Toby Hemingway 6

Red Drum. Florida Fish & Wildlife

Marsh survived the first year at Uncle Albert’s with a cobbled strategy. He was not eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school due to Uncle Albert’s salary being above poverty income. But one thing old Al did right was teach him to fish.  There was plenty of fishing tackle and poles in the storage shed. On his recycled bike Marsh met up with the trolley to Casino Beach and the Pensacola Pier where fishermen gathered to harvest the Gulf.

At first his attempts at fishing from the high pier were fruitless. But, being a good study, he noticed a veteran fisherman and copied his techniques. After the muscled elder pulled in a big red drum–enough steaks for Marsh and his uncle for a week–the boy ventured to talk to him directly.

Vern was impressed from the first moment he met the tanned, green-eyed boy with a golden cap of tightly curled hair.  The boy curiously exuded an air of assurance.

“What you need is a Gotcha! Lure,” Vern said. He held out a shiny lure with a cubicle head. “Here, try it.”

Gotcha! Lure

Marshall detected a slight smile under Vern’s silver mustache. The boy removed the old lure and tied on the new one as Vern watched.  Marsh drew the pole to the side and back in a big arch and let it fly far out into the Gulf.

“Capital!” Vern shouted.  He couldn’t believe how quickly the boy had learned.

Vern demonstrated how to move the bait through the water so that it “swam” in spurts on top of the waves.

“If you want to pull in the big guys, you’ll need different gear. But for now, this will attract mackerel and Pompano just fine.”

With that Marshall felt a tug and his line went down. He pulled back strong, reeling in the line, released then pulled again. As he wound up his catch, he was surrounded by a fellowship of men, women and kids at-the-ready to celebrate the young fisherman’s victory. He yanked a sparkling Spanish mackerel out of the Gulf’s aquamarine waters.

That was how Marshall and Vern met. Their odd alliance remained like that from the beginning: good things always happened when they were together. Vern kept a regular pattern of fishing on Sunday morning, rain or shine.  It was the same rise-early-regimen he’d kept for 30 years in the Navy. After retiring, he took up fishing and tinkering in his garage, and lived in utter contentment in a little beachside cottage on Santa Rosa Island. He had a wife named Shirley who, by looking at Vern’s gut, Marsh thought must be a terrific cook.

Vern was curious about the boy. He talked often about Marshall with his wife as the unlikely friendship deepened over time. Neither Vern nor Marshall ventured to extend the relationship beyond the pier. They implicitly understood that it was defined by the Gulf waters that surrounded them, unique and particular to that location. Weekend fishing in rain, sun, and surf provided a sustaining force for Marsh and a steady source of protein for a growing teenager.

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