Why Fishing isn’t called Catching

A few weeks ago, while meeting with our Representatives in Tallahassee, I noticed a photo of a group of fishermen next to a large shark hanging in the hallway on the way to the Senate offices. I stopped in the crowded hallway, looked closely at the picture and then down at the legislative agenda I was carrying. The picture had reminded me of something I learned years ago when my friends and I would go “fishing” from the top of the New Pass and San Carlos Pass bridges.

I said “fishing” and not fishing because we didn’t actually expect to catch anything. Late in the summer night at the top of the bridge the tropical breeze was wonderful. There were no cars, no bugs, no noise and the moonlit view was spectacular. The tackle we fished with was only meant for extremely large fish, so the quiet of the evening was rarely interrupted. Yes, everything was great… until the night that we actually caught something.

That evening, my friend Billy and I were sitting on our coolers at the top of the San Carlos Bridge, our fishing rods leaning up against the railing, when to our surprise my reel start clicking rapidly. The line was spooling off fast, so I picked it up, checked the drag and set the hook. Luckily I was braced against the concrete railing because whatever it was on the other end of the line was big and fast and it slammed me right up against the rail. “WHOA… WE GOT ONE!” yelled an amazed Billy. Then, in the distant moonlight we saw something jump from the water. It was a large shark and for the next 10 minutes, as Billy shouted encouragement, I attempted to stop its run for the ocean. When I finally did start making progress and retrieving line, Billy suddenly got quiet and looked over the railing to the water, far below us. “Hey Nelson! How are you supposed to get him up here?” I glanced over at him. “How am I? What happened to we?” I looked around. Nothing but a lot of bridge both ways, with light poles and other obstacles mounted on the railing every thirty feet or so. I shook my head. We were prepared for “fishing”… just not for catching.

So we began to walk to the west, periodically handing the rod and reel to each other around the light poles and other obstacles while the powerful shark tried to pull us into the water. Once on the Fort Myers Beach side, we planned to drag our catch onto the shore and cut the leader near its mouth, letting it go. Our chaotic journey down the bridge took thirty minutes. The “R rated” version is much better, but here’s just a sample of what it sounded like. “Get over on that side… NO! THAT SIDE!” “OK, OK…GEEZ!” “Now put your foot there.” “WHAT?? Oh, I don’t think so!” “OH FOR… Look… Reach around the sign. Now take it… TAKE IT!” “OK, OK, I’ve got it, I’ve got it! Let go. Let go! LET GO!!” “ARRGGH…I CAN’T! YOU’VE GOT MY FINGER!”

By the time the shark was near the beach, we were worn out and by the time we got the fish onshore it was dead. Billy and I stood there looking at the seven foot, 200 lb. black tip shark. “It’s dead? What are we going to do with it?” Billy asked quietly, obviously feeling as guilty as I was. I looked around at the beach. “Well, we can’t leave it here and it wouldn’t be right to just shove it into the water.” Then I saw my truck. “I know where to take it!”

Five hours later it was daylight and I was in front of the Everglades Wonder Garden with a stinking dead shark in the back of my truck. I knocked on the side gate and Lester Piper came out wearing a butcher’s apron covered in blood. “Yeah?” he growled. I showed him the shark and asked him if he was interested. “Naaah… I ain’t interested in buyin’ stuff like this. It ain’t worth it to…” “No, No!” I interrupted. “I wanna give it to you.” He immediately became a happier person. “OH! Sure, bring it on in here Ben Jr.!” On the way home, I decided that despite the adventure, my bridge fishing shark-catching days were over.

Apparently some lessons remain long hidden until needed, because before my next meeting in Tallahassee, I went over our project notes a few more times. I wanted to be sure that we were prepared for catching… not just fishing.

A Fish Tale

Yesterday, I was standing in front of the building on Old 41 where I grew up. What used to be our family’s Hardware store on the first floor is now a bakery. The second story, where we lived for many years, is now abandoned. The building has been remodeled several times over the years and doesn’t look much like it did, but somewhere on the face of the building, beneath the layers of paint, is a beautiful 10′ tall painting of a fish jumping from the water.

In 1960, my father had an artist paint what was essentially the “Heddon” fishing lure logo above the bright red “Nelson’s Hardware” sign and for decades the bass, with fishing lure hanging from its wide open mouth, remained there high in the air between mine and my sister’s bedroom window, watching the world slowly go by on the Tamiami Trail. It watched as drunken cowboys threw each other out of the windows of the Dome; As long lines of traffic sat waiting for the matinee at the dog track; As hurricane Donna rolled a house past our front door; As my father fearlessly ran off a drunken man who was threatening his employees with a shotgun.

