Jose Gaspar was noted for being the last buccaneer, raiding the coasts of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico from around 1783-1821. He was a thief, a murderer, a kidnapper, and an overall not-so-nice guy. So it came as no surprise to me that the city of Tampa would choose to celebrate his life and times every January with a parade and a mock invasion of our fair city in a huge, colorful pirate ship.
Yesterday I was a part of the throngs of drunken, disoriented boaters who floated around Tampa Bay in a perverse version of aquatic bumper cars, drinking everything from lukewarm beer to Jello-O shooters, throwing away and receiving colorful beads, and coercing young women to bare their breasts for even more of these beads. These women do this, of course, because begging complete strangers for cheap costume jewelry isn’t humiliating enough…
From one of the many news copters hovering above the debauchery, the assortment of boats in the harbor must have looked like ten pounds of floating shrapnel had been dumped into a rusty toilet bowl. Not the stuff of pretty postcards. And on the subject of toilet bowls, one may wonder how thousands of maddened drinkers relieve the pressure of full bladders in such tight and visible company. On our boat, we had been provided with a canvas booth of sorts, that could be lifted up and held in place while a boat passenger was zipped up inside. There was no tank below, filled with chemicals to nullify the harsh effects of recycled booze and junk food. There was just a hole that led into Tampa Bay. This gave a person the opportunity to kill fish in the privacy of his or her own canvas enclosure.
It was brutally cold when we put the boat in the water that morning, and long icicles hung from the gunwales of our ratty little pontoon boat. Since the air was colder than the inside of our coolers, we laid the Jell-O shooters our on the foredeck in neat, colorful rows, and soon they were all covered with frost. They looked like miniature cup cakes with white icing. Disturbingly festive, indeed.
By the time we had motored all the way into the harbor between Tampa General Hospital and the Convention Center, the wind had picked up and the waters were getting dangerously choppy. We had all been drinking and eating shooters for hours, and the usual hallucinations were starting to kick in, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was convinced that huge, angry alligators were circling our vessel and planned to eat us, or, worse yet, steal our beer. I consulted the Captain, who was too busy initiating his “Beads for Breasts” program, while scraping up against other boats. The rest of the crew were screaming at the Captain or fighting over the remaining Jell-O shooters. I felt that the alligator menace was real, and I knew I had to fix things on my own.
Without hesitation, I grabbed the largest icicle off the side of the boat, a good foot-long dagger, and then I dove into the icy cold water. One incredibly large gator approached me slowly, menacingly, without any indication of backing down. I held my breath and swam below the toothy beast, with the aim of stabbing it in its soft underbelly. I jabbed the monster repeatedly with my frozen sword until the water around me was red with blood. My lungs ached for oxygen and my work appeared to be done, so I swam to the surface and gulped a lungful of the cold, smoggy air. The funny thing about cold water is that it sort of sobers a person up. When I looked back at the red-tinted water, I realized that, instead of killing an alligator, I had dispatched a helpless manatee. Luckily the law enforcement boats were busy arresting strippers and trying to stay out of the way of our inebriated Captain. My crime went unnoticed.
With the help of the rest of the crew, we were able to drag the manatee on board. We couldn’t dispose of it without being noticed, so our only option was to field dress it right there on the boat, and eat it before anyone was the wiser. We sliced it open with broken beer bottles, tossing its innards into the hole inside of the canvas-enshrouded bathroom. We quickly chopped it into dozens of good-sized steaks, but we had nowhere to cook them. Since the boat was made out of wood, it was an easy decision to set the stern on fire in order to grill the remains of the hapless beast.
By this time the Gasparilla pirate ship was sailing into the harbor, and the smoke pouring out of the hot cannons camouflaged the dark billows of smoke coming off of our own boat. It took approximately fifteen minutes to cook the manatee steaks. ( Three minutes to marinate them in Captain Morgan’s rum, and then cooked for six minutes on each side.) I don’t know if Captain Morgan was a real pirate, but I learned to respect him that day much more than Jose Gaspar.
We ate whatever meat we could, and even the Captain munched down a few bites after he put out the fire in the stern. Any leftover meat was given to the guys in the Coast Guard boats, mostly because drunken pirates like us enjoy being ironic.
By the time the boat fire was out, we listed dangerously to the starboard side of the stern, but we were still afloat. The Jell-O shooters were all gone, the beer was low, and we only had seven or eight bottles of rum left for all five of us. We would run out of supplies in a matter of an hour, maybe two, and we felt that desperate measures had to be taken. Like our mentor, Jose Gaspar, we decided to kidnap a wench and hold her for a ransom of alcoholic beverages. The easiest woman to capture would be one of the naked, inflatable dummies that adorned the bows of many of the parked ships, and we knew we could ransom one for a higher price than a real woman, because an inflatable wench wouldn’t drink up any of the precious rum. Once again I dove into the frigid waters and swam toward a nearby sailboat with a fully-inflated plastic wench attached to the mast with a series of bungee cords. I pulled myself up along the bow of the boat and reached into my back pocket, pulling out a handful of beads. I tossed the colored beads just over the heads of the crew, and they landed with a thump in the cockpit. As they wrestled each other for the beads, I stealthily detached the air-filled manikin from the mast and dove overboard with her and a six-pack of Natty Boh I found on the bow. I swam quickly toward our pontoon boat.
The kidnapping idea didn’t go as planned, as the Captain took a liking to our hostage. He spent many happy hours with ‘Eliza’ as the rest of us collected massive rings of tossed beads and finished drinking our supplies. Our necks ached with the weight of beads, especially the ladies on board, for they had earned many extra necklaces. I took off my shirt once to change into a lighter one as the weather became warmer, and the parade watchers on shore were so disgusted that they started hurling beads at me in a harsh, violent manner, imploring me to put my shirt back on immediately as they shielded their children’s eyes with their pirate bandanas.
I have been home for almost twenty-four hours now. My liver has shrunk to the size of a lima bean and my head is pounding. My stomach is still cramping from all the manatee meat I had to endure, and dehydration is still at a critical level. It will take months of chiropractic care to alleviate the neck pain caused by the weight of all those beads, and the psychological counseling will continue, I’m afraid, for much, much longer. My face and neck are blistering from second-degree burns, and most of my hair was burned off with the rest of the boat.
But I’m still a lot better off than that manatee.