From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

The End of the Pier

If you can dream it, you can do it.

Walt Disney

“Dad! You’re famous!”

Philip, Aidan, and Brennen ran into my study, eyes wide and looking at me as if I were Superman.

“Your picture was in the newspaper? How old were you? What happened?”

We had been vacationing in Pensacola, Florida, when my dad, my best friend, and I decided to do some fishing in nearby Navarre. A monstrous pier went a half a mile or so into the Gulf of Mexico. Because we had only two fishing poles, my dad bought me an open-faced rod and reel combo so we would have enough to keep us busy. It was a beautiful Shimano: silver and black. I imagined myself a great sea captain pulling in record swordfish and tarpon. Dad gave us casting lessons the first day. No telling just how many cigar minnows we scattered in the water below between tangles, but after a few hours, we became proficient and were able to focus on the fishing instead of the throwing. We fished a little while and noticed the action occurring at the end of the pier.

The end of the pier was the place of arrival. It was the bastion of seasoned anglers. To make it to the end meant you were recognized unofficially by the pier community. You were a true fisherman; someone from Hemingway. The fishing was truly better there, so in reality, the guys who made it to the end might have only been average but appeared great because of their constant hits. To a kid of nine these guys were mythological; masters of the sea.

Nothing was more impressive than when the masters hooked a monster. At the first whine of the reel an audience would gather. I remember the first guy I saw fighting a king mackerel. He sat up on the corner rail daring the fish to pull him into the waves. His arms bulged and his legs wrapped tightly around the rail as he held his rod straight up in the air. The tip of his rod doubled, pointing down into the deep. As he pulled the rod to himself, he reeled in the slack. The wind whistled, blowing around the taught line. A crowd amassed to cheer and some dared to offer advice.

My dad leaned down and whispered, “Watch and learn.”

Finally the old man conquered the sea, and the king lay dethroned, humbled on the pier. People clapped, they slapped one another’s backs, and cameras clicked. I caught a glimpse of something that is found only in dreams: greatness.

If only I could catch a fish like that and make it to the end of the pier.

After two days we hooked a couple of bonito but lost them as our lines were tangled with other fishermen pressing for position. We fished in the hot Florida sun for hours, watching others pull in monsters while we held on to nothing but hope.

On the final day of fishing, my dad decided to let us try some live bait. All we would have to do is cast it out, watch our poles, and let the baitfish do the work. I cast my bait and went over to grab a Coke. It was nice to have a break from the pressure. All I had to do was just watch my rod tip as it lightly bounced up and down from the swimming baitfish. One more big swig of Coke and I would relax—that was until I looked over my can and saw my rod heading up and over the rail like a one-manned seesaw! I grabbed the rod and lifted it high to the sky, and the reel opened with a solo. The notes were loud and long as the fish on the other end headed out to the deep. Now began the difficult trek of stepping over rods and ducking under lines to the coveted end of the pier.

Earlier that week when we had hooked some fish, we had tangled about half a dozen people who wanted to keep their position as these two “young kids” tried to land their first fish. This time, people were quite willing to help me get to the prime spot for fighting the fish.

And fight I did!

I labored, pulling and reeling in the slack, thinking that when I worked the fish in, I could gaff it and bring it up . . .

But not this fish!

As soon as I got him close, my rod sang again, and out to the deep he swam. After fifteen minutes of these rounds, the crowd gathered behind me. “What is it?” Someone asked, and others mumbled, “This is no ordinary fish.”

The masses cheered me, saying things like, “Hang in there!” and, “You’re doing great!” Finally after another round of bringing it in, a man yelled, “Shark!” My eyes bulged and I felt the blood leave my face. Just on the other end of my hook was the thing of my nightmares, the creature haunting me since the movie Jaws. The shark turned and headed back out to sea, and my nine-year-old arms felt like Jell-O. All I could hear was eerie John Williams’ music, and I was ready to call it quits.

Exhausted and scared, I turned to my dad and asked if he would take the rod. “No way, son,”was his response. “Never give up!” My muscles burned from the constant pulling, but letting go meant quitting and even losing the rod my dad had given me. I had to go on. The crowd cheered, resounding louder and louder while others coached me. Nobody on that pier wanted me to quit. After a half an hour, I finally had the shark close enough to see. It was a beautiful gray with brownish spots like a leopard and was as long as I was tall. I lost so many other fish at this point that I was waiting for this one to break my line as well.

But not this time.

The moment of truth came. Some men gaffed the shark and raised it onto the deck. Still fighting and snapping its jaws, he flung his body in his fight to the death. All the while standing over him was a scared nine-year-old from Tennessee who had not caught anything bigger than a “river cat.”

After the cameras gave out, my dad rushed to find a taxidermist. He would be crazy not to hang it on our wall. After we came home, he wrote our local newspaper. His mission was for the world to hear about his son landing a man-eater, a real David and Goliath story. To our surprise the article was printed and the story was told year after year in our family.

That was twenty-six years ago. Seeing the faces of my boys oohing and aahing about my victory over Jaws, I once again felt the exuberance of the day and the greatness of the end of the pier. Nevertheless, the end of the pier paled in comparison to the greatness I felt when my boys marveled at their discovery of their dad.

Scott T. Gill

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