By John Pappalardo
We buried my father last week, surrounded by family and friends, a gathering of events public and private, full of memories, sadness and joy.
He was a quiet, remarkable man, gravely injured more than half a century ago in the Vietnam War, who defied all medical odds to build a wonderful marriage with my mom, raise two sons, and work a long successful career. He did this by personifying courage and integrity, refusing to see himself as inhibited or a lesser person because war had taken the use of his legs.
He and my mom gave me and my brother Mark so much, including our introduction to this place called Cape Cod.
In the early 1970s, I was that kid curled up in the back of a dark car, crossing over the bridge on a Friday night, sleeping in pajamas with snug footies, clutching the blankie.
We were coming from Connecticut. The Route 495 connection hadn’t been built yet, so we’d come through Bourne along old honky tonk Route 6. I’d wake up and see the water slide and think, “Oh good, we’re almost there.”
In the early years my family rented a cottage in Wellfleet for a couple of weeks. I remember Dad taking me to the pier where I caught my first fish. I was so excited and proud — until a crusty old Wellfleetian came by and said something like, “That’s a dogfish, kid, it’s worthless, you might as well just throw it back.”
Talking about popping a kid’s balloon.
After awhile we took a rental in Orleans. I think it was because both of my parents were working longer hours so shaving 30 minutes off the trip made sense. My memories are of me and my dad making drip sand castles on Skaket Beach, and the way Cape Cod Bay would go way away over the flats at low tide. For a little guy, that was incredible. Still is.
In 1979, my parents bought a summer home in South Yarmouth. Part of the reason was that the beaches there were more easily accessible to my dad’s wheelchair. Those of you who know me know that I am a big person, always have been. My size helped me help my dad get to places long before the Disabilities Act; helping him physically was something I prided myself on being able to do, and made us closer.
When I turned 15, I decided I hated the Cape, wanted nothing to do with it. I had no friends here, I was only a summer person. I pretty much stayed away until 1994, when I graduated from college. So there was a gap of about 10 years.
Done with Seton Hall, I came back to chill. I landed a summer job at the Beachcomber, the iconic rock and roll club in a former Coast Guard station on the dunes in Wellfleet. Given my size, it isn’t a surprise that I became a bouncer. Then I was told they were looking for someone to run the raw bar.
“You know how to open shellfish?” someone asked.
“Sure,” I said. I had never shucked a clam in my life.
I stopped at Captain Elmer’s in Orleans, a fish market and restaurant named for Elmer Costa. I bought a bag of oysters and a bag of clams. The guys there gave me a quick lesson on how to open them, and I practiced that night. My hands were all nicked and sore when I showed up at work the next day, but I did it, I did it.
When that summer was done, everybody was telling me October was the best time, I had to stick around. Meanwhile, my parents were saying, “Ok, ok, bouncing and opening clams wasn’t why you went to college.”
I didn’t listen – to them.
I’d been to Chatham a few times mostly to surf cast and screw around. I liked it, and landed a job at the May Institute working with kids on the autism spectrum. I stayed there for more than a year. Again, my size worked to my advantage.
At a party one night I met Paul Parker, cousin of one of the guys I worked with. We talked late into the night, a lot of it about commercial fishing. The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen already existed, but the organization didn’t have formal non-profit status, a solid mission statement, or even a logo.
By August I was putting in 20 hours a week working on fisheries issues. Before long 20 hours became 60, sometimes more. “The Hook” evolved into the Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, and my parents decided that Chatham was a good place for them too. In the years to come they would spend plenty of time at their second home just a few miles from me and Jenn, get to know my friends and my work, host many a Friday night cookout on the deck.
The place I hated as a teenager had become my home, the fishing world my inspiration. The kid in pajamas sleeping in the back of the car figured something out, and built a great life here.
I know my dad was very proud of me, and my mom still is, even if you might say that sometimes what I do isn’t all that far from bouncing and shucking clams. But whatever I’ve taken on, whatever challenges have come, he has always been my role model, my ballast. And he always will be.
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)