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August 20, 2004

Fish And Relatives

In theory, February is the shortest month of the year. But this assumes that time is non-relativistic. That the 30 minutes you spend waiting for your blind date to show up at the restaurant equals the 30 minutes you spend scuba diving in Kona. They’re the same on some scale, but the time is not perceived to flow evenly during these two disparate events. And so it is with February. February is all ice-scrapers, Sorels, rock salt, snow plows, and cars spinning like figure-skaters, tits-up in the median.

In theory, February is the shortest month of the year. But this assumes that time is non-relativistic. That the 30 minutes you spend waiting for your blind date to show up at the restaurant equals the 30 minutes you spend scuba diving in Kona. They’re the same on some scale, but the time is not perceived to flow evenly during these two disparate events. And so it is with February. February is all ice-scrapers, Sorels, rock salt, snow plows, and cars spinning like figure-skaters, tits-up in the median.

I hadn’t worked since before Thanksgiving. In January, I bought a shiny new 2004 calendar and stapled it to the wall. It’s one of those giant year-at-a-glance calendars from one of the big box stores like Office Cube World. A big laminated wall calendar with the politically-correct holidays that I could write on with dry-erase markers. I reached for a marker and leaned toward the calendar before I realized that I had nothing to write on it. I had no place to be and the rest of my life to get there. It was not a pleasant feeling. I returned the Vis-à-vis marker to the coffee mug and retreated to the couch to watch the snow fall.

One night, I watched a car go tits-up, spinning upside down on its roof. As she spun like a turtle on its back, her headlights illuminated the pine trees like a lighthouse on acid. The light splashed violently into the forest and spilled down the granite face of the precipice. Somehow, she had stopped before she went down the talus slopes into the void. She would have fallen a hundred feet before she hit the old rusting stoves and freezers, dumped there over the eons, rusting out of sight of the tree-hugging metrosexuals in their Subarus.

As she spun upside down on the roof of her car, strapped upside down in her seat, pinned by her airbag, I watched her in disbelief, thinking how lucky she was to be alive, sitting upside down in that rotating UFO. The thing that struck me was that she never did let off the gas. You could hear the engine over-revving. Valves floating. As though somehow if she just pushed the gas a little harder, everything would sort itself out. The spinning wheels acted like as many gyroscopes, accelerating the rotation of the car about its center of mass until it seemed as though it might actually stand up like a top.

Other people stopped to watch the spectacle, but no one could get near the car while it was spinning. Any attempt to interfere with its precarious predicament was liable to send it caroming off of the good Samaritan and into the canyon below. We all just watched and pointed. Some people had camcorders and started filming. I didn’t have mine.

On the drive home, I thought about how time passed for her relative to someone sitting in a cabin at 11,000 feet watching the snow fall. Those seconds must have lasted an eternity to her. They would be the longest seconds she would remember. Etched in her mind like glass in an acid bath. I decided that I’d had enough of the longest month of the year. I had to get out.

I called my sister down in Florida.

“Hey, I was thinking about bringing my little rugrat down there to see your crumb-catcher.?

“Doesn’t she have school??

“Yeah, but I’ve got a pass for her. She’s cleared for takeoff.?

“Yeah. OK. Sure. When are you coming??


“Uhhhh. Yeah. Sure. Sounds great. When are you flying back??

“Next month.?

“Ummm. Yeahhhhhh. Sure.?

“Pick me up at the airport tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. sharp??


On the plane, Jennifer and I both had our laptops out, wearing headphones, listening to the Aireo MP3 player.

“Play that song again, daddy. Make it play that one again.? She’d say.

Generation Z. The spoiled offspring of the technology revolution.

We landed in Florida and Jennifer fumbled, belatedly, for her belongings.

“Where’s my jacket, daddy?? She asked.

“I put it in your backpack, baby.?

“Will I need it when I get off the plane, daddy??

