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 TheFloridaKeys.com, "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!....