Sunday, October 4, 2009

Big Ron - the kiln

When big ships are built in a ship yard, they start in many small pieces: first a keel, then ribs are framed up, then bulkheads, hull plate, decks. At some point it all assumes sufficient enough form that it clearly becomes a Thing in its own right. And sailors, being historically inclined to the superstitions, pause at that moment to go a step further. They christen their work with a little ceremony. They give the Thing a name, and a gender to boot. And then they throw it in the water and cheer when it floats.

This is the traditional scene where the young girl in a Sunday dress leans out over the edge of a platform, cracks a bottle of champaign on the stem, and the ship slides down the ways and splashes into the water. After the ceremony, the work resumes and continues until commissioning, but from that moment on the Thing has been personified. "She's coming along nicely." "She'll be a fast one." "Her shear line is perfect."

And so it was a little bit this past Saturday with Michael's kiln. The Ronald D. Mahan Manabigama Kiln. As gender goes, it seems to clearly be a "he-kiln." Like its namesake, it is big, barrel-chested, thick, and sturdy. It's going to get things done.

[Some of the Happy Campers in front of the kiln, clockwise from left: Mrs. Ron D. (Helen) Mahan of Waxhaw, NC; Michael Mahan, Seagrove, NC; Dr. Andy Bean, DesMoines, IA; Randy Mahan, Charlotte, NC; Chad Roberts, Jacksonville, FL; Al Cook, Norfolk, VA]

Saturday was the type of beautiful fall day that folks from Carolina brag about being "Carolina Blue." Many of Michael and Mary's artisan friends were there, and it was the kind of interesting crowd where no-one was a stranger. Randy Mahan and his family cooked the turkeys. Al Cook brought some Chesapeake Bay oysters forcing everyone to improvise with a variety of Michael's tools in order to shuck.

My Mangrove Fetish, indulged

As soon as I arrived I made a bee-line for Michael's studio. It was my first visit but I had been pining for one of Michael's mangrove themed pots that I had seen on line. I picked one out and clutched it the rest of the day like a squirrel guarding nuts. Patti bought it for me and she also became smitten with a piece by Chelsea Mahan that came home with us too. This is a picture of it at home this morning in front of a Clyde Butcher print. Clyde Butcher is sort of like the Ansel Adams of the Everglades.

Catching up with old friends

Telling Fish Camp yarns was actually kept to a dull roar on Saturday. A lot of our kids were with us, and apparantly they've all heard these stories so many times they can roll their eyes and finish the story even when somebody else starts. I know we're all starting to get a bit long in the tooth, but listening to one of your friend's adult children tell one of your favorite Fish Camp stories is a funny mind-bender.

My son Hayden was content to mingle among the guests who knew me and ask about any "particularly embarrassing" stories that he might not yet have heard. Fortunately, he is clueless about the existence of the double-secret Fish Camp Code of Silence, and what little parental authority I had left before Saturday remained intact.

Brad Neat wanted very much to fly up, picking up and bringing Robbie Mahan with him, but an onerous aviation forecast for the western part of the Florida pan-handle made that trip un-wise. That 's just part of the general aviation gig. It's like traveling by sailboat, and you have to go with the flow of what mother nature serves up.

Dr. Andy Bean took the award for farthest traveled. He is the Sam Walton of Dermatology Clinics and has one coming soon to a location near you.

[Dr. Bean]
It's really a pleasant kick to be surprised. At one point Patti walked over to where I was standing on the lawn and said: "Do you see that nice lady over their talking to Al Cook? She says she knows you." A gracious Helen Mahan said that thirty years made it excusable for us not to recognize one another. Helen is still in Waxhaw, is a very proud grand-mother, and her family is doing fine. She is standing in front of the business end of the kiln, where it will eventually be glowing cherry red for days at a time while it bends its will on the ceramics inside.

[Helen Mahan and the inside of the kiln]

Sheez. This guy's looked like a hunk since we were kids. You'd think he would give it a rest and start looking his age like the rest of us.

[Al Cook]

Getting the friendly squeeze by the Mahan Boys. I brought Michael everything he needs to put up a Bimini Ring Toss game. (Technical instructions contained in the post about Gene Geh) If he sets it up somewhere and gets good at it, it will drive his customers nuts, and they will compulsively and involuntarily continue to return to his studio again and again for yet another attempt to figure out its hidden secret.

Michael announces that lunch is ready to be served. The Fish Camp way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What it looks like today - Island Bay Resort

The property today is gorgeous, thanks to a lot of tender loving care by the current owners, Mike and Carol Shipley.

The San Jose's canon is still perched over the bay, ready to launch a tennis ball (or a tennis shoe) with a little baggie of Capt. Geh's black powder. (I'm encouraging Mike to put a more historically appropriate marker by the canon.) Of course, wirless internet for the kids. Keep it in the family and call up Fish Camper Brian Premaza who is a fishing guide in Tavernier now. He'll pick you up at the dock and put you on the fish in the backcountry (see below). An older picture of Hayden fishing with Brian, and a more recent one. My son Hayden with Mike and Carol this past summer (2009).

Dry Tortugas Coal Pier settling into the ocean.

My son Hayden and I have taken the Key West to Dry Tortugas ferry and camped out a couple of times. It's a fun trip when the weather is nice; snorkling off the moat around the fort, walking the seawall, strolling through the fort itself. Fish Camper Fred Wheeler started this ferry service in '96 I think. He's doing something else now:

Anyway, check out the progress that the ocean is making to reclaim the old coaling pier. The photo on the left is from June, 1972. Randy Mahan caught that Barracuda, not me, but I didn't mind posing with it. (It wouldn't hit anything until we caught and fed it a needlefish from the dock). The picture on the right is June, 2009. Compare the crack in the coaling pier in 1972 and the angle that the top edge of the pier now makes, visibly heading back into the water. Hayden's not standing on anything, he's just that much taller.

