Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
'Gunky is good people'

He has flown through the air in a car and crashed it just for fun. He has run over his wife with an airboat -- on accident, of course. He has gigged frogs, hunted alligators and raised a fair amount of hell in the South Florida wildlands. And not a bad word about him is heard from anyone.

Key Largo's Larry McMann has lived his 65 years as few others still do: rough, rugged, outdoors and unafraid. Although he was born and raised in Ohio, McMann is a self-described "redneck."

Very few know McMann, a founder of Keys Crane Service and part-owner of the Hideaway restaurant, as anything but "Gunky," a name he got as an F-4 Phantom mechanic while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam.

"I won't tell how I got the name. My wife never knew. My daughters never knew. No need to tell it now," he says in a drawl of a man who has seen it all. His Key Largo house is filled with Elvis memorabilia, gator heads and other evidence of a life lived to the fullest.

Chatting with this fireball of a man can be exhausting, akin to riding a wild bull on the side of a mountain.

He pops open a can of beer, then sits back in an old worn chair on his porch, where he and his hard-living friends have gathered to tell lies over the many years he has lived here.

"I don't know how I've lived this long," he says. "Even as a kid I was always gettin' in trouble. I started drinkin' beer and wine when I was 12 -- drinkin' and smokin'. I hated being cold and swore the day I graduated high school in Columbus that I'd never be cold again."

So he joined the Air Force and went to Vietnam.

"They taught me to be an aircraft mechanic. I was a Phantom fixer. I worked on F-4's. I loved that plane," he says.

He liked his work in Vietnam so much he wanted to go back.

"They moved me to Homestead where I was a staff sergeant in charge of a C-130. I was bored to death," he says, taking a gulp of his beer. "I wanted to go back to Vietnam and work on the Phantoms but they wouldn't let me, so I quit. They offered me over $6,000 to re-up but by then I was coming to the Keys and began working with Mel Fisher looking for the Atocha around Pacific Light [near Elliot Key]. When they went south to hunt for the ship, I started crawfishing with a partner in the Bahamas. We'd go for 10 days at a time."

Eventually, Gunky got into construction work, operating a backhoe and front loader for six years with the late Shorty Ralston during the 1970s. Construction would become his life's work.

"Later I worked for Reason Construction and started huntin' with Billy and Ronnie Arnold. They owned the company. We'd run dogs - walkers - and hunt deer and hogs in the Glades. We'd go froggin' and that was some crazy s---," he says. "Two guys would sit on the fender of the truck. We'd cut palm fronds and strip the leaves off. I remember we'd drive down Loop Road drunk and crazy and smack the frogs in the head with the wide end of the frond. Then we'd just scoop them up and drop them in the bucket."

It was during those outlaw days that the marshes and swamps got into his blood.

"We'd run along [the Tamiami] Trail day or night -- there was no traffic then -- and shoot gators from the truck in the canal that runs along side it. We'd be drinkin' beer, whiskey, whatever people brought, and took turns jumpin' in the canal to fetch the gator."

While pulling a 5-foot gator over the guard rail one night, the reptile, still alive, delivered some payback with a whack of its tail between Gunky's legs.

"Boy, those guys laughed like crazy," he recalls. "I'm glad I can laugh about that now, but I sure have been beat up over the years."

Gunky says his best memories come around 1980 or so -- he doesn't remember dates or birthdays -- when he was a stunt car driver for the Dukes of Key Largo daredevil team. His stunt was to race a car up a ramp, sail over a row of vehicles and land on the back of a target car. One day at the Hollywood Speedway he miscalculated.

"Somehow I timed it wrong and went 196 feet, 35 feet past the catch car," he says, the pitch of his voice rising and his eyes starting to bulge. "I landed straight down on the asphalt and the car broke in half. It drove the crankshaft out of the bottom of the motor. They said I went 50 feet in the air. That year and a half of jumpin' was probably the highlight of my life."

He has never allowed work to interfere with fun.

One time on the Tamiami Trail, he and Billy Arnold had their sights set on a large roadkill gator. But a couple of guys in a pickup truck jumped out before they could and hoisted the gator into the bed of their truck and sped away.

"We chased them all the way to Dade Corners at 100 miles an hour. They pulled over and a girl jumped out and said, 'We don't want no trouble. Take it.' We took it all right, all the way to the Caribbean Club."

When asked if he eats just the alligator tail, Gunky frowns and says, "Hell no. I eat the whole thing. The only part I don't eat is the grunt. I don't believe in wastin' anything. I've eaten rattlesnake. I tried cottonmouth one time but it has no flavor. I fry iguana. It don't taste like chicken. Armadillo is really good. The legs and the back is all meat. I'd like to try python some day to see how that tastes."

Years ago, Gunky was what one might call an unofficial fireworks distributor in Key Largo. He was the creator of the "Gunky Bomb," a home-made concoction about three times as powerful as a M-80 firework. At the time a number of local law enforcement officers were fans of the explosive, he says.

"I sold Gunky Bombs for $20 a dozen. One time a highway patrol officer -- I won't mention his name -- came by in full uniform while a bunch of us was drinkin' beer. Someone yelled, 'There's a cop outside.' I laughed. He was just coming to buy some Gunky Bombs."

He turns a little reflective as afternoon eases into evening.

"I've been married twice to the same woman. I was drunk both times," he says with a smile. "The second time I had to marry her in order to give my oldest daughter, Kelly, my name. Now I have two daughters and three grandchildren."

His grandchildren call him "Gunky Pop," a name he says he doesn't much care for but the look of pride on his face belie his comments.

Fellow airboat enthusiast Capt. Greg Brown says the acorn didn't fall far from the tree with Gunky's older daughter, Kelly.

"We were out on airboats in the Glades, Gunky and Kelly on their boat, when I harpooned an 11-foot gator," he says. "I hit him with a bang stick and thought he was dead so I drug him on my boat.

"When we came in, I was barefoot and stepped on the gator's head and he was alive. I jumped up on the seat and that gator had his chance to get me, but Kelly, who wore a knife on her side, ran over and stabbed the gator behind his head and severed its spine. She killed it dead. I looked at her and said, 'Yes, ma'am, anything you want. Just name it.' That's one hell of a young woman."

Airboats have been a major part of Gunky's adult life, both good and bad. Two flat-bottom airboats with a caged aft propeller and high seats sit on trailers in his yard. But he also knows his way around saltwater boats. Well, sort of.

An old friend, Johnny DeBrule, said Gunky once accidentally sank the DeBrule kids' 13-foot motor boat in the canal behind their house.

"Gunky jumped in and sunk it all right, motor and all, but you can't be mad at Gunky. He pulled it out of the water, fixed the boat and saved the motor," DeBrule says. "Anybody says anything bad about Gunky, you know they're lying. Gunky is good people."

Gunky's wife Karen, who he later loss to cancer, couldn't even stay mad at him the time he ran over her with his airboat. Gunky explains that several airboats were traveling in formation with women and children aboard one morning in the marshlands.

"Karen was on another boat and we collided. I ran right over them, knocking people off into the water," he recounts. "Karen was beat up and bruised, but no one was hurt real bad, thank goodness. She died of cancer in 1995. We was still friends."

As he's gotten older, his airboats may not get out as often as they once did, but his heart remains out in the Everglades.

"There's no greater ride in the world than going through the sawgrass," he says. "I get goose bumps thinking about it. ... I was born on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. I'm a Florida redneck."

sgibbs@keysnews.com

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