Dateline: May 1, 2011 – Oakland, California
We find ourselves praying for all kinds of things in life. We pray for the big stuff like health and well being for those close to us. We pray for the things that aren’t as important, like career success or the Red Wings winning just one more Stanley Cup. And sometimes, we even pray for something as seemingly insignificant as a spilled glass of milk.
Connor Spellman has been told at least 500 times not to put partially-consumed glasses of milk in the refrigerator door. But, like any 7 year-old, he has failed to register these instructions at least 499 of those times, resulting in spectacular, artistic spills that have a way of penetrating the most unlikely crevices throughout the icebox and the kitchen – the kind of spills where evidence is still found days later, sometimes by the cat.
Connor Spellman has always admired Mike Tyson.
But Connor is much more than a thrower of dairy products, he is also our excuse to go fishing. Connor is Mark Spellman’s 7 year-old son, and Mark, as you know, has been one of my great fishing buddies over the last 20 years. We have frozen together, been skunked together, triumphed together, and have gruesomely exfoliated our feet together. ( See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/the-cottonwood-death-march/)
Those issues aside, the greatest challenge Mark and his wife Heather ever faced came three years ago, when Connor was diagnosed with leukemia. It has been a trying time, for Mark and Heather, for their daughter Ashlyn, and especially for Connor. With all the time spent for treatment, for chemo, for hospital visits for every slight fever, for every cough, we had put off taking Connor fishing – always with the proverbial “We have to wait until you are older.”
The Spellman clan in Hawaii, inadvertently making gang signs.
May 1st was finally dubbed “when you are older.” Connor still has the attention span of a caffeinated ferret, but he had been talking about this fishing trip for months. Today was his day, and I wanted to make it special for him. I figured we would run around some of the San Francisco piers and see what kind of small perch we could pull up, and perhaps even make a jaunt over to Tiburon if things went right. With Connor being a kid and all, my expectations were low – I figured we would hand him a couple of fish and then he would have attention span failure in the first 20 minutes. I even considered giving Connor a Red Bull and a puppy just to spice things up.
I also invited along young Martini Arostegui, one of the charter members of my species-hunting support group. Martini has the patience of Gandhi (and the hair of Ricky Martin) so I figured I could stick him with the kid part of the time.
We drove over to Aquatic Park in San Francisco, and found a postcard-perfect tourist day of sun and calm. The place was dirty with Jacksmelt. So Connor got a few, Martini added the species to his list and closed the gap between our scores to just 785.
Connor and his first Jacksmelt. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that these will be considered an evil pest later in his fishing career.
I figured Connor would lose his tiny patience at any moment, but the kid kept sticking it out. He watched the rod tips intently, waiting for any sign of a bite, and even when there was none, he would suggest that we check the bait, just in case.
Connor, Steve, and Martini waiting more or less patiently for a bite, Aquatic Park, San Francisco. If you look carefully in the background, someone is probably protesting something.
Somewhere in there, he caught a juvenile Brown Rockfish which seemed to make him quite proud. He began announcing to passers-by that he was the only one of us who had caught a Rockfish, not even Uncle Steve had one. There was something to this kid – he had a lot more focus than I expected, and he certainly showed a great love of the sport. What the heck, I figured – let’s go to Tiburon.
Elephant Rock was perfect for Connor. Small fish were biting everywhere, which kept him running from rod to rod trying to keep up with the action. During lulls, he reminded everyone that he had been the only one who had caught a Rock Cod. Thank goodness I am not competitive about this sort of thing, or I would have thumped him.
Connor and a Crevice Kelpfish.
I was over on the south side of the pier, in the very spot where the memorial service went so very wrong – see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/01/22/sitting-on-the-dock-of-the-bay/. Martini and I were trying to answer all of the questions Connor was firing at us in rapid succession. While we chatted, Connor repeatedly mentioned that he was the only one of us who had caught a Rock Cod. I decided “enough of this” and so I caught a rock cod, still a juvenile but clearly larger than the one Connor caught. I pointed this out to Connor, and we entered a debate on the topic that was not only spirited but surprisingly evenly-matched.
Connor’s best fish of the day – a Striped Surfperch.