Photos V - Some Fish

I remember this day. At the end of a half day's fishing, everyone would rendezvouz at the big red nun bouy anchored at Conch Reef : "6CR". Usually you would pull up alongside somebody else and say "How'd you do?" and compare your catch. An exceptional fish you might pull out of the cooler to hold up for the admiring eyes in the boat that you had outfished. On this day I pulled up alongside Randy Mahan and we started this "How'd you do?" cat and mouse. Neither one would go first (both planning on sand-bagging the other with a better catch after the first one showed off his.) After a little back and forth we both started smiling and we both knew that we had landed sailfish that morning.
A younger Chris Johnsone on the left. I'm wearing my Jere Pittman "Pittman Produce" fishing hat.

Dr. Bean and Tommy Horn with a nice day's catch of dolphin.
Tommy Horn and David Eckhardt with a huge sailfish. This is the fish in one of Michael's earlier pictures, seen from a distance.

A decent wahoo and a sailfish. At the end of the summer those orange shorts would stand up all by themselves.

Photos IV - How to catch a shark (Cape Sable)

Shark Fishing - Cape Sable

First you get some bait. Idle along over the flats off of Tavernier Key (in the background.) Spot a feeding ray. Idle up behind the ray. It will spook and run out ahead of you. Keep idling behind the ray. Eventually it will get less up tight and you will get close enough to toss a weighted treble hook in front of its path. When it swims over it, Set the Hook!

Then - uh - well - run it through a meat grinder, saving chunks of its wings for bait and the rest for chum.

Cross Florida Bay and beach your boat on Cape Sable in Everglades National Park. Contemplate the life of the first settlers on the cape at the turn of the century. As you run your boat into the beach, drop off your shark fishing rig and its bait a couple of hundred feet off the beach. Leave the rod in the boat's rod holder and set it to free spool with the clicker on. Start a game of frisbee. Shoot the bull. Throw out some chum into the current along the beach.

Shark fishing on the cape is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get. Michael straddles what may be a small lemon shark before removing its jaws.
I know - we wasted a lot of bio-mass doing this. We didn't know any better.

Photos III - Johnstone learns to tie a knot

Chris Johnstone and a very nice bull dolphin. Note his big arms after a year of rock climbing. "A couple of years later" Albert came down from Norfolk and I came up from Jacksonville to watch Chris finally tie the knot of all knots in Havana, North Carolina. My privilege was to tie Chris' bow-tie for the event. He looked great, and his mom and dad were proud.

Pictures II - Before and After

We could strike a pose. And not just any pose. This is Albert, doing his conscious impersonation of his favorite Jimmy Buffet album cover.

This is me, doing my conscious impersonation of a Zane Grey photograph in his book "Tales of Fishes." This was actually the first Marlin (a small White Marlin) landed at Camp.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Gene Geh: Fish Camp's Oldest C.I.T.

Gene Geh was one of those exotics that Fish Camp attracted. Everybody called him "Captain Geh," but that was probably a ceremonial title that Mr. Mahan gave him. As well as being Camp's "oldest living Counselor in Training."
We will have to talk about:
1) His workshop, which was like a cross between a small machine shop and a fun house;
2) "WYBMADIITY" although I am pretty sure it was actually "WYBMADIITU" ; and
3) The "Bimini Ring Toss Game."
But stay with me here; to really get a full appreciation and context for things about Geh, you have to get the long version of where it all came from. Geh was an interesting enough character to deserve it.

Gene Geh was a Fish Camp neighbor, a retired transplant to the Keys who was originally from New York. His house was a few blocks down U.S. 1 on Harborview Drive. He was an old cut-up buddy with Tavernier Mayor and Monroe County Commissioner Harry Harris, so one day an official Monroe County street sign showed up at the end of Capt. Geh's driveway marking the intersection of "Broadway" and "42nd Street". That's how you could always find his place. That sign, along with one of the San Jose's cannons in his front yard.

Gene was a retired engineer for the original Oakite Chemical Company of New York. A shorthand way to start a description of Capt. Geh is "Rube Goldberg."

To simply say that Gene was crafty is gross understatement and doesn't do him justice. He was more "Rube Goldberg" than Rube Goldberg was, at least to the extent he built things like real Rube Goldberg machines (more later). I don't know how he and Mr. Mahan first met, but it is easy to imagine Gene noticing all the commotion of the Boy's Camp and dropping by to investigate. I'm sure the two of them hit it off straight away: good stories; big undertakings; dream chasing; problem solving; sunken treasure, etc.
Geh became Fish Camp's best friend. He had license to drop in anytime and fuss at anybody about anything. He designed and supervised the building of the dock, the teak dive platform on "The Mighty Hunter," some of the "infrastructure" on Tavernier Key, and a lot of other things I've forgotten. When we were weathered in he would tell stories after dinner about treasure hunting with Tom Gurr and the salvage of the wreck of the Spanish galleon San Jose.

During the last few summers I spent some time with Capt. Geh and had something more like an adult relationship with him. I was a struggling engineering student at the time, and Gene did what I imagined that engineers did: build crafty gadgets and things. (I had not yet been humiliated and de-humanized by Thermodynamics 301.) When I would have a night off, there usually wasn't much to do other than to mosey over to his house in the evenings and shoot the bull. He would treat me to a bowl of vanilla ice cream with a fresh ripe mango that he would have just cut from a tree in his backyard, and then we would talk about treasure hunting, Keys history, his gun collection, gadgets, and the stories behind all of the weird stuff laying around his house and mounted on the walls.

