Tumbling Dice

By William Sisson ,

My great-grandfather left a leg on a battlefield in Virginia during the Civil War and returned to Rhode Island, where he made a living as a commercial fisherman.

For some, gambling is all about the action. The money is just a way of keeping score.

And for a long time it was that way with me and fishing, too. Big fish were the equivalent of a big pot, a big score. They fell into a different category. They were the juice.

And most of the close calls I’ve had, the lies I’ve told and the secrets I’ve guarded have had something to do with the pursuit of big fish.

Large striped bass was nitrous oxide for the hopped-up internal-combustion personalities of a small group of friends and me. Just a whiff of their presence sent us off on another tide, another night with four hours of sleep.

We were secretive and driven. Shave the dice. Palm the card. Do whatever you have to do to get that goddamn fish. Our single-mindedness took a toll on work and relationships. We grew clannish, ravenous, ungenerous. No matter how many we caught or how large they were, it was never enough.

There is a lot of choppy water between passion and obsession. Hard to let go of the tiger once you’ve got hold of his tail. Around and around you whirl, fishing until you drop, until it feels stale and brittle and even the fish are laughing at you. For a time, we lost that wonderful state of grace you can slip into when you’re on the water.

William Bernard Sisson (back row, center) was a “surfman” in the U.S. Life-Saving Service(forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard), a commercial fisherman — and a professional gambler.

Frugal, conservative and skeptical, my father, David Miller Sisson, was a child of the Great Depression. For him, it wasn’t the size of the pot, but the action and winning that mattered.

Some things pass imperceptibly between generations, a trickle of water through stone.

Growing up, my brothers and I could never square my father’s fondness for poker and betting with this man who in every other way was the quintessential New England merchant — frugal, conservative, skeptical. David Miller Sisson had the first dollar he ever made — and he was proud of it. And yet there was this other side to him: He loved cards, and he’d bet on anything related to sports.

A World War II veteran and child of the Great Depression, he was a smart, disciplined low-stakes player. He wouldn’t have bet the proverbial farm if you’d put a gun to his head. For him, it wasn’t the size of the pot, but the action and winning that mattered.

I’m not sure I can say the same about his father. William Bernard Sisson was a “surfman” in the U.S. Life-Saving Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard), a commercial fisherman — and a professional gambler. My father never knew him. He died in 1922, when my dad was 2.

A seasonal fishing camp.

My father was born in a second-floor apartment hard on the main rail line between New York and Boston. His was a difficult breech birth, prompting the doctor to summon his father, who was eventually found in a card game.

My great-grandfather, also named William Sisson, was no stranger to risk, either. William the elder was one of the youngest to fight on the Union side in the Civil War, according to his obituary.

At the outbreak of the conflict he was too young to enlist legally in Rhode Island, so he went to New Hampshire, where he added a few years to his age and joined a cavalry regiment under another name. He left a leg on a battlefield in Virginia and returned to Rhode Island, where he made a living as a commercial fisherman.

I have a photo of him standing on a beach with a cane in each hand, trouser leg pinned up, net strewn in the sand, pipe between his teeth and leveling a look that could gut you from head to tail. He and his sons, all of whom fished for a living, had long, sad wind-burned faces.

Life on a working beach.

It is fall, and William B. Sisson is riding beside me in my Down East skiff as the wind strengthens and the seas build with the tide. I skirt the empty rip and study the water in the fading light without going into it. It’s bigger and steeper than I’d hoped.

You can make it through there, son, he whispers. You’re not going to get any fish unless you get back in there, anyway. You know that. The fish are in the second or third wave.

He’s right. There’s nothing to be gained nibbling around the edges. You know exactly where the fish are lying. You either go in after them or pack up and go home. I’ve got my grandfather’s gold pocket watch. I have his name. And like it or not, I’ve inherited something more, too — that little bit of wiring that connects us to our past. Like my father, I, too, have spent my life looking over my shoulder for this ghost.

Go ahead, boy, he presses. Get back in there. There’s fish to be caught. You can make it. Move!

Some nights you go. Some you don’t. Every so often, you’ve just got to roll the dice. What the hell? You can’t spend your whole life holding them.

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