Granny's Roughnecks

What would Granny do? Probably take him to the hospital. But tonight, stitches and duct tape will have to suffice for Al Michael. Michael was ATVing a recent Saturday out by Mack's Fish Camp when he rolled his machine and split his scalp wide open.

"Anyone else would have laid there and bled out," says shirtless, shoeless John Keith Jones, who runs the camp with his twin brother, Marshall Heath Jones. "But he's hard. What he took today, he took like a man." After the accident, Keith -- no shrinking violet himself -- cleaned up Michael's injury and used six sutures to stitch his head back up.

"Not a moan or a twitch," Keith marvels of Michael's composure. "Not even an ouch."

Michael stands wobbly and woozy, his hair matted with dried blood, poking through the camouflage-colored duct tape Jones used to dress the wound.

"Seriously," Jones implores his patient, "if you can, try not to sleep. You could have a concussion."

"All right," Michael nods. He's a regular here. He knows the drill.

John Keith Jones is no doctor, but he's handy with stitches. His feet are always getting cut on broken glass or barbed wire, and he and his dogs often take nasty wounds inflicted by the wild pigs they hunt out in the muck and sawgrass that surround their remote compound. The 25-year-old twins have lived at Mack's Fish Camp since they were 3, raised by their grandmother. Today, they rent out boats, trailers, and RV hookups; provide guide services for fishing and hunting parties; and take folks for airboat and swamp-buggy rides. And they live off the land.

Reality dictates that they must go into town once in a while. Every week or so, they have to make a trip to Pembroke Pines, Miami, Hollywood (where they attended school), or Weston. Going into town is a shock to the system, Marshall explains. "It's like hearing static. Everybody's trying to get where they're going. Nobody has time to say hello or how you doing. I hate that."

But stark, raw, real life for the twins is rooted firmly in the camp. Tonight, Keith, standing inside the low, narrow store that's the hub of Mack's Fish Camp, is still slow-cooking part of a 550-pound wild pig outside on an open-air fire. There's a primal quality to the scene, with the pervasive smell of meat cooking on a fire and the squeaks and whirs of birds bedding down in the brush, that stirs forgotten memories of a time when man was much closer to nature.

A strapping young dude from Miami presents Keith with a long, pointed spear for his next hunt. Keith gratefully thanks the fellow hunter but later admits: "I like to knife-hunt more than anything else. I love to see the blood spill on the ground from its heart."

Things are a little rougher at Mack's Fish Camp since the twins' grandmother, Nell Jones, the official First Lady of the Swamp, died five years ago. But Keith and Marshall stay faithful, in their fashion, to Jones' tradition of hospitality and backcountry rectitude.

Keith and his dogs caught up with this particular tasty pig -- currently cooking over chunks of mahogany, hickory, and oak -- a few weeks ago, just before the sun came up after tracking it all night through the swamps. Where did they catch up to it? "The gettin' place," he says. His lead dog, a Catahoola cur nicknamed Mr. Unstoppable, has been torn up good by the pigs and their long tusks. Keith will stitch him up and put the dog back to work, so the dog can continue to bring down those pigs, biting their ears mercilessly with bloody sound effects. "You can hear the cartilage in his mouth," Keith says proudly.

He laughs, patting his dog's back. "Sometimes I call him Stank," he says, "'cause he puts a lot of stank on them pigs."

On weekend nights, a few minutes after the final slice of the sun sinks beneath the horizon, mosquitoes descend like falling ash, clinging to eyelashes and biting through clothing. The air fills with the thunder of three- and four-wheelers bogging across the sawgrass and Southern rock anthems like "Bad to the Bone" and "Sweet Home Alabama." Sometimes, around 3 or 4 in the morning, Keith and Marshall turn on a floodlight to illuminate the canal (and any alligators) and swing out over the water.

Mack's Fish Camp sits atop a levee that's maybe 50 feet across. The wide Miami Canal lies on one side, a sea of swamp stretching all the way south to the Tamiami Trail. On the other side, just inches behind the trailers, stands a tall row of sawgrass and millions more behind that, extending all the way north past Everglades Holiday Park and Alligator Alley. To the west is the massive marsh that makes up the vast expanse of the Everglades. Only to the east is there any vestige of civilization. When the boys were growing up, the last tendrils of development barely stretched to Flamingo Road. Now, the blazing sodium lights from Pines Boulevard are visible off in the distance at night.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton