NICEVILLE — Lee Johnson Neugin stands on a deck outside her Niceville home. Built by her parents, it was the first home ever built on Bayshore Drive.
“He (Neugin's dad) would get up at 3 in the morning and catch trout and redfish off the dock,” she said. “Then he would jump in the boat, head out to the gulf and usually by 9 a.m., he was back.”
Although the deck has been re-done since her parents' time, it still holds special memories for Neugin.
Her parents would spend many afternoons sitting on the deck with a beer, talking and laughing with each other. Only a few feet from the back deck is the dock where her dad spent most of his time.
Born in 1934 in Safford, Arizona, Larry Johnson grew up riding horses and hunting, but fishing was always his favorite. Neugin pulls out a picture that shows her father holding a string of fish as a toddler.
“He was happiest when he was out on the water,” she said.
Fate and the Air Force brought Johnson and his family to Destin. After joining the military out of college, he was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base three times before eventually retiring to Niceville in 1972.
He and his wife, Jean, bought property on Boggy Bayou and built their dream home with only the help of their two kids. Neugin still remembers pulling down giant vines from the pine trees that covered the lot.
Neugin can still see him pull up in his teal Volkswagen.
The Johnsons were very involved with the Eglin Yacht Club, where they made friends with local Destin fishing captains such as John Zwaska and Chubby Destin.
“They loved everyone in the yacht club so we would spend out weekends out on the harbor,” Neugin said.
In those days, Crab Island was still an island, but Neugin said no one ever went there. Instead, the place to be was a small island called My Island, which was located near East Pass before the jetties were built.
“One year they planted palm trees on Crab Island and after Hurricane Katrina, we found them floating in the water.”
Neugin recalls a time when Destin and her dad rescued an injured porpoise and nursed it back to health in Destin.
“Destin built a 3- or 4-foot-high pool and had a pump pumping saltwater into it for the porpoise,” she said. “My dad and brother would catch live baby mullet to feed it until Destin released it back into the wild.”
Before he retired, Johnson served as a weapons officer on a C-130 during the Vietnam War. The family was living in Los Angeles at the time and after not hearing from her dad for over eight weeks, Neugin and her mom were told his plane had been downed — and he was listed as being missing in action.
“We thought we had lost him and after four months, my mom started making arrangements to move back here because they had already bought this property,” Neugin said. “Then one day, out of nowhere, he came through the door.”
Johnson had been injured and lost in the jungle when his plane went down. Neugin said some good Samaritans found him and hid him in tunnels to help him avoid being captured until he could be rescued. During that time, he was exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical sprayed on the jungle by U.S. planes.
Johnson developed leukemia and died two years after he retired. Even as he lay in the hospital bed during his final days, Neugin remembers him believing he was on a boat. He was laid to rest at sea at his favorite fishing spot, White Hill. Neugin said it was the prettiest ceremony she'd ever attended.
Neugin was supposed to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy to become one of the first female pilots, but when her dad passed away, she said she lost her courage. Instead she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Florida’s engineering and technology program and the first female aerospace engineer at Eglin Air Force Base.
“I guess in a way, I still came through for him,” she said.
Her mom passed away four years after her dad, leaving a hole in Neugin’s heart that she said will never be filled. But with the help of pictures, family recipes and memories, she can smile and remember “the good old days.”