CHAPTER 14 — ask Avon …

“No Lil. I’m not sure how long I’m going to leave her here. It may only be for a couple of days, but I need to get back home and there is something else that has come up that I need to take care of.”

I had walked right over to Ace Hardware from the phone booth and Lil didn’t seem surprised when I told her I was leaving Le Esperance at Banana Bay for a few days to head back up the road. She told me not to worry about the money until I got back but to make sure I “un-plugged” and stashed my extension cord and adapter out of sight. She told me she would tell Harry in the motel office.

Within the hour, I was out on the curb of US #1. There are only two Greyhounds scheduled to and from Homestead and Key West on week days. Both are mornings down and afternoons and evenings back up. Most of their riders are day workers in the Keys and the first northbound bus doesn’t come back up through Marathon until 4:15 PM. I had my duffel bag, Panama Jack, dark tee-shirt, natural/white bell-bottoms, a big smile, and my thumb out. If I don’t get a ride, I’ll just flag the bus down when it gets here later today.

I didn’t have to wait long.

“Well, you’re either off a boat or just got out of prison. Hopefully the boat.”

Her name was Maria or Marianna or, whatever? Young, pretty, Latina, and with an infant loosely strapped down in the back seat of a late-model Ford convertible. She was on her way back to Hialeah from some family outing on Big Pine and was talkative from the word go.

As we headed north, my chauffeur was telling me about the pig they had roasted underground in charcoal and how the big competition centered around “who got to eat the lips and ears.” She told me how a friend of one of her male cousins had “played grab-ass” with her the whole day and had only backed off when she told him to “fuck off” or she would kick him in his huevos! At this point, I came to the conclusion that there was no reason to ask about her marital status … if there was one, it was obviously in flux and best described as “fluid”. I pretended to listen but my mind drifted. I couldn’t help making a mental comparison between this ride and another I had recently experienced.

Soon after I had hired Adnan, it became evident that he would prove to be one of the most productive members of our foodservice sales team and I didn’t want to lose him. He was Pakistani and worked long hours in an up-scale, but semi-rural, route fifty or sixty miles north of our warehouse. It was to our home, located in this same sales area, that my wife and I had invited him and his wife to dinner one evening. Since Adnan lived a number of miles south of, and in the opposite direction from, the warehouse and he was on the road working when the day came; it was only natural that I offer to pick his wife up at their rental apartment when the workday ended. It would have been silly for him to go down and back and it would probably have resulted in a very late dinner. It was obviously the best plan but, little did I know what consternation it would cause, and on two continents.

Adnan Assad and his wife Isha were strict Muslims and when I did pick her up, she appeared totally distraught and no conversational effort on my part could muster more than the most per functionary response. Our one hour drive transpired in almost total silence. Once we arrived at home, joined my wife and her husband, and settled in at the dinner table–everything was peaches and cream. She was a different person, so different that I was reluctant to mention anything to Adnan. A day or two later at the warehouse, he approached me with a “thank you note” for my wife from both he and Isha. Handing it to me, he said he probably needed to give me “a little rundown” about his wife’s and my automobile ride. Turns out, her time with me in the car was her first ever alone with a man who was not her husband or blood kin. Her parents in Pakistan, when called on the phone, had forbidden her from doing so but, because her husband feared offending me, she had agreed to be picked up.

What a difference there was between this chatty Cuban chica from Hialeah and a terrified young bride from Islamabad. Different strokes for different folks and this little mental diversion couldn’t keep my mind off where I was headed and what I needed to get done. Maria … , I guess, told me she would just pull into the Caribbean Club parking lot when we got to Key Largo and see if I wanted to get out or not. This was a real sweetheart … over the loud stick-clattering rumbas on the radio, she had told me I was “welcome to keep on truck ‘n” and that it wasn’t out of her way and she could drop me off at the Greyhound Station in downtown Miami. The baby on the back seat appeared to sleep through it all–a little dreaming smile and maybe even rocking a little with the Latin beat.

