Friday, February 02, 1996
The Jacuzzi meltdown and other legends from the Florida Keys
If you are suffering from the Winter blahs, let me tell you about a nice getaway place - the Florida Keys. We just completed our 3rd vacation there, and the magic still works.
Getting out of New York after the Blizzard was tough. Continental Airlines had no rock-bottom rates to Miami. With a little searching we found seats to Ft. Lauderdale, which was fine, since we were meeting friends from Port St. Lucie, Winter home of the Mets in Central Florida, who were to drive us all to Key Largo, gateway to the American Caribbean and our destination, at Mile Marker 100. (Addresses in the Keys are by MM, and Key West is MM 0. That particular marker is a favorite souvenir, and the real on gets stolen with some frequency).
Miamians love the Keys, their Hamptons. After a busy week they hop into their cars and one hour later they are in Key Largo. Our route down Florida Expressway was through flat plain country, green-brown, large agribiz farms interspersed with dull uniform Levitt Towns. It bordered on the Everglades part way, with a canal running parallel to it, until we reached the one-lane US1, built on a narrow causeway, the original right-of-way of Henry Flagler's 1912 dream railway to Key West, which collapsed in the 1935 hurricane. US1 runs 126 miles South from Florida City, and is dotted with Burma-Shave type signs: patience.. pays.. only.. 3 miles.. to.. passing. Here the landscape turns tropical lush green, with palm trees, bougainvilleas and hibiscus as we pass the small settlements and cheerful cottages on the inhabited islands. There are 42 bridges, the longest stretching for 7 miles, crossing the 200 plus Keys islands on the way to Key West.
Key Largo, the diving capital of the US, is the home of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Unfortunately this reef is not healthy; the corals are dying (the only really healthy reef we know is the 500 mile Atlantic Ocean ridge along Central America, which we have snorkeled from Belize). Docks full of large businesslike boats stretch for miles along the canals leading out of Key Largo's Holiday Inn, and around Christmas they have a boat parade that lasts for hours, with boats decked out with lights. The Inn is also the home of the original African Queen, the 30-foot steamer, featured in the 1951 WWI movie in which the feisty Katharine Hepburn set out to fight the German Army in Southwest Africa, mobilizing the reluctant drunk Humphrey Bogart along the way. James Hendricks, a Louisville lawyer and the owner of several Holiday Inns, bought the steamer and refitted it in England with a working engine (it was the 2nd steamer licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard for operations). I recall it languishing at the Holiday Inn pier in 1988, looking sad. Now Hendricks, who has retired from the hotel business and sold his Inn to Gus Boulis, of whom more on another occasion, runs the Queen as an excursion boat. He burns hardwood briquettes in the boiler, and sells imprinted briquettes to tourists, who also get to steer the boat and receive souvenir captains' certificates.
Key Largo, a town of 8,000 (the Keys' total population is 81,000, over 1,000 sq. miles), is partly built on man-made canals stretching into the Atlantic and Florida Bay. Houses built on stilts (now a legal requirement; the undersides serve as car shelters) have docks with davits, to raise the owners' boats out of the water. The islands, a former coral reef, have few sand beaches, and to swim in the ocean one goes out in a boat, taking along a fishing line, to catch dinner along the way. Swimming in the Bay is bad, the water is shallow and the bottom murky - it is said that people have waded from the Keys to the Everglades in low tide. Eons of years ago the bay was land, and mastodons grazed there. Hundreds of Spanish galleons bearing Inca and Aztec gold and silver foundered on the reefs; the legends of Key West shipwrecker fortunes, of which more later, are not without foundation. Even today there are quiet treasure seekers, allegedly still hauling fortunes from the ocean. It is said that within the past ten years a hunter, using tricky electronics (sighting is difficult; silver turns gray and is hard to distinguish; gold stays shiny underwater, but is less common), found an unknown ship. After clandestinely retrieving the precious metals (Florida taxes such finds), he dug deeper, and found an ivory tusk. America is not noted for native ivory, and out of curiosity he had a university scientist test the find, which turned out to be a petrified Mastodon tusk. How and whether he managed to hush the find, my source did not discuss.
