A Caribbean Cowboy
By the standards of most middle-income working Americans, I’ve led a
rough life and have very little to show for it. I grew up dirt poor in a
remote area of rural Florida. My parents split up when I was ten, and my
brother and I were raised by my mother and grandmother. I attended high
school for a grand total of two weeks, and I started working full time
on a commercial fishing boat when I was fourteen.
Today, even after a reasonably successful career as a professional bass
fisherman and guide, I wouldn’t be able to feed my family without the
meat I harvest from hunting and fishing. My wife and I moved out of our
home because of damage from Hurricanes Charley and Wilma, and the
insurance money we received was barely enough to repair the major
structural damage let alone bring the house back to its original
condition. We were forced to go back to renting until we could save
enough to buy or build a home of our own.
Despite all that, I truly feel blessed. I have a wonderful wife and two
sweet, intelligent daughters. I have a truck and a bass boat. (And I
know exactly what you’re thinking: “If your boat is worth more than
your house, you’re a redneck.” It is. And I am.) I live on the edge
of Lake Okeechobee, one of the best – and most beautiful - bass
fishing lakes in the world; and I spend most of my time outdoors
enjoying the natural beauty of all that God has given us. Fortunately,
that’s how I’ve spent the vast majority of my life.
I was born in 1965 in Hamilton, Ohio. We lived in a small wood-frame
house on my grandparents’ twenty-seven acre tree farm. My
grandparents’ home was a unique design built into the side of a hill
with two stories on one side and one on the other. We lived in the
smaller house until I was five when my grandfather passed away. We then
moved into the bigger house with my grandmother while my uncle moved
into the smaller house with his wife. We were a tight-knit family that
had a lot of fun together. One of my oldest and fondest memories was
sitting on my mom’s lap, holding a simple cane pole, and fishing on
the farm pond. I distinctly remember being hypnotized by the water and
the magical experience of fishing. My dad wasn’t much into fishing;
but he made it a point to drive my brother, Chris, and I around so we
could fish in all the local ponds. From the time we were little boys, my
dad also taught us how to shoot; and he always stressed the importance
of gun safety. In addition to my mom and dad, it was really my
grandfather who got me hooked on the outdoor life. He especially loved
fishing and inspired me to make a life of it. As a little boy I would go
into grandpa’s garage and stand there in awe looking at his collection
of rods and reels. Sometimes Chris and I would open grandpa’s tackle
box and carefully examine each of the lures. We’d each pick out a lure
and weave it through the air, imagining the way it might move in the
water. Every lure with their varying textures, shapes and color
combinations told a different story, and we longed for the day when we
would know what lure to use in what situation. And we longed for our
grandfather to teach us. I know he wished the same.
My grandfather’s dream was to someday sell the family farm, move to
Florida and open a fishing resort. He planned to get into the bait
business and help service the booming tourist industry. Grandpa died in
1970 before he could make that dream come true, but my grandmother was
determined to realize the vision she had shared with her husband. It
took a few years to sell the farm, but when I was ten my grandmother
purchased a fishing resort on South Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce,
Florida; and my mom, dad, brother and I moved down there with her to
start a new and exciting life.
We had visited this part of Florida on vacation trips for as long as I
could remember, and I’d always loved it. But actually getting to live
on the island, with its tropical atmosphere and perfect weather - all
surrounded by water and huge populations of every species of fresh and
salt water fish you can think of - made me feel like I was in paradise.
But even paradise can have a down side. When my grandmother bought the
resort, it pretty much wiped out our family savings and we were saddled
with a sizable mortgage on the resort. My dad left shortly after we
arrived in Florida and never came back. My brother and I were forced to
grow up fast and take on a lot of responsibility. Along with my mom and
grandmother, we learned to work together to get through the lean times,
especially in the summer when the tourists disappeared.
There were many times when we didn’t have enough money to buy
groceries. We struggled a lot, but we struggled in private. Most people
would see our real estate and assume we were wealthy – not realizing
all the overhead expenses we had to carry.
