Flying Fishermen

My brother Gary and I were room mates at the motel when we sold tools.  We weren’t always cashed up, but most of the time when we worked “together” within a week or two, we would have our pockets full of hundred dollar bills.

My brother Gary was an “info-maniac”.  No matter where we were, east, west, north, south, first thing after breakfast he’d get the local newspaper and the USA today, when it came out.  Gary would read about land for sale, the weather, the sports, what areas of the US was booming and oh yeah, good places to go fish.  Of course he would make it sound good, so I would want to go too.  Seems like we had a lot of fishing adventures.

Gary could fish, no doubt about it, he didn’t use bait, just lures, to give the fish a sporting chance.  The fish usually lost.  If I tell one fishing story, then I got to tell a hundred.  It’s hard for me to decide which one is best.  I’ll let y’all be the judge, here’s one.

Gary and I were selling tools in New Orleans.  We were staying at the Holiday Inn in Kenner, not far from the Superdome.  Gary read an ad for “Delta Sand Bar” offshore fishing, accessible by plane only, hot spot for red bass.

K-mart had what we needed, rods and reels , leaders, lures, then we stopped at the Ice House and got some ice for the cooler and a 12 pack of Michelob, then met the pilot/guide at the hangar.

The pilot filled us in on all of the details.  For $750,00 each he promised us the adventure of a life time.  That’s just what he called it.   He told us, that’s where the Red Bass are bedding down.  He said we would be flying due south, past the tip of Plaquemine Parrish where the Mississippi River turns empties into the Gulf, then on for another 60 miles and land near the sand bars of the Delta.  During low tide, the water was only about 2 foot deep.  He told us that we had to catch the tide right, it needed to be all the way out and we could fish the incoming tide.  He also said that he would toss out an anchor and stay with us and bring us back.  That sounded good, so we paid him the $1,500.00, put our cooler behind the seat, crammed into the little Cessna Scout with pontoons, ready to go, let’s go catch some red bass.

The flight took about 30 minutes.  Flying over the cresting waves, just above the diving birds.  The landing was a little rough, not my first landing in a seaplane but the first in a plane this small.  We were about 60 miles south of New Orleans, in the Gulf, fishing the Delta sand bars.  Nothing but ocean as far as you can see, the white tops of the cresting waves seem to go on forever.  Hard to believe that the water was only 2 feet deep.  The pilot gave us some instructions and an air horn to put in our fanny pack, next to a couple of beers, just in case we needed to get his attention.

Gary, true to form was a sportsman all the way.  He didn’t believe in using live bait of any kind.  We broke out the “Stingray grubs” that was in with the gear we had loaded in our fanny packs.  Little white lures, with red lead heads and a swirly red twisted tail.  They were dynamite.  Gary always caught the first fish (and he did that day) while I’m still trying to untangle the backlash, from my first cast.  We had two beers apiece with us, we fished, drank our beer and had a great time, no land in sight, small breakers rolling in and the plane anchored behind us.

We fished for hours, the pilot was right, both of our stringers, about 12 feet in length were full of beautiful red bass.  The smallest bass was about 3 foot long, most were 4 foot or bigger.  The tide started to rise up on us, slowly at first, we fished on until we noticed dorsal fins in the water, all around us.  This looked “serial”, damn.  We decided to call it a day, took a quick look for the plane and it was gone, disappeared from sight.

Rising up on a cresting wave, we finally located the plane, it was about a quarter mile away.  We used the air horn till it quit on us.  Nada, nothing, no notice that the pilot heard us, saw us or was even in the plane.  When the tide rolled in, the swells caused the plane to rise, because of the short anchor rope, it would move about 20 feet away from us, with each wave.  We had tied our stringers full of fish to our belt loops.  As much as we hated it, we had to cut our stringer of fish loose.  The blood in the water was attracting too much attention from the sharks, and I am terrified of Barracuda, they way they hit and run.  We started wading towards the plane, difficult as it was with the rising tide and current going against us.

Next thing to go was our new fishing gear and fanny packs with our leaders and lures and what ever contraband we had carried with us that day.  The last 150 yards we had to swim for it, the tide was rising that fast.  When we finally got to the plane the water was up to our necks, rising even higher with each approaching swell.  Once we climbed onto the pontoons, we felt a sense of relief.  Finally, we were safe, we weren’t going to drown, now what’s wrong with that damn pilot?  Gary was first into the cockpit of the plane.  I heard a commotion, saw fists flying, blood spurting on the windshield, then, screaming and hollering.

The pilot had drank the rest of our beer.  Empty Michelob bottles scattered across the deck of the planes interior, rolling back and forth.  The empty cooler was  lying on its side.  When we got there, the pilot was laying back in his seat snoring, head tilted back, passed out cold.  Gary went off, fists a flying, tagging the pilot with every blow.  I knew that  Gary nor I either one could fly the plane, so I made Gary quit.  Forty-five minutes later, we spot the roof top of the Superdome and the plane is landing back at our point of departure.  Just as soon as the plane quit taxiing down the runway and came to a halt, Gary jumped on him again.

The pilot is flailing his arms trying to ward off the blows, crying too, saying “what, what?  You already kicked my ass once.”  Gary said “That’s for drinking all our beer, you son of a bitch, the adventure of a lifetime my ass.”  The pilot ran away from the plane towards the hangar, seeking medical attention I guess, but I was afraid that some one would call an Air Marshall to us.

My half of the trip was $750.00, plus all the money I spent on new fishing gear.  The really good fight happened when we got back to the Holiday Inn.

Guantanamo Bay

Ever sail one of these? It’s called a “Sunfish”, a day sailer. Just about the easiest sailboat to maneuver, you’ll ever find.

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Living in Guantanamo was confining at times. It was such a small Naval Base, near the center of the Caribbean Ocean.  During summer vacation, the dependent school children were offered a variety of summer sports programs to attend.  The first step was safety education, the “rules” do this, don’t do that.

The first summer we were in GTMO, mom had us take swimming classes, even Duane. In didn’t take him long, he was at home in the water, his disabilities didn’t add up to much, the waters made him buoyant.
We also took tennis and golf lessons, Mom figured that Officer’s children should know how to play tennis and golf.  Another reason might be that the Captain’s wife taught tennis, it might get her an invite to cocktails.
The second year we were there, We took sailing lessons at Special Services to get checked out on a Sunfish, a real small, cute little sailboat.  This boat was big enough for two adults, or as in our case, three small boys. We could go down to the marina and check one out for the day.  Special Services was kinda like a sporting goods library. You could check out any piece of equipment you wanted at no charge, you just had to bring it back when you were finished with it.

Sailing isn’t as hard as it looks. With the wind, no brainer, if you want to go left, push the tiller to the right and visa versa. Sailing against the wind, was a littler tougher. You pick out the point on the horizon where you want to end up and with the use of the tiller, you aim either 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock, keeping your destination in the corner of your eye. That’s called a tack, you run out the tack until you can’t go any further, then you “come about”, and run before the wind in the opposite direction, always moving forward.  If you want more speed you use a full sail and if the wind gets too brisk, lower the sail. If you use too much sail on a tack, you’ll probably tip over and capsize. Then everybody loads up on one side and tips it back up right, bail out the water and keep going.

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The bay was a beautiful place, to pre-teen age boys, it was paradise.  Mom kept a ship’s bell on the cliff, right next to a pair of ship’s binoculars, mounted on a swivel, to keep an eye on us.  We got to explore small islands, atolls (under water islands), reefs, bays etc.  Sometimes a large shark would decide to check us out, the Sunfish was 14 foot, I remember a hammerhead trying to pin us up in a small lagoon, being every bit of 14 foot. We beached the boat, even though we heard Mom’s bell going off high up on the cliff at the end of Radio Point, we stayed put until the shark left to play his games somewhere else.

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Boys without toys find something else to do, to tickle there fancy.  We climbed trees, hunted iguanas and bird’s nests, gigged frogs, gathered wild fruit, explored mysterious trails and when we weren’t allowed to go out on the reef or hunt in the jungle, we found other things to do.

Our dad had multiple duties.  He was the Asst. Admin Officer, the Discipline Officer, the Barracks Officer, Naval Intelligence Officer (I & E) and the Postal Officer.  He couldn’t be every where at once.  We knew that and had his schedule imprinted in our brains, so that we could show up where he wasn’t, to reap the benefits of being Mr. Frailey’s sons.

As the Discipline Officer, it was up to Dad to decide if minor infractions of the Code of Military Justice warranted a Captain’s Mass or other minor forms of punishment, like “extra duty.”  Extra duty could entail a lot of things, one of them being to serve as baby sitters for his 3 boys, while Dad and Mom went to the “O” Club for a couple of hours.

Since we didn’t have TV on the base, these wayward sailors would find other means to occupy our time.  We learned to cuss like “a sailor” early in life, much to our parent’s chagrin.  One of the first things I remember was learning to sit on my knees and disassemble a Colt .45 automatic.  I know what your thinking, I was only 8 years old true enough, but my brothers were 6 and 5.  They learned too.

