Monday, December 24, 2012

LOST RIVER



We spent most of our spare time either fishing or fighting, or finding a way to either fish or fight. And if I wasn’t fishing, or fighting with siblings, I was reading my favorite novel, or watching my favorite movie, or my thoughts lost in some far away place. Still, competition seemed to be a way of life in our house. Dad, mom, two sisters, a brother and me, along with any number of visiting relatives from all over the state in worse financial need than we were, lived in our tiny two bedroom house with one bathroom. School days were the worst — mornings introduced by giggling sisters, a pushy cousin, hair spray, and the smell of perfume as we waited in line by the bathroom door. Mom would call to us for breakfast, reminding we were going to be late. 
Looking back, I think all the outside activities; camping, fishing, and others, were simply because there was more room outside of the house than inside. Of the many fishing trips my father planned, one has stuck in my mind all these years.

My room was dark as I was jolted from sleep by my father’s no nonsense baritone voice, “Grab the gear, and let’s move.” He said. “We’re going to be late and I told you I was leaving a five.” That’s how my day started. My dad was the type that could wake up and move along as if he’d never been asleep.
My brother, still sleeping and would probably continue to do so, received a punch in the arm. “Dad’s not gonna wait,” I said. He yawned, stretched, and then rolled out of bed.

On this morning, we ate dry cereal straight from the box while riding in the backseat of our station wagon heading south on Highway 41 toward Everglades City. My brother fell asleep as soon as his belly was full, and I sat up between the seats talking to my dad.

“How long before we get there.”
“An hour and a half,” he said.
“Who we meetin’?”
“A guy I work with and his boy.”
“What his name?”
“Paul Violet.”
“Violin?”
“No. Violet like the flower.”
“Oh,” I said, and settled back into the seat.

If my dad could have his way, his days would be spent fishing and camping rather than breaking his back working in construction. Our family and many friends camped in the Everglades or in Chokoloskee, a small fishing town on the east coast of Florida, and part of the ten thousand islands chain on most every weekend and holiday.
Some of the kids owned small boats, we would navigate the rivers playing hide and seek among the mangroves, small creeks, and hidden coves. On lazy summer days, we would fish under crystal blue skies, trolling the edges of the mangroves in search of snapper, grouper, and if lucky, hook up a large tarpon. It was a rare day to come back empty handed. With over a million acres of water, there was always somewhere new and different to explore and experience. Our plans, on this summer day, were to head for the Chatham River and our mouth’s were set on enjoying grouper or snapper cooked over an open charcoal flame.

As we pulled into the lot, I saw my dad’s friend and his son backing their truck and trailer onto the boat ramp. My got out of our car, ran over to help. Rob and I got out, unloaded our fishing equipment, and the rest of the cargo. Mr. Violet’s son walked over and helped us carry everything to the docks.
“My name’s Tom,” he said over his shoulder.
I smiled at him, and said, “My name is Steve, and this is my brother Rob.”
Tommy was about my age. “Where do you live?” I asked.
“Homestead. Where do you guys live?”
“Hialeah,” I said.

Since we were staying overnight, my dad walked to the Park Ranger’s office to register, me in tow. The ranger sat behind a small desk in the center of the room, maps of the backcountry on the walls as decoration, along with pictures of fish and other fishermen. I glanced over his desk; coffee cup, papers, a telephone, and a nameplate — Officer Manuel Martinez — I noted. Dad explained we would be staying in a small cabin on the Chatham River. “Not a problem,” Officer Martinez replied. “See you Sunday.”

The morning held a low fog as we muddled out into the channel leading to Chokoloskee Bay. The old Mercury motor smoked, but moved us along. Once into the channel, Rob, Tommy, and I sat on the front bow with the salty air blowing against our faces and our legs dangling as the cold water splashed our feet as the motor turned up to a fine tuned hum behind us.
We moved into one of the rivers and continued through a winding path of tea colored water lined with mangroves as the sun climbed into the sky. After traveling for about what seemed like an hour, we stopped to fish in one of the tidal pools.

