Fish'n' ships

Ships was just a little boy and the flat-top was very big. But he knew a sailor’s duty

LLOYD SMITH January 15 1946

Fish'n' ships

Ships was just a little boy and the flat-top was very big. But he knew a sailor’s duty

LLOYD SMITH January 15 1946

ME AND Ships were in the basement, working on the engine, when mom called down, so excited we knew something big had happened. “Fish and Ships!” she shouted. “Dad’s coming home tomorrow!”

They call me Fish because I sure like fishing, and Ships is my little brother, and he goes for boats.

We rushed up the basement steps lickety-split, and there was mom in the kitchen, with a telegram in her hand and big tears rolling down her face. “He’s coming home! He’s coming home!” she kept on saying, and hugged us both like it was us and not dad that’d been away for three years.

When dad went off to the war I was just five, and Ships was way littler’n that. I guess Ships didn’t remember him at all. I don’t remember much about him either,’ ceptin’ he was awful tall and ambled around sort of slow. He used to take me fishing, and I remember how slow he walked to the beach. Me, I’d hurry on ahead, and then I’d get so far in front I’d have to run back, and then I’d run around him a few times so he could keep up with me. He used to say I was like a little dog, and couldn’t I bike* things easy for a minute? But he reckoned all kids were like that and that I’d grow out of it.

But I haven’t grown out of it and I guess I never will. I haven’t got patience with folks that just amble.

Take fishing for instance. When I was just a little kid, dad and me would sit on the rocks for hours, dangling a line with a white rag on the end; and along about sunset, when the Straits got calm and purple, we’d get some bass, and I guess it was lots of fun. At least dad thought it was, and I didn’t tell him anything different but I always wanted to get a boat and go after salmon. There were blueback and spring salmon out there in the Straits, and I sure did want to go after them. But you got to be out real early to get salmon and you gotta row—so I never said anything to dad, ’cause I knew he wouldn’t go for the idea of rowing in the early morning.

Then he went over with the Princess Pats, and the last thing he said to me was, “Well, son, keep the bass biting till I get back.”

When Ships was able to walk I started taking him down to the beach with me. We’d watch the ships coming in from the Pacific to Tacoma and Seattle and Vancouver, and to the big naval base at Esquimalt. We used to play I was the captain and Ships Was the mate. I’d stand on the highest rock and cup my hands to my mouth and shout orders, pretending I was on the bridge; and Ships would stand on a little rock and shout back, “Aye, aye, sir!”

In the evening we’d catch bass with a white rag, and we’d talk about getting a boat of our own so we could go out into the Straits and catch salmon. And we’d look over to Vancouver Island, all purple and misty, and we’d talk and talk. We got to know all the ships by heart their lines and even the sound of their whistles and sometimes a new ship would come in, and we’d rush home and tell mom about it. She’d laugh and say we were plain fish ’n’ ship crazy.

AND now here was mom, with a telegram in her . hand and tears in her eyes, hugging Ships and me an’ telling us dad was coming home at last. I had a funny feeling inside and I guess I wanted to cry too. But most of all I wanted to know if dad had changed any, and I was worried in case he hadn’t; because I was tired of playing around with sea bass, and if he expected me to go and sit on rocks all day dangling a bit of white rag I knew I wouldn’t have the heart to say no.

While he’d been away me ’n’ Ships had been busy, and now we had a boat, and we even had an outboard engine, and all we needed was some real tackle to be all set for fishing.

Mom said, “Well, boys, what are you going to say to dad when you see him?”

“Me’s going to ask him what ship he came on,” Ships said.

“And I’m going to say, ‘How about fishing in the morning, pop?’” I said.

Mom looked at us both and laughed. “I’m afraid he mightn’t feel like getting up early to fish—at least not right away.” My heart sank, and I guess she knew how I felt, because she stopped laughing and said sort of serious, “You know, Fish, dad has been doing a big job for a long time—and maybe he’ll be tired when he gets home.”

“Gosh, mom,” I said, “you mean he might be even more tired than when he went away?”

She said, “I’m afraid so,” and I just stared at her, ’cause I couldn’t understand anyone being so tired they’d want to lie in bed, with all those salmon waiting to be caught.

I wandered slowly back to the basement to finish fixing the engine. Ships followed me. I guess we were both feeling a bit sad. He climbed up on the bench and lay on his tummy beside the engine, his face in his hands. “What’s tired mean?” he said.

I couldn’t help grinning, he looked so comical. “You’re too little to understand,” I said.

“I aren’t!” he said.

I put down my wrench and sat on the floor. “Ships,” I said, “you’ll find out what tired is when dad comes home. Tired is lying in bed when you should be up fishing, and walking around slowlike when you should be moving fast.”


“Why not?” I said.

“How should I know?”

Kids are exasperating. “Go and ask mom,” I said. But he didn’t go—he stuck right there and watched me work.

After quite a while I put down my wrench and fixed the cord ready to pull. “Okay,” I shouted, “keep outa the way of the propeller, Ships. She’s ready to go!”

I yanked the cord as hard as I could, and sure enough, away she went. She putted like nobody’s business, and lots of smoke came out of the exhaust, and Ships ’n’ me jumped up and down shouting like mad.

“Go tell mom we got her going,” I yelled, and Ships darted up the stairs.

Mom came running down looking sort of scared. I figured she never expected we’d get that old engine to work. Moms are queer that way.

I stopped the engine. “You ain’t going to take it away, are you, mom? Not now after we got it going?”

She said, “No, I guess not, Fish—but you must never, never go out with it unless dad is with you.

Going out with dad would be lots of fun so long as he got up real early; and I didn’t have any real tackle, so I couldn’t do any serious fishing anyway.

I grinned and said, “Guess maybe you’re glad you let me bring it home now, eh, mom?”

“That remains to be seen,” mom said.

She helped me get the engine down off the bench and load it on the wagon. Then me ’n’ Ships went off pulling the wagon, and mom called after us to come back soon ’cause we had to get to bed early account of dad coming home.

We got the engine fixed on the boat okay, and started her up just once to see if she worked all right.

Then we sat on the edge of the wharf and dangled our feet and felt mighty proud of our boat.

“How fast’ll she go?” Ships asked.

“Fast enough.”

“Fast as the Queen Elizabeth?”


“Why not?”

“ ’Cause the Q. E.’s got four propellers.”

“I know. I knows more ’bout ships ’n’ you!”

“You’re crazy.”

“Then why you call ’em ’pellers when you should call ’em screws?”

“Okay, so the Q. E.’s got four screws and that’s why she’s faster than . . . Say, Ships, we haven’t got a name for her. What’ll we call her? We gotta give her a name.”

“Queen ’Lizabeth,” Ships said.

“Already took. Besides she’s too small.”

“Baby ’Lizabeth then!”

“That’s it,” I said. “Baby ’Lizabeth. Now we gotta go home.”

DAD came home next day, and boy, oh, boy, was there ever some excitement! Mom was so happy she cried and cried, so dad had to cook lunch, and everyone talked so much nobody heard anything. Everyone talked a lot ’ceptin’ Ships. He just played around and didn’t take much notice of dad. After a while dad grabbed him and said, “Well, little ’un, why don’t you say hello?”

Ships squirmed away from him and hid under a chair. Then he popped his head out and said, “How many screws on the Q. E.?”

Ships was just a little boy and the flat-top was very big. But he knew a sailor’s duty

“Four,” dad said without batting an eye.

“How many stacks?”



“ Eighty-five thousand. ”

Ship’s eyes began to sparkle, and he edged out from under the chair. “What’s a seiner?” he asked, looking hard at dad.

“A seiner’s a fishing boat,” dad said, and grabbed Ships again; and this time he didn’t squirm away.

