When I was a boy in Point Clear, I occasionally saw a mostly-naked man swimming past my grandparents’ wharf in the dead of winter. I was told this same man wrestled alligators and hauled nutria out of the swamp by their tails. And when he wasn’t on the Bay, he was fishing and hunting in faraway, exotic places with the rich and famous.
Jimbo Meador would have been a character out of a tall tale had I not seen him with my own eyes and heard the stories from people I knew well. Now, at 74 years old, Jimbo’s home for good. He recently started a guide service to give ecotours of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. He bases his operation out of 17 Turtles Gulf Coast Outfitters, a Fairhope business started by his friend Elizabeth Tonsmiere.
I meet Jimbo at 8 o’clock in the morning at Meaher State Park. He is wearing what he calls a swordfishing cap over hair that hangs close to his shoulders. He has on Orvis sunglasses, a Patagonia jacket with a 17 Turtles logo and khaki fishing pants. I consider that he has on no shoes while I am wearing knee-high Muck Boots. It’s not that cold, but it is February, and we are going into the Delta.
“Free the feet, free the mind, ” he says.
The only way to be more laid back than Jimbo is to fall asleep. His Southern drawl is so slow and easy that it’s become famous — literally. Tom Hanks studied Meador’s voice when training to become Forrest Gump. The world-renowned voice coach that recorded Jimbo for Hanks said she had never heard an accent quite like it. In fact, she gave it its own name; in the movie business, it is officially a “Point Clear, Alabama” accent.
exploring our great outdoors
We get into Jimbo’s boat that he’s very proud of. It’s an aluminum center console that was custom-made in Louisiana. It has a flat bottom for running the shallow waters of the Delta and a wide beam for stability. It’s perfect for guiding up to six people, and it goes places in the marsh where most boats simply can’t.
As we idle into the Blakeley River, Meador begins to tell me of his love and concern for the Delta. His slow drawl is made even slower with the long pauses between his sentences.
“I’ve been all over the world, ” he says. “I’d rather be here than anywhere … We’ve got more species of wildlife than any other place in the country. Right here.”
Like many I know, he’s concerned with the health of our estuary. His primary concern is the disappearance of the native grasses.
“The grass creates a nursery for the fish, shrimp, crabs and numerous other marine species. It keeps the water clear. I remember I used to see all these giant bass in D’Olive Creek. It was so clear I had to wait for it to rain and cloud up so I could sneak up on ’em.”
“What do you think the problem is?” I ask.
“Runoff of silt and fertilizers that causes nutrient pollution, ” he says. “The water becomes turbid and photosynthesis can’t take place. And invasive species such as Eurasian watermilfoil and hydrilla smother the grasses.”
We ease up a small bayou. Jimbo takes the boat out of gear and gets out a camera with a long telephoto lens. He begins taking pictures of a large eagle’s nest with a mother and a fledgling sitting in it.
“I’ve got a life list of birds, ” he continues. “People don’t realize the variety we’ve got out here. One of my goals is to take birders out and show them species they might not see anywhere else.”
ABOVE A born outdoorsman, Jimbo has always had a deep appreciation for nature. During this outing, he photographs some local eagles from his boat, preserving their elegance.
making of a mountain man
After Jimbo finishes photographing the eagles, we continue. I haven’t asked where we’re going this morning. Jimbo’s just doing his thing, taking a stroll down memory lane, talking about it out loud, and I’m along for the ride.
“A guy that worked for my dad used to drop me off at Otto’s Fish Camp when I was about 12 years old. I’d rent a rowboat for two dollars. I’d row up in the Delta and be gone all day catchin’ fish or frogs or shootin’ ducks. The Bluegill was my hangout then.”
Jimbo knows the name and nature of every plant and animal we pass. He’s just obtained his certified master naturalist degree, but he says he’s always learning more.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a mountain man, ” he shares with me. This doesn’t seem fitting coming from someone raised in Spring Hill.
“Where Municipal Park is used to be wilderness, ” he says. “I had a trapline out there when I was a kid. Davy Crockett was real popular back then. Coon hats were a big deal. I sold a lot of hides to Taylor Fur Company. I even took a mail-order taxidermy course when I was 12. Had dead things all in the freezer … My mother didn’t like that … Then when I was 13 they moved the city limits. The surveyors showed up, and I went behind ’em pullin’ up their stakes … But I couldn’t stop it. All of a sudden we were in the city, and it was illegal to hunt and trap … When I was 14, I got arrested, and the game warden took me to the police station. I had a brother, Billy, who was a lot older than I was, and he knew a lot of the policemen. I called him, and he told me not to worry. He’d get everything worked out. I thought it was strange that after I got off the phone with him they took me in the back and put me in a cell and locked the door and left me. About two hours later Billy comes back and sees me. He tells me he’s done all he could, but I’m in a lot of trouble. I’m probably gonna be there a long time. Then he slips me a hot dog through the bars.
