ST. PETE BEACH
Conrad Yankee was an old salt, one of those fishing fools who are so common on the west Florida waterfront, grizzled guys with scales in their hair and stinking guts under their fingernails.
He fished every day when he could, usually from the Miss Pass-a-Grille, a party boat that departed every morning from the island's Merry Pier. He had a favorite place to stand, had a favorite fishing rod, had a favorite bait.
He was generous with his tackle, with his beer and especially with his advice. "Don't cast over my line,'' he'd bark at his best friend, Catherine Dow, who would bark right back.
"Captain,'' he'd call to the guy behind the wheel, Mike Gunther, "when are you going to put us onto some real fish? Isn't that your job?''
Sometimes Gunther and Dow got so irritated they wanted to toss Conrad overboard. But even when they wanted to kill him they loved him.
He died in 2004. Bleeding in the brain. He was 76. Friends and family scattered his ashes in Conrad's favorite fishing hole, the Gulf of Mexico.
Ex-wife Mary Susie Yankee ordered a bench built in his honor, complete with a plaque featuring Conrad's name.
The Rolls-Royce of benches cost $1,500 and was constructed from recycled plastic. The green bench was 6 feet wide and 3 feet high and weighed 185 pounds. Moving it required two or three burly fishermen, a lot of grunting and the usual hair-raising foul language.
They put the Conrad Yankee Memorial Bench next to the jetty at Pass-a-Grille. They aimed the bench at the gulf, where Conrad had spent so many hours of his life thinking about fish, talking about fish and, when he was lucky, catching them.
Friends and family enjoyed sitting on the Conrad Yankee Memorial Bench during visits to the jetty. They could talk to him and finally have the last word.
Last August, when the bench disappeared from the jetty, friends and family were mystified. But even more they were distraught.
Now Conrad really was gone.
The missing bench especially bothered Catherine Dow, his 78-year-old friend and teasing adversary.
"Did a wave wash it off the jetty?'' she asked friends.
Unlikely. St. Pete Beach experienced no major storms that summer.
"Drunken kids? Maybe they pushed it off the jetty.''
That made more sense, provided the kids had eaten their Wheaties. She looked into the dark green water next to the jetty. Maybe the bench lay on the bottom among the rocks and sand and toadfish. She wasn't about to dive in and find out. She tried to put the bench out of her mind.
But how could she forget Conrad, whom she had met on the stern of a fishing boat in 1985? Anglers are territorial and superstitious; she and Conrad wanted to occupy the same prime fishing spot near the stern. She won. Grumbling, the tall man with black hair camped next to her and offered unwanted advice. So went their chess game for the next two decades.
Sometimes he irked her, sometimes he made her laugh. They were like the competitive couple in one of those madcap Tracy-Hepburn movies, but without the romance. He was married. She valued her independence. Even if he'd been free, even if he had courted her, she would have turned him down.
"I would have killed him with a frying pan after two days if we'd been married,'' she liked to joke.
• • •
Tourists who sat on the bench at the jetty might have wondered: "Who was Conrad Yankee, and what did he do to merit a memorial bench? Was he in Scarface with Al Pacino?''
No, he was a guy who loved fishing. He was born into a Catholic Connecticut family in 1929. In the Yankee clan, man and boy were expected to catch something for the meatless Friday supper, namely fish. For a while, Conrad attended seminary, destined to become the priest in the family. But he was too much the charmer and there were girls. Sometimes he even persuaded his little sister, Flo, to iron his shirts before he went out on the town. Eventually he married a recent high school graduate, Barbara. They had six children in their three decades together.
He supported his family by inventing things. His golf course rake is still working in the 21st century. So is a squeegee used to remove water from athletic fields. He came up with technology to generate steam for electric train locomotives. He patented a design for making modern beer cans.
When he wasn't inventing, he was fishing. Or watching James Bond movies on television. Or reading Tolkien novels. Or growing zucchini, squash and tomatoes in the rich soil of the garden. At night, he dug up worms in the compost so he would have fresh bait in the morning.
His mind raced in many directions at once. He took medicine to slow his thoughts. His wife, another strong personality, helped keep him focused. When she died of lupus before her 50th year, he fell into a deep funk.
He rallied after discovering St. Pete Beach, warm weather and saltwater fishing. He loved going out on the boats and catching grouper and snapper. He enjoyed the company of new friends. He bought them beer, loaned them money, invited them to dinner. They loved his cooking, especially his baked fish, which he stuffed with crabmeat.
He married for a second time, but it was over so fast that even friends have only the vaguest memories.
He exchanged wedding vows a third time. His new bride, Mary Susie Yankee, liked fishing enough to help him make lures in the garage. His friends? She liked some more than others. Encouraged them to shower before visiting.
The union lasted 10 up-and-down years. After the divorce, Conrad once again was thrown for a loop. Contributing to his misery was a chronic blood disorder and weakness of the heart.
