They hear it all the time, this one recurring phrase. The wording may vary, but the delivery stays pretty much the same and the tone is always one of envious wonder. It is spoken on mountaintops and over cooling drinks after tennis. It comes as the fishing skiff ghosts to a stop in the Florida Keys. It is always the client who speaks.
This is what they all say: "And to think that you do this for a living."
There is a rumor going around that a young and single ski instructor leads an embarrassingly hedonistic life. He frolics in the sun and snow all day. He shows off in spare moments with freewheeling runs under the chair lifts for all to see and admire. Wealthy, admiring students invite him to parties and to dinner. And always, at the end of the day, there are the lovely girls anxious for his attention.
It has to be a rumor, you say. Not quite. The rumor is alive and well at Snowbird, Utah. His name is Craig Spooner, and whatever vision you have of a ski instructor is exactly what Craig Spooner is. Except, perhaps, his slightly crooked teeth. "Oh, the teeth," says Spooner. "God gave me crooked teeth so I wouldn't be too perfect."
While it might be possible to round up a few people who consider Spooner something slightly less than perfect, it would be difficult to think of a more perfect job. "I don't have any goals. I'm living my goals," says Spooner at 27. Indeed, Snowbird is one of the nation's top good-time ski resorts. It attracts the young and the rich and the happy. It is Spooner's kind of environment. The average snowfall is 450 inches. Aspen gets 145.
"But it's hard to work at a resort," Spooner says. "It's always a party and people want you to share their good times." Spooner tries. Sometimes he gets carried away trying. There was the romantic evening not long ago when he was entertaining a blonde visitor from Boston over a refreshing drink or two. Spooner somehow fell asleep under a coffee table and awoke the next morning to find a note pinned to his ski sweater: "Nice to have met you."
A friend, Dave Lake, allows that "Craig has got a wild side to him. And a sane one." Another friend and instructor, Ole Olsen, says, "The great thing about Craig is that he can drink 24 cans of beer without barfing."
While Spooner is considered a major-league partygoer ("When I got here, the other instructors said they didn't party much. The next morning we all got up bleeding to death from our eyes"), he has found a way to rationalize his exuberant life in a postcard setting. "When people learn to ski, they feel better about themselves," he says. "As you go down a mountain, your heart is uplifted. So much in life we can't control because it involves others. But in skiing, nobody else holds your poles. I'm also contributing a lot because when secretaries come here on a fling I help them have fun. Then they go back to New York and work better, more productively. So, you see, old Craig Spooner is helping the national economy." Jimmy Carter must be grateful.
Spooner got into skiing as a 10-year-old when he found some funny-looking boards in the garage back home in West Boylston, Mass. He fell for the sport when he discovered that he could make parallel turns. While he was going to Assumption College, he landed a job at the Wachusett Mountain Ski School in Princeton, Mass., where he made $5 an hour a few hours a week teaching skiing to a class of 10 youngsters. He was hooked. Especially when he realized what the other side of life could be like: he had a summer job in a leather factory. It involved putting a piece of cowhide into a machine every eight seconds for $2.25 an hour. After six weeks, he told his parents, "If I'm going through college, I have to be sane. This is driving me crazy." He quit. But it was a job that laid the cornerstone of Spooner's philosophy: "I will never become bored with myself."
After graduation in 1972, when his friends were "all trying to think of ways they wouldn't have to work, I was figuring a way to work and love it." Subsequently, Spooner came upon a poster extolling the virtues of Snowbird, and because he had it in his mind that the West was where the fun was, he took off in pursuit of the setting sun. No job. Just hopes.
He arrived in Salt Lake City in October 1974, with $100 in his pocket, and took an $8-a-night motel room at the Majestic Rockies. He sat down on the bed and said, "Well, this is wonderful. I wonder what kind of TV they have out here." Did he consider what would happen when the $100 ran out? "Certainly. I would be destitute."
At nearby Snowbird he got no encouragement. Back to the Majestic Rockies. "When you get a loaf of bread and a pound of baloney and plan to eat off it for a week," Spooner says, "that humbles you." Then things got really bad. His money soon was gone, and so was the baloney. An old Bette Davis movie was on television ("about a lonely person") when the phone rang—just like in the movies—and Snowbird ski school boss Junior Bounous was requesting Spooner's services.
