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.