196. Going Somewhere to Say Goodbye

Going Somewhere to Say Goodbye:  We laid my Grandfather Donald Schang Sr. to rest last weekend in a remarkable way, by scattering his ashes amongst the brackish mangrove backwaters of the Ten Thousand Islands in the Florida Everglades. It was one of the most quietly powerful moments of my life, watching that cloud of ash roil and bloom in the stillness of Alligator Bay. This is the kind of travel moment that touches you in a way that no other can.

If you’ve never been to the Everglades, you should know that there are two faces to this vast subtropical wetland. One is the expansive sawgrass prairies and cypress swamps mythicized in pop culture and marketed to tourists by way of alligator-peppered airboat excursions. The other is a maze of mangrove forest that slowly gives way to the Gulf of Mexico. It was in this latter tangle of bays and rivers sixty years ago that my Grandfather, a dentist in Miami, managed to buy a small sheltered patch of muck with two friends – another dentist and a pilot who first spotted this particular sportsman’s paradise from the air while flying training routes for American Airlines.

They enlisted the help of a carpenter to design, cut and number the lumber needed for a small one-room cabin. They hauled the lumber out on skiffs, drove pilings by hand deep into the shifting soils and built the cabin just behind the first line of mangroves, out of sight of passersby who might be tempted to investigate. By day they reeled in giant tarpon and snook and shot ducks from a nearby blind. By night they reveled in isolation to a symphony of insects and the distant idling of midnight alligator poachers. Schang-ri-la. These were good old days.

The cabin was burned by the government in the 1970s when the land was annexed as part of an expanded Everglades National Park, so I’ve never seen it outside of faded photos and grainy film footage. Nevertheless, this side of the Everglades was the one I came to know in my youth through early morning fishing casts, afternoon swims and fond recollections of cabin days. Journeying 3,000 miles to pay tribute here was awesome, a lifetime away from the dour affairs at mortuaries and cemetaries that are conjured with most family memorials. We told stories, cried and laughed while morning clouds drifted apart to throw the hot southern sun on our faces. Manatees lumbered by, porpoises raced the bow and a manta ray caught flight in the distance. Then, when my Grandfather’s remains had finally settled to the sandy bottom to forever ebb and flow with the tides, we did exactly what he would have wanted us to do. We went fishing.

Our guides Norman and Houston, two men born and raised where the asphalt ends at Chokoloskee, knew my Grandfather either in person or through the recollections of their own fathers. The outdoors in their blood and thick rural Florida accents on their tongues, they taught Amy to cast a line for the first time and coaxed shy redfish from their shoreline hides. C’mon big reds.

We did eventually catch some of those redfish along with a few notable sea trout and much to everyone’s delight, casting came quickly to Amy. She’s a natchral, as they say, even though she quietly confessed to me several times that she really hoped she wouldn’t catch/kill anything. Mission accomplished because much to Houston’s chagrin, she caught only a tiny, bait-snatching yellowjack that was scolded and thrown back. Guides don’t like to bring newbies back to the dock without any keepers, so when a massive afternoon thunderstorm threatened to swallow us whole, Houston dallied too long for our tastes, trying to find some reassurance from the weather radar app on his iPhone.

Amy: Oh my god that lighting is so close, I can’t even look in that direction any more.
Houston: Now hang on, I want to figure out how far away it really is.
Amy: Really, I’m totally fine with not catching any keepers.
Houston: Naw, look, if that storm is ten miles away and moving ten miles an hour, we got another hour of fishin’!
Me: He really wants you to catch something.
Amy: The only thing I want right now is to not be struck by lightning.
Houston: Dang this thing is slow, I really wish we got 3G down he-

KABOOM

Houston: Woo that was close! We gotta get outta here!

We made it back to the dock a moment before all hell broke loose around us, the kind of oh-my-God-are-you-kidding-me moment that seems to come so easily to my family and which Amy has branded “Schanganigans.” I’m sorry Grandpa wasn’t around to hear that term, because he would have loved it with a clap of his hands and a deep belly laugh. Loved it the same way he loved the anticipation of a boat launch at dawn. Loved it like the midday frenzy of hungry fish and busy nets. Loved it like the spray in his face as he raced his boat home, surrounded by the crackling thunder that comes this way every day.

 

  1. Jeff says:

    wonderful post sloan. thanks for sharing this amazing experience. i see amy’s new fb profile pic there – great shot.

  2. Erin says:

    Beautiful.