My family has a reunion every five years at a resort overlooking the Intracoastal waterway at Indian Rocks Beach, Florida. Today is a bustling place with nightlife, an operating marina and boat traffic passing all day long. The rest of the area is surrounded by hotels and condos and nearly everyone is from somewhere else.
Fifty years ago, it was a different world. It was nothing but mangroves. The traffic had to stop when the occasional sailboat boat passed so the bridge could rise. A cardboard box grabbed from Publix Super Market made a great sled to glide down the grassy banks of the bridge.
The mangroves were full of fish, and at low tide, a sandbar formed. You could wade out over it to cast for, snook, redfish and trout. For two brothers aged 6 and 8, this was paradise. I was the sixth born out of seven children and my brother, Kevin, was the baby of the family. Our older siblings were already interested in things like boys, girls and other teenage matters. So Kevin and I spent a lot of time together and we loved to fish.
One time, the tide had dropped enough to wade to the sandbar and horseshoe crabs were moving around everywhere. Blue crabs were easily taken by tying a chicken neck to a string and when the line went tight, we slowly pulled it back and scooped them up with a dip net.
On this day, though, there was something different. All the potholes on the flats were filled with sting rays. With practice, we learned if you did it just right, you could pick up a sting ray with your bare hands by pinching your thumb and forefinger in their eye sockets. I also learned that if you did it wrong, they would drive their spike in the soft web of skin between the same thumb and forefinger, and it hurt like hell. Kevin almost fell over laughing.
Not far from our home were acres and acres of groves. There they grew, pink grapefruit, navel oranges and tangerines. The groves served a dual purpose. Of course, fishing was number one. The groves all had irrigation ponds that were full of largemouth bass and blue gill.
The smallest piece of a rubber worm or bread ball would supply plenty of action. I remember Kevin once took a 5-pound bass, and I was upset to get out-fished by my little brother. When we tired of fishing, we hunted for snakes. The whole time, we pigged out on whatever type of produce met our fancy.
When it was time to go home, we loaded up to snack later. We would take turns being the picker or the loader. The picker would shimmy up the tree and toss the fruit de jour down to the loader. The loader tucked his T-shirt into his pants and loaded from the top. It is amazing how many oranges can be carried by a small boy that way.
As we got a little older, our mother allowed us to pass the whole day at Big Indian Rocks Fishing Pier. We could do something we loved doing, and it gave my mom a break from us. We watched grown men fight giant fish like tarpon from the pier and even managed to catch some fish ourselves. Many of the old salts that hung out every weekend on the pier took the time to teach us how to be better anglers. Once we caught 40 mackerel together and made Bierne Keefer’s fishing report in the St. Pete Times. We were big shots. Our name was in the paper. We took turns carrying that newspaper clip around in our pocket until it disintegrated. Years later, I was a writing student in one of Keefer’s courses at Junior College.
Our first scrape with the law was a little before my 12th birthday, at the same Publix Super Market that supplied the vehicles for our bridge slides. Pistachios were our downfall. Kevin and I were negotiating who was going to “buy” them first, not knowing on the next aisle was an employee stocking shelves, listening to our every word. We had been caught once before trying to take army men out of a department store and were let off with a warning.
Sitting in the manager’s office, the man in charge scowled at us and ordered one of the employees to call the police. Remembering our previous experience, I leaned over to my brother and said not to be worried, he is just trying to scare us. What a surprise when a police officer walked in and put us in cuffs. Back then the police apparently had time to teach a young boy a lesson, and I will always remember the ride to the police station and the chief asking, “Does your mother own a big brown belt, because I think I see her walking across the parking lot.”
Shortly afterward, we moved closer to my mother’s work and soon discovered a mangrove creek near the house. There was lots of new territory to explore. We followed the creek until it turned to freshwater and finally entered a pond in a cemetery. It was a young kid’s fishing heaven. Baby tarpon, snook, largemouth bass and lots of them. They also had a watchman. We had to schedule our clandestine visits to just before sunset when the fish bit better anyhow, or Sunday morning when we were supposed to be in church. The creek was home to a giant snook with a notable scar on his back. After months of chasing him, Kevin finally hooked him one day and ran the length of the creek with the fish attached to his Zebco 202, until finally the line broke.
As we got into high school, we took up shark fishing. It allowed us to do two things. One: fish for sharks which we loved to do and two: stay out all night, because sharks of course feed better at night. We also discovered other temptations at this time, and before you knew it, we were packing more beer than bait.
As we moved into our twenties, we were doing weekend long trips to the Florida middle grounds, pulling on big American red snapper and gag grouper. And of course packing lots of frothy beverage. About this time, Kevin made an effort at entrepreneurship and opened a smoke house, specializing in smoked mullet and oysters. It was appropriately named, “We smoke the Damnest Things.”
By this time, the demons possessed us both and we took turns being black sheep of the family. Don’t know how many times we broke mom’s heart. More than a couple of decades ago, my brother headed for Colorado and me to Costa Rica. We got caught up in our own lives and did not stay in very close touch, talking by phone on a rare occasion, and catching up at reunions.
Two nights ago, the demons finally got the best of my brother, and he sat in a chair in his living room and took his own life. For a day I walked around numb, wondering why God allows some to escape the demons and others never do. Today I went for a long walk.
Puerto Jiménez reminds a lot of where I grew up, not very crowded and estuaries to always be found. Today I found myself at the mouth of a small river at low tide. For some reason I started to trudge through the muck and head up the river. It was a lot more difficult than I remember, when the mangroves were me and my brother’s enchanted land. Halfway through my hike, I stumbled upon two young boys who were busy trying to catch fiddler grabs for snapper bait. Tons of memories came racing back and the tears finally flowed.
The memory I have chosen to keep of my brother is when we were young. When we sprinted through mangrove muck, not struggled through it. When any fish was a prize fish. For the rest of my life, every time I cast a topwater plug under a mangrove root looking for Mr. Snook, I’ll be looking for that explosion when a fish strikes on the surface, but I will also have my little brother by my side. I love you, Kevin.