As I crossed the bridge over the St. Johns River
this morning, something caught my eye, startling
me at first. Several white herons flew in my
direction in the blue dawn. Appearing to be closer
than they actually were, I veered a little to the
left thinking I may hit one, then watched them,
ever so gracefully, fly overhead. I thought angels.
I am not a religious man, spiritual maybe and
I realize I write a lot about my dad, and some
of you may tire of my ramblings of him, but as
I watched these herons, I thought of him and
his stories of "guardian angels." Tales that
I would sit so still, and listen as he reminisced
about the days before I was born. The long-ago
days of his long-distance truck driving, and
how these guardians saved his life on at least
two different occasions.
The sighting of these graceful, white birds,
turned angels, was so peaceful this morning,
I pulled my truck to the side of the bridge
to see where they had flown. There in the blue,
just passed the edge of the river, along the
cattails, they had landed. And just as the
morning sun began its golden cresting over
the waters of the St. Johns, I saw them...
hundreds of them, lining the shore feeding
on schools of minnows.
Again, the sighting of the birds aligned with
the sometimes-repeated stories that came from
Dad. These weren't, after all, "angels," but
only great white herons. His words of wisdom
echoed from somewhere over near the bald cypress
trees that stood silently in the misty blueness
of early morn'. "Where you see large groups of
those herons along the banks, you will find
good fishing. They're not there just to hang
out. They are there to eat. So are the bream
A melancholic feeling came over me, and I found
myself missing his stories. I found myself
missing him. He should be here to see this, and
in some way, still trying to make sense of a
death thirty-two years ago, he was here. His
lessons to me were now paying him back. I think
he knew that years ago, those lessons would be
appreciated years after his passing. But I loved
his stories and it would have made me warm inside
to hear one right about now...
"I don't mean to wake you, but I thought I would
catch some bluegills for supper. Where do you
reckon I could get some. They ain't around Lake
Ariana, been fished out." He rose up on one elbow;
he had fallen asleep watching television from his
favorite place on the floor. His back bothered him
sometimes after work, and that was the only way
to stretch it out, and he would roll around with
a baseball under his back until he sometimes fell
asleep. I tried that a few times when my back hurt,
but the hard, baseball hurt worse that my aching
"Well, you know where the railroad trestle is
that's across that canal between Lake Lena and
Lake Ariana? I ain't sure if you can get down
there, or not. May be too growed up. But, if
you can, walk down that bank off to the left.
There used to be an old dock down there, probably
rotted off by now. The old posts will be just
under the water, though. Back in the 30's I used
to catch blue bream the size of your hand 'long'
bout this time of year."
He had told me many stories of the Depression
and having to do what he could to keep food on
the table to feed my mom and siblings before my
time. When he wasn't driving a long-distance
truck on old US 301 up north to deliver celery
or cabbage with Uncle Cliff, he would catch
those bluegill and sell 'em to the town folk
for ten cents apiece.
"Wade out there 'bout belly-deep and feel around
with your foot. You ought to find one of them posts.
Fish straight out."
I thought he was nuts back then. It had been
forty years ago when he fished in that spot.
The old dock was new back then, and somebody
lived in that old house that had burned down
on the edge of Lake Lena in Auburndale long
ago. I often tried to prove him wrong, and
this might be the first time I would succeed.
As he drifted back off to sleep, I gathered my
cane pole, stringer, some extra tackle and dug
some red wigglers out of the worm bed (a place
we always dumped our extras when we came home
from bream fishin'). And then off to find the
lost pilings of an old dock somewhere around
I carefully waded around the lake feeling along
the bottom for the rotted dock posts. I had only
searched for a few minutes when my bare foot
struck a roughness along the hard-sand bottom.
Directed by his description, I found the old post.
I was "belly deep."
He always spit on his gob of worms when he fished
for bream or shell-crackers. Said it made the worms
taste better to the fish. I thought about that as
I loaded my hook with a fat, juicy worm. I snickered
at that sight as I slung the line out straight in
front of me. Of course, the cork immediately
disappeared as the hand-sized gill took off.
It was around three that afternoon when I got home.
There were twenty-five, "as big as a grown man's hand"
sized blue bream on the cotton stringer. Dad met me
around back where the porcelain sink had been attached
to the side of the house for cleaning fish.
"Right where I told you they'd be, huh?" I never
could prove him wrong, I never really wanted to
down deep, I guess.
As cars zipped past me, I continued to watch the
dozens of white herons stalk and dip their heads
beneath the surface of the St. Johns, spearing
small fish and occasionally getting into noisy
arguments when territories were violated.
I never could figure out how he always caught
fish from the stern of the old, light-green,
wooded skiff he had built years before my arrival.
I would sit in the narrow bow of the boat, same
worms, same kind of cane pole bought from Maggie's
Bait Shop. He would be sitting smugly with three
poles, two extended out anchored under his thighs
and one in his enormous hand. When a huge
shell-cracker would pull the tan cork under, he
would switch poles, sliding the one in his hand
under his leg at the same time replacing the one
with the fish. I just sat there discouraged, no
fish. He got a kick out of my misery, I do believe.
"Hey boy, trade places with me."
I would reluctantly take the seat he just left,
and between the maneuvering around the small skiff,
he would sit in the bow and the three poles would
once again become busy harvesting shell-crackers.
"You ain't holdin' your mouth right, boy."
I would sit there and squirm my mouth around in
every possible position I could. I would watch
his mouth and try and imitate his every facial
expression. Still, no fish on my cane pole. And,
he would laugh at me, causing me to ask to switch
seats again. His amusement of my fishless days
caused me to pout profoundly, thus increasing
The sun was above the expansive flatlands of the
St. Johns River now. Cars and work trucks sped by,
and drivers and passengers probably wondered what
I was doing there. But I was miles and years away
from the decking of the concrete bridge...
