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Bay Tripper

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In the Keys, it’s a barndog’s life

In the Keys, it’s a barndog’s life

Exploring unfamiliar dockside territory was high on my agenda this winter as a non-fisherman living aboard a stationary rental houseboat at Bud n’ Mary’s all-fishing marina in the upper Florida Keys. Poking around one dead-end dock shared with waddling pelicans, I came across what seemed to be a warning posted on a high chain-link gate: “There are no dogs here, don’t enter less you belive (sic) that you can outrun them.”

But as a new next-door neighbor, the lure to be neighborly was irresistible. So I called out, opened the latched gate, and found another warning: “Beware of barn dogs.” I turned back before any snarling, killer canines could attack.

Richard Stanczyk, owner and operator of this modern “fishing camp” for 27 years, laughs when asked if those signs mean anything. “Not really,” he explains. “Just call it Keys-style barndog humor. That’s the home, workshop and hangout of Sparrow, my carpenter. He’s the head barndog of my maintenance crew. We call them the barndogs.”

These rugged men, all basically loners, live and work at the marina, doing assigned and odd jobs. They hang out with Sparrow at “Sparrow’s Nest,” a man-made outcropping of concrete slabs and coral boulders pieced together at the oceanfront end of a huge, open-ended boat barn.

Sparrow cleaned up the area and made it rather homey two years ago when he moved aboard an old houseboat there. He turned the place into his comfortable, if offbeat, back yard with a hardscrabble garden, chairs, tables, grills and cookers, and bits of pieces of this and that. He hosts regular Sunday afternoon cookouts here.

Sparrow used scrap wood and driftwood for walkways and benches, and designed an informal flowering arbor and gazebo of sorts topped off with discarded fishing rods linked together to form a peaked, open roof. A sign here reads: “Don’t let your heart be troubed (sic).”

Sparrow has been married twice and has two children who live with their mother in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. His second wife, from Trinidad, gave him his nickname after a calypso singer, The Mighty Sparrow.

The current resident barndogs are Little Kenny, Sailboat Mike and Surfer Buck Naked. They congregate here before, during and after work hours, and prefer to be identified by their nicknames, like Sparrow. Honorary hanger-on barndog is Little Big Tom, who lives off-campus.

“We don’t pay much attention to last names here in the Keys anyway,” explains Sparrow, who has lived and worked at Bud n’ Mary’s for 15 years. “We don’t have many rules, plans or schedules, either. Barndogs come and go according to whims and needs — theirs and mine.”

A creative Keys-wise charmer “closing on 50,” the charismatic Sparrow is also an accomplished cook, woodcarving artist, entrepreneur, freelance home remodeler and all-around handyman. He has an uncanny ability to round up workers for various projects outside the marina, much like rounding up a posse in the Old West. He occasionally hosts women guests from Up North who bunk for a while in his 35-foot houseboat permanently tied up at Sparrow’s Dock alongside the boat barn. The women use the foredeck as a tanning salon.

“I’m a real popular guy during the winter,” says Sparrow, laughing. He had just gotten a call from Dana, a lady friend from New Hampshire who had recently visited. “She was about to drag her sled onto the ice for some ice fishing. I hardly know what to think about that because I’ve never seen snow. My compass just don’t point North.”

He also has rigged a tri-hull platform from three battered sailboards for netting lobsters on the shallow flats for his guests. Sparrow prefers fish, which are free and plentiful from resident charter captains who call on him for assorted jobs. He also has a Capri 14 daysailer tied to his dock and a couple of kayaks stored on a rack, but he isn’t keen on fishing. “I tried it once commercially, but it was too much work,” he says.

His shed at the end of the point has a full range of tools and stored wood. It is covered — shaded — by a plastic Budweiser billboard tarp, which is appropriate because canned Bud is the beer of choice at the nest. The nest also houses Sparrow’s game factory, where he makes such games of “skill” as

“Pirates Rolldown” — popularly known as “Gotta Dollar?” because that’s Sparrow’s reply when someone asks him how the game is played. (For more information, visit www.sparrowsnestgames.com.)

Sparrow is a happy, content man with a ready wit and an easy gap-toothed laugh. He is ready to sing by late afternoon, when the beer-mellowed mood levels out like the flat, reef-protected ocean. His “Sparrow stories” are the stuff of legend, but many are unprintable.

“I carried a couple tabletop ring-toss games into a bar one night, and a major league ballplayer drinking there wanted to try it,” he recalls. “He got frustrated because he could not hang the ring on the hook, and broke the game over his head.”

Sparrow told him, “That will cost you $25. He tossed me a $50 bill and said, ‘Keep the change.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to rip you off. You get two for that price.’ So I gave him the other game, which he also broke over his head. Then I said, ‘Hey, follow me back to my game factory where I got a whole lot more you can break and buy.’ ”

This chosen, dropout Keys lifestyle of Conches like Sparrow and the barndogs is spelled by an illusion of remoteness created by a languid, (mostly) perpetual sun, sea and sky. Doing nothing or going fishing is the order of the day here for many.

This lure of our southernmost tropics also can easily lead one to neglect personal routines once thought important, such as shaving and getting a haircut. Flip-flop footwear is the rule, and what was worn yesterday and the day before is fine for today and tomorrow. Who’s going to notice?

Marina owner Stanczyk, who is 59, started out as a Miami accountant, but all he really wanted to do was fish. A serious businessman still obsessed with fishing, he is tolerant of this seemingly wayward way of life. To some extent, he lived it as a younger charter boat captain, admitting to drinking to excess before giving up booze 15 years ago.

“You know, there are very few people who can really drop out,” he says. “You have to be at peace with yourself and get used to being alone yet not be lonely. Sometimes I envy the freedom of people like Sparrow, who is not enslaved by the bondage of material possessions.

“He’s like family. He knows I’m there for him, and I know he’s there for me. I have to overlook some chores around here not getting done, but that’s how it goes. These guys don’t like to work hard, especially past 1 o’clock.”

During the worst of four hurricanes last year, many people evacuated. But Stanczyk knew the barndogs would stay to protect his property, “even if they had to tie themselves to a coconut tree,” he says.

Sparrow remembered that last hurricane warning. “Everyone left but us barndogs,” he says. “First, we got all the small boats out of the barn or tied down, and the charter boats went to the mangroves. We set up a barbecue grill and a stereo at the marina entrance, which we blocked off with my tool van. Barndog Mister Bill was there, and his Rottweiler was chasing around Jimmy, our marina cat.”

Pilar Paul, 61, who lives at the marina with his son on a powerboat named Pilar and works two hours a day at the tackle shop, grew nervous about the party and called Stanczyk. “Richard!” he shouted. “You better come down here right away. The barndogs have lost it! It’s total anarchy!”

But dealing with storms is a given in the Keys. This time, the hurricane went elsewhere and enabled the barndogs to party on, protecting the marina and their own way of life.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.