“Looks like a good spot boys,” my dad said. “Grab your rods and let’s catch dinner.”

We climbed off the bow and took our place at the back of the boat. Dad and Mr. Violet took their place on the bow. In about ten minutes, my dads fishing pole doubled over and the whoopin’ and hollerin’ began. Don’t ask me why, but that’s what we did when we hooked a fish. After a five-minute fight, and fish acrobatics, he landed the prize.

“What is it? Rob asked.
“It’s a fish moron,” Tommy said.
“I know that, Stupid” my brother shot back. “I mean what kinda fish.”

My dad reached down, unhooked the flapping ribbon of scales, and tossed it back in the water.
“Hey, what was that about?” I asked.
“Ladyfish,” he said. “Ain’t good for nothing but catching.”

After an hour of fishing and about thirty more Ladyfish, Mr. Violet said, “Let’s head toward the campsite. We stowed the gear and he turned the ignition key. The motor sputtered to life in a cloud of blue smoke. We sat on the cooler at the stern and enjoyed the ride. There was turn after turn through the river and it seemed we spent our time leaning one way or the other. Soon the boat motor fell silent and we coasted along coming to a stop. Mr. Violet was the first to cast, and the first to catch—another ladyfish.
We boys stood and fished off the back of the boat and after a few minutes, my brother pulled in a blue crab. We laughed keeping our focus on the water for snapper or grouper because no respectable angler would choose to catch a crab on a fishing rod.
Dads fishing pole bent over once again, and once again—a ladyfish. My brother Rob caught another crab, then another, then another. Tommy felt a light tug on his line and slowly reeled in a crab. Then it was my turn. Dad and Mr. Violet continued their skills with the ladies.
We fished several other spots, as the sun crested past noon reaching into early afternoon. Much to our dissatisfaction, we’d filled two large coolers full of blue crabs with only a few fish.

Mr. Violet said, “Let’s head for the cabin.”
“Looks like crab for dinner,” my dad said.

The sun was still high, but we needed to settle in and prepare for the night. When the sun sets in Chokoloskee, it’s dark—really dark.


Mr. Violet navigated further into the mangrove jungle winding the boat through the massive tea colored river. From the stern, I watched the wake and the low-lying blue smoke left from the puttering motor and imagined being Bogart piloting the African Queen through the waters while watching for the Empress Luisa. Tommy and Rob rode the bow with their feet dangling in the water. We arrived at the cabin about thirty minutes later.
 I turned around and saw a simple one-room shanty perched on stilts about three feet above the water line with a long dock running across the front. Our front yard was the river and the backyard nothing but acres of mangroves. On the far end of the dock, about twenty feet from the cabin, was a small square structure with a slanted roof.
“What’s that?” I asked while pointing.
“The toilet,” dad said.
I looked at the other boys with a raised brow and said, “The what?”
My dad looked over to Mr. Violet and shook his head laughing, and said, “Toilet, outhouse. You gotta go, you go in there.”
Of course, being curious boys, we clambered out of the boat to check our newfound treasure.
“Open the door,” Rob said.
“You open the door,” Tommy answered.

I opened the door.

Inside the small space, we saw a plywood platform where one would sit, however this seat had a hole cut through it.

“I guess that’s were ya go,” Tommy said, as we all looked down the hole which gave us a view of the water below, and a couple of snapper.
“There’s the fish we been looking for,” my brother chuckled out.

My dad called the site, primitive. He was right—no water, electric, TV, radio, air conditioning—a square room with beds hanging off the walls, a table with six chairs, and open cabinets with canned goods. Someone had fashioned a cooker at the other end of the dock, and dad filled a large pot with the fresh water we had brought with us. Bringing the water to a boil, we tossed the crabs into the pot and then with cooked crabs piled high, we sat on the edge of the dock and ate our dinner.

