Filled with colorful personalities and fascinating fishing stories, A Pioneer Son at Sea: Fishing Tales of Old Florida recounts the early fishing days of celebrated marine biologist Gilbert Voss as he travels up and down both coasts of Florida throughout the Great Depression and World War II. The book is edited by Voss’s son Robert, who is a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Here, Robert Voss shares what it was like to piece together his father’s early life.
When did you decide to try to have your father’s narrative published?
We tried to find a publisher about 25 years ago, but we were unsuccessful. I guess too many of the “greatest generation” were still around back then, and folks didn’t realize how remarkable their experiences really were. Now that they’re almost all gone, we’re scrambling to preserve their voices.
What was it like to see the world from your father’s perspective while editing his original typescript?
It was a really different world back then. So much simpler in many ways (I really envy that), but harder in others. Commercial fishing was a tough way to earn a living.
How did working on his book help you learn more about your father?
It filled in a lot of gaps in my understanding of his early life, especially what it was like growing up in the Depression.
Did you learn anything new about your family?
Oh, lots. I knew the broad outlines of our family history, but not how close my father was to his brothers, or how much they worked together as teenagers and young men before the war.
What is your favorite memory of your father?
Sailing in the Bahamas on a family vacation when I was 17. We’d never gone sailing as a family before; I’d never even been on a sailboat. We left Hopetown Harbor under power and then he cut the engine and we . . . sailed. There was a stiff breeze and the lee rail was almost in the water. I was terrified, but he was like, “No big deal.”
Do you think the sort of naturalist Gilbert Voss was—a fisherman and a conservationist—is a dying breed?
Naturalists are a dying breed, for sure. Natural habitats are so much less accessible to kids today than they were even 50 years ago, and kids’ lives are now so sheltered and overscheduled. Deep first-hand learning about nature takes lots of unstructured time. When was the last time any kids in your family wandered off in the woods by themselves or took a boat out on their own, for hours and hours? Kids used to do that all the time, or they could if they wanted to. Not anymore.
The book is dedicated to your sons, who never met Gil. What do they think of his narrative?
My oldest son read parts of the manuscript a couple of years ago and loved it. My youngest is waiting impatiently for the book to appear and will probably take it to bed with him. I’m sure he’ll like it.
What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about this book?
I hope they’ll enjoy learning what Florida used to be like, for those who once lived along its unspoiled coasts. It’s kind of hard now to imagine just how important commercial fishing used to be in the state and how closely folks were engaged with marine habitats in meaningful ways. It’s a vanishing way of life, but one worth remembering and preserving where it still survives.