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May 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Second Generation by Howard Fast
Pete Lomas' mackerel drifter was an old, converted, coal-fired steam tug of a hundred and twenty-two tons, purchased as war surplus in 1919. It cost him so little then that he was able to sell its oversized engine for scrap and replace it with a modern, oil-burning plant. He named it Golden Gate, packed his wife and kids and household goods into it, and sailed from San Francisco Bay down to San Pedro. There he rented a berth for the tug and went into the mackerel business. His wife suffered from asthma, and her doctor determined that the San Francisco area was too damp. Lomas then decided to make the move to Los Angeles County, and he bought a house in Downey.
He laid out his drift nets with a three-man crew, and until the Depression came, in the thirties, he did well, and even after 1929, he managed to make a decent living out of his boat and to pay his crew living wages as well. Years before, he had worked for Dan Lavette as the captain of his fleet of crabbing boats on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, and when, in 1931, he stumbled on Lavette on the dock at San Pedro, broke and hungry, he offered him a job. Now, in 1934, Dan had been working for Lomas steadily for three years. Today, the first of June 1934, Dan Lavette came off the mackerel boat at ten o'clock in the morning and got into his 1930 Ford sedan to drive to his home in Westwood, where he lived with his second wife, an American-born Chinese woman named May Ling, their son, Joseph, and her parents. Their small house was a few blocks from the University of California campus in Los Angeles, where May Ling worked at the library.
Dan was a big man, six feet and one inch in height, heavily built but without fat, broad in the shoulders, his skin tanned and weatherbeaten by the sun and the salt water. He had a good head of curly hair, mostly gray, dark eyes under straight brows, high cheekbones, and a wide, full mouth.
To the two men who comprised the crew of the mackerel boat along with Dan and Pete Lomas, Lavette was a plain, soft-spoken, easygoing, and competent fisherman. He never lost his temper and he never complained, regardless of how brutal or backbreaking the conditions were, and that in itself was most unusual among fishermen. Of his background, they knew only that years before he had fished with Pete Lomas in San Francisco Bay. One of them was a Chicano, the other an Italian who spoke little English, and they were not inordinately curious. As for Lomas, who knew a great deal more about Dan Lavette, he kept his peace.
The Chicano, whose name was Juan Gonzales, while only twenty-two years old, was alert enough to realize that Dan Lavette was unlike any of the other fishermen on the wharf. He said to him one day, "Danny, how come a man like you, he's satisfied to pull fish?"
Dan shrugged. "I'm a fisherman. Always been one."
"You'll be an old man soon. I'll be goddamned if I spend my life on a fishing boat, take home twenty, thirty dollars a week, and end up a poor bum on the dock."
"I've been a bum on the dock," Dan replied. "I like fishing better." Driving home today, Dan thought of that. Did he actually like what he did, enjoy what he did? It had been a bad night, cold and wet out on the water, and he had wrenched a muscle in his shoulder. His whole body ached, and he thought longingly of the hot bath that he would climb into the moment he set foot in the house. He supposed he was as happy as a man might be. He had made his peace with himself. Nevertheless, he was still a fisherman who took home between twenty and thirty dollars a week, and he was forty-five years old.
The morning mist and overcast had cleared by the time he reached Westwood. His father-in-law, Feng Wo, was in the garden, tending his beloved rosebushes, and he greeted Dan formally as always. "You are well, Mr. Lavette?" He had never broken his old habit of addressing Dan as Mr. Lavette.
"You have a letter. From your daughter, Barbara."
Dan nodded. "I'll have a bath first."
He soaked in the tub, and strength and comfort flowed back into his body. In a few hours, May Ling would come home, and he would sprawl in a chair and listen to her recitation of what had happened that day on the campus. She dispelled the common notion that nothing but whispers are heard in a library; everything that May Ling looked at or encountered took on a marvelous and enchanting dramatic shape. Her whole life, every day of it, was an adventure in newness. This past night, out at sea, one of their drift nets had parted. Dan hated the drift nets, which trapped the mackerel by their gills. This time he spent an hour splicing the break, soaked to the waist, the dying fish thrashing around his hands; still, he could not put into words what he felt, yet with the most ordinary occurrence May Ling brought a whole world to life.
Out of the tub, he toweled himself dry, relaxed, delightfully weary. The Golden Gatewould lay over until tomorrow morning while the nets were refurbished, so he had a long, lazy time of daylight ahead of him, and then a night when he could sleep himself out on a clean bed instead of huddling for an hour or two on the damp bunk in the cabin of the boat. He and his son would play a game of checkers. May Ling would be reading a book, looking up every now and then to catch his glance and smile at him. Hell, he thought, it was all and more than anyone wanted out of life.
Dressed in a clean shirt and trousers, he went down to the kitchen where the old woman, So-toy, his mother-in-law, had tea and cake waiting for him. The letter from Barbara lay on the table next to his plate. "You'll excuse me," he said to So-toy.
Still, after so many years in America, she spoke very little English. She simply smiled with approval as he opened the letter, then sat down opposite him at the kitchen table while he read. At first, he had been uncomfortable living with two people who worshipped him as uncritically as Feng Wo and his wife. Now he was almost used to it.