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As I walked down Ocean Avenue in Long Beach, California, I became aware that I was just a part of a sea of white hats, and my own mother could not have picked me out of this sailor parade in this Navy town. I took a left on American Avenue and stepped through the swinging doors of the Silver Dollar Saloon. My eyes adjusted to the light, and I could see there wasn't a sailor in the place. As I turned to leave, the huge man behind the bar said, "Come on in here, sailor. Everyone in here would starve to death if it wasn't for the Navy".
The six-foot-five, three-hundred- pound man was Gene Cummins, owner of the Silver Dollar. He asked my name and where I was from. He said he was never sure if anyone really lived in South Dakota and was glad to know me. We started talking, and I liked this ex-Merchant Marine First Mate, and I knew I would return to this bar.
My first ship was a flat-bottomed LSM (Landing Ship Medium) with a crew of about thirty-five. The Navy used it to deliver supplies to the personnel stationed on San Clemente Island where a few Air Force and Navy men were stationed, along with some wild goats and pigs. The men looked forward to our visits because we hauled a few back to Long Beach for some well earned liberty. When we stayed overnight, I would dive for abalone, a large edible mollusk with a colorful shell. I mentioned this to my bar-owner friend, and he begged me to bring him some of these delicacies. I told him I would, as I had grown rather fond of him, and the Silver Dollar was becoming my home-away-from-home when I was not on the ship.
The following week we arrived at the bar with two duffel bags full of abalone, and Gene was delighted. While he ran them through the tenderizer, he asked my shipmate about my skill as a diver. My shipmate said, "He's just like an old catfish; he just lays on the bottom and don't do nothing". Gene jumped on this comment like a flea on a dog, and from that day on he called me "Catfish", as did most of the bar patrons and many of my fellow shipmates.
I spent enough time at the Silver Dollar that I could fill in as a relief bartender. Gene trusted me to recommend the sailors who could run a bar tab, with a warning that you can't get pants off a bare butt. I never had a shipmate let me down. Gene drank everyday, and I knew it had to be hard on his liver. Finally a doctor told him he had to quit, and Gene said he would find another doctor who would say that it was O.K.
I made many friends over the years at the Silver Dollar, and friends and family knew to check there if I wasn't on the ship. I was told I would make a lot of people mad if I ever rented a hotel room, because I always had a place to stay when I was in port. I kept several sets of civilian clothes in the office, and they named it "Catfish's Locker Club".
One night one of the bartenders had an emergency, and I had to tend bar. At closing time I realized I didn't know how to close out the new till, so I shut out the lights and laid down on a cot in the office until morning. I heard a noise outside the office door, and as I opened it, the cleaning lady let out a scream. She said, "Mr. Catfish, you made me pee my pants!" For years after, that's how she always greeted me, every time she saw me.
Gene always threw a party for me before I departed for overseas, and it always made me feel like I didn't want to go, but I never missed a ship's movement. One time I called Gene and asked him what time it was there, and he said, "It's the same time here as it is where you are." Then he asked, "Where are you?" and I said, "I'm at the corner of Walk and Don't Walk." We loved to make each other laugh. Gene didn't always run the bar in a business-like manner, but he sure had a lot of friends.
Gene died while I was overseas. I had to go back to the fantail of the ship to say goodbye to the big man who said, "Come on in, sailor".
©2002 Maurice D. Karst AKA "Catfish"
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