The next morning we set off for another fishing spot. Dad and Mr. Violet deciding the outside waters would hold more luck. We traveled away from the mangroves for about an hour and stopped. Then we moved on, and moved again. About the fourth time, Mr. Violet turned the key to move once more, and the old motor just gave a grunt. My dad looked back at him, and then to us, and then to Mr. Violet.

“That didn’t sound good.”
“Nope. Sure didn’t,” Mr. Violet said.

They stepped to the stern and pulled the cover off the motor, tapped a few things, and tried again, receiving another grunt from the motor.

“It’s not the battery,” Mr. Violet said.
“Yeah. Sounds like the lower unit is jammed,” dad said.
“That don’t sound good,” Mr. Violet said while looking over at us.

We decided the only choice in the matter was to continue to fish. Since we were in the bay, we’d keep a look out for other boaters and wave them down.

As the noon sun crested, we saw a boat in the distance. Mr. Violet discharged a hand held horn, but the other boat was too far out to hear us. We settled back to fishing.


July in Florida is a particularly hot time of year, and on this day, it was a perfect, cloudless cobalt blue sky with a small southern breeze — a Chamber of Commerce day — perfect for the tourist trade in south Florida. The challenge was, we were stuck in the middle of the bay, no food, little water, and no shelter — under the burning sun.
If fate would find fortune upon us, the light southern breeze would push us toward the line of the Keys islands, unless we were too far west which means, if not found, we could end up near Cuba, depending on the wind, tide, and currents. As I sat there gazing out across the bay, I couldn’t help but think of Hemingway’s Santiago and wishing we had our own Manolin to watch over us. And I looked at my father and remembered the line from the book, "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated." And I knew we would be fine.

As the day moved on, the sun creating a red glow on the horizon, our backs burned with the memory of the day. We prepared our beds on the floor of the boat not knowing what the darkness of the bay would bring.
As we settled in for the evening with only a glow of sunlight left, my father raised his head and cocked his ear to the distance. Mr. Violet sat up and asked if he’d heard something, and my father placed his finger to his lips, and then pointed to the horizon.
In the distance, we could see a small dark spot moving toward us, and then the flash, the unmistakable flashing blue light of a Florida Wildlife Officer’s powerboat.

It was Ranger Martinez pulling along side of us and tossing a rope. My dad tied the rope to the bow hook, and our rescue began. At the station, Mr. Violet asked how the ranger how he knew we were out there.
He pointed to my dad and said, “He told me where you boys would be, and it was getting late. I ran over to the cabin and you were gone, so I figured—don’t know why—you fellas headed out to the bay. I did a crisscross, and I don’t know how, but I spotted your boat.”

Arriving at the dock, we were tired and worn. It had been a long day. As we prepared to drive home, the ranger stepped toward our car and my father rolled his window down to thank him again. I sat in the back seat and marveled, as a young boy would, at the brown uniform, the belt with all the gadgets attached, and his weapon. I noticed his uniform, even after a long day, was crisped and neat, and I thought about how one man can protect so many.
“Thanks again, Officer Martinez,” dad said to the man who saved us from a horrible night.
“My pleasure sir,” he said, and then looked at my brother and me, but around here, everyone just calls me Manny.”

