You remind me a lot of my dead wife.

For obvious reasons, most notably that my beautiful wife is very much alive and well, this is not how I would choose to start a conversation with the person seated next to me. But it was enough to encourage the flight attendants to physically remove an intoxicated man from the airplane.

That and the fact that he refused to wear a mask. The airlines remain as serious as a plane crash about this rule. It was enough to delay take off for a good forty minutes.

Sign Up for Newton Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

So began my first trip in a year to take care of some personal business in California. On these sparse but routine trips, I generally stay with my cousin Jim and his wife who have a spare bedroom and a welcome kitchen. But due to Covid concerns on both sides of the continent, it became safer to stay at home than to hazard an unsatisfying trip where social distancing might require sleeping outside and eating meals passed through a doggie door off their kitchen.

But now, a couple of vaccination shots later, including a fortuitous round for those I planned to visit, it was time to dip a toe into the waters of normalcy.

Eight hours after leaving New Jersey I arrived at Jim’s doorstep to find a six-foot, bright yellow marine buoy resting cockeyed outside his front door.

“What’s this?” I asked after a warm, long overdue greeting.

“It’s a marine buoy” he replied matter of factly. My cousin Jim likes to think that because I am from New Jersey I am not well versed in articles of the sea.

“What’s a buoy?” I ask.

Jim owns and operates a fifty foot coastal marine research vessel. His idea of a desk job is working his boat for assorted clients with projects in California’s Monterey Bay. One of his less interesting contracts is with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary maintaining a set of buoys marking jet ski boundaries in protected offshore places where no one ever jet skis.

He has also been hired to retrieve dead whales before they wash up on the beach, sinking them deep into the bay with 1500 pound train wheels. It’s a very romantic profession.

He explained that the buoys occasionally escape when their anchored chains wear against the ocean floor and give way to the endless swells and tidal motion. The buoy in his front yard was an escapee that he now had to outfit with new lines and chains. He also told me that he needed to tend to another buoy that had drifted far off its proper position.

“Want to come along?” he asked. Who was I to turn my back on a buoy in need.

Despite the reflective warmth of a bright California sun, breezes carrying the coldness of the water lashed my skin as we motored out of the harbor. Outbound into the bay the wide horizon rocked rhythmically in front of us and I struggled stoically to maintain both my footing and my breakfast.

Behind the wheel, Jim stood and squinted with a flat visor hand to his forehead. After a time he pointed at the sashaying horizon.

“Buoy?” I shouted from the deck below.

“Whale,” he shouted back. “Just off the starboard bow.”

I looked in vain at the bright shimmering vastness off the starboard bow but could see nothing but bright shimmering vastness.

Jim called back to help me. “The right side,” he yelled into the wind. “One o’clock.”

Sure enough, in the direction commonly known as starboard a plume of water shot high in the air. Followed minutes later by another plume with a gently arching patch of shiny gray flesh rising and falling back into the water.

Before long Jim again pointed with purpose to nothing out in the water.

“Whale?” I shouted from the deck below.

“Buoy,” he shouted back, throttling the engines down when I could plainly see the top of a bright yellow buoy bobbing among the rising swells that were making their journey shoreward to throw themselves on the rocks and power patient surfers.

The deck of Jim’s boat is a wonderland of industry. Endless lines with block and tackle rig booms and swiveling derricks that can drop and haul things from the sea. A large U frame outfitted off the back suspends heavy equipment winched to and from the dark waters of Monterey Bay. Rows and rows of neatly coiled nautical lines drape the wheel house. Dirty buckets and rusted cans filled with shackles and pins and bolts and tools of all manner lie in reach atop the winch housing. A lone plastic lawn chair is the only source of comfort for anyone who has the time to sit down.

Jim hands me a long wooden rake handle with a bent rod fastened to the end.

“When I back up, hook the top of the buoy with this” he instructs me. The boat is moving up and down and side to side making it difficult to stand without holding onto something.

“What if I fall in?” I ask.

My cousin assures me that should I fall, I will get wet.

But with a great deal of deft boat maneuvering, his helpful hands at just the right time, and solid instruction I manage to secure the large, slimy buoy onto the deck and fasten the top of the anchor chain to a winch which slowly starts to spool it from the deep. Along its length dripping in seawater are mussels and barnacles and a dense shimmying beard of Bryozoan that wave minuscule filter feeders in panic as they are hauled out of the cold ocean.

I am given another job as the chain is hauled up to a section of light line that is spliced to the chain with a large shackle. Covering it is a large jumbled mass of jet black mussels that have attached themselves tightly to the steel fitting such that the winched chain can no longer rise up over the pulley.

Jim pries a few of the large ones off with difficulty and plops them in a bucket of cold sea water for grilling later. The rest need to be sacrificed. He hands me a hatchet.

“Start chopping,” he says.

I have never chopped mussels before. They smell rancid and salty of the sea and break violently in hard crunchy pieces. And the soft fleshy goo inside splatters about in globules that decoratively cover my blue jeans, my shirt, and between wipes, my face. I occasionally have to clear my eyes to see better. When I do, I take the time to rest my arms. It takes muscles to chop mussels.

As I sit on an overturned bucket slaughtering inanimate sea creatures in order to rescue a buoy which serves no purpose, I see the rich California coast line bouncing and weaving before me off the rear of the boat. A few thousand miles to the east lies New Jersey, where much earlier I was boarding an airplane with an obstinate drunk guy who was oddly remorseful over his deceased spouse.

It may be a strange trip to normal.

But I’ll take it.