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.

Horsing Around

I was in Tallahassee recently, when I noticed several men in business suits wearing cowboy boots.  I guess that’s ok…, but I’m pretty sure that boots were originally intended to be worn while riding a horse. And these guys certainly had not ridden to the capital or anywhere else for that matter.  I suppose if you asked them, they’d tell you the boots were comfortable and that they liked the way they looked.  Well… fair enough. But I think it’s also a way to pay homage to a particular lifestyle or tradition.  This got me thinking about some of the “old Florida traditions” that we hang on to or even romanticize about in connection with raising cattle, which has been a way of life for generations here in Florida.  As far as my family goes, I suspect that the “cracker cowboy” part of our family tradition may have ended with my father… and here’s why.
I know that many of you love horses and that’s just fine by me.  My mother loves horses too.  But me… not so much.  Although I am actually pretty good on horseback and I’ve got a lot of experience with them, those experiences have been laced with some pretty painful incidents.
I’ve been kicked, thrown to the ground, head-butted, bitten, stepped on and scraped off on trees by these… animals.  Don’t get me wrong, they are magnificent and powerful creatures and I really admire their stamina and beauty, but unlike a reliable and blissfully mindless jeep or ATV, they have a mind of their own.  A mind that delights in purposefully and without warning jumping sideways, leaving you like a flipped coin on your head, or on your tail, in the palmettos. They then stay just beyond your reach, pausing now and then to taunt you… leaving you to follow them like some kind of sand spur covered horse stalker.


They also demonstrate this equestrian sense of humor when you’re saddling them.  One of their favorite pranks is to simply stand on one of your feet.  They wait until you’re distracted, adjusting the saddle, then they casually side step pretending not to notice as you flail around, howling and shoving uselessly on their thousand pound bodies.  They will eventually let you go with an amused snort, but only so that they can set you up for their next “bit”.  As you chinch up the saddle (while standing on your one good foot) they swell up their belly so that despite all your tugging and pulling and putting your knee in their girth, the saddle will only get as tight as they want it to be.  The punch line generally comes about 15 minutes into the ride, when the horse exhales and you spin around upside down under his belly.  My dad used to stubbornly ride the horse upside down for a couple of hundred feet. I suppose it was an attempt to prove to the horse that my dad had purposefully swung around in order to inspect the trail conditions… with his face.

To my relief, we sold our last horse a long time ago, but periodically I still somehow get talked into going trail riding.  It’s actually something that many of you may enjoy and it’s a great way to experience Florida. The local outfitters are very competent and unlike me, they manage to keep well trained horses. But as my luck would have it, on my last family trip out west the outfitter had one horse that had ‘behavioral issues’.  As she was carefully matching up horses with riders, I quietly waited with my arms crossed for the inevitable.  “So are any of you experienced riders?”  Silence.  No one ever volunteers for this kind of mission.  Minutes later, I threw my hands in the air, finally surrendering to fate.  “O.k., o.k… go ahead and put me on “Psycho”.  Fifteen minutes later, as I rode upside down hanging from Psycho’s belly, I stubbornly stayed in the saddle, inspecting the trail with my face.


The family tradition lives on.

Perils of a Good Sense of Humor

When I first became involved in local politics a friend warned me, “You better be careful with that sense of humor of yours!” I nodded and thanked him for the advice. “Hey!” I said, looking just under his chin. “What’s that?” He looked down just as my index finger was coming up, “twanging” his nose. Yes, it was incredibly juvenile behavior. But the timing… was superb.

From the stories that my relatives have told me and from having personally experienced 55 family Thanksgivings, I can assure you that this is inherited behavior. My father and his brother Charlie in particular had brutal senses of humor… which made the harsh life that they experienced as kids easier to deal with. At a very young age they were often left alone in the woods to tend the cattle and also to trap raccoons to sell… by hand. To make things even more interesting these animals had to be brought in alive.

The process went something like this. After a raccoon was spotted high in a cypress tree, my dad (being the smallest and easiest to bully) would climb up the tree with a stick. His orders were to convince the animal to jump 60 feet to the ground by swatting at it like it was a raccoon piñata. Prior to doing a really bad flying squirrel imitation, the raccoon would first ‘lighten his load’ by emptying the contents of his bladder, bowels and stomach… onto my father. This always delighted my Uncle Charlie who would be far below on the ground, laughing hysterically and shouting helpful encouragement to his little brother. “You’ve got him now Ben!”

Once the raccoon hit the ground, both boys would chase the dazed mammal until Charlie could bop it on the head with a stick, knocking him out cold. Being the big brother, he would grab the unconscious critter by its ringed tail and carry it proudly back home.

However, on this particular hunting trip, Mother Nature decided to show off her own sense of humor by waking up the boy’s un-amused captive. It immediately wrapped all four furry legs tightly around Charlie’s thigh and started chewing. The once proud hunter proceeded to try every dance, jump, roll, scream and evasive maneuver known to man in an attempt to dislodge the angry masked mammal from his leg. My father stopped laughing just long enough to put a hand on each side of his mouth and yell… “You’ve got ‘em now Charlie!” The raccoon soon lost his taste for the boy’s boney leg and took off for the deep swamp, leaving Charlie unharmed, furious, and running towards his still laughing little brother.

