My Grampa used to tell us all kinds of stories when we were younger. He’d usually start out by picking up a book, like The Ugly Duckling or Strega Nona. Before he made it past the first sentence, my brother Jake and I would tackle him and yank the book out of his hands, screaming, “We want your stories! Tell us the real stories!”
Finally, he would relent and we’d tuck in on either side of him. He was a big bear of a man who smelled like train smoke and aftershave, and he would wrap an arm around each of us and pull us in tight.
Grampa told us stories about a famous boxing match out on a barge in the Strait, about Jack London trying to catch illegal shrimpers in the bay, about the first word of gold spreading around the world from Von Pfister’s Saloon on First Street and the one about a hitman from New York who hid out in Benicia for decades before the FBI finally caught up with him.
“Every one is true, I swear on my mother’s grave,” he would tell us.
And we totally believed him. Our grandfather was everything to us back then. He taught us to brush our teeth and to read and to fish and eventually how to drive behind the wheel of his ’66 Valiant. He took us to ballgames and the fair when it came to town. He made sure my brother knew how to defend himself and that I knew what boys were really after.
We didn’t know it back then, but our mother was wandering around homeless somewhere in Oakland or San Francisco, out of her mind on whatever she could find. And our father never stuck around long enough to remember our names.
But the story I loved the most was the one about the Ghost Ship, a boat that disappeared out in the Strait on the way back from the gold mines one cold and foggy night. Some say it was robbed and sunk in the dark of night, left to rest more than 100 feet below. They never found the crew or the boat. But every once in awhile, it would show up on radar or in a shipping log, mooring at port long enough to load up on supplies – only to vanish again.
“But that’s not the only ghost ship,” he told us. “Sometimes oil tankers and cargo ships just disappear into thin air – a blip on the radar screen and then nothing. That’s why out in the Strait sometimes you’ll hear a foghorn loud and clear, but you never see a ship.”
These days, most people don’t even notice them, but I still love watching the tankers pass by. My brother died a few years back of an overdose. Not even Narcan could save him. And my grandfather has long since passed. I still have a photo on the fridge of him down by the railroad tracks where he worked. But I still remember all his stories by heart. The one about Gentleman Jim and Joe Choynski going 27 rounds. Or General Ulysses S. Grant shooting a cannonball across the Strait. Or General Vallejo’s Olympic swimmer of a horse.
The other day, my daughter was playing down at Ninth Street park, what she calls “the red park,” when she stopped dead in her tracks and pointed out at the water, “Look Mom, it’s another ghost ship!”
I looked out on an empty Strait, not even a kayaker or a fishing boat, nothing but whitecaps and a flock of Canadian geese heading south.
“Let’s wave to it,” I said, and we were both waving as another kid walked up and asked, “What are you doing?”
When no one answered, she just started waving, too. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her mom, sitting on a bench leaning over her cell phone, lost in another world.