Bill E. Branscum ©2003
(Click Pics to Enlarge)
Once in a while, life can throw
you a really peculiar curve ball. Sometimes you find yourself
being a spectator in your own life, where all you can do
is watch and ride along. I found myself in that position
on November 28, 1991.
I was employed as a federal agent at the time; I was a
Special Agent, US Department of the Treasury here in Naples,
and a friend of mine, Greg Goff, was a Special Agent in
the local FBI office. Greg and his family were from Escatawpa,
Mississipi, and he and his family are very close.
Greg was looking forward to a visit from his parents, Elsie
and Aubrey Goff, who were coming to Naples for Thanksgiving.
Greg told me that Aubrey, who was about 70, had been having
some serious heart problems, and they had nearly lost him.
Being able to spend Thanksgiving with his father was important
to them all.
At the time, I was one of the few agents here who owned
a boat, and Greg casually mentioned that he would appreciate
it if I would make time to take his father, Aubrey for a
boat ride. Of course, I said I'd be happy to take him out
- after all, what's the big deal of taking somebody's father
for a spin around the bay?
||My 21' Paramount was a pretty thing, I designed
the T-Top and spec'd her out myself. In those days, marine
drug interdiction was a big part of what we did, and I loved
working on the water. Fast, smooth, dry and maneuverable,
my little boat would outrun anything we had.
Don't get me wrong - I know what a real first rate boat
is. I was assigned to drug interdiction operations on this
39' Aronow Cat for years, and I know what kind of boats
Grady, Pursuit, Mako and Blackfin build. As far as that
goes, I have lain awake nights, lusting after that 31' fisherman's
dream machine that Reggie Fountain makes.
Like I said, I know what a first rate boat
is, but I also know what they cost to buy, operate and maintain.
If someone had given me that 31' Fountain, I could not have
afforded the fuel and insurance bills.
I bought this 21' Paramount, "Black Max" motor,
double axle aluminum trailer, T-Top and electronics for
about what the motors on that Fountain would have cost.
A poor man's Midnight Express, it was a sweet ride; in
a light chop, I could have outrun that Fountain too!
I guess my point is, my boat
wasn't the best boat on the market, but it was an uncommonly
well designed hull, fast and fuel efficient. I was proud
of it, and we used that boat like a boat was meant to be
used, sometimes traveling as far as a hundred miles one
way. I was happy to be able to take someone out for a ride
who seemed likely to enjoy it.
Aubrey and Elsie Goff arrived in Naples several days before
Thanksgiving - I know that because he called me just as
soon as he got here. There was no doubt about it, he was
enthusiastic about going out on the boat, and he asked if
I thought it was possible that we might do a little offshore
Aubrey Goff was an early riser - I know that because he
called me the first thing the next morning, although I generally
don't consider it to be morning before the sun is up. He
allowed that the weather wasn't all it could be, but he
was willing to go if I was.
Well, I wasn't - the weather was about two notches shy
of a hurricane.
Aubrey Goff was a consistently early riser - I know that
because . . . well, I'm thinking you know why. That man
called me every morning to see if I'd be willing to brave
the weather, every afternoon to see if I'd changed my mind
and every evening to see what I thought was going to happen
the next day.
I suppose I ought not make it sound that way, because it
wasn't as if he was being pushy, inconsiderate or demanding.
He was just overwhelmed with enthusiasm, and although he
asked me every morning if it was too early to call, I never
admitted that I had been asleep.
Unfortunately the weather did not get any better, and Thanksgiving
was upon us with a with particularly poor weather forecast.
Although I still hadn't actually met him, I was getting
to know Aubrey Goff pretty well, and I could feel the depth
of his disappointment. Since it was going to be his last
day in Naples, I promised to take him for a ride Thanksgiving
morning, and I committed to do it no matter what the weather
When Aubrey called, it was a truly ugly Thursday. I could
tell that it was a bad day for boating even though it was
still dark - the wind howling outside was a clue. Aubrey
acknowledged the miserable weather, sounding like an exceptionally
polite child agreeing that it would be OK to skip Christmas,
but I had promised to go, and I wanted to meet the man who'd
been calling me every day.
I told him I'd pick up the boat and come collect him with
it on the trailer.
When I got to Greg's neighborhood, it was obvious
where I was going - one very large Aubrey Goff was waiting
for me out in the street. The way the weather was, I wasn't
a bit sure we wouldn't wind up in Kansas, but we launched
the boat at the public boat ramp by the time the sun came
When I pulled the boat around to the dock so Aubrey could
board her, I realized how big a man he actually was. His
reached out a hand that looked like a weathered catcher's
mitt, and I noted that it was attached to a wrist that would
have made a pretty fair ankle. Grabbing the T-Top, he pulled
the boat to him like it was a child's toy.