What little I knew about him - biographically - came from story telling on those evenings.

He would probably have been born around the turn of the century. I remember he attended The Stevens Institute of Technology, which is a famous old engineering school in Hoboken, New Jersey. I think he told me he ran out of money after two years of study during the Great Depression, had to go to work, and was not able to complete a degree there. He wound up at the Oakite Chemical Company for most of his working life, and when he described what he did there, it would make your brain hurt.
He designed chemical tank cleaners -- large articulating gadgets that automatically pressure washed and rinsed railroad car chemical tanks. His lifelong career at Oakite was to design and build automated tank car cleaners with greater and greater complexity and automation. He described his earlier models as being "crude and primitive," (I doubt that they were,) but with years of tinkering and refinement, they became something like robots, powered by the high pressure water that was pumped through them.
So get this: A chemical tank car in an industrial customer's rail yard had been emptied and needs to be flushed out. The manhole cover on the top is opened and one of Gene Geh's ultimate gadgets is set on top and the water turned on. The thing would lower itself down to the center of the tank car and these big water nozzles would open up and begin swirling around, at the same time slowly moving along to one end of the tank. When it sensed the spherical end of the tank, the nozzles would rotate inward and pressure wash the surface of the spherical end. Then . . . the thing would turn itself around and clean the other half of the tank car, without tangling up its own umbilical cord. When it was finished, it would retract itself back up to the manhole cover and a little flag would pop up to indicate it was finished and could be removed and placed on the next tank car to be cleaned.
Apparently, the design achievement of having his gadget turn itself around without tangling on its own umbilical cord was more than just a career milestone for him. He was more than just proud of it. I believe that in the professional circles he ran in, it defined him and made him famous. It was no doubt the culmination of years of head-banging labor and the height of his industrial art. When he spoke of it (the "turning without tangling" feature) he tended to stare off a little bit as if to contemplate the whole of his life's work.
The internet is an amazing thing. As I wrote this, I had one of those "did I imagine this or did it really happen?" moments. I just paused to Google "Gene Geh Oakite" and up came one of his tank cleaning patents, like opening some old trunk in an attic. Look at these:

I don't know if this is one of the higher order machines or not. Anyway.
His 18' runabout outboard boat (one of the original Woodsons) was one of his more highly developed Rube Goldberg machines. As he had grown older, he needed more mechanical things to assist his running around on the water: pull a line and the anchor deployed off of a bow roller; lift up a hatch on the floorboards and behold a glass bottom window, probably an inch thick, that he had fabricated into the bottom of the hull. He spent hours drifting over the reefs with an enormous magnet on a winch. He would watch it through the glass bottom window of the boat and winch it up or down so as to keep it right off the bottom. Whenever the magnet came close to something large and ferrous (which to the eye might appear as some formless lump of coral,) the magnet would start to wobble and sway. If the object was large enough, it would practically anchor the boat. For him it was more fun than fishing.
His house and back yard were full of fascinating clutter from the reefs: antique fishing reels, anchors and chains (including a long section from the wreck of the USS Alligator, for which Alligator Reef is named,) canon balls, etc.

In his house was a beautiful and large varnished shell of a Green Turtle that he had harpooned. There was also a gag item: a taxidermed grouper head with small deer antlers coming out of the top. First time visitors were incapable of ignoring it, and they would get a different funny story every time, especially if they were from out of town. ("It's a rare horned grouper, swallowed a Yellowtail that I was pulling in. They usually feed by turning over on their backs and stirring up small fish from the bottom. You should see them rutting in season.")

Sitting in the middle of all of this, over his fireplace and without pretense, was a famous painting by American Artist Harvey Dunn titled: "Neighbor Sam and the Lawman." Geh had been one of Harvey Dunn's art students at some point, and later purchased this piece from him in New Jersey before Dunn had become more widely acclaimed. I wouldn't have had the art appreciation to have recognized it from a cheap velvet matador print, but I remember Geh telling me that it was something significant.

Down the street from Gene lived his very best buddy, Felix Rivera, who had also lived down the street from him in New York. They had both decided to retire down to the Florida Keys together where you could buy a nice vacant lot for practically no money at all. Felix had built a very retro 25' inboard cabin cruiser from plans out of Rudder magazine. He had done a nice job. His passion was harvesting large sailfish in the rough winter months right off Conch Reef, and smoking the fillets. I know this because the first hard fight I ever had with my dad was when he wouldn't let me buy Felix's boat with my own money. "But I'm 18 years old!" (Felix offered to sell it to me for whatever my summer Fish Camp salary was. I think he just wanted to sell the boat he had built with his own hands to someone he knew admired it. I admired it a lot.) It was wood, it smelled great, and it looked like a miniature Chris-Craft. It came with a swanky $25 a month slip that was a cat walk along the mangroves on the edge of Community harbor. I am supposed to say that it probably turned out for the best, as I would no doubt still be living on that boat, still swatting mosquitoes had I bought it that summer. But perhaps not such a bad choice, really. Both Felix Rivera and Gene Geh were widowers, and as the proverbial odd-couple, both had plenty of opportunity to get into grown-up mischief. They personally built their houses on Harborview drive, too. Geh had his own roof anchored with about a dozen things that looked like the stays on a sailboat mast, because he knew what hurricane force winds could do.

