It’s a Wonderful Life (in Key West), Too

by Capt. Gene Chrzanowski

It’s a Wonderful Life (in Key West), Too

To some people, especially to us “older” folks, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the quintessential Christmas season movie. According to Wikipedia, the American Film Institute placed it at number 1 on a list of all-time inspirational American films and it is always re-shown multiple times during the season. Directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, it is now almost 70 years old, yet it still hits that soft spot in your heart every time you watch it and just makes it seem more like Christmas, especially if you watch it with family. But I’ve long wondered if someone hasn’t missed a great idea for an alternate version. How about this? After Clarence, the elderly angel, talks George Bailey out of his suicide plan, George still realizes that he can do a lot of good things and help a lot of people, but he also still wants to “get away” from Bedford Falls, NY, and freezing his butt off. So, when his brother Harry graduates from college, George follows through on his plan to have Harry take over the family Building & Loan Association, sells everything he has, packs up the jalopy, and heads to Key West. There, he becomes a charter fishing operator/captain; meets some of the greatest people on the face of the earth while doing that; the rest of his family comes to visit often to get a break from the cold; and he just has a blast the rest of his life. (Okay, he leaves the Donna Reed character, but they both get over it!) Now that would be a movie I’d watch over and over again. Other than the geriatric angel thing and the suicidal ideation bit, sort of sounds a lot like my own life.

I was reminded again over the Columbus Day weekend, October 11-13, what a wonderful life being a charter captain in Key West can be. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, one of our annual June customers for the past few years has been Brian Ford, now the C.O.O of the Tampa Bay Bucs.
FishMonster Magazine-December 2014He provided that reminder by the gracious gesture of inviting another one of my regular customers, Tom Khoury, to bring Tom’s 30-something daughter, Kimberly, who was diagnosed last year with breast cancer, to the Bucs’ NFL breast cancer awareness game that weekend as his guests. Brian had never met Tom or Kim before and only learned of Kim’s plight when I wrote about it in my November article last year. Still, he took it on himself to extend that invitation. He also extended that invitation to me and my two best Key West friends, Mark and Samantha (“Sam”) Kern, whom Brian had met through me on prior occasions, as well as to Kimberly’s husband, Richard, and Tom’s other grown daughter, Jennifer. Even though that can be a busy three-day weekend for a charter boat in Key West, I just couldn’t say no. It was going to be a special weekend for Tom’s daughter, who was well on the way to successfully defeating her disease. Though I had never met Kim before, I considered her part of our “Hooker” family because of the close relationship I had developed with Tom after multiple years of him fishing and staying in touch with us, so I wanted to help Tom and Kim celebrate that success.

FishMonster Magazine-December 2014As soon as I saw Tom and Kim the first time in Tampa, I knew I had done the right thing. Kim had undergone major surgery and extensive chemotherapy. I guess I was fearful of meeting a gaunt, bald woman looking fragile and older than her age. Instead, what I met was a great-looking, vibrant young women with an infectious personality, a smile that lit up the area, and a full head of re-grown hair. She gave no outward sign of her disease and was as upbeat as anyone could be under her circumstances. If positive attitude is a sign, she’s a “shoo-in” to beat her disease. My friends Mark and Sam, who had never met either Tom or Kim before, instantly fell in love with both of them and we just had a great couple of days. Similar to the enlightenment George Bailey got from Clarence, I suddenly realized once again that’s it’s your health and the people in your life that really matter, not the numbers in your bank account, how fancy a dinner you can afford,  or even the size of the fish you catch. Speaking of dinner, Brian and his wife Judy insisted that we’d be more comfortable and that everyone could get to know each other better if we just went to their place to eat Saturday night, instead of going out - Tom, Mark, Sam and I offered to treat them - and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were right! Everyone had a blast there and I think a big part of the reason was that the home had a very warm, cozy feeling with a cool outdoor lanai. A great pasta dinner in casual clothes on that lanai was the perfect way to get everybody relaxed and acquainted. It was the kind of setting in which George Bailey would have felt right at home. Brian, Judy and their son Brandon were the perfect hosts and some longtime friends of theirs, Dan and Eileen Hehman, who were also there, had a couple of young sons who helped serve and kept us entertained with a running ad-lib stand-up comedy act that relaxed us even more..