I grew up on a Naval Base in Cuba called Guantanamo Bay
where the water was our primary source of recreation. I
don't know whether it was that, or being the son of a naval
officer, or the years I'd spent in marine law enforcement,
but I kept my boat immaculate. It was a good thing.
It was immediately obvious that Aubrey Goff knew his way
around boats. He inspected the boat without appearing to,
and probably without intending to. He knew what my EPIRB
was, and he knew that there was no regulation requiring
that I have it.
I think he figured that his Rastafarian looking boat captain
might know stem from stern after all.
A more unlikely looking pair
never sailed. Aubrey looked like a southern Sheriff who
belonged in Floyd's barber chair, and I looked like I'd
never seen one.
We could have made a Smokey & the Bandit movie, except
that Burt Reynolds never in his life looked as scruffy as
A nicer day, but the same 'ole me
We cruised the inland waterway from Naples
to Marco Island, and then I took him back around by Goodland.
By the time I brought Aubrey back to Naples, we had been
out several hours. I made the turn to Gordon's Pass just
to show him that the seas were much too rough to venture
That was my poor judgment.
"Hurricane Harry" didn't care about wind, waves
or his heart condition. He'd come to fish offshore, and
now I'd gone and showed him the way to get there. He looked
like he'd swim if I didn't take him, so there was nothing
to do but trim the bow down and ease outward.
The people in that sport fish must have thought I'd lost
|Although theParamount has a flat pad step, the
boat is a fairly "deep V" with hard chines. With
the bow trimmed down a little, you can use the sharpest aspect
of that angle to plow thru swells and she runs dry, even when
the sea conditions are beyond lousy.
I hadn't actually expected to
fish, but I had brought along a box of squid so I took Aubrey
a couple of miles offshore to the place where the county
had dumped some old airplanes to create an artificial reef.
With the seas the way they were, there was not going to
be any "anchor and drift back," so I used a grapnel
hook to stern anchor into the structure.
Ordinarily that's a good way to lose an anchor, and when
the seas are up, it's a good way to lose your boat. Even
with a closed transom, a boat with the stern tied down can
take on water when it's rough, and you best be prepared
to cut loose the instant a wave breaks over the transom.
The hull can't self-bail when the boat's anchored with the
scuppers below the waterline.
It was a wonder to watch Aubrey fish. I'm satisfied that
nobody ever mistook the man for a ballet dancer, and there
probably was never anything graceful about him, but Aubrey
got around on that rolling, pitching deck like it was his
living room floor. The man was so comfortable, you'd have
thought it was a dead calm August morning. I could see that
this wasn't something Aubrey had been dying to do - it was
something he had been dying to do again.
We talked a little while he fished, and I told him about
some of my experiences working on the water. For one thing,
I told him how it always amused me to hear some of the guys
I worked with complain about that. I could just imagine
the letters to the folks back home:
Dear Mom and Dad,
The government has sent me to Florida, issued
me a quarter million dollar boat that'll make about sixty
miles an hour at a cost of about seventy (yes 70) gallons
of fuel (per hour). In the daytime, sometimes I cruise
by the beaches, and on calm nights, sometimes I sit and
fish while I wait for BLOC to vector me to an intercept.
The government spends a fortune on gas and maintenance
but I have to rinse the salt off it when I'm done. I am
soooooooo miserable down here.
I supposed there was always going to be those who'd find
Heaven to be insufferable, and Aubrey observed that you
couldn't expect much else from college boys who'd never
had a real job.
Aubrey told me he could remember being a young boy during
the Great Depression, and the impact that it had on his
life. Mostly, Aubrey just sat quietly and fished.
Aubrey asked me how I felt about the drug business and
what I thought about this, "drug war." At the
time, everyone talked about the "War on Drugs,"
and Miami Vice was the most popular show on TV.
I told him the story about chasing down a loaded drug
boat one night off Lostman's River, and how they ran it
aground trying to get away.
I was stuck on that boat with Al Hollingsworth for days
- just he and I and a fortune in drugs.
We had guns, ammunition and my ever-present
camera. I commented that my camera was a vintage Canon FTb
that belonged to my brother, Barton, and my handgun was
a Colt Officer's model that my brother had given me when
I graduated from the federal academy.
