Monday, September 5, 2011

Pancho's Fish Fry


In 1995 or so, I lost the tip of my finger. I was rebuilding a thermoforming machine and the weight of a large gear assembly shifted. WHAM! It just clipped a tiny chunk of my fingertip on a funky angle. Nevertheless, I came out of the Emergency Room with a bandage on my middle finger like a large pear.

It had happened very early in the day; a day that became a comedy of errors. The boss' kid, who worked for me, helped wrap my hand in what few clean shop rags we could find.  Horrified, and white as a ghost, he drove me to the local hospital.  After sitting at the local ER a long while, the doctor carefully unwrapped my hand, took one look and said "Oh, we can't do anything for you here. You've got to go to Kalamazoo." 

. . . and he left the room.

We drove ourselves the 45 minutes to Kalamazoo. After sitting there for at least an hour, and finally getting my finger cleaned up and bandaged, they asked if I wanted my prescription filled there at the hospital or at my home pharmacy. Despite not having a regular pharmacist back home, I decided on the latter. As the kid drove us carefully through the little town of Vicksburg, the company truck died. So, I found myself sitting on a curb at a Shell Gas Station, halfway home, waiting for a ride, when the finger started throbbing. All the medicine from the hospital visit was wearing off. More pain medicine was at the unknown pharmacist back home; if we got there before they closed.

A few weeks later, I was back in familiar territory; sitting in a bar telling boat stories. Working in a factory that made running boards, I had met and was dating the woman who would become my second wife. My boss and his wife, had invited the girlfriend and me to a fish fry. We were in a tall, narrow storefront bar in the one sided, one block long, downtown of tiny Burr Oak, Mi.

It was a typical small town tavern with a few tables up front by a dusty plate glass window. Midway, back to the left, was the bar, with smaller tables on the opposite wall. At the far end of the bar, was the window to the kitchen and next to that, a hall toward the backdoor. The walls were covered with beer logo mirrors, pictures of local hunting heroes, and other swag. A grey cloud of cigarette smoke hung high enough in the ceiling that we hadn't noticed it yet. Haphazardly taped to the front door were a couple handbills; one for a tent revival and another for a turkey shoot that had already happened. We found an empty table near the bar.

I had just gotten the news that Pancho, an acquaintance from Florida, had drowned off a boat that, technically, I still owned. It was interestingly ambiguous spot to be in. I had left Florida in a rush to take a job. The plan was to live with a Great Aunt, save some money and come back to buy a bigger boat and live aboard.

Though I tried to just give him my sailboat, a sailing buddy, Tom, had volunteered to help me sell it after I'd left. I had bought the boat from a salesman who sold cardboard boxes to my company. It was a big boat for its size; a 21 foot sloop with a small cabin capable of long weekends. That was the last I ever heard from Tom. I got the Legend of Pancho, some months later, from a former business partner still in the state.

The last Fourth of July weekend that I was in Florida, Tom and I had spent four days drinking beer, sailing around Sarasota Bay watching the offshore powerboat races from the water. I don't know how many times Tom "sailed" the boat while he was helping "sell" the boat, but I know he was going sailing at least once. The story was tragic from the very start. Pancho's granddaughter had been killed in a car accident. He was, of course, taking it hard. Tom, and a third friend, decided they should take Pancho out for a sail to get his mind off everything for a while. A sail . . . on my boat.

They had already been drinking when they gathered an aluminum jon boat, beer and munchies. My boat was swinging on an anchor in a cove off of downtown Sarasota; the same cove I had lived aboard another boat for a year and a half. They piled their supplies and themselves into their boat and rowed out to mine. I'm sure it was a sight to see them clamoring aboard. As they settled into the cockpit and readied the boat, someone decided they needed more beer. The fateful decision was made for Tom and the friend to leave Pancho on the boat, row to shore and get more beer.

It is hard to imagine what thoughts might fill your mind if you had just lost a young loved one. I don't know any details, other than Pancho had been distraught for a few days already. Compound those feelings with being left alone in a cove full of strange boats; some palatial, some derelict. Whatever was on his mind, when the other two came back with more beer, Pancho was missing.

