There was a trace of fog early in the morning as Barry drove to Key West. It was a ride of sorrow. Barry’s wife had passed away and he was in a deep funk, but his main concern was not himself but the two children who were sitting in the back of the car. It happened a long time ago. Sometime in October, the year might have been 1964. I get a little fuzzy on dates.
Philip and Missy were the product of the union and now they felt like ships lost on the sea. No words can describe the loss. Abandonment was felt but that was not the mother’s fault. She had died of a brain tumor. Her death was not swift but a long travel down the road of losing ability after ability. Finally, at the end with no escape the inevitable occurred. She drew her last breath early in the morning. The sun was just coming up and that seemed fitting. Surely, she would be ascending to heaven. But now the void was there, and it drown all who knew her.
Barry needed relieve. A change of pace. The house now was a mausoleum. He needed to take the children and escape to somewhere. He called his brother in Key West and asked if he could stay there for a while. With a yes, he loaded the car, took the children out of school and headed south.
Mile after mile passed with no conversation. In the back of his mind, Barry figured he would get mental health in Key West. He wondered if Pastor David was still there. He had forgot to ask his brother that question. He remembered Pastor David. A good listener and seemed to have some answers.
Philip, now approaching his thirteenth birthday finally spoke up. “Dad, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Glad you told me now, for we will soon be on the Seven Mile Bridge and to my knowledge there are no rest rooms on it. We will stop at a convenience store on Knight’s Key.”
Seven Mile Bridge
|Seven Mile Bridge with the original in the foreground
During the stop at 7-11 they all got out of the car to stretch their legs. Philip and Missy went to the bathroom and he picked up some chips and drinks for the next phase of the trip. His wife would be pissed if she saw this. She was a vegetarian and avoided such crap food. But he let that guilt feeling pass. He was in a hurry and healthy procedures were put on hold. After the children came out he directed them to stand by the counter in view of the clerk while he relieved himself.
In the car he passed Doritos and cans of Coke to his children. At first, they gave him that look of guilt. But neither said what was on their minds. Instead they ripped open the bag and started to eat the prohibited chips. The cans were opened, and the hiss of gas escaping could be heard in the car. For some reason this act seemed to break the tension.
Philip took a swig of the soda and then asked, “How long before we get there?”
“I would say at least five more hours depending on traffic. If there is a tie up on one of these bridges we could be in a mess for a long time.”
“We are heading to Uncle Ed. I do not remember you talking a lot about him.”
“Actually, that is because I have lost contact with my brother. Time changes things. We saw things that we never could understand, and the time was filled with strange things.”
“What things.?” Philip was intrigued.
Because of the situation and to break the silence Barry decided it was time to tell the story of his early days. “I guess I can tell you the story of what happened when we moved to Key West.”
The two children seemed interested and he started the story with, “This story is real or at least what I remembered of that time. It has a few disturbing points to it. Are you game to hear it?”
Philip said, “I sure would like to hear it.” Missy just nodded. She was tired and started to nod off.
“Philip why do you not move to the passenger seat and let your sister lay down and take a nap? Barry waved to the seat next to him. In the back of his mind was the fact that the story he was going to relate might be too complex for his young daughter.
Philip complied, and Missy lay down her head and within moments was in a light sleep.
Where to begin? “Let me give you a little background before I start. The time was the beginning of the 60’s and America had a main enemy. Russia. This country had gotten nuclear weaponry and we were scared that they might take us on.” He took a fast look at Philip and realized he was losing him.
Better not get to much into history he thought to himself. “Hmm…” he hesitated in his mind switched to a different way of starting the story.
“Do you ever have things happen to you, that you could not explain, and seemed weird to you at the time?”
“I am not sure. I once took a test and thought I had done well on it and it came back with a bad grade on it. You mean like that?”
Barry did not want to say no, so he lied. “Kind of. Well when I was your age, my dad and mom took this same trip we are on. We went to Key West because of my father’s job.”
“What was Grandpa’s job?”
