Impromptu Tortugas

Bill Armstrong

© Copyright 2004 by Bill Armstrong

Winding up Thanksgiving week with cousins in West Palm Beach (West Palm, the residents say), Diane and I are discussing a quick trip to the Florida Keys before flying back to our own retirement headquarters in New Mexico.

“We have the car through Thursday,” I rationalize, “We can do it in a couple of days.”

“I’m not going anywhere without reservations ahead.”

“Sweetheart, we don’t need reservations this time of year. Motels, B&Bs — they’ll fall all over themselves to give us a deal when we get there.”

She frowns. “That’s what you said when we went to Guatemala. Remember the bedbugs in that charming hostel you found for us?”

Rummaging through her trolling-for-tourists brochures, Diane takes the bait and calls a toll-free number. Two nights at The Blue Parrot in Key West, “an elegantly restored historic house in Old Town” will set us back $175 a night. “But it’s off season,” I gasp. Diane rolls her eyes. “Well,” I mumble hopelessly, “it must be a palace. Surely we’ll be waited on hand and foot by liveried servants.”

We’ll improvise the first night out, at least, devil take the bedbugs. Three nights, four days, and throw in a day-cruise to the Dry Tortugas where we’ll see Ft. Jefferson, a Civil-War era fortress.

Next morning, we load our doughty little purple Neon, and say our good-byes.

At the very tip of the Florida peninsula, we pause, entertaining the idea of retreat. Abruptly confronted by the obviously sinking edge of a continent, landlocked New Mexicans may be forgiven if assailed by sudden doubts. For to leave the mainland is to head your car out to sea on a concrete ribbon laid across narrow strips of sand strung together by bridges that end somewhere over the horizon. Going forward is an act of faith.

We look across the first short bridge, which appears to end in a green wall of palmetto jungle. “Just over there is Key Largo, where Humphrey Bogart never set foot to make the film,” I offer helpfully, having looked ahead in the guidebook.

“Is that why we’re here?” rejoins Diane.”

“And listen, the book says that the boat they used for the “African Queen” is on display at the Holiday Inn, even if Bogey isn’t.”

“Well let’s get going; we’ve spent all morning getting this far.”

The Queen, looking as bedraggled as Bogart and yet as pert as Kate Hepburn, rocks gently wharfside by the Holiday Inn. She’s authentic, as small as she looked in the movie, her rusty boiler and fluttering awning still in place. In fact, the little steamer had already performed a lifetime of colonial service in Central Africa before John Huston made her a star in 1953. At least, I think, there’s something tangible in Key Largo to anchor a piece of the Bogart myth.

Bait shops, sand, sea and the yellow centerline lead us on. U.S. Highway 1 offers nothing you could call a turn in all its 126 miles through the Keys, just a gradual change in direction from south to west. By the time you arrive in Key West, you’ve left the Atlantic Ocean and entered the Gulf of Mexico, farther west than some of Florida’s Gulf-Coast cities.

Still in the Upper Keys, we pull off to look at a wild bird rehabilitation center. Often, it’s people who make life a trial for cormorants and pelicans, so it’s at least sporting that someone tries to help them after they’ve swallowed a fishhook or flown into a power line. The birds we see, by and large, are those that will not be going out for fish again — a missing foot or wing make them permanent, forlorn guests, mucking around in their pens. If you’re a birder, it’s one way to add an osprey or burrowing owl to your list of sightings.

On Marathon Key, about halfway to Key West, Diane spots a bed-and-breakfast sign in front of a modest house. “Looks kinda dumpy,” I say, “let’s go on.” Her look suggests I‘ve pushed her far enough for today.

The proprietor is outside, busy with a bag of potting soil and a stack of plastic pots. He doesn’t see me, so I shout, “Hallo. Any room in your place tonight?”

He looks up with a start. “No,” he grins, “I got this dirt from New Jersey.”

“Oh? Why do you need New Jersey dirt?” I ask, willing to change the subject.

He shrugs. “You need a room?” he asks. I nod. “JO-AAAN,” he bellows, “Honey, show this man Number 7.”

It’s small, but clean, and at $55, the price is considerably less painful than what awaits us in Key West. Joanne directs us to Shucker’s Raw Bar on the marina for our sunset piña coladas and a fresh grouper dinner. A nice place: friendly, inexpensive with good service.

In the morning, while Joe prepares a fresh pineapple at the kitchen counter, Joanne and Diane aggressively trade family stats over coffee and banana bread. Joe and I endure our wives’ takes on our histories, recitals that often strike their husbands as either surprisingly bizarre or merely embarrassing. Gleaning the salient facts, we learn that the Kopps have been on Marathon Key since Joe was injured in a New Jersey steel-mill accident 18 years ago. Now protected by Medicare, they’ve sold their charter fishing boat and soon will sell the property and build a house near their children in New Jersey. It has been a good 18 years.

