YOU WOULD HAVE LOVED MY OLD MAN

CAPT. BUB KOHN WAS A COL­OR­FUL CHAR­TER SKIP­PER AND WA­TER­FRONT CHAR­AC­TER

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By WIL­LIAM SIS­SON

The son of a char­ter skip­per from Staten Is­land re­calls his fa­ther as a hard-fish­ing, hard-work­ing water­man who en­joyed a shot and a beer with his bud­dies.

The card­board box ar­rived at my of­fice un­so­licited, over the tran­som, from a Staten Is­land, New York, ad­dress I didn’t rec­og­nize. I didn’t think much about it. When I got around to cut­ting the pack­ing tape and opened the flaps, a story from an­other time and place emerged. I was struck by the black-and-white photos from the 1940s, in­clud­ing one show­ing two men stand­ing on a cov­ered barge wear­ing broad-billed sword­fish caps, cig­a­rettes hang­ing from their lips, each hold­ing a pair of nice stripers by the gill plates. I didn’t know it, but I was about to meet Capt. Bub Kohn, a World War Ii-era wa­ter­front char­ac­ter and char­ter skip­per from Great Kills, Staten Is­land. Bub and mate Char­lie Assen­cio were in their mid-40s when the photos were taken — top of their game, full of life, cocks of the walk.

The good cap­tain has been dead for nearly 40 years, but the box con­tained snip­pets of the life of a tide­wa­ter denizen: photos of his char­ter boat, more photos of fish, but­tons for some­thing called the Soft Mud Yacht Club Striped Bass Con­test (more on that later).

The box was fol­lowed months later by a visit from the skip­per’s son Dick Kohn, 79, of Great Kills, a long­time fish­er­man, boat­man and for­mer mate on the Staten Is­land ferry; he was ac­com­pa­nied by his child­hood friend Howard Hill Jr., 78, a re­tired New York/sandy Hook, New Jer­sey, har­bor pi­lot.

Dick showed up with more photos and mem­o­ra­bilia, 70-some-odd years’ worth of sto­ries and a son’s last­ing af­fec­tion for his fa­ther, whose mem­ory he did not want to see lost to the pas­sage of time. This story, in essence, is a son’s love let­ter to a fa­ther.

Dur­ing the course of sev­eral hours, he re­counted con­ver­sa­tions with his fa­ther, word for word, in his dis­tinct south shore Staten Is­land ac­cent, a nu­anced ver­sion of the clas­sic metropoli­tan New York ac­cent. You and I never met Capt. Bub, but chances are we knew some­one like him — old school, tough-minded, fun-lov­ing, in­de­pen­dent. Bub had stand­ing among his peers, and that’s what mat­tered most. “They were a dif­fer­ent breed,” Howard says. “Good guys. They hung out to­gether. They liked to drink. A bunch of char­ac­ters.”

Along with char­ter­ing, Bub and his wife, Thelma, ran a fish mar­ket for 46 years and a whole­sale clam busi­ness. Bub worked hard, fished hard and en­joyed a shot and a beer, like most of his bud­dies. Al­ways had a Ch­ester­field in his mouth. Al­ways had a buck in his pocket.

“You would have loved my old man,” says Dick, who be­came a mate for his fa­ther dur­ing sum­mers start­ing when he was 16. “He was some­thing else. My fa­ther was a very good fish­er­man. He knew his stuff. He loved it. Like you love it, and like I love it.”

An­other Time

Ed­ward Wolf­gang Kohn (Bub was a nick­name, be­stowed by his mother, that stuck) was born in 1900, but the pe­riod cov­ered in this story is con­fined to about 30 years, from the late 1930s through the late ’60s. The work­ing wa­ter­front then — par­tic­u­larly com­ing out of the Great De­pres­sion and im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the war — was the an­tithe­sis of the gussied-up, post­card-pretty har­bors of to­day. Far more tired and ne­glected.

