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Getting Under Way

I was a bit nervous about meeting Alden for lunch even though I realized this was ridiculous. But I wondered how Alden, after twenty-five years of being on the offering end of advice in our friendship, would react to listening to what had become a major concern of mine: his health. Twenty-seven years my senior, Alden considers himself wiser than me, and I suppose in most matters this is true. However, this truly tough, outspoken mentor of mine does not always use good judgment when it comes to his own well-being, and I had become worried to the point of being scared. Anyone in his right mind who had undergone heart surgery and understood the doctor's prognosis that Alden had received would be timid about getting out of bed in the morning, never mind climbing aboard a boat and heading offshore to haul lobster traps until well after dark. Today, I had vowed to myself, would be the time to broach the subject of Alden's retirement from fishing. This would not be easy.

Having spent most of my life fishing offshore, I tend to see the world through salt-rimmed glasses. My friend, far saltier than I, claims to have "pissed more saltwater than you have sailed over," and this might be true. Fishing is not what Alden does for a living; it is what he is. The fact that Alden had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had barely survived the installation of various pieces of hardware and a pacemaker/defibrillator was an indication to me that fishing might well be the death of Alden. Even lobstering can be brutal work, and Alden too frequently goes out alone. But suggesting to Alden that he give up fishing was like asking him to give up life. My best friend's entire identity and life are killing him, I thought as I drove to Portland; what a quandary.

Walter Alden Leeman Jr. has been my best friend since 1979. People always look at me strangely when I introduce Alden to them as "my best friend." They smile politely and shake his hand, but their eyes show thoughts of disbelief like, "You're kidding, right? This short, fat old man is your best friend?" I have been witnessing this reaction from others ever since the start of our friendship, and now feel compelled to explain what most folks regard as an unlikely pairing.

Readers weary of books in the inspirational mode can relax. Although I do often refer to Alden as a mentor, I am quick to qualify. I have received some of the worst advice (professional and personal) from my best friend, Alden Leeman. While his friendship has enriched my life, his influence hasn't all been for the good. Apparently, it never was intended to be all good, as is evident in the amount of pride Alden takes in claiming to have created "quite a monster."

In the realm of bad advice, Alden's has been the best. The first pearl of wisdom Alden gave me was the instruction not to bother paying back my student loan. In his opinion, no one paid the government back for college loans and I should not be a sucker. "Hell, if you wait 'em out, you'll receive amnesty like all of the others." The only things I received from the government were interest and penalties. Alden was at least consistent in his financial advice, urging me to treat American Express similarly. It cost me a small fortune to square with the IRS, and there's not a credit card company that will touch me. Even the Money Store and "Credit for Losers" laugh when I apply.

Alden's counsel for me in the personal-relations department has not been stellar. How many times have I endured the following unsolicited recommendation: "You have a lot to do in this lifetime, and you do not need a man dragging you down. You get too serious with some jerk and he'll be like an anchor around your neck. And never get married until you are just too old to do anything else."

In addition to receiving poor advice, I have learned most of my bad habits from my observations of, and association with, Alden. To his credit, Alden never set out to teach me to drink like a fish or swear like a pirate-those attributes just sort of rubbed off during our many years of friendship.

The many years began when, at the age of nineteen, I signed on as a crew member aboard Alden's swordfishing vessel. Commercial fishing was, at that time, a summer job to help pay my college tuition. I literally fished my way through school with Alden as my captain. Looking back twenty-four years, I am unsure whether my initial infatuation was with the captain or with the lifestyle of the blue-water fisherman. But I don't suppose it matters much now. The first eight years of my fishing career were in the employ of Alden, and he gave me my first shot at being a captain. I can say with confidence that Alden Leeman is one of the savviest fishermen (or boat people, in general) that I have met in all my time on, in, and around saltwater. I have learned more from my best friend than I have from everyone else from whom I've learned anything-and that's saying a lot, as I can learn something from anyone.

