Me and Mel
by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
Anyone who might want to make a list of the most famous people who have ever lived in Key West would have to include treasure salvor Mel Fisher fairly high on the list. Even I had heard of him when I sailed into Key West on my sailboat for the first time in 1979. Although he had not yet found the mother lode of the treasure known to be aboard the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha which sank off the Keys in 1622, he had already been featured in National Geographic magazine.
After a 15-year career in the corporate world– in New York City, Philadelphia, Tampa and Sarasota– I had decided to take 10 years off to go sailing. Does that sound irresponsible to you? That’s what my ex-wife told me. And my response to her was, “So, what’s your point?” Anyway, to get to the Bahamas from Sarasota, my significant other and I had to sail south and turn left at Key West. Once in Key West, we were not particularly in a hurry, so we decided to stay awhile before continuing on to the Bahamas. To cover expenses, my girlfriend got a bartending job at Two Friends. And I would often spend some time at her bar in the evenings. And it just so happened that Mel Fisher was also a regular customer. During an evening of conversation, Mel complained that he was having trouble keeping good employees. I was not a scuba diver at that time, but I told Mel that probably every young diver in the world would want to come work for him. “No, no, we don’t have trouble getting divers,” he said, “we have trouble keeping good guides to run tours through my museum!” He was talking about the old fake Spanish galleon that he had moored at the foot of Front Street (where the Galleon Resort is located today). “Sometimes, all the income we have comes from ticket sales at the museum.”
I guess you might call this being in the right place at the right time. I told Mel that I had been in corporate public relations for years and that I could sure as heck run tours. He hired me on the spot and I worked for him for eight months. We tied up our boat over in Truman Annex at the old submarine docks. This was before the Annex became a luxury housing development. On the job on the galleon, I often saw limousines pull up in the parking lot and vaguely-familiar celebrities come aboard to meet with Mel in his office in the back of the galleon, presumably to discuss the possibility of investing in the continuing search for the mother lode. That may be why Mel had the reputation of being a hustler. Of course, that reputation changed after he actually found the mother lode. It’s sort of awkward to call somebody a hustler who has just found $450 million in Spanish treasure.
The tour of the galleon started on deck where visitors were invited to pick up a large (maybe 18-inches long) and heavy silver bar, part of the treasure found so for. Mel didn’t worry much about security at that time. The bar just sat on a three-legged stool in the middle of the deck. One day a car pulled into the parking lot, a young man jumped out, ran up the gangplank, picked up the silver bar, ran back down the gangplank and jumped back into the car– and the driver sped away. The cops were called but the bar was never recovered. Speculation was that it had been converted into some of the cheap silver jewelry being sold on Duval Street. If you visit the Mel Fisher Museum today (that big red building on Duval at Front Street), you can still lift a silver bar– but to do that, you have to reach through two holes in a clear plastic window. The holes are large enough for your arms, but too small to pull the silver bar out.
During my time on the galleon, I thought the treasure divers were being nice when they volunteered to teach me to scuba dive– until I learned that they had an ulterior motive. You see, the old wooden galleon was slowly sinking and, quite often, one of the divers would be asked to “volunteer” to go down and try to patch the hull with underwater cement. It was hardly glamorous work, compared to diving for emeralds and other treasure in the open ocean. So, the deal was that they would teach me to dive and I would become one of the hull-patching volunteers. (“It’s easy,” they told me. “Just don’t hold your breath.” Fortunately for me, I guess, they couldn’t sell the deal to Mel– so I had to wait until I got to the Bahamas to learn to dive. (Actually I was lucky enough to land an advertising-PR job at a dive resort, which gave me the opportunity to go through all the training courses, ultimately earning instructor credentials.)
Mel’s treasure divers didn’t make much money, but they lived rent-free on one of the treasure boats and a cook prepared three simple meals a day for them. But to finance an occasional luxury dinner, all the divers had applied for and were getting food stamps. They gave all their stamps to the cook– which would pay for a big steak dinner with all the fixin’s about once a month. Well, I wasn’t making much money either. And what the treasure divers were doing prompted my first, last and only foray into the welfare system. I applied for food stamps. And I was successful and received a few dollars-worth of stamps– but the process was so distasteful that I never went back for more. Anyway, my girlfriend was making a bartender’s salary.
Finally, it was time to continue on to the Bahamas and I gave notice at the museum. On my last day, Deo (Mel’s wife) called me into the office and gave me three pieces-of-eight as a going-away present. She said I would probably be able to sell them if I ran low on money in the Bahamas. The next time I saw Mel, I asked him how much the coins were worth, probably a rude question. But he didn’t take it that way. He leaned forward and whispered to me, like he was telling me a secret: “Whatever you can get for them.” Apparently, that was his pricing strategy for any treasure he found.
I was still in the Bahamas in 1985 when I heard that he had found the mother lode. I was proud to have been associated with him, even in a small way. He was successful because he had refused to quit. And he and Deo were right about the pieces-of-eight. A couple of times when I was running low on cash, I would just go to a bar at one of the resorts, buy a beer, and flash one of the coins– and tourists would literally try to out-bid each other. Thank you, Mel!