Flounder fish—a type of flatfish—burrow themselves in the sand in the shallow waters at night so they can feed on baitfish. There's a type of fishing called gigging that aims to catch flounder. Gigging is done with a spear and a lantern. The gigger must walk around at night with the lantern shining down and stick the fish with a spear.
My dad was a fisherman at heart. His dad—Grandpa O’Cain—took him and his younger brother, John, on their first fishing trip when they were six and three years old. They caught a bunch of brim and brought them home and put them in the bathtub to mess with Grandma Todd.
“What are them damn things doin’ swimmin’ in my tub!” That was when she and Grandpa O’Cain were still an item.
Grandma Todd loved drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. And she loved me and my brothers. When she’d visit, she’d usually bring a damn fine homemade cheesecake with her. We’d devour it like hungry vultures and then lick the pan. Me and my brothers, that is. My mom and dad did no pan licking that I can remember. They had better manners than that.
My dad—not much of a student of psychology—says Grandma Todd took a lot of pills for her mental health. Any signs of mental dis-ease went unnoticed by me and my brothers. We just knew her as our own personal hero. Sometimes she’d drive us to school in her old blue smoky sedan. And she’d drive slow. Really. Truly. Slow. She never got in a wreck though, and we always ended up where we needed to go.
One day, I asked her, “Grandma, why is everybody rushin’?”
“Baby, I don’t know any Russians.”
“No, Grandma! Everyone is goin’ fast. They’re rushin!”
“Oh, honey, I don’t know why they are.” There was always affection in her raspy voice, more than any measure could measure. A powerful force of love flowed through her.
“Okay, Grandma…but why do you drive so slow?”
“Oh, baby,” she said as if I ought not worry, “because it ain’t nothin’ but a doody poop. You just remember that, okay?”
Gigging had taken over the third coast by the time I was eight years old. My dad and his friends were gung-ho about it. So was my brother, Jeffrey. He was six years older than me. My brother James—eight years older than me—hadn’t been imbued with the flatfish craze. He only cared about one thing: school. Through his tunnel vision he saw only dentistry—he’d made up his mind at an early age to clean teeth for a living.
My dad had a pontoon boat and was always searching for new spots to fish and gig. It would take a meeting with the calm-water gods to get my mom out on the boat. Her mom—Grandma Rappe—was deathly afraid of large bodies of water: oceans, bays, gulfs. She never once took my mom and her sisters, Louise and Cynthia, to the beach when they were kids, even though the Galveston Coast was only one hour from the Houston—Pasadena—Reed Park area. Consequentially, my mom and Louise and Cynthia all inherited Grandma Rappe’s aquaphobia.
Every time my dad took Jeffrey and me gigging, we’d come back with an ice chest full of fish. We’d have a fish-fry and invite friends and family over, and when the feast was finished, we’d send them on their way with a few bags of frozen fillets. Sometimes, if we were lucky, Grandpa and Grandma O’Cain (Grandpa’s second wife/my dad’s stepmom/my other grandma) would make the two-hour drive from Beaumont to share in the tasty joy of the catch. We never saw Uncle John much though. He was always in between jobs, trying to stay sober and trying to stay out of jail. When we did see him, it was always a treat because he was that “cool” uncle many of us have (to us kids, his unmanageability wasn’t apparent. We only saw his goodness.)
If we were extra lucky, Grandma Todd would stop by.
There was only one time we came home from gigging with no feast to fry. It was as if the powerful force flowing through the universe was preparing us for the years to come…
When summer ends and winter is approaching, the cooling coastal waters trigger a flounder migration, prime time for gigging. For this reason, it is my dad’s favorite time of year.
At around ten o’clock on an August night, my dad, Jeffrey, and William—one of Jeffrey’s friends from our neighborhood in Reed Park— and I take the boat out to a sandbar at San Luis Pass just off Galveston Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Galveston Bay. We’ve walked it many times in the past and often limited out.
“Gonna stick a lot of fish tonight,” my dad says.
We all believe it too. Why wouldn’t we? History repeats itself, right?
We spend hours walking through the darkness, casting our lanterns to the ankle-deep water, looking for the outline of the flounder in the sand. But nothing. Only empty beds. Pits.
Jeffrey and William decide to split off and scour the other side of the sandbar. “We’re gonna go check it out. Gotta good feelin’ ’bout it over there.”