While groceries were often hard to come by, fish were plentiful. My
brother and I would grab a couple of nets, wade into the water, and
scoop up shrimp, clams, oysters and small fish by the dozen. It’s no
exaggeration to say that we lived off the water. One end of our property
dropped off straight down into the water and you could see clear through
to the bottom. The water was about thirty-feet deep, with lots of ledges
and reefs, and just loaded with lobsters. There were many times when we
couldn’t afford to have bacon or sausage for breakfast; but I’d get
up early, throw on my mask and fins, dive around the rocks, and pull up
two or three lobsters. Grandma would saute them in butter and we’d
have lobster and eggs for breakfast. To this day, my favorite meal is
fried fish and eggs. And if you add in some cheese grits, you’ll see
me eating with a grin the size of a largemouth lunker.
As hard as Chris and I worked to help out my mom and grandmother, we
still had plenty of time for fun. Looking back, I’m so happy to have
grown up in a rural setting in the decades of the 1970s and 80s. I’m
sure I sound like an old man when I say this, but my generation was the
last to grow up without all the electronic devices that kids have today.
We didn’t have video games, computers or cellphones. We did have a
television, but we had to lift our butts off the couch to change the
channel. We went to our friends’ homes to talk and play and we
organized fishing trips, baseball games and touch football games all on
our own without our parents’ help (or interference). Our parents
pushed us outdoors to play, and we wanted to be outside. Many of
today’s kids just don’t spend enough time outside enjoying the
weather and nature. It’s sad to me because I remember waking up every
day as a kid and wondering what kind of adventure I would experience
before I went back to bed that night.
For a couple of Ohio farm boys like Chris and me, Florida was a whole
different world. The kids we met thought we talked funny, and we thought
their southern drawls sounded even funnier. Most of the friends we made
in Florida were surfer kids and they called us Caribbean Cowboys.
Despite their love of the ocean, surfing and diving, many of the kids
seemed to take the natural beauty that surrounded them for granted. They
were all good people, but they wanted to party every single night. And
that partying lifestyle got some of them killed, snuffing out their
potential before it had a chance to blossom.
One of the first victims was my seventeen-year-old former girlfriend.
She was drinking while driving and, at age nineteen, I was a pallbearer
at her funeral. Two years later I attended the funeral of my best
friend, Ben – a great kid who I had done everything with: surfing,
fishing, and diving. Hardcore partying became his primary interest and,
one night after a particularly heavy binge, he totaled his car and we
lost him. He was cremated and, with a bunch of mutual friends, we
sprinkled his ashes from Dynamite Point into the Fort Pierce Inlet and
went swimming with him for the last time.
My brother and I were not immune to this reckless behavior, and we’d
get caught up with it once in a while. We’d go out with friends on a
Friday night, and we’d usually have plans to go out fishing or diving
early the next morning. We’d be ready to call it a night early, but
our friends would urge us to have just one more. Well before we’d know
it, morning had come around and we’d be suffering with splitting
hangover headaches. We’d spend the day sick in bed – sick to our
stomachs with the hangover and heartsick about losing a full day of
outside adventures. The good news is that those few transgressions
served as strong life lessons and reminded us why we didn’t drink and
party to excess. I love a cold beer on a hot day as much as the next
guy, but I’m a total lightweight when it comes to drinking and can’t
deal with a hangover. The same goes for Chris.
When I look back on all my friends who never saw thirty years of age, I
get chocked up and vow to continue preaching about how important it is
for parents to get their kids involved with something. And it doesn’t
have to be fishing and hunting like it was for me. It could be something
as simple as hiking, camping, or biking. It could be a sport like
baseball, soccer or golf, or a school activity like debating or the
arts. The key is to find something that interests their young minds and
bodies. It will keep them active and fit and help them stay away from
activities that are destructive to their lives, their families and their
One of my very earliest memories is watching television and seeing
images from the Vietnam War. I remember going out into the backyard,
walking around my grandparents’ farm, and feeling proud to be an
American and lucky to live in such a beautiful and peaceful country.
Today I feel just as proud and lucky, and I do indeed feel blessed. My
story is a simple one, and I share it with the hope that I can encourage
Americans from all around the country – from Red states and Blue
states, young and old, rich and poor – to embrace the values that our
nation was founded upon. We’re still the greatest country that the
world has ever known but, like my deceased buddies who took too much for
granted, we often lose sight of what’s truly important and what truly
matters. The rate of change in America and around the rest of the world
is accelerating, and that makes an understanding of history and our
individual and shared experiences especially critical.
Excerpted from "A Guiding Life: Living, Fishing and Hunting the American Dream" by Mark Shepard. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Shepard. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.