The Deadliest Catch

by Gene Callahan and a Special Guest by Gene Callahan

The Discovery Channel has had great success with its program about Alaskan-king-crab fishing, The Deadliest Catch, fascinating viewers with its portrayal of the extreme dangers that the courageous crab fishermen face. But here at, we believe that there is a profession even more hazardous to its practitioners, and one that is significantly under-appreciated by the mass of people who work at safe, 9-to-5 jobs, like constructing high-rise buildings or imposing democracy on hostile foreigners. And so we are developing our own pilot of a show intended to rival Discovery's hit, a series that will document the adventure-filled lives of writers, the daredevils who daily spit in the black visage of the grim reaper as they venture out onto the high seas of the psyche, hunting the rare and elusive prize of good article ideas. In this article, in order to show our appreciation for you, our loyal and treasured readers, we will give you a sneak preview of this epic odyssey, featuring just one of these death-defying authors.

Our saga begins on the Brooklyn waterfront. An important time for Kings County article-fishing is early spring. This is a frigid and stormy period on the Boring Sea where the article ideas gather to breed, characterized by nearly irresistible urges to abandon one's keyboard and idle away a day in a sunny park, the sudden, unexpected appearance of sometimes fatal, all-night parties, and the dangerous passage of pods of migrating revelers through the area. Despite such hazards, it is one of the prime seasons for catching large and tasty stories, the others being summer, fall and winter. As the local writers prepare their gear before bidding adieu to the comforts of life on land, we caught up with Gene Callahan, the grizzled survivor of two decades of article fishing.

As Callahan mends the tears in the neural nets he uses to snare his prey, he reviews the perils of the writing life: "The average person has no idea of the dangers we stare down every time we leave the shelter of the harbor behind for the mysteries of the deep. I can't even recall the number of friends I've seen laid low by carpal tunnel syndrome without a moment's warning. Legs falling asleep, blurred vision, neglecting to shower, wearing the same clothes three days in a row, fighting the urge to pee: those risks are our constant companions when we're out in the lonely expanses of the Boring Sea."

Callahan has braced himself for his journey by staying awake for extended stretches of time, since once he is out at sea his grueling schedule will often involve sleeping for up to twenty hours a day: "There are times when you want nothing more than to pop out of bed, maybe take a stroll. But if you want to catch the big ones, you need to put in the time in the subconscious, so you have to have the discipline to ignore the siren call of wakefulness and force yourself back under the covers."

Callahan had planned to raise anchor and steer his boat, the SS Pointless, out to open water on the day following our arrival, but the gods of writing were conspiring against him. When we reached the docks that morning he met us with a look of resignation on his face, and announced, "There'll be no setting sail today. The latest forecast calls for an extended spell of chess games and intense downpours of cocktails, some of them on the house, covering the entire local bar area. It's one thing to accept unavoidable risks but quite another to be stupid, and it's a fool's errand to head out in conditions like these."

By the next day the storm of socializing had passed, and we found Callahan up at the crack of mid-afternoon, determined to leave port before the weather turned again. But once more it was not to be, as this time equipment problems reared their ugly head. During his last-minute check of his gear, our author discovered that his Internet connection was down. Frustrated and increasingly anxious to get underway, he reluctantly was forced to postpone his departure again. Amidst delivering a stream of profanities, cursing as seemingly only sea-faring men are able to do, he explained his decision to us, "Sure, we could get to the fishing grounds OK, and we might catch something, but what happens when we need to do a bit of research on what we've pulled in? We'd be clueless as to whether we had a valuable keeper or some junk we'd have to toss back because it's identical to another writer's haul from last month or last year. No, there's no sense in starting unless your vessel is in sea-worthy shape."

Finally, on the fourth day of our mission, the stars aligned in our author's favor, and we accompanied him as he commenced his high-stakes raid on Neptune's hostile kingdom. For the first several hours everything went smoothly – so smoothly that Callahan grew apprehensive. "There's gonna be problems in every article-fishing venture, and when you don't hit any snags whatsoever at the start, that just means they're waiting to smack you all at once later."

It was just after we reached the fishing grounds, where Callahan began to cast his nets for ideas lurking in the deeps, that his fear proved well founded. Dark, foreboding clouds appeared on the eastern horizon and rapidly swept toward our craft, which suddenly seemed far tinier and more fragile than it had just moments before. The wind transformed from a docile breeze to a ferocious beast howling of impending doom.

"What's going on?" we asked our host with some trepidation.

"It looks like a distraction typhoon, the single, most-dreaded phenomena an author can encounter at sea. Lots of writers never recover from getting hit by one of these monsters, and wind up marooned for the rest of their lives as a chartered accountant or a high-school English teacher. And this very well could be one of the foulest varieties of the species, a March-Madness distraction typhoon stirred up by all of the college basketball games on TV at this time of year. It's gonna be hell trying to ride out this sucker."

Callahan ordered us to retreat to the relative safety of the bridge, while he tried to secure himself to the deck using vast amounts of caffeine and nicotine. From our sheltered vantage we watched with growing horror as huge waves of desire to view college basketball crashed over the ship's railings, threatening to sweep Callahan out to sea. He hung on despite being battered by what seemed like hundreds of these watery assaults, but just as the hope that he might be able to prevail against the storm was re-kindled, flicking falteringly alive in our breasts, a gargantuan, liquid wall smashed into the ship, ripping him loose from his harness and tossing him like a rag doll into the blue-and-white tumult.

We stared helplessly at Callahan's plight, having no idea how to operate the vessel's rescue equipment, and certain that venturing out onto the deck would only result in our joining the daring writer in the icy water. We were reeling as the reality of the impending loss of this legendary figure, whom, in the far too brief time we had known him, we had come to regard almost like a brother, struck us like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist. Then a far-off noise tugged at the raw, ragged hem of our raiment of grief. We sought the source of the sound, at length spotting a tiny speck just above the horizon. Gradually it grew larger, until it resolved into a chopper flying low over Poseidon's white-maned seahorses. Could it possibly be on a rescue mission? Soon two figures became visible through the windshield, the pilot and another man whose countenance teased us with the feeling that we had seen it in some misty country of memory. When, these dramatic moments having receded several hours into the past, we next spoke with Callahan, he told us that at first he thought the numbing cold and the suffocating salt spray had been too much for even his tungsten-hard mind, but then his doubt had been vanquished, for it swiftly became plain that hovering overhead, grinning down at him from the cockpit of the whirlybird, was none other than his old article-fishing partner, the friend Callahan had thought would never leave the sanitarium again: Stu Morgenstern!

Within minutes, Callahan was climbing a rope ladder out of the icy waters of the Boring Sea and into Morgenstern's chopper. Afterwards, lying in a hospital bed recovering from shock and hypothermia, Callahan shared with us the astonishing tale he had heard while riding in the helicopter. Morgenstern had explained that suddenly a premonition that his old friend was in mortal danger and that only he could save him had seized a hold of his thoughts and hung on like Jerry Nadler clutching the last cheeseburger available in the congressional cafeteria. That conviction succeeded, where years of unrelenting effort on the part of leading psychiatrists had failed, in breaking the grip on Morgenstern's mind of the near-catatonic state of self-absorption into which he had plunged, spurring him to re-engage with reality. Callahan appeared to be elated that his friend was back, and he pointed out to us that even his fishing project had turned out OK, as he suspected that the story of the famed duo's reunion just might be his catch of the season.

April 8, 2006

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives