I got the nickname “Captain Dan” from my Uncle J.T. He served 25 years in the Navy then retired to a second career as a charter captain at Fishtail Marina in Ft. Myers, FL. He was the kind of guy every kid loves – bigger than life with a laugh like a foghorn, 6’2″, almost 230lbs, bald headed with a big white beard.
He had only three fingers on his left hand. When he was a boy, he and his brother were chopping wood. Uncle J.T. sat down to rest and his brother told him to get back to work. Uncle J.T. refused. His brother said “You better get back to work or I’m gonna chop your damn hand off.” Uncle J.T refused again, so his brother swung the ax. Got the last two fingers. Uncle J.T. would always say “He had my whole hand to swing at and only got two fingers – what a sissy!”
Every year on the day after Christmas when I was a kid, my parents would pack our big maroon van and we’d head to Florida. We’d get settled in our rented condo at the beach and then head over to the marina to see Uncle J.T.
The reason I liked Uncle J.T. so much was because he treated me like an adult. He listened to my stories and didn’t tell me what to do. He let me learn from my mistakes. I’ve still got a scar from where I burned my hand on his boat motor. Rather than TELL me not to touch it, he let me learn for myself.
One thing Uncle J.T. would NOT let me do was drive his boat. He made it very clear driving the boat was off limits until I turned 13 – no exceptions. He taught me the rules of the water, how to care for the boat, and how to read the weather, but driving would have to wait.
Things changed when I turned 12….
The Christmas I was 12, I could tell something was not quite right with Uncle J.T. When we got to Florida that year, he was thinner and seemed tired. He and Mom & Dad had several hushed conversations when I was supposed to be asleep. I couldn’t make out exactly what was being said, but I remember hearing Mom talking about good doctors in St. Louis and Dad telling J.T. that he could stay with us.
On the day before we were to head back to St. Louis, Uncle J.T. told me to be ready to go with him at 5:30am. Instead of the pickup truck, he rode over to pick me up on his Harley. Normally my Mom wouldn’t allow me on his motorcycle, but she was still asleep. So… we got away with one that day!
It was a glorious early Florida morning – beautiful sunshine, calm seas, squawking seagulls, and crisp ocean air. I figured we would be going for our normal spin around Estero bay, maybe do a little fishing.
We parked the Harley and headed for the docks. As we rounded the corner, I stopped dead in my tracks. There on the deck of the marina’s restaurant were all of Uncle J.T.’s buddies lined up neatly in a row. They were holding big box with a bow and a lighted birthday cake. The started to sing happy birthday to….. Danny?
Me??? My 13th birthday wasn’t until April.
Uncle J.T. leaned down to me “I know it’s not April kid – just go with it, okay?” I took Uncle J.T.’s advice and went with the flow. I didn’t have to fake being surprised. Just seeing his buddies awake and sober at 6am on a Sunday morning was surprise enough. I hadn’t expected any of it, that’s for sure.
Pete the cook put down his cigarette and handed me the box. “Here you go, kid. Happy Birthday!” Everyone applauded and watched as I opened the box. Inside was a genuine Fishtail Marina Captain’s shirt with my name “Captain Dan” embroidered on the left breast pocket.
I put on the shirt. They handed me a plate of birthday cake and took my picture. Some of the waitresses commented how handsome I looked. We finished our little party and I thanked them all, moving from person to person, looking them in the eye and shaking each hand firmly just like Uncle J.T. had taught me. I noticed the glimmer of a tear in a few eyes. All I could figure is that they were getting sentimental because I was growing up.
“Let’s go kid!” my Uncle bellowed. We grabbed a bag of ice and headed for the boat. Normally, Uncle J.T. would lead the way down the ramp to the dock. This was his unwritten rule – he believed it was a sign of respect to allow the Captain to board the vessel first.
That day, Uncle J.T. stopped at the step to the ramp. “Open your shirt pocket, kid”. I reached down, unzipped the new shirt’s pocket, and found a key to Uncle J.T.’s boat. “You’re driving today, kid”. He stepped aside and waved his hand with a grand flourish, inviting me to take my first walk down to the dock as the Captain!
Before I could even stammer out all the questions swirling in my brain, Uncle J.T. spoke. “Kid, I know you’re not 13 until April, but I want you to drive the boat today. I’m probably going on a long trip in April and I’d hate to miss this moment.” The significance of his words were lost on me – I was simply thrilled to be able to drive the boat!
We had a magnificent day. First he let me navigate under the Matanzas Pass Bridge & around Bowditch Park. We cruised south for awhile, following the beach toward Lover’s Key. When we stopped for a picnic lunch, Uncle J.T. spotted a group of three college girls in bikinis. He walked right up and introduced me as his attorney. That made them laugh, so he invited them to join us for lunch. “Always make ’em laugh kid – that way you’ll never be lonely”.