Fishing and scuba diving are the main attractions of the Keys. For us ordinary tired New Yorkers the constant clear weather, basking on the beaches, swimming in hotel pools and visiting the wonders of nature were equally weighty. Pelicans, herons and egrets are always around. At MM 93.5 is the Florida Keys Bird Center, founded by the sculptress Laura Quinn, who started taking in wounded creatures a couple of years ago. You walk in through a causeway, preceded by a stately heron or a waddling pelican and surrounded by huge white long-legged birds perching on trees or huts, and pass netting covered areas housing the patients. The walk takes you out to the bay, a perfect spot for watching sunsets - there are even old porch chairs there. You might even get very lucky and sight a manatee. There are no gates, the place is yours - and the bugs', who come out at dusk and will eventually send you back to your screened-window hotel room.
Manatees or dugongs are cow-size water mammals with front flippers that they use like hands, to eat water plants and heads of lettuce, if someone feeds them. Unable to survive in water temperatures below 65 degrees, most of the surviving 300 live in South Florida, under the life threat from boats. Many carry propeller scars which are used as fingerprints in the manatee census made by the Environmental Protection people. In Key Largo manatees come up the canals to feed. I know a local family that collects wilted lettuce at the Publix supermarket, and has had a family of four come regularly to feed. There is the sad story of Mary, owner of a motel, who had befriended a young manatee whom she called Manny. Manny lived under the dock where the local supermarket regularly dropped off lettuce for Mary. One day my narrator waded into the water to say hello to Manny (manatees love to be rubbed and scratched, I'm told), and was shocked to be grasped by Manny's flippers and pulled towards the low dock peer. She was not afraid - manatees are unable to bite because their teeth are set back, and can grab food only with their thick lips - and soon realized that the creature wanted her to get the lettuce from the black bag clearly visible from the water that she had observed being delivered a short while ago. Mary's happy manatee world did not last long - the animals were getting injured by motorboats and water-skiers, and the environmental protection people stopped the feeding. Mary was heart-broken, sold the motel and moved back North; but not before Manny (who turned out to be a girl) brought and left with Mary her sick baby, with skin lesions. The animal hospital could not save the little manatee.
A hundred years ago when manatees were plentiful they were hunted for food. Off Tavernier there is Cowpens Cut, a mangrove channel with a dead end and shallow entrance, which the locals would block with a net, then drive a manatee in and have a manatee roast. By the way, mangrove channels are useful as boat protectors in hurricanes - Captain Ann Baxter has spent the last four in her houseboat between mangroves in Whisky Creek near Marathon (MM50).
Over recent weekends the Miami Herald, home paper of the humorist Dave Barry and political reporter/novelist Carl Hiassen (author of Striptease, which is making history as the highest-paid-actress-vehicle for Demi Moore) has published a 13-installment humorous novel, Naked Came The Manatee, with a different local author supplying each installment. Elmore Leonard was #12, and Carl Hiassen has volunteered to do the tricky wrapup, which would attempt to make sense of the individual authors' flights of fancy. The contents defy description, but the effort is a takeoff on the 1960 Naked Came The Stranger, a spoof novel by 25 Long Island Newsweek writers under the pseudonym of Penelope Ashe, published by our T&V neighbor Lyle Stuart. The most outstanding thing about that book was its cover photograph, showing the naked rear view of a Scandinavian maiden, for which Lyle years later had to pay royalties to an European woman who claimed to be the subject. And speaking of naked Scandinavians, Andrew Wyeth has an exhibit of 80 of his 240 Helga pictures at West Palm Beach. Painted between 1971 (when Helga was 38) and 1985, they portray his Brandywine farm woman neighbor nude, in the fields, against tree trunks and on black bedroom velvet. (Wyeth's subject, Helga Testorf, ordered $1,000 worth of catalogs and exhibit souvenirs from the museum.)
Oh, the Jacuzzi meltdown. There is a story about this man who spent his entire vacation in the Jacuzzi next to the Holiday Inn pool, drinking margaritas and holding court. He left the Keys claiming to have lost 10 lbs. Conventional wisdom says that all he lost was water, and furthermore prolonged stay in a jockeys can be dangerous to one's blood pressure. However...
If you want to be spared more legends about Key West and the Everglades and true facts about shopping for condos in the tropics, you should write a Letter to the Editor. You should write a Letter to the Editor in any event, it gets lonely out here...
The "River of Grass" and Other Legends From the Florida Keys, Part II
The Florida Keys are a nice getaway for the nature watcher. Last week we spoke of the gentle manatee, a nearly extinct cow-size water mammal. Now about marsh birds - pelicans, herons, ibises, egrets, in their infinite variety.
