by Mike Florian
Brian Pierce was an East Coaster, right from Lockport, Nova Scotia. There were lots of people from Lockport, including Donald Sutherland, the actor. Most of them traveled away to find wealth and happiness. They came alone or with families and caught on with the halibut boats and draggers or seiners and trollers plying their trade on the west coast. They were great fishermen, and for the most part good workers.
Brian asked me for a chance to get on and go herring fishing for the duration of the short, eight-week season and he ended up staying on for four years, right up to the time of his accident. He was persistent. I sensed he was a good talker and a funny character so I took him on. You never know a man, however, till you ship with him.
It started right in the beginning, maybe two days out. I made my way to the galley from the stateroom and there was Brian scratching himself. He wasn’t just scratching here and there, he was scratching all over and in some places he was scratching himself bleeding raw.
He scratched his ears, his scalp, his nape, his chest, he would rub himself up against a corner of the galley and he just kept scratching. He leaned up against the flat-topped diesel-burning stove, and the flakes on his skin were falling like gentle snow on top of the stove top. Most of them missed the coffeepot.
“Brian,” I said. “Maybe you can just move over, away from the stove. Cookie isn’t going to like it when part of you gets into his eggs.”
“I like it by the stove, Cap,” he answered. “It kind of heats things up and makes it much more comfortable. I’ve had this itch most of my life and I got to keep scratching it.”
“But it isn’t very pleasant for the rest of the crew. I mean, you can scratch wherever you want all over the boat, but maybe just away from the stove.”
“OK, Cap,” said Brian. And then forever after every one of us would find little mounds of dead white skin scales all over the stove. Of course Brian would try to clean up, but in the middle of the night on a wheel turn when the ship is on auto pilot, he would be by the stove, scratching.
Cookie tried everything. He made him eat fish and fish oil. We made him eat herring and potatoes, his favorite meal. Cookie fed him olive oil and salads. Sometime he would say it was getting better but you knew he was lying.
When it came time to work, Brian was the best. He was just five foot two and maybe he weighed one hundred and thirty-five pounds, but he never quit and always asked for more. The only thing is, the guy just kept itching.
* * *
“When I was growing up back home,” he told us one day when we were all sitting around in the galley, “it wasn’t any different. I’ve had this condition since I was a kid. My Mom would swathe me in a wet cheesecloth and made sure she’d change it at least once a night. If she didn’t do that, in the morning my skin would be bone dry.
“After waking up, as soon as I moved, even a little bit, the skin would simply crack and bleed. She kept this up till I was twelve, and one day she just got up and left the house. As they say back home, ‘I had no Ma no more, me aunt had I’. My aunt raised me from that time on, and she kept up the cheesecloth. I still send her all the money I can.”
After we heard that from Brian, no one cared anymore if he scratched in front of the stove. We just didn’t want the flakes getting into the cook’s frying pan.
As the season started and we netted the herring, we had to haul the loaded gillnets over the side roller of our working skiff and it took four strong men to get through five tons of fish in a couple of hours.
Brian pulled like a machine. Sometimes the wind would howl, and in early March the nor’westers brought snow and cold. I would look at Brian’s wrists as we all pulled in unison and they were cracked and bleeding. Occasionally he tried to wear a bandage, but in this kind of an environment the white gauze turned black in no time with fish slime and sweat and salt water. And the skin cracks never healed. And the itching never stopped.
“No kind of fishin’,” Brian would holler as the fish came hot and heavy. There would be a head poking through almost every hole in the net, a massive silver blanket being pulled aboard. Then we would all shake like hell as the fish fell out and we let the net slide empty over the other side. As the twenty-foot long and eight-foot wide skiff slid under the net, it filled up with silver herring. The entire crew whooped and yelled long into the night as we would merrily pull away the hours.
Cookie made the meals and invariably we would eat fish. One of our favourites was fresh herring roe cooked in butter with onions and garlic and a pot of rice: pure protein and delicious.
Gord Wilson, one of the crew, a Haida Indian said, “You white guys always mess things up with garlic and butter.”
Back on the boat, after all the fish were iced down and put away, the crew went to sleep for a few hours. With forty tons of herring on board we had to be careful, and we slept in shifts. Brian stayed up, pumped the hold every hour and made sure everything was working.
In between, he stood by the stove, scratching. At breakfast, before we hauled anchor and set off to town everyone was fired up. We had a fortune on board and the mood was good. Yarns were being told. As always, Brian had a good one.
* * *
“I was fifteen,” he said, “and they were looking for men on the sealer the Eclipse. She was a good boat and she always traveled up the coast, past Labrador and into the ice fields. My aunt at the time knew the mate real well, and he said he might have an opening but he’d find out.
“A couple of days later he let her know that they needed a swamper to help in the engine room. They’d pay a half share to a fifteen-year old but no more. The job was oiling and greasing. I knew enough to do that.
“My aunt Jennie went to see the mate and told him that her boy Brian will do the work as long as he has water at night to keep him damp. ‘No problem,’ said the mate, ‘just bring him down next Sunday. She’s set to sail then and all hands better report by noon.’ Jennie, she asked him again about the water and he reassured her that he’d look after me. It was going to be a six month trip out of Lunenburg.
“On Sunday my aunt drove me down to the Eclipse. It was a four-hour drive, I had my gear, my gumboots, my woolen pants, four or five pair of Stanfields, socks, the works, all kinds of cheesecloth. Jennie made a sign of the cross over me and kissed my forehead and said, ‘See you in June.’ It was early January on the east coast, just after Christmas, and the men were saying goodbye to their families at the dock.