The Workshop -- WYBMADIITU

The detached garage behind Geh's house was full of strange tools that needed explanations. ("This holds steel plate together at any angle while you weld it. See?") He had a lathe with which he could fabricate stainless steel bolts of any length, dimension, or thread size. And up on one of the rafters was a piece of drift wood with exotic styled lettering that simply said: "WYBMADIITU."
It didn't matter how many times you asked him what it meant, he would only answer with a question, without looking up or pausing from whatever he was doing: "Will you buy me a drink if I tell you?" "Sure Capt. Geh, but I'm only sixteen. So what does it mean? Did this wash up in the mangroves somewhere?" Geh: "Will you buy me a drink if I tell you?" "Yes, maybe you didn't hear me. I already said yes. So what does it mean?" This would go on forever until there was either self-enlightenment or the curious one became frustrated and gave up. Those in the latter category failed the test.
Geh often needed a brawny helper for projects in the workshop. He soon realized he needed something to keep the young "brawn" distracted and entertained for those periods when he was performing some intermediate step requiring his undisturbed concentration. His solution was devilish, and classically Geh.

The Bimini Ring Toss Game

The components: 1) a metal ring, about 2 or 2-1/4 inches in diameter (they sell these in marine catalogs under sailboat rigging gear); 2) thin braided fishing line (or any thin string that is not stiff and will twist easily); 3) a common household coat hook; and 4) a small eye-hook.
The coat hook is set on a wall about at the height of your chin. The eye hook goes in a rafter overhead and straight out from the coat hook on the wall. The metal ring is suspended from the eye-hook by the string so that when the ring is caught on the coat hook, there is no slack in the string.
Double the horizontal distance between the coat hook and the location of the eye hook, away from and at a right angle to the wall. Paint the silhouette of two feet on the floor facing the wall. Now you're set to play.
Geh removes the ring from where it's hanging on the hook and invites you to stand with your feet on top of the painted footprints. "See if you can let the ring swing up and be snagged by the coat hook."
This should be easy.

Players quickly advance to the level of "being close." Release the ring too low and it swings back without ever coming close to the coat hook. Release the ring too high and it bangs into the wall (or the front of the coat hook) and bounces off. Soon you learn to stand the same way, holding back the ring with your open palm in a position that looks like you are about to slap yourself in the forehead (which at this point you are thinking of doing.) You let your palm touch your chin in the same place every time as an aimpoint. You begin to consistently hear a ping when the ring taps the coat hook. But mysteriously, it never hooks onto it.
Eventually the player figures out that the ring will never catch on the coat hook, puts the ring back up, and resumes the distraction of Geh from his work. ("Hey Capt. Geh, what's this? Ooops. Didn't meant to drop that.") Geh finds a convenient stopping point, walks over to the painted footprints and releases the ring twenty times in a row. Every time it snags cleanly on the coat hook without swinging back.
"How do you do that? Wait, there's a trick. A magnet."
"No gimmicks. You just have to think about it some more. Then practice what you think about."

The Secret of the Bimini Ring Toss Game - Revealed!
The key to the Bimini Ring Toss Game is to consider the final moment when the ring is snagged by the coat hook, and what is happening at that instant. Success involves control of the rate at which the ring is spinning as it swings up and approaches to the coathook. When the ring is at its apogee of swing, it must approach nearly perpendicular to the wall, so that it slides up closely alongside the coat hook without hitting it, and then rotates in behind the hook as the ring hangs at the top of the swing nearly at a standstill.
In addition to: 1) the correct height of release (about the same height of the hook), 2) the aimpoint of the swing, you must add: 3) the speed at which you rotate your wrist during the release to impart just the right amount of spin to the ring as it swings.
OK, so go practice that.

Tom Gurr and the salvage of the San Jose, or,
One man's tin is another man's treasure.
The last little footnote of history that I know Capt. Geh was involved with came from his friendship with Tom Gurr. Gurr belonged to the last group of real-deal treasure salvors that books are written about. Gurr, along with the likes of Art Mckee, Mel Fisher, and others, was in the serious business of finding the hoardes of emeralds, gold and silver spread out behind the reefs between Tavernier Creek and Long Key, where most of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet went ashore in a hurricane, shortly after leaving Havana bound for Spain. Gurr discovered one of these wrecks - the San Jose de las Animas - just inside of Little Conch Reef, and early Fish Campers helped raise some of its cannon.

Much has been written about Tom Gurr's disputes with the State of Florida over salvage rights because it signaled the end of the "free-for-all" era of treasure hunting in the state's territorial waters. Eventually, Gurr wound up on the short end of the legal stick. The State of Florida prevailed and laid claim to the majority of treasure and artifacts that Gurr had recovered by his toil and pluck, enduring many hungry years in between. Monroe county sheriffs were dispatched to take custody of the treasure and transport it to the state's archives in Tallahassee.
An often recited story associated with the dispute involved a frustrated and angry Tom Gurr filing up a small rowboat with the pile of disputed silver treasure, towing it back out to an "undisclosed location" near the wreck site, and - while a CBS Evening News crew filmed - shoveling all of the silver treasure back into the briny realm. As the story went, Gurr prefered this outcome, which he had a legal right to do, rather than see the State of Florida confiscate treasure from entrepenurial salvors like him.
Gurr and his rowboat filled with silver treasure were towed out towards the reef behind Gene Geh's 18" Woodson, from which the CBS film crew recorded the episode. And the "silver treasure?"
I heard this story from Capt. Geh while asking about some big wash sinks in his workshop that had electrical wires and plates on the sides, around which were scattered odd shaped peices of cheap metal that were shiney but had begun to rust. "What's this about?" I asked.
"I'll show you how to galvanize" Geh said, and before my eyes he took a dull piece of scrap tin and turned it into a shiney little trinket. "You think I could have watched a boat load of ancient Reals go to the bottom of Hawk Channel? This old man would have dived in after them. Gurr was shoveling junk. But it was pretty convincing junk. Heh heh heh."
And the treasure? Perhaps the sheriff would have had better luck diving in the canal behind Tom Gurr's house.
Later, when some of this treasure was found being auctioned in California, Gurr was threatened with prosecution. Financially ruined from legal fees fighting the state, Gurr removed himself to Panama where he worked as a civil engineer building docks and piers. Capt. Geh stayed in correspondence with him, but Gurr pretty much fell off the map after that.

