Buoy Duty

Holidays can be rough. I never thought that I would outlive my little brothers.  Many years have gone by, yet the holidays are still hard to take.  My Mom died in March, when I was 17.  Dad remarried in June. That kinda touched off a rebellious streak in me.

Memorial Day weekend, Dad and his bride to be, wanted to take a short holiday to be alone I guess, so he left me with the keys to the kingdom.

My cousin Earl and I were coming back from Pic and Save on Soutel, when I saw a wallet in the middle of the road.  I pulled over and told Earl to get it, but he refused, thinking someone was playing “bag” with us.  I jumped out and grabbed the wallet, stuffed full of cash and credit cards, I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, but figuring “losers weepers and finders keepers”.  I gave Earl $20 trying to get a rise out of him, but I didn’t, he was happy to get $20 bucks.

I told my younger brother Gary that I found over $300 cash, a driver’s license and a Bank Americard.  We started conniving right away.  We went to Charlie Coleman’s Sporting Goods (the old store by Gateway Shopping Center).  At Charlie’s’ we rented the best of everything, scuba tanks and gear, spear guns (the new type with CO2 air cartridges), masks, fins, weight belts, the whole 9 yards.  We had been checked out as divers as kids, by Navy Frogmen, part of a summer program for Military dependents in Guantanamo.  Since it had been about 4 years since we’d been diving, we were fired up about getting back into the water.

We hooked Dad’s old Corvair van (the one with the engine in the rear) onto his new boat, a 19′ Chris craft, the unsinkable one with the Styrofoam construction and a 75 horse Johnson and put in at The Palms Fish Camp, off of Hecksher Drive.  A little over an hour later we were searching the horizon for the big red frame of 6 Mile Buoy.

We had heard that the State had built an artificial reef there for sport fishermen and we wanted to see for ourselves.  We could hear it before we could see it, clang – clang, clang – clang, constant with the motion of the waves, back and forth. We were surprised that on a holiday weekend we were the only ones there.

It was a beautiful day, we had our shirts off all the way there, so we were plenty blistered. I told Gary to drop anchor, clang – clang – clang clang, we readied our gear and prepared to dive. I told him to leave plenty of slack in the line, clang – clang – clang – clang, but I didn’t check. I was the older brother, I should have, it was on me.

The sun was directly overhead, so the water was plenty clear for the first 20 feet and darkened only slightly when as we found the reef in about 60 foot of water teeming with activity.   Our visibility was great.  Fish every where, big fish too.  Locating the reef had taken about 10 minutes, we had 30 minutes of air in each tank. We did a little looky-looing  checking out the reef formations growing over top of old school buses and crunched up cars, before we got down to business and decided on a couple of nice Red Snapper about 20 lbs a piece.  A spear through the gut took the fight out of them and fearful of sharks and even more fearful of barracuda we followed the slime covered chain anchoring the buoy back to the surface.

I remember I could see the clouds in the sky while I was still about 20 feet down, looking up and when I hit the surface I popped up into the air about a foot or so, like a cork.  Oh it felt great to be alive, sunburn and all, first thing I noticed was the clanging of that buoy, clang – clang and then when I looked for our boat, noticed it was gone, yes gone, no where to be seen.

The sides of the buoy was covered in barnacles, you know the kind I’m talking about.  The ones that will scrape the living flesh right off of you and sting like the dickens in that salt water.  I dropped my gear, weight belt first, full of despair with no other choice; we had to climb up on the buoy, our only chance.  I still had on my fins; I dove down and then came back up like a porpoise, reached out and grabbed the bottom rung on the side of the buoy.  I still got my stomach and chest scraped, the salt water burned like I can’t say, but it did.  I reached down to my brother and helped him climb up so he wouldn’t get scraped as bad as I did.  We climbed to the top of the buoy to see if we could see the boat maybe nearby, but it was too late for that.  We were stranded out in the middle of nowhere, six miles out and this damn bucking bronco buoy was our only hope.

The buoy was about 5 feet wide, clang – clang and about 8 feet tall, clang – clang, with a bell and a flashing red light on top. It was covered in bird feces and even had a few fishing lines wrapped around it. The only thing we saved besides our knives were the stringers, we had ditches our trophy fish, scared that the blood would bring unwelcomed company.  Then we used the stringers to tie ourselves to the buoy, it was still clanging and rocking back and forth, the wave action on the bouy was enough to make you sick.

Then we started arguing and fighting. “I thought I told you to leave plenty of slack”, then a punch, “I didn’t hear you,” then another punch, back and forth, all night long.  The water around us was ablaze from the phosphorus as the little sea creatures that swam by, Gary got hit in the kisser by a flying fish.  When we weren’t swatting skeeters, gnats and praying, (where do all of the bugs come from, 6 miles out?) we were tossing punches, while we were sitting facing each other through the spaces in the frame, with our legs crossed over each other.

Our boat had just walked off on us, between the swells and the tide, once the boat was in deep enough water so that the anchor didn’t scrape the bottom, it just floated off, caught by the current. Clang – clang all night long, flashing red light, blinking off and on.

I kept rubbing a “St. Christopher” medallion I wore on a chain around my neck and praying to God.   “Oh please Lord help us, if not me, save my brother, this is my fault, not his, please God.”  He heard me. We stared off to the east waiting for sunrise, it was so slow coming, we could hear what we figured out, were passing whales sounding in the night, scared the “beejesus” out of us, and cold, man it was.  One minute we’re splashing water over our backs to cool our sunburn and then the next we were rubbing each other’s shoulders and arms to stay warm, with and occasional punch sailing by, they didn’t have as much sting as they did at first.

We went through the false dawn where the sky lightens, but no sun, then we saw it starting to peek at us, teasing us with it’s slow approach.   Clang – clang forever constant with the rocking back and forth.  Just as the sun broke over the horizon, we heard the engine noise of an approaching Navy chopper coming from Mayport Naval Base, it was miles off, looking like a dragon fly at first, then when it got above us the noise was deafening.  If we hadn’t of tied ourselves to the buoy, we would have been blown off.  The blades from the propellers were making a large, powerful backwash, for the first time in a while; I couldn’t hear the clanging anymore.  They waved at us and then it was good bye, clang – clang, back and forth all over again, but not for long, within about 45 minutes a Coast Guard Cutter arrived for our rescue, the crew grinning like jack asses (bless their hearts).

Some fishermen had spotted our boat, towed it in and the Navy Chopper radioed our location.  A corpsman treated my scrapes and our burns, wrapped us in wool blankets (ouch), gave us coffee and donuts.

We caught the ferry from Mayport back to Hecksher Drive, walked to Mom’s Food Store for a honey bun and a Pepsi.  It wasn’t as much fun loading up Dad’s wayward boat, as it was unloading it.  When we got home later that day, we were both surprised and glad to see Dad, he beat us home.  We come clean and told him the whole story. We were too big for whippings, though we deserved one.

He went with us to Charlie Coleman’s and explained about the missing gear and how we had used someone else’s credit card, Dad wrote him a check, then we contacted the guy whose wallet I had found, told him the whole story, Dad reimbursed him.  I had told Dad about riding the bucking buoy all night and rubbing my St. Christopher medal, while I was praying to God, Gary chirped in that I had prayed for him too and not just for me, Dad’s eyes welled up and I’m pretty sure he forgave us.

He had told me several times for me to “please start taking it easy on him”, he wasn’t sure how much more his heart could take. He said he had plenty for us to do, to work it off, and we worked it off and worked it off and then, we worked some more, but it was a lot better than clang – clang. In case I forgot, thank you Lord.

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