T-Shirts and Old Salts

Several years ago I mentioned in a newspaper column about how much a conversation starter wearing a Bass Pro t-shirt or pulling a boat is. Tons of people fish and are always willing to talk about it. Pull into a gas station with a boat hooked to the back of your vehicle and you’re almost guaranteed a conversation and often some good tips on where to go and what to do. I’ve learned a lot about Florida fishing while getting gas in Southern Georgia.

My wife and I decided to take the grand kids on a mini-vacation during the Labor Day school break and we went up to Lake Erie for several days. The second day there we took the ferry over to Kelly’s Island and spent an afternoon. At the end we pulled into the village and while the family was touring the many gift shops I decided to recreate in a local tavern called The Village Pump. I chose this bar because it had the same name as a tavern that once existed in my home town.

It was a good choice in that they had a nice selection of craft and imported beers. I ordered up a Heineken Dark and after a couple of sips an elderly gentleman across the bar asked me where I had served? At first I was a little confused then remembered I was wearing a t-shirt from the US Navy Lonesome Sailor Memorial in Washington, DC. He was asking where I had served while in the Navy. I then noticed he was sporting a nice Navy Veteran ball cap and that was the connection.

It was soon obvious the both of us were a little hard of hearing so I picked up my brew and took a stool next to him. He wanted to know if I had ever been to Pearl Harbor. I then told him that I had spent my time in the Atlantic aboard destroyer escorts and destroyers plying the North Atlantic and the Caribbean.

The old salt told me that he had been born, raised, and lived his life on Kelly’s Island except for in 1942, he was drafted into the Navy and sent to permanent assignment at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He was very aware of the irony of Uncle Sam having taken him from one island and planting him on another. This fellow had literally spent the bulk of his life living on an island and was fond of saying, “It’s not for everybody.”

I heard stories about life at Pearl Harbor during WWII and a lot about the rigors of life along Lake Erie. We talked about the old Ford tri-motors that once served the island, ice fishing during the winter, driving vehicles across the ice to Port Clinton and Marblehead during the winter when the lake was too frozen for boats and ferries. A major rule was to never drive on to the ice with your windows rolled up. If you broke through it would be your only way out of the car and to the surface.

Kelly’s Island is one of those places that is running over with people during the summer but almost comes to a stop when the tourist go home. The old salt told me that in winter the only place open was the VFW and the population was only around 125 souls. He followed that with another, “It’s not for everybody.”

I could have sat there and chatted with that gentleman for at least another round of drinks but just as I was enjoying the last sip of my beer the grand kids showed up to tell Big Papa it was time to be responsible again. So, the old WWII vet and I shook hands, thanked each other for the stories, and went on our respective ways. I couldn’t help noticing he was pretty bent over and very dependent on his cane as he walked out to his golf cart. This fellow had seen a lot in his island life and I was all too happy to have spent some quality time with him  and have a chance to thank him for his service to America. And once again a simple t-shirt gave me another experience that enriched my life.

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