“‘I brought you somethin’ to eat, ’ he says.
“Then he leans in real close and whispers to me, ‘Make sure you look inside that hot dog before you take a bite.’
“He turned around and walked out. I open up the hot dog and there’s a file in it … About that time I hear ‘em start laughin’ out there.”
We both chuckle at the story.
ABOVE Meador knows the ins and outs of the Mobile River Delta like the back of his hand. He’s been meandering the historic waterways for most of his life. Today, he shares his passion with others through his wildlife tour company, based out of 17 Turtles Gulf Coast Outfitters.
enduring educational digressions
Jimbo’s worked his way out of the bayou, and we’re racing up the Blakeley River now. I ask him about his schooling. He tells me he went to prep school at UMS and Marion Military Institute. Then he went to Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas.
“I didn’t stay too long, ” he says. “People ask me sometimes why I quit school. I guess I always felt like it was gettin’ in the way of my education.”
Jimbo has never let education or work get in the way of life, but there was at least one thing about Schreiner that made an impression on him. At the time, the university was run by Dr. Andrew Edington, a Mobile native.
“He taught a religion class, ” Meador tells me. “It was my favorite class. He’s the best speaker I’ve ever heard in my life. It didn’t matter what he was talkin’ about, he kept you on the edge of your seat.”
Jimbo begins to tell me one of Dr. Edington’s stories. When Edington was a sailor, one of his shipmates was an enormous, quiet Swede who went by the name of Heavy Johnson.
“His hands were so big they wouldn’t fit in a cricket cage. Normally it took two men to lift a hatch cover. Heavy could carry one under each arm.”
One night, Edington, Heavy and some of the crew were out on the town in a foreign port. As they were walking down the sidewalk, they came across a drunk who began yelling obscenities at them. Without losing stride Heavy reached out and hit the man in the face. The man fell out into the street and didn’t as much as twitch. As they walked on, Dr. Edington kept looking over his shoulder to check on the man, but he never saw him move.
“Edington thought about it for a week. Finally he had to talk to the Swede. ‘Heavy, ’ he said. ‘I think you killed that man.’ Heavy looked at him. ‘Yah, ’ was all he said.”
I chuckle and note this as another one of Jimbo’s entertaining digressions that I’m not sure how to use. Then I try to steer him back toward his life timeline so I can build some kind of framework for this piece. I ask him what he did after he quit Schreiner.
“I always had ways to make money, ” he says. “I could trap in the winter. We moved over to Point Clear every summer, and I caught and sold fish there. I lived by the moon, tide, wind and weather. Eventually I went to work on tugboats. Then I wanted to get married to Lynn, and I had to find somethin’ where I wasn’t gone so much.
“So I signed up at Ryan Stevedoring. They sent me up into the rigging loft to work with an old Swede by the name of Jansen. The first thing I noticed was how big his hands were. And I remembered that story Dr. Edington told me.”
This moment is when everything takes a turn for me. I am no longer working Jimbo — he is working me. He continues to tell a little more about Jansen. Then he stops the boat and points out some pelicans and describes the difference between the white and brown species. He gives a little more information about Jansen before he’s distracted again by the ghost fleet, the battery and Blakeley State Park. A trickle more and he sees a white egret.
“Jimbo, ” I say. “You’re killing me. Was it Heavy Johnson?”
Jimbo puts down his binoculars. “There’s a lot more to it.”
Over the next two hours, I suffer through countless digress-ions as Jimbo leaks the 10-minute story of the Swede. A few times in my life I have come across perfect stories. Stories I wish I’d written. But here was one that was not written, had the perfect arc and hit the complete range of emotions. I’m not going to tell it because it’s Jimbo’s story, and I’ve urged him to write it. But I can say with all honesty, it is the most perfect unwritten story I have ever heard in my life. And Jimbo is a master storyteller.
ABOVE Watt Key coaxes Jimbo Meador to recount memories from his colorful past. In true Meador fashion, the wild tales — stories of running and shrimping and exploring the world over — come in bits and pieces. The two kindred spirits share a love for nature and, in particular, the waters of home.
Foresaking the white collar
We eventually head back to the Causeway to eat at The Bluegill. Over lunch, he helps me finish my notes that are incomplete on account of the Swede.
Jimbo married Lynn McPhillips, his high school sweetheart. Then he spent a few years in Wilmington, North Carolina, working for Ryan Stevedoring before he was transferred back to Mobile to become their safety director.
“I had a big salary, expense account, retirement, company car … But I didn’t like that white shirt. I told Lynn, ‘This ain’t me. I’m goin’ shrimpin’.”
“What’d she say?”
“Everything I ever wanted to do, Lynn was 100 percent behind me. I went to work at Bon Secour Fisheries. I got to be manager and stayed for 15 years.”
