Monday, November 22, 2010

Excerpt Monday: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Richard Burns by Walt Long

by Walt Long

At the age of twenty-five he was pulled down from the top of the wall trying to escape from the State Penitentiary in Guadalajara…and that wasn't even the lowest point of his life. It was never easy for Richard Burns, from a troubled adolescence through years of incredible and dangerous adventures. He followed and chased uncertainty with the great beat generation writers, a beautiful heroin-addicted dancer, clever and not-so-clever scams, harrowing escapes, and short-sighted ventures that always tempted fate. The one constant in his life was the apparent truism that life is forgiving, and always offers another chance.


The Mary D. was a small 2 man fishing boat, with cramped and smelly quarters, and a sizeable hold for the fish. I learned in short order that I was expected to do all the cooking and cleaning in addition to standing watches while the Captain slept and searched for schools of albacore. When “the time was right” – an almost spiritual conversion of factors that he refused to elaborate upon – I would help spread chum and land fish with the heavy bamboo rods he called “jap-poles”. Four tubs of foul-smelling salted sardines and fish innards were secured to both sides of the cabin.

Martin (he pronounced it Mar-TEEN) DiLallo, who was the proprietor, Captain, and Executive officer of the “Mary” – as he lovingly referred to the old girl – was a comical caricature of a sea-faring man, complete to the snarling “Aye” that he was apt to respond to any of my endless questions. It was “starboard” and “port”, “forward” and “aft”, and the Mary would always be referred to as “she”. After showing me around and explaining my duties, he advised that we would be getting under way soon, and shortly after gave the command to “cast off”.

We cleared the harbor about midday and headed north, toward Catalina Island. I was told the best fishing was on the seaward side and that often we would have to circle the island for some time until we discovered the optimum conditions…whatever they were. I prepared a lunch for us…per his very strict instructions… cleaned the “galley” (which consisted of a small two burner stove and a tiny table), and took the wheel for about an hour while Martin busied himself making sure the gear was properly arranged and made ready. It was quite exciting, actually, as I tried to visualize what it might be like when we finally came upon “optimum conditions”. All of my questions regarding that subject were met with the same “Aye, we’ll know.”

Late that afternoon we came into sight of Catalina. We steered for the seaward side of the island as Martin warned me disdainfully of recreational vessels between the island and the mainland.

“Shouldn’t be allowed on the open sea,” He bellowed.

The wind was growing stronger as darkness set in. As much as I love the ocean, I never felt comfortable on a rough sea – but then, who does? The little boat started pitching about like a discarded bottle. I was holding on for dear life and watching Martin deftly steer through the growing waves, studying him closely for signs of reassurance. It was impossible to detect any emotion in the old man other than a steadfast and dogged determination.

“Looks like we’re in for a little tosser,” He said, without much concern. “Stand clear and get a good look…Keep an eye out for lights.”

I leaned out the port side and tried to watch for oncoming boats through the steady blast of water that was now kicking up high onto the Mary. She would ride a wave ten or fifteen feet straight up in the air, and then, just as suddenly, the water would roll out from beneath us and we would drop down into a watery chasm. A wave would crash down on top of us and then we’d catch another ride up and above the ocean level, tilting side-to-side at the same time - a nerve-racking succession of extreme motion.

Then, except for the battering waves, there was silence…the engine had died. I looked at Martin and he was spewing invectives and flailing his arms like a man getting ready to do battle with the devil. He tried again and again to start the old diesel, but it only whined and sputtered. He handed me a battered old horn that made a sound like a wounded moose and told me to stand topside and blow it every thirty seconds.

“If you see lights just start blowin’ it like crazy,” He ordered. “We don’t want anyone gettin’ close to us.”

Martin started removing the bilge plates in the cabin so he could get to the engine. At that moment something crashed into the side of the cabin, narrowly missing my head. Looking down, I saw a foot long creature thrashing around on the deck. It was a flying fish, and as pretty and gentle a creature as they are, their head resembles a good sized fist and it would surely have knocked me into another time zone had it caught me squarely. I swallowed with some difficulty and resumed my watch. Later, Martin would show me how to eat raw fish by dousing it liberally with lemon juice. The citrus acid in the lemon actually “cooks” the meat and renders it not only edible, but very enjoyable.

Inside of an hour, Martin had the engine coughing and wheezing and we were under our own power heading for the mainland. Once we got around the corner of Catalina the winds quieted and we proceeded without further incident, but my career as a fisherman was finished. He was suddenly hungry and had me fry up a batch of pork chops and potatoes which I declined to partake…I didn’t feel much like eating. He steered for San Pedro where he knew he could get the engine worked on in the morning.

“Looks like fishing’s done for this trip,” He said matter-of-factly, “the old girl needs some work before we go out again.”

We tied up at San Pedro about two in the morning, and we both fell asleep. The next morning I told Martin that I was going to head back up to San Francisco, and he nodded, saying that was probably a good idea because there was little I could do while he was having the engine rebuilt. He gave me twenty dollars and a carton of Marlboros, wished me well, and showed me how to get to the highway.

“This is great,” I thought, “I’ve got twenty bucks, a carton of cigarettes, and I’m a stone’s throw from Venice."

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