SEA BRIGHT: AN OLD SALT & HIS PLOT OF SAND

Johnny Deckert shows off an aerial view of his home while waiting to get back into town for the first time after the hurricane on November 3. Below, Deckert clearing debris from his side yard last month. (Click to enlarge)

By DAN NATALE

Johnny Deckert is one of those people who make Sea Bright Sea Bright.

A 78-year-old borough resident and longtime commercial fisherman in a town that was once full of them, Deckert has seen many changes, but none quite as drastic as those wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

His story is proof that the storm didn’t only damage homes and businesses. It tore out a few pages of history as well.

Deckert’s home, on East Church Street, five days after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the coast. (Click to enlarge)

Deckert lives at the ocean end of East Church Street, right next to the sea wall. Inside his modest wood-frame house, memorabilia helps tell the story of his life. There are old photographs of him speed skating, riding motorcycles and catching fish. Other items include a letter addressed to him from Herbert Hoover’s secretary, old life savers, medals he won from speed skating tournaments, and motorcycle goggles.

The newest addition to the décor: a mold stain.

Deckert’s house was badly damaged during the storm, with ocean-driven debris piling up against two sides. Flooding caused mold that now imperils its future. Deckert said that if more than 51 percent of the house is deemed beyond repair, his insurance company won’t cover the costs. If so, his house will have to be destroyed. But he said that the insurance companies are not supplying him with the money or the information that he needs.

“These people are gangsters,” said Deckert. “Right now there’s no money coming in, so I have to sit and wait, like the rest of the town.”

Deckert has always spoken his mind on government policy. He ran for state Assembly in the early ’70s on the slogan, “Vote for Less Government.”

“A lot of controls were placed on the fishing industry, making it more difficult to make a living,” said Deckert. “There are a lot of people that can sit behind a desk and tell you how to make a living, while it’s not them that are going to be starving to death on account of it.”

“When the government gives you everything, they can take away everything,” he said.

Though Deckert remains upset with the way insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Administration are handling the storm’s aftermath, he said local leaders and residents have been tough and resilient in struggling to bring Sea Bright back to life.

“I’d have to give them kudos or accolades,” said Deckert. “I have nothing but praise for Mayor Dina Long. She’s all heart, and I don’t know her well, but she did a heck of a job. A lot of energy.”

Tenacity is a trait Deckert holds in high esteeem. One of the walls on the first floor of his house is dedicated to war heroes Deckert admires: Manfred von Richtofen, The Red Baron; Eddie Rickenbacker; Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, Jimmy Stewart, Douglas Bader, and Francesco Baracca.

“I always admired bravery in people,” said Deckert. “It doesn’t matter who these men were fighting for. They all displayed courage.” The lives of these men resonate with the tough life that Deckert has lived as a fisherman, a logger, and a sailor for the Coast Guard.

Deckert joined the guard in 1953, at the age of 19, sailing on the cutters Unimac and the Coos Bay. He and his crew mates sailed all the way to Greenland to gauge the weather, and would dock at Newfoundland if the weather got too bad.

In his mid-50s, Deckert moved to Idaho to become a logger, which he said was the most dangerous job of his life. He lasted one season.

“Everyday before I started work, I would take off my iron hat, and say a prayer for everybody,” said Deckert. “It doesn’t take much of a bump from a tree to kill you.”

That detour aside, Deckert has always been a fisherman, a trade he’s plied for 63 years of his life. Still does.

“I always liked the idea of man versus nature,” said Deckert. “I chose to be a fisherman because it’s physical, it’s exciting, and it’s a rugged life.”

“Johnny’s the last of the breed,” said Howard Finkelstein, Deckert’s neighbor and longtime friend. “There’s no one left that’s quite like Johnny. He’s what the old Sea Bright used to be about. He is the epitome of it all. He’s a water guy and a tough son of a bitch.”

The “old Sea Bright” of the first half of the 20th century, said Finkelstein, was composed of tough, working-class citizens. Finkelstein said that it was a “brawling” town full of fishermen who catered to the rich tourists who stayed in Sea Bright’s hotels that were put up in the 1880s and ’90s. What’s now Woody’s Ocean Grille was Ryan’s Hotel, he said, where tourists would come to spend the summer.

When Prohibition was in effect in the 1920s, many of Sea Bright’s tough working class of Scandinavian and Irish fishermen lived on Church Street. Finkelstein’s house was a speakeasy that attracted many shady bootleggers and prompted illicit deals with the police, he said. Deckert’s was rumored to have been a whorehouse.

Deckert’s family moved into the house in 1939 from Brooklyn. His father was a bookkeeper, and his mother was a secretary  in New York City. Johnny was married for 40 years, raising four children in the house.

Now, while waiting for resolution of his insurance claims, Deckert’s house, where he’s again living, is heated by a coal stove – because, he said, coal burns longer than wood, and doesn’t need as much maintenance.

He rolls up a sleeve to show off a tattoo he got when he was 19. Nearly faded beyond recognition, the tattoo reads, ‘A Sailors Grave is a Sinking Ship.’

“I thought that I was a bit more of a salty character back then,” he said, examining it. About its message, he said: “That’s total bullshit. That’s not how I wanna die.”

Dan Natale of Red Bank is a student at Brookdale Community College, where he’s on the staff of the student newspaper The Stall, and an intern at redbankgreen.