“The Eclipse was a hundred and fifty-foot schooner rig with two great Cats for engines and a fo’c’sle that held twenty men. The Cap’n and the mate and the cook stayed up in the wheelhouse, above deck and towards the stern. Up forward and below was our quarters. In the midsection we held the salt for the skins and all the provisions. We were expecting to come back loaded. The price of skins was high.
“The mate gave the order to let the lines loose and the Eclipse started to pull out, stern to. Once clear of the dock, he put into gear and left Lunenberg till early spring when the icepack melted and the seals went off to feed the summer runs.
I was on the foredeck and I waved to aunt Jennie and I saw her crying. As we rounded the breakwater, in the corner of my eye I saw the mate, a great big man, coming along the main deck from the poop with a red pipe wrench in his hand. No later than the breakwater, mind you, no later than that he started pulling off all the water taps on the boat and sealing up the faucets in the two washrooms, in the fo’c’sle, in the galley. Only the skipper had one for his use and only the cookie. I knew I was in trouble.
“For four months I had nothing but drinking water. I stayed below, oiling and greasing the engines, did my job, bled like a stuck pig. The mate allowed me on the ice a couple times, but when I wasn’t helping the engineer, I was in the hold salting skins.
“By May the Eclipse was full and I looked like an alligator. At the end of it all, when we tied up back in Lunenburg and I went with my aunt to pick up my settlement, I was given a quarter share, not the half I was promised. The old mate, a Dutchman, he screwed me pretty good.”
The crew sat still, listening. “Pass the coffee,” said Brian, winking, breaking the silence.
* * *
For four years Brian worked with us fishing herring, then the salmon in the summer and fall. I had Pete Swim run the boat in the winter, dragging for cod and sole. The weather would be terrible and most of the fleet would be tied up, but Pete took her out and Brian would ship with him and send parts of his settlement to old Aunt Jennie back in Lockport.
Brian kept working the seasons and his banter and sense of humour belied his tough young life. He told stories galore; whether they were truth or lies, he always came up with something. About how one uncle did this or that or a cousin or a long-time crewmate back east.
He told how one time during a gale on the winter Atlantic, fishing on a one hundred-foot dragger, the wind blew up to well over a hundred knots. The old steel trawler, the Northern Star, was caught for three days out on the Banks. The crew was sick as dogs and it was all they could do to hang on.
The cook had gone missing and all hands went looking for him. Finally they found him up at the very peak of the bow, behind the anchor winch, praying for the gale to blow harder so the misery would end.
He told about another time, again in a nasty gale where the trawler Impasse was jogging to a buoy in the night. The wheelhouse windows were all broken up. The radios and radar were soaked with salt water, dysfunctional. All of the crew, except the skipper, were in the galley, and the boat wasn’t laying to like it should. They were taking seas broadside too often.
Finally the port galley window shattered as a big queer one came up and broadsided the old tub. The mate ran up into the wheelhouse to see if the old man was all right, and there he found the skipper huddled in a corner, crying, the Impasse on autopilot.
* * *
After some time, and to the surprise of all of us, Brian fell in love. The crew was working over the gear after a twenty-day halibut trip. It was July and we decided to put the halibut gear on because the price of salmon was at all-time lows. They were sharpening the hooks, splicing cuts in the longline, mending flagpoles, changing gangions and beckets.
Brian never showed so of course everybody was bitching and cussing him. Finally he walked down the dock and he had this beautiful lady on his arm “Hello there,” he says proudly. “This here is Beth Tobin.”
“Hi, Beth,” everybody responds one way or the other. “How’d you get hooked up with this bum?” “Where did you find him?” “You could do better than that.”
When she talked, she sounded just like him. They seemed from the same pod.
A couple of trips later, during our eight-day layover, Brian took Beth down to Seattle for a trip and married her. Six months later they had a baby. A year and a half after that Beth took up with Angus and that was the end of Brian. It broke his heart and you could see it all over his face and demeanor. He kept working, but he was quiet and cranky and snapped at inbreakers like a dog after puppies.
In the Savoy hotel up town after a few beers he bitched and complained about his skipper, his mates, the boats, his settlement. He kept sending most of his cheques to aunt Jennie and now to Beth and her son. He spent a lot of time at the Savoy.
Finally one day the story was that Brian was working on his car, parked in the driveway of the house he was renting down in the gulley. He was revving the engine for some reason and then turned and walked away from the front end and went around the back of the car, engine still running.
The old beater jumped into reverse and hit Brian full on, pinning his leg up against a tree. When he got out of the hospital a couple of months later he showed me where they grafted some skin from his rump, and where you could see right through a hole in his calf, his skin still hard like cardboard and cracked and raw. He could only limp along on his tip toe and it was half speed at best.
“Still got a chance for me, cap?” he asked, still scratching.
“You bet, Brian,” I said. “You’ve always got a place with me.”
But it wasn’t the same, and a few weeks into the season I had to let him go. He kicked around a few more months and I could see him hobbling around town occasionally. Most of the time he was heading home from the Savoy, hopping on his good leg more than not, a lonely figure in the rainy, winter nights. Come spring and the new season, no one knew where he disappeared to, but they say he headed back home by train, maybe to take care of Aunt Jennie.
Copyright © 2012 by Mike Florian