Louie Rivers was among the finest men I’ve known, and times spent aboard the Miss Sandy are my best memories on the water.
Our days began before the sun, walking dark Provincetown streets to the pier. This was the 1980s. Young men ending their adventures, as we were starting ours, made lewd comments about this odd pair, a young long-haired bearded guy alongside a squat older man with arms like thick oak limbs.
Louie would just laugh. In all our years I never saw him get into an argument or fight, a rare thing among fishermen.
Miss Sandy was tied up at MacMillan Wharf like a dog waiting to get off leash. The fleet numbered maybe 40 small draggers. Miss Sandy at 58 feet with a steel hull was a rusty jewel, and you could always find her because Louie lashed a Christmas tree to the top of the mast, his whimsical signature. That and shorts, which he wore much as possible because, as he said, he had nice legs.
The boat was named for Louie’s daughter Sandy, who died as a young woman. Louie would not talk about much, not even with Marjorie, who he convinced to move from Gloucester and marry him in 1947.
He already was fishing with his father Jack, who had come from a Portuguese town Fuzeta in 1913. Jack’s first boat was the Emilia R, a converted rumrunner.
On a nice day Louie would announce, “It’s gonna be a corker, Seth!” and then jump on the two-way radio, rumbling in Portuguese or English. He would nod to a small plaque on the wheelhouse wall which read, “Deus Toma Conta Desto Barco O Capitao E Os Tripulantes,” “God Bless This Boat, the Captain, and the Crew.”
We would clear Wood End, steam into sunrise. Louie fished 200, 250 days a year. He would lay down his gear on soft bottom, avoiding rocks and wrecks, tow for a couple of hours, then haul back.
The big belly of the net would emerge dripping seawater, bulging. Louie would yank and release the cod end, which held the net closed, and the catch would drop onto the deck where sorting would begin amid much flapping and writhing. All manner of things might show up – whiting, flounders, gray sole, big fish and babies, lobsters, old barrels, busted buckets.
“It’s like a Christmas present,” Louie would joke. “You never know what you’re gonna get until you get it.”
His knowledge of the town matched his knowledge of the bay, honed during one stint away from the water, when he ran a jumping nightspot in the late 1950s and early 1960s called Louie’s Dine and Dance, in Truro.
The sea drew him back, and when I asked why, he offered one of his many wise and humorous perspectives:
“Working in the bar, we had to deal with human nature. Fishing, we have to deal with Mother Nature. And I’ll tell you, I’d much rather deal with Mother Nature, she’s a lot more predictable.”
Louie had a son, Louie Junior, who had a son also a Louie. But fishing was not in either of their blood. Louie Middle became a land surveyor, and “Louie Little” stayed on land too.
“I thought grandfather and great-grandfather would be kind of upset,” youngest Louie told me. “But they know there’s a lot less fish and a lot more for me to do. So the fishing industry, as far as this family is concerned, is going to die right here. It ain’t getting past me.”
Then he laughed -- as did his eavesdropping grandfather.
You might think the decision secretly bothered Louie, but no. He saw that son and grandson were happier on land. And when the time came to sell Miss Sandy, he did so with no regret.
In 2008, he breathed his last, and all of the older Provincetown Portuguese community came to St. Peter’s to celebrate mass, and Louie.
That was the last time I was in the old Catholic church before it burned, rays gleaming through stained glass, blue and gold, of St. Peter on the sea. My vantage was good because the family asked me to deliver the eulogy – me, not Portuguese, not from town, not even Catholic.
It was among the great honors of my life.