For weeks, the sky can resemble a dirty felt blanket draped to the treetops. The snow that sparkled the landscape in January melts into chisel-plowed fields and hardens into an ugly-gray salty crust along the curbs and ditches. If it snows in March, it will be wet and heavy and sag the blue shrink-wrap on your boat. A bone-chilling rain is just as likely.
The 31 days of the third month are especially hard on habitués of the Lake View Inn. State regulation mandates the removal of ice-fishing shanties from the lake, and the snowmobile trails close, and football season is a distant memory, and the tax refund is spent. Conventional wisdom dictates one should hunker down in the bar and wait for April — or May, if you’re a pessimist. Those with young children find themselves drinking from a cooler in the chlorine fog of the Holidome in Green Bay. Nondrinkers retire to the basement to spool fishing reels with fresh line or study the Garmin owner’s manual. Or to simply crack a few hickory nuts.
In other parts of the country, they call this mud season, or breakup, and folks simply leave for a week or two until it clears. Alaskans, like my sister, jet over to Hawaii. Friends in Colorado head for Moab. The Lake View crowd finds all this self-indulgent and weak. Only Dan the Outboard Man had March covered with a game plan we could all respect.
After winterizing every boat in the Lake Winnebago basin, Dan would rinse the antifreeze from his hair, load up some tools and a cooler, and point his F-150 south. Destination: Duck Key.
Dan’s Uncle Lester had a modest abode on the water, the perfect spot for a single man to hole up for the winter. Shorts and flip-flops every day. The hammock. A Corona for lunch. There was a skiff for fishing and plunking about. Dan would fix outboards for cash and sent the occasional postcard back to the Lake View, just to let us know he was getting along fine. The cooler was laden with Wisconsin contraband essential to Dan’s economy: Johnsonville brats and Jim’s Blue Ribbon summer sausage. The Keys were populated with a number of expats from Badgerland, and Dan discovered that a gift of summer sausage might earn him a discount at the parts counter or the bait shop. And when he needed a taxi late at night, it was there in a flash. Dan would head north in April, tan and rested and ready to wrench, with the same cooler loaded with frozen fish.
The past tense of the previous paragraph is meant to foreshadow. Hurricane Gordon flattened Chez Lester, which was underinsured and not rebuilt, and thus blew away Dan’s great gig. His postcards are still pinned up behind the bar.