Moving on
The last time I dropped in on Capt. Geh one winter he made some joke about three different diseases competing to claim him first. Years of messing about in chemical tank cars before any notion of industrial safety had left him with severe emphysema and heavy cough. By this time he slept with an oxygen tank. I think he passed in late 1983. I was on deployment that year and had sent him a Christmas card with some pictures of my ship and some things I thought he might find interesting. Sometime later, I received a very nice note from his son Bob, who lived in New York, that told me of his passing. Hail, Geh! Fair winds and following seas.

Rick Watson

Rick Watson

The guy was really cool. I realize what I am about to say is Fish Camp heresy, but in his time, Rick Watson was maybe even more cool than Brad Neat.
There, I said it.

When I took this picture with an Instamatic camera in the summer of 1971, it was a flat calm day in the Gulfstream. We had come into some schoolie dolphin that were chewing on anything we put in the water. The racket had attracted an enormous Hammerhead - enormous - which we spotted from several hundred yards away cruising in towards us just under the surface, its dorsal maybe three feet tall with a huge tail making lazy sweeps behind it. When it swam close alongside and then just underneath the 18 foot Woodson we were in, I remember involuntarily backing up from the gunwale. In this picture Watson had just put a fresh, squirmy little dolphin on the end of his 9/0 rig with a long wire leader and was waiting for the beast to circle up and hit it. The bite came a moment later, but the hook didn't set. Like we could have landed the thing, anyway. So you don't think I'm making this up, this is an insta-matic photo of the hammerhead's dorsel from about 200 feet away.

Everybody probably had someone who made a big impression on them when they passed through camp, and Watson made a big impression on me. This was the last summer that camp was using the Vaughan Villas next door, and Watson was the director of this group of us -- about 8 boats, 8 cabins, 8 counselors and 45 kids I think. It was also a time when we were doing logistically wild things: a two week session at camp consisted of 5 days of fishing and diving at Tavernier, then a 5 day trip by boat to the Dry Tortugas and back (a tall adventure for 13 year olds), then a night on Tavernier Key in an Army tent, followed by a traverse across Florida Bay to the hotel at Flamingo for two days. You felt like a G.I. marching across the continent, living out of a pillow case with a few pairs of cut-offs and tee-shirts inside.

Watson led this little fleet of campers around as a young adult, usually with nothing more than a soggy paper chart and a compass. He took his responsibilities seriously. He was a standout for having tons of smarts, and teaching you stuff. One day when it was pouring rain and we couldn't go anywhere, he spent the afternoon keeping us occupied (and fascinated) by dissecting a big lemon shark, and explaining what all of its body parts did.
So he was the first "grown up" I ever saw who was living the outside life because it was his choice. A conscious, deliberate choice by somebody clever enough to be doing whatever else he wanted to in the workaday world.
I never knew much about him other than he was from Atlanta and attending Emory University as maybe a pre-med student, where my sister also attended. A couple of years later one of his friends, Adrian Burley (sp?) came by camp and told me they had both attended the same high school I had in Atlanta: Briarcliff High School. I might be mistaken about that.
Brad Neat told me not too long ago that he thought Watson had been living the outside life out in Colorado, maybe Durango.
Most of my Fish Camp buddies never met Watson; he moved on. But if you have any Watson stories, post 'em. Maybe they'll find the guy and he'll check in a tell us what he's been doing the last 35 years or so. I bet it's interesting.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Work-a-Day/Play-a-Day Made Island Dream Reality

Two campers traverse the walkway on Tavernier Key

My father, Ron Mahan, had a knack for getting others pumped up about working their asses off. There was always a lot to do to prepare for the start-up and the ending of camp. So, he created what he called "Work-a-day/Play-a-day." You worked your ass off one day and were allowed to use the equipment to play your ass off the next day.

It could have been on one of those Play-a-days that I nearly drowned as I popped out of a pair of giant rubber sausages being pulled behind the ski boat. Or it might have been between sessions, as Chad recalled.

We were allowed to do anything on our Play-a-days. I remember going deep sea fishing and actually reeling in the fish myself instead of holding onto and coaching a 12-year-old kid while he fought a big dolphin (Mahi-Mahi). Or going snorkeling on French Reef, where you could take a deep breath, snorkel down to a cave and swim through to the other side, spot another cave and swim through it too, all in one breath.

Dave Hibbard, a counselor who was a friend of mine from Waxhaw, NC, took this cave diving to the extreme. He would come back to the surface of the water bleeding from working his body through a tight cave. I always made sure I could see through the cave to the other side before attempting to swim through it. Dave, on the other hand, enjoyed the challenge of popping into any crevice he saw without the security of knowing he could get through. I always thought this was a bit crazy.

I digress. I began this story talking about how my father could get people to work their asses off. It was sometime in the early 70s that he decided to lease a small island off the Atlantic side of Tavernier, and create a sub-base for camp where campers would spend several days living and learning to fish and dive. Tavernier Key was also known as Cayo Tabamos.

According to, "In the 18th century wreckers used this Key as their base during the day and searched the reef at night for booty from ships that had run aground and sank." My father's idea (plan shown at left) was to build docks around the island and trails leading to the center of the island where campers would sleep in huts.

