Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Hermit of Panther Key (Part 1): "Fixing to Die"

So you want to know more about E. Foster Atkinson. Thinking about it yesterday, so do I.

I know he suffered from emphysema and he had a Labrador retriever that once caused me to walk on water, but that is another story. Foster was the higher ranking hermit for many years, living in a two-room shack without running water or electricity, on Dismal Key. Dismal Key was one of a few pieces of high ground in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, a vast track of brackish mangrove swamp where the West Coast of Florida around Marco Island breaks itself up like a jigsaw puzzle becoming the Gulf of Mexico.

Foster was the “ranking” hermit because, although there were only two hermits living in the Ten Thousand Islands, there was rank based on who was there first. The lower ranking hermit, until Foster’s death, had to live in the one-room shack on Panther Key.

The lower ranking hermit was my father.

By now, anyone who has been reading my blog, knows that I am not shy about admitting that I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve also worked long enough in the field to know there is a genetic component to the disease. While I take full responsibility for pouring booze down my own throat years, I also inherited the propensity from my Dad.

There is a tradition in Alcoholics Anonymous about the importance of anonymity which is why they call it anonymous. Duh. So while I can tell people that I’m an alcoholic, I should not tell people about someone else’s alcoholism. But my father passed away quite a while ago and, even if he were alive, I doubt he’d mind. He spoke about it openly to everyone.

Let me get some facts out the way. His name was Albert Seely. My last name was legally changed from Seely to Cowell when my maternal grandparents adopted me after my mother’s death because my father was unable to raise me because he was…well…never sober.

He was also unable to hold a job, moved to Florida, bounced from drunk tank to drunk tank, detox to detox, hospital to hospital until he was finally diagnosed with incurable cirrhosis of the liver and given less than six months to live.

So he decided he was of no use to anyone, pawned what few possessions he had, bought a small open wooden boat with a broken-down motor, filled it with beer, and sputtered away from the little fishing town of Goodland, Florida into the maze of the Ten Thousand Islands. His plan was to disappear, get lost, get drunk, and die.

That was the day he met Foster in the middle of nowhere and began the next twenty-five years of his life.


  1. Hello BBM - I left anote for you at my place but out of curiosity came to check on you and you are posting at 2am!!!! Do you sleep? I thought you were up early this am too.

    Thank you for sharing the story about the hermits of 10,000 islands. Will you continue it and tell us more about them and the influence Hermit 1 had over Hermit 2?

  2. I very much enjoyed a part of the story of Albert Seely.

    As one recovering alcoholic to another....there but by the Grace of God ....

  3. Fabulous stuff. I won't be able to sleep now!

  4. Ahhhh.......B&B as always you inspire me. I too have been in recovery for many years, 18 to be exact. My mum, who passed away inf 1977 from acute alcoholism at the age of 42, passed on that genetic propensity to me as well. Somehow I knew that we had some kind of kindred thread running through our commentaries that I couldn't put my finger on........
    I love the story of Foster and your father. I have been to Dismal Key as I used to travel to Islamorada every year until a few years back. I used to love to explore all of those little keys. I spent many days in the summers of my life wondering around there.
    You're father looks a wee bit like Mr. Hemminway, no? Are you sure you're not Ernest's son? You're writing is incredible.......
    See there, I can too be serious (sometimes)...
    Humor is my shield and prbably your's a bit too??
    Take good care and I hope that you and your wife have an EXTREME Sunday :)

    ( me dude.......seriously.....)

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  5. Excellent post Mark, with a wonderful twist at the end.

    I can't wait for Part two.

    But why does Reggie Girl want to be called Dude Seriously?

  6. I have 7 and a half years up.....lots of us on here it seems.

  7. Hooray for recovery! Although I run into so many -- but it still surprises and pleases me.
    Regarding me being up at 2:00 is actually 4 or 5 my time...The Blogspot server must be in a different time zone.

  8. That is a wonderful post. I cant wait for the next part either. Twenty five years - wow. We all have demons of one kind or another and its a good thing to talk about them. Your father's and E. Foster Atkinsn's story might make another wonderful book or film. I agree, your father does look like Hemmingway.

  9. Okay..Barry is VERY funny!!!!
    But not here to talk about Barry! This is great - I am glad you have begun the hermit story. I am always curious as to why people make the choice to live in isolation. I will learn from this. And...I thought he had 6 months to live!!! He made it another 25???? With or without the booze? Can't wait to hear more.

  10. Fascinating story Mark and it has hit quite a cord with alot of your readers.
    I am sure your father would be very proud of you if he was around to read this.
    Look forward to Part 2

  11. B&B...Your honesty and gift of writing keep me coming back to read your words. You and I definitely had the Father/Son theme going on today!
    Thank you so much for sharing (as you can read, I have been through many Al-Anon meetings).
    Stay Strong!

  12. Fascinating stuff on several levels. I guess the first question is how your father managed to live for 25 years after a forecast of 6 months.

  13. Pray tell, Marc, when can we expect to read part 2? and how many parts do we have to look forward to? You're displaying talent for serial storytelling.