I looked quickly at mom. She was crying again, and I had a lump in my throat. We were both thinking the same thing, I guess dad had made the grade. It made me feel so good I didn’t really care if he lay in bed in the morning and we missed the blueback run. We could putt around in the Baby Lizabeth in the hot sun, and when the Straits got all purple toward evening, we could sit on the rocks and catch sea bass and talk about ships.

After lunch we got a big surprise. Dad winked at mom and said, “Guess it’s about time I unpacked.”

We all went down to the basement and opened dad’s big trunk. First there was a lot of clothes and things, then a big box of candy, then more clothes, and then another even bigger box.

“This is for you, Ships,” dad said, setting it on the floor gently.

“Model?” Ships shouted.

“Right!” dad said.

Ships touched the box gently.

“Q E.?” he breathed, with his eyes round as saucers.

“Right again,” dad said, and mom started crying.

Ships went to work on the box and soon it was open and there was the Queen Elizabeth the prettiest model you ever saw. Ships was jumping up and down and talking a blue streak.

Then dad pulled out another parcel, a long one, sort of bulky at the end, and I knew it was what I wanted more’n anything a salmon trolling rod.

Boy, she was a beaut ! 'There was a dandy reel as well, and 300 feet of wire and a set of Wonder spoons and a genuine Martin plug with triple hooks, and alongside, wrapped up separately, a real man-size gaff. I had a lump in my throat, and I couldn’t think of anything to say, and I was scared to look at mom--I guess dad had made the grade all right with me too.

After supper l gave Ships my old bass line, and all of us strolled down to the beach. Ships ran on ahead and then frisked round us in circles, and dad laughed and said kids were like puppy dogs. I just held his hand and walked slow like he did he still ambled along and his legs still looked awful long. I didn’t feel like hurrying. I had everything l wanted a boat with an outboard, and real salmon tackle and after a while I’d be old enough to go out by myself. Only I sure did wish that time would hurry up and come.

When we got down to the beach dad and mom gave the Baby ’Lizabeth a good once-over. I pulled the cord and she putted away like anything. Dad said we’d made a dandy job of her and he was mighty proud of us. Ships ’n’ me showed him how it worked and explained all about her. Dad said, “Very well, son, we’ll give her a workout. Mom and Ships can sit on the rocks and play around with sea bass we’ll try for a blueback.”

“You mean right now?” I said. “We’re going after salmon right now? Gosh!”

I had my tackle along—I’d had it right by me ever since I got it. I set it up and fixed the plug and tried not to show how excited I was. Dad sat in the stern and tended the engine. I sat facing him, ready to do the fishing. We headed away from the wharf and the rocks, and it was grand putting along and not having to row.

“Gosh, dad,” I said, “with the outboard we can go ’way out where the big ships come in!”

“No, son,” he said, “that’s just why mom won’t let you go out alone—those ships come in fast, and the wash would turn the Baby ’Lizabeth over like a cork.”

I didn’t say anything ’cause I knew he was right; but still I wanted to be away out there. I put the plug in the water and ran out a few feet of wire. Then we both watched the plug darting around like a little fish, and it seemed to me any salmon that didn’t want to bite it would be just plumb crazy. Then I let out a lot of wire and the reel spool spun round fast and smooth and the rod bent a little, and could feel it quivering with the movement of the water. My fingers tingled, and then my whole body, and I sat on the edge of the thwart and waited for a strike.

WE DIDN’T talk. The only sounds were the putting of the outboard and the water washing the sides of the boat. But the funny thing was I didn’t really want to catch a salmon. I figured it just wasn’t the right time. It was okay to try out the tackle and get the feel of it now but early morning is the time to catch salmon.

We putted around for quite a while. The water went dead calm and the purple haze came from the Island and settled on the Straits, and nothing moved ’cept the boat and the gulls floating around in the air, and nothing made any noise but the outboard. Then it happened.

I knew even before the rod bent. My fingers knew I had a fish, and right away my whole body came alive, and I was on my feet, reeling in, more excited than I'd ever been, and dad was excited too. He was shouting at me, but I don’t remember a word he said.