Fishing, gear, seamanship, navigation, boats, rigging-all very important aspects of my education, but nowhere near as interesting as the life lessons Alden has unknowingly shared. And nothing is more fun for me to talk about than what I would refer to as the "incidental education" bestowed upon me in my alliance with Alden. Perhaps one of the more poignant revelations that has come to me from our relationship is that there is quite a variety of bases on which to pin a friendship. The barometer for friendship covers a wide range. If asked to explain my friendship with Alden, I would answer with something like, "Alden has been a great mentor in my career, as well as a confidant in my personal affairs. Alden has always been there for me (yadda, yadda . . .). He has helped me out financially on many occasions, never asking a single question as to why I might need several thousand dollars at any given time." Alden, if asked the same question about me, would respond, "Linda is my best friend because she has bailed me out of jail more than once, and pulled me out of the ocean twice too." Alden has not learned a single thing from me, nor has he ever asked for my opinion or for my advice about anything. It's not that I haven't had any to offer, but, unlike Alden, I have never been one to push unsolicited into someone else's business. Today would be different.

One of the neatest lessons I have soaked up in the course of our friendship is always to recognize the special look in a man's eyes just before he punches another man's lights out. It is a very particular and definite look, and one that I have witnessed many times just prior to my friend getting the shit beaten out of him in a barroom. Alden is adamant about never having hit another man first, but I am usually around to remind him that he also has a knack for taunting the most innocent and gentle person into swinging a roundhouse to his nose. The word "goad" comes to mind when contemplating Alden's social graces.

In spite of his bad habits and shortcomings, Alden is the most amazing man I've ever encountered and has been my most loyal friend. I feel privileged to have been influenced both negatively and positively, by our friendship-and I wonder how I could ever think of him in the past tense.

Today, damned close to the age of seventy, Alden has fortunately mellowed to a state that allows some people (in addition to me) actually to like him. Although this helped me feel relatively sure that we would not be tossed from the Dry Dock bar, where we had agreed to meet, I nervously hoped that Alden had matured enough to take to heart the advice I would soon be giving him. That our relationship had ripened was evident from the mature nature of the topics of our conversation while alone. In the company of others, we were as adolescent as ever, all talk being of boats and fishing.

As I entered the bar, I was disheartened to see it was crowded, so I anticipated more shoptalk than the pouring out of hearts. I wasn't surprised, just disappointed. Thanks to a combination of great location and great food, the Dry Dock is seldom quiet. Located on Portland's Commercial Street, the Dry Dock is a short walk downhill for merchants and bankers and lawyers whose places of business are in the Old Port section of Maine's largest city. To its east is a ferry terminal that accommodates boats servicing the islands of Casco Bay, and to its west are working docks. So, there is always an interesting mix of patrons. I poked my head around the door and saw that Alden had also just arrived. I first noticed that his hair, which he wears as short as possible without actually shaving his scalp, was totally white. When did that happen? I wondered. His face was as red as always and his eyes the same deep blue. I nearly made the mistake of mentioning his personal patriotic display of our flag's colors, but bit my tongue. I had a mission, and didn't want to get off focus. Alden would never forgive me if I were so foolish as to mention his failing health in front of anyone. So, I would have to be careful. It would be a chore to get Alden to share anything other than his many sea stories.

Almost everyone loves a sea story. And unless it's the deck of a boat, there's no better forum for sea stories than a barroom. The beauty of the barroom is the audience. A waterfront watering hole lends itself to top performances in that the storytellers must reach a broad audience. It's a challenge, really, and the most successful events begin one on one, two fishing buddies sharing a beer. There's a special knack the best storytellers have that draws an audience in, and a real pride they take in watching total strangers strain to listen while pretending to carry on their peripheral boredom. The greatest talent is exhibited by those who inspire uninvited participation from what was once the audience. No one is better at gathering a crowd than my friend Alden.

Our usual greeting of a warm bear hug assured me that he hadn't lost his tremendous strength, and the joy in his face indicated that he was in top form and ready to have a good time. He seemed to sense my intention to talk about something unfamiliar, and that this made me uneasy, and was at the top of his game in steering the conversation and all attention elsewhere. But one of the many lessons I have learned from Alden is persistence.

Excerpted from ALL FISHERMEN ARE LIARS by Linda Greenlaw. Copyright 2004 by Linda Greenlaw. All rights reserved.