“Now, the Everglades is….is…a tourist attraction. Back then, when I was growing up, it was fun. It was wild. It won’t nothing like what you see now.”
I’m talking to the weekend gator show guy at Corey Billie’s, or, he’s talking to me and I’m listening. He arrived in the passenger’s seat of Corey’s truck a few weeks ago. He’s missing most of his teeth and has thick, flowing yellow-white hair, and he’s somehow related to Leebo, one of the airboat captains, and he’s also somehow related to just about every native of Everglades City. According to this new person–and I mean new to me; this old boy’s been in the Everglades all his life though now he lives out in Bonita Springs–there are two main families in the Everglades, and so everybody Out There is either born into them or married into them. He was born into them both. I’ll call him Jesse although that’s nowhere close to his real name because what I’m about to tell you is private, even though he seems like the kind of fellow who doesn’t have any secrets, but I don’t have his permission, so there you have it.
Here’s the deal about the Everglades: for a long, long, time, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it. It’s a massive, swampy, slow-moving, shallow, entangling, reptile-infested, mosquito-laden river that used to cover the whole bottom 1/3 of Florida. The Seminole Indians were forced into it and managed to decode its secrets so that they could live there and partake of the natural abundance of the place. Many indigenous people before them had managed to do the same thing. But white folk? Not so much. It scared the crap out of most people, and the soldiers of the 1800s in the Seminole Wars agreed that they would prefer to be stationed in Hell rather than south Florida.
So it comes as no surprise that the people, the white people, who began moving to the Everglades were a special sort. Many of them were on the lam, they were outlaws, they were lunatic adventurers, they were escaping the meddling nature of the federal government, they were ruffians and roughnecks, scrappy survivors, and pioneers of a place considered “God-forsaken” and “worthless.” These people loved the Everglades, and it loved them back. They were their own law, their own government, their own chamber of commerce, and their own neighborhood watch communities, for better or for worse. From what I have read and from the stories I hear, the Everglades used to be a relatively safe, self-regulating frontier made of good, country people who mostly lived off the land until netting bans and federal regulations killed the fishing industry. The folks I’ve met in the Everglades–descendants of the people I’m telling you about–have no love for the Federal government, aren’t shy about their opinions therewith, and are exactly the folks I’m running to if this whole Mayan thing goes down and we end up in an Apocalypse.
The people in the Everglades, because of necessity and the thinking of the place, are poachers, bootleggers, rum runners, and, well, drug smugglers.
It’s this last bit that I want to talk about tonight because it’s an unbelievable story–one that I knew about but didn’t really believe until I was propped up on the fence at Corey Billie’s listening to Jesse and watching a wild baby gator practicing his hunting skills on black grasshoppers.
Now, let me make it plain that not ALL the people of the Everglades are outlaws. It is the ethos of that frontier, the way it was in the Wild West although the Everglades was more of a place people went to be left alone than it was to get rich or famous. That’s my disclaimer because the people I know in the Everglades are big-hearted, hilarious, and loving although I wouldn’t damn double cross any of them for a million dollars.
Here’s what happened: in the 70s, Columbian drug lords found Everglades City, a teeny outpost surrounded by the labyrinth of the Ten Thousand Islands keys, and it was full of men who were running out of money when the fishing went bad. These men knew the Gulf of Mexico, and they certainly knew the ins and outs of the Ten Thousand Islands because they’d been hunting and fishing them since they were little boys. In time, these little boys–who were, by the early 80s, men ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s–were running one of the largest marijuana drug smuggling rings in American history. It was a perfect location, and a lot of people were in on it. The people who weren’t in on it knew about it–how else do you explain the new cigarette speed boats and $100 bills crossing the bar?
In July 1983, when Reagan’s War on Drugs was picking up steam, the Feds swooped on Everglades City and seized 500,000 lbs of marijuana and $5 million in assets.
By 1984, after another successful raid by the DEA, 80% of the men in Everglades City had been arrested.
Jesse was one of those.
He ran, though, and was finally caught in Georgia (seems like everyone gets caught in Georgia). “I’s ready to give up, hell,” he said. “They’d chased me all through Nevada and Texas. I was alright giving up. I just didn’t think they’s gone give me that much time for trading marijuana. It’s not like hard drugs.”