Staten Is­land was still the “for­got­ten bor­ough” of New York City, a place where there was open space and small, quiet neigh­bor­hoods a half-hour by ferry from Man­hat­tan. The pace was slower. Deals were done on a hand­shake. Rep­u­ta­tion meant some­thing. “We still burned leaves in the streets and went to church on Sun­day,” Dick says. Staten Is­land was pre­dom­i­nant-

ly Catholic, and Fri­day was a big day at the fam­ily’s Great Kills Seafood Distrib­u­tors, es­pe­cially be­fore the ban on eat­ing meat was lifted in 1966, and for a good time af­ter that, as well.

Money was tight af­ter the war, but Bub usu­ally had a few dol­lars in his pocket. “My fa­ther was a hus­tler,” Dick says. “He had a sense of hu­mor, and he re­ally had a lot of friends. He al­ways had a buck in his pocket. Al­ways. Be­tween the clams and fish­ing and the fish store, it was a seven-day-a-week job.”

“You kept work­ing and work­ing and work­ing,” Howard says. “You had to make hay when the sun was shin­ing. Ev­ery­body scratched for ev­ery­thing.”

This group of friends en­joyed a ca­ma­raderie based around fish­ing, boats, phys­i­cal la­bor, and shared ex­pe­ri­ences and sto­ries told and re­told as they knocked back a few cold ones at the end of the day. “They drank a lot,” Dick says. “No kid­ding around. Beer. Bal­lan­tine ale. Not the hard stuff. A shot and a beer. And they all smoked. They drank beer, and no­body had a lot of money.”

Dick and Howard speak of a pre­vail­ing ethic of the pe­riod: You helped friends who fell on hard times. “Dur­ing the war es­pe­cially, ev­ery­body took care of each other be­cause no one had any­thing,” Howard says. You loaned money to peo­ple in your cir­cle, sold fish at half price to those who couldn’t pay full boat — you gave peo­ple a break.

“My fa­ther had 60 clam dig­gers work­ing for him, and when Christ­mas­time came, he took care of them,” Dick re­calls. “Ev­ery­body got a set of long un­der­wear and a bot­tle of rye. And if a kid had to get a tooth fixed or some­thing like that and the dig­ger didn’t have any money, my fa­ther would lend him the money. He made a lot of friends, and he never turned any­body down.”

Barter Econ­omy

Dick re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion over the fish mar­ket rent be­tween his fa­ther and Tommy Nolan, who owned the build­ing. Nolan en­tered the fish store one day.

How you do­ing Bub? he asked.

I’m do­ing pretty good.

You think you’re go­ing to make it?

Yeah, I think I’m go­ing to make it.

About the rent, Nolan con­tin­ued, give me 5 pounds of floun­der for this month.

“True story,” Dick says. “And he stayed with my dad right till the end.”

An­other mem­ory in­volves a book­maker friend who worked out of a diner in Great Kills and some­times fronted Bub money to buy ex­tra fish for a big hol­i­day.

“With Good Fri­day com­ing up,” Dick re­calls, “he’d say to my dad”:

You need any money, Bub? I could use a cou­ple grand. Pay me when you get it, Bub.

On its most suc­cess­ful Good Fri­day, the store took in $15,000. “Ev­ery­body in the store went in the back, and we broke open a case of beer and my fa­ther said, ‘Get some lit­tle­necks,’ ” Dick re­mem­bers, laugh­ing. “And we sat there and ate lit­tle­necks and drank beer … ca­ma­raderie and fel­low­ship.”

First Fish

Capt. Bub fished Rar­i­tan Bay, Sandy Hook and some­times out of Long Is­land for striped bass, blue­fish, weak­fish and sum­mer floun­der. “He was very good on the weak­fish,” Dick says. “My dad caught a weak­fish once that

was so big they had it on tele­vi­sion, with the weath­er­man. But he did best with the striped bass. He knew his stuff.”

Bub was a pop­u­lar skip­per who knew how to make his cus­tomers laugh. “When you work hard all year to go out on a char­ter boat with a bunch of guys you work with, you want to have a good time,” says Dick, who fished a Dyer 29 for years. “When they went out with my fa­ther, they had a good time.”