Even with on-field passes for pre-game warmups and field-level 50 yard-line seats behind the Bucs’ bench, the game itself was a bummer. The Bucs never really got started and were never in the game. While that was a real kick in the butt to Brian and the team – and a downer for us - something happened that day that made it seem at least a little less disastrous to our group. (And, no, it wasn’t the scoreboard congrats on my birthday later in the month, though that was unexpected and cool!) Sunday morning, Mark ran into a young man in a Buc’s T-shirt, 14 year old Luke Burnett, at the breakfast buffet at our hotel. He struck up a conversation and learned that Luke was a long-time Buc fan, even though he lived in Tennessee. Luke and his mom, Mitzi, had come to town specifically so he could go to a Bucs’ game. Mark took a liking to the kid and decided to reward his team loyalty. So he went back to our suite, got the kid a Bucs’ hat out of a “care package” Brian had given us, and brought it back down to Luke.

Later, our own group of seven had ordered two cabs to go to the stadium and, as we were getting in the first cab, Luke and Mitzi were waiting for a cab as well, so Mark and Sam shared the second cab with them. On the way to the game, they learned that we were all sitting within a few rows of one another and Mitzi further expounded on how they came to be in town for the game. Her husband, Luke’s dad, had recently died from cancer and Mitzi wanted to give Luke a vacation to try to get their lives back to a semblance of normal. She let him choose the destination and purpose, and Luke chose going to a Bucs’ game in Tampa. When Mark told me that story at the game, we decided we could try to help make Luke’s trip even better by introducing him to Brian, who had invited us to meet Judy at his car in the lot after the game to sip a few cold ones while he took care of his post-game duties and while traffic died down. Knowing Brian, we knew that he would be touched by Luke’s story and fan loyalty - and he was. As soon as he met Luke and we told him what we had learned, the first thing Brian did was to invite Luke to meet him at 6 PM the next evening to take a private guided tour with him of One Buc, their headquarters/training facility. A very “George Bailey-type” move by Brian and you can imagine what that meant to a 14 year old from Tennessee. Seeing that happen meant a lot to Mark, Sam and me, too!

Later that night, Mark, Sam and I had dinner with Tom, Kim and Richard at a nice steak house and Tom very graciously picked up the tab before the rest of us knew what happened. Fun, but no more so than Saturday’s casual home fare.

FishMonster Magazine-December 2014After we got back from Key West, I got a couple of texts from Mitzi telling me what a wonderful time Luke and she had on the tour. Later that night, I reflected on what my friends and I just experienced. I had just witnessed several really cool acts of selflessness by several people – the Fords, the Khourys and the Kerns - that I am humbled to call friends. It all happened simply because I’ve met some truly wonderful people in my daily job as a charter fishing captain and because Marlin and Dianne Scott have given me a platform to brag about my customers and tell their stories through my articles in this magazine. While I apologize again for, perhaps, wasting my allotted pages and boring you readers by writing about something that isn’t totally fishing related, I just think that it is important to remember at this time of year what really matters in our lives. Sure, I would have loved to have been out on the “Hooker” that weekend, catching some fantastic fish about which  I could have bragged in these pages while getting paid to do it to boot, but I would have missed the life lessons we all relearned that weekend, lessons I wouldn’t trade for anything. So, while I hope that at least some of you will give us the opportunity to take you fishing over the Holiday Season to allow us to try to make your life even more wonderful and so I can have some great fishing story to relate next month, I hope more that all of you will remember what the Holidays are supposed to be about. I hope that you will show your family, friends and even complete strangers that this really can be a wonderful life by some simple acts of kindness, especially to those less fortunate financially, health-wise or otherwise. It worked for George Bailey!

Just a reminder. Christmas Season is one of the busiest times of year (and perhaps the busiest) for Key West charter boats and the offshore fishing variety can be awesome , including sailfish, wahoos, tunas, dolphins, grouper, snapper and even a rare marlin. So, if you’re planning on booking a trip, I’d suggest that you do it early to avoid the chance of not getting the date or boat you really want. Here’s hoping you get everything on your personal Christmas fishing list and that you all have a great Holiday and even better new year!




Capt. Gene Chrzanowski
Capt. Gene Chrzanowski

Author

The “High Class Hooker” is docked in Key West at the A&B Marina, 700 Front Street. You can find Capt. Gene on the web at keywestclasscharter.com



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