The barrel bushing is the first piece off and the last back on.  It holds the barrel slide in place.  If I remember right, there were 9 pieces all told, including the magazine.  Be careful not to lose the spring.  We were shown how to place each piece in order, from left to right, easy to reach as we disassembled and reassembled the piece.  Once we mastered this technique, off would go the lights.  You’ve heard of doing something blindfolded, well turning out the lights has the same effect.

Next, we learned hand to hand combat techniques. How to grab some one from behind with your left hand under your foes chin and tilt it upwards as you stick your bayonet in his kidney, then twist it, to prevent him from hollering out.  Of course we didn’t use a real bayonet (at first).  Depending on the skills of the guy that kept an eye on us, sometimes it was “Ski” or “Tommy” for Thompson, “Smitty,” “Brownie,” on down the line, each with special skills. We learned to make Malatov Cocktails, how to use semaphore, Morse code, how to use flags to signal landing instructions to a jet on an aircraft carrier, Military jargon, the “P’s and Q’s” of the Black shoe Navy.  How to use you’re your clothes as a flotation device if you were ever on a boat that sank came in handy a time or two, we were always flipping a Sunfish over.

Yeah, we  grew up before our time.  We turned out to be some mean little shits.  Dad always called us his “Strikers,” a military term for midshipmen.  To us, there was no “hallowed ground.”  Nothing was safe.  Sure, we got caught, it was a small naval base, we always got caught and being the Discipline Officer, Dad saw to it that we always got punished.

Our house didn’t have a bath room, it was called the “head.”  Same with the floor, it was called the deck, the walls were called the bulkhead, and the mop was a swab.  When we walked anywhere in Dad’s view, in was in military alignment, no straggling.  Reveille was at 0600 hours, our beds were made by 06:30 hours, we scoured the reefs to see what treasures the outgoing tide had left us overnight.  At 07:30 hours we got ready for school, caught the bus at 0800 to further upgrade our education, always with a military slant.

Because of the heat, school was from 0800 to 1100, then a two hour lunch break.  The buses would take us home for lunch/siesta, then pick us up and it was back to school from 1300 to 1500 hours, Taps was at 2200 hours, that meant lights out.

After school, depending on the day of the month, we would look for our Dad where we knew he wasn’t.  We would check out the Admin Office when we knew he was doing Barracks inspections, just so we could sit at his desk, look for his cigarettes, drink coffee and eat doughnuts.  The Operations Office was next door with a glass partition in between.  We could see on a chart mounted on the wall just what ships were due in and at what dock they were going to berthed.   My brothers would take a grease pencil when no one was watching and write “Kilroy was here,” on the plexi-glass chart, a military joke.  We also wanted to see what dates ships were coming or going, the reason being that on the incoming ships the guys debarking from the ship would carry boxes of comic books and magazines that we could buy really cheap.  After a two to six month cruise, these books had been read from cover to cover. Two or three dollars would get a whole box.   The ships that were departing on a lengthy cruise would be good customers for what ever fruit we could gather.  Coconuts, bananas, pomegranates, avocadoes, mommasitos (Cuban Grapes), tamarinds, mangoes and more.  Scurvy was the scourge of the fleet.  No one could have enough fruit on a lengthy voyage.  We earned plenty of pocket money selling boxes of fruit.

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On days that our Dad was holding Captain’s Mass at the Admin Office, we would scoot down to the Post Office “looking “ for Dad.  Nonchalantly we would help the guys sort the mail, always looking for contraband.  Guys that has been transferred or their enlistments were up would have their mail stored in a “dead file” pending receipt of a forwarding address.  Sometimes suspicious packages needed to be searched.  We felt it our duty to give a hand in this regard.  Every suspicious package that smelled like fruit cake or cookies needed to be checked and sampled, we were duty bound.  It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.  Cuban cigars were considered contraband, but it seems like everyone was sending them home to the States.  We would sit at Dad’s empty desk and go through his drawers, find some “Monte Cristoes or a couple of “Presidentials” and help ourselves, filling our pockets with stogies when no one was looking.  Like I said before, we always got caught, but we were Mr. Frailey’s sons, the guys working were the same guys that watched us at night when our folks were off having cocktails and hors devours.  I could read as good as anybody there and would help sort mail, I loved doing it, to me, it wasn’t what I would call work, more like killing time so that I could find something else to get in to.

The “Lucky Bag,” was where they kept old uniforms, from guys who’s enlistment was up or guys that changed pay grades or like when a guy was transferred in from up north and he would discard his winter gear for summer uniforms.  We were too small to wear most of the stuff, but some times we would find a pair of shoes that fit.  The base didn’t have a shoe store, which was okay, we didn’t like to wear shoes anyway but when you are out on the reef, walking on sharp coral, it doesn’t hurt to have something on your feet.  Our special interest was in gathering old ammo belts and enlisted men’s white hats, sometimes a poncho or a back pack.  Leggings were of special interest too when we went on jungle excursions.

Heathens you might think.  Yeah, we were called heathens plenty enough, and some other salty names come to mind too.  Especially after my youngest brother Duane tried to light a Malatov Cocktail one night after we snuck out of the house.  We were behind the Navy Exchange were the gas pumps were, filling old rum bottles with gasoline.  Duane wanted to light one up just to check it out.  I told him to go ahead, just throw it on the pavement and run.  Well, he pulled out a Zippo lighter that we had com-shawed from one of Dad’s desk and tried to light the rag sticking out above the neck of the bottle, when he did, the excess gas that had spilled on his arm lit him up, causing Duane to toss the bottle up in the air.  It land up against the dumpster next to a bunch of pallets leaning up against the Navy Exchange.  We ran home once we realized that the fire was out of control, to act like we had been in bed the whole time.  The fire alarm could be heard all across the base, a signal for volunteers to come hither.  Of course we some of the first “volunteers” there.  We weren’t allowed to participate, just watch.  When we saw the firefighters were tossing ammo out of the sporting goods area into a dry ditch, we quickly took the opportunity to move as many boxes of ammunition into a nearby culvert.  Later after the fury had calmed down, we moved these boxes of shot gun shells and rifle and pistol bullets to our “fort,” a cave that we had dug into the cliff below our house.

We had already been taught by Smitty or Tommy how to separate the gun powder from the casing.  We knew how to wrap this gunpowder in tin foil with BBs from the shotgun shells to make a little explosive device that would make a loud pop when tossed against a hard object.  We didn’t actually get caught until later when we tried to use them against the military police during “Operation NEGDEF.”  (Defensive maneuvers preparing against Castro

We used home made bolos to catch iguanas, slingshots to kill chukka, spears that we made at Public Works to gig moray eels and longusta and “billy clubs” that we got from the Shore Patrol as our first line of defense against javelinas.  We used all of these weapons and more almost everyday.  We lived in Guantanamo for four years.  I don’t know if we just got use to our environment, or if they just got use to us. It was our Utopia, our Shangri-la.  I never wanted to leave, but all little boys must grow up, I don’t know if the base was the same with out us or not, but my brothers and I carried a little piece of Gitmo with us the rest of our lives.

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MVP

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”jet520

Gitmo

 

 

The 57th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis has just passed, this is my version of the events.

Dad made Senior Chief back in ’58, he applied for LDO (Limited Duty Officer) soon afterwards.  I was in the first grade at school.  He wrangled a slot in Officer’s Candidate School in Quonset Point Rhode Island. He graduated and became an Ensign, an Officer and a Gentleman by an act of Congress.

He took his appointment serious, never wavering.  Mom was proud of him.  She had told him years earlier that she wouldn’t marry him unless he promised to work and strive for promotion.  He didn’t disappoint her.

The military has a rule, that if an enlisted men gets promoted to an Officer’s status, he can’t serve with enlisted men that he shared a duty station with.  Soon after, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.  His duty slot was Assistant Administration Officer.  It was a small base, his other duties included Discipline Officer, Barracks Officer, Naval Intelligence and the Postal Officer, many more.
He went ahead of the rest of the family to secure a housing berth and give Mom time to sell our house, put the cars in storage along with our household effects then get her, my brothers and I, the necessary shots required to go overseas.

At the time we left my favorite TV shows were Hop a Long Cassidy, Ozzie and Harriet and the Mickey Mouse Club. I remember that when we left, Annette was wearing pig tails, white blouses with a plaid skirt and black and white saddle oxfords.  Jimmy? Oh yeah Jimmy, well he still had freckles.  We returned to the U.S., Annette was wearing a bra and Jimmy was smoking stogies.

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Growing up on Naval base in Cuba was a kid’s paradise.  We ran wild, within limits, especially since we couldn’t go off the base.  My two brothers and I, Gary and Duane never had any toys, there wasn’t any TV, so we entertained ourselves the best way we knew how.  Most nights we listened to the radio.  My favorite programs were Gunsmoke, the Phantom, Dagwood and Blondie and the Lone Ranger.