At the risk of repitition, its hard to imagine what thoughts might fill your mind if you were missing a drinking buddy from a boat that wasn't even yours in a cove off downtown Sarasota. Pancho was found the next day. He washed up on the rocks at the end of a kidney-shaped park near where the boat was anchored. Perhaps, that was when Tom vanished.

When I lost track of Tom, I lost track of the boat. He left the company he had worked for and left no other information. Someone told me he had gone up into North Florida cow country. I searched a couple times back in the very early days of the World Wide Web, but he had walked off into the ether; unfound. The boat had three and half feet of keel and no trailer. I had never considered being able to bring her to the Great Lakes. And I really hadn't known what was going on back in Florida at the time.

About a year later, I got a letter from the County Sheriff. Fortunately, not about Pancho, but about my boat. Apparently, the boat stayed for some time in the cove right where I had left her.  In a storm, she had drug her anchor and was drifting out to sea.  She was between Siesta and Lido Keys, headed out toward the Gulf of Mexico, when the Marine Patrol found her and towed her back to the City Dock. When no one claimed her, she was hauled to a city yard and unceremoniously stood up on a couple 55 gallon drums.

The letter, forwarded through a couple addresses, explained that I could pay various storage and hauling fees and keep my boat, or she would be auctioned at the upcoming Police Auction. Sadly, I let her go. I had started a new life in Michigan and met a woman whom I was planning to marry. My plans for a bigger boat and a life aboard were, more or less, voluntarily sunk; scuttled might be the appropriate nautical term.

When I got the letter, I had called my old business partner. We chuckled about the sad story of my boat. He had sailed with me occasionally as well. Then he asked, "Did you hear about Pancho?" and told me the legend. I had been a little sad about the boat but I was not prepared for Pancho's story.

Pancho was one of those stoic, steady guys; a jack-of-all-trades. Near as I could tell, he was just a hard working guy scrabbling to do the best he could for his family. Some people always manage to drift away from their work and dally. Others are drawn back to it, double checking that their work had been done right. Pancho was one of the latter. He was the sage workaholic in a small lazy shop that made chalkboards for schools. He had always said he was Mexican American Indian. I can still picture the cracks and crags of his weathered face, his salt and pepper hair in a ponytail and, everyday, a headband.

Pancho worked for Tom, who was running the company for our landlord. Both our companies were young startups. One shop was always lending a hand to help the other; sharing a forklift, or unloading a big delivery like a bucket brigade. Friday afternoons would get a little lazy and we'd all just hang around. Someone usually snuck out for a six pack. Four or five of us would end up standing around in the alley between our two buildings as the sky darkened. I don't remember any specific conversation. There probably weren't any specific conversations on those slow Friday afternoons.  Pancho stood out among the forgettable blue collar drifters around him.  He was the kind of character whose memory would bounce off of some mundane object and sneak to the surface in my mind. The thought of him, at some odd moment, never failed to make me smile.



Back at the Fish Fry, listening to Pancho's Legend, my boss and his wife were mesmerized.  The girlfriend had heard it a couple times already. I talk with my hands and the boss's wife had been watching me wave around this gigantic bandage on my middle finger as I spoke.

Just as I finished the story, she asked "Now, what did you do to your finger again?"

Taking a pull on my neglected beer, I said, "Actually, I was shoving Pancho off the boat and he bit me."

I hadn't noticed but in the small bar, right over the boss' shoulder, a guy was sitting alone at the bar. We were all close together in the narrow establishment. The lone waitress wiggled her way between tables and bar stools carrying big platters of fish and pitchers of beer. When I said, ". . . and he bit me," the guy at the bar spit his beer and laughed out loud. We realized at once he had been listening all along. Pancho's Legend would be told again.

As the bluster of the bar story, and a good laugh, began to fade, like the darkening sky on a lazy Friday afternoon gone by, my heart dipped. Just then, in the noisy little bar, my ears got hollow and my gut went heavy. Damn it, I missed Pancho. I missed those lazy Friday afternoons. And while Pancho had never had much in this life, now he had a legend. Vaya con dios, mi amigo.



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Image used under the Creative Commons license.

"Washed-up On the Rocks" by Annika Wetterlund