I suppose the advice my friend was trying to give me and the lesson that my father learned from his big brother were the same. The transition from laughter to “Uh-Oh!” can come pretty quickly and the price for others not sharing your sense of humor can be painfully expensive.

The Tao of Ow

“Bam! Owwwww!” (OH for… I did it again!) In our house in Georgia the footboard of the bed has wooden “ears” sticking out each side, about the same height as my… hip. So when I round the corner to get to the TV or put away some clothes I have about a one in ten chance of catching one in the tenders and then folding up like a lawn chair. This was probably the hundredth time that I’d clipped it on the way by, so even though I was finally beating my wife at something (she was only up to about fifty times) I still howled in pain, cursed the stupid design, the knucklehead that designed it, the tree it was made out of and the people that built it. We’ve plotted several times to just cut the fancy ears off and be done with it… and I’ve even made it into the bedroom with the chainsaw running a couple of times, but Lori always stops me. “No… we just have to be more careful.” But that plan doesn’t work very well… so we’re probably going to keep doing it… until it really hurts.

When I was elementary school age I would go to work with my dad every day, all day, in the summer. He had a small dragline mounted on a truck that he cleaned the farm ditches east of Bonita with. All day long, I would sit on the crane shooting at frogs and snakes with my bb gun until he was ready to move forward. “OKAY!” He would yell and I would scramble into the seat, push the starter button (which cranked the truck up in gear because I wasn’t heavy enough to push in the clutch), drive forward about twenty feet and then go back to whatever I had been doing until he was ready to move again. Believe it or not, even shooting a bb gun at snakes can get a little boring for an eight-year-old, and since I didn’t dare wander off, I was always looking for something else to do, even somewhere different to sit. And so one fateful July day I made the mistake of sitting on a full can of gasoline as I watched my dad throw the cattails out of the ditch with the machine. Yeah… I KNOW! It seems stupid now but I was eight… remember? As the crane shook around and the gas in the can sloshed around, the liquid fuel didn’t get on me… but the 95-degree heat made sure that the gas fumes did bake some pretty sensitive areas.

It took about ten minutes for me to figure out that I had made a serious mistake… and that as a result my butt was apparently on fire or at least felt like it. My dad was always well aware of what was going on around the machine so he immediately saw me running and jumping around like… well, like my butt was on fire. It wasn’t his fault, but his solution to my problem added insult to injury as he made me strip down to nothing and then rinse off in the ditch with my friends the snakes and frogs that I had just been shooting at. Then he shook his head, chuckled, got back up in the crane and worked the rest of the day as I tried to hide in the crane… constantly fanning my naked scorched posterior.

So, the bad news was that my rear end burned like one of those out of control oil wells for about three days. But the good news is that I never sat on a gas can again… and I never will. Ah… who am I kidding? I probably never will!

For Whites Only

“For whites only.” I stood there and looked at the faded, crude, handwritten sign above the algae covered drinking fountain. As I looked around, the fountain didn’t really look out of place in the Fort Myers auto parts store in the 1960’s. Everything there was dirty, old and outdated. But that sign… I didn’t understand it.

As I watched the scenery go by on the long ride home back to Bonita with my father, I had a lot of questions. “What’s the difference what color you are when it comes to drinking out of a fountain? I saw the guys that worked at that place… what’s makes them think they’re so special?” My dad just kept his eyes on the road in front of him. “That’s just the way some people think and I suppose it’s their fountain.” I stuck my hand out the window and felt the warm summer air go by. “Well… it’s not right. I’ll sure never drink out of it!” My dad looked over at me. “Yeah? Well, I guess it just depends on how thirsty you are.”

Although my father was born and raised in the south, I can never remember him saying or doing anything particularly prejudiced. He basically put all people into two categories… people who owed him money (not good) and people who paid him money (good). So, my sister, brother and I grew up relatively free of any parental pressure to be prejudice. I don’t think this was an intentional lesson… it was more of a collateral one.

Decades later, prior to my son Nick getting his first tattoo, he asked me what I thought. I shrugged, “It’s up to you son, but people are going to judge you for what you look like, not for who you really are.” Nicks eyebrow rose, “But that’s not right Dad… that’s prejudice!” I nodded, “Yep… that’s prejudice, but generally, that’s what people do. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just telling you that when people don’t really know you, they instinctively fill in the blanks themselves.” Nick shook his head. “Well, that’s the problem of the people doing the judging, not the guy with the tattoo!” Then my eyebrows rose, “Yeah? Well… I guess that depends on how badly you want a job!”

My twin sons’ disdain for prejudice was first brought to my attention at a third grade parent teacher conference. The teacher was in near hysterics for what seemed like a solid ten minutes explaining how she was having such a hard time getting my sons to pay attention. “I’ll be talking right to them telling them what they have to do and right while I’m talking to them… THEY JUST START DRAWING PICTURES!” Both of her elbows dropped to the table and she cradled her head in her hands. “I mean… do you have this problem with them at home too?” I blinked my eyes a couple of times, shook my head and then said. “Uhhh… I’m sorry. What were you saying?” True story.

