Last February, Menemsha lost one of its memorable characters, a genuinely nice guy and a good friend, when Carl Whitman passed. He died the way he lived, unafraid to face the pain and suffering with which he would inevitably deal.
Carl and I were partners in our lobstering activity, spending many hours together on the water, pulling pots, discussing where we might find the spiny critters, moving the pots to locate migration routes and hiding places, and trying to avoid crowding the other lobstermen, commercial as well as non-commercial, with their eyes on the same prize.
Inevitably, we would discuss the weather and other important Vineyard topics. With his ability to talk with his friends on the docks, he was full of good-humored stories and, inadvertently, could draw a picture of the life of the longtime residents of the Menemsha community.
One of those characters also died this year, Bobby Flanders, who was one of our silent companions on the water. We knew Bobby’s beat-up old lobster buoys and would work hard to avoid crowding him.
It was always comforting to see Bobby alone in his old scow with the smallish outboard, coming and going among the pots and navigating into and out of Menemsha Creek. We never received a wave or hail from him, in spite of the fact we knew he saw and recognized us. Just the same, we were comfortable with the idea that had we run into trouble, he would come to our aid. The docks won’t be the same without Bobby.
The past two summers Carl was beginning to show his age and we had to curtail our lobstering. His last summer, he could not come aboard the boat, and so my wife Nancy became Carl’s replacement for the summer. It was during that summer that I was diagnosed with a bone marrow disease that brought our lobstering to an end. We decided that we could not keep our great Jones Brothers center console boat and would sell her.
The sea was in Carl’s blood, and he was game to go lobstering anytime. I would call at 7 a.m. every three to four days to set our schedule for the day. I would leave the mooring in West Basin to pick Carl up at the Coast Guard dock, where he kept our bait. Dressed in his old waterproof coveralls, looking like a Gloucester fisherman, we would load up and leave for the pots. He loved the sea air in his face, declaring this was the greatest feeling in the world. On the way to the pots there was little chance to talk, but as soon as we identified the first pots, we could begin our daily catch-up, laugh at what had happened on the Vineyard and particularly in Menemsha and Aquinnah, which always reminded him of some story.
One of his favorites was about his introduction to lobstering many years ago by one of the old-timers on the Menemsha docks, Herschel West. Carl loved to describe how Herschel would stand in the bow of Carl’s old boat, sniff the air and point to a spot in the ocean where he knew a lobster was hiding and tell Carl to dump the trap on that spot. I don’t believe they kept track of the success of this operation.
He also excoriated Carl for dumping the remains of the bait bags in the water: “You don’t want to feed ’em.”
When all was said and done, Carl remembered his experience with Herschel very fondly and was sorry his old friend could not enjoy a bit of our time together, as well.
The stories of his years in the service in World War II, on the road as a salesperson, and the crooked politicians and policemen he ran into were all part of a day’s discussion while navigating among our pots and those of the other lobstermen and the ocean swells, to harvest our paltry lobster take. As it turns out, the lobsters were a poor second-place reward for our time on the water.
At this point in my life, I look at my Jones Brothers boat as a symbol of Carl, his spirit, the sea and our friendship. As much as I hate to see the boat go, it will always carry Carl’s spirit with it. May it ply the waters of the Vineyard for a long time with a new owner who loves the sea.
Don Hare lives in Aquinnah and Rochester, N.Y.