When I was a kid, about 12 years old, in Terre Haute, Indiana, I was already a 10 year veteran boater and fisherman. My Dad kept an old Johnboat at Cecil Jackson’s houseboat, near the US40 bridge on the Wabash River. We fished “D” nets in the spring and summer, and trotlines in the summer and fall. We did that two or three evenings a week for years on end. I grew an affinity for the water, and what swims in it, that has lasted 80 years (so far). I had not realized that we were doing it commercially, eating some of the fish, and selling the rest. That was easy back then. I was born in 1935, right at the end of the depression, and lots of folks were still hungry. Later on, WWII caused another food crisis, so we were pretty successful. Dad knitted new nets all winter, using a needle that held the cord for the nets. The needle was made of Ironwood. While we were mushroom hunting one day, we found an Ironwood tree in the woods that looked like it had been down for 50 years, and Dad hacked off a piece to form his knitting needles. The wood was lemon colored, as hard as wood could get, and rang like a bell when struck. He knitted every evening during the winter, in order to be ready for the spring thaw. One winter, when I was in college, he sent me to Larry Dean’s Gulf gas station (Regular gas, 17 cents a gallon) to get three gallons of white gas. That was used to thin a preservative for the cord that prevented rotten string in the nets. Unfortunately, Dad was having a couple of brewskis while knitting, and he allowed the fumes from the white gas to spill over, into the sewer drain in our basement. That sewer went straight to the river, and when the fume level reached the pilot light of the gas water heater, it ignited a great deal more than the water heater. It lifted the house off the foundation for a second or two (think “Wiley Coyote), and blew every manhole cover into orbit, between our house and the river. No problem. “Go get me some more gas!”
Life was good. I didn’t realize that the Wabash river was a sewer, and that we were lower lower middle class. I had a wonderful tight family childhood with Mom, Dad and brother Bob. We did everything together. I never, ever, had a babysitter.
We had one moneyed relation in the family. My Dad’s sister, Aunt Helen, married the comptroller of the Texas Oil Co., Texaco. They lived in Glenview, Illinois, and had a cottage on the Fox River, just a few houses south of Pistakee Lake. I had a few versions of how that lake was named. Since they were wealthy, they wintered for a couple of weeks in Miami, over Christmas. They took their two sons out of school early, and headed for the beach. A major coincidence, Glenview, Terre Haute, and Miami are all on Highway US41! This meant that every year, they stopped by on the way home, and brought us some kind of stupid tourist relic. Sometimes a coconut, a stuffed alligator (really a Cayman), or such. One year, when I was twelve, they gave us a “gatefold” postcard that had a dozen pictures of the Florida Keys! The die was cast! I was never (before or since) so smitten, even including the time that lightning struck 18 year old Barbara Kenzor’s house across the street, and she ran out, naked. I was going to live in Miami, no matter what.
Dad, who was extremely handy with a gun, encouraged me to take advantage of a full scholarship to Indiana State Teachers College that I had won. He offered that I could be the first person in the family ever to attend college, or the first one killed by his dad. Pretty easy choice. I worked my way through school as an outboard mechanic at the local Johnson Outboard dealership. I think I got the job because I was the only one who could carry a 25HP Johnson motor up the stairs to the shop. Good timing. Pleasure boating was growing exponentially, and I knew as much about it as anybody. When I saw the wages for teaching nine months a year at the laboratory school (part of my scholarship), I called my Johnson Outboard representative and asked him to find me a job in South Florida. He called the next day with a job at a new dealership in North Miami, Challenger Marine (Now the location of TNT Marine). Challenger was just wonderful. I discovered that my vast knowledge of 1937 2 ½ HP Johnson outboards was not particularly valuable, and that I had NEVER seen the inside of the newer motors. Fate intervened, and Bob Westbrook took me under his wing and taught me the Outboard fixin’ bidness. It was a great place to learn. In those days, Outboards were all pull-start. That meant no battery. That meant no bilge pump. That meant that every time we had a tropical monsoon (often), every outboard boat in Keystone Point sank. I became an expert outboard wrench, an expert small boat salvager, and actually lived for a time at the Marina. I made exploratory trips to the Keys whenever possible. It was an adventure in those days. The only road was US1, cars were not air conditioned (at least mine wasn’t), and there were no radio stations south of Homestead. It was veritable bug infested paradise. We had snapper fishing jaunts on a regular basis, fishing out of Little Torch Key, Mile Marker 37, usually fishing in the bomb craters from WWII Army Air Force practice. Art Siegel, co-owner of Challenger Marine, Charlie Clements, President of Chase Federal Savings and loan, Howard Abbey, the great boat builder, and various others would take 100 dozen shrimp down there and catch 5 or 600 pounds of Mangrove and Layne snappers. We sold them, gutted, for 10 or 15 cents a pound, which paid for the bait and the beer. Great fun, great guys.
Miami was one of 26 municipalities in Dade County. One of the largest towns was Hialeah, run with an iron fist by Boss Tweed-like Henry MIlander. Hialeah was practically 100% rednecks. No Cubans, few blacks (Jim Crow laws were still in effect, back of the bus, separate drinking fountains, etc.), and the political climate was confusing to say the least. A few of the towns had their own cops, mayors, etc. Miami Beach and Coral Gables were well established and quite civil, compared to Ojus and Sweetwater for instance. Few sidewalks, few
streetlights, two TV stations, thousands of motels. The beach was lined with them, from one end to the other. Most of us failed to realize what a paradise we had. Now, the crush of humanity (well, sort of) has driven two of my oldest and best friends further north, up the coast, trying to avoid snowbirds, immigrants, traffic jams, pollution, manatees, watercops, multilingualism, boat speed limits, zoning cops, etc. I guess my pup and I won’t be far behind them. Damned shame!