It’s 5 a.m., pitch black outside on a cool, clear October Friday morning. Tony H. Rezendes Jr. is cruising through the woods, first by truck on a track that barely qualifies as a road, then by foot on a rough path, to one of his favorite fishing spots. Ask Tony where on the Island he likes to fish and the man who is one of last year’s derby winners for a shore-caught striped bass will say: “I fish the north shore and the south shore.”
He carries a white paint bucket of eels and a rod that has tape marks at 28, 34 and 40 inches. (“I don’t keep anything smaller than 40 inches unless I want to eat it) and a small bag of fishing gear. The beam of his headlamp swings over a mess of branches, bushes and rocks. “Watch that branch,” he cautions. And then his thoughts switch to the tide. “Not quite right today, but we’ll give it a shot.”
He arrives at today’s location (north shore), drops his bag, hooks a live eel and begins casting into the darkness. It’s a calm, quiet morning so you can hear the splash of the eel hitting the water and the whiz of the line as he reels it in. “Generally, I average about 45 cranks in. If it’s offshore and windy, it might be 50 or 55 cranks. I usually wear waders, but last night I somehow got a hole in them. And I can’t go in the water and get my wooden leg wet,” he explains.
In the summer of 1963, he broke his leg during a softball game. He went to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital where it was improperly treated and he nearly died from infection. The result of this was that they had to amputate his left leg from the knee down. “But the loss of my leg probably saved my life. I was bound for Viet Nam with Lenny Jason that fall.”
The line snags on a rock. He walks down the beach to free it up. “Sometimes fishing on a rocky beach with a wooden leg is a pain in the neck. Hard to keep my balance, but the leg doesn’t slow me down much. The only thing that I really can’t do as well as I used to is ice skate.” Tony may be aware of his leg, but you’d never know it watching him move down the beach. He easily moves over craggy rocks and navigates divots in the sand. Cutting a trim, strong figure, he is youthful at 70.
About an hour later, his reel quivers. “That’s a hit.” He reels the line in. Nothing but the squirming eel at the end of the line. “It was a bass. Bluefish take a chunk of the eel right off. Bass leave it whole.” A few moments later the line shakes again. Again, nothing.
Tony peers out from underneath his camouflage hat that sports his derby pin and sees something. He moves down the beach to a new spot, stops and stands with feet hips-width distance and settles back into a rhythm of economic and calculated casts and cranks. Other than the swing of his arms, he and his body are quiet. The sun begins to creep over the horizon. “Tide wasn’t right,” he says. “Three more casts and if there’s nothing, we’ll head home. Used to be more fish. In 1983 you could catch a 17-pound bluefish off the Menemsha bathing beach.” Several more casts and he heads to his truck. “My son Dana catches more than I do. He usually comes out with me. But with Nathan [Dana’s 14-month old son] getting up really early and Dana working late at the Rigger [The Square Rigger], well, he was just too tired to fish this morning.”
Tony says he and his wife Doreen didn’t set out to own and run a family restaurant, they fell into it. Two of his three kids worked at the Home Port when they were young; Amy was 11 and Dana was 12. One day Amy came home and said she thought her mother should work there too. Doreen thought about it, decided to give it a try and got a job as a hostess. She worked at the Home Port as a hostess and then manager for several years. Then Home Port owner Will Holtham lost his manager at his other restaurant, The Square Rigger in Edgartown. He asked Doreen to be his manager there. A few years after that, as Tony tells it, Will said to Doreen: “You know, you’ve put in your time. I think it is time you became the owner of the Square Rigger.” They talked it over, then Doreen talked it over with Tony. They all met, struck a deal and shook on it. Eighteen years later, they, along with Dana and their youngest daughter Jenny, run the restaurant that has long been an Island institution.
