*this blog is dedicated to my Great Uncle Charlie (Carlos Gastelum).
Thank you Aunt Charlene and Uncle Robert for encouraging me to share this story!
As a kid, my Aunt Charlene always put in the good word for me so that I could take part of the Gastelum family summer tradition of camping along the shores of Lake Mead (located at the California, Arizona border). These trips were filled with so much adventure and excitement-water skiing, fishing, hiking-that it nearly blew mind every summer when I was 7-10 years old. My cousin Mike and I ran the place – or at least we thought we did. It was amazing-Mike was basically an alternate version of myself. Born the same year, both only children, both the same mix –both his and my mom are Chicana, cousins, and dads are Anglo. Just like our moms, we were best friends. The only difference is that I came with a lighter skin and was dubbed “white Mike” and he was darker so obviously he was “dark Mike.” I love thinking about those summers. We’d get yelled at regularly for things like exploring way past sunset or for playing games we made up that often involving climbing a tree too high. Oh but how important that time was to my future adult life.
My Aunt’s dad, my great Uncle Charlie, would go on these family outings too but at the time I didn’t see him as central as I now know he was. Great Uncle Charlie would wake up a few hours before us to go fishing and disappear at night while the rest of the family was around the campfire (he probably went to sleep). I didn’t see him much. At the campfires, my young uncle’s - great Uncle Charlie’s sons- would tell my cousin and me stories about Baja California and how it was “magical.” They’d tell us stories of sea creatures that one has to see to believe. Stories of rays that could fly, of giant fish and other mysterious creatures (thinking about it now, I realize that many of these stories were probably retold from their dad). They called their dad –my great Uncle Charlie- the “old man of the sea” and told me he was a great fisherman. He’d often bring back lots of fish but I could never eat them because I was allergic! Still, I remember one night I begged my Aunt to let me fish with my great Uncle Charlie. I had to see the “old man of the sea” in his fishing process for myself despite the fact that I was a little scared/intimidated of and by him. Still, I begged to go and after I agreed to my Aunt’s condition that I be on my best behavior, she put in the good word for me.
My cousin who knew his grandfather’s ways much more than I, didn’t want to come that particular morning. He knew how tough his grandfather was and he wanted to sleep. But my curiosity had me in its grip and there was no going back for me. The next morning, I was off early with my great Uncle Charlie. My Uncle didn’t say a word to me and it didn’t matter-I was happy as could be, and joyfully followed him along the shore. I smiled a lot as a kid and this morning was no different. This happiness was short lived though, because soon after starting, I realized that I was having a hard time walking because the path was hurting my feet. Following my uncle’s lead, I left my shoes at camp and we were walking barefoot on the somewhat jagged rocks. At first, I bit my tongue because my uncle was also barefoot and the rocks didn’t seem to bother him. I also remembered my deal with my Aunt to be on my best behavior. But as the “miles” began to build up (probably much closer to a few hundred yards or less), I decided to break the silence. I confessed my “sin” and told my Uncle that because I left my shoes back at camp, I was having a hard time walking on the jagged rocks. To which my Uncle replies, “Your problem isn’t that you need shoes. Your problem is that you haven’t walked on enough rocks for your feet to develop callouses that you need.” And with those sentences my Uncle freed me from believing that consumerism was a central part of life, leaving me curious as to what was central to life. It’s funny that I remember that and not whether we actually caught any fish.
My Aunt picked up on my fascination with the water right away. I wasn’t a strong swimmer as a kid. In my own defense, no one on my side of the family knew how to swim. But the Gastelum’s don’t just swim, they water ski. I can still remember the day that made me famous on that side of the family. It was my turn to water ski. My Aunt Charlene set it up so that it was as easy as possible for me to do. They set up the boat so that I could walk into deep enough water to start. I was worried that I wouldn’t float. My Aunt repeatedly told me that I would float and it was impossible for me to sink because I had on a life vest. Finally, my Aunt told me I’d be fine because my vest provided me with buoyancy to float. This helped for a bit, and my Aunt got into the boat. Then, the reality that one of my uncles would be pulling my light skinned ass all over Lake Mead in a second and I lost it. I panicked and shouted, “Wait, wait, wait!” My Aunt, already in the boat, asked, “What is it?” To which, I anxiously replied, “I don’t have enough buoyancy!!!” My Aunt and family just lost it. Here they were just trying to have a few adult beverages, enjoy the lake, and this kid is talking about buoyancy. I am forever known as the buoyancy kid. But beyond those trips, my Aunt knew there was something that I was picking up on in the natural world and she keep adding fuel to the fire. On my next birthday, she bought me one of the biggest books I’ve ever owned to this day, “The Ocean World” by Jacques Cousteau. Aunt Charlene is one of the coolest people I will ever know. Picture it, a 9-year old with a book that weighed about a third of his weight. I loved that book so much.
