The Family – Chapter 6

Mooncalfs, Softheads, Boobies and Doofuses

Piers are romantic, mystical and photogenic, attributes that attract photographers to the piers. The piers also attract travel writers and whenever one appeared at the pier, the Family knew an article was sure to follow. Sometimes the article faithfully portrayed life at the pier and, at least in part, gave a hint of the flavor of the pier. Sometimes though there was a patronizing, almost chocolate-box image of the pier in which the pier and inhabitants were painted in soft, pastel colors.

To the writer, the pier itself was seen as some sort of arcadia, a historic landmark withstanding the onslaught of the relentless tides. The fishermen with their lines hanging over the sides were portrayed as a polyglot mixture of races peacefully carrying on a long-time tradition of ocean angling. And fortuitous indeed was the writer who spotted one of the pier’s über-animals, the whales and dolphins who sometimes made an appearance. As recorded by the writer, these graceful and intelligent visitors calmed the soul and gave evidence of Mother Earth’s watchful eyes over the area.


The stated reality was that the pier was a recreational venue to be used by the citizens of the city as well as its visitors; its purpose, maintenance and upkeep was little different than that of a city park or other location. The unstated reality was that the pier attracted people to the beach, many of them non-residents, and those visitors spent money in the city thus increasing the tax revenue; argal the pier was good for business and the city. It’s a simple economic equation for most beach cities.

As for the anglers, many were indeed friendly, regulars such as the Family. But there were many other families, gangs and individuals who visited the pier. And, like society overall, the group reflected all types of human beings. Although most were average Joe’s out for a simple, inexpensive fishing trip, there were also the dregs of society, the sociopaths, gang-bangers, child molesters, con artists, and 101 other categories of refuse. Many were winos, boozers, alcoholics (pick your adjective) or druggies with a whole panopoly of names. Travel writers tended to focus on the former group; the latter might upset the story.

As for the cetaceans, the whales and dolphins, sure some showed up. Dolphins were resident that fed and played by the pier much of the year. Most of the whales were grays heading up and down the coast on their annual migration; some were more exotic species that were indeed of interest. Nice to see but rarely the momentous scene as described by the writers.

Of course, given the sad state of what passes for American news, people should not have been surprised or resentful; after all, any news is good news as long as it attracts people and contributes money to the economy—right?

Generally, within a short time of an article appearing in a magazine or newspaper there would be a lemming-like invasion of tourists, visitors drawn to the pier by the writer’s purple prose and the pictures (über-animals and beautiful sunsets, not winos and gang-bangers) that accompanied the article. It was as though a clarion call had gone out to the inland areas pulling in the tourists, many who showed up with a total lack of knowledge about the pier even though they had just finished reading an article describing the very same pier.

The Professor, George P, already noted for his caustic and bombastic way with words, called these throngs the “Mooncalfs, Softheads, Boobies, Ninnyhammers, Noodleheads, Gawkies, Oafs and Thickwits.” He borrowed those appellations from a book he had read and said it perfectly described the mass that would descend on the pier during tourist season—especially and whenever a new story appeared.

The rest of the Family was a little more amiable and thought the Professor just a tad bit hard in his characterizations even though Martha added Doofuses to the mix and Ellen threw in Chawbacons. (And, the Family’s debate on the plural of doofus—doofi, doofae, or doofuses—lasted nearly half an hour). Cassidy simply rejected the idea of labels; she said putting labels on people was a dangerous practice and led to assumptions that could be wrong. But, most in the Family agreed that the pier received all manner of tourists and that a few of those visitors might be deserving of those titles.

Conversation with those tourists was a regular occurrence (perhaps due to the unthreatening appearance of the Family) and for the most part the Family welcomed questions and assumed they were well intended. “Catching anything?” “What kind of fish do you catch here?” “How big do the fish get?” “Do the fish taste good?” “What kind of bait are you using?” “Why are you throwing that back?” These and a hundred similar questions were asked and the conversations that ensued often enriched the members of the family as much as the visitors.

Most people seem gregarious by nature and it was amazing the number who had never been to the seashore or to a pier. It was also amazing the number who had never fished, a hobby that seemed to come naturally to the Family. But quite often a conversation would lead to a lesson in fishing and quite a few of the visitors caught their first fish under the tutelage of the Family. And for those who liked to write letters—especially George P and Cassidy—some visits turned into long time friendships.

There were however two groups that were as irritating as the “hard-to-see-ums,” the tiny bugs that sometimes would hang around the pier when it hadn’t been cleaned in a few days. Both groups shared an identical plane from which they viewed the pier anglers and both felt their views to be far superior to those of the Family.

