A Fisherman’s Wake

A Fisherman’s Wake

by James Holbeyfield

boat_wake2,099 words

My old skipper died not long ago. He had sold his last fishing boat almost twenty years before and gone on to other endeavors, and I had been out of touch with him for several years when I heard he’d become gravely ill. I felt fortunate to see him a few last times before he died.

His wake was a lively affair, full of fishermen known from younger days. It was as white an event as it’s possible to attend in a city of this rapidly browning and yellowing part of the world, the Pacific Northwest: every single person of the hundred or so there, was white. That fits with the truly important passages of this life: birth, marriage, and death are always first and foremost about kin.

And I suppose I must admit that a funeral would be especially like that for our slowly aging race. But there were plenty of young people there too; people of all ages, in fact. I had been asked to give the keynote commemorative speech, but many others felt moved to speak as well, several on an impromptu basis. The last to do so was a young woman of twenty-five, the daughter of one of the skipper’s best and oldest friends, and she held her six week old white baby in her arms as she spoke through her tears of the inspiration the skipper had been to her.

This was a working class event, and I have often said in private that the white working class of this coast was devastated by the rootless bohemian wave of drugs and hedonism that swept over it after 1965, just as it is being devastated again by the wave of immigrants, unbidden by us, that is sweeping over it now. But these are our folk, and there is tremendous resilience in them. They are not politically correct and have ears for what people like us can say to them. I thought a long, hard time about my tribute, and toyed with some ideas that might include a cryptic introduction of white themes, but I eventually realized that was not what my old skipper was most about, even if he had shown far more overt racial pride than a liberal city kid like me, when I first began to work for him over thirty years ago.

So I took my cue from Jack Donovan instead, and the more I worked up my material, the more I realized that this was exactly the sort of direction that any white man with an ounce of manliness should wish for, in regard to the articulate expression of his life’s accomplishments at its close. I am presenting it here as I wrote it down in preparation, though I have to add that, inspired at the actual delivery by thoughts of Jonathan Bowden, I refused the proffered microphone, put aside my paper, and spoke loudly, somewhat extemporaneously, and with a few grandiose gestures and pantomimes, especially in regard to the scene with the ling cod that you are about to read. As Jonathan perhaps learned early, it is effects like these—a loud, projecting voice and lots of action—that propel the speech forward for both orator and audience.

I feel that a lot of Counter-Currents readers might like to read one tiny but hopefully significant example from real life of how our ideas can be transmitted to a more general culture. There are important ways that we can make ourselves heard off the internet. Though the notions underlying my speech remain precisely what any man should want considered at the end of his life, they are actually dangerous and radical these days; it is far easier to concentrate on a dead man’s feminine traits like nurturance and kindliness. For example, try to imagine this address at the funeral of an English professor. But this audience received it in perfect attention and agreement; everyone gave every appearance of understanding and, in the two hours we spent afterward at the wake, eating and drinking, laughing and crying, none of the dozens of women there gave any hint to me of having taken offense.

Here is my address; I have changed the names to protect those less ideological than ourselves:

We are here to honor the life of Glenn Ramsay. And for sure, it is easy to honor Glenn by thinking of his many qualities; how clever he was, how curious about new things, how dedicated he was to Laura.

But I want to also honor Glenn in a different way. I want to honor Glenn as a man, as a specific masculine human being. I think I am driven to do this because that is the role Glenn played in my life; commercial fishing with him was the most manly thing I have ever done, fishing with Glenn marked the change from boy to man for me more than anything I ever did, and therefore Glenn was definitely a strong father figure to me. We both knew that, though we only spoke of it once or twice.

So what is manly honor? It is the tribute men pay to another man, and it is earned by those qualities that we humans specifically value in a man. In other words, those qualities which, if a woman has them, we say ‘well, that could be a bonus,’ but if she doesn’t have them, we don’t say ‘well, she’s not much of a woman.’ But that means they are the very qualities that, if a man doesn’t have any of them, we do say, ‘well, he’s not much of a man.’

Or at least, in these politically correct times, somewhere deep inside us, we think that.

And that brings up another reason I want to honor Glenn in this way. Even these days, I think all men who have ever strived for something difficult in life, and Glenn was definitely such a man, would want their life to be examined in this way when that life has come to an end. And it is especially the youthful, vigorous part of our adult lives that bears such examination. For me, Glenn is closely associated with a time when we were both young; it is hard for me to believe now that he was still in his twenties when I began fishing with him.