Time passed. This story probably sounds funny to those of you that knew me back in high school when I didn’t even care about school at all. Back then it was all hip hop, all basketball 24/7/365. Loved the rhythm, the bars in rap songs, the bounce of the ball on the court, how one steps when in their home town. For the record, the patterns of bars in rap songs of today are a whole lot more complicated than Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter that is so celebrated at universities. True story. And that beat, mmm, nothing like it. Also, I was so lucky with my friends and fam. The generosity that they showed me still impresses me to this day, I love them so much. I’ve never worked, and never will work as hard as I did in high school and during my undergrad days (I physically can’t). It’s not bragging, it’s simply doing what you got to do to make it. Sink or swim. I mean, if you’re in the deep end of a pool with extra weight, you’re still going to swim if you can. I could be wrong but choice doesn’t have much to do with it (hence nothing to brag about). My first “over the table” job was in the fast food industry, Mickey Ds. I was so happy to get that job. I still have my first paystub somewhere…So that’s how it was for me for some time. I was just getting by on the concrete deserts of southern California. Not much “magic” to speak of…
The marine world again captivated my full attention while I was in high school when I caught another break. I attended probably the only inner-city school –Long Beach Poly High- that, as part of its biology class, had a week-long course where students were immersed in kelp forests and the underwater world. This course was at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, Toyon Bay. Here, I could see my city as I never saw Long Beach, California before. I saw it and my problems as they were, just a small piece of the giant natural puzzle of life on earth. I saw and felt for myself just how big the ocean is and witnessed many of its “magical” creatures for the first time for myself. I still wanted to believe my uncles might have been telling the truth about Baja, but still doubted it. Magic makes sense in kid’s stories, not in real life. Right? It was when I snorkeled at night for the first time, when I saw the stars, bioluminescent plankton, and the city lights from Long Beach all at the same time that it all clicked. Emerson and Thoreau would probably say that nature inspired within me a transcendental moment. To me, it was much simpler. This was the moment when I fell in love with life and knew I had to study and learn everything about it AKA I became a biologist before I knew what a biologist was.
My uncles might have been telling some truths around the campfire. The “magic” my uncles told me about as a kid and of the old man of the sea. But was it for real? At UCLA, I started making choices to pursue the study of life, of the ocean. At this time, I didn’t sleep much. It was a rough transition from high school through undergraduate. But, I took a year to get SCUBA certified and about five years total to get all my gear. I also managed to not only take one but two marine biology field quarters and earn an internship with the Ocean Conservation Society working on a science project tracking dolphins in Santa Monica Bay. I saw amazing things just offshore of LA. I saw dolphins bow riding in the wake of huge container ships. These offshore-bottlenose dolphin weighed 1200+ lbs and leaped 10+ ft above the tops of 6 ft wakes only to still remain dwarfed by the size of the ship. I dove through underwater caves in south Orange county and know what it feels like to let the currents push through you narrow caverns and shoot you out into open water. Thrilling stuff that words fail to describe fully and that must be lived; pretty fun stuff to do while you’re still a teenager. What I realized through the Ocean Conservation Society, is that I could merge my blue collar background and my interests to explore the natural world. This was important to me because I was drawn to the study of living creatures. To put another way, the law of the conservation of mass dictates that mass cannot be created or destroyed. The matter that makes all living things is much older than any living thing. That is, the atoms that make up you and me are recycled and are only briefly in this current form. A period that is much less than a blink of an eye really. The matter will remain after we’re gone. So what makes the study of life so compelling to me is the unique organized energy of each life form. The living part…And as an undergrad, I realized I could spend my life studying this energy. And it is kind of magical in some ways because humanity doesn’t have infinite knowledge. There is so much more unknown than known.
Seventeen years have passed since I’ve earned my undergraduate degree. Since, I’ve experienced adventures all over Baja and not to mention across several continents that I could never have imagined as that kid at Lake Mead. That “magic” seed planted by my uncles and my aunt lead me to have that fire and drive to see the amazement in our natural world. Those summers at the lake taught me that the natural world is spectacular to a scale that is beyond the human vocabulary (and, I think, any human language). Basically, the premise for all scientists. For me this helped spark a drive to study the natural world that was strong enough to get me through three higher-education degrees.
My great-uncle Charlie was one of the best fishermen in Baja. With my aunt and uncle’s permission, I will post a newspaper story that was written about him while he was in the heights of his fishing days at Punta Chivato. One thing he did was that he never gave away his fishing spots. You could argue that this was to monopolize the catch. But I took a different meaning. There is so much joy in the discovery in the natural world that you have to give the interested person just enough so that they will seek out the natural world for themselves. Steinbeck, largely influenced by Ed Ricketts, wrote in his book, “The log of the Sea of Cortez,” that “the first rule of life is living.” One of the best ways to see living things in their environment is to go to their environment.
Now, I’m an assistant professor of marine fisheries at the University of Alaska Southeast, School of Natural Sciences. I’ve made this life change because there are some amazing things to see here. Although I’m new, I can feel that this place is sacred. When you know you know. There is a ton to learn using ecological techniques and the natural system is unparalleled. I want you to see that unique energy that binds matter (not the matter). It’s about how spectacular the wonderment of life is. I will be sharing some stories, social media, publications, etc. but just like my Uncle, not all. Just enough, hopefully, to get you intrigued to get off your ass and explore the natural world for yourself while you still can.
R.I.P. Uncle Charlie and I love you Gastelum Family!!!