Keeping the Faith
High school boys never run short of adventuresome schemes, especially during the summer when they have less structure and an escalated sense of entitlement to engage in mischievous conduct. Never is this mind-set more prevalent than in Miami, Florida. The ways of the water’s omnipresence magnify this attitude. And for me, the surfing sub-culture, engrained from endless days spent at South Beach Pier, was a contributing behavioral adjunct as well.
In the tropical confines of August 1968 my good friend Mickey Schemer and I were finishing our routine football work-out in prep for the fast approaching camps when we would go our separate ways; he to local Miami Edison and me to a military boarding school in Tennessee. We were in search of that ultimate end of summer excursion that would allow us to blow off steam in the way only we knew how. It would be the last time until Christmas break that we could push the boundaries of our experiences together.
The chances are if you are raised in Miami, you learn and grow to love fishing; whether it is with a pole from an Atlantic pier, or a long dip net with a lantern slung low from the catwalk of a bridge full moon at high tide on Biscayne Bay. Our plan had to employ the possibility of this sport in any form and it had to fit within our limited financial resources.
“Hey- we should- go to Bimini,” I posited in short breaths in Mickey’s direction.
It was via my experience at the boarding school that I learned of this beautiful treasure of an Island lying in our oceanic back yard. I had been a guest of a schoolmate’s family on a spring break trip that same year.
Mickey- ever the pessimist- stopped, his towel paused midway through his sweating brow. “Bimini? How the hell do you expect to get there? I thought you wanted to fish? Plus, there’s no way we can afford it,” he stated running the towel through the rest of his red hair.
“Come on man- where’s your head?” I asked. Then I argued we could do it and explained how.
On surfing trips to South Beach from our neighborhood, one would travel MacArthur Causeway with Government Cut on the right and Watson Island passing on the left. Invariably two residents of that island would visually stand out: the gigantic Goodyear Blimp and those flimsy looking Chalks Seaplanes. I had learned recently that one of those Chalk’s rust buckets could get you to Bimini in about a half hour and cost only $35 round trip! The scheme was almost complete, because getting a cheap motel room splitting the cost three ways would leave us ample money for shenanigans and hopefully some fishing. Our friend John Bernardi was the third and along for the ride.
My previous experience in Bimini had impressed upon me that the “almost anything goes” outlook on that tiny strip of land fit our style just fine. Late teenagers were welcome to belly up to the bar along with the most seasoned rummies. The natives were as friendly as anyone you would ever meet with an uncanny knack for always remembering your name. On Bimini you fished and partied. When you partied, you made new friends. What could be better. It took just a few days for us to make all arrangements.
The three of us had just finished strapping ourselves into the plane when the pilot turned from his seat in the cockpit to greet us. He looked like Humphrey Bogart straight out of “The African Queen” off a three-day drinking binge. Looking around the interior, the thought that one could stick their finger through the fuselage crossed my mind. We had a loudly beautiful trip never feeling like we were more than a hundred feet from the ocean surface. I swear you could hear that amphibian’s every nut and bolt rattle in route. The take off and landing could by themselves have been the entire adventure we had been seeking.
My earlier experience on this spit of land found me enamored with the native guides who went by the names of the fish they would direct you to catch. “Bonefish Rudy” and “Blue Marlin Willie” are the two monikers that are seared into my memory. I remember sharing a few Becks with those men at the Compleat Angler; purportedly the quaint tavern that Hemingway hung out in while writing “Islands in the Stream”. Those guys were the ones that turned us onto the idea that catching on with a day trip did not always necessitate the exchange of money but sometimes being in the right place at the right time could garner a hospitable invitation. This idea became part of our plan as did the adoption of our own fish names. Thus, we became Mullet Mike, Jewfish John and Blowfish Brad.