Spooner was ready to begin instructing at Snowbird on opening day, Thanksgiving. He went to the top of the mountain, whooped, and started down. "I made four turns and I thought, 'Hmmmm, I'm going too fast.' " True. He caromed over a cliff, landed half on snow, half on rocks, and ruptured his liver. "I was pretty close to going to the big ski school in the sky," Spooner says. "That mountain simply ate me up and spit me out. I couldn't conceive of a mistake that great." Spooner was hospitalized for three weeks.
In ski instructing, personality and style seem to count for more than substance. After all, if people can't get the hang of skiing, they don't say, "My instructor didn't know how to ski." Rather, they will say they didn't like him personally or, "He couldn't seem to explain what he wanted." Instruction has gotten more sophisticated since the days when somebody with an Austrian accent would stand on the mountain and say, "Bend zee knees, that will be $3 pleeze." Today, a winning personality translates into dollars for the instructor. In the beginning Spooner earned $18 a day plus $2 for each person in a group lesson, an average of six pupils for a $30-a-day total. (A four-hour group lesson cost the student $14.) But nowadays Spooner mainly teaches private lessons for $20 an hour, of which Spooner gets half. Most lucrative of all is a full-day private, which costs $120 for up to three people. Spooner averages $200 a week. "I didn't take up skiing to make a buck," he admits.
There are perks. One group insists that Spooner join them for pizza and wine. "It's wonderful," he says. "Out here girls don't feel like they're being hustled like they do in the city." Says one of his students, a frequent visitor from New York, "Craig doesn't give the impression when he's teaching that he has seen it all before."
On the slopes, Spooner is a mixture of tour guide, drill sergeant, valet, psychologist, philosopher, con artist and trash collector. "We all want the same thing," he says to his class. "We want to feel more at ease on skis. It doesn't take long to get a feeling you are soaring with the eagles. If I laugh at you when you fall, don't worry. When we ski powder, we all fall." Then he does, to the hoots of the class. Spooner responds, "My, my, the vultures don't have any mercy after the lions are through."
Spooner is a chatterbox, talking of the need for bending the knees and for holding the poles right, rotating the shoulders, edging the skis, proper rhythms, weight transfer, steering. "Does that feel different?" he shouts up the mountain at a student. "It really does," comes the reply. "Of course," says Spooner. "That's because I am a magician."
One of his theories is that "An instructor should never say, 'Ski down the hill.' That scares everybody. Instead, I say, 'Slide down the hill.' " He also does not believe in dwelling on what a person must do "because as soon as you start saying what they have to accomplish, they immediately start thinking about failing." His is more the old technique of the Army lieutenant: "Follow me." And as soldiers always have, ski students do, too. Spooner is coaxing: "Relax and feel the boards under your feet." And philosophizing: "Nature created this mountain for us and it has a personality. I feel the edges of my skis caressing the mountain. There just aren't many feelings in the world like powder skiing." Then he's off in a cloud of heavenly white. Next he's advising: "O.K., folks, be on time and flow with this mountain." A student muses, "That's really nice. I wonder what it means." For Spooner, it's the satisfaction of helping someone have fun, to feel better about himself: "If I can't see a marked difference in four hours, I have failed," he says. "When it comes to the instructing, I am so serious I can't put enough into it."
There are down moments, of course, but not many. When students get bored, Spooner says they stare up the mountain. When they don't want to learn, "I question their motives for even being there with me." And while it is strenuous physical work, Spooner says, "A lot of people don't realize that in order to feel good, you have to work hard."
Which he does. Yet, here he is at midday, sprawled on a bench in the Utah sun, admiring the girls passing by and giving them ratings, if they are deserving. He'll work hard again today. But Spooner isn't fretting about that. In fact, he's genuinely excited about it. He has this wonderful capacity to enjoy this moment. "Can you imagine how good it is to work at a job where you are always seeing smiles on faces?" he says. "And to know that you put them there?" That, at bottom, is Craig Spooner's joy in work.
When people consider taking a job, Spooner figures, they should ask themselves, "Will the payment be that I am happy?" Spooner is ridiculously happy; his work is too much fun. As the 18th-century novelist Jean Paul Richter wrote, "Joy descends gently upon us like the evening dew and does not patter down like a hailstorm." There is no hail in Spooner's life; he subscribes (well, maybe oversubscribes) to the theory that we should eat, drink and be merry—for tomorrow we may run into a tree. "When you love something so much," he says, "you really get to know yourself." And he snaps on his boots, adjusts his goggles and swaggers off to, well, work.