Jimbo and Lynn moved into the McPhillips’ family house in Point Clear. I reason that’s about when my life and Jimbo’s intersected. I tell him that I remember seeing him swimming in the Bay when I was a boy.
“I swam year round, ” he says. “Even when I wasn’t at home. If I was on the road and I got to a river, I’d stop and jump in. The Native Americans believed it was cleansing. I believe it has a positive effect. I wear a bathin’ suit every day. I got one on under these pants right now.”
This reminds me of a story Winston Groom told me. He and Jimbo and George Radcliff were on a long sailing trip together on George’s sailboat. For the most part it was an extended party at sea, but when it came to meals, George was particular about everyone wearing a shirt at the table. Jimbo was never much for wearing anything other than a bathing suit. When supper time came, George had to tell Jimbo again to put on his shirt. When George returned to the table with their food he was pleased to find his two friends seated patiently, both of them dressed as he’d requested. When the meal was over, Jimbo stood to leave, naked from the shirt down.
Jimbo tells me he was also into jogging in his bathing suit. “There weren’t many people doin’ it back in the ’70s. Somebody saw you runnin’, they figured you’d done somethin’ wrong. So I’d go down to the Gulf and run on the beach at the end of West Beach Road where there weren’t many people around … If I couldn’t get down there I’d run on the Lakewood golf course at night. I always ran in my bathin’ suit. One time I got stopped by a bunch of police.
“‘What are you doin’?’ they said.
“‘Runnin’, ’ I said.
“‘I like to run.’
“‘We had some complaints about a crazy naked man with a beard running through the golf course at night.’
“I had a big beard back then. I said, ‘I might be crazy, and I got a beard and I like to run. But I got a bathin’ suit on.’
“They laughed and let me go.”
Winston’s novel, “Forrest Gump, ” is dedicated to his friends, George and Jimbo. And some of the stories, like the one above, give a blurry background to several famous episodes throughout the book and movie.
“Do you get tired of people bringing up ‘Forrest Gump?’” I ask him.
“Everybody always wanted me to be Forrest Gump, ” he says. “I had to tell ’em I wasn’t. I had a beard and I liked to run and shrimp. And I had the way I talked. But I wasn’t him. David Letterman called me, and I had to tell him to leave me alone. London Times called me. I was guidin’ then. I said, ‘You got to be here before daylight because I got a fishin’ trip tomorrow.’”
When the shrimping business slowed, Winston contacted a connection of his at Orvis and told them about Jimbo. As it turned out, the company needed a sales representative to boost their product sales across the South.
“They told me it paid $8, 000 a year … I told ’em it sounded like there was room for growth. I had to guide fishin’ trips and teach fly castin’ lessons to make ends meet, but they were fine with that. Then I had this idea that Orvis needed full-line dealers. Back then they would just try to get their products in sportin’ goods stores. I researched the sales figures and got all the zip codes for where most of their stuff was sellin’ in the South. Then I got people to open Orvis stores all over the Gulf states. I got a commission on everything they bought. I made a lot of money. Between that, and Lynn teachin’ school, I put two kids through private school and college.”
Jimbo’s job with Orvis was also the springboard that launched his personality into the world. He soon found himself fishing and hunting with celebrities, many with whom he’s still friends. He also became closely associated with writers the likes of Charles Gaines, Tom McGuane, Peter Matthiessen and Guy de la Valdene. Jimbo seems to like the company of writers. But he’s not one to name-drop or give much information about his famous friends, and maybe that’s why they like him so much. I know he’s pals with Jimmy Buffett, but I’ve been told he doesn’t talk about it. He seems to put more value on the man than the reputation.
“Me and Pat Ogburn (friend from Mobile) used to catch frogs a lot, ” he tells me. “I liked to eat mine, but he always hoarded his. He had a freezer full … When Dad died, he showed up at my house with a sack full of his frog legs. That’s a friend for you.”
life as a naturalist
After his stint with Orvis, Jimbo continued his career as an outdoorsman with companies such as Hell’s Bay Boat Company and Beretta Firearms. He has also designed fishing kayaks and paddleboards.
These days, Jimbo’s all about being home and spending time in the Delta. He and Lynn have been married nearly 50 years, have six grandchildren and live in the same house in Point Clear.
I ask Jimbo what he is ultimately looking to get out of his ecotours. “I want to educate people on what we’ve got here. I’m really set up for photographers, birders and nature watchers. People need to know about this place and know how important it is to protect it.”
After lunch, we walk next door where Jimbo shows me a small storage building and a boat launch where he’s setting up a second base of operations he hopes to grow into this spring. I’m thinking he can pull it off. We’re fortunate to have a world-class outdoorsman right here on the Eastern Shore. But I’m also thinking, all he really needs is that story of the Swede.
text by Watt Key • photos by todd douglas