If you want to observe the sunset from the water, and watch birds going to roost in the Florida Bay mangrove trees, there are three boat trips available, all from Key Largo area. We went with Captain Ann Baxter in her house-boat. She takes you out to mangrove islands, and celebrates sunset with a champagne toast- other captains use high-speed pontoon boats and race right into the Everglades. We saw pelicans, herons white ibises and egrets fly into a high mangrove island, recognizable as a roosting place by white flecks of you-know-what, locally called "silver."
About mangroves; the islands are built by floating upright stick-like red mangrove seeds. They set roots in the shallow bay mud and trap ambient grass and animal life. Once some mass has formed, in come black mangroves and do more of the same. The se are the treees that have breathing roots sticking up from underwater roots, like little periscopes. The periscopes develop into trees, and marsh birds begin to roost in the trees. The undersides of the leaves of black mangrove are white, covered with salt, which is the way the tree gets rid of its minerals, taken in with the bay water - but if you test the theory by licking the leaf, you'll find both sides equally salty. When land is finally formed, white mangroves enter. That is called plant succession.
The best places for observing marsh birds in the US are in the Everglades, an incredible, 50 mile wide river, 6" deep, crisscrossed by 1' to 3' deep sloughs or canals, flowing from Lake Okeechobee South at a speed of 100 feet per day, during the wet season. The whole of Southwest Florida is this river, and only 4/5ths of the "River of Grass" are in the Everglades National Park. A lot of the area is agricultural, and the park and its wildlife are threatened by fertilizers and pesticides, as well as from overpopulation (900 new people move to Florida each day).
Coming 30-odd miles North from Key Largo, we enter the National Park after turning West at Florida City and driving through 10 miles of huge tomato and bean farms. At spots one sees a truck and a clutch of some 30 migrant laborers that it delivered, all moving forward in a wave. One group is sticking in tomato stakes on endless strips of black plastic mulch punctured by symmetrically placed holes, each containing a perfectly placed tiny tomato plant; another is placing four-stick teepees for beans. The fertilizers from such farms have changed the ecology in the Park. For instance, formerly omnipresent sawgrass is being replaced by cattail reeds. Worse, the freshwater fish are acquiring lesions, and the bay fish have high - not lethal - mercury content.
Two miles Southwest of the Park entrance and headquarters building is our first bird-view trail - the Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Walking toward the swamp one sees any number of alligators lounging in the sun, ponds full of American gars (a thin fish that does not move except to pounce, much like the barracuda), and groups of purple gallinures with red beaks. Entering the swamp, there are blue herons in their white tropical camouflage, white ibises with bent red beaks and red legs, which distinguish them from the straight-beaked egrets with yellow feet and black legs. At the end of the walk is the anahinga pond, with many of these curious cormorants drying their spread wings in the sun, looking like the centerfold of the Grand Seal of the U.S. while some of their brethren are visibly swimming underwater in the pond, on the hunt for fish, sticking skinny necks out of water every 10 seconds, to breathe. Unlike ducks' wings, anhingas' wings get waterlogged.
Forty miles down the road at the Flamingo Visitor Center, surrounding a harbor on Florida Bay, there used to be clutches of pelicans, sitting on every mooring post in the harbor. Since the Park forbade feeding of animals at the risk of a hefty fine, the pelicans have disappeared, as have the few manatees that used to be around. But there is a fantastic bird roost, on Eco Pond, that attracts every kind of egret and ibis, as well as the scarcer tricolor or Louisiana heron, duck-like swimmers such as black moorhens with red face plates, black coots with white beaks, and diving grebes. We learned to recognize a few of these birds from freelance naturalist John Green of Amherst, who travels the country with seven or eight slide shows in the trunk of his car and makes local presentations, and Palm Beach bird photographer Christal Laab. Skimmer bird, another white, fishes by circling a pond with his lower beak in the water, scooping tiny fish and other creatures for his meal,leaving a tiny wake. We noted a skimmer at the large unobstructed Mrazek Pond, just outside Flamingo.
Fishing, human style, is the biggest sport of the Keys. Islamorada (MM85-65) is called the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, with some justification. People come from all over the world to try their luck.
Fish are not the only kind of treasure hauled out of water in the Keys. Hundreds of ships wirh treasures fron the Spanish Main perished there. In 1733 a hurricane sank 21 Spanish galleons off Florida coast. The Enfante was found inside the reef in the 1960s; some ships still have not been located. Some of them may be in the San Pedro Underwater Archeological Park, Mile Marker 67.5. If you want to test me, call the state ranger at 305-664-4815, who says that at least two multi-million dollar wrecks identified by records have not yet been located. There are wrecks also in the Marathon area (MM63-40), whose main attractions are the condos for the wealthy, who enjoy the nice Sombrero (town) and Bahia Honda (state park) ocean beaches, the only really good ones in the Keys. You too can use them (recommended). But for real history of treasure one must go to Key West.
