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How San Pedro lost its poet of life

August 18, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

MORRO BAY, CALIF. — I am sitting in the lobby of the Ascot Suites inn looking out at Morro Rock and talking to Tank Nelson. Both are imposing sights.

The rock is a volcano plug of sheer stone that towers almost 600 feet into the misty blue sky, just offshore. Tank, who is 6 feet 4, 240 pounds and vibrating with life, demands the same attention that one accords the rock.

This is a meeting I have wanted for several years, going back to the days when Tank wrote a weekly column out of San Pedro for the Daily Breeze. He sent me copies of his essays accompanied by letters that always ended with a scrawled "Laugh Lots."

He called his column "Think Tank." It ran until about three months ago, when, after 16 years, it became a victim of the downsizing affecting newspapers everywhere. I couldn't believe they would let a guy like that go. Born in San Pedro 75 years ago, Tank was the heart and soul of the old waterfront town nestled around the shipping docks.

In addition to the column, he had worked as a longshoreman since 1951, operating a hammerhead crane that loomed above one of the busiest commercial harbors in America. He retired at 62 but kept writing until the ax fell.

"It was fun back then," he says to me, following the comment with a burst of loud laughter and a wide-armed easy-come, easy-go gesture. A woman walking by the front door of the hotel, startled by the intensity of the laugh, pauses and looks in, wondering if there is a seal barking at her, or maybe a howling dog.

Tank is wearing a red shirt and jeans, and sneakers without socks. Everything about him is big: his size, his laugh, his ears and his dome-like balding head. His columns were full of memories and realities that often meandered like the wandering trips he took through San Pedro itself.

He wrote of characters like the 85-year-old woman he called Norma the Pistol he drank with down at Ante's, and the brawling Kennedy boys, Bob and Larry, who could whip anyone in town, weaving his own thoughts through prose that was remarkably visual.

I see him as a combination of Eric Hoffer, the stevedore philosopher San Francisco fell in love with; Charles Bukowski, the hard-drinking poet who, it was said, nailed his words to paper; and Eureka logger Jack McKellar, the burly 6-foot-3 self-described aging eagle of the redwoods. Rough-hewn poets all.

One could almost feel the world Tank brought to life in longhand on yellow legal pads. You could see the hills and people of San Pedro and smell the salt air that blew off the ocean. Even after he moved to Morro Bay nine years ago, he kept writing the column because his heart was in San Pedro. "There's water here too," he says, followed by the window-rattling laugh, but it just isn't the same.

His father, whom everyone called "the Chief" though he was only 5 feet 4, came to San Pedro in 1922, jumping ship from a commercial sailing vessel out of his native Denmark and swimming naked to shore with his clothes wrapped in a waterproof bedroll. He too worked as a longshoreman and drank at the combination whorehouses and speak-easies that existed in the old days, before the town became a tourist destination.

It was fun being a stevedore, Tank says, lacing the comment with the amused certainty that characterized many of his columns. "I won't do anything that isn't fun."

In one of his essays he wrote of "working bananas" on the docks: "Lots of 40-pound boxes, lots of incentive, lots of camaraderie. We sweat. We laugh. We work." And he wrote of a sign at Terminal Island, "You can't teach talent." He knew that. He had no writing experience, had imperfect grammar and couldn't punctuate or spell too well, he admits, but by God the man had style.

The column came about when he was living in a room on 22nd Street and began writing movie reviews on a blackboard, just for the hell of it. His landlord saw it and urged Tank to hang it out his second-story window. Passersby would stop and read it and holler up their comments. Others read it too, and before you knew it, Tank was on the "Today Show" and "Entertainment Tonight," to name two.

The San Pedro News-Pilot ran a piece he'd written about his New York experiences as a national character, and the editor of the Daily Breeze saw it and hired him to write the column. It was more than a column. It was the birth of a contemporary voice from a blue-collar poet who could tell you stories about Langer's Deli and Canetti's Fish Grotto and the feral cats that prowled the rocks outside the Busy Bee restaurant:

"Hard wolfing down Busy Bee delights with 20 cats looking on," he wrote. "Solution is a big bag of cat food thrown in and around the rocks. Cats search and eat. We eat. Good arrangement all around."

Laugh lots.


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