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

Friday, May 8, 2009

Some Pictures

I couldn't help myself. I've been searching online for a slide converter, and not feeling like doling out money for something I'm not sure of, I decided to put my digital camera on SuperMacro focus and just snap a few pictures of the slides myself.

So, here they are, just drawn out of a box of slides I have possession of.

Click on the images for a larger size photo.

That's Tommy Horn and Chris Johnstone? in the red boat.
And I think I recognize David Eckhart in the back boat.

Did I mention Honey-dipping?
Who are these guys?

That's not Capt. Geh, is it?

Left to Right, Randy Mahan, Brad Neat, Rob Mahan,
in front of the Fish Camp Van

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Honeydipper

The Honeydipper was a flatbottom aluminum boat that we used at Fish Camp for backcountry fishing, and when he had campers staying on Tavernier Key (Cayo Tobamos), an island a mile off the mainland on the ocean side, it was used to transport human waste from the porta-john that was used on the island. I believe that's where the name came from: Honeydipper.

My brother Randy has a story that someone was locked into the porta-john and counselors rocked it back and forth, maybe even tumbled it over. I'll have to ask him about that the next time I see him.

Back to the Honeydipper. We were heading out from the dock one day, my brother Randy at the wheel in a 21-footer, the Almond I think, and another counselor in the other 21-footer. Jimmy Horne was ferrying out a group of campers toward the backcountry in the Honeydipper.

"Watch this," Randy said, with a grin on his face.

He drove next to Jimmy and slowed down just enough to put a huge wake out behind his boat and started circling Jimmy. Then the other boat joined in and both boats slowed down on either side of Jimmy in the small Honeydipper. Randy and the other counselor in the other boat sped up enough to overtake Jimmy. Both wakes behind the larger boats joined together behind the Honeydipper and pretty soon, that mountain of a wake in the middle caught up to Jimmy's boat and lifted his craft up onto the crest of the wave.

There was nothing Jimmy could do but try to keep his craft heading straight.

I don't recall any discussion of how to handle this situation during the Coast Guard talks that we had at the beginning of each session at camp.

Poor Jimmy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Coach Lewis

I woke up at 2:30 a.m. today from a dream. My youngest son wanted to take the canoe back from somewhere in what seemed to be the Florida Keys backcountry... from an island resort or outpost of sorts, across the bay to the mainland. It didn't seem like a long trip for him to manage on his own.

He'd have to go on his own because there was only room for one person and the rest of my gear. I don't know how old he was at that time. He's now 21. I didn't want him going on his own, but if he did, I wanted to make sure he at least had a life vest.

Now, I'm up because I couldn't get back to sleep, thinking about things that upon awakening were all melded together in the present in my dream-state. Celebration of Seagrove Potters, divorce with my wife, divorce of my parents, a trip to Canada to do some wilderness canoing and backpacking, a trip I took by myself in a boat across a reef and into a chanell that led to the mainland of the Keys....

My mind slowly separated all these memories and impressions and recatagorized them according to my present day reality, sort of like I do on my computer desktop with a click and a drag from the mouse.

File them away.

Coach Lewis came to mind. Bob Lewis, I think was his name, and I have two images of Coach Lewis, who helped run Fish Camp. One image is of him snapping a football forward with a powerful underhand pass during a football game at camp out in a field behind the rooms where campers slept. Coach Lewis was a strong man who helped teach football at Palmetto High School in South Miami.

He could do a push up with his arms outstretched. When he passed the football, it was like a bullet.

The other image is of him coming back into a 20-foot boat, over the bow railing after seeing his first baracuda while diving on a reef in the Keys. I was told about this, I think, so it's one of those images that the mind creates from a story. At the time of the incident, he was an excellent diver, but had never seen a large baracuda. They are quite harmless as long as you don't look like a small shiny fish, but they're quite ferocious-looking with the razor sharp teeth showing as they open and close their mouth.

Coach Lewis would lead sing-alongs at camp when the weather was too rough to go fishing or diving. He had a great way with kids. Some of the songs I remember him singing:

Music Concert (This is the music concert, from the fatherland....)
Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree (Therrrrre I held her on my knee...)

He did this bear hunt, where you mimicked the actions that he did as we all went on a bear hunt, slinging our rifles over our shoulders, stepping into our canoes, getting out and walking (pat your knees), up the hill (slower clapping of the knees), through the grass (sliding the hands together: "swish don't clap"), climbing a tree, searching the horizon, climbing down the tree, stomping over a bridge (beat your chests) and when we finally found the bear, it was in a cave and roared at us. We screamed and ran as fast as we could back to the canoe, permorming all the actions at such a rapid pace that we couldn't keep up with Coack Lewis. But he did it perfectly, and we all were in stitches by the end, as the rain came down in torrents outside the mess hall of Fish Camp.