Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

April 18th, 2005

Angels of White in Early Morning Blue

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
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 and bass."

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 muscle.

"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 Lake Lena.

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. Mine didn't.

"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 his entertainment.

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 the road.

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 over there."

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 the shore.

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

About 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.

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