My Tribute to Uncle Butch
No matter where I go, when I hear the sound of tires buzzing across the steel grates of a drawbridge I will always think of The Bridge. Late at night while dangling a fishing line off the side of that lonely bridge and into the Halifax River, listening to the sounds of nature, the light slap of saltwater against the catwalks, and the occasional pop of a snook on the surface of the water, the hum of a passing car was the only man-made sound you could hear other than the much more frequent, belly aching laughter caused by my uncle Butch.
As a kid growing up in north Georgia in the suburbs of Atlanta, we would take frequent trips to Florida for vacation, staying at the house where my aunt and uncle, Patty and Butch, lived in Ormond Beach, just a short drive from The Bridge. Every year through my early teens, we would make the trip down in February for the Daytona 500, which my dad attended with my uncles, Bobby and Butch, my brothers, and my grandfather.
We would also often head south to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, since we had no immediate family in Georgia. On those trips, we would spend the day watching football, sit down for dinner with all my aunts and uncles, cousins, and my grandparents, and then watch my dad and Butch itch for the go-ahead from their wives and Grandma to jump in the truck and go fishing. While I was young, I do remember this game they played… it was like a couple of kids who had to eat their peas before they could go back outside and play. They would just look at each other like “hey, you think if we just snuck out anyone would notice?” No amount of tryptophan was going to stop them from spending all night out at The Bridge. When we got older, my cousin Greg (Butch’s son) and I were allowed to tag along, and we’d all squeeze into Butch’s single cab pick-up truck and take off.
The Henry “Butch” Konietzky I knew was a simple man. He could make anything out of what most people would see as nothing. He was the kind of guy you would want to have by your side in the old frontier days or in one of those disaster movies in which we are being attacked or you are lost on a deserted island after a plane crash. He knew how to survive living off the land, and enjoyed doing it. He was as good a fisherman as anyone I’ve met, if not better, and could catch fish in any body of water under any situation.
When he fished at The Bridge, it wasn’t with store-bought shrimp or artificial lures. It was with shrimp he caught himself at a place near The Bridge called “the pump house”, where the night of fishing would usually begin right after dinner. A bumpy dirt road would take you slowly along a dark, tree-canopied barrier between the Halifax River and its backwaters. Along this road, along with all kinds of wildlife including the infamous “black thing” my dad swore he saw in the trees one night, there were a few places where culverts would allow water to flow from the marsh into the river when the tide was low and vice versa. Here, we would set up dip nets to catch shrimp as they were carried through the current. If the tide wasn’t right and the water wasn’t flowing, we got to see Butch use his cast net. It is a skill that takes a ton of practice and one that I never learned, but Butch was great at it. In a few hours, we could usually catch enough shrimp (our goal was around 100) for all of us to fish into the wee hours of the next morning. We would then pack everything up and take our buckets full of shrimp to The Bridge to start fishing.
By the time we reached The Bridge, it was usually 9 or 10pm, and only occasionally would there be anyone else there except the bridge tender, who sat in a small building on the side of the bridge and was probably sleeping most of the time. We would park on the side of the road, grab our shrimp and fishing poles and usually set up shop at the mainland side of the bridge. You weren’t supposed to fish beyond the “no fishing” signs that stood just before the concrete road turned to the steel grates that made up the drawbridge in case they had to lift it, but some of the best fishing was along the catwalk that ran underneath, so sometimes we would cast our line out and leave our fishing pole there, and just stand on the other side of the sign and wait for the tip of the fishing rod to bend. This usually wasn’t a problem because at that time of night, we rarely saw any large boats going down the river.
The fish didn’t bite every night we went or the whole time we were there. In between casts to relocate our bait or check to see if it was still on the hook, we told a lot of stories and had a lot of laughs. Most of this came from Butch. I don’t know enough about his past (before I knew him) to speak of it here, but it suffices to say he’d been through a lot, seen a lot, and lived a lot, just like all the best of story tellers. He just had a way of making you laugh, even if it was something stupid. He was full of one-liners, and our funny memories are a classic case of “you had to be there.” Some of my favorites among many great childhood memories come from that bridge, even though I was only able to go there a couple times a year at best.