And between these more interesting times, it patiently observed our normal everyday activities as my sister and brother and I grew up. Every morning before school, we went down stairs into the hardware store to “take the stuff out”… which was what we called pushing, pulling and riding all the lawn mowers, bicycles and anything else with wheels that had been crammed into the store overnight, out the door onto the concrete patio out front. Day after day, year after year, we took them outside and then nine hours later we took them back in through the front door beneath the fish. It watched. It watched as we became teenagers and then adults, as one by one we left home and the safety of its wide-eyed gaze. Then, as if to signal that its work was complete, my father painted over it… and it was gone. I didn’t think much about it at the time. Life was happening… jobs, marriage, and kids. My sister moved to New Jersey, my parents built a new house off of Terry Street and my brother and I built homes of our own, as keeping the ground floor of the old building rented became my Dad’s favorite project. But upstairs, our old home remained vacant.

About eight years ago, I tried to talk my dad into selling the old building so my parents could be secure in retirement. The timing and the prices were right, so at a meeting, after he had informed a group of potential buyers to name an as yet higher number for the fourth time, I took him aside. “What are you doing Dad?” I asked sternly at low breath. My dad smiled a mischievous grin and whispered. “I don’t want to sell it… I just want to see how high they’ll go!” I got flush with anger. I didn’t understand. “Cut them loose Dad… This isn’t right!” And I walked away.

Later that day I was still stewing (it’s a Nelson art form), but I had promised to take him to get his truck, so I drove quietly, him sitting next to me. Finally he broke the silence. “I can’t sell it. It’s my legacy. I want it to live on for my children.” I looked over at him. He was looking out the window… avoiding eye contact. “Dad… WE are your legacy. You created us, watched after us and built us as surely as you built that old building.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Sell it and you and mom spend it having fun. Julie, Tim and I are going to be fine because of what you taught us.” It was a touching moment… But he still didn’t sell it.

Now, three years after dads passing, I’m standing here trying to help manage some of my dad’s legacy… this old store, and my tendency to become irritated. That’s when I suddenly realized that somewhere unseen, under the paint, the fish was still there watching over me. I sighed, put both hands on top of my head and started to contemplate where to start the repairs… I looked up at the sky and chuckled. For somewhere unseen, under that painted sky, I was sure that my dad was still watching over his legacy as well.

Social Science and HotDogs

When I think about some of the things that I’ve experienced over the past years, there seems to be a widening disconnect between our technological advancements and our social development. I have always loved science and building things, so I decided at the ripe old age of eight to build for my school science project, a better and faster hot dog cooker. (Warning! Do not to try this at home!) I drove two large nails through a piece of plywood, hooked electrical wires to each, added a switch and an electrical plug and Presto… a beautifully simple and (as we all know now) deadly kitchen appliance. When a hot dog was impaled across the nails and the switch was thrown, the unsuspecting hot dog was immediately cooked to the point of being split open, leaving the smell of electrified pork product in the air.

I know… cool, right? But, because of everyone’s reaction to what now would be considered a weapon of some type, this actually turned out to be more of a “social” experiment. My parents had seen me build similar things before and seemed mildly interested but unconcerned. The bus driver didn’t bat an eye as I carried it proudly onto the school bus, and even my teacher seemed interested, yet unalarmed. My demonstration at Bonita Springs Elementary was a success. Something between an infomercial and Young Frankenstein. Amazingly, no one was electrocuted (except the hot dog), I wasn’t expelled and after the schools fuses were all replaced and the power came back on, everything returned to normal. Well… except for the strange smell that legend has it, still lingers there.

Things are a lot different now. To begin with, I don’t think you can even bring a plastic butter knife to school. And technology wise, when you wanted to know something back then, like “Is this hot dog cooker going to cook me too?” you went to the “World Book Encyclopedia”. Of course, we now have most all of man’s accumulated knowledge and experience (after you sift through all the weird stuff) right here on our home computers via the Internet.

Technology has not only drastically out paced our ability to understand it, at times it doesn’t seem to have added equally to our general understanding of the world around us, improved our ability to reason or allowed us to socially understand or tolerate each other better. We recently had a DSL computer line installed in our cabin, in the middle of nowhere in Georgia. I had high hopes regarding this subject and thought, “The 21st century has come to the Mountains”. Soon after, the DSL serviceman came out to locate the lines buried under the road. He stepped out of his truck and armed with a bent wire in each hand as divining rods, he proceeded to “conjure up” the fairly obvious location of the utility line. I know some of you are saying, “That really works!” I prefer to just savor the sweet irony of socio-technological whiplash.

Coconut Angel

In the 1960’s, Mildred Johnson lived with her family at the northern most part of Bonita Springs in a place called simply, “Coconut”. Their modest home, elevated on posts, was surrounded by other Johnson and Weeks family homes and as far as I could tell at 10 years old, little else but commercial fishing nets, mangroves and fiddler crabs. It wasn’t the easiest place to live… but “Coconut” was their home and they loved it.

