By Casey Gauntt
“Do you see anything?” the deeply tanned man at the helm softly called in Spanish down to one of the equally dark young men on the deck of the boat. “Nada.” Nothing. It was early in the afternoon and the sun was a fully engulfed barbeque turned upside down over the sleek sixty foot vessel. There were eight of us on board. In addition to the boat’s captain and two crew there were a couple of other young men, a woman in her forties smoking an unfiltered Chesterfield cigarette, a pre-teens olive skinned girl and a man in his late forties, early fifties. This man was a very fit six feet, 185 pounds— clearly in charge. He was taking a siesta on the rear deck of the boat. He had a cerveza in one hand and a very high tech camera in the other. It was December 29, 1969, and we were twenty miles off the coast of Columbia south of its border with Panama. We’d been doing lazy circles in the oil-slick Pacific for over seven hours. At least two of us were constantly searching the ocean with binoculars. Nothing. Nada. Only one boat had ventured remotely close to us and that was over three hours ago. It was a Columbian Navy patrol boat. To them we looked like a harmless fishing vessel and they moved on. “Where are they” I whispered to the young man standing vigilantly beside me. “Maybe they won’t show.”
We heard it before we saw it. It was a combination of a finger snap and an ear piercing “ping!” as the line snapped out of the clothespin holding it to the outrigger pole hanging off the starboard side of the boat. The captain and crew screamed in unison, “HOOK UP!!” and the boat sprang to life. The boss-man bolted awake from his nap and, as he leapt forward out of his chair to grab the wickedly bending pole secured in its stancheon, line flying off the reel, tossed his beer bottle over the side and shoved the days-old camera into the pocket of his shorts to free up his hands. Well, that’s what he meant to do. As soon as he grabbed the fishing pole he immediately realized what the rest of us had seen him do. In a foggy excitement he had thrown his brand new Minolta, James Bond-class, camera over the side of the boat and stuffed the half full beer bottle neck first in the pocket of his shorts which had quickly soaked the front as though he had pissed himself. My brother G.G. and I couldn’t contain ourselves and erupted in laughter. My mother, Barbara, flicked the stub of her Chesterfield King into ocean’s ashtray and joined in the gaiety.
The man holding the pole, my father, was for him in a rare state of indecision. Should he jump in the water and try for his camera? But he has some huge fish on the line—a marlin or a sail for sure— the only fish of any size that had hit the bait all day. ‘Fight the fish?’ In those split seconds of hesitation he failed to set the hook and the as yet unseen monster-of-the-sea spit it out. The line went limp and surprise and decision gave way to anger, for now he had irretrievably lost both camera and fish. He pulled the now empty beer bottle out of his shorts and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. I was tempted to say, “Maybe you knocked the fish out, Dad,” and quickly thought better of it. When the captain and crew began to giggle and joined the rest of us in guffaws my father relented, smiled and pulled a fresh set of beers out of the ice chest for all of us, except our twelve year old sister, Laura.
Two years ago we spent the 1967 Christmas holidays in Honolulu.
Now in 1969, our family spent the Christmas holidays in Panama and deep sea fishing off Columbia. I was nineteen and in the middle of my sophomore year at the University of Southern California. My older brother, Grover Cleveland Gauntt, III (aka “GG” also our father’s nickname) was twenty-two and in the middle of his first year of the MBA program at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. My mother 48, Laura and 50 year old father, Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Jr., were living in Itasca, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. We met at the San Francisco airport and flew together to Panama City a couple of days before Christmas.
My father was the President of Case Foundation Company owned by my mother’s father, Vernon D. Case. In the mid 1960s the company started Case International de Panama S.A. to do construction and foundation work in Central and South America. My dad had an ownership interest in Case Panama as did his partner and good friend Mario Ospina, a Columbian by birth who ran the operations in Panama.
We had Christmas dinner with Mario and his family at the luxurious Hotel El Panama. The day after Christmas we boarded the Manana IV, an exquisitely appointed sixty foot boat my father and Mario frequently chartered to entertain clients, and headed south for six full days in some of the most renowned deep sea fishing waters in the world. Christmas vacation, December 1969. For me, that was the best family vacation we’d ever had. It turned out to be our last.