Nude Banzai

Posted on October 20, 2008. Filed under: Everything you wanted to know about doctors, Good ol' days, Personal philosophy |

Today’s post is a chapter from my not-yet-published book, Chasing a Light Beam. If you actually read it, please let me have your criticism.



Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. 

                                                                                                        -Henry David Thoreau                                              


The man shifted a little in his chair. He thumped the edge of the crystal martini glass; it made a musical tone. With his foot propped, he could stay comfortable like this for quite a while.

I was single again, and I called my cousin Punky in Jacksonville to see if he wanted to go on a guy-trip. He was nine years younger and had no wife to convince. I knew his dad way before he did. Big Punky wasn’t a blood relative, but after Mom moved us to Jacksonville, he was the closest thing I had to a father. Just like Daddy, he liked to fish, and he liked to take me along.

Big Punky was the one who taught me to catch sheepshead with fiddlers. The first thing you had to do was find a bank on a tidal river when the tide was out. The fiddler crabs would be cruisin’ around on the mud and oyster shells in droves, each waving his larger claw. If they saw you coming, they’d crab-walk faster than a light beam – that’s not really possible, like I said in the beginning, but whatever – back to their burrows and disappear. You had to sneak up on them, and you had to get between them and their holes. Then you ran out with a bucket and used your free hand to scoop up as many as you could. You grabbed them, and they grabbed you, but it wasn’t true pain. Most of them would get away, but if you were good at it, several dozen would go in the bucket. As to the actual fishing, I never understood how sheepshead could use those human-looking teeth to get the meat out of a fiddler shell without sending any vibrations at all up the line. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me; Big Punky could feel the slightest twitch, and we usually came home with plenty to eat.

Punky was only six when his father died. When he was older, he’d get me to tell him about the times I spent with his dad. His favorite was the day Daddy took Big Punky and me to a little lake in the Ocala National Forest. We were after largemouth bass, and the bait was wild shiners, hooked through the lips. Daddy had a flat-bottomed plywood boat with a three-horse Champion outboard. We trolled the shiners behind the boat, slow enough to let them swim. One line was out each side, and Daddy’s line was out the back. When the bass would hit, the click on the reel would scream. You’d count to ten, and then jerk, to set the hook. The limit was eight bass in those days, and there was no such thing as catch-and-release; it was catch-and-eat. We caught twenty-four bass that afternoon. Big Punky had one that went nine pounds, two ounces, and another that weighed eight pounds, fifteen ounces. I know that, because Daddy always stopped at a little roadside store on the way home to weigh any “lunkers” on their certified meat scales. ‘Til the day he died, Big Punky said that was the greatest fishing trip of his life.

I figured Punky might like to try to find that pond with me; he’d never been there. When Daddy was alive, he tried to keep that fishin’ hole a secret; you could drive right by it on the two-rut forest road, and never know it was there. His effort succeeded until the day he took the preacher of the First Baptist Church out for a chance at a big bass. He made him swear to secrecy, and the preacher caught an eight-pounder. The next time Daddy went there, the preacher and two other boatloads were on the lake. It wasn’t a secret after that.

Punky jumped at the chance. I would borrow an outboard motor, and he would rustle up a lightweight boat and trailer, and possibly a trolling motor. We’d go searching for the place that he’d only heard about, and that I hadn’t seen for twenty-seven years.

Punky’s pretty laid-back; the little things don’t bother him, and there are no big things. As soon as I saw the rig he’d come up with, I knew it would be a hell of a trip. My car didn’t have a trailer hitch, so we were taking his. It was an orange Toyota Corolla. Hitched behind it was a creation that had the makings of a boat trailer, except it had no bunks for the boat to rest on. Sitting directly on the trailer’s metal frame was a twelve-foot open wooden boat, strapped on with rope. The trailer had no electrical wiring. There was a flashlight attached to the rear with twist-ties; red cellophane covered the lens, held in place by a rubber band. It was the taillight, in case we were out at night. Beneath it, again held by twist-ties, was a license plate. It wasn’t the actual trailer plate; the trailer wasn’t registered. It was the plate from Punky’s car, which he planned to switch back and forth as needed. On the floor of the boat was the bonus: a twelve-volt trolling motor. But no battery. Punky’s plan was to use the car battery for fishing, and if we ran it dead, we’d restart the car by disconnecting the trailer and push-starting it.

Seemed like an OK plan to me, so we took off for Ocala, a hundred miles south. A lot had changed around the National Forest since I’d been there with Daddy. As I remembered it, the turn-off from the highway was just after a particular curve, but when Daddy and I had done it, the turn-off road was red clay. Right where I thought the clay road should be was an asphalt road with traffic striping; we went back and forth several times before I realized that it was the replacement for the clay road. The access to the little lake had been a rutted sand trail almost hidden by the pines, leading off the clay road. I was surprised how my memory clicked in, and sure enough, there was a trail right where I remembered. Punky turned the Corolla onto the ruts, and we started in. I’d never been there with a trailer; Daddy always carried his boat in the bed of his pick-up. It hadn’t occurred to me that the trailer makes a helluva difference; there was no turning around, for sure, and the curves were tight. I noticed the sand ruts had no fresh tracks, and I wondered if the place was still semi-secret.