Frank’s Chevy was still where I had left it. This was no surprise, but I had a decision to make that, if wrong, might have major unintended consequences. I could just get back in the convertible and, after being dropped off, catch a bus out of Miami that would get me back home sometime shortly after dark and nothing in my life would ever change … or …

“What do you mean … we’re keeping his car in our garage? Where’s Frank?”

“What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”–Yes, the words came back to me but there was no other way. I couldn’t tell my wife, Diane, anything that even resembled the truth. I couldn’t tell her that I wasn’t sure I knew the answer to the question myself. I couldn’t tell her anything about any of the guys named Carlos or that the only way the, de facto, stolen Chevy in our garage could ever be traced was by a, much hoped for, response to the short message I had left on a note with the manager at the Caribbean Club: “I’ve got your car”, … (signed) Jose.

Things at the warehouse were pretty much as I expected. The refrigeration problem turned out to be limited to a single valve and had only shut down one compressor for a matter of hours. None of the drivers or floor crew had quit and if any of the salesmen had any bitches, they kept them to themselves. By 10:30 in the morning, I had put in four hours of work, drank six cups of coffee, and was asking myself … “what am I doing here”? If it hadn’t been for that damn Chevy in my garage–I’d be in an Avis rental car and headed back to Marathon. What could I do?

“Jimmy, Jimmy Parnell … I do remember you.”

I don’t think she really did but Terry Booth’s mother was as sweet as she could be when she answered the phone. I was really surprised when she told me that her son was actually in town visiting her and his sister. I had only called her to get Terry’s phone number in Washington, DC. I wasn’t sure what questions I wanted to ask my old high school classmate over the phone and I certainly didn’t know what his reaction to my queries would be. It isn’t everyday that you place a call where you know the switchboard operator will greet you with … “Federal Bureau of Investigation, how may I direct your call?”

“I’m not assigned to the case. If I was, I wouldn’t be free to talk about any actions on the Bureau’s part. Jim, you have to understand how uncomfortable it is for me to even be having this conversation. I hope you didn’t call me just to talk about my work.”

Terry had agreed to meet me at a downtown deli for lunch and, for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, we rehashed the usual school-boy reunion fodder–but the direction in which I soon steered our chit-chat was definitely not old school. I didn’t mention Frank Matheson and explained my interest as being only casual and the result of a breakfast conversation I had overheard among Coast Guardsmen in the Stuffed Pig. I knew that, if I got too inquisitive, he would be reluctant to give me any information at all.

Terry continued … “This guy Carlos Lehder is no secret. He’s been around for years but it’s only been over the last couple that he’s become numero uno on the FBI’s hit list. He’s half German, was raised in New York City, and spent some time in Federal Prison eight or ten years ago. Most of his affiliations are back in his mother’s country, Columbia, and by all accounts, he’s one of the king-pins of a gang they call the “Medellin Cartel”. This information I’m giving you is common knowledge but what has the Bureau and all local law enforcement so frustrated is that he and his “other Carlos” side-kicks are responsible for eighty percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States and there’s nothing we can do to stop him. Just last week, we find out that some guy took delivery of a brand new Piper Lance II at Piper’s plant up in Vero Beach and paid cash. Before any of the yahoos on the ground could figure out something might be wrong … they were holding two briefcases full of hundred-dollar bills and two guys, both named Carlos, had fueled up and were flying out over the Atlantic in a twenty-eight foot, single-engine, six-seater.”

I could tell that Terry was genuinely frustrated and had decided to step a little over the FBI’s confidentiality line–I did nothing but listen.

