Sophie the Bull (1928—2015)

 

copyright Document / Morin 2010

copyright Document / Morin 2010

I walked to the wake at Greeley’s Funeral. Same set-up as all the Sicilian wakes.  Carlo’s—the Captain who counted on Sophie’s gang to unload his F/V  Holy Family’s trips of fresh fish,  at Empire, or Star Fisheries., usually, all those years… Mary’s—Carlo’s wife, who described fishing as “one hell of a  stinkin’ way to make a living”  and now Sophie the Bull,  their Boss Lumper.  I look around.  Who do I know?  The audience chairs, full, lined up in back. Who’s left? Sign-in,  scan the family photos, pass the casket on the right. Should I kneel at the casket, like the woman, crossing herself, before me? Sophie—laid out, in a  neat  dark, suit, tie, blue rosary beads on  delicate gold chain twined just so, in the fingers of his big hands, folded.  Still  rust “tanned”, but what’s THIS?!  WHITE hair! Last time I saw him, a few years’ back,  in the passenger seat of his car,  his wife driving, outside Giovanni’s for a haircut, his hair was still jet black.  As always.  He seemed to remember me. Then moving toward the reception line of relatives, daughters? Nieces?  Didn’t know, any,  but needed to ask for the son. There, they pointed. End of the line. I turned to him. Kind of recognizable. Forty or so years does make a difference…. I could still picture his teenaged, handsome face under the mask of his current age. ”Are you the one who was lumpin’ with your Dad the time you got the Red Fish spine stuck through your boot and he got down on his hands and knees and pulled it out with his teeth?” I asked. “I dunno, long time ago…” he answered.  Made eye contact, tho’ and it stuck, I hope.

And I’m still looking down, in memory,  from the Hatchway,  seeing his Dad,  scrambling, forking , loading my bushels,  gliding up and down the aluminum ladder I placed  down into the hatchway of  the Fish hold for them.  I’d see Sophie, then, lithe, in jeans, boots, carrying his modified, short tined  pitchfork,  wearing a brown paper bag, rolled to fit his head, protecting it from the gurry-fish slime drip below. Sophie was elegant,  and economical—no wasted effort–in all his moves.  And attuned to his crew’s. You had to be, to fit into  the routine of “the lumpin’ racket”, as he called it. As he did, expertly.  Despite his deprecation, of their sense of  their own peculiar qualifications, ie: “Strong back and very small brain…” Sophie The Bull was the epitome of DUENDE—fluid, elegant, graceful, balletic, even.  Not a ounce of fat on his sinuous, frame—like the  braided steel cables that towed, or dragged the net, coiled tight  on the winch. “Indian Muscles.” “How do you think he got the name “BULL”?! How else to make a living whose wages depended on moving vast  TONNAGE of slippery, iced fish from the confinement of narrow fish holds’ pens to bushel containers, hoisted by rope, and winch through hatch,  guided by the hatchman, steadily, to the Dumper  up on the dock as fast and efficiently as possible, as part, usually, of a perfectly choreographed team?  The faster the better. The WEIGHT was the object—as much, or little, as the hold held for that trip. If the trip was small, or a “broker”, maybe it could be handled by one lumper, and the hatchman and winchman from the boat’s crew.

Big trips kept every one busy.  Starting at dawn.  Straddling and forking fish into the bushels, sending them up as fast as possible, so you might have time to catch another boat.  Sophie’s crew were tight, and trustworthy, too. The Boston lumpers, not so much. Rumor had it that in Boston—the guys tried  to kill each other off for a chance to break in. Watching “Cowboy”— the infamous Boss Lumper,  on Atlantic Wharf —swathed in his Leopard skin poncho, standing defiantly astride the edge of the dock, dumping, swearing a Blue Streak,  you had to believe it. Cowboy, face flattened, punchy, would fling the empty bushels back AT the hatch man (me!) from long practice dodging the empties, and curses, heaved back at him. Carlo, the Captain, and I, even developed certain hand signals, to indicate that the Boston lumpers down the hold had “round and firm and fully packed “ the last bushels with  selected “money fish” for themselves.  Thievin’..! But the Gloucester Empire and Star Wharves’  lumpers  were “kinder and gentler”.  And trustworthy.  And funny.