Generally, it is the young and the free and the slightly restless who become instructors. Snowbird teacher Nancy Davis says, "The only people who would be interested in teaching skiing are those who love mountains, skiing, trees, snow and sun." For six months, a ski instructor in this country must do something else. Spooner, who once ran with the bulls in Pamplona, is a carpenter. "See that house?" he says. "I framed it and it's going to stand for a while because I pounded it together." An older Snowbird ski school supervisor, Jack Reamer, walked away from a secure executive position with a Michigan power company after 16 years. He says, "You have to be crazy to be a ski instructor. Plus there's a little bit of the child in all of us." Another supervisor, Sal Raio, 37, says of Spooner, "He's a fun-loving guy and that is what makes him a good instructor. His classes always seem to be having fun."
Back in the room where the instructors congregate, Ole Olsen says, "Craig looks like somebody drew him—a cartoon. Everything about him is exaggerated." Spooner, heading into his fourth season at Snowbird, is screaming at a shapely woman ski instructor who turns heads on the slopes. "For God's sake, Stephanie, cover up. Wear a smock when you're in here." And he's shaking his head. "You can't have too much fun herein Saturday. You can have a lot but not too much."
Once more in the bar, various people are paying calls at Spooner's table, including a young lady wearing a T shirt inscribed, GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Says Spooner, "I like your T shirt." Says she, "Thank you. I wore it for you." The music blares ("Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end") and Craig is reflective.
"These are the days, my friend," he says. "Can you imagine working at a place like this? People spend $1,500 a week for the privilege and I get paid for it. Every night I go to bed and I think, 'Let's see, when I get up in the morning, I'm going to ski in three feet of powder snow with people dying to have a good time.' " Outside the snow is piling up.
U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker (R., Conn.) is laboring on one side of the net and muttering, "Why can't I be 20 years younger?" He also berates himself in more formal terms. "Come on, Senator, what kind of shot is that?" Because it's a rhetorical question, Weicker does not expect anyone to yell out the truth, "A lousy one, Senator. Perfectly rotten." Nobody does, not even his partner. Nor does anyone rush to agree at the court nearby where Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D., Ohio) is missing shots at a record pace and complaining after each one, "Oh, you dummy!"
But things brighten for Weicker when he hits a strong forehand that sends the opposition, Donna Dearborn and her partner, running into each other. Weicker's mood shifts, not from despair to happiness but more from despair to deviousness. "Hey, Donna," Weicker says, "I was hoping you'd knock each other cold, then I would cite the rule calling for continuous play and declare myself the winner." Senators are sharp on rules, especially when they're losing. Dearborn smiles, winningly.
She always smiles winningly. For good reason. What does she have to frown about? At 24, Donna Dearborn is a tennis pro at John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch, a temple for the rich located in Arizona's Paradise Valley, near Phoenix. Paradise Valley is sun-blessed (something more than 350 days of the year) and God-designated as one of the nation's ranking splendors. "When I tell my friends I teach tennis here," Dearborn says, "they say, 'That's nice. But what's your real job?' "
That is her real job. She stands in the sun and recommends, "Bend your knees." Meanwhile, she is deepening her tan, which causes an elderly lady from Pittsburgh to look at her and say, "When I grow up, I want to look just like her." Dearborn teaches tennis to people who spend an average of $1,000 each, plus transportation, for the privilege of a week at Gardiner's. And she often plays tennis with celebrities, like Ken Rosewall, who hangs out at Gardiner's between tournaments in his $400,000 villa with a tennis court on the roof. She played the other day with, ah, well, she's not sure if it was Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas; recently it was John Scali, former U.N. ambassador.
Now Dearborn is sitting in the hot sun while a lot of the rest of the nation freezes, listening to Senator Charles Percy (R., Ill.) read some not-too-awful original poetry and contemplating a foot race with Stan Smith. Life at Gardiner's does not have many sharp edges for Donna Dearborn of Brattleboro, Vt.
"This is a gentle job for Donna," says the boss, John Gardiner. "She's with people when they're nice." And there is no heavy lifting. One of her colleagues, 20-year-old Paul Mallery, of West Covina, Calif., says, "This is ridiculous to get paid for teaching a game in a place like this."
So what do you say about a woman who is young and beautiful and single and talented? About a woman who plays tennis with the stars by day and studies the stars above by night? About a woman with a college degree in mathematics who is involved with a game she loves and can play as much as she wants? Dearborn says, "I can't imagine ever being any happier than I am now."