Tony pulls into his driveway, returns the unused eels to a barrel with running water, plunks his gear down in his garage, pointing out the hooks he and Dana use to hang deer, the wall of 24 deer skulls and antlers and other fishing and hunting equipment. Then he heads inside to say good morning to his wife. “Doreen used to fish. Now she runs the restaurant, plays tennis and takes care of our grandkids,” he says.
Doreen ducks her head out the front door to tell Tony that their grandson is awake and waiting for him. “Are you going to take him to Alley’s?” Tony nods and they both head to Dana’s house, which is right behind theirs. “We used to all live down on Tiah’s Cove. Four generations,” Tony says.“Never needed a babysitter,” Doreen adds. “There was always someone around.” Tony continues, “But we didn’t need a five-bedroom house. So we sold it to Jenny. I love having one floor and a garage. Never had a garage before.”
Nathan greets his grandfather with a big smile. “Pa!” He’s just finishing his breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries. Tony asks Nathan, “Are we going to Alley’s?” Nathan answers by putting his arms up as if to say: “Swoop me up! Let’s go!”
At Alley’s, Tony pours his morning coffee and then hands Nathan sugar wrappers and a coffee stirrer to put in the trash. Familiar with the routine, Nathan drops the trash into the black can and heads to the counter to pay. Tony follows, carrying his coffee and a sippy cup of milk for Nathan. Then the two walk hand in hand to the porch. Nathan plays with the beach toy display. Tony sits on the bench to watch. Having grown up in and lived in West Tisbury for most of his life, along with working at the Alley’s post office and West Tisbury post office for 21 years, he knows nearly everyone who comes by.
Half an hour later, Dana stops by to check in on Nathan before he heads to the restaurant. “Are you taking Nathan to music?” he asks. “Sure,” Tony replies. Apparently, Doreen tried taking Nathan to Music Together, a class for young children, but he screamed with her. But when Nathan went with Tony, he was fine. So music class has became one of Tony’s weekly gigs.
The class involves big movement — lifts, rolls, jumps and swings around the room. He keeps up with the young parents and kids and seems to know more of the songs than most of the parents. Nathan’s mother Lori is also with him today, but Nathan looks to Tony for cues. Their connection is palpable. After music class, Lori takes Nathan home for a nap and Tony heads to the restaurant to check in.
On the drive to Edgartown, Tony speaks with pride about his two other grandchildren, Devin and Kendra, who live in Connecticut but spend their summers on the Island. He reflects on his time with his own grandparents, remembering how they took care of him. “When I first lost my leg and didn’t even have a prosthesis yet, my grandfather, a plumber, put two plunger heads on the bottom of my crutches so that I could
come down to the beach with him and fish,” he says. He pauses and looks at the spectacular fall scenery around him. “This is just a great place to grow up. When we lived down at Tiah’s Cove, Danny Bryant and I had the run of the
place. A hundred and sixty seven acres or something all to ourselves. You can’t get better than that.”
When he arrives at the Rigger, daugh
ter Jenny is at the bar going over last night’s books. They chat for a minute and then Tony grabs a pile of cardboard from the basement to haul to the dump. “My son worries about me. About doing too much. Ten years ago, I had a heart attack. I was working at the post office six days a week and cooking four nights a week here. Now I am allowed to do the cardboard.” Jenny laughs, “And fix things with duct tape. He believes he can fix anything with duct tape.”
Tony laughs. “Yeah. That and bungee cords. I do like fixing things. I’ve fixed my wooden leg when it’s been broken a couple of times. A few years ago, I was
out in the snow hunting, maybe two feet deep and I fell over. My leg had snapped. It was December 31 at around four o’clock. I got back to my house and called a friend who I knew was glassing a boat and borrowed some fiberglass from him and fixed my leg. I wasn’t going to wait a week for a doctor.”
After the dump, Tony returns home to eat lunch — a venison stew sandwich on white bread — and watch the Red Sox. Later, around seven, he’ll have some more stew and then head to some spot on either the north shore or south shore to look for fish.
“The tide should be better then,” he says.