Chet McAndrews helps disabled vets get out on the water.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
The vet was only three months removed from a devastating combat injury. Confined to his wheelchair, he was scared to death of leaving the hospital, let alone getting lifted onto the deck of a boat and motoring out on Monterey Bay.
“In the morning he was so worried, you could see it on his face,” says Chet McAndrews, co-founder of the Monterey Bay Veterans Sportfishing Rehabilitation Center on Cannery Row. “That afternoon when he got off the boat he was grinning ear to ear.”
McAndrews and the Rehab Center are in the business of restoring hope and dignity to veterans with a simple and time-proven method—fishing. For those who’ve had their lives violently and irretrievably torn apart, the ocean is a salve: the act of dropping a line into the water alongside men who can understand them is soothing; the thrill of landing a big salmon or rockfish is a reminder that there’s still a lot of beauty left in life.
It’s an idea that began first as a courageous claim, and then as a dare, according to McAndrews.
“I had this friend up in Palo Alto with a spinal cord injury who was an avid sportfisher,” McAndrews says. “While he was in the hospital he was telling everybody he would fish again when he was out of there and they all kind of laughed at him.”
In 1986, McAndrews organized a fishing trip for eight of the physically challenged vets at the hospital, including his buddy with the spinal cord injury.
“It was kind of a dare,” McAndrews laughs. “The guys in the V.A. said, ‘How are you going to put us on a boat? It’s crazy.’ Well, we did it and it worked well.”
It worked so well that, 20 years later, McAndrews and the MBV Sportfishing Rehab Center put well over 300 physically challenged vets on sportfishing boats a year, launching from the specially designed wheelchair-accessible ramp they helped install at Breakwater Cove in 2005.
“It’s the only one of its kind on the West Coast,” McAndrews says proudly.
Of course, an operation of this kind isn’t cheap. “We’re totally funded out of the goodness of other peoples’ hearts,” McAndrews says. “We get money from Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, private donors and corporations.”
But they’ve also found ways to generate some money themselves. McAndrews and his crew developed special stretch golf carts to ferry the physically challenged around large events like the Salinas Air Show, the Concours d’Elegance, the Monterey Jazz Festival and races out at Laguna Seca in exchange for a fee from event organizers.
There’s a scene in Ken Kesey’s classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where, against all odds and common sense, the main character Randall Patrick McMurphy takes a bunch of institutionalized guys out halibut fishing and in the process reinvigorates their spirit. McAndrews laughs when he’s reminded of it.
“That’s about what our fishing trips together can look like,” he says. “You get a bunch of physically-challenged vets together and you never know what’s going to happen.”
But McAndrews is nothing like Kesey’s loose cannon McMurphy. A six-year veteran of the US Air Force who served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, McAndrews operates a bulldozer for a living and volunteers his time to the MBV when he can.
“It’s worth it just to see the look on their faces at the end of the day,” he says. “They’re so happy. And if they do catch a fish, well, let’s just say you better not try to take it away from them.”