The door opened, and Vick's wife Melinda, or Missy, walked in. "Well, well, it's Ole Missy," he says. Ole Missy is 28 and pretty, 11 years younger than her husband. "Now, Missy," he cautioned, "don't you get me an' Ralph in trouble. If anyone calls jus' tell 'em we're 200 miles offshore an' won't be back for six weeks. Missy's a good example of the kinda wife who doesn't expect you home at 5 o'clock," he added in an aside. One Monday morning he headed offshore, promising to be back Tuesday for supper and a movie. He finally tied up at the dock at sundown the following Saturday. Missy and Ralph's wife Alma are a familiar sight pacing the St. Andrews pier, dressed up ready to go somewhere.
Vick met Missy when she was a student in his classical-zoology class at Sam Houston State College. It wasn't a promising romance. He was bringing up three children from a previous marriage and was recovering from a somewhat demanding athletic schedule. He had been riding bulls and horses bareback with the SHSC rodeo team, champions of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. He quit soon after meeting Missy, but he had already been thrown twice, breaking both collarbones and his nose, and then he was kicked in the mouth by a horse, losing 14 teeth, which is why today he has the brightest smile ever seen on a 39-year-old marine scientist.
As Vick spoke about Missy, the rain stopped and through the window a salmon-colored sunset appeared. Ralph was even more pleased than Vick, but not for scientific reasons. He is the local gourmet, and if they could get off the hill he would have an excuse to make a pot of crab gumbo, his specialty.
Next morning, at 8 a.m., Ralph was on the dock planning meals. First a gumbo. Then he would catch a rare black snapper—"the best eatin' fish of all." Vick was fueling up the 43-foot R/V Rachel Carson, formerly the Tally Ho but renamed by Vick in 1966 for his heroine, after its presentation to the bureau by millionaire sportsman Eligio (Jo Jo) Del Guercio.
Soon Vick was headed out to his 615,000-square-mile field office. The area to be fished was 110 miles to the southwest. We would sleep the night at sea, then continue on in the morning. Again the talk was of swordfish. In the great fishery of the North Atlantic swords are taken at the surface, where they come up from the cold depths to digest their food. But though they are rarely seen on top in the warmer Gulf, Vick has eyes for what is happening 600 feet down.
"We think we're gonna get that sword," he said. "If a long-liner can catch 'em on a cable with dead shrimp, we can certainly do it with a live blackfin tuna on monofilament line."
Suddenly off the bow a dozen or so flying fish left the water, followed by a bright male dolphin, who got the one he had his eyes on. "Yessir," Vick commented, "it's a vicious environment out here. All an animal has to do to get killed is just slow down a little. That's why sailfish don't live very long. They're frail anyway, an' when they start gettin' big they get unwieldly an', zap, somethin' gets 'em." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Suppose," he finally said, "you put five pounds of sailfish eggs in a bucket with the necessary quantity of sperm. Why, you'd spawn more sails than are born in the Gulf in a whole year."
As if this were enough to ponder for a while, Vick fell silent. When he spoke again he reminded Ralph of the time he bought a northern lobster on a trip to Rhode Island. "I nursed it all the way down here in seaweed," he said, chuckling, "brought it into the fish market and said I caught it out in the bay. Well, the guy went crazy. He got so excited he traded me his baby sailfish, and they're rare as hell."
Such frequent, unpredictable jumps in his thinking are just one of the things that make Vick seem ageless. At times he seems 50, at others 25 but, strangely, hardly ever 39. He just knows, and has done, too much for such a young man, and the deep crow's-feet and horizontal creases on his forehead give him a weathered look. But they add character to an otherwise youthful, tanned face. Always there is the quick smile, the hard, powerful body and the restless energy of the very young. Norman Vick is never bored. Maybe it is the uncertainty of his work schedule. Next time the old 6:08 is late, commuter, think about what happened to Guru that night: 50 miles at sea, too rough to go home in the dark, and the nearest oyster bar 400 feet away—straight down. Oh, there were ingredients for crab gumbo aboard, but at 45� angles the Rachel Carson's stove tends to reject pots and pans. Luckily the radar screen revealed a large head boat nearby "full of horns"—Vick's term for greenhorns, or landlubbers—and he tied up behind the big boat for the night. As bedtime approached, there was the persistent lullaby from the sister craft of seasick horns wishing they were dead. "Might as well turn in," Vick said, joking, it seemed certain, but five minutes later he was asleep down below. I stretched out on a bunk and seconds later was dumped to the floor, shielding my eyes from small objects that flew around like shooting stars. All night the head gurgled and every joint in the boat creaked. Vick slept like a baby, seemingly suctioned to his bunk.
Vick awoke at dawn, crept into the engine hatch to make an adjustment, and the hatch cover crashed down on his head. Brushing a trickle of blood from his brow, he exclaimed, "What kind of moron would get involved in something like this when he has a college degree and could get a job in industry for three times the salary?" He paused as he climbed out of the hatch. "Still," he finally said, "I'd hate to wake up tomorrow and have to go sell used cars."