We had a leisurely lunch with the girls and then took them on a boat ride to see the dolphins – with ME at the wheel! We said our goodbyes and one of the girls gave me a kiss on the cheek! My first kiss from a 20 year old woman and my first time to drive the boat – ALL ON THE SAME DAY!
That afternoon, we fished near the Big Carlos Pass and then headed back to Bowditch Park where we anchored to watch the sun set.
With his feet kicked up on the bow rail and his hands behind his head, Uncle J.T. said “It don’t get much better than this, huh kid?”
“No sir – it’s been a great day”. It truly had been a great day.
“Remember kid – don’t ever let the bastards get you down. You can always end your day like this and just forget about the bullshit”. The sunset over Sanibel Island was beautiful that evening.
It was also the last time I ever saw Uncle J.T.
Even though it’s been almost 30 years, I still remember the day vividly – Wednesday, March 22, 1978. I was excited to come home and tell my parents about the two doubles and a bunt single I had on the first day of junior high baseball. I knew something was up when they met me at the door.
“Danny, your Uncle J.T. passed away yesterday”
Their words hit me like a line drive in the temple. Why? How? NO!!!!
They explained his tiredness, his not feeling well, the tests, the diagnosis.
“He sent this for you, Danny” They handed me a thick manilla envelope.
I poured the contents of the envelope on the desk in my room. The letter read….
March 8, 1978
“Dear Captain Dan,
Well, it looks like the sun is getting ready to set on my life. I knew back in December this cancer thing was gonna kick my ass, and that’s why you got to drive the boat a few months early. We had a day didn’t we? And how’s about those bikini gals? Whoa!
Danny, I want you to know how proud I am of you. You’re a good kid and you never gave your parents no troubles. Keep it that way! I always looked forward to your visits. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did.
I know my time is runnin’ out and I ain’t much for doctors and hospitals and all that mess. I always wanted to see The Baths, so’s I’m leaving in a few days with Pete and taking the boat to Virgin Gorda. I figure we’ll drink a few Mojitos and I’ll call it a day. Hopefully Pete won’t be too damn drunk to get the boat back safe!
Before I go, I wanted to write you this letter and leave you a few things.
* Here’s the keys to the Harley. It’s waiting in Pete’s garage. You can’t have it until you’re 21 as your mother would kill me. But I’ll be gone way before then anyways, so’s it won’t matter! (Ha ha ha!)
* Here’s my collection of 1964 Cardinals baseball cards. That was the greatest Cardinal team ever and I don’t give a damn what Pete says.
* My journal. Some of it’s true and some of it’s bullshit, but it’ll make for a good way to pass a few minutes when you ain’t got much else to do.
* Finally, here is your genuine Coast Guard 6 Pack Captain’s license. I know you didn’t take the test, but I figure I taught you everything you need to know. I had a friend in high places who owed me a favor, so’s we “bent” the rules a little.
There it is Captain Dan – the final entry into the last chapter of a life well lived. I’m goin’ out happy Danny boy and they can’t NEVER take that away from me!!
Best wishes and always remember
1. Make ’em laugh so’s you’ll never be lonely
2. Don’t ever let the bastards get you down.
3. End your day with a stiff drink at sunset to forget about the bullshit.
With love, Uncle J.T.”
Two weeks after Uncle J.T. wrote that letter, he passed away. They were anchored in Virgin Gorda and had spent the previous two days at The Baths. Pete said they got back to the boat and spent the evening cooking black beans, rice and fresh fish, drinking Mojitos, and watching an incredible orange sunset. Pete said when he turned in about 9pm, Uncle J.T. was sitting on the deck with his feet on the bow rail humming an old Grateful Dead tune. When he woke up the next morning, Uncle J.T.’s body was in the same place with a half full Mojito in his hand and a peaceful smile on his face.
“Helluva good way to go” Pete said.
Can’t say that I disagree.
I’ve still got the box around here somewhere with the letter, the journal, the key, the baseball cards, the Coast Guard license, and my Fishtail Marina Captain’s outfit. Never did get to ride the Harley – Pete sold it when he needed “rent” money.
Every now & then when I’m feeling down I’ll open Uncle J.T.’s journal and read a few entries. I have no way to know if it’s fact or fiction, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s the story of a life well lived and the story of a man who died happy. How many people are lucky enough to be able to say that?
I suppose I call myself “Captain Dan” as a way to honor my Uncle J.T. He was rough around the edges, but he was a good man. He treated me well. Most of all, I admire the way he lived his life.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go mix a Mojito and watch the sun set.
© Doug Fish, 2007