FISHIN



I sat on the dock and watched a school of Snapper fight for bits of fallen scrap from the fish deck where we cleaned our catch the previous night. My boat, with engine trouble, sat at the far end of the dock waiting for the mechanic. My mind replayed the hundreds of trips taken through this waterway that flowed directly off the Atlantic allowing us to dock our boats at the doorway of the condominium. A sudden interruption in the calm water letting me know the mighty Silver King cruised nearby.
Years before, a fellow by the name of Robbie found a struggling Tarpon off the banks of his fishing enterprise. A boat prop sliced his face and the jaw hung precariously. He nursed the King back to health, and a legend was born. Scarface continued to frequent the docks returning each year. Soon, one by one, Tarpon began to show up at the docks of Robbie’s. Today the mighty Silver Kings come by the hundreds. It is an amazing sight to see hundreds of these might warriors all in one place.
            In the path of these mighty giants is the rocky point leading to the condominiums where I lived. The jagged coral rock sticks into the Atlantic like the thumb on your hand with your palm lying upwards. If you follow the thumb to the base, there is a private beach as your hand curves to the main finger pointing north called The Point. The Tarpon would lose their direction, finding themselves traveling this cut, ending up at our docks.
My son Bryan loved to fish here because of this. He would catch small ones, mostly under three feet, but one morning he watched his line moving and the tip of the rod bend. He called for his grandfather and pulled the rod from its stand. The line screamed as it left the spool and the fight was a dauntless victory as the mighty Silver King cleared the surface in a fight to escape. When the battle ceased, Scarface laid before him. Bryan released the beautiful legend back to the wild unharmed. I bragged about the fish to the local guides. “You can’t catch Tarpon from a land,” they would tell me. I would just smile.
On this morning, as my mind meandered through all of my quiet places, and secret fishing spots, a dozen children arrived. Leading the pack, my son said, “Dad, can you take all of us fishing!”
            “The motor has a problem.”
            The kids huddled in a circle and then asked, “How about you take us to The Point.”
            Access to The Point was through an opening in a fence at the end of the road. Follow a path covered with mangroves heading east and then through the bushes, ending up on the sharp coral point with nothing in your view but ocean. It was one of the unspoiled areas of the Florida Keys.
We grabbed our supplies, and one by one, we squeezed through the hole in the fencing. We pushed our way through the bush and mangrove trees hiding the secret path to our spot and emerged onto the rock sharp enough to cut your feet without shoes. I knew I wasn’t going to get much fishing done, but that wasn’t the goal.  
            I prepared the rods, and the boys promptly dropped their rigs into the fast running water. Each boy would scream, “I got one!” and I would unhook the tiny prey and toss it back into the water. I rigged my large rod and tossed my bait into the water. Soon, one of the boys presents a tiny Snapper on the end of the line.
“I can’t get him off. Can you help me?”
            I grabbed a couple of large rocks and propped my fishing rod. The rig was within my sight and I figured that if something hit the line, I could quickly grab my rod. I took the fishing rod from the boy and saw the fish swallowed the hook. Another boy yelled to the others, “Hey! Come here! I see a Manta Ray!”
            All of the boys followed in excitement. Not paying any attention to what I was doing, my thumb came too close to this little Snapper’s snapper and it bit down on my thumb. I stood there for a moment pondering my options; I couldn’t pry open the mouth with only one hand. I yelled to the boys, but the wind was in my face. After what seemed to be an eternity, Bryan looked back. He said something to the kids and they all came running up. Surrounded now by inquisitive small boys, they all wanted to know why the fish bit me.
            During this, Tom Jenkins passes through the cut in his tri-hull after a morning of Dolphin fishing with his boys. I waved with my fish free hand. I turned my back on my rod.
            I looked down at this little Snapper and decided since I couldn’t do anything with this little guy on my thumb, I had to sacrifice him. Once removed, I examined the two holes left in my thumb. Bryan screamed, “Dad, your rod!”
            I turned to see my Pflueger rod four feet in the air. I reached to grab it, and it lands on the rock. I heard a huge splash in the water. A dozen boys screamed, “Oh my gosh!” I grabbed my rod from the rocky ground discovering the line had cut.
            Tom waved back with his arms fully extended in the air from side to side. I looked over to Bryan, and shouted over the wind, “What the heck was that?”
            He uncovered his face, and said, “It had to be seven foot and two hundred plus pounds.”
            “What are you talking about?”
            “The fish, Dad. The fish! It was the biggest Tarpon I have ever seen!”