My dad and I continue our hunt. Still, nothing. Then a lightbulb goes off in my dad’s head. “I know where we can go, son. A place up yonder,” he says and extends his lantern to signify the direction he’s talking about. “Right over there. We’re gonna need to make a little walk though. You up for that?”
“Yeah, if you think we can catch some fish over there. You caught ’em there before, right?”
“Stuck a lot,” he says, and we walk…
…and walk. China is far into its solar exchange with the earth at this time, leaving only the dim light of the moon. The air is silent, only caressed by the sound of gentle plopping ripples.
But we only get deeper as time passes “Hey, Dad…you think maybe we should turn around?” The water is up to my waist.
“Just one second, son. We’re almost there. It’s just up ahead.”
But something isn’t right.
“Okay, Dad, but it’s gettin’ kinda deep here.” The water is now above my waist, forcing me to hold my lantern higher.
“Okay, I think you’re right,” my dad says feebly. “Maybe we should turn around.”
“Okay, Dad. Because it’s gettin’ kinda deep here,” I say again.
There is an eeriness surrounding us, and my dad tries to reassure me. “We’re gonna get to some shallow ground soon.”
But something still isn’t right. “Can you touch the bottom, Dad?”
“It’s gettin’ pretty deep, son,” my dad says, not providing a simple yes or no. At that moment, we’re forced to let our lanterns go, and I know we’ve been swept out by the current into the unforgiving depths of The Bay.
“Dad, I can’t touch. I can’t touch, Dad,” I scream.
My dad shouts back, “Grab on to my shoulders!” But my doing so only pushes his head under the water and we both start sinking. “Jake, I can’t touch either. We’re gonna have to tread. Stay calm! Don’t panic!”
“D-D-Dad!” I scream. “Dad, are we gonna drown? DAD. HELP.”
“JAKE! DON’T PANIC! Just try and stay afloat!” There is a tremble in his voice.
“Dad, I’m going under! Dad, I’m going under!” I yell as The Bay begins to swallow me up.
My dad’s voice turns paternally primal. “IF YOU GO DOWN, I’M NOT COMING UP WITHOUT YOU! YOU HEAR ME! I’M NOT COMING UP WITHOUT YOU!”
“HELP. I CAN’T TOUCH,” I scream again as I resurface.
“HELP!” My dad’s scream echoes in my head. He tries to regain his composure. “Stay calm, son. Kick your shoes off.”
“HELP!” Maybe, just maybe, someone will hear us. “HELP!”
Out of the night sky, I see a light in the distance. “There’s Jeffrey! Look at the light. He hears us. Jeffrey!” We swim through the plops.
“HEY! HEY! HEY!” His voice is like a beacon guiding our sinking ships to shore. “HEY! OVER HERE! HEY!”
Grains of sand. More welcoming than ever before. Has The Bay spat us back out?
At the moment we touch, a fisherman who’d heard our cries through the blackness pulls up to us in his boat. “Yah guys okay ova’ here?” he asks. “I heard y’all screamin’ and hollerin’. Thought w’hell, I better check n’see if everyone’s a’right. Here hop in. I can give ya a lift.”
We get in the boat and purge the saltwater we swallowed.
“I love you, son,” my dad says unexpectedly, something I never heard him say during the eight years I’ve been alive, and he gives me a hug.
“I love you too, Dad,” I say, relieved.
We drift closer to Jeffrey and William so they can hop in. Jeffrey is still carrying the chaos of the screams with him.
“DUDE, WHAT THE HECK! ARE Y’ALL A’RIGHT? WHAT HAPPENED?”
William is speechless.
“Yeah. Yeah. We’re fine,” my dad says. “We’ll tell you all about it later.”
The fisherman drops us off at our boat. “Thank you for your help. Thank you,” my dad and I say in unison, still shaking.
“Hey, any time. I’m jus’ glad y’all are a’right,” he says and floats away just as quick as he came.
We lost everything of material worth in that fifteen minutes in the night waters. And we came close to losing our lives. But it wasn’t supposed to happen like that, so it didn’t. That was the first time I’d truly known fear for my life. It was a type of fear capable of churning the stomach and inducing sickness—not the kind of fear that merely pops up when the head is on the pillow in the midst of a nightmare. It was utterly crude. It was a type of fear that said, “Learn to tread, or die.”