Bub ap­par­ently had a bit of th­es­pian in him, too. “The first guy who got a fish, my dad would go down be­low and get out a box of cigars,” Dick re­calls. “He’d put a ci­gar in the man’s mouth, light it, pour him a shot of booze, put a high hat on his head — like Lin­coln’s hat — shake his hand and say, ‘This is what you get for get­ting the first fish. The trip is a suc­cess. Now you have to pay me.’ ”

Clients came back year af­ter year. “Ev­ery­body wanted to go out with Bubby Kohn and his mate be­cause the mate was just as funny as my old man.”

And when the char­ter got back to the dock, Dick re­calls, “My dad would take ev­ery­body up to Flick’s restau­rant for a shot and a beer and to get paid. And he’d get a cou­ple of bucks tip for me. I was back at the boat, clean­ing the boat up.”

Bub ran a 33-foot cus­tom wooden sport­fish­er­man, Re­bound 1, which he bought and re­paired af­ter it had been in a fire. “She was clinker-built. She leaked, but we al­ways stayed on top of it,” Dick says. “We had a Gray Marine 6-cylin­der gas en­gine in it. The boat was fairly old. My fa­ther worked on it all the time. It was al­ways well-painted, and when we weren’t on char­ter there was al­ways Bal­lan­tine beer and Co­cacola in the ice chest. He kept it look­ing smart.”

An old busi­ness card de­scribes Re­bound 1 as a Fast Sport Fish­er­man. “The boat only did 12 knots,” Dick says. “When we were run­ning, I used to put it up a notch, and my fa­ther would come for­ward and pull it back,” he says, laugh­ing.

Jiggy Jig

Dur­ing the sea­son, fish­er­men grav­i­tated to places such as Jackie Carola’s tackle shop on High­land Boule­vard in Great Kills. In those days, news of a big fish was enough to cause a man to leave the din­ner ta­ble and rush down to the shop.

“We’d be sit­ting down hav­ing din­ner, and we’d get a phone call. ‘They’re weigh­ing in a big fish. Get down to Jiggy Jig’s,’ ” Dick re­calls, us­ing Carola’s nick­name. “And ev­ery­body who was into fish would be there.”

Jiggy Jig and Bub were friends. “He and my fa­ther got along very well be­cause my fa­ther didn’t buy a half-dozen hooks — he bought the whole box,” Dick says.

On his visit to our of­fice, Dick and I looked

at a pho­to­graph taken in 1947 of his fa­ther stand­ing be­side a fish hang­ing in front of Carola’s shop. The striper might have weighed 25 pounds, maybe a bit more, nice but noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary. But more than the fish, the photo cap­tures a mo­ment in time. The skip­per’s work clothes, hair­cut, watch, pos­ture — even the way he holds the fil­ter­less cig­a­rette be­tween thumb and fore­fin­ger — speak of a by­gone era.

“Good pic­ture of your fa­ther,” I say.

“Yeah, I miss him,” Dick an­swers.

Ful­ton Fish Mar­ket

Bub had a clam house on Lemon Creek in Prince’s Bay, Staten Is­land, where he bought, culled and washed the clams brought in by dozens of dig­gers. He and his son would load them onto their truck and take them by ferry, well be­fore dawn, to the old Ful­ton Fish Mar­ket along the East River in lower Man­hat­tan.

“Most of the dig­gers would sell their clams in burlap bags, and they were muddy and dirty.” Dick says. “The gim­mick there was, we put the clams in bushel bas­kets that they put fruit in. My dad would take the truck out to all the veg­etable stands and get the bas­kets af­ter they were used once. He would buy them by the truck­load. And then we marked the tops of the bas­kets ‘chow’ for chow­der, ‘cherry’ for cherry stones and ‘neck’ for lit­tle­necks. The buy­ers who owned res­tau­rants would go to Ful­ton and see all the wet, dirty burlap bags of clams, and then they’d see these bright bushel bas­kets. They didn’t care if they came from Rar­i­tan Bay. They wanted the bas­ket. And they’d say, ‘Give me six bas­kets of necks.”