The first group was made up of fellow anglers, but anglers who primarily fished from boats. Since boat anglers often catch more fish, as well as larger fish, they often assume their skills as anglers are superior. Few newcomers to the pier knew that Ellen had a reputation among the elite of California’s anglers as a nonpareil angler and though there might be a few others in the top tier—male and female—none surpassed her skill and techniques. The fact that she was content to sit on a pier two days a week with her friends could little be understood by these visitors.

But Ellen and the members of the family knew the assumptions of these critics to be wrong. Often the boat angler is at the mercy of the captain, the one who finds the school of fish and helps provide the knowledge needed to catch the fish. A good skipper can often help a poor fisherman catch a limit of fish; a poor skipper can keep an experienced fisherman from catching a fish.

This first group was almost always made up of “Young Turks” under the age of twenty-five, who would begin a conversation with one of many similar statements—“You know I used to fish the piers but I grew tired of catching the little stuff!” “Why are you fishing on the pier, don’t you know the bass are biting out on the boats” “You know if you would use some plastic instead of that bait you’d get more fish.” There were many such statements but all tended to reflect a somewhat dismissive attitude toward piers and pier anglers. Unfortunately those views, enhanced by the lack of respect they showed to their elders, led to a generally short conversation.

Sometimes, if the “Turks” were especially grating, Ellen would take out a small book that contained pictures of some of her fish. She had fished throughout the world and several of her fish had made it into the IGFA World Record Book. She would show the pictures, comment on the records, and then remark how she had gone through that “kid” stage and was now content to fish with her friends at the pier. Some would start to understand the point she was making but most would simply choose to remain ignorant. That was OK with Ellen and the Family.

But most in the Family were experienced anglers and had fished a variety of venues—including boats—before finally retiring to the pier. They knew how to catch fish but had lost the zest for the big seas, crowded boats, and need for big fish that characterized the attitudes of these “Turks.” And, the truth be known, the Family almost always caught a few halibut on their visit to the pier. However, if the fish was a short it was returned immediately to the water. If it was legal, it was quickly filleted and put in a bag on ice. There was no need to leave it lying on the pier for passer bys to admire. A fish left on the hot surface of a pier, in a gunnysack, or, worse of all, left in a plastic bag, would degrade quite quickly. The Family knew their fish including how to keep the flesh in tip top condition.

The Family understood the life of most California “Pier Rats” even if the “Young Turks” did not. Whole families flock to the piers and some of the youngsters develop a love of fishing which, because of ease and low cost, is usually restricted to pier fishing during the early years. As the angler got older and a little more affluent, they often graduated to the half-day boats, full-day boats and perhaps eventually the long-range boats. Some simply bought kayaks. It’s a different world but also one that for most will eventually end as they began to age. Then, like the members of the Family, many would return to the piers. Soon they are one of the pier’s regulars who meet each morning, share some coffee, and perhaps a cigarette or two (although some cities had outlawed smoking on piers). Sometimes they catch fish, sometimes they don’t. The piers replace the local coffee shop as a place to meet and the social aspects are the same. But the skill is still there even if rarely needed.

Some of the “Young Turks’ understood this because their own dad, granddad or uncle might have gone through this metamorphosis and they were generally respectful. It was the others—those who thought they knew all the answers—that would incur the wrath of Jasper, Ellen or George P. and none could survive the questioning of this group, especially if the Professor began one of his magniloquent, extempore assaults. By the time they left they had learned a little about fishing and perhaps a lot about life.

The second group was the environmental zealots who wanted to preach to them. “Why do you fish, don’t you know the fish are endangered?” “You don’t eat these fish do you?” “You know you can get cancer from handling those fish?” Again it was a plethora of rebarbative statements, most of which revealed a lack of basic knowledge. The Family understood that fact; they knew the statements simply reflected the information they had been fed by their handlers.

Each of the Family members considered themselves a conservationist and a protector of the environment but they also felt the misguided hysteria spread by some of the environmental groups did nothing but hurt their overall goals. They were willing to work with the environmentalists but not when those people adopted their tone of superiority and made statements that the Family knew to be untrue. And while the Family’s early attitude had been one of welcoming debate they eventually changed and began to suffer fools far less quietly. They would tell the zealots that they were wrong and why they were wrong. They made little headway with the people since the zealots were already convinced that they possessed the “truth,” but the Family felt they had at least stood up for what they knew to be true. That was enough.

Yes indeed, Mooncalfs, Softheads, Boobies, Ninnyhammers, Noodleheads, Gawkies, Oafs, Thickwits, Doofuses, and Chawbacons did visit the pier. But the visitors to the pier were simply one more part of the rich mosaic that made the Family’s time on the pier interesting. And truth be told, none really would have had it any other way.