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A real fish story

What you are about to read is the truth, mostly. This story is about one Mister Rube Allyn, whom I never knew, but wanted to because he used to be the outdoors writer hereabouts a real long time ago, same as me.

Like another waterfront hero, Huckleberry Finn, Rube Allyn was a teller of tales that may have been _ how shall we say this? _ truth stretchers. He was a simple man of simple tastes who could not have been more complicated. He was a plain-speaking mysterian who could lose his temper one minute and sweet talk a robin out of a tree the next.

As the Times' outdoors editor, he was known as an expert angler _ though some people wondered if he were a legend only in his own mind. Hunting? Go away. Camping? Well, if he absolutely had to, but not in a tent. Rube Allyn was a quiet, lonely man who could be the life of the party. He had many friends who thought they knew him well but probably didn't. Shy in private, publicly he was a champion of self-promotion.

Who was the real Rube Allyn?

We know he drank martinis and rum and Cokes _ Lordy, everyone remembers Rube's favorite libations _ but he was not known as a hopeless swill. He loved women, positively loved them, and married five times. Women up and down the waterfront grieved his death, including a few who planned to be the next Mrs. Allyn when Rube inevitably divorced.

He was not formally educated but he was plenty smart. He was a rotten businessman who knew how to make a buck. He had more ideas than you could shake a fish pole at.

One big idea was writing the Dictionary of Fishes. Never heard of it? Don't blame you. It was a ridiculously floppy paperback published by a tiny, regional press in 1948.

Yet this year the book celebrates its 50th anniversary in print. More than likely it has outsold Marjory Stoneman Douglas' Everglades: River of Grass, perhaps Florida's best-known book. Before his death two decades ago Rube bragged he'd sold a million copies. But Rube kept notoriously bad records and his figures seem a bit _ how shall we say this? _ fishy.

Rube Allyn knew how to tell a story, and he wasn't obsessive about facts. Perhaps "Johns Pass Sadie," a regular character in his "On the Waterfront" column, was born of flesh and blood. But probably not. The same might be true for the wanton shrimpmonger "Bait Store Betsy."

What is the truth?

Rube took those stories _ and his own _ to a watery grave.

Sometimes I wish I'd known him. I wish we could have taken a raft trip and chewed the fat a spell while drinking cold beer and munching boiled peanuts.

But I'll be damned if I'd have shark-fished with him. Sharks and Rube _ now there was a story that maybe I'll tell you in a little bit.

The genius of the book

When I wasn't fishing as a boy, I was thinking about fishing or talking about fishing. My favorite book was about fishing.

I learned to identify fish by studying Rube Allyn's Dictionary of Fishes, a cheaply assembled paperback that fell apart every year or so, forcing me to buy another.

Dictionary of Fishes boasted a few color pictures that never seemed to be in focus. It was filled with serviceable black-and-white photographs and some pretty good drawings that even looked like the fish they were supposed to represent.

I liked best the brief text that accompanied every picture. They were written in a way a kid could understand, and with gusto. Here is what Rube wrote about a game fish I longed to catch: "Most snook fishermen haunt docks and bridges to get a chance at enticing the big fish which have a habit of lying motionless in the shadows and charging the bait with a resounding crash."

I would lie in bed at night and dream of tackle-busting snook charging my bait, maws open.

My brother and I fought over Dictionary of Fishes in the back seat. Or I'd hide the name of a fish with my hand and make him identify it. Sometimes we'd go from page to page, listing all the fish we'd caught or almost caught, then compare notes and argue.

As we got more experienced, we noticed little inaccuracies in our Dictionary of Fishes. Rube said the average mangrove snapper weighed 7 pounds. In South Florida, where snapper were common, my brother and I were lucky to land 1-pounders. We began wondering if the author was a little tetched in the head.

In the end it didn't matter. Rube's book was no scientific treatise. It was a guy sitting on a fish camp cracker barrel passing on fact and fancy about what we might catch. He captured the oral tradition of fishing, exaggerations and all. That was the book's, and Rube's, genius.

A free spirit

Rube was born in 1901. His father owned the Sarasota Sun newspaper and his mother was kind of an actor. His parents had been stars in the Chautauqua Circuit, traveling from town to town in a wagon and providing entertainment. His mother brought people to tears with her dramatic readings of poetry. Then his dad made them laugh with his stories.

Rube's father was a Sarasota celebrity and a good writer. Rube Jr. was quiet and more interested in the mechanics of newspapering than the creative end. He learned how to set type and run a printing press. He went to work for his dad.