It is unlikely that the millions who awake hating every weekday morning can fathom the life of Donna Dearborn. "Sometimes," she says, "this job isn't as glamorous as my friends think, but I kind of like the fact they think it is. Besides, if I told them it wasn't glamorous, they wouldn't believe me, anyway." Her friends would be right.
"I am doing something I believe in," she says. "At the end of the day I feel like I've done something important. I've helped others have fun and I've had fun." Her joy at work flows from the customers—and sometimes from their excuses. One student says, "Donna, I can't play as well here because the sun is so much brighter than it is at home." Another says, "I can't hit high balls because the people I play with back home all hit low ones."
Most important, Dearborn can laugh at herself. The other day she was halfway through a week's instruction course with a man she had been calling "Joe" when he remarked shyly that, while he didn't mind, his name was actually "Lee." It wasn't until much later that Dearborn learned who Lee was: Leon Uris. He wasn't angry, she says. But then, how could he be? For there he was, hitting tennis balls with sunny Donna Dearborn, for whom work and play often are idyllically synonymous. And that's certainly worth being called Joe for.
How did Dearborn fall into this lap of luxury and contentment? Blind, stupid luck is the most plausible explanation. Being a tennis pro was not a dream she had as a youngster. She got into sports playing tackle football with boys and went on through a progression of sports, most notably field hockey. A tennis racket didn't touch her hand until she was in high school. "I tried it," she says, "and something good happened. The ball went over the net." Her father, Frank, is superintendent of Brattleboro's Recreation and Parks Department, and she learned from his strokes, "which weren't wonderful."
But she at least thought more of dad's tennis instruction than his automobile driving lessons. When she was 16, she put on the turn signal but didn't turn. The old man indicated this shortcoming in her driving technique, at which point she slammed on the brakes, got out, walked home and, says Frank Dearborn, "left me sitting in the middle of the street on the wrong side of the car, door open, turn signal blinking. I've always considered Donna very resolute."
For most of her growing-up years, her main squeeze was math, not tennis, not anything else. She'd ride her red Schwinn bicycle with the two dented baskets (from running over a fire hydrant) down by Pleasant Valley Reservoir where she would sit and work out geometry proofs until her heart was content. At Springfield (Mass.) College, she continued to play tennis. But more important, she met Bruce Wright, then a faculty member and now a doctor for sick tennis strokes, who was heavily into tennis and who conveyed the sport's excitement to Dearborn. "With Donna," he says, "the racket is her brush and the court is her canvas." Donna went to North Carolina State for graduate work in applied math, "but when I got there, it seemed to me that being 22 years old and spending 20 hours a day with math books wasn't right." She decided to leave school and play tennis tournaments, which she did, driving around in a 1967 VW that consumed more oil than gas.
She determined to follow tennis to California or Florida. A friend offered a ride to Phoenix in the summer of 1976 and once in the Valley of the Sun, Dearborn found a "house with no windows propped up on cinder blocks with a mangy horse in the back." She had just spread her sleeping bag on the floor when the black widow and tarantula exterminator showed up.
After plenty of job-looking futility, she eventually went to Gardiner's, her toes protruding through raggedy sneakers, and with no racket to demonstrate her talents. Head pro Bill Foulk said, "You've got to wear white all the time, shave your legs, maybe clean toilets and always smile." Said Donna Dearborn, "It sounds like the Army here and you're the general." A few days later she was hired. Foulk says, "She could play the game well, she was attractive and personable and had a college degree and teaching experience. I'd take 100 like her."
By 6:45 a.m. daily, Donna is running—a 12-mile jaunt around the desert as the cottontails dart about the yucca and mesquite and the sun begins poking pink behind the Superstition Mountains. (In December she ran Arizona's Fiesta Bowl Marathon in 3:18:15 to qualify for the Boston Marathon.) "I love the sunrise," she says while jogging easily. "Especially these days when the sun is rising and the moon is setting at the same time. Plus I feel better because I've accomplished something before the day has even started for most people." Then it's 50 sit-ups, 25 push-ups and a breakfast consisting of "an orange going into the shower and an apple coming out."