At least he had fishing to inspire him — and the occasional grand idea that terrified friends and family.
He wanted to buy an apartment building and fill it with his favorite folks.
"Uh-oh,'' thought Catherine Dow. Had he stopped taking his medication?
Another idea: He wanted to take friends to the Keys and charter a boat. Destination: the Dry Tortugas.
Las Vegas is to gamblers what the Dry Tortugas are to certain gulf anglers. The Tortugas, about 70 miles from Key West, are a series of islands accessible only by boat or seaplane. The water is clear and full of fish. An angler who lowers a bait may hook into a pan-sized mangrove snapper one minute and in the next instant something gargantuan that escapes with every inch of line.
Years before, Conrad and Catherine had taken a fishing trip to the Dry Tortugas. He dreamed about returning, talked about it all the time.
A trip to the Dry Tortugas? With all his friends? Sounded nutty to Catherine. But it could also be the tonic that might lift his flagging spirits.
In early 2004 he was deathly ill. A daughter, Susan Yankee, brought him to Louisiana to care for him. On one of his good days she took him to Walmart so he could buy fishing tackle for himself and his newest pals. Later, she listened to him get on the telephone and book a fishing charter out of Key West, destination Dry Tortugas.
In the spring he was admitted to the hospital to get a pacemaker.
Fell one night on his way to the bathroom.
Died from a hemorrhage in his brain on June 8, 2004.
He had two funerals. In Connecticut, old friends who attended the service donated money to the Milford Children's Trout Derby, in care of the Milford Striped Bass Club, in Conrad's name.
In St. Pete Beach, his old captain and sometimes nemesis Mike Gunther cranked up the Miss Pass-a-Grille and headed into the gulf. Conrad's family and Catherine scattered ashes.
As the months passed, everybody talked about Conrad. Remember the time he did this? What about the day he said that? What was the secret to his bisque? Was it because he made his stock with flounder bones?
At the jetty, they sat on the bench among the sea oats and missed him terribly.
And then the bench disappeared.
• • •
Conrad Yankee fished for pleasure and for the occasional meal. In bad weather he stayed home.
Paul Doyon, Robert Callahan and Eric McKay are commercial fishermen who dock on Madeira Beach near St. Petersburg. They go out, no matter what, for 12 days at a time in the Gulf of Mexico in a boat called the Michelle Marie. She's 44 feet long, though in harsh weather she feels smaller.
Doyon, 40, is captain. He's a wiry guy with a tattoo on his neck. He and his crew set long lines bearing thousands of hooks. They look for water 180 to 240 feet deep. The bottom of the gulf is mostly sand; they look for a rocky bottom because that's where the grouper and snapper are.
Commercial fishermen like to work near the Dry Tortugas.
In November, they were north of the Dry Tortugas when the fishing got red hot. They landed red grouper and black grouper, red snapper and delicious scamp.
One night after Thanksgiving, while they were cleaning the deck of the fish blood and fish slime, somebody noticed something white in the water about 50 feet on starboard side.
It was a gull perched on something in the high seas.
Doyon spun the wheel for a better look. In his light's beam he saw some kind of floating structure. Got closer. The gulf washed through the slats of a bench.
Doyon and his crew were tired and the bench looked heavy.
"We can't leave it out here,'' Doyon told his workers. "This would smash the hull of any boat that hit it.''
They maneuvered the bench to the stern. The three of them leaned over and tried to haul it aboard. Too heavy. They waited for an incoming wave to provide momentum.
They yanked it aboard without breaking their boat or their bones.
The bench had grown algae like hair. The bottom was covered with tiny barnacles.
"This bench is going to look good in my yard,'' a crewman announced.
"Wait a minute,'' Doyon said. "There seems to be a plaque here. What's it say? Hmm. I wonder who he was?''
Late in his life, Conrad Yankee wanted to go to the Dry Tortugas one last time. He didn't make it.
His bench nearly did.
• • •
Back on land, the owner of the Michelle Marie, Jim Bonnell, turned on his computer and typed the name "Conrad Yankee'' into the browser. Turned out a Conrad Yankee lived in New Port Richey; Bonnell telephoned him. Like so many others, the son of the late fisherman had wondered what had become of his dad's bench.
Now, in the first month of 2010, the bench is back in St. Pete Beach, on the Merry Pier, about a block from where Conrad used to live on Pass-a-Grille. Despite the barnacles and dried algae, the bench seems as sturdy as ever. Tourists sit on it during the day. In the evening, the yellow-crowned night herons use it as a perch.
Catherine Dow likes seeing the bench whenever she visits the pier. She walks past it to the end of the pier and boards the Miss Pass-a-Grille, where she claims her usual spot on the stern.
She can almost feel Conrad's presence next to her. She can almost hear his unwanted advice.
"Don't cast over my line.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727. His latest book, a collection of Florida essays, is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."