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Investigative Solutions

Aubrey Goff's Thanksgiving
By Bill E. Branscum   ©2003
(Click Pics to Enlarge)

Once in a while, life can throw you a really peculiar curve ball. Sometimes you find yourself being a spectator in your own life, where all you can do is watch and ride along. I found myself in that position on November 28, 1991.

I was employed as a federal agent at the time; I was a Special Agent, US Department of the Treasury here in Naples, and a friend of mine, Greg Goff, was a Special Agent in the local FBI office. Greg and his family were from Escatawpa, Mississipi, and he and his family are very close.

Greg was looking forward to a visit from his parents, Elsie and Aubrey Goff, who were coming to Naples for Thanksgiving. Greg told me that Aubrey, who was about 70, had been having some serious heart problems, and they had nearly lost him. Being able to spend Thanksgiving with his father was important to them all.

At the time, I was one of the few agents here who owned a boat, and Greg casually mentioned that he would appreciate it if I would make time to take his father, Aubrey for a boat ride. Of course, I said I'd be happy to take him out - after all, what's the big deal of taking somebody's father for a spin around the bay?

My 21' Paramount was a pretty thing, I designed the T-Top and spec'd her out myself. In those days, marine drug interdiction was a big part of what we did, and I loved working on the water. Fast, smooth, dry and maneuverable, my little boat would outrun anything we had.

Don't get me wrong - I know what a real first rate boat is. I was assigned to drug interdiction operations on this 39' Aronow Cat for years, and I know what kind of boats Grady, Pursuit, Mako and Blackfin build. As far as that goes, I have lain awake nights, lusting after that 31' fisherman's dream machine that Reggie Fountain makes.

Like I said, I know what a first rate boat is, but I also know what they cost to buy, operate and maintain. If someone had given me that 31' Fountain, I could not have afforded the fuel and insurance bills.

I bought this 21' Paramount, "Black Max" motor, double axle aluminum trailer, T-Top and electronics for about what the motors on that Fountain would have cost.

A poor man's Midnight Express, it was a sweet ride; in a light chop, I could have outrun that Fountain too!

I guess my point is, my boat wasn't the best boat on the market, but it was an uncommonly well designed hull, fast and fuel efficient. I was proud of it, and we used that boat like a boat was meant to be used, sometimes traveling as far as a hundred miles one way. I was happy to be able to take someone out for a ride who seemed likely to enjoy it.

Aubrey and Elsie Goff arrived in Naples several days before Thanksgiving - I know that because he called me just as soon as he got here. There was no doubt about it, he was enthusiastic about going out on the boat, and he asked if I thought it was possible that we might do a little offshore fishing too.

Aubrey Goff was an early riser - I know that because he called me the first thing the next morning, although I generally don't consider it to be morning before the sun is up. He allowed that the weather wasn't all it could be, but he was willing to go if I was.

Well, I wasn't - the weather was about two notches shy of a hurricane.

Aubrey Goff was a consistently early riser - I know that because . . . well, I'm thinking you know why. That man called me every morning to see if I'd be willing to brave the weather, every afternoon to see if I'd changed my mind and every evening to see what I thought was going to happen the next day.

I suppose I ought not make it sound that way, because it wasn't as if he was being pushy, inconsiderate or demanding. He was just overwhelmed with enthusiasm, and although he asked me every morning if it was too early to call, I never admitted that I had been asleep.

Unfortunately the weather did not get any better, and Thanksgiving was upon us with a with particularly poor weather forecast. Although I still hadn't actually met him, I was getting to know Aubrey Goff pretty well, and I could feel the depth of his disappointment. Since it was going to be his last day in Naples, I promised to take him for a ride Thanksgiving morning, and I committed to do it no matter what the weather might bring.

When Aubrey called, it was a truly ugly Thursday. I could tell that it was a bad day for boating even though it was still dark - the wind howling outside was a clue. Aubrey acknowledged the miserable weather, sounding like an exceptionally polite child agreeing that it would be OK to skip Christmas, but I had promised to go, and I wanted to meet the man who'd been calling me every day.

I told him I'd pick up the boat and come collect him with it on the trailer.

When I got to Greg's neighborhood, it was obvious where I was going - one very large Aubrey Goff was waiting for me out in the street. The way the weather was, I wasn't a bit sure we wouldn't wind up in Kansas, but we launched the boat at the public boat ramp by the time the sun came up.