The island - now a nature preserve - is surrounded by very shallow water, so the first thing that had to be done was to dig a channel for the boats to get to the island. My father's solution was to wait until high tide and have counselors drive the boats in a big circle right next to the island where he wanted the dock. Once a sufficient channel was dug, the dock was built. Once the dock was built, I remember him tying up a boat to the dock and flushing out the channel further by powering up the outboard engines while the boats were stationery.

Now, the island consisted of mangrove trees mostly. Mangrove trees have a system of root-like tubers above the muck in which they grow. Some of these tubers are strong enough to stand on, some will bend and break if you step on them and you'll end up sinking into the muck. So, it was no easy task getting to the center of the island. One summer, my father organized the creation of a wooden walkway to the center of the island. I was too young to participate in the work, but I remember watching counselors lugging railroad ties through the muck, over the tangle of mangrove tubers, sinking to their knees at times, laying down the foundation of the walkway, swatting misquitos as they labored.

Once access to the center of the island was created, counselors went to work clearing out areas for tents to be erected. The first campers to live on the island lived in big U.S. Army tents. (The camper at the right is holding two land crabs outside his tent in the background.) Later, my father had counselors build wooden huts with screened windows and wooden floors. He even built toilets and showers, and ran a pipeline from the mainland to the island running fresh water to work the toilets and showers. The pipeline became a pipe dream, as local fishing vessels continually ran it over with their props. But he succeeded in getting fresh water to the island, if only for a few days. I remember helping him lay the pipe. We would sink it by running it through concrete blocks and dropping them over the side of the boat.

I could write about the island for hours. Stories that come to mind:
Crab fights, ghost stories, Fish Camp songs, Captain Geh's misquito sprayer, The Dreaded Tick Disease, shark hunting, Capture the Flag, trying to catch vandals, negotiating the poorly marked channel to the island, The Blob!....

The dock on Tavernier Key

Monday, May 18, 2009

Michael Mahan swallowed alive by a rubber doughnut

At the end of each two-week camp session, there would be a couple of light duty days. Departing campers would shove off on a Saturday morning, and arriving campers would trickle in on Sunday afternoons. In between was a chance for staff to relax. And what staff members did to relax was to act like campers. Campers maybe pushing the envelope a little bit.
Michael, his brother Robbie, and a few others were very accomplished water skiers. In the evenings the warm bay-side water behind camp became glass calm, and when there were no kids to attend to, the skiers could spend hours cutting sharp, beautiful arcs of spray riding a high tech, concave slalom ski that Robbie (below) had. They could cut so hard their bodies would be nearly parallel to the surface of the water, and they would sometimes playfully drag their fingers along the surface when making high speed turns like this. They made it look easy, but it wasn't.
Somehow we came into possession of a very large truck tire inner-tube with the idea of pulling it behind the ski boat. It was maybe five feet wide. We thought it might be perfect to allow the really small kids to experience the thrill of skipping along behind a powerful, fast moving ski boat, surfing down the leading edge of a wake at 30 miles an hour or so, all the while skimming just a few inches above the surface of the water. The first time you do this, it's impossible not to have your eyes go wide and to have a big smile planted on your face. It's a hoot.
Being the inherently cautious, careful, and unsupervised teenaged boys that we were, we quickly agreed that the prudent thing would be for an experienced staff member to test fly the inner-tube, and to explore the outer limits of its hydro-dynamic performance. Michael announced that he would do this, with an implied challenge to the rest of us in the ski boat that there wasn't much about riding an inner-tube that he wasn't up to. We all thought he was probably right, but had the idea we could at least see how high we could get him airborne over the wake, and maybe even spill him a few times.
Tommy Horne would be driving the ski boat. Enough said.
We took a ski rope and passed the handle through the inside of the inner-tube, and then passed the bitter end of the ski rope through the loop of the handle so that everything wrapped around the tube and couldn't go anywhere. This proved to be a grievous mistake, but we didn't realize it at the time. (That's why they call them test pilots.)
We threw it all overboard and Michael got in the water and started to figure out how to position himself on top of the thing. The hole in the middle of the inner-tube was too big to allow you to ride it on your stomach comfortably -- your back was unsupported and it hurt when the tube flopped around. So Michael rolled over and drapped two arms, two legs, and the back of his neck around the top of the tube with his butt down inside the middle of the hole, and that seemed to be secure. The idea of riding the thing crotch first with your backside hanging over this hole in the middle didn't seem right either, so Michael turned around facing backwards to the ski boat. This also allowed his long arms to wrap all the way around the leading edge for a good firm grip.
"This is the ticket. Hit it!"
Tommy buried the throttle handle and never backed it off. The ski boat was a screamer, too. It was light weight with a big Mercury outboard on the back. Within seconds, Michael and the inner-tube were bounding in the wake, and Tommy began making big S-turns that would send Michael and the inner-tube skipping sideways across the wake and high into the air. It looked pretty fun but didn't seem very taxing on the test pilot so Tommy began driving the boat around in a wide circle, then peeling off and coming back towards the middle of the circle just when the wake all converged in the middle. That maneuver would set up a very choppy area about 100 feet wide or so, and Tommy would deftly sling Michael and the inner-tube into the chop like a sling shot.
This actually looked a little brutal, but in fact there was something more sinister going on that those of us in the boat weren't aware of. And Michael wasn't in a position to explain it to us.
The inner-tube was way too stretchy. There was nothing about its structure that would allow it to maintain its shape under a load. This is hard to describe, so forgive my food analogy.
When it was either just floating still on the water, or was soaring in the air, it would assume its normal shape of a round doughnut with a big wide hole in the middle. But whenever it was going fast on top of the water, the drag of the water made it elongate, and the ski rope tied around the front made its shape collapse so that it looked more like a pair of sausages with both of their ends tied tightly to each other.
The upshot of all this is when the tube would elongate, the inside walls of the tube squeezed down on Michael's hips and ribs so tightly that he couldn't budge. Not one bit. It was like being in a vice. Each time the tube went airborne (doughnut), it would open up and release him from the vice. When it plopped back down onto the water, Michael would slide down inside the doughnut hole another couple of inches. Then it would elongate again (two sausages,) and pin his hips and ribs so that he was stuck in that position.
Over the course of this ride, Michael started losing ground. He was slowly sinking into the doughnut hole. We could see less and less of him; eventually just the top of his head, two feet pointing skyward, and two hands with a deathgrip on the top of the inner-tube.
We found this hilarious.
Mostly because 'ole Mahan didn't look too in control of things.
Tommy was gleeful, and became inspired to launch Michael and the inner-tube to new heights and more boisterous waves. At this point, Michael's rear end was clearly visible hanging out the bottom of the hole in the middle of the inner-tube whenever it went airborne. Unknown to us, this had turned into a freightening ride. Michael's hands and feet were seen wiggling in a purposeful way and a debate began as to whether he wanted us to go faster or slower.
Finally, after a particularly high bounce, the ski boat felt like it lurched to a complete stop. A couple of us slid off the seats we were sitting on in the boat. A big plume of spray went up around the inner-tube.
This was all caused by Michael's face and chest acting as a human speed brake when his body finally slipped through the bottom of the doughnut hole, upside down, with his feet still locked in.
Oh, the hilarity. The pain of convulsive laughter. The sight of the inner tube sailing in the air behind the boat free of Michael. A big sweeping turn to pick Michael up. Don't see him. Can't find him. No bobbing head anywhere. We track back down the wake until we spot a tiny bit of floatsam just ahead. It's Michael's face just poking up and looking skyward, in so much distress he can hardly move. Fortunately it is only 4 or 5 feet deep, and he can stand a little.
"Dude! Michael? Hey man, are you ok?" A moan.
It was not the best day to be wearing a signature Mahan nose. Drag one of those things backwards behind a boat at high speed, and if you can survive the force of water shooting up into your nostrils, you'll have a story people will tell about you.

