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Legend stokes 3-decade-old curiosity born on St. Petersburg Pier

ST. PETERSBURG

In 1977, when I was new in town, I saw a giant on the downtown pier. He lurched out of the dark toward the bait house like Frankenstein's tormented monster. At first I thought he was 8 feet tall. On second glance he seemed only slightly smaller. Towering over the pier railing, he hurled a spear into Tampa Bay with a mighty grunt.

An instant later he tore a flopping fish from the prongs of the spear as if he intended to devour it raw. Instead he tossed the plate-sized prey into a shopping cart that carried his meager belongings. He seemed more feral than human and walked with a horrific limp. As he vanished into the night a chill ran up my spine.

"Who's that?" I asked the bait monger.

"Slim," he whispered from the doorway.

"Slim who?"

"Just Slim."

The bait monger didn't know his real name. Nobody I talked with in the following weeks did either, even though Slim had been a waterfront icon for generations.

But they had stories. Slim is a nice enough guy, someone told me, but he has a bad side. He is the best fisherman on the pier, more than one person said. Slim is a bum who sleeps under the pier, Slim has no friends, Slim limps because of an old bullet wound in the hip, Slim hates tourists — watch out, he's quick with a knife.

Everyone seemed to have stories about Slim without really knowing him. From anecdotes and hearsay they had constructed a life history.

A few weeks later, I had another chance to talk to the giant himself.

I saw him on the pier around twilight, pushing his shopping cart with his left hand while carrying his spear in his right. He leaned over the water, let fly and roped in a corpulent striped fish, a sheepshead.

My notebook and I stepped into his path.

"Excuse me," I said, beginning an introduction.

"I'm not going to talk to you," he hissed. "Get the (bleep) out of my way."

I gazed into his tortured eyes, looked at the long fish-gutting knife on his belt and the 10-foot spear at his side. I noticed his huge hands, the humongous black orthopedic shoes and his crazed flattop. I got out of his way. There are other fish in the sea, I told myself. Write their stories instead.

For three decades, I have. But I never stopped thinking about Slim. Every time I walk on the pier, or ride my bike on the pier, or go for a meal on the pier, or eat an ice cream cone on the pier, I think about him. Slim has always been the one that got away. Slim is my Moby Dick.

Call me Ahab. When I heard about the city's plans to knock down Slim's old haunt and build a new pier, my old obsession took hold.

I hadn't seen Slim in decades. Most likely he was dead. But maybe he was living in a nursing home or with a beloved son or daughter. If I had a name I could find him.

Ahab had his memories, his wooden leg, his sextant and his maps. I tracked down people named Mastry.

• • •

In St. Petersburg, Mastrys are doctors, lawyers, Realtors, barkeeps and business folks. But they're almost all fishermen, and they go way back. I started my hunt at Mastry's Bait and Tackle, which opened in 1976, when Slim was still an everyday St. Petersburg sight.

"He was a commercial fisherman," Dale Mastry, 59, told me. "He sold his fish all over downtown. We cashed his checks. He was so big he had to duck when he came through the doorway."

What was his name?

"I don't remember his name. He was only Slim and I knew him for years. When I was a kid, I was scared to death of him. All the kids were. I think kids made fun of his height and his limp — he just didn't like kids. But he was always a gentleman when he started coming into Mastry's. He repaired cast nets for us. I stocked his favorite wine, Taylor's Port, but I don't know if he was an alcoholic.

"Hey, you should talk to my cousin."

• • •

Jay Mastry owns his dad's old tavern, where stuffed tarpon and photographs of long-dead anglers hang from nicotine-stained walls. When Jay isn't pouring beer, he's a fishing guide. Mastry's Bar and Grill once was a regular stop on the Slim circuit.

"He was a damn scary guy," said Jay, now 57. "Always had that knife on his belt. You'd see him every day on Central Avenue, dragging a stringer of sheepshead behind him. It didn't matter if it was a Tuesday morning and the street was empty or it was the Festival of States Parade day and the street was packed. He'd take the same route, wouldn't look left, wouldn't look right, look just straight ahead. There was something really creepy about that.

"But he could throw a cast net like God. It's a real art and he could do it, make the net open just right every time. One time my dad and I, we took Slim in our boat out to Skyway bridge. It was before a fishing tournament and my dad thought Slim could catch us some great bait in that cast net of his.

"For some reason Slim seemed nervous. When he threw his net, something went wrong. The net caught on something on the back of the boat and didn't open right, just kind of collapsed in the water. Slim put his head in his hands and muttered to himself — almost cried. I was just a kid, so I mouthed off about how he was carrying on, and he slowly turned and looked at me with those eyes.

"He said, 'I wish you were my kid just now.' ''

• • •

Ahab and his doomed crew, out at sea, encountered other whaling ships.

"Hast seen the white whale?" Ahab would ask. "Hast seen Moby Dick?"