Dick re­mem­bers fondly the early morn­ing trips to Ful­ton in his fa­ther’s 1955 Ford F-500 rack truck. “What an ad­ven­ture,” he says. “There was al­ways some­thing go­ing on. Fights and jok­ing and kid­ding around. You had to be there. We’re talk­ing 4 o’clock in the morn­ing and the place was jump­ing. Jump­ing.” They sold the clams and bought fish for their mar­ket.

The buy­ers ate break­fast at Sloppy Louie’s be­fore the mar­ket opened. “They all knew each other, es­pe­cially the ones from Staten Is­land,” Dick says. “Morn­ing, Bub. Good morn­ing, Bub.”

The pre­sun­rise break­fast re­mains etched in Dick’s mem­ory. “I re­mem­ber the but­ter came out in ice, OK,” he says. “The cof­fee was right there when you sat down. The eggs were over light — and they were over light, not bro­ken. Never. The rolls were fresh.”

Bub and the other buy­ers would talk fish, lob­sters, clams, prices and so forth. “And they all helped each other,” Dick re­calls. “If it was a Good Fri­day, you might get a phone call

and a guy would say, ‘We’re out of floun­der, you got any?’ You’d say, ‘I got an ex­tra 200 pounds, you want 100?’ They all worked to­gether, like a brother­hood, be­cause they had so much in com­mon.”

Big Bass

Nei­ther fa­ther nor son ever caught a striped bass that topped 50 pounds. Dick’s largest weighed 44¼ pounds, and Bub’s big fish went 48½ pounds — although his son re­calls a bass that his fa­ther lost that prob­a­bly would have bro­ken the mark.

He’d hooked the fish trolling with a friend in a 26-foot skiff in lower New York Bay. “Had it along­side the boat,” Dick says. “The fish was 40 feet away. He came up to the top and flipped his head, and my fa­ther said the plug went right over the the top of the boat and into the wa­ter on the other side.”

What did you do then? the son asked his fa­ther.

I cried, said Bub.

“He saw the girth on the fish, and it was huge,” Dick says.

Not all the big ones get away, es­pe­cially when they’re caught in a drag­ger’s net. Dick re­mem­bers a trip he and his fa­ther made when he was in his teens, to Ful­ton around Christ­mas, to buy fish for the store.

“We were go­ing through the stalls buy­ing fish, and he grabbed me by the col­lar and said, ‘Come here, Dick, look at this,’ ” the son re­calls. “And ly­ing in the stall was an 88-pound and a 92-pound striped bass. I still have that pic­ture in my mind. I’ll never for­get it.”

He was touched by the mem­ory, and emo­tion welled up in his voice and eyes. “I’d like to catch one like that some­day, but I don’t think I ever will,” he says wist­fully. “And a lot of peo­ple have the same feel­ing. You catch the big­gest striped bass, and ev­ery­body knows who you are. Ev­ery­body.”

Fish Store

Bub started Great Kills Seafood Distrib­u­tors in the 1930s, and it re­mained in busi­ness 46 years. For a lot of those years, it was the only fish mar­ket in town.

Day in, day out, Thelma Kohn ran the store, greet­ing cus­tomers, work­ing the reg­is­ter, cut­ting the fish. She was a steady­ing in­flu­ence, which was ob­vi­ous when a fire de­stroyed the mar­ket some­time in the ’40s.

“My fa­ther got a call in the mid­dle of the night: ‘Get up to the store. It’s on fire!’ ” Dick re­calls. “He got up there, and he and my mother stood across the street. The fire en­gines are all over the place. They’re break­ing the glass in the front win­dows, and the flames are com-

ing out. My fa­ther says to my mother, ‘Dam­mit, I should have got­ten in­sur­ance for the store.’ My mother turns around to him and she says, ‘I got it. I never told you be­cause you didn’t want it. But I got it any­way. The pol­icy is in the reg­is­ter, un­der the change com­part­ment.’

“My fa­ther ran across the street, through the door and past the fire­men and grabbed the cash reg­is­ter and ran out. Got enough money from the in­sur­ance to re­build the store in one month.”

Thelma also played the numbers ev­ery week, some­thing she also ne­glected to tell Bub. “The money came out of the cash reg­is­ter,” Dick says. “Ev­ery week the guy came in and got the money from my mother. My mother hit the num­ber. True story. God strike me dead. She took the money and said to my fa­ther, ‘I’m go­ing to Italy and Switzer­land, do you want to go with me?’ He says, ‘No, you go.’ And she went and had a ball.”