When I pulled the boat around to the dock so Aubrey could board her, I realized how big a man he actually was. His reached out a hand that looked like a weathered catcher's mitt, and I noted that it was attached to a wrist that would have made a pretty fair ankle. Grabbing the T-Top, he pulled the boat to him like it was a child's toy.

I grew up on a Naval Base in Cuba called Guantanamo Bay where the water was our primary source of recreation. I don't know whether it was that, or being the son of a naval officer, or the years I'd spent in marine law enforcement, but I kept my boat immaculate. It was a good thing.

It was immediately obvious that Aubrey Goff knew his way around boats. He inspected the boat without appearing to, and probably without intending to. He knew what my EPIRB was, and he knew that there was no regulation requiring that I have it.

I think he figured that his Rastafarian looking boat captain might know stem from stern after all.

A more unlikely looking pair never sailed. Aubrey looked like a southern Sheriff who belonged in Floyd's barber chair, and I looked like I'd never seen one.

We could have made a Smokey & the Bandit movie, except that Burt Reynolds never in his life looked as scruffy as me.

A nicer day, but the same 'ole me

We cruised the inland waterway from Naples to Marco Island, and then I took him back around by Goodland. By the time I brought Aubrey back to Naples, we had been out several hours. I made the turn to Gordon's Pass just to show him that the seas were much too rough to venture out in.

That was my poor judgment.

"Hurricane Harry" didn't care about wind, waves or his heart condition. He'd come to fish offshore, and now I'd gone and showed him the way to get there. He looked like he'd swim if I didn't take him, so there was nothing to do but trim the bow down and ease outward.

The people in that sport fish must have thought I'd lost my mind.

Although theParamount has a flat pad step, the boat is a fairly "deep V" with hard chines. With the bow trimmed down a little, you can use the sharpest aspect of that angle to plow thru swells and she runs dry, even when the sea conditions are beyond lousy.

I hadn't actually expected to fish, but I had brought along a box of squid so I took Aubrey a couple of miles offshore to the place where the county had dumped some old airplanes to create an artificial reef. With the seas the way they were, there was not going to be any "anchor and drift back," so I used a grapnel hook to stern anchor into the structure.

Ordinarily that's a good way to lose an anchor, and when the seas are up, it's a good way to lose your boat. Even with a closed transom, a boat with the stern tied down can take on water when it's rough, and you best be prepared to cut loose the instant a wave breaks over the transom. The hull can't self-bail when the boat's anchored with the scuppers below the waterline.

It was a wonder to watch Aubrey fish. I'm satisfied that nobody ever mistook the man for a ballet dancer, and there probably was never anything graceful about him, but Aubrey got around on that rolling, pitching deck like it was his living room floor. The man was so comfortable, you'd have thought it was a dead calm August morning. I could see that this wasn't something Aubrey had been dying to do - it was something he had been dying to do again.

We talked a little while he fished, and I told him about some of my experiences working on the water. For one thing, I told him how it always amused me to hear some of the guys I worked with complain about that. I could just imagine the letters to the folks back home:

Dear Mom and Dad,

The government has sent me to Florida, issued me a quarter million dollar boat that'll make about sixty miles an hour at a cost of about seventy (yes 70) gallons of fuel (per hour). In the daytime, sometimes I cruise by the beaches, and on calm nights, sometimes I sit and fish while I wait for BLOC to vector me to an intercept. The government spends a fortune on gas and maintenance but I have to rinse the salt off it when I'm done. I am soooooooo miserable down here.

I supposed there was always going to be those who'd find Heaven to be insufferable, and Aubrey observed that you couldn't expect much else from college boys who'd never had a real job.

Aubrey told me he could remember being a young boy during the Great Depression, and the impact that it had on his life. Mostly, Aubrey just sat quietly and fished.

Aubrey asked me how I felt about the drug business and what I thought about this, "drug war." At the time, everyone talked about the "War on Drugs," and Miami Vice was the most popular show on TV.

I told him the story about chasing down a loaded drug boat one night off Lostman's River, and how they ran it aground trying to get away.

I was stuck on that boat with Al Hollingsworth for days - just he and I and a fortune in drugs.

We had guns, ammunition and my ever-present camera. I commented that my camera was a vintage Canon FTb that belonged to my brother, Barton, and my handgun was a Colt Officer's model that my brother had given me when I graduated from the federal academy.

