Anyone can buy a boat, a quahaug rake and a shellfish permit and go quahaugging. And anyone can use a rod and reel to catch a fish.
But it is a rare person who can scratch a living as a fisherman, from youth through middle age and do it with the spirit and dedication of Robert (Bob) Flanders, who died this past weekend.
Thirty years ago, when I was an aspiring young journalist, I went to Menemsha with my camera trying to take the great picture that would launch my career.
I saw Bob Flanders working on his skiff, tending some gear and I got up close. The scene was quintessential Menemsha. I took out my camera. “Can I take your picture?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
I was dumbfounded by the certainty of his answer. I stood by, with my camera ready and tried to persuade him to change his mind. For nearly the next hour, we talked. He told me about inconsiderate photographers he had seen that summer. They annoyed him. He spoke of empty discarded film boxes on the landing to his fish shack. He told me he needed a rake to collect them all. I left without taking his picture.
It was the beginning of a long friendship.
And it took years before he consented to a picture.
But I was persistent. Whenever I was in Menemsha looking for a picture and I saw him, I walked up and asked him the same question.
“No,” was his easy reply, every time, over and over again.
Then the old man of the sea and I would sit down and he would talk about the waterfront. Instead of getting a picture, I would get a story. Then the conversation would shift to fishing and fishermen and it would usually end with his asking how the newspaper office was at the other end of the Island.
Many times I pulled out my notebook. A few times I didn’t.
“Now, I don’t want to see my name in that story,” he would say.
Word of our waterfront ritual got around.
When Chilmark townspeople were organizing a harbor festival in 1994 commemorating the town’s tricentenniel, I was approached by Bob Flanders’ younger sister Bette Carroll. She was a member of the historical committee and a co-organizer of the celebration.
She asked if I would sing a few songs for the event. “How much would you charge?” she asked me.
“Well, I am not sure,” I replied. “There is something else I’d like.”
“You’d like permission to photograph my brother. I know all about it,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I’ll work on it,” she said.
And that is how I finally got the old fisherman’s permission to take his picture.
Today that framed photograph hangs in the Chilmark town hall selectmen’s meeting room.
There are other parts to the story. One time I was teaching a class in photography in Menemsha. Bob Flanders was working on his boat at the time. I pointed him out to my students and told them the Flanders story.
I told them that photography is an opportunity to cultivate a relationship with the rest of the world that is bigger and wider than any two-dimensional image.
Nearby, Mr. Flanders overheard what I said. Then unexpectedly, he got out of his boat and sped off in his old red truck. He left us in a cloud of dust.
Minutes later he reappeared and parked his truck in front of the Galley, in full view of my students. Before an audience of aspiring photographers, without getting out of his truck, with his rough hands he handed me a carving he had made of a small coastal bird. Without saying a word, he sped off.
In 1998 author Jane Carpineto wrote a book titled On the Vineyard, a Year in the Life of an Island. She wrote the story I just shared, but to the disappointment of many, she left out Robert’s name.
Robert Flanders was a wonderful man. His world was along the shore, in the pond and in Menemsha Bight. He was a waterfront sage. If you ever caught his gaze and his time, it was a precious moment.
Thanks to Robert, I learned a few important lessons that are of far greater value than any of my pictures of him.