Elmo Boone handed me a fruit jar. The offering contained no preserved pears, peaches or cane syrup, alas, but a clear liquid that burned my throat on the way down. The potent gift served as an introduction to both moonshine and perhaps the most amazing Floridian I ever knew.
Elmo, who died in December at the age of 90, was one of those vanishing species of men who was completely self-reliant and comfortable in the ways of Florida. I knew him for a quarter of a century.
He was a country boy who was born in Miami when Miami was country. In fact, he remembered spending the worst of the horrific, historic 1926 hurricane under his daddy's tomato truck. Moonshine making was among the least of his skills and experiences.
Elmo could build a house, without help, from floor to roof. He could fix a balky outboard engine. He knew how to plow a field behind a mule. He could look at an ailing plant and tell immediately what was needed to restore health. If the answer was as simple as "more water" he could find you a well — using a dowsing stick. Don't tell me he couldn't. Lots of people over the years watched him do it.
For most of his adult life he made a living as a nurseryman. Elmo planted many of the trees at Walt Disney World. Many St. Petersburg back yards, for that matter, are graced by cabbage palms and oaks he lovingly installed.
He knew how to grow the best tomatoes, okra and field peas. He made wine from the plums of his backyard trees. He could throw a cast net with the best of them and was famous for his smoked mullet. He knew how to gig a bullfrog from a moving airboat. He ran his own stone crab traps and shucked oysters like lightning — an important skill when you are surrounded by a crowd of hungry men. A talented angler, he had an uncanny ability to lure giant bass — "lunkers" is how he described them — to the end of his line.
After his family moved to St. Petersburg in the 1930s, he hunted deer and turkey close to where you'll find a Starbucks today. Of course he knew how to dress a deer. Of course he knew how to butcher a hog. He hunted raccoons with the famous beachcomber and semihermit, Silas Dent, on mangrove islands near today's Sunshine Skyway. An amazing Southern cook, Elmo could make almost anything palatable. This is a family newspaper, so I can't fully describe the power of his lima bean soup on the human digestive system. Maybe later.
I can tell stories, but I'm an amateur compared to Elmo. Over the years he regaled me with tales of being lost at sea, snake-bit or encountering the skunk ape or a UFO during a routine outdoor excursion. He even had one about a widow who answered to "Ma" and toted a machine gun.
I like to believe that every one of his stories was gospel truth.
• • •
The best place to know Elmo Boone was at his hunting camp in northwest Florida, not far from the city of Perry and the Aucilla River. I never hunted, but I loved being in the woods with Elmo, and so I would drive into the woods, at least for a night, so I could enjoy one of his suppers and storytelling jags.
He was a big fellow with a bone-crushing handshake, bald when I knew him, with great big white teeth and a magnificent set of mutton-chop sideburns. In his youth he was handsome like Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones — in fact, in his youth he rode around town on a motorcycle.
One time, as we sat at the campfire and sipped Plum Crazy wine, he told me about how he had learned how to hunt squirrels and catch bream when his family lived in Ocala National Forest. It was the Depression and everybody was poor, and Elmo's mother suggested that Elmo share the bounty with the folks down the road in Oklawaha.
"The Barkers. Now Mrs. Barker was a real nice lady, just about as nice as my Mama. You'd have never thought different until the FBI showed up one day.'' Agents snuck up on Ma Barker's home. She and other members of the notorious Ma Barker gang perished in a hail of bullets.
Elmo had more lives than a bobcat. In one hunting story, he was thrown by his horse onto an angry wild hog and saved from the tusks by his ferocious bulldogs. Reaching for a fish at the end of his line in another story, he was bitten by a venomous cottonmouth moccasin. Another time he was pinned under a tractor that turned over in a ditch.
During World War II, his ship, the USS Laramie, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. Clinging to wreckage, he was rescued hours later having barely survived hypothermia.
Elmo once told me about hooking a huge bass in Pinellas County's Walsingham Reservoir in 1951. I thought the story had to end with the landing of a stupendous 14-pound lunker. But, no, this was an Elmo story: "There was this houseboat out there on the lake with blue lights. Only it wasn't a houseboat. All of a sudden it took off, without a sound, and flew over the beach.''
Elmo was certain that Florida's wilderness was home to a storied, apelike creature with enormous feet. "One time I waded across some water to this island. There was this little tree, bent down and stripped of leaves, like a bear will do to trees sometimes. But whatever done this was no bear. The tracks were huge, like nothing I've ever seen, big kind of human tracks except with a spike mark down at the heel. And there was two huge piles of droppings. Animals aren't so neat about where they make their droppings, but this one was.''
I can just imagine Elmo talking Florida's Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape, to death.
• • •
He was married 63 years to his beloved Billie Jean. After her death from pneumonia in 2009, Elmo lost a step. Although he had moved to Citrus County, on a bass-infested lake, he stopped fishing. He stopped hunting and driving around the woods in his 1986 red pickup. He couldn't bear to sleep in his marital bed without Billie, so he'd watch television until he nodded off in a living room chair with Margarita, his chihuahua, in his lap.
His body started to fail, his legs, his back, his kidneys, his brain. He passed on Dec. 13 at Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness. His brother James and his two daughters, Dona Boone of Hernando and Denise Boone Antonewitz of St. Petersburg, plan a memorial at 1 p.m. Friday at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. From there they'll drive back to Elmo's house, scatter his ashes in Lake Tsala Apopka and tell Elmo stories.
I will hang onto my hunting-camp memories of Elmo frying fish in a pan next to his famous "wampus" bread, a concoction made from cornmeal, diced potatoes, onions, milk, eggs and stewed tomatoes that tasted better than any hush puppy. I will remember him sitting at the campfire, his feet resting on logs, telling a story that becomes another story that becomes another story that ought to be true even if it wasn't.
Finally, I will remember the hours before dawn when the camp awoke and Elmo and fellow hunters emerged from tents dressed in camouflage with Elmo talking, talking, talking. Marching into the dark woods, they carried their deer rifles and, just as important, heaping rolls of toilet paper, because they had eaten Elmo's celebrated lima bean soup the night before.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.