Apple juice and the wide open ocean

Underneath my mom and dad’s fish tank in their living room lives a picnic basket. Not just any picnic basket filled with plates and forks and napkins, but a picnic basket filled with every single crazy memory I had as a child. My dad claims it contains “thousands” of dollars of his hard earned money. There’s many pictures of our boat trips to Dry Tortugas, Bimini, the Barrys, and Cay Sal on my dad’s old 24-foot boat. Other moments didn’t make it to film. Sometimes the best memories aren’t captured on film, or cameras, or iPhones.

When I was young, we would fish EVERY weekend at the Humps. I dreaded the seasickness, the boredom. To beat the doldrums of summer, my dad would tell my brother and me that whoever spotted the first thing on the water — a board, a bird, a bale, a Cuban chug — would receive a dollar.

Chase and I would sit in the front of the boat passing time, pretending to shoot flying fish with our make-believe finger pistols — pew! pew! pew!— joking about riding bulls while hanging onto the bowline. Cowboys of the sea we were. Some flying fish would go down fast to our make-believe shots; some we would miss for minutes on end.

We were about to head in late in the afternoon when in the distance I saw something. I contemplated not saying anything. I wanted dry land, but I wanted mahi for dinner more. My keen 10-year-old eyes spotted a bird sitting on a pallet. Chase, 8, was jealous of my find as he sipped on a Motts apple juice box and ate the last bologna sandwich from the cooler.

My dad circled the pallet a few times with no hits. Skunked. Morale was low and gas was questionable as he started heading for home when it happened. Zing, the rod screamed from the back of the boat as my mom started reeling. Zing, another rod took off as my dad grabbed it. Chase and I kept the boat straight.

Forty-five adrenaline-filled minutes later a bull dolphin sat in our cooler. The cooler was unable to shut because its tail stuck out one end. Another smaller dolphin, a 35 pounder, lay proudly on top of him as we headed for home. Of course, my mom always lucked out with the bigger catch (ask her about her wahoo story…).

Coming off plane, with Bonefish Towers barely in sight, the boat ran out of gas. As we waited for TowBoat, the ice slowly melted in the propped open cooler.

We waited. And waited longer. There are only so many things you can “eye spy with my little eye” in the middle of the ocean, when my dad made the decision to fillet the mahi before there was no ice left.

On the back of the boat, on a makeshift cutting board, he sliced into the fish by the low glow of the moon and a flashlight. That’s when it happened.

As he went to move one fillet of the bull dolphin over, the whole rest of the fish slipped off the back of the boat into the darkest night water. Water deep enough our anchor wouldn’t reach if we tried; water filled with scraps of fish he just cut up.

Without hesitation, he threw his wallet out of his back pocket with a couple cuss words and dove over the back of the boat. My mom, screaming, held the flashlight over the side of the boat. A minute later, he came up with the half of the bull 45-pound mahi in his hand. Once he climbed in the boat, he thanked God for marrying a woman with enough sense to shine the light over the back of the boat as Chase and I sat in awe gazing at our crazy, amazing, always adventurous Dad.

Now I long for those days, the tiny fishing boat I used to hate, the seasickness, the days I thought staying at home watching TV would be more fun than shooting fish with finger guns on the wide open ocean, those Motts apple juice days.  And, more so, I will remember the best dollar I ever made, no pictures needed.

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