One time they were moving a press across Sarasota Bay and the barge sank. The printing press, as far as anyone knows, is still down there.

In 1932 Rube Jr. ended up at the Times, setting type, though he soon convinced the editor to let him try writing. In 1938, he began writing outdoors stories for free. After the war, he returned as the Times' full-time outdoors editor.

"He suddenly blossomed," says his sister, Dottie Walch, now 89. "Rube did not have our father's charisma. He was quiet and solitary. The change in him couldn't have been more dramatic."

The public Rube Allyn was funny and outgoing. Privately, he was a mystery even to those who cared about him.

"I always thought I knew his wives better than I knew him," Dottie says.

He married, and he married often. Women were attracted to this free spirit, but by all accounts he was a difficult husband and father.

"I remember when I made the baseball team as a boy," says his son Bill Allyn, 74. "I sat down for supper wearing my baseball cap. I was so proud of that cap. Dad said the only people who could wear a hat indoors were women and policemen and that I was neither. He grabbed that hat _ and a hunk of my hair _ and threw it across the room. To this day, when I see somebody wearing a hat indoors my head hurts."

He also has happy memories of his father. "He was a very good waterman. He knew the water. He liked to fish, God yes. When I was little he started quizzing me on tides and knots. I passed a seamanship test, and he bought me a boat. I was only 10."

Rube wrote his son during the war from Midway Island, letters full of loneliness. "I always thought that was the real Rube," Bill says.

There was nothing sad about Rube's daily newspaper column. Sometimes it was about who had caught what and where. Other columns read like comedy routines:

A veteran of Johns Pass noted for his quick rejoinders one day had an ample fisherwoman on his boat. She looked at him carefully and gave out with this remark:

"Captain, I've heard tell that you are the biggest liar at Johns Pass."

"Madame," and the quick-witted boatman doffed his hat, "you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

Friendly and funny

Rube knew everyone. He'd walk into a waterfront tavern and make everyone his friend. He'd nurse a martini for an hour and listen to people tell their life stories. Then he'd find a way to get those stories into print.

Roberts opened his eyes in his fishing camp down on Lemon Bay. He was petrified to see a great grinning crocodile perched on the foot of his bed. He reached for his gun, and took aim with wavering hands.

"If you're a real croc," he mumbled between clenched teeth, "you're in a bad fix. But if you ain't no croc, I sure am."

He wrote frequently of his own misadventures. My favorite is the time he and cronies got into the shark-fishing business. Near the mouth of Tampa Bay they hooked a 12-footer that swam obligingly to the boat. A mighty angler, ball-peen hammer in hand, was poised to kill it with a blow to the head.

He missed and put a hole in the boat, which began filling with water. The shark, irritated, began eating the boat. Rube got the engine started and raced to shore.

"We all jumped ashore at the first touch of keel on sand and then stood on the beach watching sadly as our (boat) was towed under by a maddened bull shark."

In Rube's world, dangers lurked in unexpected places.

The most terrifying experience I have ever known happened last night. I'm going to write about it today. I have a selfish motive. Other persons have had similar experiences and never felt fear. I'd like to know why it should affect me so.

To justify the claim that I am not a natural coward, it is on record that in years past I have faced a demented man holding a gun to my head; I have been alone on an island with a man who swore he was going to kill me.

I have stood in water up to my chin in a submarine 300 feet under; I have been lost in the Everglades and fought hordes of deer flies and mosquitoes; was once neck deep in quicksand in the Devil's Punch Bowl _ and quite recently hobnobbing with a school of sharks off Havana Harbor in pitch darkness.

Where was Rube going with this exciting story? Rube, who had always lived aboard boats, had just spent his first night in years, alone _ in a house.

A mysterious charm

"Rube wrote outlandish stuff and a lot of time it wasn't true. But it was fun to read."

That's Bob Moreland speaking. He worked nearly four decades at the Times and photographed a lot of Rube Allyn's stories.

"He bought one of the first motorhomes ever built and we'd take that all over the state. He'd make friends everywhere. He loved to talk. Everyone thinks he was a big fisherman but I don't think he was really an expert. He was a very good reporter and knew how to write about it. Some of these people, I think he made up. But with Rube, you never were quite sure."

A few months before the Sunshine Skyway opened in 1954, Rube walked across. The roadway, in places, was missing. Rube crawled on steel beams and bragged in print about being the first man over.

"I was the first man across," Moreland says. "And I crawled backwards, in front of him, taking the pictures."