“No, baby. You won’t need your jacket.?

It was snowing in Denver. But not in Florida. My sister met us at the curb.

“It was nice last week?, she apologized. “It’s cold now.?

“Miserable? I commiserated. “Must be…what…seventy??

“Yeah. It was eighty last week.?

“We’ll build a fire when we get home? I suggested.

“I would if we had a fireplace.? She countered.

“How long are you in for??

“Just till the end of the month.?

“You know what they say about fish and relatives, right??

“Yeah. They both smell after three days. I know. We’ll stay out of your hair. We’re going to run up to Orlando and let Jennifer go to Disney World for a few days. She didn’t get to go last year.? I explained.

When some people think of Florida, they think of incorrigibly flat tracts of swampland. Women with fifty-four inch waistlines in Spandex. Bald men in convertibles. Blue haired women on oversized tricycles. Guatemalans packed into cinderblock hives. Trailer parks and jacked-up trucks. Toothless women dipping Skoal and spitting in an aluminum can. Sunburned tourists with bad comb-overs.

But I was born in Florida. And that’s not what I think of when I think of Florida. My sister lives in one of those tawny suburbs north of Palm Beach on the inter-coastal waterway. On the inter-coastal, a million dollar home is a “scraper?. People buy million dollar homes and have them scraped off the foundation with bulldozers to make way for a real mansion.

When my sister’s neighbor died of old age, the new owner threw a party. They went over with hors d'oeuvres and drinks in hand, and smashed out the windows with sledgehammers. Later, the bulldozers moved in and finished the job. They went to the center of the state and picked out a small forest of trees. The full-grown oak trees and palm trees were delicately extracted and delivered to their house on a barge.

The mansions that line the inter-coastal are throttled with boats. Enormous boats for sailing in the Atlantic. Little boats for skiing and running around the inter-coastal. The boats are tied to private docks with Snook lights. No public access. No trespassing.

That’s the Florida I know. Out with the old. In with the new.

At my sister’s house, I walked out onto the pier and starting casting the cast-net into the water to catch some bait for the crab-trap. I hadn’t thrown one in twenty or thirty years, and I was having some difficulty getting it to open up properly. I couldn’t remember exactly how to do it. I knew part of it involved shoving a lead weight from the trailing edge of the net into your teeth and letting go of it just at just the right time. Too soon and the net wouldn’t open up properly. Too late and you’d be diving for your teeth. I could also seem to recall that the net had a propensity to get tangled very easily, and it involved a lot of cursing.

So, I was standing on the dock, casting the net, and cursing when my brother-in-law walked out.

“I didn’t know you were left-handed.?

“I’m not.?

“Well you’re throwing the cast net left-handed.?

“I know. My cousin taught me how to throw and he’s left-handed. But, he neglected to tell me that.?

“Right. Well. He taught you wrong, anyway.?

“How’s that??

“You have to put the lead weight in your mouth when you throw it.?

“I’m afraid I’ll lose my teeth.?

“It won’t open up if you don’t. Just let go of the net with your teeth last and it will open up.?

He was right, of course. I did it like he said, and it opened up perfectly. I pulled the net in slowly, giving it short gentle jerks.

“You got something. You got a puffer fish.? He offered.

“So I do. He can’t hurt me, can he?? I asked as I reached to retrieve the fish from the net with my bare hands.

“He has big teeth like a parrot-fish. Don’t let him bite you. But, other than that, he can’t hurt you.?

I grabbed the fish and he started to puff up in my hands.

“Squeeze him some and he’ll puff up a lot more.? He offered.

“Like that??

“No. Turn him upside down and rub his belly. He’ll puff up like a balloon. Sometimes they pop.?

I did as I was instructed and the fish turned into a helium balloon. Like a Walt Disney cartoon character.

“That one looks big enough to eat. If you want to, I’ll prepare it for you. They’re delicious.? He offered.