About that time the Corolla sank to its axles in the sand. It took around two hours to dig out, using hands and a tire tool, stuffing palmetto fronds under the tires for traction. There was caked sweaty sand all over both of us, and as many “sumbitch’s” and “stupid motherfucker’s” flying around in the air as there were mosquitoes. But when we finally forged ahead, and the little lake came into view, all was well again. It was pretty much like I remembered: white sand bottom, cattail reeds and redwing blackbirds, with sand-pines all around about a hundred acres of water, and no other boats.

Punky and I dragged the boat off the trailer, over the sand and pine needles, into the lake. I tightened the outboard to the stern, while Punky removed the car battery. We loaded up the fishing gear, and we were ready. I was on a trip back to my childhood. The first clue that there would be a detour on my journey came when I noticed nothing but hydrilla under the boat. There had been none of that wild-spreading aquatic grass at all when I had fished here with Daddy. It looked like the whole lake was socked in with the weed. Punky and I tried to chunk Texas-rigged plastic worms through the mats for over an hour, but we couldn’t get anywhere near a fish.

I noticed what looked like a cleared-out beach area on the other side, and we putted over there for a shore-lunch. It was hotter than a South Georgia minister writin’ a love letter, as Daddy used to say. The water around the beach was clear, with no hydrilla for about two hundred feet out, for whatever reason. After some peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Punky and I put tee shirts on our heads under baseball caps, with the shirttails hanging down on the back of our necks. We stripped down to bare-ass, grabbed our fishing rods, and waded out into the cool water. All the Forest lakes are spring-fed, so the water’s never hot, even in July. We didn’t have any sunscreen, so we stayed out about neck-deep. We were casting, not catching any fish, havin’ fun. We were “nude Banzai spin-casting”!

We were about ready to get out of the water and back into the boat. I wanted to leave a good cushion of time, in case the trip out involved the same crap as the trip in. Right then, a Chevy station wagon pulled up at the clearing, and out popped mom, dad, and three kids with plastic water floats. Punky and I looked at each other: we were nekked Jap versions of Bill Dance and Roland Martin, and we weren’t goin’ anywhere ‘til the kids got tired of swimming.

We never did catch any fish that day. When we got back to the main road, I wanted to know how that family had found the lake. Punky drove down the road a little farther, and in about two hundred yards, we came across an official National Forest sign: “Wells’ Pond Public Beach”. There was a crushed-rock road leading to the “secret” site of the nude-Banzai afternoon. It was time for beer.

That night, I told Punky about another place we used to fish. It was called “Farley’s Prairie”. There were lots of “water prairies” in the Forest; the name came from the reeds and cattails that formed little islands between deeper pockets of spring water. Farley’s was a lot bigger than Wells’ Pond. The area around it had been used as a bombing range during WW II by Navy planes flying over from Sanford. Daddy and I didn’t go there much because the access was so difficult. You had to drive for about an hour over a washboard-rutted road, and all the bouncing around beat up the boat in the pick-up bed. But the remoteness almost guaranteed mid-week isolation.

By the time we got near Farley’s Prairie the next day, it was mid-morning. The washboard road hadn’t changed; we had to stop and re-tie the boat to the trailer three times. As I remembered, Farley’s was just around the next curve in the Forest road. I hoped we’d be able to get close enough to the water to drag the boat in without too much trouble. We rounded the curve, and there it was: Farley’s Prairie!

There was an air-conditioned reception hut, with a sign that read “Farley’s Prairie Wilderness Campground”. Individual cabins and tents were all over the place. There were two concrete boat ramps. Ski boats were pulling water skiers and tubers on the lake. Kids swimming in inner tubes were like ducks on a pond. To the far side of the reception area was a road that led to a new state highway, lined with utility poles. A Mercedes sedan was just pulling in to the reception area. Not exactly like the ol’ days. On the other hand, there was no hydrilla. We didn’t catch anything. Time for more beer.

Ben’s audience was the recorder, and to his way of thinking, he was putting on a show. He laughed out loud, and took a sip of vodka. The fishing trip with Punky had put his life back on track at a time when he was lost.

I realized you can never go home again, but in my case, not so much because I was different, but because home wasn’t there anymore. I told Punky we ought to head for the Suwannee River. It’s the one Stephen Foster made famous, even though he didn’t know how to spell its name and had never seen it. His politically incorrect lyrics about the darkies probably have the Foster estate tied up in reparations suits even now. That aside, it’s black water starts with the tannic acid in the Okeefenokee Swamp in Georgia and flows quicker than most Florida streams, down to the Gulf of Mexico. Every now and then, a gin-clear spring feeds into it, creating what looks like an actual wall where the two waters meet. Our quarry would be “Suwannee bass”, a spotted bass that looks and fights like a smallmouth, and lives only in this river.