I kept asking around, too. Finally I put a squib in the paper soliciting information from readers. The telephone started ringing.

"One time I asked him his name,'' said Mary Ann Blank, now 71. "He said, 'It doesn't matter. I'm just a fisherman.' I was only 16, but I learned quickly not to ask questions.''

I asked for a description.

"He had blond hair and had a light complexion like he was Scandinavian or something," said Mary Ann, who worked three decades at St. Anthony's Hospital before retirement. "He was good-looking but in kind of a rough way. And he was rough.

"One time, this tourist approached Slim and asked how much Slim charged for a couple of sheepshead. His price was two for a dollar. The tourist laughed in Slim's face and said he wouldn't pay a dollar for those silly-looking fish.

"So Slim — I've never forgotten this — picked up a fish and slapped the tourist across the face with it."

Telephoning from North Carolina, Walt Hillyer, 55, remembered Slim grunting when asked a question. He remembered how Slim hid under the pier and sometimes stole fish from stringers hanging into the water.

Now 67, Judge John C. Lenderman of the 6th Judicial Court in St. Petersburg recalled the time he and boyhood friends were under the pier to do some exploring.

"Slim came out of the dark, shouting at us and waving his arms, like the bogeyman. We took off like a shot. Years later, when I was a young lawyer, my secretary poked her head into my office and said, 'You ought to see what's in the waiting room.' So she showed in this giant. It was the bogeyman.

"Turned out he was a perfectly nice, well-spoken fellow who wanted me to do some legal work for him. As I recall, he'd found this submerged barge full of valuable copper and wanted to explore his options. I don't think it amounted to anything.''

His name?

"I just don't remember."

Barbara Meyer grew up in St. Petersburg, too. Her dad, Les Trafton, was dockmaster at the city marina for 26 years, starting after World War II.

"My dad let Slim sleep in his skiff — I remember it as a little green boat — under the dock," said Meyer, 58. "When I was a little girl, I'd go to the marina after school. Slim often was there. I was never afraid of him. He was very sweet to me. He'd tell me stories about all kinds of things, and he sang me songs. He liked to sing Frankie and Johnny.

"He made me a cane pole for fishing. I'd sit on the dock and catch pinfish for hours on that pole. One time, he came rowing toward the marina in his rowboat from the pier. 'Babs, Babs' — that's what he called me — 'I need another pole. The mackerel are running. Throw your pole to me.' He was frantic to borrow my pole!

"I said, 'It's my pole. I'm not giving it to you.' Suddenly, he kind of blew up. He got very angry. He started shouting at me. Shouted, 'You're never going to catch another fish on that pole!' Want to know something? I didn't. Slim put a hex on my pole."

Decades later, when Barbara took a creative writing course, she fashioned a story about her most memorable character.

A man called Slim.

• • •

As a rough-and-tumble young guy, Jimmy Kelley caught shrimp at night and huge tarpon during the day. He's 76 now, more or less retired, and full of waterfront memories. As soon as Jimmy learned to walk, he began helping his daddy, whom everyone called Pappy, to run the bait house on the pier. Slim, like the pelicans, was a daily sight.

"To tell the truth, Slim was usually not a nice man,'' Jimmy told me. "He was mean as can be. He always carried this slingshot in his back pocket. I saw him shoot pebbles at pelicans when they'd dive on the bait fish. He considered the pelicans competitors for the fish.

"But a minute later he could be nice. My dad sometimes let him sleep in the bait house at night. Then Slim would act up and my dad would kick him out. Sometimes Slim slept under the stairwell at the pier. One time I went to wake him and saw he was covered by cockroaches. They were crawling even on his lips. He slept right through the roaches. I don't know if he was drunk or not.

"He liked fishing under the pier in his little skiff with a hand line. He was after the sheepshead. Sheepshead, you know, they have this delicate little bite. You almost can't feel them take the bait. One time I saw Slim take his knife and make little slits in the creases of his fingers where he laid the line. He wanted to make sure he'd feel the fish bite.

"Another night he was catching shrimp in a net under a light on the pier. This girl, a tourist I guess, got in his way. He told her to move. She pointed out that he didn't own the pier. He didn't say nothing. He just threw her in the bay. Her boyfriend came running up to defend her and he threw the boyfriend's ass in the bay, too. Slim got arrested for that.

"Another time I'm standing out on the pier with him when we hear a car honking. Teenagers. They got their bare asses sticking out the window. They're mooning Slim. In one motion, he kind of leans over and slings his spear at the car. He throws it so hard it sticks in the door for a minute. The teenagers got out of there. They weren't going to mess with Slim."

And his name? Oh, never mind, you probably don't —

"Doudna. Arno Doudna."

• • •

I began to learn things about my white whale, once I had a harpoon in him.