Rube had his shoes bronzed and hung them over his desk in the newsroom.

He knew how to promote his stories.

He started a contest. He'd bury treasure and drop clues into his newspaper column. Thousands of people hit the beach on weekends to look.

"One time they stormed the Times to demand more clues," Rube's son, Bill, says with a laugh. He came out to talk to them and was thrown into Tampa Bay.

He knew how to promote himself, too.

"He was an amazing gate-crasher," Bill says.

Rube wrote President Eisenhower and invited him tarpon fishing. He never came, but they corresponded, and Rube didn't keep the letters secret. Rube learned that Harry Truman was staying at the Rod and Gun Club in the Everglades and playing poker. Rube told people he talked his way into the game.

Whenever a movie was filmed in Florida, he'd sneak onto the set, often with a photographer, and have his picture taken with a starlet to show the boys back in the newsroom.

"One time Rube took me to Cross Creek to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home, after her death," Bill says. Rube seemed to know more about the famous author, and her home, than park rangers. Bill asked how that could be.

"Oh," Rube told his son, "Marge and I were very good friends."

Knowing his dad's reputation as a ladies' man, Bill wondered what "friends" might mean.

"One time there was a photograph of Jackie Kennedy walking on a beach somewhere," Bill says. "In her right hand she's carrying Dictionary of Fishes. When I saw that photo, I thought son of a gun. She spent the night with Rube." He's kidding, of course, but he knows his father had a mysterious charm.

He was tall but not handsome, with a prominent forehead and a weak chin. A pencil-thin moustache hid his upper lip, which, by most accounts, was always flapping. But he also knew how to shut up and listen.

A book for the ages

Tourists called him at the Times or confronted him when he visited fish camps. "Can you tell me what kind of fish I just caught?" they'd ask.

Rube told them. The gears in his brain began turning.

In 1948, he published Dictionary of Fishes. It was a smash. It cost only a buck and could be rolled up and stored in a tackle box. Sure, it fell apart quickly. But Rube told friends that was the idea. Readers would just have to buy another. Rube started his own publishing company, Great Outdoors, so he could collect most of the profits.

Years later, after his death, his family contemplated revising the dictionary. But modernizing the book, rewriting obsolete text and coming up with better color pictures, would be too expensive.

"Anyway, it's a book that defies revision," says his granddaughter Jan Allyn, who runs Great Outdoors with her mother, Joyce, Rube's daughter-in-law. "It's more than a dictionary. It has Rube's personality in it."

The Dictionary of Fishes is accurate, mostly. I always wondered about a fish called the Rettberg Stargazer.

"Well," says Jan Allyn, "we think Rube made that one up. Named that fish after somebody he met in a bar."

He wrote dictionaries on reptiles and shells. He wrote cookbooks and camping guides. He wrote a book about his adventures in a homemade houseboat. It did so well that Rube began selling plans to the houseboat.

Great Outdoors, Florida's oldest publishing company, is still in business. It's in St. Petersburg, in an industrial neighborhood, near one of the last drive-in movies in the bay area.

Where the kingfish run

Every afternoon at 3:30 Rube rode his bicycle from his publishing company to a convenience store on 28th Street. He told his workers that he needed to pick up a newspaper, but that was only part of the truth. On the way he'd visit his favorite tavern for drink and conversation, often with women friends.

On a sweltering July afternoon in 1968, he failed to return from his daily constitutional. Pedaling home, he was hit by a speeding car and suffered a head injury.

He lingered in the hospital for about a week, never waking, kept alive by a breathing machine and intravenous feedings. A doctor told Rube's son that there was no chance of improvement.

"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," Bill says.

Rube was disconnected from life-support. He was 67.

In his will, Rube had asked to be wrapped in sailcloth and deposited in the Gulf of Mexico close to where the kingfishing was good.

Bill was afraid to just dump his father's body in the gulf. Currents might return him to shore and scare away tourists.

So he bought a cheap coffin and weighed it down with cement blocks.

The funeral service was held about 9 miles west of the mouth of the bay. It wasn't kingfish season, but it would be in the fall. Rube slid over the side and was gone.

Afterward, Bill was talking to Rube's friends.

A dentist told him about the time Rube came in with a toothache. Even with a toothache Rube couldn't shut up. He started telling fish stories and the dentist got so fascinated he pulled the wrong tooth.

"The dentist said he eventually pulled the right tooth," Bill says. "And he didn't charge Rube for it."