promising myself I’d fill the big old house with what I’d been searching for: family and a life. One morning I received a phone call from my father. This was unprecedented. The man who banned telephones from our home for nineteen years, if alive today, would never be in any danger of maxing out his minutes. I’d never received a phone call directly from my dad so I was apprehensive. I called California.

An unusual buoyancy was in his voice. “Hi, Bruce!” He wanted to go to Mexico on a fishing trip. My pop, who hadn’t had a line in the water for the past twenty-five years, dating back to the two of us moping (fishing, not catching) at the end of the Manasquan jetty, now wanted to Ernest Hemingway it and go marlin fishing. The only marlin the old man had ever been close to would’ve been the one hanging over the bar at his favorite watering hole, but with the exception of our previous Mexican run to Tijuana, my dad had never asked me to go anywhere. Amused by his enthusiasm, flattered and curious, I listened to his pitch. Somewhere inside still lingered my hunger for that second (third? fourth? fifth?) chance with the old man where all would go right. I said, “Sure.” I asked him if he needed me to make any arrangements and he proudly said he and his neighbor Tom (my pop’s only male friend of the past fifteen years) had “taken care of it all.” “This one’s on me,” he jauntily responded. What could I say?

A few weeks later, I flew to San Francisco and drove to Burlingame, California. There on a windy hill, bordering Silicon Valley, the Oakland Bay in the distance, was my folks’ new residence and answer to their “gold rush” of ’69. It was a modest place they’d breathlessly picked out, my mother informing me of its every architectural detail as I listened on the phone back in Jersey. I spent the night. Then Tom, my dad and I hopped on Aeroméxico to Cabo San Lucas. The flight down was raucous, filled with other fishermen and vacationers, high and excited to be going south of the border. My dad, now a huge man, struck up a friendship with some girls on the plane. (Something, considering his general immutability, he never failed to be able to do.) Once on the ground we all jammed, girls included, into a Ford Econoline van long past its warranty. We passed scenes of abject poverty, roadside shacks with rooftop TV antennas, a blue glow emanating from within, as our driver, dodging local livestock, recklessly drove us off the road ’til we settled in screams and a cloud of dust amid the roadside brush. Upon reaching our resort, I had to admit, Pops hadn’t done bad. No TVs, no telephones, but pretty cushy. Cabo at the time seemed caught between going upscale and a donkey-ramblin’ twilight zone. A phone at the local post office, placed on a lonely stool, presided over by an olive-skinned beauty, was our only connection to folks stateside.

The following morning, we rose in darkness, hopped into a cab, and were deposited at dawn on a remote beach several miles from our hotel. It was there in the morning’s blue twilight that something just didn’t feel copacetic. Long minutes passed, my father silent, Tom shuffling, until puffs of white smoke could be seen rising from behind the nearest rock outcropping. These were followed by the blub-blub-blub sound of an ancient overworked diesel. Slowly coming into view was a bright orange wooden crate of a boat that had to have Bluto (Popeye’s nemesis) himself at the wheel. Shit. My regrets on not having commandeered our arrangements were coming fast and hard. I was loaded! We could have been going out on Ted Turner’s Courageous if we wanted to! But instead, we were about to risk our lives in this rust bucket.

A small tender with a straw-hatted, parchment-skinned old man on the oars rowed toward us. There was no English to be had, so upon reaching shore, incoherent greetings were mumbled by both parties and he motioned for us to get in the boat. My father was outfitted for his encounter with Moby-Dick in his usual street attire: heavy, laced, brown brogan shoes; white socks; dress pants; a crumpled dress shirt; suspenders; and thinning, still-coal-black hair, slicked back. He looked great for a Polish picnic in Queens but was not prepared for the Mexican sea. Parkinson’s, body fluid buildup, diabetes, psoriasis and an array of ailments too numerous to mention, along with a life of nightly smokes and six-pack séances, had left him severely limited physically. We shuffled him over to the boat and with waves lapping on the sand, one leg at a time, we guided him in.

