CHAPTER 11 — the $20 hook-up

I guess it’s a marina … ?

Coming in from the Bay side, Marathon is not much to look at. Scanning the shoreline confirms the location of an airport and the usual number of waterfront homes dispersed between the clumps of mangroves. If I wanted to keep on a westerly heading I could put in at the big resort at Fero Blanco but that was almost to the “7 Mile Bridge” at the far end of the island and I had other plans. The little time I had spent in the Keys over the years had taught me that locating yourself too close to the far end of any island meant long walks to reach everywhere else.

My chart had indicated that the narrow marked channel I was now entering led to a marina with fuel available but the closer I got, the more I recalled that information tables on fifteen year old NOAA navigation charts sometimes lie.

Night before last, Sunday, I had left the crowd of revelers in the backyard and slinked, unrecognized, back into the bar at the Caribbean Club. The young barmaid that Frank Matheson had been jokingly serenading with his hands and eyes the night before had started her shift while I was watching the sun go down and, recognizing me, approached with a quizzical smile.

“Where’s your friend?”

How many times in my life had I been asked that question by some very attractive but obviously disappointed woman with reference to Frank? Subliminally my response was always the same … what’s wrong with me?

“Well, he’s gone off on a boat outing for a day or two. His car is in the parking lot out front, over in the far corner away from the building,” I said. “I sure hope that won’t be a problem. By the way, I’m Jim, I didn’t get your name.”

Turns out Nancy had just turned 21, even younger than I had thought, and lived in a nearby trailer park with her ex-boyfriend’s mother. This arrangement would seem strange anywhere else in the civilized world but in the Florida Keys … c’est la vie. I didn’t elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Frank’s absence and, after I told her of my intentions to sail on down island the following morning, she assured me that she would tell the manager that the old Chevy belonged to a friend of hers. From the front door of the Club, I pointed it out to her but I purposely didn’t mention the car key’s location and, certainly not the letter in the glove compartment.

Sunday nights are big in the Keys. The local band kept the dancers “Rollin on the River” and the liquor flowed. Somewhere between a butchered rendition of my favorite, “Banana Republic”, and their next pitiful attempt at another Jimmy Buffett standby, I decided that it was time to get started walking back to Benny’s Marina, Le Esperance , and my V-berth. I left Nancy a bigger tip than usual; certainly considering I had no designs on meeting her after she got off work and probably never again, but one never knows. She had already told me that she would keep an eye out for Frank and of that, I had no doubt. I wished her luck but knowing Frank like I did, I wouldn’t put it past him to campaign for a manage a trois if he got wind of Nancy’s trailer park sleeping accommodations and Mama didn’t look half bad.

Now here I was. Tuesday morning under power, approaching a weathered old wooden dock running along the sea walled entrance to the marina. The dock stretched along my port side with a, obviously abandoned, telephone-booth-sized “Dock Master’s Office,” corroded or missing cleats, and a hopelessly rusted out twenty-foot tall steel “Standard Oil” sign. What next?

I had spent all day the day before enjoying normalcy. Frank hadn’t come aboard looking for me during the night so he probably got back late and just decided to head on back to Miami. Slipping away from Benny’s at first light on Monday, the day had passed the way they’re supposed to when I’m cruising. Wind steady from the east-southeast at 15-20 meant a minimum of tacks and the plastic bags of fresh cubes in my ice chest meant that cocktail hour could begin on schedule at 5:00 PM–in Paris or Berlin. Doctor Doom had started saying that the wind would swing around to the south after midnight so I decided to set the hook in the bight along the bridge at Fiesta Key. The water was shallow but deep enough and I’d be protected from anything but a northeaster. I love to sail but I like to sleep too and an unprotected bad anchorage makes for a long night.

Another morning of placid seas, steady air, and no hurry had brought Le Esperance and her Captain to the Florida Bay side of Vaca Key and the town of Marathon. I’d been trying to put it off, but I needed to check in with the real world. It had been a full week since I set sail and I hadn’t checked in at the office or called home. I could get in touch with my wife with the marine operator on channel 16 but, by now, there was a weekly inventory printout setting on my desk back at the warehouse that needed to be reviewed with Tommy, the frozen food buyer. and the obligatory ten minute “bemoaning rundown” from Herm, the floor manager, about all the drivers that didn’t show up for work. Thankfully, the business could get by without my oversight just fine for a week or so, but any longer than that and “the mice might come out to play”. Now to figure out if this was really a marina or some back-up movie set from “Twilight Zone”.

“They got no gas.”

There were probably twenty berths inside the enclosed little square harbor that I was coasting into but only three were occupied. Nearby to my right, on the other side of the entrance, an old gentleman with a trimmed white beard had stepped out of a thirty foot sloop and hollered my way.

“No diesel either.”

His message didn’t really come as a surprise because, unless they were hidden, there were no pumps or hoses, only the rusting stubbed out piping where they had once been. I jumped up on the port side with a line and soon had a couple of fenders in place. Didn’t need to put much slack in the tie-up to the wood pilings because I didn’t intend to be there long enough for the tide to come into play.

“What’s the name of this place? Is it a marina or just a club of some kind?” I yelled out as I turned back towards the sloop. The old guy wasn’t there but soon reappeared right next to me on the dock. He had walked the hundred or so yards it took to circle the entire watery enclosure and had a little white long-haired dog in his arms.