Besides the unique guide naming practice, Bimini had other distinguishing idiosyncrasies. For example, the cocktail of choice for the locals was scotch and milk on ice; something we could never develop a palate for. There was the End of the World Bar where we searched for Hemingway’s signature on the walls and ceilings, plus a blank space to write our own. It was here we met two brothers: Matt and Brett Kirkland who were from Pompano, Florida. Matt was the oldest and about to finish at FSU. He would complete Captains Certification by the end of the year. Brett was our age. They chuckled when we introduced ourselves by our fish names and we struck an immediate kinship.
The Kirkland brothers were fortunate to be staying aboard their father’s 41 foot Hatteras moored at The Big Game Club. Mom and dad were, of course, bunked in one of the Club’s rooms. We talked fishing over St. Pauli Girls and soon it was established that the scope of our experience was limited to the asparagus green waters in and around Miami. We were well versed in Boston Whaler, working the bottom for red snapper and jigging for jack but had never been close to the blue water which can serve up big game fish. Then the invitation came.
“Man, you guys gotta try trolling,” Brett proclaimed practically yelling, then. “Matt, can they go with us tomorrow?”
Matt showing added maturity was non-committal, “We should discuss this with Dad!” After more discourse on the merits of off-shore angling, the decided that we should just show up at the marina at 6:00am.
The Kirkland boys had planned to take the boat out for a few hours on their own as Dad had planned to bonefish in the flats for the day. When Mickey, John and I showed up at the docks, their father was somewhat cautious after looking us up and down. He must have surmised we were not the drug running type and agreed to the plan. He also made Matt promise to keep the vessel close to the shore and limited the expedition to four hours. After some last minute gathering of provisions we pulled away from the pylons.
Never had I experienced the relaxing exhilaration of the constant rumble of the huge V8s coupled with the gentle roll of the boat through the swells. We moved back and forth, Bimini starboard, then Bimini port side. We looked to be riding the edge of the deep blue water, two lines outriggers only. Brett, acting as mate, kept working the tackle and riggings in a way that convinced us he knew what he was doing.
After about an hour and a half we were wondering if Brett really did know what he was doing. Mickey and I talked about Matt as Captain. Could he really read the instruments or were we just along for a nice boat ride? Nothing was happening. Our patience waned. Bimini always seemed to be within swimming distance a perception that staved off most of our insecurity. I moved up to the bow to catch some morning rays and soon dozed off.
Matt yelled out, “Fish on!” Brett was scrambling. I was out of position trying to get to the boat’s stern. Mickey was underneath in the cabin. John who was hanging out having a smoke was the boy in the right place at the right time. My thoughts were a mix of confused elation and maybe Brett and Matt did know what they were doing. John grabbed the pole from Brett but the fight disappeared quickly and we learned we had hooked a small barracuda. Brett got him off the line at the boat and the fish swam away.
In an instant, we had learned our first lesson of off shore trolling: this type of fishing is no different than others. Patience and faith is the order of the day. The three amigos never left the back of the boat again, not even to take a leak! We also learned that the first fish is always the most important. It breaks the ice, so to speak -more importantly- we knew we were not going home without a tale to tell.
We hooked into a couple more cudas over the next ninety minutes and because we knew they would not end up on the dinner table, we let them go. We were close to the end of the trip and we were happy. Our experience had been fulfilling in so many ways. Not many boys our age ever get the chance to fish off shore in these type waters in such a spectacular craft.
Then, this time something different happened. There was a loud unfamiliar “SNAP” audible over the thundering engines. Even before Matt could call out from the bridge, the large Penn reel started to scream “ssssssszzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!”
‘Grab the rod!” Matt commanded from overhead. Mickey was there first. I always knew he was a better athlete than I. Faster and quicker, he would be named that same season “All City” at linebacker.
“Get in the chair!” Brett yelled as Mickey positioned the rod in place. The line continued to spool off the reel sounding as if a thousand yellow jackets were sprung from a nest between his legs.
“Keep that tip up!” yelled Matt as he backed down the big twin V8s coming to a crawl. “Whatever it is. It’s going down deep.” I thought I was stoked because of our earlier experiences on this awesome excursion. Now there were no words to describe the feelings and emotions and I was not even the guy in the fighting chair.
About thirty or forty minutes went by and Mickey was making progress. The fish was coming back up. Matt caught sight of the silver flash beneath the shimmering Atlantic surface. He was now backing the boat up. “Brett get up here,” he commanded his brother. “Hold the boat steady and when I call you throw her into neutral and come on back down,” the future Captain gesturing as he joined the fight in the stern.
Looking down into the azure emerald waters Matt quickly turned to Mickey. “I want you to give me the rod. I think this fish is a tuna -a big tuna- maybe a record size. We don’t want to lose it,” he calmly explained.
Mickey was happy to turn the rod over; his arms so tight he could hardly lift them above his shoulders. Matt reeled and reeled again as the boat continued to ease backward. And then we saw it. It was the biggest fish I had ever seen. Not long, it was four to four and a half feet. But it was huge in it’s girth. I wondered, could it be pregnant.
“What is it?” John queried.
Mickey shot back, “It’s a big fish numbnuts!”
Brett from up top, “ I can’t tell but it could be a tuna.”
Then the fish started coming in and Matt was reeling for all its worth. “Brett Get down here and grab the gaff.” Matt barked over his shoulder as he climbed out of the chair. The boat was now drifting as the engines slow hummed. And Brett seemed to fly off the controls, his feet never appearing to touch the ladder rungs grabbing the gaff in one swift motion. Yeah – I thought to myself – he knows what he is doing.
We all managed to get the behemoth across the transom and we just stared at it for the longest time trying to figure out what kind of fish it was. It had the shape of a tuna but the look of a wahoo or so it seemed. All I knew was that it was big and nobody in Miami or Tennessee would believe this story.
The next most important learning experience from this adventure is: the last few hundred yards coming into the marina are the most precious moments of any fishing trip when you’ve got a big catch on board. The are always people waiting and watching to see what you have. Our chests thrown forward were busting out in pride. When we laid out our fish, it was identified by the experienced natives as a Kingfish. This beauty weighed in at 49 pounds. I remember someone saying it was only six pounds off the world record. We had some of that fish for dinner that night. To this day, I have never tasted any better.
Our next and last day on the island we said our goodbyes and thanks to the Kirklands over some conch chowder in a little aqua green 80x80 cinderblock building named “Fisherman’s Paradise.” Contented that no experience could top the events of the last forty eight hours, we bid adieu to the brothers who themselves would continue on with their parents.
Mickey was beginning to be his pessimistic self, fretting about our flight back when Sammy, the owner of the place came over to our table. He nods to a lone man sitting at the table in the corner. Looking at us and in a low voice he asks, “Do you know who that is?” Seeing the quizzical looks on our faces he continues on before we can say no. “That’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Go introduce yourselves.”
And that is exactly what we did and Mr. Powell asked us to have a seat and join him! We spent our last thirty minutes on Bimini sitting at a table with a US Senator talking politics. We did not know what we were talking about but it made sense. When we said our good byes his last words to us were, “Keep the Faith Baby.” And that is no fish story!
I recently read Eric Metaxas’s book “Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Profit, Spy” about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a remarkable biography of this German Lutheran Pastor who resisted against Hitler and the Nazis to the point of helping to plot the fuhrer’s assassination. Bonhoeffer's brave stance ultimately cost him his life.
While reading this book I discovered a remote connection with this Godly man. In the book it describes Bonhoeffer's travel as a newly ordained minister to America in the early 1930’s. It was at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. Metaxas writes about how the young German clergyman was taken with an African American Preacher at a Baptist Church in Harlem, NY. That Pastor’s name was Adam Clayton Powell Sr.
It must also be noted that this short story is not a work of fiction in that the events, as mentioned in it, did actually happen. The original manuscript was written in November 2005. I have changed some names and some recollections are blurry after a half century has passed.
My friend Mickey passed away in February, 2010.
Amen and Shalom Brother.
Amen and Shalom Brother.