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.”

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