You can hear them coming from a distance, trumpeting their approach – in a kind of way that can only happen in communities like Fort Myers Beach – as you await sunset at Beach Access #15, across the street from Sterling Avenue near mid-island. While not exactly “The Saints Come Marching In,” they are still a pretty good group!
Soon you see the smiling face of Ron Benak, the founder of the conch brigade and a retired firefighter from Omaha, Nebraska, who has been a fulltime beach resident since 2010. Ron and his wife, Gracey, used to come to Collier County or Marco Island all the time, until they finally decided to purchase a home. “We shopped all over Southwest Florida, then Gracey’s sister asked, ‘Why are you looking in those places when you love the beach so much?’ So the light went on and we shifted our focus to Fort Myers Beach; by pure chance, we ended up in the best neighborhood on the island!”
Ron’s fascination with blowing his conch began at Key West, where he saw people doing it there at sunset: “‘That looks like fun’ I said, and they gave me some pointers. I acquired my own shell and Gracey and I came to the beach, just us two, on Valentine’s Day to try it. My first attempt was an absolute failure, as I squirted out some kind of sound more like a dead duck call, and I thought, ‘Oh My God – come on!’”
Soon Ron caught on, and the better he got, the more he recruited others, like Carlos Rangel, Dave & Patty Feste & Wally, who joined him on a recent evening, with Patty having perhaps the strangest recruiting story ever. “I bought my shell from a Jewish Sisterhood garage sale in Minnesota and kept it here for decoration. Ron comes over, sees it in my living room, tells me about their tradition, recrafts the front so it is easier to blow, teaches me to use it, and now Dave and I are here every night – this is great!”
“Just like with Patty, every time I go to someone’s house and I see a conch shell, I think, ‘oh, we can make a good blower out of this one,’” Ron relates with a laugh! “It’s also a good incentive we can guarantee a party on the beach every night. Another way we draw people are those already on the beach who see us here for sunset each evening, then they stop to watch, and the next thing you know they are asking questions and are joining in. The person three houses down gets such a kick out of us, he sometimes will record it, then play it back.”
The conchers dedicate every performance to Don Harris, a beloved neighbor and World War II veteran who recently passed on. “Don was here every day,” muses Ron. “He was a unique character who always watched for the green flash; he never missed a sunset!”
If you want to check it out, learn to blow your own conch or listen while enjoying the breathtaking sunsets, come to Beach Access #15 about 15 minutes prior to sundown. Beach Access #15 does not have public parking, but that is available at Beach Access #14 that is roughly a 50-yard stroll from the south at $2-per-hour, though most of the roughly 25 people in attendance walk from their nearby homes. Come blow your own horn and enjoy the fun at the Beach Access #15 sunset conch ceremony.