While easing my rental car toward the parking lot of MacRae’s of Homosassa (Motel—Boat Rentals—Live Bait—Fuel—Snacks—Riverfront Tiki Bar), I was constrained to wonder, “You know? You live in Florida for fifty million years and you think you’ve seen it all, but then...”
On the right, a flat expanse of the Homosassa River, one of the prettiest bodies of water on Florida’s West Coast, sparkled green and inviting through tin-roofed Old Florida architecture. On the left, a phalanx of motel room doors beckoned just as invitingly from a long log cabin. And straight ahead, hordes of people were rockin’ a major-league karaoke operation: rich, poor, skinny, thick, tall, short—you name it. Some dancing, some singing, some sitting and some just wandering around.
Finding a parking spot took half an hour. Then, considering that I had to get myself downriver early the next morning to interview Bonnie Van Allen (a.k.a. “Bonnie the Bait Lady”) for our sister publication Anglers Journal, I worked my way over to the boat rental shop.
“Hey Bill,” somebody hollered as I came out. I turned to see a big guy with a cowboy hat, wraparound sunglasses and a big cigar. “Man, you been recognized.”
Capt. Jeff Beeler introduced himself as a Homosassa tour-boat operator and longtime fan of Power & Motoryacht. Then he hit me with a brief history of MacRae’s (“Yup, years ago, the artist Winslow Homer used to stay right over there in that old house.”), inquired whether I’d rented a jonboat or a pontoon boat (“Pontoon’s faster.”) and asked if my own boat, the Betty Jane II, might be nearby. When I admitted I’d arrived by car he was obviously disappointed, but then he perked up. “Mind if I introduce you to some people?” he asked, heading for the crowd.
I soon discovered that all the hubbub was due to a celebration of life party for local fisherman William F. “Bunky” Lyles, recently deceased and apparently much loved. And I also discovered that the fellow who seemed to be in charge of the festivities was also a big guy, with a big cigar.
“Bill,” said Jeff, “meet Gator MacRae. Gator, this here’s my friend Bill. He’s doin’ a magazine story about Bonnie.”
The conversation that followed was mostly drowned out by a roaring rendition of The Allman Brother’s “Ramblin’ Man,” but I’ll say two things about it. First, it involved a remarkable degree of generosity. “You need anything, Bill, you let me know,” yelled Gator. “And you got the boat for free, man—I’m not chargin’ you.” And second, the level of open-handed friendliness it offered was just as remarkable. “Want some fried chicken?” asked one of Gator’s buddies, a young sportfishing guide with a backwards baseball cap, raccoon eyes and a proffered paper plate.
Later that evening, I sat by myself in “The Shed,” an open-air restaurant, not far from the boat-rental place. But while I was enjoying a tasty meal of fried scallops, I also did some worrying. From the Navionics cartography on my iPhone, I could see that my trip down the Homosassa in the morning was going to be a tad complicated—the bottom was rocky and the channel torturously twisty. Moreover, I had zip for local knowledge.
As I downed the last scallop, however, guess who showed up? Jeff! “So, Bill,” he said, “I don’t want to interrupt, but I can take you down to the mouth of the river tonight in my boat, before it gets too dark. That way you’ll know where you’re goin’ in the morning.”
I jumped at the chance. And the ensuing down-and-back sunset cruise lasted just about two hours, so my guess is that it was pretty darn late that night when Jeff finally got back to his Crystal River home.
“Thanks so much, Jeff,” I said, as he got into his car. “You really helped me out.”
“Oh well,” he replied. “That’s just how people are around here, I guess. No big deal, Bill. No big deal at all.”