Outside magazine, January 1997
On a moonless night some years ago, my friend Bobby Fizer jumped without warning from a speeding boat into a dark saltwater bay--outrageous behavior that I might have applauded had it not been my boat, my liability insurance, and my Coast Guard captain's license that were on the line. Authorities get testy when it comes to losing passengers.
One moment Bobby was at my side as we skipped across the bay at about 35 miles an hour. The next moment I felt the boat list heavily to starboard, and he was gone.
Confused, I yanked back on the throttle and yelled to one of our companions, a guy named Hervey, "Hey, where's Fizer?" Professional that I am, I knew that it is difficult to misplace a former Ohio State defensive back on an 18-foot skiff.
"He jumped," Hervey replied. "The idiot just jumped."
"He what?" I was already wheeling the boat around. "You mean he fell overboard?"
"Nope. The dope jumped. It was his idea. Leave him. He'll make it back."
We were two, maybe three miles from the mainland. "I'm not even sure he can swim."
"He can swim," Hervey said. "He's from Ohio, isn't he? Almost everybody from Ohio can swim."
Behind us, sea and sky came together in a rind of January gray. The bay was black and without borders. I had a small flashlight, but its beam was no match for a cloudy winter night. I panned the light around. Nothing. When I switched if off, Hervey was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "There he is. You see him?"
What I saw was a boiling green light in the distance. Earlier in the evening, we had remarked on the unusual brightness of the water, an eerie phosphorescence created by plankton that fire up like lightning bugs when disturbed. Our wake had been an expanding cone that flamed like turquoise paint. There were only a few weeks in each year when the phosphorescence was so vivid.
Studying the glob of murky light, I said, "Yeah, anything that size, it's either Bobby or a small whale."
As we approached Fizer, it was as though he had been internally illuminated by some secret radiation experiment from the fifties. His hair, face, and hands were all glowing. When we were near enough, I cut the engine and listened to him yell, "What a hoot! Watch this!" He began a clumsy synchronized-swimming routine in which each sweep of his hands created long, bright contrails in the water. "I had to do it," he explained as he climbed back on board. "That stuff hypnotized me. I kept imagining what it would be like just to let go and bail. It was even better than I thought. It was like jumping into the stars."
Fizer was a favorite road buddy of mine. He was very funny, but he was also prone to dangerous behavior: Producing firearms at inappropriate times and in unexpected places was not out of character for him. He was almost always late--sometimes he never arrived at all--but he was a gifted athlete and a good guy to be with in a tight spot.
A partnership is defined by one's willingness to go to the aid of another. It's an obligation that blends conscience and accountability, and in that sense Fizer was always dependable. He could also be depended on to continually invent bizarre and outrageous things to do. The Dead Writers Wiffle Ball World Series was one. The Three Mile Golf Classic was another. Now, with this unexpected leap, he was blazing a new trail. The question was, would we follow?
"It's one of the most awesome things I've ever tried," he told us. "It's like you're flying through space, then there's this explosion of light. You tumble through it like a meteor."
Another interesting aspect, Fizer noted, was all the big sharks that cruised the area: "It adds just the right edge to the whole deal."
The guy was almost unfairly persuasive. That evening, the Jumping Out of the Boat at Night Club was founded. I'm not going to romanticize an activity that is adolescent and dangerous. Indeed, I'll be blunt: Do not sneak to the stern of a vessel that is traveling 30 or 40 miles an hour over black water and jump. Don't let anyone you know try it. It's not worth the risk.
Still, the Jumping Out of the Boat at Night Club enjoyed an existence of some four years, always meeting on moonless nights when the phosphorescence was exceedingly bright. The membership was small and select. It included public servants, teachers, a National Book Award winner, and the manager of a Major League Baseball team.
The club was founded on a contagious madness, one that had little respect for intellect. But at a certain point in the maturing process we all realized how stupid it was, and we closed the books on the membership, and then closed down the club. It got to the point where an out-of-the-boat jumper couldn't be certain the driver would return in less than an hour--or return at all.
