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I think of life as a book with a series of chapters. The beginnings of my saltwater experience were co-authored by a fellow named Otis Fiveash. He was an outrageous character and one of those larger-than-life adrenaline junkies, in all a thoroughly dangerous man. The last I heard he was running a charter boat in Destin, Florida. My family has a reunion every summer and last year we held it in Destin for the first time. Doris and I towed our boat, Tuner, over to take some of my cousins fishing. Late on Saturday afternoon, I went down to the docks where the charter fleet ties up in search of my old friend. I was anxious to reacquaint myself with the guy that helped kindle my passion for fishing and diving in the ocean.

The year was 1977. I was living in Tifton, Georgia where Otis had a successful rod and gun store. We met through a common friend, Crisp Gatewood. Crisp and I had explored most of the spring and cave dives in north Florida and were looking for a new adventure when Otis invited us to make a trip to Panama City and try our hand at spearfishing.

Otis's twenty-four foot Glastron cuddy with a 235HP Evinrude seemed huge compared to the ski boats I grew up with. The electronics included a Ray Jeff VHF radio, Lowrance paper bottom machine and a brand new Sitex loran. The loran was the size of a large VCR and had a single line display that alternated between the 1 and the 4 lines of position. It was mounted in the cabin so someone, usually me, had to stay with it and call out directions to the helmsman. A Clorox bottle attached to a sash weight with stout cord was standard equipment for marking the dive spot.

Our very first dive was an old tugboat wreck twenty-three miles offshore in one hundred and thirty feet called the Grey Ghost. The visibility was excellent in the thirty-five to forty foot range. Leaving the surface, we swam down into a blue void for ninety-five feet until the outline of the wreck came into focus. If I live to be one hundred, I'll never forget the herd of large groupers that came charging up to meet the invaders of their turf. In those days, the fish were not shy and the range of a speargun was not needed. For the bulk of our diving, we never used anything more powerful than a Hawaiian sling and free shaft of stainless steel to take very large fish. A shot that hit a fish's lateral line just behind the gills would usually strike the backbone. The stunned fish would roll over on its side like a stone. We referred to such a shot as "stoning" the fish. Otis quickly stoned the largest fish at over sixty pounds with his sling, and had three grouper on his stringer, before Crisp and I got the hang of it. We finished the day with over five hundred pounds of fish between the three of us. We sold most of the fish to pay for our expenses and took some home to eat.

Thus began a four year odyssey when Otis, Crisp and I spent virtually every weekend in pursuit of grouper and snapper. Along the way, the lorans got smaller and the boats got bigger. We would leave Tifton after work on Fridays and check in at the Bayside Best Western before midnight. The waterfront rooms there had a scent all their own. We kept our boat at the old Harby's marina in an area of Panama City called the "Cove." On a typical trip, we got up at four am for breakfast, and we were through the St. Andrew's pass before daylight. Otis rarely had more than a Miller Lite and a couple of Marlboros before lunch. Otis was a madman about diving. The prevailing wisdom of the time computed dive tables in terms of depth and bottom time and often limited us to one dive a day. We rarely paid much attention to the tables and usually made a second, deeper dive. Otis often pushed our already stressed version of decompression limits way off the charts by making a third dive alone. After the day's diving we'd head to Toby's or J. Michael's for dinner, then to the No-Name Bar for beers and to recount our day with anyone who would listen. We were in our mid-twenties and determined to out-dive and out-party all comers. We eventually moved our base of operations to the Sun Harbor marina because it was closer to the bar.

Perhaps Hemingway said it best, "If you put out to sea in a small boat, you needn't look for danger, it will find you." The three of us were diving an old naval platform called the Stage II site early in our career and hundreds of schoolie red snapper around five pounds were just hanging in the water, watching us. Crisp speared one and put it on his stringer. I was drawing back on a larger snapper when I thought I heard an underwater scream. A BIG Warsaw grouper had Crisp's stringer and his left flipper in its mouth and looked like it was trying to swallow the rest of him. I swam to their side, drew the sling, and planted my spear in the perfect spot on the large fish. I expected it to roll over, but it simply spit out the stringer and my partner and turned to see what kind of annoying creature I was. Crisp was mad. He immediately popped the grouper with his spear and we wrestled with the fish for a few seconds before Otis showed up. Otis's shot calmed the large fish down and we were able to get it to the boat in short order. At one hundred and ninety-five pounds on the fishhouse scales, it weighed five pounds more than I did at the time. A picture of the monster hangs in my fishing room today.

