On many occasions, the four decades of episodes that comprise the Beach Boy Chronicles include stories from colorful characters who visit our beach and share their experiences. The following is one of those episodes.
Many islanders will recall the year that Florida was on fire. The dry season was one of the most severe droughts on record and by the middle of May, wildfires were burning in almost every region in Florida. Although there were no blazes on Marco, Goodland, and the Isles of Capri, when the drought was at its worst, the mornings were a constant greeting of smoky outdoor scenes. Before a breeze began, the scent of a thousand campfires gone wrong was a disturbing reminder of how badly our state needed rain. Around the noontime hour, the smoke was so thick anyone could look at the sun and see only a shrouded pink ball, and when late afternoon arrived, the landscaping lights came on because the photoelectric cells that were activated by darkness were triggered by the lack of sunshine.
This was the setting when a friend of the Marco Beach Boys arrived to tell the tale of an Everglades Skunk Ape driven wild by the flames and forced out into the open on the Tamiami Trail. For any who do not know – the Skunk Ape is the Florida peninsula version of the legendary Big Foot, the abominable Yeti, or the mysterious, terrifying, and humanoid Sasquatch. A month prior to the wildfires, the entire peninsula was buzzing with tales of the Florida Skunk Ape, a bigfoot-like creature that smelled like a skunk.
With a very smoky sky and the pink ball of the sun as a background, a six-foot-four Buddy began his story as the Marco Beach crew listened. “None of us have ever seen the hammocks and the everglades burn this bad,” Buddy shook his head, his long hair and bushy beard bristling. “We knew we had to do something to help. There are firebreaks bulldozed out there beside the old Tamiami Trail, but with the wind blowing the sparks and flaming embers across the bulldozed tracks, we knew we needed everyone to help.”
“The job, we found out when we got there, was to ride along on four-wheelers and start backfires,” Buddy explained. “Four of us volunteered, and we each had a four-wheeler, a backfire torch, and plenty of fuel for the torches and the four-runners. We knew we needed to burn the dried-out brush before the fire came to a bulldozed firebreak or the wind would blow the sparks across and start another fire. This, we knew, was going to be a big job with only four of us running up and down the tracks next to highway 41.”
Buddy continued his story. “After a quick lunch, we refueled the torches and the four-runners and went back to work. It was hot, smoky work and we all were getting a powerful thirst. At times, the smoke was so bad we lost track of each other and only met up when we needed more beer. When the sun started down, we were still working and well into a couple of cases of beer. After the sun finally set, the glow from the fires was backlighting highway 41 and with all the soot and smoke, the job got even thirstier. The last thing I remember before I woke up was when I started to make a turn on those slippery gravels at the edge of the highway. I must have flipped that souped-up four-wheeler and rolled down into the ditch.”
“I don’t know how long I was out,” Buddy said, “but when I woke up, I was at the edge of the ditch beside the road, and there was this little dog that had raised his leg and was relieving himself right onto my soot-stained face and beard. Of course, I had been drinking all day, and hollering out to my backfire burning buddies, and we had all stripped down to cut off jeans, so when I came up out of that swampy ditch screaming at that little dog, the little old man that was holding the dog’s leash just about jumped out of his skin. He flew back and grabbed his dog, and when he bent down to get the dog, I screamed again, and he tripped something terrible as he was running back to his pulled over car. This was when he fell and lost his toupee.”
Buddy went on with his story. “Imagine. There we were in the streaming smoke and the glow from the fires. Me standing there screaming because I was so hoarse from yelling and directing backfires, I could not do anything but scream. Then I was climbing up out of that ditch with those fires burning behind me to face that little old man with his dog who had to stop to pee. Of course, he could not know what he was really seeing because the soot covering my hair, beard, and body. With all of the swampy green stuff clinging everywhere I must have looked and sounded like the Swamp Thing.”
The next thing I remember, because my head was swimming from the bump on the head and all the beer, and the smoke was still everywhere, was that bald little man holding his dog and running for his car. His was letting out this most awful wailing noise that almost matched the little dogs howling, and when he finally made it to the car and turned on his headlights, all he could see of me was his toupee in my soot-blackened hand. With the wildfire flames behind me, and with my wild hair and bearded face reaching out and trying to communicate, that little old man just about went to pieces. He did not seem to want his toupee anymore, and when he jumped into his car and hit the gas, it was almost like he was trying to run me over.” Buddy said. “That big Cadillac swung over toward me so much I had to dive for the ditch, and when he was past and heading down 41 in the same direction that he had come, his back tires sprayed loose gravel all over my bare legs, chest, and face. By the time I found the four-wheeler, got it started and headed back to find the other boys and the trucks, the little bald man with his dog had called the sheriff’s office and reported that he was attacked by a wild and bloodcurdling Skunk Ape. A vicious creature that had obviously been driven out of the Everglades by the worst Florida wildfires in fifty years.”
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder – the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.