Marshall Jones and his brother, Keith, who operate historic Mack's Fishing Camp in the Everglades, are barefoot boys in the tradition of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.The 30-year-old twins wear shoes only if necessary, perhaps because buying proper footwear is a challenge.
Marshall squeezes his ample paws into size 13s. Keith's feet measure a sawgrass-stomping 15EEE.
Their toes are prehensile, bent and misshapen, topped by yellow nails that appear more reptilian than human. Banged up and scarred, their feet look like something large and toothy must have gnawed on them.
"One night I'm standing on my dock in the dark,'' Keith says. "And I hear this big old splash under me. Something grabs my foot. This gator has jumped up and tried to pull me in.''
Must have been a long and painful drive to the ER.
Neither twin believes in doctors or hospitals. In their toolboxes, they carry sutures - mostly for their hunting dogs when they are sliced open by the tusks of an irritated wild hog. But the Jones boys also stitch up their friends and each other. Without Novocain.
"You take the pain like a man,'' Marshall says.
They are, after all, Gladesmen - self-reliant, don't-tread-on-me fellows who depend on the Everglades for everything from physical to emotional sustenance.
Men and a handful of women like them - folks who knew how to eke out a living from a most inhospitable land - once were common in South Florida. But in the 21st century, Gladesmen are rarer than a panther.
"It's a vanishing way of life,'' says Laura Ogden, a Florida International University anthropologist. "Encroaching development and the presence of a national park and federal lands in their old stomping grounds has changed everything.''
The Jones brothers grew up among the snakes and alligators, the roughnecks and the kind-hearted country women at the fish camp founded by their great-grandfather, Mack Jones Sr., in 1937.
They attended school miles away in Hollywood, but shed their shoes and the stink of the city the moment they arrived back in the Everglades. They learned how to gig frogs for the legs, catch bass, shoot deer and grow things. They know every bird and plant. Something broke? They could fix it. Something need building? Their huge hands swallowed up any hammer.
"We grew up young,'' is how Marshall puts it.
In the Everglades, they can handle any crisis, from a hog-gored dog to a faulty magneto on a battered airboat. But as Florida has gotten civilized, so have their challenges. The brothers want to keep the dilapidated fish camp in business. They want their children to grow up as they did. They want to keep the Gladesman tradition going.
Walking into Starbucks scares them more than an enraged cottonmouth.
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I am a city rat who likes a good cup of coffee, an art museum and a nearby hospital, just in case I need stitches. But a big part of me is a country mouse who loves exploring a swamp, listening to the pig frogs and encountering a big alligator. My country roots lead directly to Mack's Fishing Camp.
I started visiting during the period Eisenhower lived in the White House and the Dodgers played home games in Brooklyn. My dad liked to fish and dragged his kid along into the Everglades.
We'd take the road out of Miami, then head down Krome Avenue to where the Broward and Dade county borders bumped heads. If you saw another DeSoto, Studebaker or Nash Rambler out in the sticks, more than likely it was bound for the same place. You turned onto an atrocious limestone road, crossed a bridge and 3 miles later you were at Mack's.
I think my Chicago-born dad liked the adventure of visiting Mack's as much as he liked the fishing. It was the last frontier, lacking electricity, running water or even telephone service. We'd watch the Gladesmen jump into their airboats and roar off into the sawgrass to hunt deer. Even more exciting, at least to city people, was the return of the hunters, who hung their just-slain bucks upside down from a tree limb to bleed out. A visit to Mack's was a time-machine trip into Davy Crockett land.
My dad hoped to catch bass, the high-status Everglades denizen, but we settled for bream, a blue-collar cane pole fish that fit perfectly in a frying pan. We caught them on worms, acquired from Grandma Nell Jones, the Queen of the Everglades. She was 5 feet 2, but closer to 6if you counted her mountain of auburn hair.
After I learned to drive, my Everglades world expanded to other places, but I still visited Mack's to cast a fly-rod popping bug at bass and to chat with the Queen of the Everglades, who held court from a wooden chair backed against a wall decorated by stuffed creatures with fur and fins.
"Sit down, honey.''
Born in Georgia, Grandma Nell never lost her cane-syrup accent. She talked about the Bible and about how Jesus was a fisherman, though he probably didn't catch any black bass in the Sea of Galilee because, honey, the bass is a Glades fish. She'd say if you want to catch a really big bass get yourself a giant minnow for bait, one of them wild Everglades shiners, and cast him out next to the lily pads at first light.
Sometimes her husband, Mack Jr., ambled in, chomping on a cigar and looking dapper in a fine straw hat. Mack Sr., his daddy, a farmer from South Carolina, started the fish camp during the Depression. The cigar-smoking son, Mack Jr., was a talented builder who worked in Miami most of the time while Nell ran the fish camp. But he could tell you how to skin a catfish and how to keep a woman happy.
Every four years he bought Grandma Nell a new Cadillac, including, at least once, a pink one. She loved her Everglades, but she loved the bright lights too. Every once in a while, she'd drag Mack Jr. to town and they would dance the jitterbug.
The twins were born in 1979. Their mama died three years later. Their dad abandoned them.
In the Everglades, Grandpa Mack and Grandma Nell raised those boys best they could.
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They are civilized wild men.
Marshall is more civilized than wild and Keith is more wild than civilized. Fraternal twins, Keith is the larger of the brothers, robust like a college defensive tackle. Marshall is slightly smaller and quicker, intense in the way of a Parris Island drill instructor. Marshall is a "yes sir, no sir" kind of serious guy. Now drop and give him 20.