I was thinking, "This is my first fish first fish from a boat with real tackle!

Dad had stopped the engine. My fingers ached from cranking the reel handle, but I didn’t care. I felt the weight of the fish all the way through the wire line and I knew he wouldn’t be long coming up now.

Dad was holding the gaff, and when the water broke with a splash at the side of the boat he was leaning over all set. My fish came to the surface and lay there splashing, and dad took one look and began laughing his head off. I looked too, and then I began to laugh —it was a bass!

I sank back into the boat, laughing like anything. I was exhausted and sort of relieved, and I felt a bit weak, so I just kept on laughing.

“You sound happy, son,” dad said. “Why? Didn’t you want it to be a salmon?”

I didn’t want to say it but I just couldn’t help it. There was a lump in my throat and l had to fight hard to I keep from crying. “No,” I said, “I didn’t want a salmon. Not now— ’tain’t the right time. I want you to take me out real early in the morning and catch salmon the proper way.”

Dad didn’t say anything for a while.  Then he said, “No, son, not tomorrow. I’m tired. I want to get rested up. Maybe later . .."

I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. I felt miserable, and wished I hadn’t said anything about it.

Dad started the engine and we headed back to shore, with the bass in the bottom of the boat. I figured mom and Ships would have some sea bass too—but no sea bass was ever as big and black and ugly as the one we had.

That night I didn’t get to sleep for a long time. I had my tackle in bed with me and the engine starter under my pillow. I figured I’d best keep it there at night so’s nobody could take our Baby ’Lizabeth. Ships, in bed over at the other side of the room, had his model of the Q. E. on a table alongside. The window was wide open so we could hear the boats and smell the sea; I lay awake for a long time listening to Ships breathing and wondering what was the use of having a boat and engine and man-sized tackle if I couldn’t use ’em. And what was the use of the bluebacks running if we couldn’t go after them in the early morning when they bite good?

I wakened with a start, knowing something strange had happened. What was it? I couldn’t tell. Sounded like a whopping big ship’s whistle—couldn’t, have been, though—no ship could sound that big and deep—more like thunder—must’ve been dreaming—

And then it sounded again and there was no mistake this time—it was a whopping big ship coming into the Straits. It sounded like Paul Bunyan’s big blue ox bellowing. “Gosh,” I thought, “that’s bigger’n anything I ever heard!”

I sat up in bed and looked over to the window. Ships was standing there in his pyjamas, looking out to sea. Beyond him there was only a sort of shadowy moonlight, and stars twinkling in the sky.

Ships didn’t look round. He said excitedly, “Fish, wake up—new ship. Gotta see her!”

“See her tomorrow,” I said. “You better get back to bed.”


I didn’t answer. I just lay back and pulled the covers over my ears, and touched my salmon rod to make sure it was still there, and went to sleep again.

NEXT time I wakened good and proper—and I knew right away that Ships wasn’t in his bed. My hand went under the pillow to touch the starting cord, but it wasn’t there. I’d known it wouldn’t be there—I can’t tell just how—but I was sure Ships was on the Straits in the Baby ’Lizabeth, heading out to see the big ship.

I felt sick and weak, and I got out of bed and into dad’s room in a daze. Dad was already up and dressed, but I guess I felt too sick to notice it. He put his finger up to his mouth, meaning not to wake mom.

“Ships,” I gasped, and I guess I must’ve sounded mighty scared. “He’s out in the Baby ’Lizabeth—went to see a big ship coming in.” Then I sort of choked up and the room seemed to go round and round, and dad darted out of the house and I heard his feet pounding down the walk toward the beach.

It was just coming dawn. I could see grey light in the sky through the window. I stumbled down to the beach after dad, and when I got there I saw him out in a rowboat, pulling like mad. ’Way beyond him, heading into the Straits, I could see the Baby ’Lizabeth, with Ships in the stern, looking tiny and far away. And not much farther out, coming fast through the Straits, was a whopping big aircraft carrier. She was a mile or more away, but I could see the water churning white in her wake.