When we arrived on a MATS flight (Military Air Transport) to join Dad in September of 1960 at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Mom had one large suitcase.  Half of it was her clothes and the other half were our clothes, no room for games or toys.  I was just starting the 3rd grade, so I guess that made me about 8 years old, Gary was 6 and Duane was 5.  If you needed anything of importance, you could usually go to Special Services and check it out, furniture, house wares, sporting goods, tools etc.

We got to play during recess at school with playground equipment, but at home it was pretty much what ever we could find to do on our own.  We invented games involving throwing rocks because we lived on a gravel road. We got in trouble for throwing rocks at buildings and vehicles, so instead we made up games that involved throwing them at each other.

 

We found a bicycle in the gully at the bottom of a cliff.  It was a godsend.  It didn’t have a chain, so no brakes, it was missing the rubber tire on the back rim but we could still ride it, if we pointed it down the hill we lived on and hung on for dear life.  At the bottom of the hill was Sherman Blvd.  It was the main drag throughout the base with a fair amount of traffic.  To stop the bike, to keep from running head on into oncoming vehicles we would put one foot down and try to lay the bike down on it’s side.  Sometimes we would get scrapes and bruises, just rip the hide off of our knees and elbows.  We ended up using a piece of rope for a rear tire.

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My youngest brother Duane had Cerebral Palsy.  He was crippled from birth.  Mom wouldn’t allow us to baby him or favor him in any way.  He did what we did or we weren’t allowed to do it.  When it came time for Duane to point the bike downhill, he wasn’t able to lay it down to stop, most of the time he would just go straight across the highway, through oncoming traffic and the brush on the other side, down the ravine where we found the bike.

Since all vehicles had to be shipped in, the unwritten rule in effect was that you could buy a car from someone being transferred out, for a certain price and when you were transferred you sold the car to someone else for the same price. Most of the cars were mid ‘50’s vintage, black, dark green or gray.

The social caste of the base was arranged by color I think. No, not racial color, the color of the clothes people wore. The leisure uniform of the Officers was white and so was the working uniform of the Filipinos that served them, but they just wore tee shirts instead of a regular shirt. Unless the Officers were working, then they wore khakis. The non-coms (Chiefs) always wore khaki. The uniform of the day for Enlisted personnel was usually dungarees, except for Inspection, then it was dress whites. The service personnel that took care of the mundane duties, like groundskeepers and laundry workers, usually wore white T-shirts and khaki pants with straw hats. Military dependents could wear what they wanted to, but it was usually something white or light colored because of the heat.  If someone was wearing bright colored clothes it was usually after dark or they had just recently arrived.

Dad was an Ensign when we invaded Guantanamo.  We lived at 1 Radio Point, in the Officer’s housing area.  The first house across from the BOQ, Bachelor Officer’s Quarters, where the unmarried Officers lived and visiting dignitaries.  Behind the BOQ lived the Filipino servants.  Behind our house and down the cliff, was Public Works.  The shops for all of the maintenance gear on the base.

The Public Works yard (down the cliff below us) was cluttered up with ancient earth moving equipment from the construction of the Panama Canal.  We played and climbed the old rusty dinosaur-like cranes and bulldozers almost everyday, almost like “Monkey Bars” at the park.  Graffiti and initials covered the old equipment much like the hand prints in the sidewalk of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  We would imagine that the old rusty stuff still worked and we were lifting debris and bulldozing roads.

Further out Radio Point, surrounding the giant Radio Tower that received the communications that kept the base informed, were more Officer’s quarters.  The Captain and the Admiral lived at the very end of the point, (the point was covered on 3 sides by water).  Down the cliffs were docks and at the end of the point were man made reefs constructed from sunken barges and piles of concrete debris that ran out about a quarter of a mile.

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This area, was our Shangri-la.  We played on the reefs at low tide every day, looking to spear fish in shallow pools, collect whatever goodies the tide brought up and do what boys do.  We lifted every rock to see what was under it, clam shells, starfish, sea urchins any type of sea creature would we could capture to sell to the Filipinos.

The Filipinos believed in eating fresh killed meat.  They liked to butcher it themselves in accordance with their religious rituals.  We sometimes made a dollar a day, more if we went out on the reef and caught a moray eel or a stingray.  We broaden our horizons by venturing out into the nearby jungles that were down in the valleys between each hill, to hunt for wild game.

Our first conquest were wild pigs, we later learned they are called “javelinas”. The Filipinos would give us five bucks for a young pig. We weren’t that scared of them because they weren’t that big, but they were aggressive so we treated them with caution.  We knew where to look for them, they loved prickly cactus pears and at the bottom of every hill, there was a muddy puddle and a cactus patch.  Leading up from the creek we would find a tree with overhanging branches and Gary and I would find a place to perch over the trail while Duane would start throwing rocks at a group of feeding pigs to get their attention.

Then he would turn and run as fast as he could up the trail toward me and Gary.  The pigs would give chase after Duane but he would get to the tree line ahead of them in time for Gary and I to reach down and grab him and pull him up.  Then, while the pigs were milling about we would use a forked tree branch to pin a young one to the ground and sometimes stabbing the momma pig so she would run off.

After we caught a pig and made our trade with the Filipinos we would watch them butcher the pig by hanging it upside down and cutting it’s throat, catching the blood in a large metal pan about three feet wide (much like a sugar cane boiling pot but smaller). They would use this blood to boil their rice in, yuck is what we thought, but we would take the money we made and go to the Navy Exchange and buy comic books, bubble gum and candy bars.

We didn’t just hunt pigs, the biggest item in demand by the Filipinos were hummingbirds.  The old men would use them as aphrodisiacs.  We built small bow and arrows out of palm fronds and tipped them with needles from Mom’s sewing machine case, wrapping thread around the base of the needle joining it to the tip of the arrow and putting clear paper glue over top.  When we shot at them, we aimed just above them and pinned their wings to the tree and capture them alive.

.We also caught chameleons and iguanas with bolos that sailors showed us how to make and three foot long banana rats, tarantulas and snakes, mostly pythons.  We got our ass tore up when Dad heard about us catching pythons and boas.  We found a dried up pond where we could dig down through the cracked, dried cakes of mud and find frogs the size of a football.  These frogs would fill their bellies with rain water and then hibernate until the rainy season came again.

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As the years progressed we got to be pretty good hunters.  At night we would sneak out of the house to go out on the reef with a kerosene lantern and turn over rocks with a potato rake and gig longoustinos.  Longoustinos are like a lobster except they don’t have claws, we sometimes would get eels, octopi or coconut crabs.  We would get spotted by the Base Police (sometimes MP’s and sometimes the Shore Patrol), they worked for Dad so we didn’t get in any trouble with them, they would just call Dad and tell him they saw us doing this or that, we’d get a beating  yes, but the next night, we’d do it again.

Dad got to where he would rake the ground under our window, just to see if we left any footprints from the night before.  After we learned this, we started to climb out on tree limbs, so we wouldn’t leave any tracks.

Tree climbing, before I forget, boys without toys love to climb trees. We had pathways in the many trees that filled our front yard and lined the street.  We called it “hitchhiking”, when we would climb from one tree to the next without touching the ground. Our backyard had 28 mango trees.  Oh how I hated mangoes, but that was the best place to catch tarantulas.  I didn’t like to eat mangoes, though sometimes we did make a pretty good tasting mango ice cream out of them.

Our first Christmas, Dad had promised me a .22 rifle and my brothers and I, new bicycles.  Every thing had to be ordered through the mail from Sears and Roebuck or JC Penny’s.  Christmas came and went, no bicycles or rifle.  I got two Bobbsey Twin books which I read cover to cover.  Then I got my own library card and that opened a new world to me.

The library was just a few blocks away, even closer if I took the path behind the BOQ, down the ravine and up the next hill.  I read every Bobbsey twin book and then read the Hardy Boy’s Mysteries.  I think that’s where my thirst for adventure originated from.

Eventually we got our bikes, but I got sick of waiting for that rifle.  Dad finally took me down to the Armory, he was in charge of that too, and he checked out a 1906 Springfield 30.06 bolt action with a 3 shot clip.  He told me that if I completed a gun safety course at the rifle range, that I could use it until my rifle finally arrived.

Oh yeah, I was in my own world then. I completed the class and from then on every Saturday after I got my haircut. I would ride the bus with my 30.06 in it’s case to the rifle range and target shoot a box of shells.  Sometimes I used my imagination and pretended that the targets were Cuban solders getting ready to shoot at me and Teddy Roosevelt while we were charging up San Juan Hill.

The .22 shells were $1.05 but the 30.06 shells were $6.00.  That was a lot of money for a 9 year old, but the desire for money was in me and we hustled every dime we could.  When the .22 finally came in the mail I was mad.  I didn’t want that pea shooter.  Dad had ordered my brothers rifles too.  I think he was apprehensive about Castro invading the base and he wanted to make sure that we were able to defend ourselves.