What we didn't have was anything to eat, and "Big Al" was all sorts of impressed at my "Islander ingenuity," when I hopped over the side and dug us up a big bucket of clams. When I started shucking them with my knife and eating them on the bow, Al chose not to join me - while he was taking the pictures, he kept saying, "I can't believe you are eating that stuff raw."

"Well, Bill's gonna eat - if there's anything to eat; you just count your blessings that I was able to find these clams, Al." Aubrey found that to be wonderfully amusing.

On the subject of amusing, I told him about the ironies of the drug game - imagine intercepting a drug loaded boat named the "Why Me." That offload boat was not the only boat we caught that night - the other boat was named the, "Risky Business."

Ron and Jerry appreciated humor.

Aubrey asked me why I always carried a camera, even on a day as miserable as ours. I told him about sunsets I'd seen, about the picture I took of a Coast Guard 41 footer that we loaded with dope in the face of an oncoming storm, and a parking lot we filled with the most neatly baled marijuana that any of us ever saw.

To me, seeing an incredible sight with no camera, was like being told a hilarious joke that you'd never be able to share with anyone. Having a young son that I loved beyond words, I wanted to be able to share my life with him one day, so I always took pictures of everything I could.

Curiously, the wind died down by late afternoon and the sea had calmed remarkably. Aubrey wanted to know if I ever took my boat offshore. I told him about about motoring up to the distant wreck of the California one evening, and having a charter boat Captain hail me on VHF saying, "Are you guys on that motorized surfboard coming in from the west." "Well Captain," I replied, "I'd say that sun setting behind me is a clue."

Aubrey asked if I knew of any really good places to fish offshore. I told him about several rocks, reefs, ledges and wrecks within a few minutes of where we were, but he really wanted to be offshore - way offshore.

So, I told him about the Horseshoe Ledge 19 miles out, and catching the biggest lobster there that I, or anyone I knew, had ever seen. I suggested that a trip like that might be too much this soon after his heart problems.

In a matter-of-fact way, Aubrey said that it very well might, and just as casually asked how I was going to retrieve my anchor.

I wasn't sure what to say, so I put on SCUBA gear, flopped over the side and followed the line down to free my grapnel hook. We were only in about twenty feet of water, and it shouldn't have taken five minutes, but I took the opportunity to think things over and sat down there for a bit.

Ultimately, I resolved that a seventy year-old man ought to be entitled to do as he pleased, and carried my grapnel hook back up to the boat. Aubrey was looking at me a little strangely when he asked what we were going to do, and I think he knew what I'd been thinking. "Well Aubrey, with a compass a LORAN and the sun to guide you, do you reckon you could find your way west?"

Like most boat captains, I don't make it a practice to leave the operation of my boat to others, but I had a feeling that I should turn things over to him. Like most people who have spent time on other people's boats, Aubrey knew how folks feel about that. I will say that he obviously appreciated it, and it soon became clear that he knew what he was doing.

He trimmed the motor down, eased her up on step, and trimmed her out to run as smoothly as I could have done it myself. If we had the fuel to get there, I believe that Aubrey would have been all for buying our next tank of gas in Mexico. Truthfully, watching how much he was enjoying it, and knowing how much trouble we were going to be in for coming home late on Thanksgiving Day, I don't know that I'd have objected.

It was still pretty choppy, so the trip took longer than it otherwise would have, but after about thirty minutes, we were in seventy feet of water, and marking the Horseshoe Ledge. I put on a tank and dropped over the side with a conventional anchor and set it in a crack in a ledge.

I hadn't been down fifteen minutes, but when I climbed aboard the boat, the light wind that had accompanied us out there was gone entirely. It was eerie for the weather to die down like that.

The sea flattened out with hardly a ripple as if God waived a hand over it and Aubrey's pole dipped toward the bottom. I don't recall which fish were caught in what order, but over the next couple of hours, Aubrey caught a fish locker full of "keepers" and a dozen or so a little smaller.

The fishing didn't let up, and Aubrey didn't run out of bait, he just stowed his pole neatly and quit. I thought perhaps he had overdone it, but he looked perfectly comfortable as he sat back in the port-side chair, put his feet on the gunnel and looked out over the water.

I have to tell you, that the picture of that sky is like a low resolution rendering of an artist's masterpiece - it does it no justice at all.

I watched Aubrey as he sat in that pedestal chair, watching the sun go down in a sunset that was truly breathtaking. It sounds a little overly dramatic, but I felt like I was watching mother nature put on a show for him. How else was I to account for the fact that I was looking at the most beautiful sunset of my life, while accompanied by the person who would most enjoy it?