Arno Doudna was born in Wisconsin on Oct. 8, 1922. His parents, Leland and Gertrude, moved their family to the Tarpon Springs area in 1928. He had one sister and two brothers. His baby brother, Alan, got hit by a car and died in 1934.

The family moved to St. Petersburg in 1945. The pier became Arno's second home. Old newspaper clippings mention Arno "Slim" Doudna's fishing prowess, though one article reports his arrest for assault and battery without going into details.

On June 7, 1990, he died at Bayfront Medical Center. The brief obit listed two survivors, a brother in Citrus County and a sister in St. Petersburg.

I started looking for Slim's kin. His brother, it turned out, died in 2005. When I read the obituary I wondered if violence ran in the family. John Doudna shot himself to death after killing Trudy, his terminally ill wife.

That left a sister. I couldn't find her in public records or on the Internet. I mentioned my frustration to Jack Belich, a former colleague, now a private investigator who has his own sources for information. A while later he e-mailed me an address and phone number.

Around Christmastime, I knocked on the door of a little St. Petersburg bungalow.

"Come on in, honey," Mary Copechal called from inside. "I'll tell you what I can about my brother."

• • •

She sat in a favorite chair and looked across the room at her little Christmas tree.

"I loved him," Mary, now 79, told me. "But I was deathly afraid of him. He was 7 feet and he had this terrible, terrible temper. I always wondered if he had, what do you call it, a dual personality. I wouldn't be surprised if he killed somebody at one time or another."

Mary's eyes welled up.

"I say that, yet he was beautiful. In his own way he was precious. He had such a hard, hard life. Like out of the horror stories.''

What happened?

"When Slim was 6, he was playing on a car. He was sliding off the back of the car, like kids will do, for fun, only his skin — it must have been wet or something — stuck on the metal. He didn't slide, he fell off the car real hard and broke his hip. The bone got infected, got abscessed. The doctors had to remove the hip joint. He was in horrible pain his whole life.

"We had a bad father, a roustabout. He'd be home, then he'd go away, then he'd come home, then he'd go away, running up bills. Finally my mother divorced him. My mother kept us going, making dresses, curtains and bedspreads to barter for goods we needed.

"We had a cow and chickens and a little garden. My brothers caught fish and hunted rabbits in the pines. Slim had a little dog he called Dash. He loved Dash more than anything in the world. On a hunting trip, Dash ran into the woods and started squealing. What happened is a rattlesnake got Dash. Slim never, ever got over losing Dash. Oh, my goodness, honey.''

What was Slim like?

"He had a beautiful singing voice. He had a photographic memory. If he heard a song once, he could sing it — all the words. He played a nice harmonica. He was really smart. He liked to read. Math books and history especially. He went to school but got so big he couldn't sit in a normal desk. The kids were always making fun of him. So one day he quit going to school.

"We were so, so poor. Our roof leaked. We'd sleep under newspaper to stay dry. The house was falling apart. The house always somehow seemed evil to me. I always thought the only thing that could cure the evil house was fire. I don't know what caused it but one day the house caught fire and burned up and we left."

Mary married and had a family. For decades she operated a day care business in St. Petersburg. Slim wasn't allowed to visit. Slim never married, but he had at least one great romance during his lifetime.

"Irene her name was. I think they lived together. I don't remember her last name. I do know Slim loved Irene to pieces. When she died, he was all broken up. He never got over Irene's death."

I wondered about the end of Slim's life.

"I think he had cancer for a long time. To tell the truth, I never went to the hospital to see him. Even in the hospital I was afraid of him. One time, I was talking to him on the phone, and he was so full of anger and pain he told me he wanted to kill the nurse.''

Mary started weeping.

"After he died, I inherited his belongings in a cardboard box. In the box were all these papers filled with his writing. He had written a lot of things down about his life. One night I started reading. I ended up burning just about everything in the box. LIES! LIES! LIES! He told lies about our family and about our mother."

Mary looked angry herself.

What did Slim say about the family?

"Lies! I'd never repeat them. Lies! He just wasn't right in his head."

For the longest moment we both sat in total silence. Then I noticed the yellowed notepaper on a table next to Mary. Someone had written on the paper with pencil.

"This is what I have of his,'' Mary finally said. "Slim wrote poetry.''

It was a poem about what apparently sustained him for much of his 67 years. Slim wrote poems about fish, stanza after stanza about blue runners and sea robins, redfish and trout, tuna and sharks.

Of all the fishes in the gulf

Mangrove snappers are most wise

The balloon fish is a puffer

He'll grow before your eyes.

Slim was part Frankenstein and part bogeyman, part Boo Radley and, I guess, part Moby Dick. He was a complicated and tormented man.

We know a lot of stories about him. But we will never know what it was like to stand inside his 15EEEE shoes.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727. Researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

Legend stokes 3-decade-old curiosity born on St. Petersburg Pier 12/31/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 3, 2011 4:36pm]

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