“Carlos has all of his gang, even the Cuban drug dealers he works with in Miami, use the same name because he has this phobia about wire-taps and radio transmission interceptions. He actually prefers to be called “Joe”, but only by his closest friends. He has virtually taken over an island in the Bahamas and has Government officials in Nassau paid off all the way up, including Lynden Pindling, the Prime Minister. From what I hear, every time the Justice Department and the Attorney General express concern about the flood of drugs and associated crime that accompany it, they don’t get very far. When the State Department approaches Bahamian officials about the situation on Norman’s Cay, that’s the one Lehder is camped out on, they hit a stone wall. The whole affair is complicated by the lease on our AUTEC station on Andros. We need that facility to track everything we send up and to keep tabs on everything that’s already up there–both ours and the Ruskie’s. We don’t kick-back to the crooks on Bay Street in Nassau and, to quote my favorite Bahamian taxi driver … ‘in this land of fun ‘n sun, the Yankee dollar is number one’.”

I hated to interrupt him but … “You mentioned Norman’s Cay. What’s the story about the island. Isn’t it down south of New Providence and on the back side of Andros?”

Terry answered … “Yeah, it’s technically in the Exumas but pretty much sits by itself. Lehder has extended the airstrip so as to cover virtually the whole island and he’s bought out, or run off, all but one of the other residents. The only one left is some college prof that can, like Carlos, speak German. He studies hammer-head sharks, and seems to hit it off with the drug dealer just fine. This is no short-term project. We have photos of up to fourteen airplanes parked by the runway at one time. Some of them are cargo carriers we tracked all the way up from Columbia but most are smaller single engine jobbers. Until very recently, he was smuggling most of his powder into the States with small boats, or cruise ship mules through Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. But, judging from what’s going on on Norman’s, he’s turned the page and decided to “fly low” and under our radar. We even hear he’s starting to shut down some of his old gateways because of over-supply. He’s flying so much cocaine out of the Bahamas into Florida and Georgia that he’s flooded his own market.”

“But I’ve told you too much already. I hope you’re not planning on cruising anywhere near that island but if you really want to find out what’s going down on Norman’s Cay or anywhere else in the Bahamas, you’re wasting your time talking with me. I spend most of my days reading reports, sitting behind a desk back in the Hoover Building in D.C. Why don’t you ask someone who would really know? The only trick … may be getting him to tell you.”

Smiling, leaning across the table, and almost in a whisper … “ask Avon Knowles”

Lehder

 

CHAPTER 13 — You still want ‘a talk to her?

The phone call back to the warehouse out of the way, I thanked Harry and, as I was walking out of the motel office, asked him if Lil had “straightened up with” him on my electric hook-up? I just wanted to make certain he had gotten his five dollars but, judging from the look on his face, you would think I had just asked him if he had strangled his mother. The stare he gave me, along with Larry’s earlier reaction on the same subject, convinced me that I should best keep my mouth shut about the Resort’s utility’s billing department.

It was still early and, rather than head on down to the Stuffed Pig, I decided to look around the complex. There was a chance I might have to leave my boat here in the marina, rent a car at Avis, and get back up the road. Everything was fine at home but something about possible refrigeration problems at the warehouse might need to be … it could wait at least another day.

The pink and lime-green pastel painted time-share apartments were located behind the motel and wrapped around a pool and patio area. It was apparent that maintenance was not a priority and only a few of the units appeared to be occupied, but it was still early. There was also a small restaurant named Chez Bonet’ but, from what I could see, it had been shuttered for years. The pool, from all appearances, seemed to be maintained and remarkably clean. I noticed an outside shower and even MEN and WOMEN signs on two doors into a small freestanding out-building. This was good–maybe I won’t need that quarter and a nocturnal trip to Dockside after all. Leading off from the pool area, and right past Lil’s little cottage, was the pathway back to the docks.

Larry probably saw my shadow pass by one of his port lights and emerged from his cabin as I stepped back on the deck of Le Esperance.

“That didn’t take long. Did you get all your work done?”

I assured him that I had and that I was changing into a bathing suit … then proceeded to invite him to join me at the pool for a swim. Even as the words were coming out of my mouth, the irony in my invitation settled on both of us. It was not yet 9:00 AM and there were a few clouds in the sky, but here was a man that could be cast in Hollywood only as an emaciated Count Dracula and I had just suggested that he go sunbathing.