I was proud of that Warsaw grouper until Otis brought up a two hundred and sixty-five pounder by himself, with only a sling and free shaft during one of his third dives in one hundred and ten feet of water. The fish had scrubbed Otis up against the wreck several times trying to free itself of the spear. Mr. Warsaw had removed pieces of Otis's wetsuit and the underlying skin in the process. He finally managed to get the grouper several feet off the bottom and as the fish's swim bladder started to expand, it became more manageable. A seven-foot bull shark took an interest in the proceedings and began to circle. At a depth of about thirty feet, Otis sucked out the last little bit of air left in his tank and struggled toward the surface next to the boat. We pulled him onboard and cleated the big fish to the transom. The shark swam around erratically, disappointed to have dinner snatched away. As Otis lay bloody and exhausted on the deck, he described the event. When I asked him how he fought off the shark and got the fish up the final thirty feet with no air, he got a strange gleam in his eye and rasped "Son, sometimes you just got to be a bulldog!" Twenty years later, I remembered those words during an asthma attack while snorkeling in the Bahamas. I was a quarter mile from the boat with no flotation and no way to breathe. Every time I started to sink, I pictured Otis screaming "BE A BULLDOG!" at me and managed to make it back to the boat.

We had run-ins with other sharks and barracuda and learned the hard way not to spear a cobia if you wanted your spear back. Once Crisp was experimenting with a speargun and shot a smallish twenty pound cobia. The little fish swam in such tight circles that the line wrapped Crisp up and he was unable to move his arms. The cobia reached the end of the line and was tail whipping him severely when I cut the line free and grabbed the spear. The fish had twisted a four-foot piece of spring steel into a pretzel. To this day, I have a lot of respect for the strength those fish possess. Often large schools of four to five pound red snapper would swim over you and block out most of the visible light. Cobia and amberjack were considered trash fish back then. It was not uncommon to see packs of fifty plus big cobia on some of the wrecks in the spring and summer. AJs over one hundred pounds were pesky, trying to steal fish from our stringers. Otis used to lure them close and punch one as hard as he could. Big AJs sure can grunt.

Once Otis and I decided to take a long weekend and make some serious money by fishing in the deep Gulf. We outfitted his boat with extra coolers and batteries and bought two electric reels to fight the big ones with. At our first stop, we learned a valuable lesson. We were using triple hook rigs in two hundred and forty feet of water. Otis was the first down and immediately hooked up. Twenty minutes later we had two fifteen pound scamps, a seventy-pound AJ and a smoking electric reel. Otis had to light up a Marlboro to catch his breath. From then on we used single hook rigs. Between the first and second stop on the trip, the reliable old 235 Evinrude died. We could not get it started. At sixty-five miles out, I had little confidence in the Ray Jeff VHF. Otis was able to raise the Coast Guard, winking and saying "That HiGain antenna sure does chat!" Another valuable lesson: a cheap radio and a good antenna will outperform a great radio and a cheap antenna. The Coast Guard sent a forty-one foot patrol boat to pick us up and tow us back to Panama City. We were back in time to get the motor fixed (corroded electrical connector) and head out the next morning. We caught half a ton of fish on the wreck of an old Coast Guard buoy tender and headed back in after dark. At ten p.m., we ran out of gas in the fog about two miles off the pass. The Coast Guard dispatcher was incredulous that the same boat would need a tow two days in a row. They were not as pleasant the second time around. It's no wonder they got out of the towing business.

Crisp bought his own twenty-four foot boat in March of 1978 and we ventured out one Friday before Otis got to Panama City. The boat had a newly installed inboard motor, which refused to crank after our first dive. We ran out with the battery switch set on "Both" thinking we would charge both batteries. The new alternator was not producing charging current and we consequently ran both batteries down. Without battery power, we couldn't crank the engine, nor could we use the VHF to transmit. Our location was twenty-seven miles south of the jetties. We could hear people calling on the radio but had no power to reply. Just after sunset, we were enveloped in fog. Flares are of little use when you can barely see from one end of the boat to the other. Luckily, the wind was light out of the South and the weather mild. The boat had a homemade tower to which we attached anything that would catch some of that southerly breeze. Drifting on the ocean, you hear some spooky sounds at night. By the next morning we had 'sailed' to within three miles of the pass. The Coast Guard was out all night searching for us in the fog with their radar. They never found us. Otis was out all night looking as well. I'm not sure how he thought he would locate us, but right after sunrise he roared up and asked "You boys seen any dumb-ass, broke down frogmen around here?"

