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From the Desktop: S Is For Sawfish and Shedding

Ham and Swiss, Hold the Mayo

  • January 9, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Our memories are funny things. Let me tell you what I'm reminded of when I eat a ham sandwich:

My grandfather caught a sawfish once. Really. I actually feel sort of bad about it now, since I have read that they are endangered species, particularly in the brackish waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, where the North American species hang out. But my liberal guilt is assuaged somewhat by the fact that if I had been in the boat that day like I was supposed to, I would likely have gotten a pretty nasty scar.

It was the Summer of 1974. Watergate was in full swing, and Richard Nixon was about two months away from resigning. Not that I cared about such things, since I was only seven years old. Watergate only entered my world when the knuckleheads at the networks would pre-empt my Saturday morning cartoons.

During the summer months of my youth, I spent a couple of months every year at my Grandparents' home in Port Charlotte, Florida. Like most homes in that part of the world, it was made out of wood and lots of stucco, with concrete floors. My grandfather, a retired truck driver, worked himself hard even in his retirement, mowing lawns for extra money. But there were three loves in his life that he was passionately devoted to: his wife, his 26 grandchildren, and fishing.

And when you went to Grandma and Grandpa's, you were guaranteed to help mow yards and go fishing with Grandpa.

Fishing with my grandfather was no casual effort. The trip began at 4:30 in the morning, when he would wake me up to start getting me dressed and fed before we would journey out into the dark morning. Grandma always made me wear a sweatshirt when I left, even though I would shed it as soon as the sun rose over the harbor. Still, I would shiver as the old 62 Ford van towed the 12-foot boat behind us, clanking through the pre-dawn streets.

Getting the boat in the water was always the same ritual. Back the trailer into the water, Grandpa cursing once then pulling forward and backing up again to get a better angle. I would then get out and hold the bow line while the crank was turned and the boat eased into the water. I held onto that bow line until Grandpa went and parked the van down the lot somewhere. He had his pick of spots; we were always the first or second out on the water.

Grandpa always drove the boat in the morning, mostly because it was dark and there were things in the water we did not want to hit: markers, buoys, and crab trap floats that would rip your propeller off if you got tangled up in their lines. I hated those, but we never hit one.

There were two places my grandfather liked to fish when I was with him in the summer: an artificial reef out in the middle of Charlotte Harbor, near the mouth of the Myakka River, and right off Hog Island--a sandy little spit of trees whose claim to fame was its use as a hideout by some escaped convicts in the 1960s. We were looking for more benign prey: the speckled trout.

In those days, Grandpa would always have me sit in the center bench of the boat, where he could keep an eye on me. I would not stand; I had to sit, watching my bobber with live shrimp attached for any signs of movement. When I was older, I would stand at the bow and cast lures like Grandpa. In those days, I got up for three reasons: to drive the boat after the sun rose, to get water, and to get rid of water.

And so it went. Until one day my grandmother made a ham for supper, and I proceeded to scarf a lot of it down. I even snuck into the fridge that night and had myself a snack of it, it was so good.

Then it was 4:30, and I was sick as a dog. My grandmother had it pegged as the flu--but I knew what it was. I had the worst case of indigestion on the planet that day. If only we were Jewish and kept kosher. But no, we were not hip to the ways of Abraham and I was paying the price.

I wanted to go out with Grandpa, but no such luck. I was grounded in bed. I fell back asleep, upset.

Later that morning, Grandpa returned much, much earlier than we expected. Normally fishing trips were done around noon. Today it was only 9 o'clock.

It was the sawfish of course that did it. It has struck Grandpa's line off of Hog Island and about pulled him out of the boat, or so he said. He had been sure it was a shark, which we occasionally caught, but was surprised to see the distinct saw-tooth nose of the sawfish broach the surface of the water.

Once he got it into the boat, it thrashed about quite a bit, leaving, I would see later, a huge slash in the vinyl covering the center bench. Grandpa said later that he was glad I wasn't in the boat that day.

The fish was hung up next to the house for the rest of the morning, until Grandpa figured out what to do with it. Eventually, being the pragmatist family we were, we ate the thing. But Grandpa saved the snout, which hung on a wire out on a wall in the carport. That trophy stayed there for years, until my Grandma took it down after Grandpa's death in 1988. She claimed she always hated the damn thing.

So every time I make a ham sandwich, I think of that sawfish, and the crazy summer world it was a part of.

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