The Johnson’s children were my friends and school mates growing up, but there was an especially strong, respectful connection and friendship between my parents and Mildred. I had no idea at the time how our family’s had become so close, but my dad and mom were always “Uncle Ben” and “Aunt D” to Grady, Bobby and Joseph Johnson and to my brother, sister and me, Mildred was always “Aunt Mildred”.

As the years passed, I began to realize that there was something very special about their family. Although the Johnson boys were rugged young men, they were amazingly genuine, kind, polite individuals. But then, they came about it honestly. Aunt Mildred was a strong and confident individual with a giant heart that cared for and watched over everyone. It wasn’t until my parents 50th wedding anniversary party that I discovered the source of our families bond and how Aunt Mildred’s courage and kindness had likely saved my fathers life. It was at the end of that party when, with tears in her eyes, she took my hand and with her beautiful southern accent said “Benny… Sit down here youngin’. I want to tell you ’bout your daddy.”

Years ago, Mildred went to school with my father and lived about four miles away. Mildred’s mother and my dad’s father had passed away within a year of each other, leaving Mildred to take care of her dad and all her younger brothers and sisters. My father’s brothers on the other hand, had all enlisted in the service, leaving him alone with his new step dads constant mistreatment and his mothers neglect. “That poor boy had nothin’!” Mildred cried. “Benny, they was so mean to him. It broke my heart! When his daddy died, his momma and step daddy gave him nothin’ but rags to wear.”

She looked around and leaned forward. “Why one time, they left your daddy out there on Pine Island all by himself for six weeks while they went out west.” She leaned back away from me and shook her head. “Son, that ain’t no way to do nobody! They left that poor boy with no money or food. He ’bout starved to death.” She wiped her eyes and sat up straight and proud. “So I told him to ride his horse on by our house in the evenings and I’d sneak him some table scraps out the window from our dinner.” She shook her head and laughed. “If my daddy had caught a boy hanging around outside my window, he would have whipped us both, but I couldn’t let him go hungry.” She looked over where my dad was sitting to be sure he wasn’t listening. She smiled and put one hand to the side of her mouth. “One evenin’ your daddy got into his step daddy’s whiskey. Well, he’d never had a drink before in his life and after a while he got to feelin’ real sorry for himself. So he got on that old horse of his and tried to ride it to my house in the middle of the night. I looked out my window and there he was just sittin’ there cryin’, covered in sand spurs and mud. He’d fell off his horse so many times that the horse had got tired and trotted off back home. I handed him some food out the window and then sat there while he cried and picked sand spurs off himself until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told him “Benny, you stop that carryin’ on! You’re gonna be just fine! But you gotta learn to take care of yourself!” Aunt Mildred leaned to one side and looked past me; then took me by the arm and turned me gently towards my father. He had his arm around my mom and was surrounded by dozens of family members and friends. “Your daddy… he done alright.”

I travel to the end of Coconut Road quite often these days and despite how much it has changed my thoughts always return to Aunt Mildred and the Johnson family. Time and people pass on, places may change, but the strong connections born of simple innocent friendships and the compassion, kindness and encouragement of extraordinary people are with us, always.

Kayak Anyone?

“So what do you want to do today?”  That’s how my wife and I start out many a Sunday morning conversation over the top of our reading glasses, the paper and a cup of coffee.   On a beautiful morning like today, going Kayaking is one of our favorite pastimes.  We load up the truck and Molly, our Jack Russell Terrier, and head down to the Imperial River or Leitner Creek behind our house.  Most of the time we team up with a group of friends, but every once in a while we like to go without a schedule or any agenda and just quietly paddle along the dark waters of the River while Molly, perched precariously on the front of my kayak, with her butt up in the air, bites at the water. Continue reading

Letting Go

Hurricane season.  We all have different reactions to its arrival.  Fear, anxiety, ambivalence and if you work for the Weather Channel, what seems to be unbridled excitement.  I know they don’t mean anyone any harm, but it is really difficult not to hear the excitement in the voice of a reporter as they explain the level of devastation your community is about to experience from a storm that has the same name as that aunt of yours who always smelled a little funny.

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Well Ventilated Fourth of July

The Fourth of July Parade has always been special in Bonita Springs.  When it comes to community get-togethers, it has been part of us for as long as I can remember.  You know it must be a special event, because despite it being about 90 degrees by 10:00am, there are always people lining both sides of the street, anxiously waiting, fanning themselves and sweating.  But, Bonitians are made of tough stuff and if you pick the right side of the street (guess!) and are lucky enough to catch some shade or smart enough to bring some with you, your head won’t melt and you’ll see a great show. Continue reading