Dad and I spent a lot of time at the Hobby Shop at night, building an eighteen foot Cabin Cruiser.  We sculpted the keel and the hull, built the ribs and covered it with plywood, which we fastened to the frame with Weldwood glue and brass screws, using a brace and bit.  That could be where I got my love for building stuff, it was something that my Dad and I accomplished together.

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During the summers the base provided enrichment courses that kids could enroll in, depending on the interest.  Our first year, Mom made sure we all enrolled in swimming classes. Then I took tennis lessons and Gary took golf lessons. The next year we all enrolled in a sailing course.  We could go down to Special Services and check out a 14 foot Sunfish.  We became adept sailors at a very young age.  The object being to keep your destination between 10 o’clock and two o’clock, tack left to go right or steer to the right to go left.

Mom would walk down to the Captain’s house at the end of the point and use his binoculars that were mounted on a stand, to keep and eye on us.  When it was time for supper or the tide was about to change she would ring the gong on the huge ship’s bell that was mounted next to it.  We knew better than to ignore her, no matter how much fun we were having.

There wasn’t any TV to watch, no cartoons.  Once a month the base would televise a World Series baseball game that they had on tape from three or four years before.

The third summer, we took diving lessons.  We had instructors to teach us they “dos and don’ts”, even though Duane was crippled on land, he could swim like a fish in the water.

Baseball was our sport of choice.  The diamond must have been an old grenade practice range and after many years of being baked in the sun, the infield was deadly.  Our coaches were usually officers with sons that wanted to play ball.  Once a month we would load up on a plane and fly to a base on another island to play against their team.  I got to visit many places that most folks just dream about.

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Our Dad was the Asst Admin Officer when we first arrived at the base, he was promoted to the Admin Officer and had many other duties.  He was also the Postal Officer, Discipline Officer, Naval Intelligence Officer, the Barracks Officer in fact he had so many duties I don’t know how he kept track of them all.

Being the Discipline Officer his job was to dispense punishment for infractions to the Code of Military Justice.  Sometimes men with minor infractions were invited to babysit my brothers and I to avoid a “Captain’s Mast,” while my parents went to the Officer’s Club.

These guys thought it was funny to teach us to cuss and fight hand to hand, we were shown how to disassemble and reassemble a Colt .45 blindfolded.  It all starts and ends with the “barrel bushing.”  Squatting with our knees folded under us and place the parts in front of us in the order we took them off, so they would be in order when we needed them to put it back together.  We were taught hand to hand combat and staged mini fights in our living room, how to stab a guy from behind with a bayonet in the kidneys and twist the blade so the victim couldn’t holler out..

Some of the guys taught us semaphore, how to communicate with flags, morse code, tie knots and make Malatov cocktails.  Soon afterwards, we were behind the Navy Exchange practicing with the Malatov Cocktails.  Duane lit the rag and threw the bottle up against the dumpster.  The dumpster caught on fire, then the Exchange caught fire.  When the Fire Brigade got there, they started tossing out the flammables.  When they started tossing out the ammunition, Gary and I were standing in the crowd of onlookers, we started grabbing boxes and cases and hid them in a culvert.

We ended up with cases and cases of shotgun, rifle and pistol shells. We came back the next night and hid them in our “fort”, a hideout we had built on the cliff below our house. We had been shown how to take the gunpowder from a shotgun shell and the BB’s, wrap them in tinfoil and make a little bomb.  All we needed to do was throw it up against something solid and it would explode.

It wasn’t long after that, we started filling coconut shells with gunpowder, we made light able fuses out of shoestrings dipped in lighter fluid. When we had to gather all of the rotten mangoes out of our yard, we used a wheel barrow and dumped hem into the ocean. When the fish would gather to feed off of the rotted fruit, Duane would drop coconut bombs on them and watch them float belly up.   We never got away with anything, we always got caught and we always got beat, by Dad or Mom, but it didn’t stop us.

Dad beat us with big branches and Mom preferred the supple willow branches, either one did the job.

The base was saturated with outdoor movie theaters, at least five.  The Officer’s had their section, the enlisted had theirs and so did the civilians.  I think there were 5 in all. We sat in lawn chairs outside when the weather was good.

One night when Dad was the OD (Officer of the Day), I accompanied him to the theatre by the PBY’s (sea planes).  We were watching “Ole Yellar” and a guy hollered out “Somebody help him he can’t breathe”.

It was coming from right behind us in the civilian section, where the enlisted men would sit with civilian women that worked on the base as maids.  There was a young sailor bent over choking and gagging, his buddies were slapping him on the back, trying to dislodge whatever he had caught in his throat.

I had been sitting next to my Dad as his guest in his designated seat as Officer of the Day.  I had been whittling with the knife dad had bought for my birthday.  As I stood staring at the crowd, Dad grabbed the knife out of my hand and flipped out the smallest blade.  He went to the young sailor and had his friends hold him down on the ground, flat on his back.  Dad gave me his flashlight to hold steady on the man’s throat and reached down and made an up and down incision above the breastbone in the small hollow spot on the man’s throat.  Then he grabbed the straw out of the drink I had left in the chair, cut it to about four inches and placed it in the incision.

Just has soon as the straw was in place, you could hear his breath like a whistle coming through.  He was going to be alright, hooray.  The base Hospital was on the other end of the base, a corpsman that had been watching the movie rushed the guy to the emergency room.
I was amazed at my Dad. I asked him how did he know how to do that.?  He told me that as an enlisted man back in WWII, his buddy had caught a piece of shrapnel in the throat from a Japanese Zero while they were mounting the anti-aircraft gun on a submarine deck while they were topside.  He said he held the guy down while the corpsman operated.  He said he never forgot it, stuff like that sticks with you.

I’ve been wanting to tell this story for more than 50 years and I don’t want to leave anything out.  I might have to go back here and there to fill in some gaps, so bear with me.
I haven’t told y’all about the Bob Hope USO shows. Every Christmas, Mr.Bob would start his annual USO show in GTMO (Military acronym is GTMO, civilians use Gitmo, but it’s the same place).

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His troupe would be there for two or three days depending on the weather.  GTMO was his “shakedown cruise”.  They stayed at the BOQ across the street from our house.  Mom looked forward to it, she was an entertainer herself in her own way.  She knew that the bar at the BOQ wasn’t completely stocked, they usually just had rum, the drink of the Caribbean.  She stocked Vodka, Gin, Vermouth along with Bourbons from Kentucky, Scotch you name, she had it.  Mom was a member of the Navy Wives Club and knew a thing or two about socializing.  She liked to sing and dance.  She told me that she had once sang backup with Little Jimmy Dickens on the radio in her early years, in the nearby town of Baxley, Ga.

At night after the USO show, Mom would send me over to the bar at the BOQ searching for olives for her “Martinis”.  My job was to lollygag so she could come in search of me and she would introduce herself to the “stars”, and then invite them over for drinks.

One thing would lead to another and then there would be a crowd at the house. My brothers and I would peek out from our bedrooms to see Mom laughing it up with Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Perry Como and Dad dancing with Anita Bryant or Sandra Dee or a drunken ZaZa Gabor sprawled out on our couch.

Mr Bob liked to play golf and asked me if I knew how to caddie.  I said “Sure Mr Hope” and he said “just call me Bob like every body else” and Mom told him “We’re from the south, and my boys better call you Mr. Bob”.  I caddied for him twice.  The second year he was drinking rum in the hot sun, a definite “no-no”.  An iguana ran up to the hole after he dropped his putt in the hole and ran off with the ball in its mouth.

I had a set of bolos in the golf bag, because the golf course is where we hunted iguanas, I tossed the bolos before he got to the rocks and retrieved his ball.  When I turned to give him back his ball, Mr Bob was stretched out on the green, passed out.  I guess he fainted.  The next year he didn’t want to play golf, we played tennis.

Mom had been one of the members of the Navy Wives Club to organize a “Carnivale” charity event to benefit enlisted personnel when they needed emergency funds. She was able to talk Ms. Gabor and Ms. Bryant to dance with her at the show, while the men did a “Limbo” routine.

Dad and Perry Como did a “Homer and Jethro” act. They smeared burnt cork on their faces and put black wax over their teeth to make them look like hillbillys.  They wore straw hats and white deck pants and shirts.  Dad played a number ten washtub with a broom stick sticking up out of it with a string tied from the top of the broom stick to the top of the overturned tub, it made a pretty god base fiddle and Mr. Perry played a banjo, made from a bed slat and a pie pan, strung with fishing line.

I can remember the song they sang. “Fancination, She’s too fat in the first place, you know it’s true.  She’s too fat, in the second place too.  Turn me loose, from your caboose blubber.  Let me scat like a cat, away from you.  She had nine buttons on her night gown, but could only fasten eight”.  I guess you had to of been there. It was funny then and still is to me now, over 50 years later.

