Watching my children fish reinforced a lifelong feeling that fishing is the ultimate hope for peace in the world, a balm to the soul, an excellent hair restorative and all-round therapeutic aid for any serious malaise. If we were just messing around doing nothing, the kids might stir up trouble. Evan would say, "Whoever likes me, raise their hand," and everybody's hand would go up, but Barrie's would not go up high enough to satisfy Evan and the war would be on. The instant we broke out the fishing rods, however, peace returned. Provided, that is, each child had his own rod and was allowed to fish for himself, which is another important thing I learned about children on this trip. They don't want any of that baloney where the parent baits the hook, gets the strike and then turns the fish over to the child for reeling in. They want their own rod, to feel their own strikes, to set their own hooks and bring in their own fish, at least to the limit of their strength. They want an identity as an independent operator, not just as Daddy's helper. Given this identity, they can be pleased by almost anything: a long piece of string, a box of checkers, a dog-eared old deck of cards, a bird soaring overhead.
On one memorable day we were watched over by a bald eagle, perched in the top of a tree on a nearby knoll. He was one of half a dozen we saw in all, and he allowed himself to be bullied by a sparrow that dipped and dived at his head in a bold move to keep the eagle away from the nesting area. Phil Portrey told us this was a common sight in the San Juans, and that the eagles usually tried to gain altitude, like a Focke-Wulf 190, to put off the attackers. We also saw blue herons, goldfinches, hummingbirds, oyster-catchers and a merry little bird called the sea pigeon who is good for about six shows a day for the children. The sea pigeon sits on the water in basic black splotched with two white bands near the base of his wings, but when he gets up to fly one sees that he is wearing bright red feet that make him look like a clown. He is a sea feeder and sticks his head in the water—glomp!—with the same alacrity that a human takes a sip of tea, a fact that never failed to amaze the children. As if this were not merriment enough, the sea pigeon sometimes tucks his wings back and dives completely out of sight, coming up minutes and yards away, to the wonderment of the onlookers. When you come near, he will whistle and fuss at you, like a Manhattan cab driver in heavy traffic. I have the sea pigeons to thank for several restful naps in midafternoon. I would also like to extend my thanks to the Bonaparte gull, the merganser and the phalarope, as well as the bittern, the sea parrot and the black shag, for favors granted on this trip.
On the islands themselves one sees in microcosm the general American exodus from the farms to the cities. Abandoned farmhouses, cabins, schools and mines are all over the place, and almost without exception children can clamber through them. The San Juans are no different from any other rural community that has been deserted in the cityward trend of the last two or three decades, except for the fact that they are islands and therefore relatively free of the vandalism that has stripped the abandoned homesteads on the mainland. We saw old logging camps with equipment intact, mills, lime kilns glutted with wild flowers, beat-up fishing craft lying on the shore, waiting for the salmon to run again. We saw abandoned gold mines, a house with a hand-carved wooden bathtub, a steam tugboat washed up on the beach, with its screw and rudder rusted tight to their pins, a ghost town complete with pear, apple and plum trees and raspberry and salmonberry bushes and a corral for horses. We saw an old barn crumbling into the ground and nearby a house with a single white curtain flapping from a broken upper window and a liberated rose bush climbing all over the front door. Who planted it? When? Where are they now, and where are their children? I had two feelings when I entered the old dwelling: a feeling of intrusion, and a feeling of sadness that everything must pass and change. And yet my curiosity was too overwhelming to let me pass it by. Inside, in the dim light, I could make out an overstuffed chair with an undignified protruding spring, an old skillet, kerosene lamps and the chassis of an American Bosch Magneto radio like the one we had in our living room when I was a boy. On this same island there was even a carefully preserved school-house, complete to the dunce stool in the corner and books on the shelves. This was a particularly sinister schoolhouse, for its teacher murdered a man 100 years ago and was hanged on a knot he had to tie himself for the executioner.
Someone said that you could cruise the islands for a lifetime and never put in at the same bay twice or hear the same story twice. You might, however, wind up at the same marina more than once, since there is only a handful of them in the islands. With small children aboard, you have to stop at marinas every three or four days, not only to refuel but to fill the water tanks, since there is nothing small children want more than water once they find out that the supply on board is limited. Personally, speaking as a landlubber, I found the marinas a necessary nuisance and the last place in the world to visit on a San Juan cruise. To begin with, they were populated by the unpleasant half of the seagoing fraternity: the half that will plough through 30 miles of storm-tossed sea in a $50,000 boat for the sole purpose of lolling around a marina on a hot Sunday afternoon drinking Salty Dogs and telling dirty jokes to other people who have ploughed through 30 miles of stormtossed sea in a $50,000 boat et cetera ad infinitum. The smell is of creosote and gasoline; the sun is hot and the water is full of pop bottles and orange rinds and oil slick, and the people are all there for the wrong reasons. "Tell you the truth," Phil Portrey said, "I think most of 'em come out to compare notes on what the other fellow's got on his boat. Then they run back in town to get the same thing. Look at that express cruiser down there." He pointed to a handsome Chris-Craft that had enough chrome on it to furbish two dozen Detroit sedans. "How'd you like to polish all that gingerbread?
"You wouldn't get me near here if we didn't have to," Portrey went on. "Hey Al, c'mere and look at those two lights on that boat next to us. Now. what the hell does he want with two beams like that? Those lights are expensive."
"You durn betcha," Captain Al said.
"One hundred twenty-four dollars apiece," said Phil.
"You better durn believe it," said Al.
"I'll just never understand the idle rich."
"The idle rich don't understand the idle rich."