It was the late 1950s. We were in the tiny fishing village of Carrabelle, Florida, rafted alongside some fishing boats. Our iron-fastened 40-year-old schooner Elizabeth blended right in with her rusty, rough-hewn topsides. My mom was counting our pennies to see if we could afford our weekly Friday night extravaganza—five cents for a Royal Crown Cola to add to our giant pitcher of iced tea. I’d already scavenged (with permission) the ice from the fish hole of Lucky Strike, which was rafted just astern. That particular week we needed to buy cooking oil as well. And matches and sugar. Actually, we needed a lot of stuff. My dad had a toothache, but a dentist was out of the question. Joey, our Portuguese first mate, lacked store-bought shoes. Money was tight. Still, we dreamed—and mostly we dreamed in the five cent range.
Mother eventually sighed, put back the coins into her apron pocket, and shook her head negatively. “Maybe next week,” she said, as brightly as she could manage.
We were having fish for dinner. Just like lunch. And just like breakfast. Sometimes we’d call the red snapper fillets steaks—and pretend they were Porterhouse or T-bones. Other times I’d gig all day with a straightened nail on a mop handle—and my two sisters would scowl and pick all afternoon—and we’d have crab patties for variety (and wouldn’t tell any guests our secret was the crushed Ritz crackers).
Thanksgiving Day arrived—and you guessed it—more fish! But father made a speech—he’d landed a big sign job. And mate Joey was going with Cap’n Mackie to the Campeche Banks of Mexico aboard Hard Chance—where the snappers and groupers practically leapt aboard. “We’re going to be flush for Christmas,” my father said to our cheers.
But nothing is sure when you’re enslaved to an old schooner, which is rotting faster than you can replank her. The final payment on the sign job never came through, and a local lawyer said our chances of collecting were “between slim and none.” A late season hurricane drove the fishing fleet into Mexico—where First Mate Joey couldn’t figure out how to turn a profit no matter how many cervezas he drank.
What to do? Three days before Christmas, we all scattered across town to Lester’s Sundry Shop, Auntie May’s Fried Pies, and McMike’s Marine Machining—to collect magazines. On Christmas Eve we lit candles and caroled the fishermen—and any town folk ambling down the docks. When dawn broke the next day—we all got up early and exchanged magazine clippings. I gave Joey a fishing reel—well, a pic thereof. Carole got a Rolls Royce—Lordy, that would draw a crowd in Carrabelle, wouldn’t it? Father got a set of dentures from a Polydent ad—and a bottle of Jack Daniels in case there were any roots left. Mother had long aspired to be a gangster’s moll so we gave her pictures of minks and furs and Tommy guns and big fat diamonds—oh, she did fine with the swag that Christmas. Gale got brown and white saddle shoes—every teenage girl’s dream was to jitterbug with Elvis in those two-toned, hand-tooled shoes.
But I wasn’t getting any of those pictures—although I’d been careful to give each one of the crew of the Elizabeth the perfect gift—well, as perfect as my pudgy five-year-old fingers could snip out with the dull, blunt ended scissors.
Finally there was a hush. And my father presented me with my Christmas present. It wasn’t a picture—it was a real, honest-to-goodness, store-bought toy. In fact, it was just about the most desirable kid’s present of the season—yes, it was AS SEEN ON TV and everything. It cost 99 cents, about eight dollars in today’s money. And I desired that present—whatever in the hell it was—so bad I could taste it.
There was only one problem. I didn’t deserve it. I’d done awful things—like lose Gale’s cosmetic tray while using it as a toy boat without permission. Ditto, taking the money from those sailors and sitting firmly on Carole’s bathing suit straps—and then yelling at her excitedly, “Dad wants you NOW, Carole!” That was evil—pure and simple. So I didn’t deserve that store-bought gift and I couldn’t accept it. Besides, we were a crew—not just family or friends or acquaintances—we were honest-to-God crew! Schooner trash perhaps, but crew nonetheless! And there’s nothing more equal nor more sacred than crew. Crew was everything. Landlubbers weren’t crew—which is why they were so pathetic.
And above me was my family—like a howling mob of holiday cheer.
I was the baby and they’d all chipped in.
My joy would be their Christmas Joy.
They were forcing me. I felt powerless. And I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t! I was five-years-old and almost a man and knew I shouldn’t cry. So I allowed the 99 cent ‘Demolition Derby Car’ … As Seen On Tv… to be unwrapped and placed in my tiny trembling hand.
“Do it, do it!” they yelled.
I muttered ‘zoom-zoom’ and allowed the little car to glide down the cabin sole and gently impact on the bulkhead—upon which it blew into a million pieces from hidden springs and hair-trigger latches, and its precision-made pressure-sensitive bumper.
I screamed. I screamed from deep inside myself—and ripped and tore that private place forever. And yes, the little-boy in me stopped screaming, and started laughing giddily, as they explained that the car was supposed to explode, and supposed to shatter, designed to burst … but another part of me did not. It just kept on screaming, and screams to this day.
Editor’s note: Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand amid a sea of Buddhists—singing Christmas carols to deaf ears.