During the winter of 1979, we caught a great weekend for weather and towed the boat to the ramp at Apalachicola. Our destination was the wreck of the Empire Mica, a freighter torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1944. The wreck lies twenty-five miles south in a depth of one hundred and thirty feet. At over four hundred feet long, it took two dives to fully investigate. We thought it would be covered up with fish, but saw scant small groupers. The most amazing sight was the single sixteen-foot bronze propeller, still burnished in the faint light. It was later salvaged and now hangs in front of Capt. Anderson's seafood restaurant in Panama City. The wind freshened after the second dive and the boat rocking at anchor caused everyone to get seasick except Otis and me. Otis had never been seasick and castigated the crew for their weakness. He shortly joined them, hurling over the gunwale and leaving me to drink a post-dive beer and pass out the insults. I always enjoyed teasing Otis about getting sick that day, and nothing revved him up more.

We heard for years about a wreck called the Birmingham Queen.

It was rumored to be an old steamship that went down in a storm in the early part of the Twentieth century. We checked out numerous bogus loran numbers in search of the wreck, and in the spring of 1980 thought we had found her lying in one hundred and eighty feet off Cape San Blas. That depth is ridiculously dangerous for sport divers using regular compressed air and nitrox was unheard of, but we were young and not that bright to begin with. This particular site turned out to be several car-sized coral heads, close together, and covered up with colossal mangrove snappers over fifteen pounds. I was amazed at the color visible on the tropical fish that adorned the coral. The water was so clear and calm I could make out the name on the side of our boat from the bottom. The intoxicating effects of narcosis cloud your judgement at such depths. Crisp immediately went back up fifty feet to clear his head. Otis and I were ambivalent about heading up. Although it was a gorgeous dive, we were lucky to get back to the boat.

Otis somehow got the correct loran numbers to the Queen's wreck later that year and we made the trip during the dog days of August. She was lying in one hundred and fifty-three feet several miles north of the coral heads. On our first dive, the visibility was good down to around one hundred feet where we hit a hard thermocline. The deeper we went, the colder and murkier the water became. On the bottom we could see maybe ten feet and there was a powerful current. Most of the wreck had fallen in on itself, but it was loaded with scary-big fish. Two jewfish, each well over five hundred pounds, appeared out of the gloom and seemed far too inquisitive for my comfort. With the miniscule bottom time allowed on this dive, I stoned a fifty-four pound grouper and headed up. Crisp and Otis followed with similar fish. The current carried us several hundred feet from the boat. The surface swim back to the boat, dragging a big fish against the current, seemed to take forever. We must have come up too fast and the decompression tables finally caught up with us. At the surface, my vision blurred and I got a nasty nosebleed. It took several days for me to be able to see clearly. Crisp experienced joint pain for months. Otis was seemingly unaffected. From then on, the Queen was a fishing-only spot.

Those days have an ephemeral quality in my memory. Watercolor images flash before my mind's eye and elude my grasp, only to run together into a collage that never fails to bring a smile to my face. Like the ebb of the tide from shore, Otis and I grew apart. He had a stroke in 1982 at the ripe old age of thirty. Although he gradually made a complete recovery, his business failed and he moved to Florida. In 1985, I heard he was running a charter boat in Destin. Over the years, I've stopped a few times to say hello but never could find him.

As I strolled down the docks in the twilight last July, there was something familiar about the man at the helm of the ancient wooden charter boat, Glory. The profile was as unmistakable as the voice as Otis backed into his slip and barked orders to his mate. When he spotted me, a smile of recognition crossed his face, replaced by a look of concern. "Son, can you afford enough lead to get your chubby ass to the bottom'' In twenty years, I've gained as many pounds and couldn't fit into my old wetsuit on a bet. It appears as if life has gnawed around the edges of Otis. He is a good twenty pounds lighter than I remember, still brandishing his trademark Marlboro. After some hand shaking and back slapping, we headed next door to grab a beer and reminisce.

His usual Miller Lite has been replaced by a single malt scotch. I'd like to say that Otis has made a pile of money in the charter business, and perhaps he has, but it is quickly apparent that his true fortune lies in the rich experiences of a life spent at sea. There are pauses during the conversation but they are comfortable, one sure way to tell friends from people you just know. Otis tells tales that just crunch with salt. His eyes still darken when I gently tease him about being seasick at the 'Mica and I agree not to tell anyone in Destin. After two hours swapping stories old and new, I got up to leave. We agreed to get together and go fishing again soon, but time and distance keep getting in the way. This summer, Doris and I are staying a couple of extra days in Destin. Otis says the old seadog can still teach this puppy some tricks. Woof, Woof!