“It is kind of hard to explain. I guess you can say he was in the spy game.”
“You mean like James Bond?” Phillip had just seen Dr. No, and thinking his granddad was like Bond was intriguing.
Barry decided to keep Philips attention going so he said, “I guess you can say that. His job was to go to Key West and interview the Cubans who fled Cuba to get information from them. I believe the United States was thinking of invading Cuba and needed information about the island.”
“Did Granddad carry a gun?”
“Actually, he did. He constantly reminded me not to play with it. He kept it locked up when he was at home.” Barry wanted to get to the story and stay on topic, but he did not want Philip to shut down. This was good that the two of them were now talking.
“Any rate, there was danger in Key West. We were worried about spies and you were not sure about people. We got down here and moved into the house that the government had rented for us. It was near the beach. It had two stories. I remember two bedrooms were on the second story. Your grandma was angry because she did not like the kitchen. I remember her saying it was too small. But we were under the assumption that we would not be there for a long period of time before Dad would be reassigned to somewhere else.”
“Did Grandpa ever shoot anyone? Philip was awed by the thought Grandpa was James Bond.
“To my knowledge no. But then he would not bring work home with him or even speak about his adventures.” Barry hated to lead on his son but if that was what made the story interesting he would bend the truth a little.
“I remember that after we moved in that I should acquaint myself with the area. I decided to walk a little bit on the beach. I noted that there were a few houses on the block we had moved into. They all had the skirts of intertwined wood on the bottom of them. I learned later that the reason for that was in case a storm came in and the water raised up that the houses would not suffer water damage. They called this area a crawl space. Later in the story you will understand why I bring this up. I went to the beach and there was an old man there. He was fishing.”
Philip perked up. He never had gone fishing and he wondered if his Dad would let him try his hand at that task. “When we get to Key West, can we go fishing.?
“We can try our hand at it.”
“This guy was fly fishing. He would cast his line into the pool of water that was created by a cove near the home we just had rented. It was just off the beach and it with access to the sea, fish swam in the cove and out. He would flip his line in and every occasionally, a fish would grab his bait. He had three or four fish he caught in a bucket next to his leg. I watched him for a while but was too timid to go over there and look at the fish. In the next few days I noticed he went there regularly and finally I got over my anxiety and went over to him.
His face was reddish, and had lines of age on it. He looked weathered like something had been left out and the wind and sun had baked it and cracked the paint. Later I would learn that he was a “native American” and the red of his face was his true color. I had never seen an Indian before. I had seen Blacks and noticed that they had different shades of color. But a red man. It threw me for a loop. I never thought of myself as white. It just never came up. And prejudice was not a thought just a glimmer. We put down everyone who was different but it was considered just a matter of course. There were the Polish people and they were easy targets. The Jews were always the known for their ability to be cheep and hold on to a penny. The people who spoke Spanish just were different and kept to themselves. Looking back on those days people were prejudice but that was accepted as the way things were. Different made you scared and you hide your fear under negative words.
Finally, my curiosity took over and I went over to the fisherman. He was wearing a slicker over his structure. He was really tall. Taller than my dad. He was not thin but certainly not fat. He wore a pull over shirt. It was dark and had a design on it of animals. It did not look store bought. Rather made by hand and designs put on it by hand. He also had a necklace around his neck. I could not make it out. But it was a shade of white. He did not wear regular boots but some kind of shoes that looked soft. He stood right at the edge of the water and caste his line in with a fluid flow. It went out quite a way. Slowly he reeled it in. I watched with a type of awe for I had never seen anyone fish this way. I had never gone fishing.
My dad rarely took me anywhere. He was always working. He would leave early in the morning and come back late at night. He never talked about his work. When he did talk about it to mom it was always in soft whispers. She would push him to give us time but even on days off he just spent the day in deep thought and then there would be a phone call and he would be off. Even on his days off he was working. I promised myself, never, ever to become like that.
“Have you caught any fish,” I asked
“Some, they are in the bucket.” The Indian responded.