The base newspaper was named the GTMO Gazette, it came out three times a week. It ran important stories from the AP on the front page, listed events and promotions, the uniform of the day and on the back page listed the menu for the base Galley, where military personnel ate.

Sometimes the Officer’s Club would organize junkets to different islands in the Caribbean.  Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados etc.  My parents would go, sometimes bring back souvenirs, always brought back cases of rum from Puerto Rico, crafts from Haiti, etc.  They would get a married couple to stay at the house with us boys.  They would just be gone for about 48 hours.  We were always in good hands.
My youngest brother Duane, the one with Cerebral Palsy was always getting into some unbelievable situation or another.  When they were distributing Polio Vaccines at school, they brought out a tray of sugar cubes that had the Polio Vaccine squirted on top.  I liked it better this way, the year before they gave us shots, I hated that.  This year we were standing line to get our sugar cubes from the school nurse, Duane was at the head of the line.  I guess because of his disability.  Just before they started distributing the vaccines, the base artillery opened up for target practice, Boom! Boom! Boom! Kids being kids, we all ran to the window to see what we could see.  This went on for about 15 minutes.  After the shelling was over, we got back in line to get our medicine, only one problem.  During the artillery display Duane had ate every single one of those sugar cubes.  Two trays full. They took Duane to the Dispensary to pump out his stomach and the rest of us had to wait another month for another shipment of vaccines to come in.

We weren’t allowed to help Duane when he fell, which he did all the time.  Mom wanted him to be independent.  But, sometimes he used his disability to his advantage.  Any place that had a stairway was a playground for Duane.  If he saw a woman wearing a dress coming down the steps, he would fall or trip, just so he could pretend he was hurt but what he was really doing, was looking up her dress.

One day Duane called the base police and told them that Mom and Dad had gone to Jamaica on a junket and left him home alone, by himself. He told them that he hadn’t had anything to eat in a couple of days and could they please bring a couple slices of that pizza from the Galley that he had read about in the Gazette and hurry, because he was starving.

Mom had been in the backyard hanging up clothes on the clothesline.  There weren’t any clothes dryers on base back then.  When she came back into the house, there was Duane sitting at the table eating pizza with two Base Police, one on either side of him, babying him up.  One pouring him some soda and the other getting him another slice of pizza.  Duane could tote an ass whooping just as good as me and Gary, but he didn’t care, as long as he got some pizza.

While we were in Cuba, Duane received at least 6 operations on each leg and wore casts and braces for most of the 4 years we lived there.  When he felt like he deserved some attention, he got it.

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Once we finally got our bicycles we went everywhere, even the restricted areas were no one was allowed.  Kittery Beach was for Officer’s and their families.  Windmill Beach was for the enlisted personnel.  Every weekend the Base Police were called out to settle an armed disturbance, I remember seeing blood every where, guys crawling up the face of the cliff shooting at the Shore Patrol.

Our favorite beach was in a restricted area, surrounded by a minefield. It was up against the fence that separated the base from Communist Cuba.  Once in a while we would ride our bikes out there after we had swiped a pack of hotdogs from the fridge.  We would throw a piece of hotdog out in the sand, known as “no-man’s land”.  The stray dogs that would follow us out there would rush to eat it, we would mark their paw prints in the sand with sticks, so we would know where to step on the way back.

There we would find the best sea shells, swim naked and look for treasures washed in by the tides.  You never knew what Duane was gonna do and sometimes he would beat the dogs to the hotdog and eat it.  I would holler at him but he would say “I don’t care, I’m hungry”.  Occasionally a dog would step on a mine and then blood and guts went every where.  The explosion would garner unwanted attention and again we would suffer the same form of punishment.

One good thing did derive from our expeditions.  This was the time in history leading up to the Bay of Pigs.  Dad also worked for Naval Intelligence.  They needed a means of communication with the freedom fighters to coordinate their efforts with military personnel.  They started using the bodies from the dead dogs (what was left of them) like a Trojan Horse.  They would hide communiques inside the dead bodies and throw them over the fence, to be retrieved by the revolutionaries.
I got a silver dollar every week for my allowance.  It wasn’t given to me, I earned it.  Dad would send me out with different labor parties to make sure that I knew what “hands on” meant.

Sometimes I helped to unload mail bags at the Post Office and sort mail because I could read about as good as most of the sailors that worked for Dad.  Other times I would get sent out to help the Sea Bees build “Pill Boxes” that were scattered all over the base.  Sometimes I worked at the Galley, washing dishes.

The trash crew was a group of Filipinos that formed the major labor force on the base. Filipinos from the Philippines were granted US citizen ship for them and their families after a 6 year enlistment.  William Taft, then governor of the Philipines was assigned to replace Theodore Roosevelt as the governor of the Panama Canal.  Roosevelt had been appointed to be Secretary of the Navy.  Taft brought with him, to his new position, thousands of Filipino workers to help build the Panama Canal, these men formed “tongs” or gangs. (I think this was around 1911).

The thousands of workers were paid monthly in gold and silver coin.  The military adjutant overseeing the military aspects of the construction was Marine General Upshur. One month the payroll was robbed and for over 50 years no one had a clue as to who or what happened to the money.  One clue was the majority of the money was uncirculated 1901 Morgan Silver Dollars, encased in leather bags.

After the construction of the canal was completed, these men and their families, along with the construction equipment were scattered across the Caribbean to fill the needs of the many Naval Bases that were being constructed to protect the entrance of the Panama Canal in case of war.  The barges that were used in the Canal zone eventually ended up in Guantanamo and were used to build a protective reef at the end of Radio Point that led up to the docks.

When ships pulled in to port at the docks, my brothers and I were always anxious to greet them.  We would trade fresh mangoes and bananas for boxes of old comic books that sailors would take with them on a cruise to fight the boredom.  Sometimes these boxes contained Playboy and Penthouse magazines.  To us, these were like solid gold.  The Filipinos weren’t allowed to buy magazines with naked white women at the Navy Exchange and they were willing to pay more than the cover price for these old magazines.

Since we were out on the reefs almost every day we knew every nook and cranny.  The old barges had been sunken in place end to end, with slabs of concrete placed on top. Where the first barge had been placed, it blended in with the sandy beach landscape and had a large coconut tree leaning out over the top.  Gary climb to the top of this tree one day to get some overhanging fruit, his weight and the erosion of the beach sand from around the base caused the tree to lean over even more, exposing the roots and making a large opening that led to a small cave inside of the barge.

Inside the barge, it was dark and stinking, Whew, I can still smell it, it was that bad. Looking inside we found stacks of leather bags, stacked about 4 feet high.  When we tried to pick one up, it shredded scattering silver coins everywhere, all 1901 Morgan Silver Dollars.  We knew we had found pirate treasure, but didn’t want to tell anybody.  It was our secret.

Oh boy, more comic books, more shells for our rifles, more snicker bars and sodas.  Just more, more, more.  We use old palm fronds to cover the entrance, then went about our every day routines.  Hunting, fishing, riding our bikes and going to the pool at the Officer’s Club.

We were little gangsters. We figured every body was fair game.  We did deserve every ass whooping we ever got, and there were plenty.  Looking back we had the attitude that we wanted to live like “Pirates”, we weren’t afraid of being punished. Arrrrh!

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We were confident that we could live with the consequences once we got caught.  It never was a question of were we gonna get away with it ‘cause our Dad was in charge and we knew we could handle his “ass whoopins”.  The main reason we went to the pool besides the refreshing swim was to swipe money.  Duane was doing his thing at the stairs, standing guard while Gary and I would go through the lockers where everyone kept there clothes after they changed into their swimsuits.  We pilfered loose change, no not all of it. If there was $1.75 we would take 50 cents.  A couple of lockers and we would have enough for some fries and a couple of vanilla milkshakes at the concession stand.

A couple weeks after our discovery of the silver dollars we were at the pool doing our thing and we found a 1901 Morgan Silver dollar.  This was in the pants pocket of a young doctor that often swam in the lagoon near the reef.  Well, we put the dollar back and made a mental note to keep an eye out for the guy when we were near the reefs.  It wasn’t very long afterwards that the young doctor was found dead floating face down in the waters we swam in, nearly every single day.  We were stunned and scared shitless. We thought that the Filipinos were behind it because they were always watching us.

1901 Morgn Sivr Dollr.

It wasn’t too long after that, while sitting at the breakfast table, Dad saw me and Gary playing “football” with a silver dollar.  It was one from our “stash” a 1901.  I didn’t think he would notice one from another but he did.  He said, “Hey where did you get this? This is a 1901 Morgan Silver dollar”.  Then he told us and Mom about the rarity and the story about the unsolved robbery at the Panama Canal Zone fifty years before.  Uh oh, “Damn Naval Intelligence”, I thought.  Mom tried to take up for me, she told Dad that he was dreaming up shit, and that every week he gave us our allowance in silver dollars.

