At the tail end of the sixties we were kids—growing up on boats sandwiched between Miami’s Coconut Grove—hippie central—and Biscayne Bay. Our gang of dock rats added and subtracted kids with the fluctuation of the Dinner Key Marina census and sundry petty feuds, but our core was always the Fettermans and the Canfields.
My brother and I lived on a yawl, one slip down Pier 1 from the Canfield’s houseboat for over two years. We Fettermans—I was ten and R.J., three, when we moved aboard—bookended the Canfield kids, Kate, seven; Matt, five; and Scottie, four.
We had a vague sense that hippies were slackers who loved hallucinogenic drugs, Jimmi Hendrix, and sex—whatever that was. They hated police, and the Vietnam War.
But we were oblivious that our parents were only a few baths, haircuts, and pay checks shy of hippiedom themselves. Mooring on Pier 1 wasn’t a huge leap from communal living. Only when we kids hit midlife did one of the parents let slip that weed had been a Pier 1 staple.
Our folks fed, housed, clothed us, took us to the dentist, loved us with varying degrees of success, and turned us loose in the marina. That’s what we cared about.
Scottie, already conversant in dock etiquette, caught the line R.J. tossed him off our bow the day we first motored into our Pier 1 slip. The two seldom separated after that, whether shimmying up our mast or hanging over the side of the dock trying to snag seaweed out of the bay with sticks.
But usually, we traveled in a pack, Kate our leader. She always thought up the best ideas, and she’d been dealt a double dose of bossy.
Kate slated Hide and Seek on today’s playlist.
Thanks to low tide, Matt clung to the back side of the ladder on the tee (a short cross-bar dock hatting Pier 1). Only his fingers showed.
Scottie and R.J. took ten minutes to find him.
I hid inside the Canfield’s houseboat under the built-in end table where one or the other of their English bulldogs usually hung out.
Fifteen minutes later claustrophobia chased me out to the dock.
Kate, Matt, Scottie, and R.J. lay nose to nose on their stomachs, bodies fanned around the phone booth. Their cheeks bulged with great wads of Double Bubble.
I asked for a piece, but Matt patted his empty pocket and shrugged. I guess that’s what I got for winning Hide and Seek.
I eyed them, listening to their noisy chewing. My mouth watered. I could smell and almost taste the rubbery pinkness of the gum.
Scottie spit out his gum and affixed it to a thin stick he inserted between the boards beneath the telephone booth. He mashed his gum against a dime some caller had dropped.
I pushed in closer. We hadn’t fished for dimes in a couple of weeks. “How many are there?”
Scottie bit his lip and held his breath, intent on his task.
Kate shot me a glare to be quiet and turned back to watch his progress.
Fifteen minutes later all three boys were ten cents richer.
Matt pocketed his dime with the reverence due his fortune and told us he was going to fish off the tee.
Great. Kate and I took turns rolling our eyes. Matt would fish all day if we let him. But five minutes later we baited our hooks with bologna and held our green fishing lines in one hand, the flat plastic spools in the other. We kicked our feet back and forth under the dock.
Scottie and R.J. zig-zagged down the pier, hopping from dock box to sun heated boards to dock box to keep from burning the bottoms of their feet.
A blowfish nibbled at Kate’s hook and she jerked her line, snagging the fish’s lip.
The fish inflated into a mini balloon as it swam furiously around its tether.
Kate hoisted the fish onto the dock.
I rubbed its bumpy belly, almost the size of a tennis ball now.
Kate grabbed hold of the fish and told me to get the hook out—probably because it was my dad who taught the five of us to clean fish by gripping two fingers into the eye sockets.
Once I freed the fish, she tossed it back into the water.
We leaned over the edge of the dock and watched the fish shrink as it swam crazily away, an underwater runaway balloon.
All we ever caught were blowfish, and they were too little to eat. Matt seemed to pull ten Snapper, Sailor’s Choice, or Grouper from the bay to every one of our blowfish. But I didn’t care. I was sick of eating fish anyway. And cleaning fish came under “skills I wish I never knew.”
By the time the blowfish disappeared Kate and I were over fishing.
“Let’s go borrow Uncle Joe’s parachute,” Kate announced.
Matt’s head popped up where he sat ten feet away on the tee. He reeled in his line, stowed his pole and tackle, and headed for Pier 4 with us.
We hollered the plan to Scottie and R.J. who were rolling down the grassy hill beside City Hall.
Kate, Matt, and I returned to the City Hall lawn single file, lugging twenty-five pounds of messily folded parachute.
Nikki and Pierre, our second-string friends because they didn’t live on Pier 1, and three other kids traipsed along beside us.
Matt licked his finger and held it up to check the breeze.
Kate sat us on all the edges except the direction the wind came from—something we’d learned by trial and error another day.
The parachute inflated into an orange dome.
A collective awe caught our words in our throats. Then every kid yelled the name of a different game.
Nicki and Pier sided with Scottie and R.J. and out-shouted the rest of us for Steal the Bacon.
Several games later, the rules degenerated into taking turns doing cartwheels and somersaults under the dome.
We foisted the parachute into Nicki and Pier’s arms to haul back to Pier 4 and made our getaway.
All five of us made fast getaways into life, eager to exit our parents’ rocky marriages, their addictions. Kate and R.J. moved in with far-flung relatives before they finished high school. Scottie did time in a Baptist boarding school. Matt, and I jumped ship at graduation. We ran to the military, religion, and substances. But one thing in the divots and canyons of our childhoods would always be golden—the boat years.