Aubrey sat there quietly for a long time and then finally talked a little, mostly to himself, about a friend he'd had in Texas, and how much he wished he could be there to see the sun go down with us. I don't know who he was talking about; I just listened, because it didn't seem like the time to ask

He began talking about his life, and it wasn't what most folks would call a scintillating tale of drama and intrigue - there were no tales of high adventure, reckless courage, or feats of derring do.

Aubrey said he had been a chef and he made it sound like he was a good one. He talked a little bit about his father, who taught him to be a butcher, and was almost apologetic when he told me that he had joined the military, and they made him a cook. Aubrey liked to cook for people, and it seemed like the most adventurous thing he ever did was help a friend who owned a commercial boat.

I suppose that's where he fell in love with the sea.

He talked about religion and, understandably I suppose, it seemed to be much on his mind. With conviction, he said he was proud to have been a member of the Methodist Church. I didn't know then, and I don't know now, what it is that makes the Methodists different, but I suppose he knew, and it was the kind of moment where a man might want to share something like that.

Most of all, Aubrey talked about his family, and it was completely clear that "family" was what Aubrey Goff's life had actually been about. He was teary eyed when he talked of Else, and about the wonderous privilege it was for him to share her life for forty years. I remember mumbling that forty years was longer than I had been alive.

He spoke with reverence about his wife, and with love about the children - their children and hers. Evidently, his wife had been previously married, and he reluctantly acknowledged that some of the children were hers, as if he didn't quite feel comfortable claiming more credit than he might be entitled to.

His modesty notwithstanding, I felt sure that he'd been a good father to the children, to the extent that any man could be. Aubrey was a quiet, sincere sort of a man, and there was no mistaking the depth of his emotion.

As we watched the sun slip over the horizon, he talked on through the twilight about his life, and love and dreams. For a man that seemd to be so quiet, he had a lot to say - he was endlessly proud that his children and grandchildren had all "turned out."

Aubrey seemed to have very few disappointments, and if he had any regrets he didn't mention them. It seems peculiar now to have shared such an intimate time with a total stranger, but at the time, it didn't seem the least bit odd at all.

When I finally got home it was late. I told my family a little bit about my day, how sorry I was to have spent Thanksgiving without them, but how important I felt that it was that I had been able to be there for him.

At the time, I thought fate had brought us together, so I could share something with Aubrey Goff; I had no idea that he had just spent the last Thanksgiving of his life, preparing me for the hard decisions that were to come in mine.

I hope to see Aubrey again one day. This time, I don't want to talk about work, guns, high speed chases or drug busts. I'd like to tell him about what it was to be a single dad, and that I have cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my children every year since our fishing trip.

I'd like to tell him about watching my son Dook catch a pass, and yelling myself hoarse as he ran it all the way for a touchdown - something I never did in my life. I know he'd love to hear about my Meggie dragging a bass into the shallows, and jumping in after it and I'd enjoy sharing the story about my "Perfect Day" with Ryan.

I especially want to tell him about my oldest son, the little guy we talked so much about. I want to tell him about how really hard, "hard times" can be for a young boy, the frustration of seeing a child hurt in places where he shouldn't have places, and tell him what a help that boy was to me thru all those difficult times.

I want to tell him about watching him grow up, and laugh with him about things he once said, that it took me so long to understand. I want to talk to him about my dreams, fears and the difficulty of "letting go," and tell him how proud I am that he "turned out."

I won't talk about regrets or disappointments - time is much too precious for that. I will share irony with him though.

What could be more ironic than to go from believing that no woman would want a relationship with a man raising four children, to complete conviction that a beautiful young woman has married you for your kids?

I'd tell him about Luz, the light of our lives, a young lady who has added so much to our family. Perhaps he could tell me how to cherish, protect and preserve that for forty years.

You see, it wasn't that Aubrey lived seventy years without ever doing anything dashing, or daring, and it wasn't that he led an empty life devoid of excitement, drama, and intrigue. That wasn't it at all. As he watched the sun set over the sea for the last time, Aubrey J. Goff told me what was really important in this life.

Mostly, I'd just like to thank him for that.

That was Aubrey Goff's last Thanksgiving,
and it was the last time that he was ever out on the water.
To all who'd listen, he repeated the story about this day,
when wind and waves mysteriously subsided as if by magic.
Aubrey always wanted a boat, so Else bought him one,
When he died six months later, he had never used it.
I believe that I understand why.



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