He chewed on it until Mom left the room and then he wanted to know the truth.  We spilled the beans, mainly I think because we were afraid the Filipinos were at fault for the young officer’s death and they were gonna get us next.  The amount of the money when it was loaded up and counted was staggering.  I don’t remember exactly how much now, but the money that was counted didn’t match up with the money turned in.  Dad was a straight arrow and when he found out about it, he skipped a couple rungs of the ladder in the chain of command and suffered the consequences.

His report to the way higher ups wasn’t received well.  He made a grave error, never skip the chain of command.  Even though he got a commendation letter from then President Kennedy for his handling of the dependent’s evacuation, his next duty station after we left Cuba was a Sub Tender out of Norfolk.  Not exactly a desired duty station for a young officer looking for promotion.  The good thing though, was we were able to skip the ass whooping this one time.

“NEGDEF” was held once a month, out came the fatigues and C-rations and K-rations getting every one prepared just in case Castro decided to invade.  “Water Condition Bravo.”  Do not wash your car, water your yard or waste any water.  Castro would cut off the water supply to the base every couple of months, like after President Kennedy sent him a thousand tractors as a good will gesture (you never hear about that). These were all lemons, Ford 8N rejects. Castro was so pissed he had them painted up like Easter eggs and lined the fence with them on permanent display.

The Navy brought in large ships to make desalinated water for the base drinking supply. That was terrible stuff. If you bathed in it, it was so thin it wouldn’t rinse the soap out of your hair.  We bathed in a rain barrel on the backside of the house.  Lights in the homes were to be cut off after 10 o’clock.  No movies, no traffic, stay indoors and the military would conduct training maneuvers across the base.

This was our cup of tea, so to speak.  We had paths laid out in the tree branches were we could come and go unseen.  We would pepper the MP’s with our little home made bombs when they drove by with their search lights mounted on the back of their jeeps.  There usually was an SP (Shore Patrol driver) and a MP (Military Police) riding shotgun, drove by and we hit them with a couple of our little pop bombs, they would shine the search light on the tree branches searching for insurgents.  It was us, they had to know, how could they not?

Duane dropped coconut bombs in the dumpster behind the BOQ, that was really good for an ass whooping.  We had our little forts all over the cliffs by the house.  We piled up real good throwing rocks, stored water in canteens and several boxes of C rations, just in case. We hid our bikes up in the tree branches just so they would be safe.

Dad could have let us know, but it was a secret.  I’m sure he shared it with Mom after we went to bed.  Dad might have been Naval Intelligence, but Mom was the brains of our outfit.  Dad drafted a letter informing the residents of the base of the Evacuation Plan, it was sent up the chain of command, all the way to COMNAVAIRLANT and after it was approved, the plan for evacuation went into effect. Each family was hand delivered the letter telling us to pack up, what to pack and when to be ready for pickup.


14542720_10202226459380517_390151060_n(4)Just like that.  One day we’re getting ready to fight and the next day us kids and other dependents were being shipped out.  Aw, we had just strung some barb wire, beneath the cliff beside of our house.  They did a great job without us but we had another adventure to look forward to.  The school buses arrived about 8 am, just like we were going to school but instead of going west to Victory Hill Elementary, they headed the east, the other way towards the docks where they kept the PBYs (Sea Planes).

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There was berthed the USS Upshur, a ship named after the Marine General that was in charge of the military interest during the construction of the Panama Canal, when the payroll was robbed.  This was too big of a coincidence for me.  I wondered about it for the whole 3 days we were aboard ship.  I kept wondering when the other shoe was gonna fall.  The Upshur had a big old gaping hole for a door way in the bow, for loading and unloading since it was a troop transport ship the bow had doors built into it, so it could be easily loaded from either side.

We stood in line as we boarded, getting our names checked off of the Master List.  Since I was 10 years old, I was sent to the stern in the ship’s company berthing area.  The bunks were stacked to the ceiling and they were about 16 inches above each other.  Mom, Gary and Duane were sent to a Stateroom located in the upper bow.  Each Stateroom had about 20 people in it.  They sat on the deck or were leaning against the bulkhead.  Cotton mattresses were rolled up during the day and spread out at night for sleeping arrangements.  This was our home for the next three days.

Our destination was unknown, military secret.  Loose lips sink ships.  We had life boat drills every morning, everyone one on topside was required to wear a life jacket.

Thinking that Mom had her hands full with Duane who had his legs in casts from a recent operation, I snuck up to her stateroom and commandeered Gary to go with me.  We were all over that ship.  The fact that our Dad was an Officer, didn’t cut any ice on board the USNS Upshur.  If we got caught pulling our shenanigans (and we did) we suffered the consequences.  We swabbed decks, helped peel potatoes, carried the Captain coffee, polished tarnished brass and even got to throw bags of waste products off of the fantail.

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The inside of our berthing space was like a giant boys club. Pillow fights, fist fights, gang fights we had them and the sailors seem to encourage us.  I had quite a bit of sea duty already from the many excursions that Dad sent me on that I was already familiar with what ever came next.

Gary and I knew semaphore, when we seen the American flag flying upside down, we knew there was something going on. On our leeward side were two Russian frigates following us about a 500 yards away.

Scary oh yeah, the Upsher was unarmed, a troop transport ship, carrying military dependents  The crew carried handguns to ward off boarders but there wasn’t much more armament than that.  Gary and I snuck into a lifeboat and had grabbed a couple of flare pistols but we only had two flares apiece, when Gary “accidentally” shot one towards the Russian ships that night, they were confiscated, taken away from us.

We would use our T shirts as “flags” and send rude messages to them.  We knew the ships weren’t up to any good and the dark forbidding clouds that followed us didn’t help.  I found a notebook full of paper on the third morning.  We were up on deck with the guys on my baseball team.  I got the idea to draw a cartoon of Kruschev bending over to kiss an American eagle on the ass, then made an airplane out if it and tossed it towards the Russians in an act of defiance.  The other guys on deck wanted to follow suit, I gave out notebook paper until it was gone.  Every one had their own idea on how to make the perfect airplane or make the most insulting cartoon we could imagine.  Before we tossed the planes overboard into the wind, we all stood in a line with our backs to the Russians and we gave them a “Full Moon Salute”.  We dropped our drawers and bent over, showing our ass. Then somebody hollered “Ready Two” and we stood up in unison, fastened our pants and then rushed to the hand rail to see who’s plane could make it the furthermost before it disappeared into the whitecaps.  One by one the planes were swallowed up by the waves.  When a sudden gust of wind would pick one of our planes up and give it new life, we would all give a cheer.  One plane made it almost within a hundred yards, a slight groan arose when it finally succumbed to the depths, but it was soon replaced by a cheer.

A solid white Coast Guard cutter appeared coming out of the fog behind us, forging it’s way in the four foot seas between us and our evil looking dark gray Russian escorts.  Who knows what was on their minds, we could only guess, but one thing we did know for sure, we were entering American waters and the Coast Guard had our backs.

CUTTER SHAMAL (FOR RELEASE)

The weather started getting colder and by the time we reached Newport News and disembarked in Norfolk, Va., it was downright chilly.  October 22nd when we left, 3 days later must have been around the 24th or 25th.  There was snow on the ground when I came down the gangway.  I was wearing deck pants, a V- neck half sleeve beachcomber shirt and a pair of rubber flip flops.  A photographer from AP took mine and my Mom’s picture and the next day it was plastered on the front page of every newspaper in the Unites States.  A lady from The American Red Cross greeted me at the bottom of the gangway.  She gave me a cup of hot chocolate and a red, second hand hoody sweatshirt.  I didn’t care, if it was second hand, it kept me warm.

The Navy Band played Stars and Stripes, it made me feel like we were heroes.  We had relatives there waiting on us, to greet us at the docks.  It truly was a great moment in American history.  I kept wondering about poor old Dad .  Did he remember where I kept the shells to the 30.06?  What about my dog Tippy?  Did anyone feed him?  My brothers and I had strung barb wire up and down the cliff behind the house and fastened beer cans with pebbles inside to make a noise, sort of like a burglar alarm.  I wondered did our design work?  Did the Cubans invade?  Did any one find our forts?

That stuff was a thousand miles away now.  We were on our way to Jacksonville, with my Aunt Alice.  We lived in Jax. for about 3 months until it was deemed safe enough for use to go back.  I was in the 5th grade at Arlington Elementary.  I was proud of who I was and my family and what we had been doing for the last 3 years.  I wanted to tell the world who I was and show off my skills, more importantly to brag on my Dad and the other men, husbands and fathers that stayed to fight if need be for our country and our rights.

Looking back now, I think my teacher at the time must have been a liberal because he didn’t want me to talk about it when my classmates expressed interest and in fact he punished me when I did.  I remember my cousin Cindy was in the class across the hall and she cried when she saw me getting licks through the window in the door.  I laughed because those three licks didn’t measure up to the lickings I was use to toting and after I laughed, I got three more.