“Yeah, but aren’t they dangerous? Like, if they’re not prepared properly, you’ll die, right?? I cautioned.

“Yeah, but I know how to prepare them.? He countered.

“Aren’t you supposed to be licensed for that?? I asked.

“I don’t think so.? He replied.

“Oh, look. Ooops. He got away.? I complained as I tossed the puffer fish back into the river.

The next evening, I was fishing off of the end of pier beside the Snook light. The Snook light is a streetlight about twenty-four inches above the water at high tide. It draws in Snook the size of boat paddles. The water was somewhat murky as the tide was running in. I stood on the pier peering down into the murky water. Moon Fish swam by on top. Shadows beneath them. Beneath them, something even less tangible seemed to be wandering on the bottom.

“Is that something there? I asked, pointed vaguely toward what I perceived to be a long thin shadow.?

“Snook.? My brother-in-law could see everything. He has the eyes of a comic book superhero.

“Do you see those fish out there?? he asked pointing to where I could discern nothing. In the murky water, the snook light seemed inadequate. I wanted a two million candlepower spotlight and a dozen hand grenades. Instead, we had a streetlight too dim to attract moths and a hundred yards of 8 pound fishing line on a bass pole.

They say “every blind hog finds an acorn?, and eventually I managed to hook something on a live shrimp. It proceeded to strip my reel and zigzag back and forth between the barnacled pilings until my reel was smoking. Finally, it succeeded in severing the line on the barnacles.

“What did I hook? A Russian sub?? I asked.

“Nah. Just a Snook. That was a little one.?

“I’m glad I didn’t tie into a big one.?

When you get tired of playing around out here with this light tackle, come inside and I’ll show you my new reel.

On the kitchen table was a box the size of soccer ball. It was marked “winch, electric?. Inside was the largest fishing reel I’ve ever seen. A computer controlled 24 volt electric winch-fishing-reel. What kind of line do you put on this?

“Six hundred yards of one hundred twenty pound test line. Plus backing.?

“You should get a harpoon and a rope? I offered. “What are you fishing for? Snook??

“Marlin. And we’re going out tomorrow. Early.?

“Roger that, Ishmael. See you in the morning.?

At night, on the dock. I sit basking in the glow of the snook light. The tide rolls in and pushes with it an ocean of flotsam, jetsam, and lagan. Leaves, dead fish, plastic bottles. All comes by in a parade of spume. The live shrimp on the end of my line is getting nervous. Making jerky, pell-mell dashes that makes my line jump in a peculiar manner. Usually, when your bait is nervous, there’s a reason. He’s nowhere near the top of the food chain. He lives in his life in fear, fleeing from shadows.

I pull up the crab trap and find there is a crab in it with only half of his legs. All the legs on the other side have been neatly removed. I attempt to open the bait partition, and find it tied with a thin wire. My sister has baited the trap and wired it shut. She’s a civil engineer, and as I look at the catch, I find myself analyzing her through her design.

I inspect the neat, thin wire. A few twists, and it is free. It is simple, but effective. It would never come undone accidentally, but is easily released. Neither over-engineered, nor under-engineered.

My bait begins acting nervous again, and suddenly it is headed up the river like a freight train. I grab the pole and pull back until the rod doubles over. He’s sawing my line against a piling, but I hold my rod tip high enough that he can’t pull my line down across the barnacles. Eventually, he doubles back and heads under the pier. I stand at the edge of the pier on my toes, pole pointed out, but it’s doubled back under the pier. Eventually, he tires and as he rises to the surface, I assume he is a Snook. Then I glimpse the fish in the water and decided I’ve snagged a mullet. When I get it on the dock, I see it is a catfish. Not exactly a trophy, and it gets tossed back.

Things jump in the darkness. They leave the water and return with a loud splash. Next door, the white people are throwing a party. The music is low. They dance quietly, drink Zimas, and shag each other like weasels. So it is with white people.