A Good Day of Fishing

I'm still working on the slides, but wanted to post something, so I chose this picture. I recognize Tommy Horne in the middle and Chris Johnstone to the left.

Campers and counselors hold up the day's catch.
Must have gotten into a school of dolphin.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One night, the guy drilled a hole right through my finger.

I have two small, mostly round scars on my left index finger, one on the top and one on the bottom. I am not sure exactly how big they are now, but originally they were 3/16 ths of an inch in diameter. That's the size drill bit that Andy Massimino was using when he drilled through my finger and reamed out the hole. Twice.
In the evenings, after the kids had settled down and turned in, Mass doubled as Camp's outboard mechanic in residence. Mass was great with tools. Thank goodness.
When there was daylight, he would work under the waterfront chickee with one of the three-cylinder 90's on an engine stand. When he needed to work through the late evenings because a boat was down hard and an engine repair was necessary for the next day's activities, he would work in the lighted utility room. Wherever he was working, the rest of us would usually hang out, just to watch the show.
Or really, to listen to it. We loved him.
The man could talk, and it was fascinating just to sit around and listen to him talk and tell stories with that Philadelphia Italian thing going. He could also swear, which he did at a high level of artistry. For example, "you motherless bastard" was the way he addressed, after each attempt, some recalcitrant engine component which would either not go in or not come out the way it was supposed to. You thought about it for a while and realized what an economical insult that was. Summed up all of parentage in one fell swoop. Stuff like that came out all the time.
One particular evening, the "motherless bastard" receiving his attention was a clutch dog, which is a big round component of the outboard's lower unit. There were three set screws around the outside of it with allen heads on them. Massimino, tired and impatient, had stripped them out.
"Roberts, get off your ass and come over here and hold this thing. I'll drill them out and replace them."
"Like this?"
"NO!, not 'like this.' You're holding it like a friggin' girl. Grab the god damn thing and don't let it move. Now hold it. Are you holding it?"
I gritted my teeth to show him I wasn't holding it like a girl. He started to drill out the allen screws, really bearing down on them, and muttering "you pig" at the clutch dog.
I was looking down with my arms outstreached onto the workbench, trying to stay out of his way. I noticed that Massimino was standing up on his tip toes, pressing down all of his considerable weight on the drill. So I glance up at the screeching drill bit and see smoke wisping out of the deepening allen screw head, which is right between my two hands. Then I notice that the drill bit is running in a curve because there is so much pressure behind it.
At this point I was honestly contemplating the dynamics of a drill bit that is spinning while being bent into a curve. As the drill bit material rotates around on the outward side of the curve, it elongates. When it continues to the inside of the curve, the material is compressed. So I am thinking how that tough little drill bit is actually being bent back and forth like a paper clip, at about a thousand times a minute. Damn! That is one tough drill bit! I would have never bet it could take that without snapping in half!
My left hand lurched and curled up. Massimino fell into me and we had this strange sensation of being handcuffed to each other, with me tugging on my hand and Mass tugging back on the drill, but neither one going anywhere.
That's when we both noticed the drill chuck bottomed out on my finger, and the broken remnant of the drill bit poking out the other side of it.
There is this little moment when your brain is struggling to process something that's not quite right. "Let's see. There's my finger. There's the end of the drill bit sticking out of the bottom of my finger. Cleanly. Am I seeing double? Should the drill bit be sticking out of the bottom of my finger?"
Massimino and I make eye contact. And then he gets this little twinkle in his eye. And without breaking eye contact he reaches over with his other hand and grabs my wrist. I hear a little click. Jesus! The reverse button! No - MASS! you're not . . . !
Mass squeezes the trigger on the drill and pulls back hard before I have time to flinch.
It's over. Two little holes. Maybe three or four drops of blood.
"Horne, get off your ass and come over here and hold this thing. Bring me the drill bits. Hee hee. Hee hee hee."