Most of the rest of the day is spent teaching tennis. Or stringing rackets in the pro shop. Or sometimes working as a court keeper, which means keeping things all spruced up and the balls in the baskets because, as pro Jeff Stewart, like Foulk a veep with the Gardiner corporation, says, "Nobody learns from an unmade bed." Sometimes Dearborn is a hostess, meaning that for $12 an hour she plays tennis with a client, most often to fill out a doubles game. Sometimes she gives private lessons.
The pros (20 men, seven women) can date the clients if they want, the rule forbidding it having been changed recently. But wild partying and general high times are more myth than fact, largely because of the effects of a day's worth of Arizona sun on one's body. Donna spends most of her time with Foulk, who told a staff meeting, "I've asked her to marry me three times and she has refused me more firmly each time." To Donna Dearborn the idea of marriage is as appealing as a double fault on match point.
Of her teaching Foulk says, "All of us want to be loved and this is a nice way of achieving it. When somebody says, 'Wow, I've improved so much!' that just makes my whole week." Everyone enrolled in the clinic (3,000 a year) hits as many tennis balls as he can stand. Gardiner considers tennis instruction "a calling, just like the ministry." But he laments "there are so many bums in this business."
As a relatively new pro, Dearborn makes $4.25 an hour for a 40-hour week; veteran pros at Gardiner's make up to $9.50. She admits, "I can't tell automatically what's wrong with somebody's stroke. I have to study it." On the court her vocabulary runs to "be ready, too bad, short swing, much better, good footwork, watch the ball leave the machine, lift your chin and try again." The emphasis at Gardiner's is on having a good time; this is not a Lombardi-like training camp. "What Gardiner's wants," Rosewall says, "is to give people a bit of a holiday and a happy week."
Things do go wrong in Camelot. Dearborn sprained an ankle when she stepped on a tennis ball. Picking up some wooden blocks used in instruction, she got splinters in her hand, then went out and played terribly in a doubles match in which she was partnered with Rosewall. "He's only my favorite player," she sighs, "and I've only looked at one of his instructional films about 80 times." And she muses that there's a sameness about the weather and her life. "I suppose I could use more variety," she says. True, a day filled with nothing but backhands can glaze a person's eyes.
But she does lead the good life and she knows it. Sometimes it's the Phoenix Symphony; sometimes it's astronomy classes at Scottsdale Community College; sometimes a course in cabinetmaking. She goes to Montana during the winter to cross-country ski; last summer when the weather in Arizona was stifling, she taught at another Gardiner facility in Sun Valley, Idaho.
The other night, after nearly 12 hours in the sun, Donna Dearborn returned to her apartment, put Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 on the stereo, and dropped into a vinyl chair, too tired to even face fixing her newest favorite food—broiled bananas with honey on top. Yet, even the exhaustion is part of the good life. As Bruce Wright says, "What makes for an enviable job? That you hardly work? Nonsense." But will Dearborn forevermore stand against this lovely backdrop coaxing cheerily, "Watch the ball"?
"Sometime," she says, "maybe I'll go where there are really big mountains, a good university and tennis courts. But just being here and teaching people a game that can bring them so much pleasure, it's hard to imagine anything any better than this." Then she turns her attention to deciding whether to read a little Michener or Vonnegut tonight. Or even Joe Uris. Paradise Valley is paradise.
For many people, the only thing better than sitting on a dock in Key West, sipping a gin and tonic and applauding the sun's last brilliant act of the day—a ritual in that tropical island town—is to be on a boat racing the sun home across the pellucid water.
Now the salt spray is in your face, the sun has just made its graceful exit, there is a glow in the sky and glory in the heart as the 18-foot skiff makes a final, swooping turn into Key West Oceanside Marina. The boat eases down the channel and then slides gently up to the floating dock. "It sure beats working," says Gene Montgomery.
Then it is time for a beer, to stare off into the winking lights of the town and to make plans for doing the same thing all over again tomorrow. Gene Montgomery is, in fact, working. His boat is his office, the ocean is his territory, and he is president of it all. There is no board of directors. Montgomery, 36, is a fishing guide specializing in light-tackle angling.
"Lots of people tell me I have the best job in the world," he says. "They say, 'You mean you really do this for a living?' They think it's all just fun. Which, of course, I guess it is." And he sloshes some more beer down his contented throat. Montgomery is living a fantasy in a fantasyland, a combination that millions can only dream of. A Key West real estate salesman, Robin Walker, says of the area where the sun shines about 83% of the time, "The real world has passed us by." That is not said with regret.