The work itself was esteemed and rewarded for what it was. HARD. They BROKE THEIR ASSES!  And other body parts.  As Kenny, Sophie’s other partner, shyly disclosed. “I broke my back, and was back lumpin’ right after the surgery.” Kelly, Sophie’s Uncle and third partner, told me of having “cherries”—mysterious calluses that were surgically removed, for medical research, from his, and other lumpers’ knees. “From kneeling on, and forking’ the iced fish, packed in the holds…” Their hands, were deformed, too, from gripping the pitchforks, bushels,  and penboards, and often “artha-rittik..”. It was painful work, and compensated by good, well-earned, enviable pay, if you broke in, and survived it. Everyone knew, and excused whatever their predictable, “excesses”—“self- medication”, the horses—Rockingham Park…Vegas!  Nothing, no scuttlebutt, on Kenny though.  Nothing  on Sophie, either.  He lived to 87, predeceased by Kenny, who also had his own lobster boat,   and Kelly, who’d secured his own personal “legend” as a gill net fisherman, and  “everything” on the waterfront.

As I left Greeley’s, it all came back, ghostly, with a great melancholy. Walking back home, I realized we’re all in their wake. Sophie, his crew, their “racket”, their brutal work, the industry itself they served, are awash, sinking, or sunk,  like The Holy Family—burned and sunk.  By  mistake.  Years ago. Men whose lives were sustained, nobly, by  brute labor that stressed, strained and broke their bodies, but provided security and sanctity for them, their families and  the working waterfront of The Most Famous Fishing City by the Sea, “A helluva stinkin’ way to make a living”?! Or icons and avatars, attesting to our indigenous ingenuity and resilience?

I wonder. How many workers can now claim nicknames or any  resolute identity that attest to the style of their physical work skills’ excellence, worth, and competence? Identities bestowed by the esteem of their peers?  Whose work literally fed us, and ensured our survival?  Our own current work lives, jobs, and identities are relatively diminished by such AWESOME men. Our “lives of quiet desperation”, as Thoreau admonished.  Men, like Sophie The Bull, in whose wake we and our City, follow. To  what purpose? To what end?  I wish to Hell…

Peter Parsons

 

 

Peter Parsons is a Gloucester native and Social Worker, who has fished out-of-Gloucester and lives in town. He is co-author with Peter Anastas of When Gloucester Was Gloucester: Toward an Oral History of the City.

9 thoughts on “Sophie the Bull (1928—2015)

  1. If you can find a copy of WHEN GLOUCESTER WAS GLOUCESTER, Sophie, as “Howard Hughes”, and his gang, comprise its first chapter–“Unloading The Holy Family at Empire Fisheries.

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  2. Powerful words fitting for a powerful man, a tribute to him, the working waterfront and a dying industry: it translates with deep understanding and respect of a time, was it just yesterday, when Gloucester really was really Gloucester.
    Thank you for your kind and truthful words that really celebrate, with dignity, my husband’s father, my fatherinlaw, Sophie the Bull.
    May he rest in peace. He certainly earned it.
    Mary Frontiero

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  3. story of beauty and labor,,,as a child i knew some of these men,,solid rocks,,and hard,, but still good hearts for all they loved and worked for,,to bring home a meal,for their families,,an other door ,closing,of a fishing culture about gone and past,,well done and written mr parsons

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  4. Wonderful article about my father and the depiction of working on the waterfront. The description of my father at work, and his work ethic is spot on.
    I also remember the other men you mention here. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate and enjoyed this read. I could not be prouder.

    Thank-you
    Lesa Frontiero

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  5. Peter,
    Thank you for this wonderful tribute to my father. You really captured him.
    We miss him dearly.
    I would love a copy of this.
    Karen (Frontiero) Swanson

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  6. Fantastic description of those days and the legendary men of the time. You would have to have lived it to truly appreciate what it once was here on the waterfront. The pride of “breaking your ass” and being acknowledged for it was the rule and not the exception. Thank you for this tribute to a great man and a true Gloucester legend.

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  7. A moving tribute to a well loved Gloucester legend. I heard the sounds of the dock and smelled fish and the sea in this poingnant description of a man and his hard work. Although I am not of the fishing community, I certainly appreciate all of the courage it took for the boats and their crews to spend their lives at sea. Thank you Peter Parsons for this lovely piece about Sophie the Bull.

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