HEROES



A hint smoke from the morning fire fell across the camp on this cool October morning.  The sun would peek above the horizon soon and launch a flood of orange tint across this river of grass called the Everglades. The songs of the crickets and katydids echoed across the clearing as I stretched my tired body.

The sleeping cot was uncomfortable, so I decided it was time to rise. I pulled on my pants, slipped into my boots, and unzipped the canvas door. I stepped onto the dew covered grass and could see a small campfire, surrounded by carefully laid stones, dance off the deep rutted lines of his face.

The coffee pot hung across a wired grate just above the glowing embers and a soft morning haze hovered above the moist earth. The light from the campfire reflected his silhouette across the grassy ground as it danced along the edge of the sawgrass clearing. An old stump, cut from a large loblolly pine, felled long before we arrived served as his seat. I approached him with respect and caution.

“Good Mornin,” I yawned through a full stretch, “What’s for breakfast?”

In his uncompromising, resolute manner, he glanced up, raising his head just enough to see me, and said, “You catch it.”

I looked away, as if embarrassed by my silly question, knowing beneath this shield of unrelenting armor beat the heart of a gentle man.

I watched the radiance of the flames echo the years of hard work evidenced on his leathered skin. He came of age at just twelve years riding the rails through the Depression, surviving in a world when he should have been playing stickball with friends. In his life, there were no handouts, no charity. He earned his way as a steeplejack, a farmhand, a factory worker. He turned to construction, working on skyscrapers and building monuments to rich men of power and authority. He labored hard each day in sweltering sun to support his family. I knew this weekend meant a lot to him.

He raised a steaming mug of coffee to his face, his arms immense, defined by years of demanding toil, stretched; nearly bursting sleeves. In silence, I turned, picked up my fishing rod, and headed toward the path leading to the dark water.

Ahead, my eyes gazed over the vast expanse of river grass as streaks of red, blue, orange, yellow, and gray, the creation of dawn, exploded toward heaven like a celebration. Cool air brushed my cheeks while walking in silence through a foot worn path. Sticks and grass clicked gently beneath my feet warning the fish of my approach. In grand anticipation, my thoughts focused on the hunt and I couldn’t wait to wet my line with first cast.

Nearing open space by waters edge, my ears focused on the sound of an Osprey’s call. Gliding gently overhead, a dark figure cast against a bluing sky, his sharp eyes spied the earth searching for sustenance. A Great Heron walked the bank, his intense gaze never leaving the water; long thin legs pushed his elegant frame through the stream with stealth, as if floating across the surface. He shared space with two small Purple Gallinules paddling behind as if to chase the big bird along in his quest. I stopped and watched.
Without warning, the magnificent creature shot his head into the dark surface with lightning speed returning with a small fish wriggling at the tip of his massive yellow beak. The prey wriggled in desperate attempt to escape the infallible grip of death. A meal foreordained to satisfy the need of the Great Heron as the cycle of life in this wonder called the Everglades moved on without approbation. He flipped his graceful neck toward the dawning sky flinging the tiny morsel into the air and then catching it perfectly headfirst. I wanted to applause as if watching the circus juggler toss his art into the air but watched in silence. The vigilant bird glanced in my direction and in single motion of a slight bend of powerful legs, wings spread across the great waters. With a a graceful push of the air, he sailed off.

Replacing the Great Heron’s presence with my own, the Gallinules showed their displeasure cackling as if I was intruding on their territory. I glanced toward them paying no mind. Soon, they accepted me and continued to glide across the smooth black water. I studied the surface, looking for the right spot to grace my first cast.

The gentle current moved quietly and unwearied northwest bending gently through grass and small cypress knees lining the rocky banks of this was a natural stream. Beauty untouched by man, flowing long before I arrived, it carved life through limestone for thousands of years under the caressing hands of nature. This was a natural world where man was the intruder.