Monday, May 11, 2009

'It's When you Stop Worrying about the Ocean that it'll Get you'

I realized there were some stories I received by email, and while I'd love everyone to figure out how to post on this blog, not everyone's going to do it, so I thought I'd better include some of the stories I get from email.

Hey Chad,
I don't know if you remember me, but you were one of those people who made a lasting impression on me. I was a Fish Camper for two years, then later, a junior counselor. The incident that comes to mind in particular was thus: The Allman was out of duty, as Massimino brought his 18' 'tri-bow' hull into play. Mass gave us his warnings and blessings and off we went through Tavernier Creek and into the blue water. I said to you with the open ocean before us, "wow, it's beautiful, we don't have anything to worry about." Your reply was profound: "It's when you stop worrying about her (the ocean) when she'll get you." Well we went well offshore. I was 16 and I think you were 17 and we had six twelve year olds as campers on board. We trolled our way around, had lost sight of the other boat. We were out in the shipping lanes. Storm clouds were gathering and you made the decision to pull in lines and head in. As you put the engine in neutral and lines were pulled in, a big mahi mahi hit Benji the Mexican kid's line. He landed it, just as storm broke over us. Benji starts crying. You took the helm and drove us through storm, with all the rest of us cuddled behind the center console, as the rain felt like buck shot. We were on a collision course with a steaming freighter. I remember you saying should you go for it, meaning in front of it, and save time, or not? You decided not too. We were just a few yards away as it passed us by. Once astern, you put the throttle into gear, and two seconds later, literally dead astern, we ran out of gas! Never will I forget those profound words you spoke earlier in the day. I've often thought of them and told this story to many people in my life. Do you remember it? Frankly, never contemplated the internet and never thought I'd have the chance to share this with you, but glad I'm now having chance. Hope all is well with you. I'm married with two boys (21 & 22) they went to Sea Camp further down the Keys. Not quite as adventurous as Fish Camp, but as close as to be found these days. Was in contact with Rob Mahan for a few years, quite a number of years ago now, when he worked right across the street from me here in New York. Spoke with Jere Pitman earlier this year, as business travel had me in Jacksonville for the first time since 1978. I was actually at a business function at the Breakers in Palm Beach this week, and went fishing. We caught a
bunch of amberjack and bonita which my wife and I released. Still have yet to be on a boat that caught a bill fish. Someday maybe. Thanks for the memories!
Ben Katzenstein.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

tropical fish and hammerheads
For at least one summer, probably in 1975 or 1976, we kept a cool saltwater tropical fish aquarium on the head table in the chow hall. It was right next to Sobel's radio command/communications center. We didn't have to follow any of the strict rules that most saltwater aquarists comply with to maintain their expensive tanks. This was Fish Camp, we didn't need no stinking rules. Careful water chemistry monitoring and sophisticated filtering, no way, just get one of the fishing boats to bring back their water cooler full of fresh gulfstream water (best water in the world) on return from the mornings trip catching dolphin and sails. Save up lots of money and go to the tropical fish store and wait till they get a delivery of the fancy fish you need, no way, put in your order with the dive counselors and they'll bring back fresh ones from the afternoon dive, along with fresh live coral (oops.) We didn't have fancy slurp guns like the professional fish wranglers used, we just covered a small coralhead with a cast net then reached under with a smaller dip net and trapped the tropicals. In reality there were probably thousands of dollars worth of tropical fish in that tank and if a couple died we'd just get a fresh replacement on the next dive trip.Well, one afternoon Capt Lou Roth and I were on a little side trip at Hens and Chickens catching tropicals for the tank. We were netting while snorkeling versus scuba because you could cover more ground and work quicker. We were pretty good freedivers (though nowhere near the level of Fred Wheeler, Brad Neat and that gang-but that's another blog altogether) and it was only in about 20'-25' of water. We had caught a few fish and went down again with the cast net spread as wide as we could and placed it over a coral head with a lot of tropicals. Unfortunately, there were quite a few grunts trapped in the net and even before we turned for the surface we could hear them going nuts grunting loudly in distress. When you return to the surface you wait a minute or two to catch your breath then go back down with the dip nets and capture the fish. At the surface we made a few comments about our strategy then turned to dive back down. As soon as we looked down there was a 10' hammerhead doing tight fast circles around that coralhead about 20' below our feet. It was so agitated and lit up by the grunts in distress that it didn't even know there were two warm blooded snacks right above it that were very easy targets. Needless to say we eased back over to the boat and the lead line of that cast net is probably still around the base of that coralhead today. That was one of hundreds of little incidents that makes for a good Fish Camp story from 35 years ago and I'm sure everyone involved remembers them differently. Capt Lou might say it was a 4' nurse but I'll always remember my heart beating out of my chest with excitement over that one.

More Pictures

Just a few more pictures.

Fun at the waterfront

Someone caught a sailfish

Tackle storage?

Can't remember his name right now,
but he was a fishing counselor, right?

Grabbing a fresh coconut

The Big Kahuna