The Baby ’Lizabeth was putting like nobody’s business, but dad was going all out and gaining some. I stood on the wharf and stared like someone was forcing me to keep looking; I was trembling, and I didn’t know what to do.

And then I remembered our game. I was the skipper and Ships knew how to take an order. I stood on the end of the wharf and cupped my hands, and with all the breath I had I screamed, “Baby ’Lizabeth ahoy-y-y !”

My voice sounded thin and lost on the Straits. A faint echo came back; and then the only sound was the throbbing of the big flat-top. I didn’t know what more to do—I knew I was crying like a baby and thought I was going to be sick.

Then dad stopped rowing. I saw him stand up and look out over the water and put his hands to his mouth. Something went all tight inside of me. He’d heard me—he’d got the idea!

“Baby ’Lizabeth ahoy!” he yelled. His big voice went booming clear across the Straits, “Baby ’Lizabeth ahoy !”

There was a tiny movement in the stern of the Baby ’Lizabeth, and I knew Ships was waving.

“Order from Cap’n Fish,” dad roared, and the clear ghostly echo came back, "Order from Cap’n Fish.”

“Make for home!” and again the repeated order: “Make for home.”

My eyes, misty with tears, were fixed on the Baby ’Lizabeth. I saw her alter course, swing round in a wide curve, and head back toward shore.

I held my breath and waited. It was a race. The pulsing of the carrier seemed to fill the air. She sure was hitting it—she was about abeam of us and her wake stretched out like a long rolling knife from her stern. The Baby ’Lizabeth was coming lickety-split for home, and the long knife slanting across the Straits was moving slowly up on her.

I waited as long as I could—it seemed like hours—and all the time that wake was rolling closer. I waited till the waves seemed to be towering right over the boat, then I couldn’t wait any longer. I cupped my hands and yelled, “Hard astarboard!”

Dad had stopped rowing again, and was putting his hands to his mouth to repeat the order; but Ships had heard me. I saw him move, and his tiny voice came faintly over the water, “Hard astarboard it is, sir.” And I saw the Baby ’Lizabeth swing round, her bow pointing into the big swell.

Ships must’ve been scared to death when he saw that wall of sea ahead of him. I saw him duck out of sight while the boat rose on the wave and hung for a moment in the air; then it plunged out of sight into the trough.

I don’t know how it was with dad but I guess I felt like the end of the world had come. I went all cold and clammy and I shut my eyes tight.

When I dared to open them again the Baby ’Lizabeth was up on the next wave, and I knew she was going to make it.

The rest of the waves were easy and I had a chance to catch my breath. By the time the last of them had passed I was ready to take command again. Ships was still crouching out of sight.

“Baby ’Lizabeth ahoy!” I shouted; and this time I figured my voice sounded deeper and more like a real captain’s. Ships’ frightened head came up slowly over the side of the boat.

“Alter course for home!” I shouted, and his tiny reply came back, “Aye, aye, sir!”

I left the rest to dad and hurried back to the house for my tackle—it was still very early in the morning.

When I got back, dad ’n’ Ships were sitting on the wharf talking.

“Why?” I heard Ships ask.

“Why not?” dad said helplessly.

“I dunno!” Ships said.

“It’s no use, dad,” I explained. “Kids are exasperating. Just tell him to stop asking fool questions.”

“Okay,” dad said, “but listen, boys: not a word about this to your mother!”

“Why?” Ships asked.

“Because I don’t want to have to cook breakfast.”

“What are we going to have for breakfast?” I asked, looking hard at dad.

“Fried salmon steaks,” he said.

I looked at him harder than ever.  “You mean you’re not going back to bed to get rested up?”

“No,” he said. “I tried staying in bed this morning, but couldn’t do it. Guess I’ve got too used to getting up early these last three years.”

Then he slapped both of us on the back and grinned. “Who wants to be in bed anyway—the bluebacks are running!”