I stood at the banks of a gentle tributary flowing south from Lake Okeechobee creating a meandering passageway to the river and beyond. To the west, a small village may have worked the land to survive, finding this small torrent to traverse between trading posts or other villages throughout the boggy vastness, south to the Miami River or across the county seat to Chokoloskee Bay. The Tequesta and the Calusa Indian tribes spreading across the Atlantic coast from north of Palm Beach to Miami and on to the Keys with a village on Cape Sable at the southern end of the Florida peninsula in the 16th Century. They built their villages, cared for their families at the mouths of these rivers and streams creating what would become their history. Throughout the area, on inlets from the Atlantic Ocean to inland waters, on barrier islands and the Keys they hunted, traded, living among natural beauty.

Today, nothing much is left of these great tribes except some artifacts and shell mounds. Lost in the details in the name of progress as the new pioneers came to conquer and build cities with concrete monuments to their own existence these peaceful people destroyed, their spirit kept alive by our writings; pieces of existence swallowed by mother earth.

With arm outstretched, I cast my line with perfect precision across black water to a small stand of river grass. A small ripple against the bank indicated a fish and I felt this would be a good start. My first cast came up dry, but I knew there were fish in the shallow. I could see the small swirl again and it was the key to my breakfast. Cautiously, I laid my line across the black water. Too close and spook the prey. Too far, the cast is wasted. It had to be perfect. I had to be perfect.

I cast my line in a different direction as if to say, “I don’t care that you are over there.” After giving my prey a period of relief, and with hope, lapse of memory, I reeled in and prepared to cast once again; this time the exact spot, forcing my prey to react.

I felt the pressure of the lure as the rod passed my head. As the lure rounded, I felt the flip of pressure in my attempt to release the trigger perfectly without force. I watched the lure float through the air as if in slow motion, the sun’s first rays hitting it with brilliant reflection, floating through the morning dew as if carried by a magical hand. My line drifted across the air above the black water guiding my tasteful treat in all its glorious colors across a small limb only to dangle mere inches above my prey’s grasp. I closed my eyes in pure exasperation.

I gave the line a tug, a small tree branch waved as if to say, gotcha, now go away. I pulled the line straight, leveled my rod stepping backwards. I heard a snap sound and the unmistakable zing of line without lure flying towards me at the speed of light. Covered in monofilament, wrapped around my cap, feeling dejected without my breakfast, a hand touched my shoulder.

“Whatcha doin?” he said.

“Fishin’, what else?”

“Squirrels?” he said.

“Yup, but he got away.” I mustered all my strength to show I had not failed to catch breakfast. I was just, delayed.

He kneeled down to look at my rod seeing the line had stretched beyond use. Without condemnation, he silently took up his rod. “Mind if I give it a try?”

I looked up at this big man standing next to me and said with confidence, “I don’t think the squirrels will mind.”

With an unyielding look of determination, a fierce focus on his face I had seen a hundred times, steel blue eyes threw a gaze across the black water. His arm glided gently to his side as he flicked his wrist with the precision of a master, landing his lure in the perfect spot.

Hitting his target, the line softly followed and stretched the expanse falling onto the surface. I watched the lure dive below the surface in a splash and bob upwards. Then, within a split second, another larger splash of water and the tip of his rod curved forward as if bowing to the water. He pulled back and his muscles bulged through the shirt.

A large Bass erupted through the black surface leaping into the air, reflecting its acrobatic talents. A few glorious minutes of gallant fight, and this masterful creature submitted to the power of man.
He held the creature by its lower jaw, removed the lure with a twist, and handed it to me.

“That’s one,” he said with a grin across his face.

His flawless casting continued as I watched the lure float across the water landing with perfection each time.

My father and I walked back to the camp that morning with the warm sun at our backs and our future ahead of us. With camp in sight, a hint of smoke from the embers wafted toward the morning sky. I placed our bounty on a large rock and he pulled his long knife, sharpened by years of delicate use, from a tattered leather sheath. With the skill of a surgeon, he prepared our catch. A well-worn and seasoned skillet was waiting for the abundance provided by nature, a pot of grits slowly bubbled.