COULMN: Hot Wings and Pretty Things
By Mike Braswell
It's been nearly forty years since I met the Captains, Cecil and Elizabeth Johnson. I was twelve miles offshore in a 14 ft boat when they arrived at ‘The Tower’ just after daylight. My fishing buddy, Darryl, and I had already caught our limit of Spanish and even had a King Mackerel in the boat.
'The Wilma' was the first charter boat to arrive at the structure. Until then, Darryl and I had had the place to ourselves. We had been there for several hours. My thing was to arrive before the sun came up. It wasn't so safe to travel the channel at night for many reasons, but my attitude in those days was, 'Damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead.'
I didn’t have children, and I only took my friend Darryl because, as I once told him, 'He was expendable.' We were both in those days. We went out there every chance that we got. We often ran into difficulties, but God loves drunks and fools. He spared us time after time.
We didn’t speak to Cecil or Elizabeth on that trip, but as Cecil says, "I figured those fools would die out there sooner or later.” When we met just a week later by happenstance, and Cecil figured out that I was one of those ‘fools’ in that little boat, he asked me to First mate for him on his charter trips.
It was then that I met Captain Charlie Walsh. Charlie was already an old man by this time, but we were granted several years of friendship before he passed. I had the pleasure of fishing with old Captain Walsh on many occasions. We even sailed down to the Keys together.
Captain Charlie was a unique old ‘salty dog’ who made every trip special. He was one of those people that legends are built around. When he became a diver, he dove in those old heavy diving suits with the enormous round diving helmets where the air was pumped down from an air compressor up on the surface.
Capt.'s wife Wilma had passed before I met him. Cecil and Elizabeth had met him through their desire to become certified as sea captains, and they eventually moved in with Capt. Charlie to help take care of him, as well as to learn from the old sea captain. Everyone loved it when old Capt. Charlie joined us fishing offshore. He was quite a character, and we immediately took a liking to one another. Captain Cecil and Captain Elizabeth are the same as Charlie, though. They don't make them like that anymore.
I am so fortunate to have made many great and lifelong friends through my love of fishing. We are kin through our passion for adventure. Captains Cecil, Elizabeth, and Charlie enriched my life beyond anything that I could have imagined back in those days as a scrawny country boy from 'the sticks.'
So, Captain Cecil always says he asked me to start working for him out of concern for me. He was 'saving my life' as he tells it. "The boy had no fear, and that's not necessarily a good thing at sea," Cecil once said when speaking of me.
I always joke with Cecil that he actually asked me to start fishing with him so that he would not be embarrassed about some young punk out fishing him in front of his paying guests; that those folks would see me out there catching way more fish in my tiny boat than they were in the charter boat.
Regardless of why I was asked, I was honored to join the Tybee Island Charters family. My wife and I have visited Cecil and Elizabeth on many occasions. We stay on their yacht sometimes and in the main house on others. It has been a little while since we paid a visit because COVID shut everything down for so long, and life has hit us pretty hard over the last few years.
I had only been in Savannah for a year when I began fishing with Cecil, Charlie, and Elizabeth. I had just started a new job after the computer company I worked for dropped all private interest and began servicing only military contracts. I was a 'free spirit' then, and the military didn't interest me. They had hounded me in high school because I made the mistake of scoring near perfect on the ASVAB test. I have never trusted the government and wasn’t about to work for them.
So I had only been with my new employer for five days when I received a call from Cecil, asking me to join them on the annual voyage down to Key West. It would take several days, and I had no vacation or even sick days accrued. I phoned my new boss, Garth, and told him, "I am taking two weeks off to go to Key West - you can either fire me or trust that I will be a great employee." Although I am a worrisome sort who lacks self-confidence, I have always been good at pretending to be fearless and full of confidence. Fake it till you make it has always worked well for me. I had eleven dollars to my name when we left for Key West. When we returned, I had quite a bit more. My computer knowledge helped me earn a little at each Harbor we stopped at.
The trip is still one of my favorites of all time. We had a wonderful time sailing the Intercostal Waterway and had so many unique experiences. Cecil and Elizabeth had to return to Tybee early, so my friend Ralph Tarver joined us on the adventure once we reached the Keys.
Crossing Biscayne Bay into the Keys was very interesting. The coral reef was visible beneath the boat as we maneuvered through. We caught Snapper and much more, which we cooked aboard the boat, probably some of the best eating you can imagine. When the DNR boarded our vessel, they informed us that we could not cut up and fry our fish on board the vessel because we had to prove that the fish were of legal size. They threatened to write us up and take our supper, but I think old Charlie convinced them otherwise. We ate well and continued to cut and eat our fish. We just kept a better lookout and only cut enough fish to eat in a hurry if we were to be boarded.
Later we were boarded by the Coastguard, who tore the boat apart looking for drugs. They didn’t bother to put all the boat cushions and stuff back in place when they finished. After we got out of sight of them, we were boarded by the Miami Vice Squad team and searched again. They were not friendly and seemed a little upset that they found nothing. As I said, I was a free spirit back then. We were lucky they didn't use dogs back then. Enough on that subject, though. No hard stuff, just a large portion of weed may have been on the boat. We did our best to get rid of all that during the trip.
Arriving in Key Largo, we needed to fuel up and were greeted by thousands of pelicans perched in Mangroves. It was an incredible sight. A Tiki Bar was there, so we decided this was the perfect spot. We rented a slip and stayed a couple nights.
We met five beautiful Swedish women who had sailed their yacht into Key West some days earlier. We jokingly referred to them as the Swedish Swim team. We were, of course, gentlemen the entire time we spent with the girls. When they found that we were from Georgia, they were amused and said, "Georgia, ah, drink it up, ya?" In our case, they hit the nail right on the head. We spent the entire two days sitting at the Tiki Bar, drinking and telling partial truths to these women who were entirely too smart to be fooled by us ole Georgia boys.
At some point, I got hungry and ordered some hot wings. Wanting to impress the young ladies from Sweden, I ordered the hottest wings on the menu. The 'Triple Nuclear Meltdown Wings' seemed a good idea then. I knew I was in trouble when the entire kitchen staff came out to watch me eat those evil and deadly wings prepared by the spawn of Satan, no doubt. Hindsight is 20/20, but 'hind-burn' can also teach us a thing or two. The following day, 'my biscuits were burnin'.
I was newly married and was a good boy where the ladies were concerned, but those wings ensured that I would not do anything to betray my young wife. I will leave it at that but take my advice if you want to impress five rich, blonde Swedish women. Do it without the nuclear wings. It was a bad night after those wings.
We reluctantly left our Swedish friends and headed on to Key West. They were headed to New York to see Lady Liberty. Once we arrived in Key West, we must have tried out every bar, but we settled on Hemingway’s favorite place. Later we would go to a dog track and do some gambling. We met long-time western star Jack Elam who was spending money like it was going out of style. He kept us in food and drinks but kept losing all the races, and soon he became a little irritated. We eventually learned not to bet on the same dogs as him, and we won a little folding money. He had deeper pockets than us, and he was still losing when we left. All in all, Jack was a gentleman, and it was a fun night.
I could go on, but I should save the rest for later. My life has been blessed despite several attempts by me to derail it over these many decades of living. My greatest pleasure today is being there for my family and sharing with all of you the many adventures I have packed into these sixty-one years that God has allowed me. God bless you all, and I wish you the best life possible.
Never let fear stop you from enjoying life. Learn to be yourself. Drink responsibly if you have to drink at all. Remember that most people are more fun to be around when they are sober. If they think otherwise, they most likely have a thinking problem. I certainly did until I got help with my drinking.