So, I have already mentioned a few of Glenn’s many qualities: cleverness, curiosity, dedication. These are good things, but they are qualities we value roughly equally in women and men. What are the things we specifically value in men? 

It has been said that they are three: strength, courage, and mastery.

I will begin with strength. I want to be clear here that I am talking about simple, physical strength, a quality that is, at bottom, inherited in your physique. Sure, there are many other things we humans call strength, such as emotional strength, which was another quality Glenn had by the way, but those forms of strength bring us back to qualities we value in all people. Physical strength is different; if a woman doesn’t have it, we certainly don’t say, ‘well, she’s not much of a woman.’

Being so physical, strength is a pretty easy quality to consider. Glenn was a man of average size, and therefore he was a man of about average strength. But there is also the way a man uses the physical strength he does have. In that, I’m sure the rest of you are like me, and the word wiry always comes to mind when we think of Glenn. He definitely knew how to use his wiry strength, and that was something I saw many times out fishing. I particularly remember scenes like one from my first month on the Ocean Comber, when I was struggling to figure out how to land a huge ling cod we had hooked, and Glenn just leaned over me in the cockpit, stuck a gaff in the big fish’s head and hauled it in two-handed. “That’s how you land a bucket-mouth, Jim.”

The next masculine virtue is courage. With courage we are moving further from the heritage a man is born with and closer to what he makes of himself. Fearlessness is closer to something you are born with, but it can be foolhardy; courage is different, it is the ability to stand up and fight despite being afraid.

Again, I want to emphasize that I am talking about physical courage here. Qualities like courage in the face of life’s challenges, a quality Glenn had a great deal of, because he experienced some big setbacks in his life, and he struggled hard against them; those too are things we value in both women and men. But if a woman ducks out of a physical fight, we do not think of her as less of a woman; in fact, we very much think of it as not at all womanly to get anywhere close to such a fight in the first place.

It might surprise you if I say I have only limited knowledge of Glenn’s physical courage. You might think that a small fishing boat out on the Bank in an April storm would test a man’s courage, but as we all know, Glenn was a smart man, a reasonable man, and did not allow himself to get in danger for nothing. Certainly, the way Glenn handled himself in the lesser catastrophes of bad weather, broken gear, and mechanical failure that often plague a fishboat, suggest to me that he had plenty of physical courage, but I can’t say we were ever truly put to the test. In fact, I imagine Glenn’s brother Kevin, who no doubt witnessed some of Glenn’s boyhood fights, could say more about this than I could.

So that brings us to the third masculine virtue, the most complicated one, which is mastery.  For sure, mastery is the one that gives a man the most opportunity, if he needs it, to overcome any inheritance of weakness that he has. A man may be born to become strong, he may show supreme courage at one crucial turning point, but a man always has to work at mastery. Still, it is not only a matter of work, there is something inborn about masculine know-how as well, or else it would not be included among the manly virtues. The man I learned about these things from put it this way, in relation to a common, everyday sort of event: ‘if a woman cannot change a flat tire, we do not think of her as less of a woman, but a man who does not know how . . . well.’

Mastery begins with a man’s ability to quickly size up the mechanics of a situation, how the parts of the problem go together, to rely as much or more on the evidence of his own eyes, as opposed to an instruction manual. I think we all know of Glenn’s excellence in that regard. For big parts of his life, Glenn was surrounded by complicated machinery that he relied on to make a living. He always knew how to quickly appraise and fix the things that were at all within his ken, who to go to for the things that weren’t, and how to know the difference. He retained a lifelong, boyish curiosity for how things worked, and for useful new things, and even when money was tight, he would be among the first in our fishing group to adapt to a new technology if he could see promise in it. More than many a man born in the early 1950s, he threw himself at computer technology when it came along, like a salmon throws himself up a fish ladder, and even in the last months of his life, he was showing me his latest gadgets; items I knew little of.

Well, Glenn indeed had many qualities: cleverness, curiosity, dedication to Laura, emotional strength, and the spirit to get back up after life handed him major setbacks. I have told how Glenn made the most of his wiry strength. But if we were to confine ourselves to the manly virtues only, the most important single word about Glenn would be mastery.

Especially for Laura, but also for me, and for other deckhands who fished with Glenn over the years, he was our skipper. Therefore, it is fitting that another word we give to the skipper of a seagoing vessel is master. Glenn Ramsay was master of his own boat and of his own life, and for this, among much else, we honor him today.

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