Remember the old TV beer commercial when there was a retired baseball umpire wearing thick glasses trying to read the label on a “Miller Lite” beer bottle and then a baseball player takes the bottle away and reads it for him. Then the umpire looks at the guy and says “Hey, you’re Boog Powell?” I think it was back in the late ’70’s.
My brother Gary and I went to Key West to go fish one winter when a cold snap came through Jacksonville. We were driving a pristine Chrysler Newport that was big enough for RV tags. We thought we could make our trip on a shoestring, because we were low on funds. The car was big enough that we could sleep in it.
We passed Marathon Key and then we were on 7 mile bridge. This was before they built the new bridges. My uncle J.P. Sharpe had helped build some of these bridges during the depression when men got paid 50 cents a day for President Roosevelt’s CC labor crews. They built bridges, highways and railroad trestles. He earned a dollar a day, because he could read, write and punctuate, so they made him a clerk. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, “white privilege.”
When we crossed over 7 Mile Bridge, it seemed like it took forever. I held my breath every time we neared an oncoming truck, the lanes were so narrow that it seemed almost impossible to get past an oncoming truck without trading paint. Nothing but miles and miles of open ocean off to the south, spotted with pleasure seeking sports fishermen trying to reach their favorite destination, in the Gulfstream. We raced a train that was hurtling down the Seaboard Coastal Line, heading to Key West on our right side, we were doing our best to keep up.
I saw the spot where my Dad and I use to fish when I was 3 or 4 years old; the place where he told me to climb down before I fell in. I didn’t listen and I fell off of the concrete guard rail into the drink. My cowboy boots and hat floated off, Dad wouldn’t pull me out of the water until I retrieved my gear. When we lived here in ’55 everything was different, except maybe Sloppy Joes. It was just like I remembered, except now it has walls across the front, were in the past it was “open -aire.”
Back in those days, Dad had just made Chief. We lived in Poinciana Trailer Park, right on the ocean, My sister Glenda used to grab my hand to keep me from chasing the cats as we ran across the path through Ernest Hemmingway’s yard on our way down Duval St. to get an ice cream. We had no idea of who he was, that is until one day I’m with Dad at Sloppy Joes getting some mullet wrapped in newspaper for bait. It was “open-aire” back in those days, walls on three sides. There he was, a very large man, passed out dead drunk on a pool table with his mouth wide open. I was in awe of just how many flies could enter his mouth while he was laying there snoring, without waking him up. Dad just said he was “some big shot writer,” all I could say is, he was a drunk.
On our right, as we approached the island of Key West, the marina was chock full of nice cabin cruisers, sail boats and dinghies and houseboats. Eager to get a start on our fishing, we parked near the marina, parking spots are hard to find in Key West, it’s grown so much since we lived there in ’55.
Gary got out the cast net and we walked down towards the end of the dock, looking for a place to throw our cast net for some bait fish. This was before my brother got into his “lures only” kick. The surface of the water didn’t show much action and we wandered all over the docks of the marina, looking for some ripples to cast our net.
The boats that we walked between were big as trees in the forest, huge. We came up on one that was backed in to the pier, on the flotsam was painted “MVP.” Nice durn boat. Gary took a pack of “Toastcheez” (peanut butter cheese crackers) out of our tackle box and crunched them up and threw the contents on the surface of the water. That did it. Instantly the water became alive with action, the water’s surface boiling with fish roils. I cast the net a few times and filled our bucket with cigar sized finger mullet. They were perfect for bait fish. Just about the time we got our fill of mullet in the bucket, we saw two bruisers coming down the dock towards us. One guy looked familiar to me, big reddish blond guy, he kinda looked like the skipper on Gilligan’s Island.
Gary took and old pair of my sunglasses out of the tackle box. It was missing one lens, Gary punched the other dark piece of glass out of the frame. He put them on to make it look like he was half blind and when the two got near us, Gary jumped up and said “Hey you’re Boog Powell” just like the umpire did in the beer commercial.
Sure enough, it was him in the flesh. He had a good laugh and told us he didn’t think that we were supposed to be in this area. We told him we know, but we had just got there and couldn’t find an area where we were allowed to be and since we came to fish, we figured that if anyone asked us if we saw the sign, we would just say “we ain’t smoking.” Big Boog laughed again, he was a jolly fellow to be such an intimidating guy. He said “Well I see you fellows have got plenty of bait, why don’t you just toss your gear aboard and spend the day with me?” What an offer. He was talking our language. Sure we’ll be your deck hands. He fired up the twin Chrysler engines, smoked a couple cigarettes while he was waiting for it to warm up. Gary untied the ropes and I pushed us away from the dock with a large boat hook. We left the confines of the marina, passed under the railroad bridge, then under US 1, heading south and then west dodging a few atolls, cruised pass Ft. Jefferson and headed towards the heart of the Gulf Stream.
It was a beautiful day. Just think, there were people up north were freezing their butts off. It made me wish that Gary hadn’t poked the lens out of my sunglasses, because the sun was bright and really beaming down on us.
Gary asked the big man if he came down every winter. He said, “No, I live here all year round.” Gary said, “I thought you played baseball?” Boog replied “Not anymore, I’m retired, but I lived in Key West before I played pro-ball.” Gary told him that he was a catcher on his team back home. This seemed to hit a soft spot for the ex-baseball player. He told us that in the beginning of his career, he too was a catcher but switched position to extend his career.
The water was a crystal clear blue, it made you feel like you could reach out and touch the bottom. You could see starfish and sea urchins everywhere, as the boat sped past. This was long before people started making the ocean their own personal garbage dump. If we saw a beer can or trash floating on the surface, we made an attempt to scoop it up with the net.
The sky was full of birds that day. While the Captain/guide was showing Gary how to work the boats controls, I listened to the purr of the twin Chrysler inboard engines and searched the skies for birds with a pair of binoculars. I saw hundreds of seagulls and terns, quite a few pelicans and even a couple of albatrosses, “the mariner’s curse,” watching us from atop of the buoys.” What I was told to look for, were diving birds. The gulls flying high were searching for schools of bait fish, the ones that were diving, had found them and that is where we wanted to fish.
Mr. Boog showed Gary his arsenal of lures and different ways to knot use when attaching a leader for what ever type of fishing you were doing. Me, I tried to make myself useful by volunteering to untangle backlashes. The hold of the boat contained several nice Shakespeare, Schaeffer and Garcia rods and reels, but they were practically useless because they had been stored with backlashes. In the heat of the moment, I guess Mr. Boog chose to grab another rod while the fish were biting and save the back lashes for a rainy day. I didn’t mind, I was pretty familiar with back lashes. On the ones I couldn’t untangle, I ran new line.
They did catch a nice blue marlin that day, not off the cigar mullet but off the pompano that we caught with the mullet. We took turns in the “Captain’s Chair, tag teaming up against the magnificent fish. Mr Boog hooked it up with a small balloon on the leader, so that the bait would troll at a certain depth, then release once he got a strike. I think now, looking back, that this is where my brother first started showing signs of interest in using lures to fish with, instead of bait.
We got plenty sunburnt in the middle of February. Although we weren’t beer drinkers back then, Mr Boog had plenty of “Lite Beer” from Miller’s, we got drunk as skunks on the way back to the marina. That night we got to sleep on the boat, happy campers. Boog Powell, Baseball’s “Mr. MVP”, was a good host and ambassador to the sport of baseball. Anybody else would have run us off, but the last thing he told us was “if you boys ever get back down here, look me up.”