A mere few days after I was in Afghanistan, I found myself launching the old brown wooden boat into the East branch of the Choctawhatchee River. The old man was seated next to the motor, and we eased a few hundred yards until we reached the river opening. The river was still and peaceful, and I gazed at the bloated Cypress trees growing out of the water, thinning out after a few feet. Haunting gray clumps of Spanish moss hung down from the branches, and I felt at home again.
Florida has always possessed a powerful hold on me. The Spanish ghosts can be felt in some quiet corners yet. The tourists and sunglasses huts I can do without, but in the still quiet places, there is magic.
We caught a mess of bream and one catfish on the slow river. I had forgotten the smell of worms on my fingers and fish slime on a coke can, the delicacies of my boyhood. I gave the old man a cigar and we both bit and spit our tips into the water. Blue smoke clung into the still air, and I remember seeing him on brutal mosquito-infested mornings light up a cheroot to keep the insects away. I remember the sweet smell of the smoke, the pleasing image of my old man and his cigar, puffing and waving the smoke around us, a North Florida incense.
We fried them up that night for dinner, cole slaw and cheese grits on the side and sweet tea in real glasses. (I hadn’t eaten on a real plate or drank from a glass in months. You forget the feel of civilization when you live off of Styrofoam takeout containers and plastic forks)
Some will cringe, but you that do have not lived yet. After you’ve peeled the delicate dorsal fin off the crisp fish and slide your teeth down its bones, collecting all the hot flaky flesh, after there is nothing left on the carcass, the best part is the tail. It gives a beautiful crunch, the consistency of a potato chip, and is the perfect last sendoff to the noble North Florida bluegill.
Before I arrived, my mother dusted off the French press I bought her for Christmas, and we ground the beans while the water boiled. We sat around the table drinking coffee, my nephew still awake and cooing and laughing at us worshipping him. He’s around 16 months, and is now able to walk around and make known his desires. He is enamored of anything with a motor. He loves music and food. And women. I showed him a video of sultry Eartha Kitt singing and flirting with the camera, and he stopped and took notice. He perks up at the sound of a motorcycle and makes rumbling noises. I took him for a ride on the old four-wheeler, and while sitting in front of me, he spit out his pacifier so he could push us along faster with his engine noises.
I love him deeply and can’t wait to do uncle things with him, order a pizza and watch action movies that my sister won’t let him watch, show him my old record collection, introduce him to Mark Twain and Elia Kazan.
We went offshore a few days later. Black Snapper season was in, and we were going to give them hell. The water was rough and the sky was cloudy, but the boat owner wanted to go out, so we obliged him. We stopped at a preset location on his GPS machine and made ready our hooks. We had a live well full of little Chofers and some frozen cigar minnows. I hooked one and went to the bottom. In true fashion, the old man got on first. He is the most natural outdoorsman I’ve ever seen. He does not thump his chest and the only bragging he does is on the account of those with him. But he is consistently the one who catches the biggest and most fish. He exudes something from the line that is irresistible to anything swimming. As a boy, I would always silently try to outdo him, but could never manage it. That day on the Gulf, he got on again and again, but with Red Snapper and Grouper too small to keep. I found my niche and they finally started to bite. The Reds knew they would be thrown back and were happy to trade a nice breakfast for a short trip to the surface, but the Blacks were wary of this free meal. But how they fought for those 100 feet, the thick deep sea rod bending and quivering, and the anticipation of whether or not it would be a Red or Black, and the occasional Black Snapper and Triggerfish thrown into the ice-box assured a good dinner that night.
We all saw the old man silently fighting something big. In true fashion, he didn’t announce it or whoop or shout, but let someone else notice it. He had put on a big Chofer and on the way down, it was eaten by a 30 pound Cobia. He pulled the rod, wound in line, let the fish run, pulled him in some more. The first two eyes of the rod dipped underneath the water, and after a while a gaff was at the ready and the fish was thrown thrashing into the ice-box. The old man sat on the side of the boat, grinning and shrugging off the congratulations by the other fisherman.
He grilled them that night with his lemon butter sauce, and I fried some potatoes. Mom made her banana pudding, and after dinner, we sat on the rocking chairs and drank coffee and Dad and I smoked cigars.
My ears ache at the quiet stillness of the old country home. Afghanistan is a constant mechanical hum. Air conditioner units, generators, airplanes and helicopters, there is never a quiet moment. But here, I can hear the Spanish moss whisper to each other. I can hear the hoof beats of the old horses, and the rusty metal of the Spaniards’ helmets.
I revisit my favorite restaurants and have a few drinks at a few places, have a sandwich and tomato soup at Liza’s, but spend a lot of time at the bookstore with a cup of coffee. To be surrounded with more books than you could read, more ideas you could process, more poetry and beauty than your mind could process in 10 years is a beautiful feeling.
The time passed quickly, and I found myself sitting at the beach the night before I had to leave. I snuck onto the property in front of one of the giant ghost-condos that the real-estate boom erected and the economy crash left nearly deserted. I sprawled out on a beach chair and smoked my chewed cigar. The stars weren’t out, and I couldn’t see the water, but I buried my toes in the cool sand and listened. The waves came in and out just like they did when I was a boy. Exactly the same as they did when Galileo’s trial was happening, when the Roman Empire was booming, when there were no human ears on the planet to hear them, they still crashed and lapped the sandy shore.
I will hear the whisper of my homeland when I am back in my tiny pine-walled barracks. When I am sucking MRAP exhaust fumes on ludicrous PT tests, I will see the flash of a Red Snapper swirling in the water beneath me. I will miss this place when I am gone.