You can only imagine my surprise when he came back … “I don’t know, maybe I’ll come down there a little later, after the postman comes. My wife’s been telling me I could use a little vitamin D.” Larry scratched his head, gave a little shrug, and crawled back down into his dockside futures trading research sanctuary.

Even mid-morning and out of Season, there are supposed to be people around a pool. There weren’t–I picked out the only frayed patio lounge chair that looked like it might carry my weight and, very cautiously, eased myself down on it.

Every marina with live-a-boards has its own personality and unique players. Banana Bay was certainly no exception but, so far, I was stumped. As I laid back and closed my eyes, my mind drifted to the surrounding cast of characters. There was a dock master that lived on the premises but worked full time in a hardware store. There was a motel manager that, supposedly, had nothing to do with the marina but was taking “kick backs” for electricity. There were now, with my arrival, only vessels in four slips out of twenty-five or so, and one of those might be abandoned. The electrician from Ohio, I forget his name, seemed normal but I hadn’t seen him since yesterday when I first tied up. That leaves a woman I’ve never met that works long hours at the local hospital and her husband …

“It’s a nice day, isn’t it!”

I had company… Larry was standing next to me. He had picked up another of the questionable tube aluminum/plastic lawn chairs and had this “I’m out to play, aren’t you proud of me?” questioning smile on his face. He had on a tucked-in long sleeved white dress shirt, long orange Bermuda shorts with decorative dolphins, an Australian “out-back” hat complete with all the flaps/lanyards and, to complete the ensemble, long black socks and brown street shoes with laces. Pulling a pair of sun glasses and a family sized Coppertone from his pants pocket, he set up his chair and … I had what I had asked for.

It didn’t take long to figure out that Larry was starved for conversational companionship. It was a condition I was very familiar with–spend too much single-handed time at sea, and you end up talking to yourself or, sometimes, even to inanimate objects or unresponsive fellow travelers like, say, a spider. When he found out I had an engineering degree, it was just a matter of time before he began to vent his ambitions and frustrations. I have to be honest, once he got started it was easy to get wrapped up in his enthusiasm. I knew very little about futures trading and nothing at all about Chaos and it was hard to believe that less than twelve hours could separate my life experience from twenty-five cent showers to abstract quantum theory, but here I was and I just laid back and let him enlighten me …

“Jim, what it all boils down to is this: subscribing to the theory of Chaos, all I need to do is find a tiny series of sequential trades that repeat themselves over a relatively short time span. This would be like … up .02, up .02, down .01, up .03, up .01, down .02 … all coming across the ticker tape for pork belly trades in a given one minute time span. If the same identical sequence of price fluctuations went on to occur frequently over the next, let’s say, hour or so, then I can determine that, not unlike the butterfly in China, a set of conditions has been created that will repeat itself on a much larger scale in the, not too distant, future. Example: … having reasonable assurance that an “up tic of .03 and an up tic of .01” will follow every series of “up .02, up .02, down .01″ may not sound like much but, in the fast moving world of leveraged commodity futures trading, it translates out into tens of thousands of dollars in profit in just a few minutes time.”

I didn’t want him to stop talking but I had to jump in: “Larry, I know you’re giving me the over-simplified version and that’s okay. Let’s face it … the course is free and I didn’t bring my text book, but just tell me one thing: Are things happening the way you and your partners thought they would?”

“Yeah, I’m at 71%. That doesn’t sound too great but, with short positions and stops, it’s more than we anticipated. Problem is, there hasn’t been a penny put in play. Whereas the hypothetical tornado in Nebraska has a couple of weeks to crank up after the Chinese wing flap; my action swings into play within, at max, a two to three hour window. Even if I was sitting in the brokerage office in Miami, with the time it takes me to identify a sequence, there wouldn’t be enough time to put the trades in place. By the time I manually feed the individual transactions into my Osborne and the queries give me a target series … it’s already too late. Combine all of this with the fact that I’m down here, I only get the raw trade data from the postman over 24 hours after the fact, then the results can’t get back to Miami until two days later, and … well, do I need to say anymore?”