  14. So much to read? Where do I start? You and Barry are going to keep me busy. When will I blog?

    We used to have a hermit who lived across the road from us in Georgia. He was big time moonshiner in the old days, running his shine in his boat across the lake to South Carolina, and he still made moonshine in his back yard until he died twenty years ago.

    The old hermit would give us a little jar from time to time. I never drank the stuff - just smelling it made me drunk. I would tell my husband not to get it too near the ceiling when he took the top off the jar, as I was afraid it would burn a hole in the ceiling.

    Those who knew their moonshine, said it was really smooth stuff.

    He was neat old guy.

  15. BBM I think you need to change your time settings...

  16. Very interesting, especially the drinking stuff. my father was alcoholic and, alas, the apple didn't fall too far from the tree. I feel one can either combat his flaws or run from them; either way, it's easier said than done.


  17. How do I change time settings? Yes there will be a few more parts. I'm changing my name to Dude Seriously in honor of Barry. And, I guess you can't always believe doctors.

  18. It is hard for me to imagine looking back at such a different life as you must have had. Such profound changes you have made...must make you dizzy sometimes. By the way...good hook, I'll be back.

  19. You certainly do get a great string of comments. One of the troubles with not checking blogs as often as I would like to have the time to do is that others beat me to it (A run on sentence worthy of Dickens that my 8th grade English teacher would chastise me severely for and send notes home about even though I expressed regret and made statements about never doing again in fear of intense pain and suffering.)

    Anyway, everything I wanted to say is above.

  20. well, having read this now, I find the story fascinating. Have you ever gone back to see if the shack still stands?

  21. Dear Marc,
    Hi, my name is Denise Strode Stealey and as a young girl (growing up in the 1960's)I spent many a summer day and night on Dismal key with my parents and Foster. He had a dog named tootsie that was well trained and could say "I want my mamma". I also remember that it would be hotter than the hinges of hell in that shack at night, but I would pull the covers over my head and tuck them in all around me because I could hear the cockroaches flying around the room at night. I would marvel at my father's (still living in Sarasota)navigational abilities as he picked his way through the mangroves from Goodland to Fosters place. There was no running water; he had a cistern, no plumbing and no electricity but my memories are all fond and possitive. My brother and I would run around the island and find huge indian middens that held all kinds of treasures, including pieces of pottery and arrow heads. My dad could certainly elaborate much more on the subject but just wanted you to know that I was THERE! Take care, D.

  22. Hi Mark, I met your father several years ago and had brought him some supplies from time to time. I spent the night out on Dismal last week when my 2hp broke down, ate raw oysters for dinner and breakfast until my friend came and towed me back to Port of the Islands that next day. Have a question that I would like to ask you, could ya email me please? I am doing a study on Dismal. Chris

  23. Hi, my father, Parke R. Lewis and several of friends from Ft. Myers rented Dismal Key and hauled wood by boat to build the cabin. I only visited there once... it was enough! My brother spent lots of time there. Friend of Bill.... Rene Lewis Lawrie

  24. Do you know who built the cistern. Visited Dismal Key by Jet Ski last year and just completed a pastel painting of it. When we rounded the bend and saw this remnant of Florida history I knew I had to paint it. It is not even framed yet and am debating on what to name it. Perhaps the builder's name should be included.

  25. This post was in the same time frame as when I started to follow your blog - but don't recall reading it. I do remember you writing about your grandparents. did you ever do part two? My father and grandfather and all my father's brothers were alcholics but as far as I know none of my 7 brothers and sisters are. I enjoy a glass of wine with my meal but have never known that need to just keep drinking until wasted (not that that is a defining trait) enjoyed the writing - had problems with the sentence..." My last name was legally changed from Seely to Cowell when my maternal grandparents adopted me after my mother’s death because my father was unable to raise me because he was…well…never sober." had to read it several times to understand....
    hugs from Brasil

  26. the gene you speak of is why i never tried drinking. our family had several alcoholics and after watching their lives, i was afraid to even take a sip for fear i would end up like they did. i also ended up married not once but twice to an alcoholic and my husband now of 28 years had his first wife die from drinking at the tender age of 43. so tell your story and maybe it will help others. the first part is very interesting to me and even more so since I live in Florida.

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  28. I was a recent visitor of al seeley we mullet fished at dismal key in the early 80's we would drink beer and my friend loved his paintings we would ask him at times if he wanted a beer his reply was if u don't have a case I refuse that meant he would have 2 go to goodland 4 more beer and his dog digger was his best friend.....I can go on BUT.

  29. I think of old al once in a while,he is a great guy,he had a good story always,we had some great times in that neck of the woods and his dog digger was a very woods smart dog. He was a good scratch painter he sold them 2 make a few beer and more beer monies

  30. Ive been reading of the hermits of the everglades tonight. I was wondering when your father passed. cant find record. thanks, jim.

  31. I saw your dad did a Tv show appearance in “gateway to the Everglades”! I believe. I’ve been looking for it hard but can’t find it. Do you have a source for it. Loved the book he was a great writer. Did he feel that way?


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