Anyway, once she calmed down, she told me that “on the plus side” when it came to who they made friends or socialized with Nick and Neil were oblivious to ethnicity or any of the usual learned social or economic prejudices that can begin manifesting themselves in elementary school. This was good news for two reasons… my kids were obviously socially well adjusted and relatively free of a problem that has plagued the human race for millennia and… I had just been handed an opportunity to get the heck out of that meeting! I slammed my hands on the table, smiled and stood up abruptly. “Well that’s FANTASTIC!” The teacher’s mouth was hanging open as I grabbed her hand and shook it. “Thank you so much for calling me with this great news!” As I turned and headed out of the door I called over my shoulder. “Come on boys… say goodbye to your teacher!”…. “Boys?… Boys?… BOYS!”

The Shovel

My father was a good man… And a hard worker. But as I discovered at a very young age, He was never afraid to get someone else’s hands dirty. I’m not being disrespectful, because he was really proud of it. One of his favorite shirts had written across the front “So much to do… So few people to do it for me!” It’s a funny shirt… Unless you were, like me, one of his “chosen few”.
The youngest of four tough “cracker” brothers, he learned at a very young age that if you were the smallest… Then you better be the smartest.
Life on the family homestead in the woods of S.W. Florida in the 1930’s could be brutal and the brothers all had to earn extra money by working part time for local farmers. So on one particular day, the four brothers and two of their friends took a job “hoeing okra”. As the grizzled old farmer handed out brand new red shovels to all the boys, he told them “I’m going into town, but don’t you worry… I’ll know who did the most work! And I’m gonna give that feller’ an extra dollar!” Now my dad realized that he had no chance of competing in an all day shoveling contest and likely wouldn’t get paid at all, no matter how hard he worked, so when the farmer left, the small boy scratched his chin and thought for a moment before walking over and sitting down under a nearby tree. His brother Charlie, who was already hard at work, looked over at the boy under the tree. As he flipped another shovel full of dirt over he yelled “Look at poor little Benny! He ain’t gonna get paid nothin’!” All the other boys chuckled… But my dad just pulled his hat down over his eyes and relaxed further back into the tree.
Eight long hours later, just before the farmer was due back, my Dad sat up, grabbed a rock that he had carefully selected and casually started scraping the paint off the shovels blade. This struck his brother as particularly bizarre behavior and as he took the rag out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his eyes he yelled “What the heck are doin’? Are you touched in the head?” After a few minutes all the paint was gone off the shovels blade and without saying a word, my dad stood up and started digging furiously. When the other boys saw this, they just stood there with their heads all cocked sideways…until suddenly, the farmer rounded the corner in his model A truck.
He crawled out of the dirty black buggy and then hollered for the youngsters to gather around him. “All right… Let me see the ends of them shovels!”. As he went down the row, he finally came to my dads apparently worn out garden tool. The old farmer slapped his hands together and hooted “Dang boy! You might be the smallest but you shore gave these other boys a lesson!”. He surely had, because the other boys said nothing, when my dad, as he was walking off, turned, tapped the side of his head with his finger and grinned that big grin.
As I think back to my Uncle Charlie telling me this story just a few years ago, with my dad sitting there next to him grinning from ear to ear, I wonder exactly what the real lesson might have been. The farmer, my dad and his brothers all came away telling the same story but they probably had different takes on what they had learned. One thing is pretty clear… you should never judge a book, a shovel or person by their cover.

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.


I was in a Native American Art gallery when I came across an interesting carving.   I turned to the elderly and dignified looking American Indian gentleman behind the counter and asked, “What’s the story behind this?”  He took it reverently in his hands.  His voice was deep and calm… soothing.  “This… is in honor of a great woman.”  The music in the store played quietly as he told his story.  “She was married to the chief of our Cherokee tribe.  When her husband was killed in battle she picked up his weapon and led the Cherokee charge against the Creek.  From that day forward she was known as the “Warwoman.”  He gently set the piece back in its place.  “Later in life she became a “Beloved Woman”, and a member of the Cherokee council.  She was a woman of great courage and wisdom.”  Continue reading

Southern Diplomacy

I’ve often heard that the art of diplomacy is dead.  It certainly seems like some people these days refuse to engage in civil debate.  They tend to yell loud, make weird accusations, interrupt each other and are often just plain mean.  However, I’m not sure if it has ever been any more “civil”.  Especially when I consider some of my father’s stories about early Florida “dispute resolution”. Continue reading

A Gift from my Father

As a parent, I have always found it interesting to know that despite all of my careful planning and well thought out lectures, my children always seemed to see through my attempt to mold them and instead chose to learn things that I had not intended to teach, things that likely have more to do with who I am than I would care to admit.  I think (hope) that all parents and children have this in common and when I think of all the lessons I’ve learned from my father, I am reminded of a particular story about his childhood. Continue reading