The one thing that will always stick out in my mind though when I think of Butch and The Bridge is “The Light.” Another simple name from a simple man who I think may have loved this place more than life itself. “The Light” is just a lamp hanging off the end of the catwalk extending out from underneath the bridge so that the water level measurement is visible, but to us it was a prime spot for catching one of the most popular game fish in Florida, the hard-fighting snook. The light would attract shrimp to the surface, and the snook would dart out from the submerged portion of the catwalk and grab them for an easy meal. The trick was casting a shrimp into the light, as close to the catwalk as possible without snagging the hook on it. Butch could make the perfect cast every time. That was his spot. That’s where the big ones were. He wasn’t the only one who knew about this spot, but I remember him always catching more fish there than any of us, and anyone else we ever saw fish it. I guess that’s why I don’t have a problem telling you about it. Nobody could fish that spot like Butch.
Patty and Butch moved to Georgia in the 90s and later to Lake Hartwell near Anderson, South Carolina, where they both were able to share Butch’s love of fishing, even if it was no longer in his favorite body of water and their focus was on a different kind of fish, freshwater bass. It didn’t take long for him to start bringing in big largemouths and stripers. But after a while the idea of moving back to Florida lured them into putting their lake house up for sale and planning a return to their home. Drought would put a hold on their plans though as Lake Hartwell began to get lower and lower, and coupled with the struggling economy, it was tough to sell their house. Finally, earlier this summer, they had sold their house and bought a new one in Palm Coast, conveniently and certainly not coincidentally just up the road from The Bridge. Butch was back in his favorite place.
On Saturday, September 21st, 2013, Patty and Butch decided to go crabbing along High Bridge Road, in the canals just a short distance from The Bridge. It was something they could now do at the drop of a hat. At some point while standing or wading in the water that he was so familiar with and had enjoyed for decades, Butch was completely unknowingly infected with a bacteria called Vibrio Vulnificus. He later noticed a lesion on his ankle that looked odd, and felt very sick early Sunday morning, but thought all of this was a reaction to something like a spider bite. Patty took him to the hospital on Sunday, when things had progressed much worse, and by Monday evening, despite tremendous efforts by several doctors, the bacteria had attacked his entire body and taken his life.
Since this tragedy, Butch’s daughter Shelia and my aunt Patty, with support from our entire family, have gone on a crusade to inform people of the danger, however rare it may be, that took the life of my uncle. They have reached the masses, with the story making local and national headlines and being featured on newscasts such as Good Morning America. It even showed up last week in the United Kingdom.
Anyone who knows me knows I love to fish and enjoy the outdoors in general, especially in Florida. Some will say that this is too reactionary and panic should not be caused... We aren't doing that here. We are simply trying to make sure people, especially those in the area where my uncle was infected (since there was at least one other case in the same area), are informed of the danger so that they can make their own decisions on how to react to it. Will this keep me out of waters like those found along High Bridge Road in northern Volusia County? No. Butch wouldn't have wanted that. Will I be better informed of the dangers of going into the water with open wounds even as small as an ant bite, and wear protective gear such as waders or boots just in case? Absolutely. I never would have thought twice about doing the same thing my uncle did.
I will forever miss Uncle Butch. Family gatherings will never quite be the same without him, but his stories will live on for sure. Through them, his spirit and ability to make us all laugh and smile will always be with us. Last Friday evening, along with close family and friends of Butch, I dropped a white stemmed rose into the water at High Bridge Park in his memory. Everyone had their own way of paying their respects that night, but for me, I could only think of one place my rose should go. So I walked out onto the dock, said a prayer, and tossed the rose into The Light.
You’d be proud, Butch. I hit the spot perfectly, right where you told me to throw it.
“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” -John 1:4-5