"It's getting harder and harder to maintain that edge," Fizer explained one night as we approached my rickety dock. "I mean, after 30 times, it's just not spontaneous anymore."
A few weeks ago, Bobby Fizer returned to that same dock for a small ceremony that we were holding in his honor. He was uncharacteristically punctual, but only because he came with his big, bear-size brother, Scotty. With them was their father, their stepmother, their sister, Tonia, and Bobby's two daughters. When Scotty saw me, he approached quickly and removed the lid from a small container. "You won't believe what I just did," he said. "I tripped coming across the road and spilled some."
He was talking about the contents of the urn he was carrying. I told him, "The guy liked roads. Don't worry about it."
Scotty was sifting the contents of the urn through his fingers. "Look at this stuff. It looks like cat litter. The whole package, it weighs like ten pounds. When he was in pretty good shape, he weighed, what, 220? I can't believe it. We've got that much water in us?"
He was talking about the way his brother had been, the way he was now. He was talking about Bobby, who had died of natural causes at the age of 43.
A friend told me recently that you know you've reached middle age when your travel partners start dying. "'Natural causes' is the key phrase," he said. "Listen for that, and you'll know." I think he was referring to any "cause" other than foreign taxis, air crashes, faulty climbing gear, boating accidents, or street thugs. In short, he was excluding situations in which we have a hand in the decision-making process. If there is risk in what we do--and an active life always involves risk--then we have the option of throttling back and living safe but dull lives, or we have the option of embracing those risks and trying to manage them as best we can. Perhaps that's why the phrase "natural causes" is so disturbing. It describes a process over which we have no authority and less control. It transforms death from an external variable into an internal eventuality in which our own bodies turn traitor. To accept that process is the challenge of middle age and, to my way of thinking, demands a spunky screw-it-all attitude, as well as the same kind of emotional untethering that travel itself requires.
There's a lot to be said for just letting go. It also helps to keep in mind that that bastard Grim Reaper is loose in the room and moving targets are harder to hit.
All my friends, all the people I most admire, are movers. Bobby was a mover; so was my buddy Totch Brown. Totch was born in the mangrove backwaters of the Everglades. His father was a Cracker entrepreneur who fished, made moonshine whiskey, and smuggled rum for a living. Totch carried the family legacy into modern times by fishing and smuggling illegal flora from Central America. "Pot hauling," he called it. Because Totch was a brilliant waterman, the Coast Guard never caught him. Because Totch wasn't a brilliant bookkeeper, the IRS did.
Not long after Totch was released from the penitentiary, he offered to join me on a trip to Panama. "Randy," he promised, "there are men in Panama who will do anything I tell them to do. I've done a lot of business in those parts."
Totch had a strong artistic side. He wrote country music and published one very good book, Totch: A Life in the Everglades. He was a brilliant storyteller and no stranger to hyperbole. I wanted Totch to accompany me not just because he was a lot of fun to travel with, but also because I wanted to find out if he was exaggerating his familiarity with Central America.
He wasn't. As soon as we arrived at the international airport in Panama City, Totch seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed delighted to see him. His personal driver picked us up. As we were being driven to our hotel, Totch would occasionally nudge me, point to a building, and proudly proclaim, "See that place? I used to own me a business in that place."
Asking Totch what business he'd been in was a precarious matter with potential legal ramifications, but I asked anyway. His answer surprised me.
"What I did in Panama City, Randy, was open me a string of seven tanning parlors."
Tanning parlors? As delicately as I could, I pointed out that tanning parlors seemed a risky investment in a city that lies near the equator and is populated with people who are pretty dark to begin with.
Totch thought about that for a moment before he said, "By God, I wish I'd talked to you before I done it," he said. "Every one of them bastards went bust!"
Another friend who kept moving was Genny Clements. Genny was the stepdaughter of Mack Hamby, one of my favorite people in the world--and not just because he managed the marina where I was a fishing guide for 13 years. When Genny was in high school, she liked to canoe through the mangrove estuaries, and she loved getting out on open water. She was a good person to be with in a boat. Having grown up at the marina, she knew how to handle herself.