Punky pulled the Corolla into the public launch at Branford, and we dropped the boat into the Suwannee. When he brought the battery from the car for the trolling motor, I knew we would be push-starting when we got back, because we were goin’ to have to fight the current. I motored us downstream several miles, so we could go head-up into the flow and use the trolling motor to work back upstream; we’d drift too fast to fish goin’ downstream. There wasn’t a whole lot of development along the river south of Branford. There were a few homes, but mostly isolated camp-houses, with an occasional tire swing hanging from a tree out over the river.

We fished back toward Branford, throwing long-lipped crankbaits up under the willows, and reeling them down deep along the steep banks. The Suwannee bass liked ‘em; we finally had a tangible justification for the purchase of our fishing licenses.

About five or six bass later, Punky saw a man comin’ towards us on the east bank, following the edge of the river. As he got about even with our boat, about thirty feet away, Punky yelled, “Howdy.” Neither Punky nor I is really a “howdy” kind of guy, but we were in the “cracker” area of Florida, and it seemed like the polite thing to do. The man didn’t even look at us, and actually sort of turned his head away. He seemed like he had someplace he needed to go, and even though there was no trail, he pushed his way along quickly.

Two bass later, about forty-five minutes, we heard another ruckus on the east bank. It was a short, fat man decked out in a full peace-officer outfit, complete with Smokey Bear hat. From his red face and the puffing of his cheeks, it looked like he was moving at a rate a little above his comfort zone. An enormous black-and-brown flop-earred dog on a leash was pulling him along. He called out, “Hay boys! Bring ‘er over here.”

Wildly guessing that we were being summoned to the bank, I trolled over to him.

“Ah’m Officer Dillard, and this here’s ma bloudhoun’, Susie.” According to the patch on his sleeve, Officer Dillard was one of Branford’s finest. “Y’all haven’t come across no boy on the bank futha down-river, have ya?”

Punky and I shot looks. I think we both knew that the answer “yes” was going to complicate our fishin’ trip. “Sure did, officer,” Punky finally said. “He’s got about a forty-five minute head-start on ya. Is he a rapist, or a murderer?”

Officer Dillard not only was in no mood for a friendly chat; he barely had the wind to talk at all. “Ah’m gone hafta commondeer y’all’s boat, boys, in the intrest of public safety.” With that, he began climbing in, with Susie still on the bank. His presence increased the weight of the boat’s cargo by about seventy-five percent. And I knew for sure he wasn’t finished.

“Come on, Susie,” he drawled, and gave the leash a pull. The dog slobbered, and her drool preceded her into the boat. Two fishermen, a peace officer, and a bloodhound, along with seven or eight Suwannee bass and some beer, made a little more than a full load for the twelve-foot boat. The freeboard was just short of zero.

“Let’s git this thang movin’ that-away,” he directed, pointing downstream. I cranked the outboard, and started off, very gingerly, as Officer Dillard spoke on his walkie-talkie to an invisible constable downstream. “He’s hedded fo’ ya, Jessup, rite on’ the east bank, and ah’m closin’ in from behin’.”

The water never actually came over the boat’s gunwale, but I was just as concerned that Susie might fill it from the inside with the constant slather that dripped from her mouth. As we rounded a bend, a camp-house on the bank came into view, and Susie uncorked a bugle. Actually, that part was pretty cool; I’d only heard it before in the movies. There were a couple of cop cars next to the house with blue lights flashing, and down on the dock was our riverbank friend from earlier on, this time handcuffed and standing between two of Officer Dillard’s colleagues.

Punky grabbed the dock to steady us, but as Dillard and Susie disembarked, the boat rocked so that about twenty gallons of tannic water rushed in over the side. “Thanks, men,” Susie’s boss said to us. Apparently we had been promoted from “boys”. “Ya dun a good job.” And off he went, with Susie sniffing at the prisoner as if to suck him up into her nostrils.

Convinced we weren’t going to sink, Punky and I busted out a couple of beers, and almost choked ourselves between the laughing and the drinking. Eventually, we bailed out the boat and headed upstream. When we reached the spot where we had met Susie and her pet, Officer Dillard, we resumed fishing in the direction of the launch ramp. We caught two more frisky spotted fish before we reached the car.

As we got out of the boat, it occurred to me that we had no way to cook the fish; I should have turned them loose as we caught them. For all but the two that swam off, my kind thoughts were too late; the others went belly-up. Punky transferred the battery to the Corolla, and fired her up. Or at least, tried to; the starter made only a “clicking” sound. The solution required no particular thought, since it was part of Punky’s pre-flight plan. He hopped out and disconnected the trailer from the hitch-ball. Together, we pushed the car backwards toward the launch-ramp. The idea of using gravity as an aid was appealing, but the consequences of being a little off on the timing seemed rather severe. I mentioned this, but Punky would have none of it. He got behind the wheel, put her in reverse, and depressed the clutch. The car gained momentum as it reached halfway down the ramp, also halfway to the river. It lurched to life as Punky popped the clutch, and then it stopped immediately. The clutch was in, and the brake was on. There were still ten feet of safe ramp to spare. I applauded and chugged a beer.

Most of what Ben remembered about the remainder of the trip was drinking and laughing. “Why can’t a wife be that much fun?” he wondered. The next time he would see Punky, both men would have wives. Ben’s would be named Maggie.


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