Eating My Bread Upon the Waters

When you live on a small Maine island in winter, you appreciate little things: the store proprietor's homemade pizza, the postmistress's heavenly cream puffs. And when you work on the water in winter, little things mean even more.

In a gale of wind, the boat belonging to my boss, Bruce, crashes down on each eight-foot heave in the jagged sea like a monster pouncing on an earthquake. Resting between two huge waves in a trough, I'm exhausted. My eyes zigzag, looking for a buoy. Zilch.

Bruce's 37-foot lobster boat is named for his twin sons: Double Trouble. Like most modern lobster boats, it's made of fiberglass. Built by the Re-Enforced Plastics Company. Tough, but light, the boat is topsy-turvy when there's a sea on. Bruce and I don't need aerobics classes, exercise bikes, or Jazzercise to tire us out. All day, we do the REPCO wiggle.

Under our feet, the deck jumps, ducks, slides, slopes, veers, shudders, and wobbles. We lean and balance, we go up and down on a see-saw elevator. We listen to golden oldies on the radio. We dance all day, just to stay steady.

The routine is hectic: Search for the brightly colored buoys, hidden between waves. Guide 80 or 90 fathoms of rope through the screeching hydraulic winch. Scrub tenacious green seaweed off day-glo paint. Measure hundreds of lobsters (3-1/4 inches is too small, 5 is too big). Stuff hundreds of handfuls of fetid fish in stringy macrame bags. Heft head traps for triple trawls from amidships to stern, dawn to dusk - like walking the better part of a mile with a load of bricks and wire. Wash crystallizing ice off the decks. Think about hot food.

Big wave and crash again. I catch myself, hand on the rail, spread-eagled, as another wild chop hits the bow. Flying water douses my face. Salt water goes up my nose and down my throat. The boat groans back up and flings me level for the next round.

"Double Trouble to Daily Bread, come in." At the helm, Bruce calls a colleague on the marine radio, using boat names for identification. How strong is the wind to the westward, Bruce asks. His friend laughs and says this is a heck of a way to make a living, isn't it?

Any breaks in the routine are short. Between gangs of traps, Bruce cranks up the 320-horsepower Iveco diesel toward 2,000 r.p.m. and runs for the next gang. A few free minutes now for my mad dash to do everything else I need to do. Hose hermit crabs, sea urchins, snails, and sea grass off the woodwork and out the scuppers. Blow my nose. Drink. Eat.

The hard-working diesel sweats up a greasy heat. On deck, a coil from the engine's cooling system runs through a recycled plastic shipping barrel branded "Greek Olives" and warms enough water to soothe frozen fingers. The hot water barrel can also heat a can of soup or jar of chili into a bone-thawing hot boat lunch.

But yesterday I shopped on the mainland, with a stop at the bakery, so today I have a treat: a whole-wheat walnut raisin roll. At 4:30 this morning, I wrapped it tenderly in tinfoil, twice. At 8, I opened the boat's trunk cabin door, braved the racket of the hammering pistons, leaned over the Ferrari-red power plant, negotiated the ferocious spinning of the belts and the fire-hot turbo, and rested my raisin roll gingerly on top, between the exhaust manifold and the antifreeze reservoir.

Now, an hour later, we are running between gangs and my tummy is crying for a snack. The walnut raisin bread is steaming, the aluminum foil already burned through at the edges. I steal my bread back from the omnivorous engine.

Foil pack in hand, I shut the door on venting oil fumes, and my nostrils return to the malodorous assault in the wheelhouse. Bait: bins of redfish heads and rotten herring at my left elbow. Like bad background music in our ocean-view see-saw elevator.

But when I peel open the warm silver bundle clutched in my cold, cupped hands, something wonderful happens. Answering the aroma of fresh bread wafting from the warm whole-wheat walnut raisin loaf, my spirits soar. If a familiar fragrance can bring back memories, if a forgotten scent can hunt down old passions, then this baked ambrosia is redolent of half a lifetime of eating fresh-baked bread at home.

INSTANTLY, I am transported. A child again, I am at my grandmother's side by the big wood stove in the sunny island kitchen. I whiff the moment when she yanks open the big iron door - taller than I - on four bursting loaves of bread.

My cousins and I cannot wait for the golden-brown loaves to cool. Kneeling on chairs around the kitchen table, we knife open the steaming loaves and lavish fat slices with butter. We linger on the chewy crust, we let the soft middles melt in our mouths. We are happy; we are home at the hearth, with fire and food. It is the fragrance of family, the gift of our daily bread.

Back on the boat, I break my bread and give thanks for little things.

Then I brace myself for the next big wave.

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