Tales in the Storm

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.

"Not too many people goin' fishin' today, I guess," adds John Pfau, a co-worker who is sitting by the front counter sipping a can of Budweiser.

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."

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!"

As the sun rises Friday morning, a few television crew members who spent the night in their satellite trucks wander in to buy orange juice and doughnuts. They don't seem tempted by a plastic jar next to the cash register marked "Cuban Cigars." The price: $1.50 apiece. None of the stogies, however, has a band or other identifying mark. Could they really be Cubans? "I don't know," Jack admits. "Some jackass out of Fort Lauderdale brings 'em in here every week."

Two Associated Press photographers have commandeered a portion of the front counter and one of Jack's telephones so they can transmit digital photos to their office in Miami. Amid the sudden activity, a handsome young man with a deeply resonant voice strolls over to Jack and introduces himself as being with NBC News.

"Are you that jackass that's been parked out there all night?" Jack queries playfully.

"No, I'm the jackass that got here this morning," volleys the newsman, Gulstan Dart. "I think we're going to be camped out in front of your store for a while."

Jack turns to his own TV, which is tuned to Channel 10, and declares, "I still ain't got used to Dwight Lauderdale without a mustache." Then he asks the man: "What station are you with again?"

"NBC," Dart says. "Really, it's MSNBC." He pauses, but sensing no recognition from Jack, presses on: "It's a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC." He pauses again; Jack says nothing. "I'm usually an anchor," Dart adds hopefully, "but they sent me down here to cover the storm."

Finally he asks, "Do you get MSNBC down here?"
"Hell, I don't know," Jack retorts, turning again to his TV and the hypnotic enigma of Dwight Lauderdale's upper lip. "He just looks funny."

"Hey, Jack, I seen you on TV last night," says a customer as he walks up to the counter with a six-pack.

"You were on TV?" asks another.
"Yeah, I was the one with the good hair," Jack laughs as he runs his hand over his bald head.

Sure enough, Jack was on TV the night before. A crew from Channel 6 stopped in to elicit his impression of the storm and to interview him about why he was staying open. A shameless flirt, Jack was more than eager to talk to the attractive female reporter.

"He did good on TV," adds Michael Lero, a shrimper who supplies Jack with bait.

Even though the storm isn't hitting South Dade particularly hard, the damage to the Keys troubles Lero. "For the next couple of weeks I'm not going to have any business," he grumbles. "All of us shrimpers who sell shrimp in the Keys are going to be hurting."

Lero is not the only one feeling the storm's bite on this day. About a mile down the road at the Last Chance Saloon, owner Skeeter Dryer nurses a morning Miller and fumes over the fact that the highway patrol decided to set up its roadblock just north of his venerable establishment, thereby preventing anyone from stopping in for a libation. "It's not like we were going to have a hurricane party," Skeeter protests, "but they denied me business all day yesterday."

More important, Skeeter continues, is the fact that he told a number of people they could stay in his bar when Georges struck. "This is a very safe building," he reports. "I'd gone out and bought a lot of food. I have a shower on the premises and a few private rooms. I've got an emergency generator. We were prepared. During Hurricane Andrew we had fifteen people, seven dogs, and a five-day-old baby ride out the storm in here. I take my responsibilities as a barkeep very seriously."

In Skeeter's world, hurricanes aren't things merely to be survived; they must also be experienced. Successfully doing so is a badge of honor. On baseball caps and T-shirts, the bar's name is always coupled with the phrase Riders of the Storm. "That's what we are," he insists.

Skeeter has owned the Last Chance for 23 years. The bar itself dates back to the early Forties. The clientele is mixed -- from locals in a neighboring trailer park to tourists on their way to the Keys to bikers who make the Last Chance a regular stop during weekend runs. Indeed it is bikers who are most identified with the Last Chance these days, but Skeeter says he doesn't believe they had anything to do with the troopers' decision to cut off access to his place during the storm. "They just decided it would be easier to turn people around up there than to the south of me," he says. "I tried to talk to them about it. I walked up there, but they were not in a conversational mood. They were under duress themselves, which I can understand. But what I don't understand is why they couldn't be a little more accommodating."

Besides, Skeeter adds for good measure, there's not a darn thing wrong with bikers. Not long ago about 1000 of them came through his bar during a charity event and there wasn't a hint of trouble. "Put this in the paper," he commands. "A thousand men peed in that bathroom over there and not a single one tossed a cigarette butt into the urinal. They're good men."

By 10:00 a.m. Friday morning the troopers finally agree to move their roadblock south of the Last Chance so people can get to the bar. Customers slowly begin to trickle in and order beers. One of them is from the trailer park next door. He defied mandatory orders to evacuate.

Didn't the police try to force him out? "They never could," he replies. "My guns are bigger than their guns." When he learns he's talking to a reporter, he hastily finishes his beer and leaves.

Derek Hayward, a reporter with Channel 7, stops in to survey the scene, and Skeeter tries to persuade him to do a story about how the troopers blocked off the road the night before. Hayward passes.

The real stories, as everyone knows, are farther south.

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