Only light traffic this time of year, and we quickly cover twenty miles before fetching up on the shore of the Blue Hole, an abandoned limestone quarry on Big Pine Key. Enclosed in a slash-pine forest and off-limits to boating and fishing, this oversized fresh-water pond would feel remote but for the road-noise all around. Turtles abound in the muddy-looking water. Rare Key deer are supposed to be around here too.

A volunteer ranger walks us to where a baby alligator suns itself on the bank. Ranger Weeks is sure that the Key deer, an endangered, dog-sized subspecies of whitetail, exist in larger numbers than are reported (about 300), having adapted like most deer to the human presence. Currently, he’s distressed by a state university’s plan to conduct an official deer count, raising the specter of overzealous undergraduates chasing through the marshes with radio-collars, endangering themselves and the deer. “We don’t need another million-dollar study,” he groans. “Like any endangered species, those deer just need some habitat to be left alone in.” We see no deer today.

Weeks tells us that a limited supply of rainwater permeates the limestone bedrock of the Keys. “But start pumping,” he says, “and before long you’re pulling up salt water.” He likes to remind people that without water and power lines from the mainland, the Keys’ ninety-thousand residents and numberless tourists could not long survive.

Big Pine Key is probably the only key where you can make a hard right off the highway and drive three or four miles without looping back. Upscale subdivisions push out from both sides of this road: homes with three-car garages in front and boat marinas behind, security gates, slow-moving and well-upholstered Lincolns and Cadillacs. The same adjectives describe a good many of the residents walking and riding along the bike paths.

It’s high time we get back to U.S. 1, back to the string of bait-and-tackle shops that post our march to Key West. Until 1912, only boats touched at Key West. After that, you could take the train. But the hurricane of 1935 wrecked the railroad, and by 1938 the former rail right-of-way had become the southernmost extension of U.S. Highway 1.

We arrive in Key West in the muggy afternoon and find our prepaid B&B. “Another teeny room!” moans Diane as I open the door to our second-floor walkup. “See if you can get Mr. Smarmy to give us a better room,” she pleads. “God knows we paid enough for something bigger than this.” Smarmy is polite, but he holds all the cards, including our plastic. Pulling a long face, he gloats, “Sorry, I’d move you, but the inn is full.” We stash our bags and lock up. Walking to Alice’s Restaurant, we’re suddenly engulfed in a two-minute downpour that abruptly ceases as we reach Alice’s foyer.

Early next morning we’re at the wharf, slathering ourselves with sunscreen. The Yankee Freedom, a sound-looking workaday cruiser, will ferry about forty passengers to the Dry Tortugas, the real terminus of the state of Florida ? 70 miles farther west. Soon we’re leaving the harbor at 20 knots, bucking a headwind that’ll pluck a green ball cap off your head and drop it in the wake behind.

Our boat plows a turquoise sea under an azure sky: forty tourists perched at the rail, taking it in. Patches of water darken under a cloud or with sea-grasses on the shallow bottom. This is what the Spaniard saw from his galleon as he rode the Gulf Stream home four centuries ago. Today, it’s what the Cuban refugee sees, hoping to make land before his raft founders. Whether serene or perilous, a magnificent sight.

The barefoot and petite O’Shaughnessy is a model Conch (Key West resident) and our boon companion for a day. Key West is of her and she of it. Dressed for the vagaries of island weather, reddish hair, windblown but too short to tangle, a trim and wiry frame, alert brown eyes, and just enough attitude, O’Shaughnessy is authentic. A toe-ring is her nod to island bohemianism. While her listeners clutch at rails, ladders, and bulkheads, she stands the deck without apparent effort, lecturing us about shipwrecks and salvage, seafarers and sea turtles — expertly retailing the lore of the Keys.

There’s the last occupied island, where a lone eccentric has built his home under a 99-year government lease. Those low islands to the north are the Marquesas Keys, where the Spanish treasure-ship Atocha sank more than three centuries ago, rediscovered and claimed in the 1980s by Mel Fisher who paid for her with the life of his son, drowned over the wreck.

An hour or so later, the hexagonal pile called Fort Jefferson heaves up out of the empty sea at our approach, enclosing almost the entire key it’s built on. As the old walls and empty embrasures loom larger and higher, an awed silence overtakes the passengers. It’s what we came to see, but we have not been prepared for it. The effect is something like looking up and seeing King Kong atop the Empire State Building. If an offshore oil platform is an impressive sight standing on steel columns over a roiling sea, then how much more so is a massive brick fortress afloat in the whitecaps 70 miles from land?