"I'll shuck 'em and you eat your fill. Then you
can shuck 'em for me." He would say.
Mom, Dad and I could devour a bushel of Apalachicola
oysters in one sittin'. He taught me to shuck oysters,
probably so he could get a few for himself. I was
like a baby mockingbird back then, just couldn't
get enough to eat, especially those raw oysters.
Carl "Goo" Allen had a catfish restaurant in
Auburndale. The eatery came way after he had
a little bait shop where we bought minnows and
worms when Maggie's was out of a particular bait
or closed. I never knew why Daddy called Mr. Allen,
"Goo", he just did. But, Mr. Allen sold raw, fresh
oysters from Apalachicola Bay. Best there was back
then. Half-bushel or whole, we always got the whole.
They would come in a croaker sack, or burlap bag
as some would call it. We would rinse the bay's
mud off of 'em, sit outside with a box of soda
crackers, and a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce
and that would be supper.
One can always go back home.
I thought of the trip Linda and I had taken a
few months prior; a business trip for her, a
visit with old ghosts for me. I was born and
raised in Auburndale, well, not really born
there. We didn't have a hospital, so, I was
born in Winter Haven, Florida, four miles down
I began to search out those special places most
memorable to me. I drove past my old school where
I first left the confines of our safe and warm
home to attend my first years of schooling. I
walked the "smaller than I remember" hallways
where the lingering scents of white, paste glue
still lingered in those walls far older than me.
I peered through the windows that revealed students'
desks sitting, still in the same rows as I remembered,
and I wondered how I ever sat in those little seats.
My junior high school was just up the street,
just around the circular road that curved
perfectly around Lake Stella, the "bottomless"
lake. The school was now brick-faced and looked
unfamiliar. But those old, lanky oaks remained
where we, as students, walked and talked beneath
them, and Spanish moss swayed in the late summer
breeze. I stood with the oaks and surveyed the
area where my brother and sisters had walked the
same common areas years before me. I wondered
where all the time had gone. It was only yesterday,
wasn't it? So it seemed, anyway.
I didn't make it over to my Alma Mater, the
home of The Bloodhounds. My mind wondered
back toward town and I followed it there.
I mentioned in a previous article Fred Baugh's
Sporting Goods and Shoe Repair. I arrived to
find it locked up with a sign that read "Closed"
out front. It appeared Fred's place had been
closed for several years. My heart sank; I
wanted more from this place. I wanted to hear
echoes from hundreds of conversations repeated
by the likes of my dad and Alton Smith, and all
those that frequented Fred's. This place, and
ones like it, hardly exist anymore. They were
gathering places where old men swapped fishin'
and huntin' stories, and as time went on they
stretched those stories to fit the years. A
place where stories become tales and tales
became legends. A place where women dropped
off shoes that needed new soles, or high heels
that needed to be reattached before Sunday church
services. A place where cards of brightly-colored
poppin' bugs hung above cartons and cartons of
shotgun shells. A place where mounted boar-hog
heads, with their tusks protruding dangerously
outwards, hung on the wall as they forever stared
across at big bucks and bear hides that hung on
the opposite wall. They all told stories as I
would sit and listen to Fred narrate them, and
all the while he smeared pungent glue on thick
leather, then hammered and trimmed the piece
onto the uppers of someone's work boots.
I stood there with goose bumps on my arms.
This is where the old house was where I spent
my first sixteen years on this planet. Wasn't
nothin' there now but a bunch of weeds and
bigger trees than I remembered from back then.
I heard a car pull up behind me in the parking
lot of the bank that now occupied the place where
Aunt Adgie and Uncle Pete used to live. "Can I
help you with something?" I looked around and
there was an Auburndale police lieutenant in
an SUV. "No sir, I used to live here where this
vacant lot is now, my aunt and uncle lived right
As we chatted, we discovered we knew a lot
of the same people. Turned out his Brother-in-law
played in the same band I played in back in my
"rock and roll" days. We must have hung out
under the trees for an hour, or so.
I remembered the raw oysters and drove to
the other side of town, just past the overpass
on US 92 towards Lakeland. The old red,
western-looking building that once housed
a packed crowd that listened to bluegrass
music and filled themselves with catfish,
turtle, frog legs and other Florida Cracker
delights, wasn't there. I found out that "Goo"
had passed away in 1996. The restaurant stayed
open for a couple of more years, but the
memories of that unique place will always
be a part of goin' home.
The sun was getting warmer now, and I was
surely late for work. The herons still
stuffed themselves on fresh fish along
Daddy would have busted my rear for even
standing out here on this busy stretch of
road if he was here right now. I figured
I had better get goin'.
Oh yeah, I mentioned that the "guardian angels"
had saved my dad's life on two occasions years
ago. That will have to wait until another time.
See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary
Footnote: Carl "Goo" Allen's legacy can
be found on a
web page written and maintained
by Carl Chambers. Carl Chambers played lead
guitar in our band, "Raintree County" back
in the early 70's. I wish to thank Carl for
his permission in allowing me to use some of
the photos of "Goo's" place.
~ Capt. Gary
Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much
of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area.
After moving a little closer to the coast, his
interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still
visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."
He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's
and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little
over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow
water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came
around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary
doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the
waters will ever be present.
Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater
patterns in the early '90's and has participated as
a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers
on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting
and tying instructor and stained glass artist,
creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.