Uncle Bubba

Cabezon. If you did not grow up right on the west coast, this word is mysterious. What is cabezon? Is it a name for a geographic landmark like a cove or a cliff? The surname of a conquistador important to California history? What is [a] cabezon?

A cabezon is a fish. It is a very ugly fish that likes to hang out in the rocks off the coast. They have these spines up and down their dorsal fin that make them similar in appearance to the spawn of that one dinosaur that killed Wayne Knight in “Jurassic Park” and a prehistoric frog. It has this giant mouth that’s a teal or turquoise. The mouth is so big because it eats mostly shellfish, mollusks and whatever else moves.

Besides being just an ugly fish, the cabezon has a culinary purpose. Robert Hass described the creature in “On The Coast Near Sausalito” and how Italians fried the blue flesh with rosemary. My family would batter and deep fry it. It was a good frying fish. I’d eat it like that with some vinegar and rice. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

My Uncle Bubba liked to fish. I think he went down to the boat house near Vandenberg Air Force Base once a week — usually on a Sunday — to do so. When I still lived in Lompoc, my dad would go with him along with a few other uncles. He once came back with a lobster that was soon eaten by him and my mom. I didn’t mind, we had our fun with it when we placed it in the backyard with our corgi. Predictably, it scared the hell out of him. Seeing those stubs of legs on that cylindrical body scurrying away at top speed gave us all a good laugh.

Once my brother and I tagged along. We had to wake up at this ungodly hour with no time for showers. We met the uncles and cousins before taking off past Miguelito towards the base.  We drove by SLC-6, this giant concrete monolith that was supposed to launch the Space Shuttle back in the ’80s. After the Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Air Force decided against launching a shuttle and so there it stands to this day. We drove for a while and ended up near “the boat house” a two-story house that at some point in time was where the base commander lived. We walked right on this cliff for a half mile before climbing down right to the sand. I remember there being a rusty shipwreck right there. It wasn’t a mythical Spanish galleon — hiding the map to de Bouchard’s gold — or a grand ole’ battleship from decade’s past. It must of either been a medium sized sailboat or fishing vessel. They might have taken it down since then.

We brought with us James, our big apricot Rottweiler and Bullmastiff mix. He was this massive dog that shook the earth whenever he’d gallop across the yard. He was so big, that he’d jump up to the windowsill of my childhood bedroom whenever he wanted love. He almost looked like the bear on the California flag and could pass as one if it weren’t for the tail.

I stood on a rock that overlooked a small tide pool that supported absolutely no life. It was a big tide pool, it blocked the waves whenever they broke. But the manner in which they blocked the waves was unspeakably romantic. A wave would hit and then the rocks would channel it towards the cliff-like barrier that protected the pocket of a tide pool from the waves. The water at that point would have gained speed and it would slide up the rocks and turn completely white. It was shallow enough for us to walk through it without getting our socks wet and so I — along with my brother and cousin — stood on the closest rock to land and enjoyed the show.

Then there was this great comedic moment. My dad called for James and right when he passed by my rock, a wave hit. But that wasn’t all. One of the uncles had also caught a fish and when the line came out of the water, James grabbed it, broke the line, and ran away. This all happened in the window of five or six seconds. If my dad had called for him at a different time, it would have been lost. But it happened and it was hilarious. Seeing this giant bear-like dog gallop past a dramatic white water scene just to grab a fish in mid-air was like watching one of those nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. We laughed at this image for a good while.

Neither of us caught anything. It was mostly the uncles. Uncle Michael caught a big cabezon. So big that the other fishermen had to surround his car to look at it. I never went on another fishing trip after that. I don’t think I’ll ever go on another one. It’s not out of hatred of the trip or anything hostile. It’s simply because the memory is too precious to me that I don’t want it to be spoiled by similar trips.

Uncle Bubba fished every Sunday whether with someone or alone. When I went down to Lompoc to visit the family for a week or so, I brought along with me my first camera. I shot anything I could find with that camera. I still have it. On a Sunday afternoon, Uncle Bubba came back with the catch of the day. Cabezon. One bigger than the other. It was clear by their size that anyone would mistaken them to be a father (the largest), a mother (medium) and a child (smallest). I don’t think they were really a family unit but the image of three identical fish of varying size made me get my camera. Right before Uncle Bubba began to clean and gut them, I snapped a few shots. One of them was this photo.

“Uncle Bubba” (I Love You, California) 2014

I thought it was a good image and so I submitted it to Sac City’s literary magazine “Susurrus.” It was chosen and I titled it, “I Love You, California.” But the true title should be “Uncle Bubba.” So in “Susurrus” it may be called, “I Love You, California” but to me — and hopefully my readers — it will always be called “Uncle Bubba.”

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