Proposed in 1846, the fort was supposed to answer any threats to U. S. commerce around New Orleans and the brand-new states of Texas and Florida. The Gulf states and territories needed protection. The Mexican War was brewing, and the powerful English navy, always probing for weaknesses in the defenses of its former colony, compelled American generals to seek sites offering protection in the Gulf of Mexico.

Looking at these seven tiny, wave-washed keys called the Dry Tortugas, you have to wonder what the generals were thinking when they proposed this end-of-the-world outpost. The military mind will always elude the grasp of ordinary citizens.

Let’s eavesdrop on President James Polk and his Secretary of War in the Oval Office as they contemplate war with Mexico in 1846 (Hey, it might have happened like this):

Sec: Sir, it is imperative we secure the Gulf against Mexican attacks on American ports and shipping.

Pres: Oh? Do the Mexicans possess an armada? Never mind, what do you propose, Zachary?

Sec: I and my colleagues, sir, believe a modern fortress on a strategic island in the Gulf will materially shorten any conflict we might have with Mexico, perhaps preventing it altogether.

Pres: I assure you, prevention is not desir… uh, possible. But an abbreviated conflict will save American lives. And where might that strategic island lie?

Sec: Sir, the Dry Tortugas stand squarely in the way of any threat brought to that body of water.

Pres: I was not aware until this moment of such a place. How soon can it be fortified? You are aware that the inevitable conflict approaches daily?

Sec: Indeed, sir, my engineers assure me that in a matter of months, with a modest treasury, the Tortugas can provide security for the entire South, including Texas, which is destined always to be coveted by the Mexicans.

Pres: A large order, it seems to me.

Sec: Sir, the foundations are solid limestone, already laid by Providence as level as the sea itself. And there are abundant slaves in the South for the necessary labor.

Pres: Well prepared as always, Zachary. I’ll drop a word in certain chambers. Appropriations will flow. Prosecute your plan with utmost dispatch. Now, I have other matters, if you will excuse me.

By the end of that brief war of U.S. expansion, Ft. Jefferson barely rose above the wave-tops. Not that it mattered; the Tortugas never figured in the Mexican War, nor in any conflict since. But did the generals give up? Ft. Jefferson was still under construction at the onset of the Civil War in 1861, which abruptly halted the slave labor its construction depended upon. Capping the dilemma, it was becoming clear that advances in weaponry were rendering the unfinished fort obsolete and indefensible. The eight-foot-thick upper walls would not withstand shells fired from modern cannons with rifled bores.

The obvious question of the Dry Tortugas’ strategic value, apparently never asked, was now moot. However, the Union Army decided that Ft. Jefferson was ready enough to serve as a prison for its own deserters, and no one could gainsay its effectiveness in that role. Add iron bars and sadistic jailers — voilá!, America’s own version of Devil’s Island. The only escape was removal to Hospital Key, a tiny spit of sand where contagiously ill prisoners waited for the next life.

O’Shaughnessy has endless stories about the old fort, stories of cruelty and folly, of sharks in the moat, of the failed rainwater collection system, of it’s famous political prisoner, Dr. Mudd, nursing his tormenters through a yellow fever epidemic. A hateful place, a shameful place: but amazing how time mellows history. Now, under the benign stewardship of the National Park Service, we can begin to cherish it as O’Shaughnessy clearly does. She fairly dances as she sprinkles her appalling stories over us.

Today, a century and more later, the monstrosity has to be seen as a minor miracle. Like the Coliseum in Rome, it is imbued with a terrible beauty. It has the symmetry, the massive arches, the structural integrity, the dread purpose, and the tarnished history. Though cracked and sinking, it does not fall. I can begin to believe that it stands to tell us something about ourselves, if only we’ll listen.

We snorkel in the pellucid sea outside the walls for a while but are soon summoned to re-board our boat, bringing the outward motion of our journey in the Florida Keys to a gentle halt. It is the motionless moment before we commence our return.

It is the moment when we grasp each other by the hand and prepare to be reeled back home — back through Key West, Key Largo, West Palm, Houston, El Paso, to the place in New Mexico we pretend is ours — everything the same as we left it.

Only the traveler is altered, and that’s as it should be.

Bill Armstrong is a retired school administrator belatedly opening his eyes on a world vastly different than anything he imagined during his first half century. Every day is an encounter with wonders for him. Though he will never get the hang of it, he is inexplicably happy attempting to report on it anyway.

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