The bilge pump springs to life on the thirty three foot boat immediately beside me and my heart stops. I watch my line, but nothing moves.

The next moring, we went out deep sea fishing. Fishing in Florida is a world apart from fishing in Colorado. The fish we catch in Colorado wouldn’t serve for bait in Florida.

I went to the store to buy a fishing license. Inside, are fishing reels designed by madmen. Twelve volt computer-controlled electric-winch fishing reels the size of pumpkins. Four hundred pound steel wire leaders. Rocket launchers - an array of rod holders that holds five rods at various angles but keeps the reels close together for easy access.

We sail the boat out of the Jupiter inlet early. As we sail across the bar, the waves stand up and the boat smashes through a series of eight foot waves before entering the Atlantic. We stop and begin to catch fish on artificial lures.

“These are nice fish? I comment.

“These? These are bait fish.? My brother-in-law corrects me.

I look at the fish. The smallest one is eighteen inches long.

“Really.? I deadpan.

“Yeah. We’ll try to catch some Kings on these.? By Kings, he means King Mackerel.

While we’re sitting there fishing, I notice a fire-engine red helicopter flying extremely low near the beach. It was flying no more than thirty feet off of the ground. I assumed it was on a search-and-rescue mission, as it was flying lower than any helicopter I’ve ever seen that wasn’t landing. As I watched, it approached our boat.

“He’s coming to take our picture.? My sister explained.

The small, odd shaped helicopter approached. I looked intently to see if I would be able to make out the photographer. As I watched, the pilot (the sole person in the helicopter) let go of the stick with both hands, picked up a large SLR camera with an 800 mm lens, and took a photograph of us. Then, he put down the camera, grabbed the stick, and was gone.

I looked at my sister.

“Did you see that??

“Uh. Huh. That’s what he does. He takes pictures of people’s boats, looks up the registration, and offers to sell you the picture.?

“That would be a cool picture. I wonder how much he wants for it??

“Last time he took our picture, he wanted three fifty, but that was a long time ago.?

“Three dollars and fifty cents? I asked.?

“No. Three hundred and fifty dollars.?

Ouch. But still, I bet that would be a cool picture.

“You should have taken a picture of him? my sister commented.

“I couldn’t. I was fishing.? I explained.

“So what? He was flying a helicopter and he took your picture.?

“You got me there.?

I thought about all of the people on earth that get up and drive into an office to slave away their lives in a cubicle. Then I thought about my buddy flying a helicopter with only his feet up and down the Atlantic coast taking photographs and selling them for $350. No doubt people bought them. When you spend a quarter-mill on a boat, what difference would three fifty make? Think how cool you’d look in the photo.

After we landed a few bluefish for bait, we headed out for the commercial King Mackerel fishermen and rigged up the baitfish. We trolled them very slowly for an hour or so, constantly shifting the boat in and out of gear. The exercise gave us ample time to study the tedious life of a commercial King Mackerel fishermen. Apparently, the commercial long-line nets were banned some time ago. The most peculiar thing about these fishermen is that they fish without the aid of rods or reels. Instead, they troll several lines by hand. They steer their small fishing boats using only their feet. This leaves their hands free to deal with the fish. All day long, they jig lines with their hands in a monotonous repetitive motion. To and fro they jerk the line. Presumably, this makes the artificial lure more attractive to the fish. Every so often, they catch a fish, pull in the line using nothing but their hands. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Eventually, we managed to land a half-dozen Mackerel ourselves, but we used the newfangled technology of a rod and reel. Each time a fish was reeled into the boat, we regressed to cavemen. Chaos reigned as commands and orders were barked and lures and gaffs went sailing through the air. Teeth gnashing. Blood flying. Fish slamming up and down in the back of the boat.