Our return to Gitmo was kinda melodramatic. Not all of my friends returned.  Our house had been used as a military barracks because it had 4 bedrooms and three baths.  My dog Tippy acted strange almost like he didn’t remember us.  We went to Protestant Church on every other Sunday and to the Catholic Church in between.  I was told that Tippy attended service at the Catholic Church, almost like he was looking for us.  The Catholic Church always kept the doors opened and he would walk in and sit at the foot of our pew when they started playing church hymns on the organ.  Tippy used to follow the bus to school and sit under my desk during class.  The teacher gave up on trying to stop him.  It was too hot to shut the door and he didn’t cause any ruckus.  I think every boy should have a dog like that.

Mom told me years later that she didn’t worry about us boys so much as long as we had Tippy with us.  I know that the Filipinos hated him, he didn’t care much for them either. Several times a month we would wake up and Tippy would have all of the white uniforms that the Filipinos had washed and hung up on the line stacked up in a pile under my bedroom window.  Almost like he was ready for us to come out and play.  The last time I saw him, he was running down the gravel road as we were leaving to catch a plane, with a clothesline full of white uniforms in his mouth and strung out behind him, with two Filipinos chasing him with a machete.  You wanna know something, I kinda felt sorry for those guys.

The Kern Mountains

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Gary and I had met Buddy Allen, Buck Owens son, in Atlanta. Buddy was playing at the East Texas Lounge and when he and his band took a break. Gary stood on the stage and played his harmonica. Gary had the crowd laughing and clapping. Buddy came out, introduced himself to Gary and they became “buddies.” Gary flew with Buddy from Atlanta to Phoenix. That’s where Buddy lived, on Camelback Mountain. Gary and I had friends that lived in Mesa.
I drove his truck out there so we could hook back up with the crew. From Phoenix, Gary wanted to drive up to Bakersfield, Ca. to see our Granny, Dad’s mother and to meet Buddy’s dad, Buck Owens at his club. He even told us that he could introduce us to Merle Haggard, his club was across town from his dad’s, in Oildale. Buddy had a concert he had to perform in, over in Scottsdale, but told us he would meet us in Bakersfield afterwards. Eventually, we did meet Buck Owens and Dwight Yokam, we even chatted for a few minutes, but we never got to meet Merle.
We went ahead to visit our Granny. She had just undergone eye surgery for glaucoma, both eyes at the same time. Wow, she was miserable, we didn’t feel like imposing on her, Gary suggested that we go up to the Kern Mountains and do some sightseeing and fishing.
It was rough but beautiful country. Me being me, I brought some luminescent spray paint, to paint my name on some prominent rocks, so that my kinfolk could see my name every time they went camping in the mountains. We had stopped at K-Mart and bought fly tackle, split bamboo rods, waders, creels and a net, with a variety of “mepps”, fishing flies with little sharp hooks. Just as we got into the mountains, we stopped at a local sporting goods store to buy beer and get some ideas on where to find good spots to fish.
Gary noticed a poster about a fishing tournament being held that week end. Gary had always been a bass fisherman and when he saw that the largest small mouth bass would capture a prize of $500.00, it got his attention. We were going after trout, small mouth bass weren’t exactly on our agenda, after all, trout lived in streams and small bath bass lived in lakes and ponds. Gary was thinking that any size small mouth would probably win that prize, because they aren’t that many and they are hard to catch, and where we were at, was definitely “trout country.”

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We started fishing in a hard, hard to get to spot. Not very far from the road but the terrain was rough, really rough. There were big round boulders every where, six to ten feet high. Gary told me that the harder it was to get to, the better the fishing. So we climbed down to the river. I found a spot where I could put our beer in the stream, to keep it cold, because that mountain water was mostly melted snow and ice. When I bent over to scoop out a place in the black sand, I noticed little sparkling flakes all along the bank, under a huge boulder.
I told Gary about it, because to me, that sure looks like sparkling flakes of “gold.” After all, wasn’t it around here they first discovered gold, about a hundred years ago? Gary laughed it off and showed me a couple of pretty rainbow trout he had caught already. “Man” he said, “Forget that, we are up here to catch some fish”. I couldn’t forget about it, all of those sparkling flakes in one fistful of mud. Even though I did catch a couple nice trout, I was still thinking about that gold, as I jumped from boulder to boulder.
Wading in the clear, cold waters was exhilarating, what a challenge. I slipped back to where I had put the beer in the water and took a hand full of black sand, glistening with shiny minerals and filled that bottle up, and stuck it in my “creel”. That’s a reed basket made to hang from your shoulder to carry your fish in.

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Just as soon as I crawled back on top of the boulder where Gary was making cast after cast, he hung onto a nice one. It looked like a fisherman’s dream, that bamboo rod was bent double. I don’t know why it didn’t break. Gary climbed from boulder to boulder, finally he jumped into the water screaming, “Get the net, get the net.” I caught up with him as he struggled downstream. We netted what I thought was the biggest rainbow trout I ever saw, it was the biggest fish that I’d seen in a while, 8 pounds. Gary was so excited he couldn’t talk, finally he said “Mike, that’s the biggest small mouth bass I’ve ever seen. I guess tributaries feed into a lake somewhere around here, because you don’t hardly see no small mouth’s in a stream.” We put the bass on a stringer, to keep it fresh and hid it next to the boulder by the beer.
Gary was excited, he wanted to go back and enter the tournament, then, show up later and act like we had just caught the fish. Before we left, I took some spray paint and painted my initials and a Happy Face on a large boulder, to mark the spot. Yep, just like I had been doing most of the day. Then we went back to the supply store, Gary anted up and entered the tournament, paid his twenty-five dollar entry fee.
I asked the guy behind the counter about the sand in my Michelob bottle, Gary started laughing and told the man “Mister, tell my brother that stuff ain’t real, he ain’t never seen Fool’s Gold before”. The guy’s eyes lit up and brought out a magnet and held over the pile of flakes, nothing happened. Fool’s gold is “iron pyrite” with magnetic properties. He declared that this stuff looked real.
We were both excited to get back to our spot. After 30 minutes of driving we started looking for my “Happy Face”. Then we passed about five Happy Faces painted on rocks. I had forgotten that everywhere we had stopped earlier in the day that I painted my initials and a happy face on several boulders so that I could attract the attention of my relatives. I don’t know why I did that, but we looked and looked, until dark. We climbed down to the river and jumped from boulder to boulder, looking for a familiar ground, never found it or the fish. For years afterwards, our relatives would tell us how they would see my initials painted on boulders every time they went camping.
No, we never did find the spot where I hid the beer or the fish or found the gold. Brothers will be brothers and don’t really need much of an excuse to “fistfight.” Every time we tried to retell this story, it ended up in a fistfight. Being big brother, I should know better, but when you see a punch coming, you’d better duck.

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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Leeward Point

If you ever go out in a boat, in salt water, at night, maybe you should read this…………………………………..I’m pretty sure that everyone has heard of GTMO, or as civilians refer to it as Gitmo.  That’s a military acronym for the Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay Cuba.  Not everyone has heard of Leeward Point.  Leeward Point is the name of the island about a quarter of a mile out in the Bay across from GTMO.  That’s where the Marine Corps base is located and the military prison now housing the terrorist.

The rocky bottom on the stretch of water in between is the best area you ever want to see, for Longustino.  Longustino are Caribbean lobsters without claws.  Their favorite place to hide from predators, is under rocks.  The locals call them “Longusta”.  The best way to catch them is at night from a boat, in shallow water, using a lantern and a gig.

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Between the Naval Base on the mainland and the Marine Corps Base the current can run pretty strong, depending on the tides.  The Navy ran a ferry service to the Island, 24/7.  At night the ferry used search lights, bells and whistles to warn boaters to stay out of the way.

One summer night my Dad had checked a 14 foot dinghy with a 25 horsepower motor, out of Special Services.  Dad wanted to take my little brother Gary and I out gigging for longusta.  Dad used a bent piece of re-bar that he placed in the bow of the boat, to hang a kerosene lantern. My brother and I would maintain a watch in the bow for likely places to turn over rocks in our search, with a potato rake.  Dad stayed in the stern until we got to a likely spot, then he would turn off the kicker and cast out the anchor.  We would turn over the rocks and gig as many of our fleeing prey as we could, then up anchor and drift a little ways, then cast out the anchor again.

The moon sunk behind a cloud for a few minutes and we started to hear what sounded like claps of thunder, all around the boat.  Mysterious large splashes of water would drench us, followed by more claps of thunder.

The moon slid back out from behind the clouds and we could see the cause of all the commotion.  We were in a sea of motion, but it wasn’t from the waves, it was from giant manta rays, 12 to 15 feet across, wider than our boat was long.  The humongous rays were performing a mating ritual by jumping out of the water, sailing through the air and slapping their powerful wings on the surface of the water to attract a mate.

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We were right smack dab in the middle of a large pod. Our boat had drifted out to deeper water.   The deafening noise and roiling water had distracted us for a minute or so that we lost our focus on what we were doing.  The anchor had gotten caught in a bunch of rocks and wouldn’t pull loose.  It was terrifying.  The giant mantas would come so close to the boat, that we were afraid of capsizing.  Too many to count, there were more than a dozen and maybe two dozen.  Dark as it was, who’s counting?

