Waiting for That One, Perfect Cast: Ted Williams and the Florida Keys

(Counterpunch) As a grade school kid in Providence RI I was a baseball fanatic. I dreamt the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees and practiced my home run swing in my sleep. I memorized statistics and slept with my baseball glove under my pillow with neats foot oil so it would be pliable for tomorrow’s pickup game. I could have been anyone of those kids caught in the camera during the excellent HBO documentary on Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox legend, broadcast this week. Although Williams had already retired from baseball when I became a grade school expert of the game, he still cast a long shadow over Fenway Park– if only for his impossible hitting average. Fast forward a few decades for my Ted Williams story.My dad had a friend from New Hampshire who owned a furniture production company. His name was Bill Levy and he was one of the most prolific fly fishermen of his era. Bill and his wife, Esther, lived on the ocean side of Marathon in the Florida Keys in the winter. By the time my father bought a house on Sister’s Creek in Marathon, in the early 1970’s, Bill had already clocked twenty five years on the flats. He was in his 70’s when I met him: silver-haired, trim, short and hard as a rail.

Bill held numerous world records at the time for the fish he sought: bonefish, permit, and tarpon. All on fly. There were legendary fishing guides in the Keys. I was lucky to fish with some of them. But I never fished with Bill. Bill fished from a canoe, alone, and handled it himself until his late 70s. And even if I could have fished with Bill, I would never have. Bill had a real temper. He was a perfectionist about every single aspect of fishing. In the mid-Keys he had only one peer. Ted Williams.

I was curious about Ted Williams, of course. It was my grade school kid leaking upwards. I only tried once to raise the subject with Bill. He walked by it like roadkill. “Oh don’t ever mention Ted Williams to Bill,” his wife Esther laughed. Esther was a hoot. She was Bill’s match in everything, except fishing. They had a durable, loving and lasting marriage– no children– built around the act of fishing that they never, ever shared together. Esther, when she went fishing, went with “one of her ladies”. And she also had a mouth on her like a Marine.

“That Ted Williams is the nastiest man in the world,” Esther said to me. “He’s a great fisherman,” I replied, baiting the hook. “Oh he fishes with a guide,” she said, waving off the Splendid Splinter. “Bill Levy,” she informed me, “is better fisherman than Ted Williams with his little pinkie,” she said, holding up her finger. She had a deep throated laugh. Bill Levy, it is true, was a legend. He commanded the full respect from the old guard at the Wooden Spoon, where breakfast was served winter mornings before dawn and the whole fraternity was there filling up on bacon, toast and eggs easy over. “Did Bill and Ted ever get into an argument,” I asked Esther.

“Oh,” she answered, “they don’t speak at all,” drawing out the aw-ll into the version of a New Hampshire accent sure as maple sugar. “They used to see each other on the dock at Islamorada.” That’s where Ted had a winter home for many years. “Ted would ask Bill what he caught, and Bill would rattle off one or another world record. And somehow Ted would start swearing like the tail end of a dishwasher, and Bill would start swearing. Oh they had terr-ible arguments every time they met.” She paused and I tried to conjure the image of white haired titans of the flat reaming each other out; the one a prickly self-made man from New Hampshire, as quiet and plain as the sun rising and the other, the greatest hitter who ever lived. “It’s not good for his heart, you know,” Esther said, pointing to her own ticker.

Both Esther and Bill Levy have passed away, more than a decade now. I think about them often. Bill died in his 90’s. When he could no longer fish by canoe, by himself, he gave up the sport for good. I never had a chance to say good-bye to him. Esther died in a nursing home in New Hampshire, Alzheimer’s taking all those memories with her. I called her on the phone. I don’t know that she recognized me, but she asked about my mother and father. I wanted to say how sorry I was about Bill’s passing, but I didn’t.

I wanted to remember the memory of two men, swearing at each other on the dock like there was no tomorrow, over records that have disappeared and fish harder and harder to find because they have been pushed out by pollution. They are ghosts of the plentiful, exhilirating schools that roamed sea grass meadows in the vast open space of Florida Bay, dotted with mangrove islands and caught by reflections of towering thunderheads, waiting for that one, perfect cast.

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