Soft Mud Yacht Club

Capt. Bub started the Soft Mud Yacht Club Striped Bass Con­test af­ter the war, in the 1940s, ac­cord­ing to his son. At the end of the sea­son-long con­test there was a din­ner, and the per­son who caught the largest striped bass won a cash prize. Lo­cally, it was a big deal.

The Soft Mud Yacht Club was a pa­per club, and the name is a nod to the muddy bot­tom the clam dig­gers who sold to Bub had to traipse through to get to their skiffs. It also was a dig, or a “zing” as Dick calls it, to an es­tab­lished yacht club of the time.

“It was like a brother­hood,” Dick says. “For $2 you could be a mem­ber of some­thing, a bunch of guys who en­joyed hang­ing around to­gether. These guys all drank to­gether and stuck to­gether and fished to­gether.”

The fish­ing tour­na­ment is still go­ing, but Dick says it’s not what it used to be. He’d like to see it re­turn to what it once was, but it’s hard to turn back the clock. More than that, he’d like his fa­ther re­mem­bered for his role in start­ing the con­test.

“My fa­ther wanted to be some­body, like we all do. And he was a very hard worker,” Dick says, paus­ing for a mo­ment to col­lect him­self be­fore con­tin­u­ing. “And he stayed with it. I’d like my fa­ther to be re­mem­bered for start­ing this thing.”

Dick and I look at a din­ner photo of the Soft Mud Yacht Club gath­er­ing from the win­ter of 1948. Ev­ery­one is star­ing at the cam­era. Some are wear­ing jack­ets and ties. Most are smil­ing. Dick points to var­i­ous men in the photo.

“This guy’s name was Ge­orge Janaskie,” Dick says. “His son is still alive. Ge­orge owned a gas sta­tion. If you went into the head, you had to climb around the fish­ing rods be­cause they were all stacked in there.

“This guy’s name was Probst. He worked in the city in the stock mar­ket. He didn’t like to be seen com­ing into the front door of the bar, so he would go in the side door. His nick­name was Side Door Probst. This is the game war­den — they called him Sil­ver Bul­lets. I don’t know if you know this guy, but you should — Dusty Do­erzbacher, Lit­tle Bear, Mon­tauk, fa­mous head­boat man? You got to look that up. This is Jiggy Jig. This is my dad with a tie on. This meant so much to my fa­ther that he brought these guys to­gether. And they were all pros. Ev­ery one of them.”

And on it went. Old names with ques­tion­able spellings. Ghosts crowded into a restau­rant, stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der be­hind a nar­row ta­ble cov­ered with a check­ered table­cloth, drinks and cig­a­rettes in hand, life still stretch­ing out ahead, moon­light on the wa­ter. “They’re all gone?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, prob­a­bly ev­ery one of them,” Dick says.

“No, pos­i­tively ev­ery one of them,” his friend Howard cor­rects.

“Happy times?” I ven­ture.

“You’d bet­ter be­lieve it,” Dick says. We pause.

“I wish I’d known your dad,” I say. “Now,” he says, “you do.”

Back in the day: Bub Kohn (right) and his mate Char­lie Assen­cio hoist a nice bunch of stripers on a cov­ered barge in Great Kills Har­bor.

Bub’s largest striper (above) weighed 48½ pounds and is im­mor­tal­ized in this dou­ble­ex­posed photo. The skip­per’s 33-foot clinker-built sport­fish­er­man, Re­bound 1.

JODY DOLE PHOTO

The Soft Mud Yacht Club’s striper con­test started in the late 1940s.

“It was like a brother­hood,” says Dick Kohn of the an­nual fish­ing con­test and din­ner started by his fa­ther. “These guys all drank to­gether and stuck to­gether and fished to­gether.” They are all gone now. Bub Kohn is fifth from the left.

Dick Kohn, who pro­vided the recol­lec­tions and memories for this story, stands be­side his 44¼-pound striper.

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