One of Montgomery's customers is Dr. Lewis Carroll, a Miami Beach dentist. Carroll says, "Gene looks 12 years younger than he is. He has no high blood pressure, drinks no Maalox, always has a tan, rides a bike to work, has no weight problem, no emotional ups and downs, no tranquilizers. His love life is straightforward, everything is in order, he doesn't know what a sleepless night is and his customers bring his lunch to the boat. He has got life absolutely knocked." So how often does Carroll think with envy about Montgomery's job? "Not often. Only twice every day of my life when I'm fighting the traffic on the expressway."
Traditionally, fishing has been considered the ideal leisure activity, the premier luxury at which one can fritter away time with society's approval. The classic sign on a door in this country is, GONE FISHIN'. Lewis Carroll says, "Montgomery is doing for a living what most of the rest of us work like dogs to earn enough money for so we can do it for a few days each year." Montgomery figures that he'll fish about 150 days this year—for pay. On his days off, he goes fishing. "Everybody thinks because it's your job, you want to get away from it," he says. "But if you enjoy it, why try to get away?" Other leisure pursuits—playing golf or tennis or camping or mountain climbing—imply a certain amount of effort; fishing implies no effort. Of course, anyone who has ever fought an amberjack or tarpon or a permit on light (12-, 10-, 6-pound) tackle knows that's not true. Yet, fishing always conjures up an image of dropping bait over the side of a boat and doing nothing.
Montgomery finds joy in his job partly because of his own whimsical mind. On the permit flats, a hook is baited with a live crab, then the line is cast and Montgomery muses, "I wonder what those crabs think the first time they get a ride through the air like that?" That's the kind of thing a man can contemplate while fishing with Montgomery. As the skiff floats lazily across the indescribable world of the flats, he laments that "Too many people do what their parents want rather than what will make them happy. Me? I just wish that I could freeze my life right now so that it would last forever."
How does one fall into such idyllic work? For Montgomery, it just happened. He was born in inland Arcadia, Fla., moving when he was 10 to Miami, where the fishing improved. He enrolled at the University of Miami, to become an electrical engineer, but quit after one semester. What did Montgomery want with such a degree? "I didn't have the slightest idea. That's why I quit."
Then came eight years in the Navy with duty in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific and in Bermuda and Alaska ("That was great. Nobody had their wives or kids there to mess things up") and Key West. But Montgomery tired of "going where somebody else wanted me to go." He joined Eastern Airlines in Miami as a mechanic. "It was just a job," he says. "I put in eight hours. What I didn't like was starting a job, then the shift would end, and somebody else would finish it." He was offered the choice of being transferred to New York or Chicago, "if you can call that a choice." For years he had been fishing on weekends and vacation, fishing hard, often with his older brother Bob, one of the pioneer light-tackle fishing guides in Key West. So now he decided to let himself be furloughed and he went fishing. Fulltime. Four months later, he received a letter from Eastern informing him he was being rehired. He returned but was still not hooked on changing tires and brakes on jets. "Why should I do something that I don't care about? Around Eastern, the big word was 'security.' Which seems to mean you work all your life for good retirement benefits, at which time you die."
So Montgomery called his brother, and asked if he thought there would be enough business for him, too. Although Bob was dubious, that was somehow enough encouragement for Gene. He admits that if he had had a wife and family, he might have stayed with Eastern, but a friend, Oma Hoffman of Miami, thinks Gene would be miserable doing anything else. "He wants his customers to catch fish," she says, "but he doesn't have a schedule where he must catch a bonefish between 9 and 11 a.m. That's nice."
Montgomery charges $125 a day to take one or two people fishing for tarpon, bonefish, permit and barracuda in the 18-foot shallow-draft skiff. For his larger boat, a high-performance deep-V 25-footer that he custom-built during a slack fall fishing season a couple of years ago, the fee is now $150. The big boat is used for offshore work, in the nearby Gulf Stream or on the wrecks and reefs that dot the waters around Key West, and the quarry can be anything from sailfish, wahoo and tuna to grouper, snapper, kingfish and amberjack.
Naturally, some of his charters are cut off or cut short by high winds and stormy weather and so the gross income shrinks. Montgomery's take this year may be about $18,000, but the net will be closer to $10,000. Among his expenses are $120 a month for storing his two boats at the Oceanside Marina, plus $36 for an extra dock downtown. Then there is gas, bait, repairs, tackle. He is toying with the idea of going up to Destin, Fla. for a few months in the summer to fish marlin when business is slow in Key West, but if he does so he will have to spend at least $25,000 for a bigger boat to handle the much longer offshore run and also to carry parties of four or more.
