By Michael E. Miller
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Around 6:00 a.m. Friday morning, with the worst of Hurricane Georges still a few hours away, Doug Hawley is totaling up the register receipts at Jack's Bait and Tackle. "Fifty-six dollars in the last six hours," he tells his brother Gary, disappointment evident in his voice.
For nearly 30 years Jack's Bait and Tackle -- a single-story white concrete building -- has been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's been at its current location along U.S. 1 just south of Florida City since 1979. To reinforce the point that Jack's never closes, the building has no front doors; the entrance is permanently open. The wind whips through the bare doorway, rattling a stand of fishing poles and threatening to topple a five-foot-tall rack of sunglasses.
"This ain't beans," scoffs John as a gust of wind pushes in a horizontal burst of rain. "Now, Andrew was tough. We actually closed for four hours during Andrew."
Gary worked that night. As Andrew's eye barreled across South Dade, he reluctantly boarded up the front of the store and sought refuge in the sturdiest place he could find; the refrigerated room where the beer is kept.
"Gary stayed in the beer cooler all night," Doug grins.
"And I never did get thirsty," Gary nods.
A few minutes later owner Jack Nelson walks in. He'd left around midnight to check on his house and get a little sleep. During Andrew his home was leveled. Coincidentally he finished rebuilding only a few months ago. "Just in time for another hurricane," he laughs.
Gary informs Jack of the meager business they had while he was away. Jack shrugs. "We're not really here to sell bait," he says. "The only reason we didn't close off the front with plywood is because of the damn news people out there," referring to a half-dozen television news crews from around the state. They've camped out in Jack's parking lot because this is about as far south as they can get. Just down the road the Florida Highway Patrol has set up a roadblock preventing access to the Keys. "I told those reporters to come in here if the storm gets too rough for them in their cars and trucks," Jack remarks. "The main reason I stayed open, though, is because these guys are all single." He motions to Doug, Gary, and John, all of whom are in their late forties or early fifties. "And this is a safer place to be than what they have."
Jack's wasn't the only business in South Dade to remain open through the storm. In Homestead, at Larry's All-American Restaurant, Larry and Cindy Roth decided to keep their kitchen running so police and emergency workers would have a place to eat and grab some coffee. They boarded up their windows and spray-painted the word Open in neon orange on the plywood. "It's been an interesting day," Cindy offers, rolling her eyes at the understatement.
A little farther north Bart Laufer, manager of Mattie Silks, a strip club in Leisure City, wanted to stay open as well, but by 8:00 p.m. Thursday he was down to his last dancer. "I had two girls in here most of the day, but one had a long ride home and she was afraid of the storm, so I sent her home early," Laufer says. "Normally I'd have four or five girls in here, but the others didn't show up. It's the media. They scared everybody. This storm is nothing." By 10:00 p.m. he'd canceled the night shift and closed for the evening.
For the most part, Thursday was calm across South Dade; police reported few disturbances. Homestead cops were called to a fight that broke out in a line for sandbags. In Florida City the only trouble police encountered came from thieves who were reportedly stealing plywood shutters from the homes of people who had evacuated -- presumably to put up on their own homes.
Back at Jack's, the quiet time provides ample opportunity for telling stories, and at age 67 Jack Nelson can spin yarns with the best of them. He grew up in Arkansas in the Thirties and Forties. While a young man, he worked as a time-study engineer for a shoe company, a job that somehow failed to capture his imagination. In the Fifties he moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and went to work for the Shakespeare Fish and Tackle Company, overseeing production of fishing reels. "I just answered an ad in the newspaper," he recalls. "I never really was a big fisherman."
In 1968 one of his co-workers at the Shakespeare plant decided to open his own company in Miami and hired Jack to help him. Their plans quickly fell apart, but Jack decided to stay in South Florida. "By then," he says, "I knew a lot about rods and reels and so I thought, 'Why not open up my own bait and tackle shop?'"
That first store opened for business in 1970. "It was a half-mile north of where the turnpike now cuts into U.S. 1," he recounts. "The turnpike killed that part of town and nearly destroyed my business. Everyone coming from Miami to the Keys now used the turnpike instead of U.S. 1 and passed right by us."