I happened to glance at Mark over on the other side of the pier. He had gone into the “action position,” knees slightly bent, hands halfway up and ready, eyes focused and somewhat looking in the same direction, underwear sticking slightly out the back of his pants. He was getting a bite, and he had eased the rod out of the holder and was preparing to set the hook. I have seen Mark’s hookset and I figured the fish had an excellent chance of escape. The rod tip dipped down noticeably, and Mark wound up and struck, or at least I think he was setting the hook, because it looked more like Tony Randall fending off a burglar. But somehow, the fish got hooked. It was obvious from the bend in the rod this was a good fish – it even took line a couple of times. Mark somehow stayed connected to it, and after 30 seconds or so, it was lying on its side below the pier. It was a positively huge Pile Surfperch. I immediately thought that it had a chance of breaking the existing world record, which was somewhat difficult for me to face, because it’s my world record.
Mark and his world record Pile Surfperch. He always gets this look on his face in solo fish pictures. Note the sprinting Connor in the upper center of the picture.
We weighed the fish, and no matter how many times I tried to re-weigh it, it came out the same. A pound and a half. Mark Spellman had shattered my Pile Surfperch record.
I told myself – “Breathe, Steve. At least it’s not Jaime Hamamoto.” And then I thought about it. If anyone deserved this, it was Mark. In fishing, he has always been the Ed McMahon to my Jay Leno; the Cato to my Batman. He just has a different, more relaxed outlook on fishing, and he’s usually just along for the ride. He doesn’t really care who catches the fish, just so we do well, and he always lets me take the first bite. But after 20 years of me always wanting to be “the man” every time out, this one was all his. Cast, hook, and land. And I was proud of him – but not as proud as Connor was. Connor ran around telling anyone who would listen – “My Dad caught a world record. And I caught 10 fish. And my Rock Cod was bigger than Uncle Steve’s.” (Which, by the way, it was NOT.)
See? The minute someone else is in the photo, he loses the mug shot face.
Martini enjoyed being along for the ride.
Spellman and Wozniak, at the end of another epic adventure, and this time, no one lost any skin off their feet.
We stuck it our until evening, then worked our way back through San Francisco, dropping off Martini at the train station and heading for Chez Spellman in the Oakland hills, where pizza and sodas awaited the hungry fishermen.
Martini should learn to NEVER fall asleep in my car.
Connor couldn’t wait to pass on the news and show off the pictures of the 10 fish he had caught, which included the aforementioned Rock Cod that was clearly smaller than one I’d caught. Connor, who can operate the digital camera better than any adult, showed off the photos at least 5 times, especially Mark’s Pile Perch. Heather somehow looked more impressed with every showing – I guess that’s one of those mysterious Mom skills.
Later on in the evening, the kids were in bed, and Mark, Heather, and I were chatting in the living room, likely about my unfortunate performance at their wedding. Mark went to the kitchen to get a soda, and as the fridge door swung open, I could hear the half-full glass of milk come hurtling out of the precarious spot where 7 year-old hands had surreptitiously perched it an hour or so before. I heard it clip one of the shelves on the door, then SPLAT to the floor, followed by the noise of a thin shower of milk splashing over the interior of the fridge and the surrounding floor and cabinets. I got up to inspect the situation; Mark stood there, stunned and covered in milk. It looked like he had snuck up behind a particularly nervous cow and startled it – this was truly one of Connor’s greatest efforts.
I giggled because, well, it was funny. Then I got a towel and started to help clean things up. I asked “So Mark, you going to ground him, take away his Legos, or go straight to the thumbscrews?” Mark looked at me with that patience only good fathers can muster. “None of the above, Woz.” This was beyond my comprehension, because I am certain that if I had done that more than once when I was a kid it would have been a shallow grave in the crawl space for me.
Mark looked up at me. “When Connor was sick, really sick, and we didn’t know how it was going to turn out, he did this one night. Milk all over the place. And I remember thinking, God, I hope he’s here to do this in a few more years and I would be so glad to still be cleaning up after him. And so I am.” We continued cleaning in silence for a long time, but I’m sure we left a few spots for the cat.
Connor Spellman remains leukemia-free and, thankfully, is a healthy, obnoxious second grader. And his father holds the IGFA world record for the Pile Surfperch.