He must have heard my question … “Banana Bay. It used to be a time-share. Part of it still is but the hurricane a few years back really did a number on this place and I’m not sure what you’d call it today. The sign out on the highway calls it a ‘Resort’. They rent out motel rooms and a few apartments and, for the most part, keep the pool clean but they don’t have anything to do with the marina or the tiki bar. Some management outfit out of Miami runs the place, but they’re having a rough time. No matter how hard they try, they can’t keep the trash and hookers from checking into the motel and the native Conchs don’t like it. Every few months, the neighborhood vandals change the sign out front to reflect the local sentiment. It’s kind of funny; they just paint two words in front of ‘Resort’ … The Last”.

Chuckling, I reached out my hand. “I’m Jim, Jim Parnell”.

“I’m Mike. You looking for fuel?”

Turns out, Mike Barrett was a retired electrician from some place in Ohio who had lost his wife and moved to the Keys three years ago because he liked to fish. He had bought the sailboat because it was cheaper living in the marina on board than paying rent for a house or trailer. He told me he fell back on his trade to pick up odd jobs in the neighborhood and keep the boat’s bilge pump working but wasn’t a sailor. He told me he had never ventured out of the marina nor even tried to raise the main sail.

Mike went on to tell me that there hadn’t been a fuel dock at the marina since long before he arrived and that the dock master, “if you could call her that”, worked at the Ace Hardware store and wouldn’t get home until about 6:00 PM. Lil was her name and she lived in a little frame one bedroom cottage that stood about 20 yards from my tie-up and just off the path that led from the marina towards the pool, the motel, and the US #1 entrance to Banana Bay. Apparently I had two choices; walk about a mile down toward Mile Marker 49 to check in or, fall back on the favored Key’s approach to every daily chore or concern, nothing at all–just wait and see what happens.

It was a little past noon, the weather was perfect, and I needed to stretch my legs, so I decided to hoof it. October is probably the slowest month of the year in the Florida tourist business. The kids are in school, hurricane season has another few weeks to go, and the autumn leaves and cool nights in the Northeast are hard to leave behind. My walk took me past the Stuffed Pig and I made a mental note. Too bad it wasn’t breakfast time. Hardly any traffic as I crossed the highway and ended up as the only customer in “Ace is the Place”.

Walking in, and even before seeing anyone in the store, I almost broke out laughing to myself. Business was obviously slow but, in at least one sales category, this Marathon home of the “helpful hardware man” would always rank near the top nationwide … LIVE BAIT!

“I bet you’re Lil.” She was tiny, in her mid-sixties, extremely short white hair, and sporting an ear-to-ear smile.

“That’s me,–. What can I do for you?”

After telling me that the selling of pinfish, greenies, and live shrimp went hand-in-hand with their huge array of rods, reels, and assorted artificial lures, we got down to the reason for my visit. She was surprised that I had taken the walk but got right to the point.

“Okay. If you’re not sure how long you’re going to stay, just put her in slip number 5. That’s on the main wall, the one that starts out right over by my house. Larry and his wife June are in the big yawl in slip 4. If you tied up at the fuel sign, you can’t miss it, straight ahead and a little to the starboard. I guess, just give me a twenty-dollar bill. That’ll cover two nights and if you stay longer, we’ll straighten up later. It’s only forty dollars for a full week so we’ll see what happens. If, for some reason, you decide to stay longer, I’ll have to fill out England’s paper work and get more money but then I have to start asking all those questions about address, boat length, registration–all that crap.”

Reaching for my wallet, I asked; “The marina is owned by an English outfit?”

“No. He’s not English. That’s his last name and he lives in Iowa. He bought the unsold time-shares and what was left of the marina and tiki bar in a bankruptcy auction back in 1976. The hurricane didn’t leave much and he hasn’t spent a dime on it since then. While we’re at it, are you going to need shore power?”

This was funny, I all but laughed out loud. “What do you mean ‘shore power’? Lil, those dry rotted docks and rusted out ironwork are on their last legs and there’s not a 30 or 50 amp electric hookup anywhere on them.”

She smiled and came back: “No not on the docks but, even if you’re only staying for a few days, you’ll need to keep your battery charged. You might also want to light up the cabin at night or even plug in a fan or TV. Your neighbor Larry, in the next boat over, never comes out of his aft-cabin. He spends every daylight hour pecking away at a little computing machine of some kind and he stays plugged in around the clock.”

“So how do I get ‘shore power’?”

“Right here! It’ll cost you $13.74 plus tax and you’ll have to slip Harry, he’s the manager of Banana Bay, five dollars every Saturday. He’ll be working tonight so I’ll bring him up to date. If you want, just add an extra 5’er to what you pay me.”

I scratched my head and said, “I’m still confused, how are you going to provide me with shore power?”

“Simple. The fifty foot extension cord is $12.95 and the lamp socket adapter will set you back seventy-nine cents …… with tax that comes to $14.29. Add in Harry’s cut and for less than twenty dollars you’ll be set up with a ‘Banana Bay Hook-up’. If you need to borrow an AC battery charger, there’s an old guy named Mike in the marina that’ll probably lend you one for a day or two. Cost you a few Budweisers.”

I sprung for the twenty and left the hardware store with an ACE paper shopping bag and a wealth of new-found knowledge in the art of electrical larceny. Following my instructions, I would tie up, stern first, in slip number 5 and locate one of the screw-in lamp sockets that were fed underground around the perimeter of the marina. Having done so, I would remove the flood light bulb, screw in my adapter, screw the bulb back in, then run my extension cord from the cabin of Le Esperance across the dock and the low seawall to plug-in … then voila! The Miami owners of the motel, not Mr. England, were evidently paying FP&L to provide this power to light up the palm trees surrounding Banana Bay with an array of tropical theme-colored nighttime flood lights. Logic would dictate that this wiring was part of some, long forgotten, original wiring plan for the “Resort” and just never had been changed. But, then again, that would be logical, and I was in the Keys!

ace            socket                  ace

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