Tales in the Storm

In 1979 he built his current shop -- well south of the turnpike. It has been a moneymaker ever since. On some days, he claims, more than 5000 people come through the store to pick up fishing supplies, ice, beer, soda, cigarettes, and snack food. What sells best? "Well," he smiles, "let's just say we've never had a beer can rust in our cooler."

"It's a good business," he goes on. "I once had a guy lay half a million dollars on the counter in a suitcase. He said, 'I'll give you a million dollars for this place, half now, half later.' It was probably drug money, but I didn't want to sell anyway. I want to see my grandkids run this place." Married 48 years, Jack has two grown daughters and three grandchildren. "They all love fishing," he adds.

Like a whirling weather vane, Jack suddenly changes subjects. "You know, we've had all sorts of famous people come in here," he ventures. "Bob Stack, Jimmy Buffett, Jimmy Johnson, Dante Fascell. Whenever Dante would go fishing in the Keys with some other politician -- a governor or a senator from another state -- he'd bring them in here first. I don't really remember who any of them were, but I know we had a lot of them come through here."

Another frequent visitor was Bebe Rebozo. "One time Bebe came in here and said, 'Jack, I've got somebody for you to meet.' I go outside and there are three Cadillacs lined up at my gas pumps and there are all these guys standing around. When I get to within ten feet of one of the cars, the back door opens and damn if Richard Nixon didn't get out," he says excitedly. "He came into the store, looked around for a bit, and shook hands with all of the employees. That was really something."

As Jack wraps up the Nixon yarn, John and Joseph Barbaria, two brothers in their early twenties, come bouncing into the store. "Here they are!" Jack declares. "I told you I sold bait to a couple jackasses last night."

The Brothers Barbaria had indeed stopped by for bait to go snook fishing and were back now to report on their adventures. "Our lines kept getting snagged in the wind," John says, "but I figured we had to try. You never know, the storm might blow the big one in. Besides, weather like this, you don't have to worry about game wardens. We didn't have a fishing license."

"I love this place," Jack says wistfully after the brothers head back out into the storm. His Southern drawl hangs in the air like the cigarette smoke from his Benson & Hedges menthols. "I love the water and the sun. I love that you can do almost anything you want, you can get just about anything you want any time of the day or night."

Over the years Jack's Bait and Tackle hasn't changed much, although Hurricane Andrew did put a stop to gasoline sales. "When the storm came in, it just ripped out the whole gas station," Jack explains. "It picked up the pumps and everything. Never saw them again. I gave a guy who has a helicopter a case of beer to fly around and see if he could find my pumps, but he couldn't see them either."

Though Hurricane Andrew definitely changed the area ("A lot of good people moved out after the storm and a lot of riffraff moved in," Jack asserts), it had little lasting effect on his business because 90 percent of his customers live elsewhere. "Most of the people are tourists on their way to the Keys," he notes. "We get people in here from all around the world."

Through the open front, Jack and the others can see that the rain has stopped. That's been the pattern all night: periods of hard rain and gusty wind followed by relative calm. As the hours drag on, however, the squalls arrive with increasing frequency. The current lull affords time for more tales. This one is set in Europe.

"I was about 250 miles south of Amsterdam," Jack begins, "and I was with my grandson and I was trying to get to this bike race and I was lost, so I pull into this place to ask for directions, and I tell the guy, 'Look, I'm a damn American and I'm lost. I'm from Florida and I can't figure out where this bike race is. Can you help me?'"

According to Jack, the man then announces that he once visited the Florida Keys. "'Well, you must have driven by my place, Jack's Bait and Tackle,'" he recalls saying. "The guy then tells me that he remembers it and that he stopped there for a beer. He then gets this look on his face and he smiles and he tells me, 'Of all the beer I've ever drunk, that one was the coldest.' I shit you not, that's what he said. That's a true story."

Another time he was in Memphis for his grandmother's funeral, and as he walked through the airport, somebody yelled out, "You ain't gonna catch any grouper up here, Jack!"

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