The Shipwreckers were a real industry in Key West. You have heard stories of becon lights carried on horseback, to deceive captains into thinking that there is a safe passage, only to be lured into the rocks? Yes, the shipwreckers did that, sometimes. Then they came to the rescue, saved lives and claimed the booty. But most wrecks happened naturally. Fortunes were made by booty claimers. There is a Wreckers Museum on Duval Street, and Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum has the Spanish dubloons and other finds from its founder's highly publicized treasure hunts in the 1960s and '70s. Smaller treasure museums (look out for Treasure Village) can be found along the Overseas Highway, the one-lane 126-mile road that leads from mainland to Key West.
There are also other kinds of treasures hauled from the waters. Mid-January 1996 lbs of cocaine were found floating off Rodriguez Key (Key Largo); in December 10 people were arrested unloading 5,000 lbs off Summerland (MM 25) and Sugarloaf (MM17) Keys, and five more with 3,700 lbs off Lower Matecumbe (MM75, near touristy Islamorada). And all this in 1996, after the 1970s-80s drug flow through the Keys was stopped. In the '80s the drug control people actually put a road block and drug control point near Key West, which reduced tourist flow, causing local business people to declare a Conch Republic and secede from the US, a publicity stunt that eventually removed the controls. Now Conch Republic is strictly a souvenir gimmick, selling passports, flags and china.
However, the drug people are real, and a return of the drug flow is feared, since the flow of tourists has slowed after the recession in 1990.
Drugs were always fond floating off Key West. One major marijuana drop allegedly sent so many boats fishing behind Christmas Tree Island that the Coast Guard ordered everybody in, fished out the bales and set them afire on Fleming Key, the Naval area. Unexpectedly, the wind blew in the wrong direction, and Key Westers were high for days.
And yet another treasure of the seas. In the past few years casino boats have come to Florida, doing business outside the 3-mile limit. Gus Boulis, builder of the luxurious two-year old Marriott Key Largo Bay Beach Hotel owns two, one at Key West and one outside the Holiday Inn, from where the water taxis take the gamblers into the ocean every two hours, for 4 PM to 2 AM action. One night we joined 30 other sinners to spend a few hours among the slot machines. The small casino cruise ship - not much larger than the water taxi - has three decks, one devoted to slots, with 60+ machines squeezed in tight rows and every available corner. There are handbills announcing big action on Super Bowl day. We saw 500 coins from a 50-cent slot machine pour into the cash bucket of a young woman, which persuaded us to increase our predetermined loss limit of $5 three-fold (that lasted 90 minutes). Another deck has four blackjack ($5 minimum), one roulette, one poker and one crapshooting table, the latter three only sporadically in use; they closed at 9 PM. The third deck, topside, was not yet equipped. The players were mostly older folk, playing minimums (one Oriental fellow played only with $25 chips), and everyone smoked.
Gus Boulis, a Greek-Canadian whom we never met, apparently arrived in the Keys 12 years ago with a Miami Sub fast food restaurant franchise, and now has three hotels and two casinos. Only in America!
back to Key West, the captal of American writers. Ernedt Hemingway lived there 193x to 19xx, the most productive years of his life, in a house about 10 blocks North of Crazy Joe's the bar of Hemingway renown. He moved to Cuba 19xx to 1960, and left after the Castro revolution, to go to Ketchum, Idaho, where he killed himself in 1961, at the age of xx. Mary, his fourth wife, gave the Key west house to local admiresrs, to keep it as a museum. It had been well maintained by Pauline , his 2nd wife. There are 53 cats there, 30 with six toes, a heritage fom a gift cat. They used to sell them, but no more, the litters are too small I'm told.
In the garden of the house is his study, to which he would retreat over a bridge, when the company got to be too much. There he sat in a tiny chair to write, purposely uncomfortable. The 65' ocean water pool next to the study was a favorite retreat. It was built while he was covering the Spanish war in 1936-37. When he found out that it had cost $20,000 to build, cut in shher rock, with a well to the ocean, $12,000 more than the entire property had cost them in 1930, he threw a penny at pauline, shouting: "You might as well take the last cent, ther is nothing left!"