Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Childhood in Florida

tim, scott and i (and some lobster)

Stuff that I got to experience as a kid in Florida that you just can't do in the midwest, not in chronological order, but in the order they are popping to mind. The numbers are there only to differentiate them. This may be an ongoing project. Some details may be kinda fuzzy and this shouldn't be thought of as gospel.

1. Once, we were fishing for black tip and bull shark under the Caloosahatchee bridge. Just a couple miles upriver from where the canal behind our house emptied into the river. Something HUGE hit the line and took off with it. We were fishing with finger mullet for bait. Finger mullet are a small mullet about as big around as your thumb and about five-six inches long. Anyway, something hit the 60lb test line and ran. After fighting the mystery fish for a couple of hours and having towed our 17x6 foot aluminum boat a couple miles down river against and incoming tide, the fish finally surfaced. It was a massive spotted eagle ray. When under the boat, its wing tips stuck out a foot on either side. A treble hook was rigged and a gaff gotten out, but dropped. The sound of which scared the eagle ray and it broke the 60lb line like you might brush away cob webs and it was gone. Nothing left but a big fish story and three exhausted fishermen.

2. Another time, my uncle Ric, cousin Tim and a handful of others were cruising down the Caloosahatchee river in Ric's boat. It had a pass-thru type cabin on it, where someone could sit up front close to the bow or sit back behind a windshield in the driving area. A good size spotted eagle ray launched itself from the water while they were underway, hitting Tim on the bow of the boat, then breaking the glass of the windshield before making its way to the rear of the boat and back overboard.

3. My brother Scott, my cousin Tim and I once fed a six+foot green moray eel 17 live-ish pinfish. We'd spear them with our pole-spears (long metal pole with a three-pronged spear tip at one end and a bit of elastic surgical tubing on the other), then swim over to its hole and tempt it out a ways. It would come out, grab the pinfish and spin in a corkscrew motion to get the fish off the pole. After a few times, we'd have to retighten the spear tip. After a while we ran out of small fish nearby, either by wiping them off the face of the earth or by scaring the crap out of them. The moray then decided to take some initiative, leaving its hole and chasing me quite a ways through the water. After screaming like a girl and backpeddling a ways, it finally veered off from my path in search of smaller, less awkward pray.

4. We were spear-fishing in the Florida Keys, probably close to Big Pine Key or Summerland Key, where Tim's grandfather, Alan, had a house/stilt cabin on a small airstrip. My dad (step-father to the Akin family that might read this), saw a large bull shark in the area we were diving. Possibly between eight and nine feet long. After the warning, we moved the boat nearby and went back into the water. Us kids usually stuck together when away from the boat, safety in numbers, plus it was more fun in shared experience ("look what i got", "check this out", etc). But I got separated from them, at which point I got to see the large aquatic predator. It swam about 30-40 feet from me, from one horizon to the other, just within visibility. I immediately hit the surface and B-line for the boat, practically launching myself over the side with my dive fins. That's where I stayed for the rest of the day.

Then Tim's dad comes up with a much better story. He had shot a good sized fish with his spear gun. Maybe a red snapper, but I can't remember exactly at the moment. Though it could have been a hogfish, we speared a lot of those. After Ric shot the fish and was pulling it in on the line running from his spear gun to the spear, a large bull shark came swimming straight for him. Not having time to reload his spear gun, he had to hit the shark on the nose with the spear tip. It luckily turned tail and was gone. Ric, if you read this, feel free to embellish this one.

5. If Scott, Tim or myself got too obnoxious on the boat while fishing, the dads would dump us off on a nearby small mangrove island. Which was a lot more fun than fishing some days. We'd explore every inch or our tiny island kingdom while they were off actually catching something. We often scored a handful of good fishing lures that fisherman had gotten caught too high or deep back in the trees for easy retrieval. I read a story in Backpacker Magazine a few years ago that jogged this memory from obscurity, they published my letter the following month, though in a slightly edited, smaller version. I still got the credit. :)

6. When I was in sixth grade, at St. Michael's Lutheran School, my class got to go on a week-long retreat/field trip to the Shark Valley area of the Everglades. We got to tour Shark Valley, learn about the Everglades ecosystem, habitat loss and how it effects everything from snails to endangered bird species like the Everglades kite. We got to canoe through tannin-stained creeks, teaming with garfish. We got to dayhike through cypress swamp up to our necks and swim in alligator holes, that if it weren't for winter, would still be populated with said large reptiles. At the end of the trip we had to throw out all of our clothes we took, including the shoes worn on the hikes. It was the only time I can remember that I'd gone more than a week without a bath or shower.