To make the situation even more dramatic we heard the horn from the ferry and the warning whistle, it seemed like it was right behind us. We had drifted right in the ferry’s path.  We were so close to the ferry that the search lights didn’t shine on us, but over our heads, illuminating the airborne Manta rays, our boat with the anchor rope stretched taunt and poor old Dad yanking on the pull rope, trying to start the kicker.

The ferry was right on top of us, the loud engines chasing the Manta Rays away and churning the water so bad that the lantern came off the hook and smashed when it fell on to the bow of the boat, starting a small fire that spread on top of the bilge water in the bottom of the boat.

With no time to spare, Dad dove out of the boat and followed the anchor rope down in the dark water and pulled it loose.  Just as he did, the splashing waves caused by the oncoming ferry pushed us to one side, out of harms way, and putting out the fire.  The ferry was still churning alongside of us, when Dad pulled himself back into the boat.  Fearful that we’d be sucked under as the ferry passed, Dad decided to give the motor one last try, he tugged the pull rope on the motor and it started first pull.  Oh what a welcome sound.  In a matter of seconds, we were speeding away, out of harms way and back on dry land.

Everything turned out for the best. We had a boat load of longustas and a story of a lifetime. I just wish that my Dad and my brother were still here to help me tell it.

Kingfish

So many of my fishing stories are with my brother Gary. Seems strange to me now, but I’ve got one to tell without him.

My sons and I were sub-contracting roofing jobs for various people.  When you do sub work, you don’t always get paid what you expect or when you expect it.  Sometimes we worked for Jax. Bargain Plywood, sometimes C & C; sometimes we got jobs on our own, and quite a few times we did work for Ricky Blalock.

Ricky always paid us, but sometimes it was hard to pin him down on when.  When pressed, he would always say, “I’ll pay you as soon as you get off the roof.”  The trouble was, when we finished a job, we couldn’t find him.  Well, at least not like we thought we should.

Three of my sons and I had just finished a job for Ricky one Friday afternoon.  We wanted to get paid and have money for the weekend.  Ricky’s wife answered his phone and told us that it would be Monday before Ricky would be back home.  Seems like he was fishing in the Kingfish Tournament they have every year and was out on a boat, cruising up and down the coastline.

I should have known already, gosh, didn’t we go through this exact same thing last year?  Or was it the time before Thanksgiving we wanted to get paid, but he was off hunting?  Oh yeah, which time was that?

Three of my boys, Michael, Chris, and Duane worked with me on that job.  They were pissed. “Dad, he does this to us every time. Why do we keep on doing jobs for him?”  I didn’t tell them that in my mind, I could just visualize Ole Ricky on the back of some nice cruiser just off the coast, enjoying a cold beer in the hot sun, laughing his tail off when he thought about it.  So I guess you could say I was mad too.

I was half kidding when I told the boys that we ought to put our boat in the water and go looking for him.  Looking back now, it seems a little far-fetched, because the Atlantic Ocean is a big place, and our boat was only 14 feet long.  That’s exactly what we did though.

We loaded up our fishing gear to take with us.  No sense wasting the opportunity.  If there was a Kingfish Tournament going on, we might just catch the winner.  Since it was such a far flung idea, it didn’t occur to me that we needed to register in order to win.  I mean, who would ever think that we were actually gonna catch a kingfish?

I said our boat was 14 feet.  Actually it was 13’ 2”.  A Boston Whaler, it was designed to take on big waves and heavy surf.  But with four of us in it, it was mighty small.  We put the boat in the water at the Joe Carlucci boat ramp.  It was getting later on in the afternoon, and we had to wait for some of the incoming boats that had decided to call it quits for the day, before we could get out of the way.

We were gonna use the cast net to gather bait, but the incoming boats were throwing their bait into the water around the ramp.  Dead, cigar size mullet were floating belly up all around us, so we just decided to scoop them up instead.  We got a lot of laughs and took quite a bit of ribbing from these jokers in their high dollar boats, coming in empty handed.  Here they were in expensive fishing attire, nice coolers full of cold beer, thousand dollar rods and reels, and ocean-going sized boats; everything they needed to go out and cruise up and down the coast looking for kingfish.

I might have smarted off to some of these jokers, I’ve been there before fishing with my brother Gary.  The fish don’t have any idea just how nice your boat is when they get ready to bite.  They told us we would never find our boss, and that we were taking our lives in our hands if we continued on, trying to take on the Atlantic Ocean in that small of a boat.

We cruised the back way out of Joe Carlucci.  I knew that if we headed out to the ocean from the river, going past the jetties that we would have to deal with a long stretch of rough water.  By going the back way, we cruised past Kingsley Plantation, coming out at Alimacani, just by the bridge on Heckscher Drive.  From there it was only about a 300 yard stretch of high impact surf and then, you were out in deep water.

Well, the heavy surf was all it was cracked up to be. No secrets there.  To my boys, I believe they thought it was a swashbuckling adventure, just getting through the surf, and it was, for sure.  Kinda scared the mess outta me.  If anything happened to my boys, I would never forgive myself.  It wasn’t like when I was a kid, with my little brother Gary. We did this sort of thing almost every day.  This time it was for real, life on the line and all that stuff. Over the top of one wave and through the middle of the next.

The boat had about 6 inches of water in it when one of the boys, who had a line trolling behind the boat with one of those dead cigar mullets, got a tug on his line, and then it took off running.  We were using heavy duty gear, steel leaders and 30 lb. test line.  I knew to keep the boat straight, every fiber in my body kept telling me, “To heck with that durn fish; you need to turn this boat back around and head for still water.”

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When you are in rough water, there is no safe place to turn around.  The best way to keep from getting swamped or overturned, was to keep going straight.  That’s what we did.  I don’t remember which son landed the beast. We all took turns bringing it in, and soon we had a 22 lb. Kingfish, it practically jumped into the back of the boat.  What a monster.  His eyes were staring out at us, looking like if he got the chance, he’d take a good sized bite out of us.

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I started thinking, well, that does it, mission accomplished, at least half of it anyway.  I knew durn good and well that we weren’t ever gonna find Ricky anywhere out on that ocean today. Besides, he always pays us, when he gets ready.  I started looking for a good opportunity to turn the boat around without swamping us.

The waves were cresting a good six feet high.  I took the boat almost to the top of one crest and whipped it around as quickly as I could to ride the wave back down into the trough, praying the whole time that the motor doesn’t stall or the boat doesn’t capsize.  We were a good mile off of the coast, I could see the tops of the dunes and the high point of the bridge from the top of the waves as they pushed us back towards the shore.

After catching the first kingfish my sons had readied their lines for another, and it wasn’t long after we turned around to head back to the safety of the inlet they got another bite.  This time it almost snatched the rod out of my son’s grip.  “Ride ‘em cowboy,” we had another.  The sense of urgency wasn’t as great this time.  If we did capsize, we were only about a half mile off the coastline, we were all good swimmers, so I tried to run as parallel to the coast as I could without tipping over, at least  until we landed the fish in the boat.  I thought it might be a cobia or a wahoo because it was yanking so hard.  There’s no way you can tell ‘til you get them in the boat…….that is unless it breaks water, and looky there, that’s just what it did, wow, the size of that thing.  It looked like a kingfish sure enough.  When we got it to the boat, I was too busy watching what I was doing guiding the boat through the big intimidating waves, I didn’t see how they landed it, one of the boys was hollering get the net, another was hollering get the gaff. What gaff?  We didn’t have no gaff. I hollered get the camera, because I was sure they were gonna lose it, finally, they threw the cast net over it and hauled it.

They looked like twins, one seemed a little bigger, but they were almost the same size.

There wasn’t any shame in calling it quits.  We had run our race with the Devil, he didn’t get us this time.  From the time we left the dock until the time we pulled back up to the boat ramp, it didn’t take much more than an hour and a half.  Some of the same guys that had laughed at us when we were leaving out, were still there, ready to poke fun at us. They sang a different tune when they saw the two Kingfish we had onboard.

The two fish weighed out at 22 and 23 lbs,  quite a catch for a boatload of roofers out in the Atlantic Ocean in a bassboat.  Nah,we weren’t registered for the tournament, but we would have won it that day.  At least we had bragging rights.  The guys I mentioned before in the high dollar boats were lined up wanting to buy our catch.  I can see their side of it.  Gary and I experienced the same thing before when we would pull in to the boat ramp in our dinghy with a stringer full of fish, along side of fifty thousand dollars worth of boat that got skunked.

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I used a saws-all to cut the fish up into steaks.  We grilled them in tin foil, with bell peppers and lemon juice.  Hmmm, good eating.  When Ricky finally showed up to pay us, I showed him the pictures and told him the story.  I am pretty sure I saw a twinge of envy in his face, and somehow in my mind, that made us even.