Tuesday, April 06, 2010
Strong Love, Healthy Fear
Previously published in The Church Herald: Serving Members of the Reformed Church, March 2009, LXVI:3, pp. 24-25.
Note: the boat pictured is a South Bay oyster dredger, which only approximates the South Bay pound boat which I mention below.
I loved Joe MacMillan, and I feared him. I worked for him; he was my boss. I was afraid of him, but I would do anything for him. He was an important man in my life.
Joe had a fish market on Fire Island, New York. The village of Ocean Beach was a summer resort for New Yorkers. Ethel Merman and I. F. Stone were among our customers. I worked in the store with Joe and his two daughters, Jean and Betsy. We were three blond, blue-eyed teenagers from the Dutch town of West Sayville, on the south shore of Long Island, on the Great South Bay, and Joe would joke that he was a "converted Dutchman."
Joe was Scots-German, from Patchogue. He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but he had to quit high school to work and support his mother and grandmother. One day, the story goes, he was hitchhiking on Montauk Highway and he was picked up by Esther Verspoor, a Dutch girl from West Sayville. They dated, and married, and her father got him work on the Great South Bay.
Joe was strong and smart. He was enterprising and hardworking, and he got accepted by the Hollanders of West Sayville. He fished and clammed and scalloped with them, and he learned the Bay and its bottom. He got to be known as one of the best baymen around. He became chief of the fire department (a big deal in West Sayville), and a deacon in the Reformed Church (for just one term).
He got a job at Whitecap Seafood in Bayshore, cutting fish and learning retail. Then Joe bought Al Klassen’s store on Fire Island and made it a great success.
There were no cars on Fire Island. Everything had to come across by ferry. The Bay was five miles wide. If you had your own boat you could cut your costs. Our boat, the South Bay, was a thirty-six-foot "pound boat," built in the 1920’s for emptying fish traps. It had a catboat hull, a wide beam, and shallow draft. It had a low deck for working the water, a big hold in front with a mast and boom, and a cabin aft. Its tiller was out back, old fashioned.
Lots of Love
I loved that boat. I loved its lines and its wood and its paint. I loved working on it and washing it down every night and getting out on the salt water twice every day. I figured I had the best summer job in West Sayville. We loaded the boat every morning, lashed it all down, and ran across the Bay, a forty-five minute trip. In the evenings, coming back, Joe counted the cash and did his paperwork and the girls and I took turns steering home. Mostly we’d perch atop the cabin and steer the tiller with a foot out behind. Vacationers would cruise by and stare at us like we were specimens.
I loved working in the fish market. The customers would be lined up at the door when we arrived. We’d often have to work straight through till afternoon without a break. Joe cut the fish, and the girls and I sold it and worked the grocery end and the cash register. We had to work hard, but he trusted us. If a customer complained, and we held our ground, just let the customer go too far and Joe would come over and tell the customer to get the hell out and never come back. Then on the trip home he’d want to know what really happened.
He had charisma. And he was honest. The regulars loved him. He was strong. He could lift a full fish box on his own. He knew the winds and tides of the Bay. He could navigate in bad weather with just his compass and his watch. He could swear to raise your scalp (though never with vulgarity) and he had a fierce temper. One Friday night we were making hamburgers in the back and he wanted a pickle and he couldn’t get the jar open and finally he just smashed the jar on the floor and took his damned pickle and walked away, and without a word we cleaned it up.
I loved him. I admired him. I spent the whole day in his presence. I helped him load and unload heavy boxes full of ice and fish. I helped him sell filet and clams and lobsters. I followed his instructions and watched his every move. I learned from him continually, and the more I learned, the more he let me do. He let us open clams and cut fish. The fourth summer, he went back to manage Whitecap three days a week, and he let his daughter Betsy and me run the store on the days he was away. On that Labor Day he handed me a bonus of a thousand bucks in cash.
I loved him for what he brought into my life by giving me that job. I loved him for his boat. I loved him for my being out on the water on mornings when the water was like glass and on other mornings when it blew so hard we had to hold on. I loved him for his knives and how he took care of them and his skill — six strokes to filet a bluefish. I loved him for the complexities in my life that he was at the center of. I loved him for what he had done with his own life.
And I was scared of him. I was afraid of him. I could not predict him. I never feared him hurting me, not in the least, nor did I ever experience him as unfair. But he was such a force and he was so free of me. I had learned, like many kids, how to manage my parents in certain ways. But Joe MacMillan was beyond my power to get what I wanted or even to influence. He was so totally his own man. For his own reasons he had asked me to work for him, and for his own reasons he was good to me.
One of the questions I get asked in my ministry is why the Bible says we should "fear God." People are troubled by this. How can "fear" be good? Mind you, it seems to me that "loving" God is even less comprehensible, but that doesn’t violate our biases.
Love and fear are both complex. Both are ethical as well as emotional, and actions as well as attitudes. I suppose they can occur in combinations that don’t make sense or are not good. But sometimes they do hitch up like strands of RNA, or like a Patchogue boy and a West Sayville girl. My explanations of how it’s good to fear the God you love are rarely convincing, but the combination does feel right to me. I learned that from Joe MacMillan.