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Baja Author Is Reloading the Cannon

September 18, 1998|PETE THOMAS

Gene Kira had to see it for himself, and sure enough, there it was, in the dank confines of the collection room in UCLA's ichthyology department, stuffed headfirst in a jar full of alcohol, all mottled and brown-- Opisthognathus rhomalea.

The Bigmouth Bastard, in the flesh, 40-plus years removed from its watery world south of the border and looking very much its age.

Former UCLA biologist Boyd Walker, after all, is the one who bestowed the ignoble title upon this little fish with a disproportionately large mouth, a voracious bottom-dweller, and legendary Baja California author Ray Cannon is the one who made it stick, having written about it often in the 1950s and '60s.

The two fished together several times on collection expeditions in the Sea of Cortez, which resulted in the eventual identification of dozens of new species.

And as the story goes, after one such trip in the mid-1950s, Walker told Cannon that the first rhomalea brought to the university had been misplaced by one of his students. When he asked his class where "that strange-looking fish" went, another student asked Walker which strange-looking fish he was talking about, whereon the professor replied, "You know, that big-mouthed bastard."

Cannon, in his popular and comprehensive hard-cover "The Sea of Cortez" (Lane Magazine and Book Company, 1966), later explained that it was he who convinced Walker that there was no reason to call this fish by any other name.

"Walker agreed with my suggestion that, whenever reasonable, a thing should be known by the first name ever applied to it," Cannon wrote. "This seemed a most reasonable situation, so the common name 'bigmouth bastard' stuck."

Kira, who insists he is not the second coming of Ray Cannon (although he is growing a beard to look the part of a Baja vagabond, much as Cannon did), is writing a book about the modern history of Baja California centering primarily on the life of Cannon, the man largely credited with putting the desert peninsula on the map from a tourism standpoint.

Kira, 52, a Japanese American who lives near San Diego, has spent the past year or so traveling throughout Baja, talking to anyone who might have encountered Cannon before he died in 1977-and investigating some of the more bizarre stories Cannon shared with his readers over the years.

I was invited along for the trip to UCLA to see if this bigmouth you-know-what really did exist, because Cannon, despite his familiarity with Baja and his expertise with a rod and reel, was known to embellish on occasion.

We found, however, that not only are there a couple of these rhomalea creatures in the collection room--they're about a foot long with elongated dorsal fins like those of a wrasse and a large head similar to that of a bass--but there are numerous other specimens taken from the same location off the Sonora coast in the northern Sea of Cortez.

That location is Bigmouth Bastard Point. Or so it says in the record books in the life sciences building at UCLA.

Fans of Baja, and especially fans of the late Ray Cannon, are probably in for a treat when Kira's book, "The Unforgettable Sea of Cortez," is published early next year.

Kira shares the same passion Cannon had for Baja and its people, and like Cannon, Kira is adept at keeping his readers entertained.

He proved that soulfully and convincingly with his most recent effort, a self-published novel called "King of the Moon" (Apples and Oranges, $21.95), a marvelous character-driven portrayal of life in a small, impoverished fishing village in southern Baja. The book, also available through, received solid reviews and recently was voted best mainstream novel by the San Diego Book Awards Assn.

Kira and Mike Bales of Cortez Publications in Torrance are excited about this new endeavor because not only do they have in Cannon a colorful old salt who got the tumbleweed rolling as far as sportfishing in Baja is concerned, but they have access to piles of unpublished Ray Cannon memorabilia, which they discovered at the Los Angeles home of Carla Laemmle, a former dancer and actress and Cannon's live-in companion for more than 40 years.

With this at their disposal they soon discovered that there was a lot more to this chronicler of Baja and its waters than his readers ever realized.

Ray Cannon's real name, for instance, was Ulysses Tillman Cannon, and he was known merely as Cousin Tillman to his relatives in the hills of Tennessee, where he grew up.

Ray was merely his stage name. He got his start in show business after being asked to fill in as an extra while fishing on a beach in Santa Monica. He went on to become a silent-movie star and one of Hollywood's top screenwriters.

He worked with Charlie Chaplin, Theda Bara, Buster Keaton and Dorothy Gish, to name a few. In 1928 he directed the highly acclaimed movie, "Red Wine," starring Conrad Nagel.

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