I went over to look. There in the bucket by his feet were four or five fish. Most of them about seven to eight inches long. They were still breathing. I felt a sort of pity for them. They were still alive and drowning in the air.
“They will make good eating,” the Indian said as he viewed my concerned face.
“They look like they are suffering,” I said with hesitation in my voice. I did not want to sound like I was judgmental.
“Food is food, you feel sorry for the cow you ate last night as a hamburger?”
“No, my mother gave it to me.”
“Ever been fishing before?”
“Want to try?” I nodded and he handed over the rod and reel.
I tried to control the rod and flip the line in like the Indian had but it clumsily landed on the ground. I realized it took a lot to do it as efficiently as the man.
“Do not feel ashamed. I to was quite bad at this until I mastered the technique. You need a smaller rod. I happen to have one that I got from my dad when he taught me how to do this a long time ago. How about you met me here Sunday morning and I will show you how it is done and you can practice how to cast a line.”
I agreed and so the relationship between the Indian and myself began.
His name was Red Leaf and he was a member of the Calusa tribe. He believed that he was one of the last of his people. Many of them had died many years ago from smallpox and the those left scattered to distant locations in Florida. Some had made their way to Cuba and a few to the keys. But they merged with others and pure bloods were almost now existent. His wife had died years ago and he never spoke of his children. He was just a lonely man eking out his existence by fishing in the keys and living in a shack someone south of Barry’s house. But on Sundays he met the boy with and brought the small rod that his father had given him so many years ago. For reasons Barry would never know he got a lot of pleasure showing this young lad how to drag fish. And the two of them spent a couple of hours on Sunday morning catching fish. They rarely talked, they just fished. Slowly Barry got the hang of casting. He never believed he would be as good as Red Leaf. He could cast over fifty feet and hit a target. He was absolutely amazing. But Barry was now able to cast fifteen feet and keep the pole in his hands. A strange sight to say the least. An old man and a boy fishing, one an Indian and the other white. At the end of two hours Barry would take one to two fish home to his mom. She would fillet them and serve them for supper. Red Leaf took the rest. He would fillet them also but he had spices to them and pickled them to last for the week.
Barry goes to school: HORACE O’BRYANT SCHOOL History. Horace O’Bryant School, opened in 1964, was named after Superintendent of Monroe County Schools from 1949 until 1965.
This was the school that Barry was assigned to. Since his dad was undercover he was sent to this school rather than a military base school. The school had just opened up and everything was new. The school had been opened since the beginning of the school year and Barry was enrolled there two months after it opened. Because he was the late comer he was the interloper and he found it difficult to fit in. The seventh-grade class he went into was composed of a few groups of children.
Out of the twenty- five students in Barry’s homeroom, there were Cubans, Blacks and some whites. The whites called themselves Conchs. I could not figure out why. What were conchs and why would anyone call themselves that. I finally found out Conchs were a type of shell. Anyway, I was the only white who was not a Conch. People who moved to the Keys tended to do so for retirement and their kids were grown up. So not only was I the new kid on the block but I did not fit into the three established groups. I was sat in a back seat. The room was fitted out with two-seater desks. They were arranged four across with two students at each desk. But there was one desk in the back of the room and that was where I was assigned. There was one boy at this desk. I learned later that his last name was Barber. Since the children had been arranged to sit by the alphabet of last names, first letter, I was perturbed why Barber was not sitting in the front of the room. I finally understood for Jerry Barber was a troublemaker and a bully. So, the teacher had isolated him. Since I just entered the class over a month into the term and the only seat was next to him I got the good fortune of sitting next to the worse kid in the class. He made his first bully move almost immediately.
“I see you brought lunch,” he said and he had not even introduced himself. I looked at a large, brutish, man-child. Obviously he was physically stronger than me. He had an overhang over his belt. This meant that this kid could eat. He was a Conch and proud of it. Not to put Conchs down for the most part they tend to be cordial and would lend their shirts off their backs. But not Jerry. He was a throwback.