Disney World

In Orlando, all roads seem to lead to Disney World. Drive-in movie theatre sized interstate signs indicate two or three lane exits off of I4 for “Disney World?. No exit number. No Route numbers. Just Disney World. Disney is a black hole. It is nearly impossible to drive around it without being sucked in, inadvertently or otherwise.

Once inside the cloistered walls of Disney, the roads bifurcate like the tendrils of a ficus banyan tree. The main thoroughfares are named Disney Boulevard, Osceola Parkway, etc. But don’t look for signs. Unfortunately, Walt didn’t have much of an affinity for street signs. There are no street signs in Disney World. And there are no accurate maps of the roads in Disney, at least none that I could find.

Instead, each intersection has interstate interchange sized fonts indicating Magic Kingdom this way. Animal Kingdom that way. If you didn’t want to go to either of those two places, then that’s just too bad isn’t it? I drove around in a holding pattern for days looking for a sign that said “Exit? or “Earth?, but finally succumbed to the “Magic Kingdom? sign.

Every time I left DW, I felt like I had been abducted and released by aliens. I found myself driving down a one-way road in a rental car out the outskirts of Orlando, wondering where I was and what had just happened. I always felt compelled to retrace my steps and see if I could decipher the spaghetti maze of roads that services Disney. But I never had the temerity to try. Until today.

Today, I decided I would leave I4, drive straight down the gauntlet of DW, hit Osceola Parkway and head east toward the Florida Turnpike. I would do it without the benefit of accurate maps, road signs, or route markers. As I followed one of the ubiquitous Disney World interstate exits, I rolled up the windows. Turned off the air conditioner. Turned off the radio. I knew I would need a zen-like concentration if I was to be successful. Immediately, I was confronted by the age-old question. Magic Kingdom this way. Animal Kingdom that way. Those were my two choices. I guessed Magic Kingdom. Wrong. A half-mile down the road, I was being shoved into the gullet of the Magic Kingdom. They would want money for parking. Bribes. One could only imagine what else. I looked over to my right where the traffic to Animal Kingdom had been shunted. That was where I needed to be. Just across that narrow strip of grass median.

I thought about the crashed car I saw in Disney near the Animal Kingdom exit. Upside down on the roof in the rain, surrounded by the appropriate number of emergency response people required to extract a woman from her tortoise of a car. At the time, I had wondered how one could possibly flip a car inside the DW empire. How fast could you possibly get going? What would one have to do to make a car go tits up anyway?

As I crossed the median, I began to get an idea of how it might have happened. She was possibly trying to escape from the belly of Disney, no matter what the cost.

“Daddy? What are we doing??

“Just making a little course correction, angel. No need to worry.? And with that, I was on the Osceola Parkway headed East. I had battled the beast and, if I hadn’t won, at least I had broken even.

Back in Palm Beach, Jennifer picked up the cast net and drug it a short distance down the pier. “Daddy, I want to use the cast net.?

“Do you know how, angel??

“Will you show me??

“Sure, baby. I’ll show you. Open your mouth. Put the lead-line in your teeth like this.?

“Wike thith, daddy??

“Yeah. Perfect. Oh. Yeah. And don’t forget to open your mouth when you throw or the tooth fairy will pay you a visit tonight.?

Jennifer’s eyes lit up. She claimed to be the only one in kindergarten that hadn’t lost a tooth. She chewed ice constantly in a desperate attempt to loosen her teeth. The thought of having a few ripped from her mouth somehow seemed appealing.

When she tossed the net, it opened perfectly. She even remembered to open her mouth so that she didn’t loose any teeth. Somehow, though, she had managed to allow the line to slip off of her wrist when she threw it so the entire net went into the bay, hook, line, and sinker.

I sat on the pier and fished the line out with my toes.

“Oh. By the way. Not that it matters, but you throw a cast-net left-handed.?

“Why, daddy??

“Because that’s the way I learned, baby. It’s the only way I know.?

Posted by Peenie Wallie on August 20, 2004 at 8:51 PM


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