What we didn't have was anything to eat,
and "Big Al" was all sorts of impressed at my
"Islander ingenuity," when I hopped over the side
and dug us up a big bucket of clams. When I started shucking
them with my knife and eating them on the bow, Al chose
not to join me - while he was taking the pictures, he kept
saying, "I can't believe you are eating that stuff
"Well, Bill's gonna eat - if there's anything
to eat; you just count your blessings that I was able to
find these clams, Al." Aubrey found that to be
On the subject of amusing, I told him about
the ironies of the drug game - imagine intercepting a drug
loaded boat named the "Why Me."
That offload boat was not the only boat we caught that night
- the other boat was named the, "Risky
Ron and Jerry appreciated humor.
||Aubrey asked me why I always carried a camera, even on a
day as miserable as ours. I told him about sunsets I'd seen,
about the picture I took of a Coast Guard 41 footer that we
loaded with dope in the face of an oncoming storm, and a parking
lot we filled with the most neatly baled marijuana that any
of us ever saw.
To me, seeing an incredible
sight with no camera, was like being told a hilarious joke
that you'd never be able to share with anyone. Having a
young son that I loved beyond words, I wanted to be able
to share my life with him one day, so I always took pictures
of everything I could.
Curiously, the wind died down by late afternoon and the
sea had calmed remarkably. Aubrey wanted to know if I ever
took my boat offshore. I told him about about motoring up
to the distant wreck of the California one evening, and
having a charter boat Captain hail me on VHF saying, "Are
you guys on that motorized surfboard coming in from the
west." "Well Captain,"
I replied, "I'd say that sun setting behind
me is a clue."
Aubrey asked if I knew of any really good places to
fish offshore. I told him about several rocks, reefs, ledges
and wrecks within a few minutes of where we were, but he
really wanted to be offshore - way offshore.
So, I told him about the Horseshoe Ledge 19 miles out,
and catching the biggest lobster there that I, or anyone
I knew, had ever seen. I suggested that a trip like that
might be too much this soon after his heart problems.
In a matter-of-fact way, Aubrey said that it very well
might, and just as casually asked how I was going to retrieve
I wasn't sure what to say, so I put on SCUBA
gear, flopped over the side and followed the line down to
free my grapnel hook. We were only in about twenty feet
of water, and it shouldn't have taken five minutes, but
I took the opportunity to think things over and sat down
there for a bit.
Ultimately, I resolved that a seventy year-old man ought
to be entitled to do as he pleased, and carried my grapnel
hook back up to the boat. Aubrey was looking at me a little
strangely when he asked what we were going to do, and I
think he knew what I'd been thinking. "Well
Aubrey, with a compass a LORAN and the sun to guide you,
do you reckon you could find your way west?"
Like most boat captains, I don't make it a practice
to leave the operation of my boat to others, but I had a
feeling that I should turn things over to him. Like most
people who have spent time on other people's boats, Aubrey
knew how folks feel about that. I will say that he obviously
appreciated it, and it soon became clear that he knew what
he was doing.
He trimmed the motor down, eased her up on step, and trimmed
her out to run as smoothly as I could have done it myself.
If we had the fuel to get there, I believe that Aubrey would
have been all for buying our next tank of gas in Mexico.
Truthfully, watching how much he was enjoying it, and knowing
how much trouble we were going to be in for coming home
late on Thanksgiving Day, I don't know that I'd have objected.
It was still pretty choppy, so the trip took longer than
it otherwise would have, but after about thirty minutes,
we were in seventy feet of water, and marking the Horseshoe
Ledge. I put on a tank and dropped over the side with a
conventional anchor and set it in a crack in a ledge.
I hadn't been down fifteen minutes, but when I climbed
aboard the boat, the light wind that had accompanied us
out there was gone entirely. It was eerie for the weather
to die down like that.
||The sea flattened out with hardly a ripple as
if God waived a hand over it and Aubrey's pole dipped toward
the bottom. I don't recall which fish were caught in what
order, but over the next couple of hours, Aubrey caught a
fish locker full of "keepers" and a dozen or so
a little smaller.
The fishing didn't let up, and Aubrey didn't
run out of bait, he just stowed his pole neatly and quit.
I thought perhaps he had overdone it, but he looked perfectly
comfortable as he sat back in the port-side chair, put his
feet on the gunnel and looked out over the water.
I have to tell you, that the
picture of that sky is like a low resolution rendering of
an artist's masterpiece - it does it no justice at all.
I watched Aubrey as he sat in that pedestal chair, watching
the sun go down in a sunset that was truly breathtaking.
It sounds a little overly dramatic, but I felt like I was
watching mother nature put on a show for him. How else was
I to account for the fact that I was looking at the most
beautiful sunset of my life, while accompanied by the person
who would most enjoy it?
