'A little dab'll do yer!'' went the advertising come-on for some kind of gunk that made cheap hair look rich, and it became a national by-word, like ''O Yeah!'' and ''See ya later alligator.'' Since then, a dab hasn't been a fish.
In the daily reports of landings at the Boston Fish Pier, we got the tonnage of cod, haddock, halibut, cusk, pollock -- then the dabs. Dabs are flatfish, as are flounders and sole, the wee ones of the marketables. Now I hear the Spaniards and Canadians are fussing over who owns the Grand Bank, and it might be that dabs will again become important. They are, when perfected in the down-east way, a gracious aid on any table.
I made voyage to the bank as a lad, but as a freeloader and not to fish. I went aboard the schooner Aberrance, which was an authentic banker of the Bluenose and Gertrude Thebaud class. She had two masts and all her gear, even to the nest of dories topside. But she was now a carrier, rather than a fisherman, and her voyages to the east'ard were to fetch back dressed groundfish for the Soule Salt Fish factory at our harbor.
Newfie and No Supper boats would drag groundfish, mostly cod, and when their gets would depress the prices at Boston, Gloucester, and New Bedford, Mass., they'd sell to processing plants and thus manipulate the markets. Well, everybody along the coast knew no vessel should ever be named with an ''A'' -- names like Alice, Amelia, Adam, Amity, and Adventure meant any craft would come to no good end.
The Aberrance had been struck by lightning, for one thing, and then she never seemed to get over the fish. Next she lost some dorymen, and then, just a month after I got home from my only voyage down east, she burned to the waterline on her mooring.
She was, all the same, a lovely schooner, built at Lunenburg for down-east and Fundy seas. By prearrangement, we had met a Newfie dragger at Madam Island, just beyond Canso, Nova Scotia, and her fish were moved in minutes into the Aberrance wells, and we came immediately home.
I guess I never told here about the oddity we had at our salt-fish factory -- a cat that ate salt fish. Cats won't eat salt fish, but this one did. Probably the reason was that she was never fed anything else. The one thing you can count on in a salt-fish factory is salt fish.
This cat was sleek and fit, so the diet agreed with her, but she would get terrible thirsty. Every so often she would hanker for water, and would go a mile back from the harbor and slake her need at the Varney Brook, so called.
My passage to Madam Island and back was pleasurable. Captain Muldoon was a veteran banker and knew every Fundy bump, so he was able to sail around them all. And Captain Muldoon was opinionated thoroughly without any ambition to conceal it. He had never been to the Blarney Stone, but said that twice they had brought the Blarney Stone to see him.
Captain Muldoon made harangue to me about the small-mesh net. Even then, you see, there was talk about conservation on the banks, and the small-mesh net was being promoted as an answer to dwindling fish. Captain Muldoon would ban the small-mesh net completely, and force every nation that fished the deep grounds to comply. He was miffed to anger because so few people agreed with him, or, for that matter, even cared.
Draggers, scouring the fishing grounds, brought up whatever was entrapped. And as fish too small to sell were included, they perished and were hove as trash back into the drink. If nets with larger mesh were used, such small fish would escape and survive to grow up. People who used small-mesh nets, Captain Muldoon held, were stupid. He convinced me immediately.
Captain Muldoon said the fishing banks of the North Atlantic were the most important influence on the history of the world. Don't go to the books, he said. Just think about codfish. When the Portuguese began bringing back prime salt fish, Columbus went to find out what was going on. The Portuguese knew about the banks from the French, who had charts made by Irishmen. The Irish heard about codfish from the Swedes and Norwegians, who were told about the banks by the Danes.
The Danes had the word from some other Danes who had been there and were just coming back. This was all centuries before Columbus was born. Newfoundland fish, said Captain Muldoon, account for the discovery and settlement of America.
The Captain also said the English almost spoiled everything. Well, they came over here with their noses in the air, haughty and proud, and they were nicer than other folks, and they cheated and abused the Indians, and they worked things into such a frenzy that an honest man couldn't go ashore to salt his catch.
So the ''hard cure'' went out of style. A ''soft cure,'' done aboard ship in brine, began to drive good salt fish off the market. This also caused the Billingsgate fishmongers to speak in colorful language, and besides depressing the market brought on the Revolution, the Fenian Uprising, and the general decline of parental respect among the young.
For a man with such strong mental capacities, Captain Muldoon was surprisingly weak at the cribbage board. But tell me, in a society that finds more amusement in a murder trial than in a baseball game, would you expect to stir up much emotion over a fishing net?