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Burning one's bridges to the past
Charles Willeford
May 07, 1973
He awaited retirement eagerly, a time to fish and feel the sun, but when it came, the old man on the highway span was sadly disillusioned
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May 07, 1973

Burning One's Bridges To The Past

He awaited retirement eagerly, a time to fish and feel the sun, but when it came, the old man on the highway span was sadly disillusioned

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One day some years ago I drove from Miami to Palm Beach for a business appointment, and it was on the kind of day that causes a man to move to Florida in the first place. Bright, sunny, with just enough homemade divinity in the sky to break up the monotony of the flat horizon. It was a goof-off day, and because I was goofing off I took the slower but scenic AIA route after the maze at Fort Lauderdale.

I crossed a drawbridge past Deerfield Beach and noticed the cluster of ancient fishermen on the crest of the bridge, their lines dripping over the concrete balustrade. But there was one old man down at the end of the bridge, well away from the other fishermen. The water was shallow near the bank, and I wondered why he didn't move higher up, where he could cast into deeper water. Perhaps the old man had discovered a deep pool or an eddy that could not be seen from the highway. Perhaps, if the old man had not been standing all alone, I would not have noticed him.

The business transaction in Palm Beach was pleasant. The man who gave me the check was happy to do so because the money belonged to his company and not to him, and I was happy to get the check because I had already worked out a great way to spend it when I got back to Miami.

Going home, I drove even slower than on the way to Palm Beach. This time when I approached the drawbridge below Deerfield the jaws were open. I parked on the side of the road and walked over to the abutment to watch a powerboat chug through. The captain, or pilot, wore a Navy blue flannel jacket and a yellow silk scarf. The woman with him, however, was wearing an orange bikini and a heavy layer of suntan oil. I could smell the woman and the coconut in the oil as the boat passed. The boat was almost out of sight before I spoke to the old man, who was still there, still fishing.

"Catching anything, Pop?"

He nodded. "Three bream. More'n I wanted to catch."

He was a clean old man, wearing stiff khaki chinos, blue canvas tennis shoes and a long-billed cap. His long-sleeved sport shirt still had starch in it, even though he had been standing out in the sun all day. His face was close-shaven and there was a scaly circle on each cheek the color of a ripe Valencia orange. Sun cancers. Benign, of course, but potentially dangerous—and sometimes they itch a little. I had one carved off my left temple by a dermatologist for $50, and it left a round white scar the size of a dime. Now that we are all wearing our hair a little longer, the scar is almost hidden. Florida fishermen get them constantly. Even if you wear a hat the reflection from the water gets to your face. But the prospect of sun cancers has had no statistical effect on the mass migration of old men to Florida.

I looked into this one's yellow plastic bucket. It held a Col. Sanders snack box, an empty Nehi bottle and a wadded Oh Henry wrapper.

"Where are the fish?"

He shrugged. "I turned 'em loose."

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