Aubrey sat there quietly for a long time and then finally
talked a little, mostly to himself, about a friend he'd
had in Texas, and how much he wished he could be there to
see the sun go down with us. I don't know who he was talking
about; I just listened, because it didn't seem like the
time to ask
He began talking about his life, and it wasn't what most
folks would call a scintillating tale of drama and intrigue
- there were no tales of high adventure, reckless courage,
or feats of derring do.
Aubrey said he had been a chef and he made it sound like
he was a good one. He talked a little bit about his father,
who taught him to be a butcher, and was almost apologetic
when he told me that he had joined the military, and they
made him a cook. Aubrey liked to cook for people, and it
seemed like the most adventurous thing he ever did was help
a friend who owned a commercial boat.
I suppose that's where he fell in love with the sea.
He talked about religion and, understandably I suppose,
it seemed to be much on his mind. With conviction, he said
he was proud to have been a member of the Methodist Church.
I didn't know then, and I don't know now, what it is that
makes the Methodists different, but I suppose he knew, and
it was the kind of moment where a man might want to share
something like that.
Most of all, Aubrey talked about his family, and it was
completely clear that "family" was what
Aubrey Goff's life had actually been about. He was teary
eyed when he talked of Else, and about the wonderous privilege
it was for him to share her life for forty years. I remember
mumbling that forty years was longer than I had been alive.
He spoke with reverence about his wife, and with love about
the children - their children and hers. Evidently, his wife
had been previously married, and he reluctantly acknowledged
that some of the children were hers, as if he didn't quite
feel comfortable claiming more credit than he might be entitled
His modesty notwithstanding, I felt sure that he'd been
a good father to the children, to the extent that any man
could be. Aubrey was a quiet, sincere sort of a man, and
there was no mistaking the depth of his emotion.
As we watched the sun slip over the horizon,
he talked on through the twilight about his life, and love
and dreams. For a man that seemd to be so quiet, he had
a lot to say - he was endlessly proud that his children
and grandchildren had all "turned out."
Aubrey seemed to have very few disappointments, and if
he had any regrets he didn't mention them. It seems peculiar
now to have shared such an intimate time with a total stranger,
but at the time, it didn't seem the least bit odd at all.
When I finally got home it was late. I told my family a
little bit about my day, how sorry I was to have spent Thanksgiving
without them, but how important I felt that it was that
I had been able to be there for him.
At the time, I thought fate had brought us together, so
I could share something with Aubrey Goff; I had no idea
that he had just spent the last Thanksgiving of his life,
preparing me for the hard decisions that were to come in
I hope to see Aubrey again one day. This time, I don't
want to talk about work, guns, high speed chases or drug
busts. I'd like to tell him about what it was to be a single
dad, and that I have cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my children
every year since our fishing trip.
||I'd like to tell him about watching my son Dook catch a
pass, and yelling myself hoarse as he ran it all the way for
a touchdown - something I never did in my life. I know he'd
love to hear about my Meggie dragging a bass into the shallows,
and jumping in after it and I'd enjoy sharing the story about
my "Perfect Day" with Ryan.
I especially want to tell him about my oldest son, the
little guy we talked so much about. I want to tell him about
how really hard, "hard times" can be for a young
boy, the frustration of seeing a child hurt in places where
he shouldn't have places, and tell him what a help that
boy was to me thru all those difficult times.
I want to tell him about watching him grow up, and laugh
with him about things he once said, that it took me so long
to understand. I want to talk to him about my dreams, fears
and the difficulty of "letting go," and tell him
how proud I am that he "turned out."
I won't talk about regrets or
disappointments - time is much too precious for that. I
will share irony with him though.
What could be more ironic than to go from believing that
no woman would want a relationship with a man raising four
children, to complete conviction that a beautiful young
woman has married you for your kids?
I'd tell him about Luz, the light of our lives, a young
lady who has added so much to our family. Perhaps he could
tell me how to cherish, protect and preserve that for forty
You see, it wasn't that Aubrey lived seventy years without
ever doing anything dashing, or daring, and it wasn't that
he led an empty life devoid of excitement, drama, and intrigue.
That wasn't it at all. As he watched the sun set over the
sea for the last time, Aubrey J. Goff told me what was really
important in this life.
Mostly, I'd just like to thank him for that.
That was Aubrey
Goff's last Thanksgiving,
and it was the last time that he was ever out on the water.
To all who'd listen, he repeated the story about this
when wind and waves mysteriously subsided as if by magic.
Aubrey always wanted
a boat, so Else bought him one,
When he died six
months later, he had never used it.
I believe that I understand why.