7. The dads took us to fish for crappy in Lake Okeechobee one spring. The crappy were biting often enough that you could catch them along the banks. If you've never been to the redneck parts of Florida, let me just tell you they are a lot like the redneck parts of Missouri and Arkansas, just no hills and there are lots of lizards big enough to eat you. Similar people, same prejudices, just slightly different accents. In Okeechobee, in the 80's, women that had been waiting tables since the early 60's, still wore the same beehive hairdos from their high school years.

8. There was a Jamaican woman that waited tables at the Howard Johnsons in Key Largo. She was militant in her manner of taking a person's order. You had better be ready when she came to you or by God you were going to get it. No one ever actually got it, but that's how you felt before she got to you. Like you were going to. As kids, we were both enchanted by her and terrified of her. It was awesome.

9. Sugarloaf Key had a dolphin named Sugar. Not always the same dolphin, I would guess, but they had one named Sugar and for a kid, seeing a dolphin up close is pretty damn cool.

10. My cousin Tim once kicked a cockroach on the wall of Monte's Restaurant and Fish Market in the Keys. It stuck to the wall when he did. A passing cook or dishdog saw what happened, thanked him and told him, "We don't cook those anymore." and went about his business.

11. My uncle Jeff used to do a lot of the handyman work on our house. Once when he was working on some external light fixtures, he found a tiny clutch of eggs behind one. We brought them in, stuck them in a ring box with cotton and put it on a window sill. Within a week, a dozen tiny house geckos hatched in the box. It was like watching miniature dragons come to life.

12. If you piss off a brown anole lizard enough, you can A. make them fight and B. wear one as an earring for a couple of minutes until it quits biting your ear and falls off. Also, if you release a dozen in your sister's bedroom and she has a phobia of lizards, you will get paddled for it. Just say'n.

13. When going fishing at Fish Eating Creek, it's probably not best to come home with no fish, but having a three foot alligator wrapped in duct tape and an equally long black snake in a bucket. Moms don't care to have those in their kitchen nearly as much as freshly caught fish.

14. A rattlesnake that has been shot with a shotgun looks awesome under an x-ray machine. Having a dad that was a radiologist also helps, if you want to freely x-ray a five foot rattler. Also, make sure it's really dead when you handle it.

15. When skateboarding in an abandoned dolphin pool in a defunct aquatic theme park, check the crap down by the drain for pygmy rattlesnakes. Your board will eventually end up there and you'll have to go get it, even if there is one. From experience.

16. When I was about 17, I was playing golf at River's Edge Golf Course and hit my ball into a sand trap on a hole down close to the river. When I went to take a second stroke, there was a six foot gator sunning itself, postcard-style. It's back arched and mouth wide open. I opted for a drop ball a good distance from the sand trap. Knowing that alligators run short distances over 30MPH, didn't exactly help my swing.

17. When I was about 18 or so, my cousin Tim and I hung out with some kids that had been on the Cape Coral High School dive team. We used to frequent the Cape Yacht Club pool on weekends and even though we never were on a dive team, we got pretty decent. We'd also head over to a bridge off a street called Aqualinda to jump off it. There were two, one was deep, one was shallow. I only made the mistake of guessing wrong once. After burying my head firmly in the mud of the shallow canal, I figured it out. My cousin saved my ass on that one. When we'd dive these bridges, often watching for police cruisers and other traffic while running across the bridge, placing a foot on the lower guardrail, hitting the secondary rail across the sidewalk with the next step and then swan diving to the water 20 feet below, we had to watch for gators, too. When one was spotted, we'd scatter like cockroaches before a kitchen light. Until 20 minutes later when someone would get the nerve/stupidity to be first back into the water and the whole cycle would start over for the afternoon.

18. When shark fishing, sometimes you use previous catches for bait or chum. We would often cut up the first catch or two and use its liver for just such a purpose. Shark liver is very oily and creates a slick on the water when thrown in, it is also really slippery. Illustrated by my cousin Tim walking the gunnels of the boat, slipping on said liver and being dumped into heavily chummed water, at night. We had been told not to do that, but we didn't listen very well. He managed to save his fishing pole when he went over and insisted someone take it before being hoisted back over the side, himself. Pretty brave for a kid of maybe 12.

me and a red snapper

scott and a small barracuda

me, scott and tim

tim and a nurse shark

florida spiny lobster

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