These days Montgomery has plenty of competition in Key West, and some of his fellow guides have been known to cut prices to get customers. Regrettably, the fishing-guide business also has its share of frauds. "A guy gets a boat," says Montgomery, "and he's an instant fishing guide. Some of those boats look like bombs went off in them."
A few days fishing with a top light-tackle guide, however, is a memorable experience. Montgomery's boats are immaculate, and his knowledge of the fish and the areas they inhabit is vast. With tackle, he is a perfectionist. As his brother Bob says, "He takes a little more time tying knots than I do. Mine don't come untied but you know for sure his won't." Another of Montgomery's customers, Pete Lehner, owner of Leigh Textiles in Boston, says, "Gene fishes in some damn good water and he has a mild, confident manner." Lehner is one of Montgomery's favorite customers because "He's used to fishing in wind and rain and fog up there. So a horrible day down here is beautiful to him."
On the boat, Montgomery does everything. A customer need only marvel at his efficiency and, when the proper spot is reached, cast a lure or bait where Montgomery says. "It does take a lot of patience to find bonefish or permit," says Montgomery, "and then you really need patience when the angler blows the cast—the bait lands behind them or beyond them or on top of them. Sometimes all day. But I am patient."
He scans the water continuously, looking for the spooky, elusive fish that roam the flats. "You can just sense when there are fish around," he says. "This is a good-looking spot. But what looks good to me doesn't necessarily look good to the fish. And you can be in a dynamite spot but at the wrong time. Maybe these fish are going to stand us up today."
There ensues the wonderful sound of quiet, besmirched only by crabs scratching around inside the live-bait well. "Silence," says Montgomery, "is not scary to me. In fact, people ought to be quiet a lot more than they are." Oma Hoffman says of him, "He doesn't jabber all day about nothing." But the contented look on his face as he fishes speaks volumes. The water laps gently at the boat; as far as the eye can see, gorgeous water, a thousand shades of blue and green. Inevitably, Montgomery is spotting fish. A customer's casts range from totally unacceptable to a little better than awful. Says Montgomery, "You have to be prepared for disappointments in fishing."
Late one afternoon, he is leading a customer in search of bonefish as they wade across the flats—hundreds of miles of shallow water. As the sun heads lower on a Chamber of Commerce day, the bonefish are showing themselves, their dorsal fins and tails breaking the surface of the water as they nose down to root for crustaceans on the bottom. "Isn't that the most beautiful sight in the world?" marvels Montgomery. "All those fish flopping around out there." One is caught, quickly admired and released. Montgomery says that about 99% of the fish his customers catch are released. "The thing about fishing," he says, "is you don't have to kill something to be successful."
While the magic of fishing permeates Montgomery's pores, he's a realist. He frets about getting too much sun, about the uncertainty of the weather (in the first six months of 1976, he had to cancel out 30 days of charters); about the fickleness of the fish ("Damn, that's a lot of empty water out there"). And while an important customer from the North is awestruck by the caliber of women he has seen in Montgomery's company, Montgomery downplays such pursuits. "As you may have noticed," he says, "a full day in the sun and the wind poling a skiff or fighting big fish sort of takes it out of you."
There are other minuses. Customers get hooks in his fingers and slap him alongside his head with fish. They have thrown up on him. Fly fishermen nail him with their backcasts. Three years ago, he was with a man and his son, fishing for tarpon. (April, May and June are the best months for tarpon, and thus busiest for Montgomery.) He leaned over to pick up a long push pole; somebody else moved to that side of the boat, and Montgomery went overboard, headlong. How did a man who had just contracted to pay more than $100 for a fishing guide react to seeing him fall out of the boat first thing? "They didn't know what to do," says Montgomery, "so I said, 'Well, feel free to laugh.' Which they did."
Later, feet up and relaxing at his trailer home, Montgomery ponders his good luck. "Sometimes I think, 'Maybe I should be doing something else.' But then I think of all the good times I'm having. I guess the world could do without fishing guides altogether. But I do give people a fun way to spend their money. And when you're out there and see 50 tarpon coming at you with their mouths open, well, the thrill of it just sort of makes your knees wobbly."
So who has the best job in sports? "You mean," asks Gene Montgomery, "after mine?"