Trouble in Cedar Key: Mullberries, sheepshead, the Big Dock and Bernie

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By Gene Benedict

Mulberry trees grow hereabouts. Trimmed a certain way, you might even call them bushes. Right now, the mulberries are ripening. The fruit is dark colored, nearly black, clustered much as blackberries. The flavor is gentle and sweet unlike blackberries, which are strong and tart. As with most fruits, there are many ways to serve them, most generally mixed with other fruits, over cereal, over ice cream, or baked in pies and pastries.

Bernie grew them. He had quite a few trees in his yard. He nurtured them, he fertilized them, he watered them. And when the trees yielded, he got the largest, sweetest mulberries I've ever had. He and Maria owned an acre or so on the water on Kiss-Me-Quick, near Number 3 Bridge. Bernie and Maria took pride in their gardens, their oaks and their homestead.

Bernie, a short, stocky, muscular man, was a fisherman as well as a gardener. He was disabled at some point in his life and didn't work. Maria worked in the kitchen of the Sea Breeze. English is Maria's second language and Bernie's first. She is a beautiful dark-haired woman with equally striking children. Bernie caught enough fish on rod and reel to feed the family, still giving away most to friends.

Bernie's favorite fish were the sheepshead, those tall-backed dark fish with vertical bars along the body. They eat barnacles, oysters, crabs and other crustaceans. They are fairly easy to clean with boneless filets on both sides. And they are tasty, fried or broiled. Many consider them a delicacy. He loved to catch them, eat them, and give them away.

The sheepshead's favorite hangouts were along the pilings, underwater rocks, other places similar that were homes for shellfish and crustaceans. Bernie fished the Big Dock. He was there nearly every day. For bait, he brought clumps of oysters from the water in front of his house, or crabs from thereabouts. He chummed using a hoe-type tool with a fashioned handle to scrape barnacles from old wooden pilings along the Dock. He held his rod with baited hook pointed down along the pilings, line in one hand feeling for a bite.

He was a sight. Locals and visitors alike knew him. He always had a smile on his face and good things to say. He wore work boots and jeans held up by a belt fashioned from a gator paw, the claws to the front, a plaid shirt, and a ball cap. He was constantly pushing his glasses up to keep them on his nose.

He showed others interested how to catch fish, how to set the hook. And if you had a fish on one line, he'd grab the other, set the hook and hold on until you were ready to fight that one.

When he wasn't fishing, he was tending the gardens or doing chores around the house. Actually, the gardens and the house were priorities, as were other things Maria wanted. He just scheduled those things around the tides and the sheepshead.

When the mulberries were ripe he always had a quart or a gallon, or more, fresh berries hidden in the shade by the tires on his truck by the Big Dock to give his friends. He was as much a part of that dock as were the wooden deck timbers, the steps, the pilings. They all blended in together. And when you saw Bernie there, you knew everything was all right, that things were in their place.

We lost Bernie a couple years back in a boating accident half a mile, maybe, from the Big Dock he loved, from where Maria worked, from the streets of the Cedar Keys. A handful of us joined the family to spread his ashes near Atsena Otie.

Maria, buoyed by family and friends stayed a while, then left because of the memories. The homestead has changed hands a couple of times, the mulberry trees are gone, the house and outbuildings are gone, but the oaks still stand. Now no one lives on that property. It's a vacant lot.

And the sheepshead wait...

That Big Dock has many memories for us here on the Cedar Keys. Till next time we talk, here I am, looking for Trouble in Cedar Key.

E-mail: tnckgebe@yahoo.com