He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail. He served 40 months and got out on good behavior. He lost everything.
“When I got back everything had changed,” he said. Others had gone to prison, and many for a long time. It’s a terrible moment of Everglades City history, and one I’d told to tourists in my van as we drove to lunch, but it wasn’t until I was looking at Jesse in the eye as he was talking about serving time did I fully comprehend the reality of the story. It’s a sensitive topic, so I’d never brought it up with anyone from there before, and yet here the story had come to me: had more or less fallen in my lap.
“Well hell,” Jesse said, closing the conversation, “you can’t regret nothing or your life goes to shit. We had fun partying and it was a hoot having all that money for a little while, but I was born with nothing.” He tapped his palm on the railing of the fence and watched the little gator lunging, missing, lunging again for minnows. “I reckon I’m on die with nothing. Ain’t no big deal.”
They called it the Square Grouper fishery because of the bales trafficked on the boats. The guys who made the movie Cocaine Cowboys have created a documentary about the smuggling, called Square Grouper. It’s slated to be released next month, and you should check it out. Here you go:
Watch this clip then go see the film, y’all. http://www.squaregroupermovie.com/
I get Jesse. The Everglades is more of a tourist attraction now than it was when he was growing up. I’m getting older, and I’ve just about lost all the places I knew when I was a child. It’s hard, seeing our perception of the world as it was when we were formed in it disappear. To my eyes, the Everglades is still mighty wild and beautiful and isolated. There is still a lot of fun to be had although they’re right–the government influences are everywhere, and that, too, is a sensitive issue Out There. I’ve already told you how they feel about The Government. Now there is a ton of regulation and watchdog groups, and while I understand the necessity of protecting our wild places and creatures, I feel for the people of the Everglades. I feel for Jesse.
But he’s a convicted felon. He trafficked drugs.
Eh, I don’t know. That kind of information would have meant something else to me at other points in my life. I’m losing so much of what I learned to believe in, so much of what I learned about “good” people and “bad” people, and where I fit in there. I thought I was good, but I’ve done a lot of bad stuff, and then I had to get sober and all I thought about myself by then was that I was rotten to the core.
I know now that’s not true. I know that I’m a mixed bag of being consistently inconsistent, and as I’ve trawled along through life I’ve picked up some real gems and I’ve gathered a bunch of garbage, too, all of it I’ve put in my mind and it’s seeped somehow into my body. Most of my early work in spiritual practice is learning to differentiate between what is helpful and unhelpful in my mind. That’s hard: getting still and quiet enough to be able to examine the machine of the mind, what it is manufacturing that is positive and negative. And that the negative stuff–the judgments of myself and others, the nasty way I critique my actions and my body and my face, the pity I pour into myself for the way my life didn’t work out like so-and-so’s, that it didn’t work out like my mother wanted it to, that it didn’t work out in the way that the people in my senior class expected when they voted me Most Likely to Succeed….well, that negative stuff is the crap I’ve been dragging around with me in my net for thirty some years, and I want it gone.
You know, for a long time I treated my life like a tourist attraction instead of playing in it like a wild space, like a place I loved to be in. In many ways, my life was no more “real” to me than the story of the Square Grouper Fishery, and then something collided into me (literally, it was a Chevy Surburban; see my first blog post) and everything became real, became mine. Like when Jesse collided into my life and stood in front of me, a man who had been in the traffic, had gotten busted, had served time. And there he is, 60 years old, doing the gator show on the weekend at Corey Billie’s and he doesn’t care. It’s just what’s happening now.
Like Jesse says, you can’t regret anything. Or your life goes to shit. So, what do I do now, beloveds? Empty the net, I suppose. I’ve done this before, but not this in depth before, not with this level of willingness to dispense with my vanity. I know that’s where I am now, at the emptying-of-the-net. I will have to go through my body image ideas, my thinking about my looks and aging, my concepts of success and living a successful life, and, oh God how I hate to own up to this: my ideas about men, safety, sex, and marriage.
nighty night, beloveds. sleep in peace.