By Doreen Leggett
Bill Crockett wasn’t a bad kid, just mischievous, no fan of school, so he walked away from Fork Union Military Academy when he was 16.
“I read all the wrong books,” he said, like “On the Road,” the anti-establishment, counter-culture novel by Jack Kerouac.
Crockett hitchhiked all over the country, heard about the glories of Chatham from John Summers, and went there. Kerouac said he found his America (and God) on the road; Crockett found his in Chatham in 1961.
“I felt like I found home,” he said. “There was such a viable fishing fleet. It was the main focus of employment in one dimension or another, stringing gear, resetting gear, cutting bait
“I was just blown away by this industry, this fishing industry — what it could offer one who wanted adventure.”
When Crockett first arrived he didn’t get into the fisheries right away, he worked at Jack Slouter’s gas station and lived in his basement. He did landscape work as well and was able to get his own place with a few other guys for $60 a month.
He remembers going down to the fish pier and seeing Sten Carlson coming in on the Eunice Griffin. Carlson was 10 years older than Crockett, a big Swede, a Columbia University graduate, and seemed larger than life.
Damn, that’s what I want to do, Crockett thought.
So he ended up crewing on Carlson’s boat with Tiggy Peluso, Carlson’s brother-in-law, and Charlie Peters.
“They were crackerjack fishermen,” Crockett said.
Crockett said Carlson set records for the amount of fish brought in and was ahead of the pack with the first radar and first hauling machine.
“We would go out in any weather,” he said.
Come summer, fishermen from Nova Scotia would come down. Mike Anderson, who arrived in town several years after Crockett and was close with Peluso, remembers that Crockett “was one of the wild boys.”
One of the stories that sticks in his mind is when Carlson, Crockett and Peluso went out and caught 120 halibut, weighing more than 5200 pounds total. Fishermen were getting five or seven cents a pound for cod and $1.20 a pound for halibut, so that haul was a big deal.
“The trip was literally historic,” said Anderson. “They talked about it forever, for time immemorial. These guys were really legendary fishermen.”
Another time, Crockett said, he and Carlson were on the Jocelyn C. – a larger boat that Carlson bought and named for his wife – and brought in close to 200 boxes in one trip, which is close to half of what the fleet was landing 15 years later.
“It drove the price down, so there was a new regulation limiting the size of boats,” he said.
Crockett wasn’t the only fisherman in his family, his two brothers were in town. His older brother Ned was more involved than he was, Crockett said.
Crockett branched out. He was talented with a camera and paintbrush, remarkable because he had lost an eye in a car accident that also left him with a rebuilt face.
Crockett said he was no renowned painter, although one of his relatives was an art collector and took him under his wing.
“I mixed it in with fishing,” he said. “Cape Cod was wide open. You could do many different things.”
Crockett also dove for lobsters on the wreck of the Pendleton off Monomoy. Other times he would take his skiff and go bay scalloping. There were no mooring requirements so he would just pull his skiff up on shore:
“There was always employment affiliated with fishing. I lament it’s not here for others to experience.”
The market for Chatham fish was New York restaurants. The fish would leave Chatham at 6 p.m., get there by midnight, sold the next day.
“I used to ride the truck down,” Crockett said.
When fishing was slow, but Carlson still had to pay for the Jocelyn C, the two started treasure seeking. Crockett was tapped as the underwater photographer.
“I used to wear seersucker pants because they had big pockets,” he said.
Carlson took Crockett and three others and went in search of a wreck in the Caribbean, an adventure that landed them in a Cuban jail and on the front page of the New York Times.
“We were going down to Jamaica clandestinely to work a couple of shipwrecks we knew about,” said Crockett.
They were captured by the Cuban Coast Guard in March, 1970 and ordered to sail into a Cuban port. Crockett was in his late 20s.
Crockett remembers the comedy of it more than anything else. The group was taken from the boat to a Cuban police car, one of many old American cars the Cubans kept on the road.
“It wouldn’t start.”
After they arrived at the prison, more of a hacienda than a jail, five of them had to sit on a couch for a version of a mug shot.
“The couch broke.”
They were freed by the Swiss Embassy within a day, in part because of the intercession of Senator Ted Kennedy.
They came back from treasure seeking and Carlson wanted to go offshore lobstering, but Crockett wasn’t convinced.
“I thought it was financially risky,” he said, which given their recent experience was an interesting perspective.
Crockett stayed fishing until he saw some local treasure seekers at the dock and soon spent a lot of time diving, looking for lost wrecks.
“I have had an exciting life,” Crockett said. “If you would have told me I would have lived this long with all the stupid things I did, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
When he retired, bought and sold different houses around town, he ended up in a neighborhood near Goose Pond where many local fishermen live.
“This reminds me of what Chatham used to be,” he said. “It was a wonderful time to be in Chatham and be part of the community.”