Both brothers have piercing eyes. Both have the same short hair.They don't diet, they don't go to the gym and neither seems to have an ounce of body fat.
"It's the Everglades life,'' Keith says.
They enjoy talking about growing up.
"It was wild, it was free,'' Marshall says.
They swung from ropes over the Miami River and dropped, on purpose, onto the heads of unsuspecting alligators "just to see what would happen,'' Keith says.
"Grandma hated when we did that,'' Marshall says.
As small boys, they jumped into the river, swam deep and hunted by feel for antique bottles on the bottom. Occasionally in the murky water they touched a gator by mistake.
"You didn't want to tell Grandma that,'' Keith says.
"We were hellions,'' Marshall says. "We were her heathens.''
Every Sunday, the Queen of the Everglades drove them in her pink Cadillac to the nearest Baptist church, which happened to be miles away in Miami Lakes. Their faces scrubbed, hair combed and shirts tucked in, the twins squirmed in the pew until the last hymn.
Back in the Everglades, they fished, built forts and rode ATVs down the levees after wild hogs. Sometimes, when a hog leaped into the water to escape, they'd follow on foot. They'd tackle the struggling hog and dispatch it with a knife. Barbecue on the menu that night.
One time Keith grabbed what was supposed be a dead cottonmouth by the tail. He began waving it above his head like a lasso.
"Somehow I ended up hitting myself in the ear with the fang-end of that snake,'' Keith says.
"You started screaming 'I'm gonna die,' '' Marshall points out with glee.
"Well, I was only 15. I thought I got the poison in me.''
"We didn't tell Grandma.''
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Mack Jones died in 1985. Grandma Nell carried on running the fish camp and raising wild boys, doing her best to instill Baptist values in her own steel magnolia way. "Never mind the dog,'' said the well-known sign propped against the cash register. "Beware of the Owner.''
The handgun pointed at the customer in the sign was just for show. Grandma Nell never needed the assistance of Smith & Wesson.
Grandma Nell's wrath is the stuff of Everglades legend.
Here's one told by Gladesmen: A guy has too much to drink, gets rambunctious. "Honey, you got to quiet down,'' Grandma Nell says. He cusses her. Grandma Nell explodes from her chair and sets upon him with her enraged broom. Proceeds to break broomstick over his sorry noggin.
Drunk is mad at his woman. Gives her a vicious shove. Grandma Nell grabs for the broom, but her beauty-shop manicured hands somehow find a shovel instead. Swinging, she chases the drunk out the door. Somebody calls the sheriff.
"Here's the part I always loved,'' Keith says. "The deputies come but they just stand there and watch Grandma take care of the problem.''
Marshall continues the story. "Grandma would tell the drunk, 'You come back here again and I'll shoot you.' ''
"The deputies would say, 'Miss Nell, you know you can't shoot him. Just call us,' '' Keith says.
The boys chose Everglades girls whom Grandma Nell liked. Each twin has four children, including infants. They hope their kids can grow up to be Gladesmen, even the girls.
Grandma Nell died in 1999. The headline in the Fort Lauderdale paper caught the essence of her personality:
"She Enjoyed Conversation.''
The boys were only 20.
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They have done their best. They rent boats and sell bait. They take tourists for airboat rides. Being a Gladesman is what comes naturally to them, not business.
The federal government has proposed that Mack's Fishing Camp be listed as a national historic site. The twins are happy about it. Maybe the designation will help bring in some customers.
They are eliminating trash and clutter and selling off long-abandoned trucks and airboats. They are gathering keepsakes for a museum that might lure in a few tourists along with their regular anglers. They recently started a Web site. They talk about building cabins. They are holding barbecues again. All you can eat for 10 bucks and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the stereo.
Once again they want to be headquarters for what is left of South Florida's hunting community. But they are afraid those days may be over. Hunters and their airboats, swamp buggies and half-tracks have access to only a small part of the Everglades now.
"The world has changed a whole lot on us,'' Keith says.
In late afternoon he gives me a tour of his home, shows me prized photographs from the old days, and feeds me barbecue. Later, back in the swamp, he wants to show me another side of Everglades hospitality.
He stomps his 15EEEs on the boards of a dock.
The welcoming party, an enormous alligator, rushes out from underneath. A moment later gargantua uses his powerful tail and front legs to climb up next to us.
"Git now,'' Keith says, pushing the gator back into the water - with his bare hands. It hisses a dinosaur hiss and stares balefully.
"I call this one Elvis,'' Keith says. "I've known him since he was little. I can read him. I ain't afraid.''
In a moment of bravado, or Huck Finn foolishness, Keith wades into the swamp. Elvis, all 10 feet of him, rushes over and opens his jaws in a way that suggests a consuming hunger for a large meal. Keith doesn't retreat. He is a Gladesman.
Leaning over, he casually closes the gaping jaws with bearish hands.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."
IF YOU GO
Mack's Fishing Camp
From Tampa Bay, take Interstate 75 south to Alligator Alley. Head east on Alligator Alley to U.S. 27. From there, go south on U.S. 27 to Krome Avenue. Then go south on Krome to Mack's. For information, call (786) 308-7597 or go to www.mackseverglades.com.
To see video of the Jones brothers and Mack's Fishing Camp in the Everglades, go to links.tampabay.com.