As big and pretty and strong as she was, Genny developed health problems early on. She was told it would be difficult to have children, but she married my buddy Nick, who worked at the marina, and they went ahead and had a boy, Ian, and a girl, Hayley, anyway. "I don't have time for experts," she told me once.
Nick and the children liked to travel as much as Genny did. In fact, they were staying at a cabin in the North Carolina mountains when Genny realized that she was sick again.
"Can you believe it?" Nick would ask me on nights when I stopped by to help Genny and the kids. "I still can't believe it." It's the rhetorical question most commonly asked in such situations.
Genny died this past winter. Totch hit the high trail in May. Natural causes, both--though in light of our predicament, and in terms of the adventure in which we are engaged, all causes seem no less natural than, say, leaping off a speeding boat into black water.
I didn't tell Bobby's family that his was the third funeral of a close friend that I had attended in only a few months. I was asked to give the eulogy, an honor that was hard to covet and impossible to dodge. I can't remember exactly what I said to that crowded room. I know I said, "The guy was a hoot. Wasn't he a hoot?" because that was a favorite expression of his. I know I also talked about returning from Cuba's Mariel Harbor to Key West during the 1980 boatlift. Some friends and I had spent more time in Mariel than we had expected, and we had returned with a lot more refugees than we had wanted. Now stranded in Key West, filthy, soaked, and without much money, we discussed whom among our friends we could call to come pick us up and drive us six hours home again.
We called Bobby. "Are you nuts?" he yelled back over the phone. "Do you think I'm crazy?" But he agreed, of course. We spread out our clothes to dry while we slept.
Some time around three in the morning, I was awakened by a massive banging noise. The door was kicked wide open, and there stood Fizer, looming in the doorway. He looked gigantic and deranged in his cowboy hat, boots, and mirrored shades. He tilted his sunglasses up just enough to survey our wreck of a room before he spoke. "You people are a menace to yourselves and everyone who knows you," he said. "If the cops show up, I'm going to claim I've placed you all under citizen's arrest. I've got a gun--I can do it." He touched the rim of his cowboy hat, a Clint Eastwood gesture. "Just so you know where I stand."
I told that story at the eulogy, and then I said something that I thought might make the man's family feel better: "Bobby had great energy, and energy cannot be destroyed. It has nothing to do with religion or hope. It's a fact of physics."
Standing on my rickety dock with Fizer's family, however, I wasn't so certain that the sentiment was true. Middle age does not suffer wistful platitudes gladly. So I listened to the other speakers, and I tried to comfort the daughters as best I could before boarding my skiff with Scotty, Tonia, and their father to spread the remainder of Bobby's ashes in the bay. It was nearing dusk, but it was not pretty outside. The family had been hoping for a symbolic sunset. Instead, they got rain, and then more rain.
Scotty sat to my right, the urn in his lap, glowering at the sky as we powered off toward a place in the bay that was one of Bobby's favorite spots. "I hate rain," Scotty growled. "Despise the stuff." Spirits were no higher in the forward part of my boat, and in an attempt to lighten the mood I pointed ahead to a section of deep water and began to tell them about our Jumping Out of the Boat at Night Club.
"This is where we did it," I told them. "Always right in here and usually going about this fast."
Bobby's father, Robert Sr., smiled a little. "That sounds like him. That sounds just like him. He loved stuff like that."
"Yeah," Scotty said, and then he was silent for a moment, looking at the blur of water. I didn't expect him to do what he did next, although I highly approved. He nudged me, flashed a wicked grin, then flung the urn overboard. It was the first time I'd heard him laugh in several days. "Hey, Dad, guess what?" he said. "Bobby just bailed."
I circled back, switched off the engine, and we drifted through the turbidity created by the ashes, a slow cloud of reds and grays that, on a day so dark, seemed as lucent as starlight.
Copyright 1997, Outside magazine
Illustration by Calef Brown