With a wood-on-wood ka-thunk, we bumped up against the side of our Titanic. There was no boarding ladder, so the three of us, without the benefit of a common dialect, had to lift 230 pounds of nickels in Sears slacks onto a rocking tugboat. Jesus Christ. The fulcrum reached its apex, weight shifted and with a resounding thud, the source of my presence on Earth rolled into the death trap he’d rented us. It was six thirty a.m. and I was already soaked in sweat. Our expressionless captain turned his “lady” around and headed silently out to sea. Not far beyond the cove, away from the sheltered waters of the coast, there were some serious seas stirring. We were a bobbing rubber duck in a five-year-old’s bathtub. When we were down in the trough of a wave, the following wave crested at wheelhouse height. Within fifteen minutes, Tom was blowing his all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast over the port side. My dad was in lockdown mode, gripping the armrests of the fishing chair with his usual couldn’t-give-a-shit calm.

I tried to communicate with our skipper using some of my high school Spanish, but “¿Cómo se llama?” got no response. I found if I kept my eyes on the horizon and rode it out, I might spare myself a retching over the stern. Our engine, in a wood box set square above deck in the boat’s center, was belching diesel fumes and adding to the vicious mix of elements that attacked our normally landlocked digestive systems. An hour passed, the sun burned, land receded and there was nothing but an endless chromatic panorama where sea and sky melded that was making me terrifically claustrophobic. Death at sea felt imminent. After a second hour had passed I commanded Tom to go on top and find out EXACTLY how much farther we had to go. Our skipper raised one finger, then turned back to his wheel. Good, one more mile . . . no . . . no . . . turns out, ONE MORE HOUR! About a half hour back, we’d come upon a Boston Whaler with two locals inside, miles out at sea. They were obviously sinking, for the boat was low in the sea, filled with water up to their shins. I motioned to the captain for us to go to their rescue. Then, as we moved closer, I saw . . . fish, many fish, swimming in circles inside the boat around their legs. They reached bare-handed, caught one and, smiling, lifted it up for our approval . . . bait . . . they were selling bait.

Finally, on the horizon a small circle of boats appeared . . . fishing grounds. In ten minutes the lines were readied and there was a quick tug; I passed the pole into my dad’s hands and he did his best to reel in . . . something. It was about half the size of my arm and went straight into the ice chest. Then, hours of nothing. There would be no epic, man-versus-nature, Darwinian battle. No Doug Springsteen versus my father’s favorite foe—everything—showdown. We sat, an infinitesimal cork bobbing on the bouncing sea, then, late afternoon, we headed back, three more hours of back. I laid myself out on a wooden bench in the stern, gobbled the paper-bag lunch the hotel had provided, sucked diesel fumes and slept. I’d had enough. After the ritual we started the morning with was reversed (my dad lowered, like a sack of United Nations grain, into the tender), we were deposited, grateful survivors, back on the beach. We donated our catch to our crew and watched them smoke and blub their way into the sunset (no doubt, bored with another pack of clueless gringos and headed for a drink and a laugh at our expense at the local cantina). The beach was empty and silent but for the small surf lapping upon the sand. My dad, in an alternate universe for the past several hours, suddenly looked over at me, as the sun dropped into the sea, and said—seriously—“I’ve got the boat for tomorrow too!”

We did not use the boat tomorrow, or ever again. Instead I took the old man to a little beach bar, looking out over white sand and blue Pacific. I bought a round of beers and we spent a civil afternoon watching the girls on the beach and having some good belly laughs about our adventure. On our way through the marina, back to our car, we were offered several day trips by fishing rock ’n’ roll fans on glistening white, state-of-the-art yachts (the perks of rock stardom followed us even this far south). We were headed back in the morning so we politely declined—“Next time”—and went back to our hotel, slept and flew home the next day.

On our flight back, looking over at my bemused pops, I reminded myself my father was not “normal” or very well. I’d been around him for so long in his condition, I’d gotten used to it and I could forget. I’d grown up on the Shore, knew plenty of real open-sea fishermen; I could’ve arranged for him to have a shot at catching that marlin, had it stuffed and nailed up over his beloved kitchen table with a Marlboro in its mouth, if he’d liked, but maybe that was never the real point. Maybe he just wanted to give me something, something for the gifts I’d given him and my mom once success hit, something that came wrapped in his seafaring fantasy. He did.