Shaking my head, I responded … “so what’s the answer Larry? If it can’t be done why are you still trying and, more importantly, why are they still paying you, the postage, and all the other expenses to keep this project going?”

Nodding his head … “They have a plan and I can only hope that I’ll be part of it. Almost from the start, the guys in Miami have seemed more interested in my week-end results reports than any of my daily “real time/but a day late” specific trade recommendations. It’s almost like they ‘knew I would fail before we started but didn’t care’. I’ve heard, by way of the grape vine, that they are working with a rep. from Digital Equipment Corp. and some software outfit out of Connecticut to put an old DEC PDP-11 computer and a tape reader to work crunching the numbers with only a ten or twelve minute delay. If they can replicate my work based on the reports I’ve given them, they’ll be able to move everything “in house” and eliminate a key operating expense–me!”

What do you say to a man who has just opened his heart and orrated his own financial and professional obituary? Larry and I lay there by the pool for another half-hour or so and he talked to me about the future of data accumulation and hardware advancement. He talked of memory increases, chip capacities, satellite relays, and any number of other futuristic inevitables. It was all above my head but we both knew that none of these changes on the horizon would come to pass before Larry would be terminated, forced to pull the plug on his Banana Bay shore power and, hopefully along with his wife, be able to sail away.

The menu at the Stuffed Pig doesn’t have calorie count posted anywhere in the print but if you could, somehow, succeed in eating the cardboard menu itself … you would consume enough soaked-in grease to start your breakfast at 85 before the first plate ever hit the table–Two sunny-side up, smoked sausage, rye toast, and a gravy biscuit … Oh! and I almost forgot … a small orange juice. I was the restaurant’s only customer. Too early for lunch, no tourist in town, and Conchs don’t eat breakfast this late.

I think this is my favorite meal and it’s even better when I’m not rushed, can sit around with a cup of coffee, and leisurely read whatever newspaper happens to be lying around. Since I go days at a time without seeing one, it makes little difference which one it is or, within reason, how old. I check on the stock market and maybe a glance at both the front and sports pages, but it’s a rare occasion when I see anything that tweaks my interest or catches my eye. The only newspaper in sight was over on the counter tucked under a napkin rack and it turned out to be a day-old Miami Herald.

“Need a warm up? I’ve got a fresh pot.”

“No thanks but a glass of water would be nice.”

The market was flat and I resisted the urge to check out pork bellies. I wouldn’t know what I was looking at if I did. I was just getting ready to lay the paper aside when an article below the fold on one of the back pages caught my attention. Someone had circled, with a ball-point, “the Coast Guard in Key West” and “who chose not to be named” in the first paragraph. In the margin beside the circles was “FIND OUT WHO!” and it was underlined twice.

Reading the article …

Coast Guard foiled in Chase

Key Largo:     US Coast Guard Officials report that a third-party incident report on VHF Channel 16 on Sunday afternoon resulted in the CG Cutter Akron being dispatched at 3:45 PM to investigate a collision and possible fatalities. The crash location was reported to have been near the mouth of South Sound Creek in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. No additional information was available at press time but a supplemental report released by the Coast Guard in Key West indicates that one of the vessels involved was a greenish-brown, possilbly multi-hulled racer with 4 outboard engines. The official, who chose not to be named, went on to say that “by the time the Akron arrived at the scene, no vessel fitting that description was found”. The primary concern of Coast Guard and Custom officials centers around a second report which, our anonymous source indicates, came from a helicopter summoned from the Homestead Air Base. In failing to locate any racing boat, the helicopter pilot went on to state that “the only large boat in the vicinity was a 200 foot plus yacht headed east, well within the International waters of the Gulf Stream. When haled by radio from the helicopter, the Captain’s response, as recorded and relayed back to Homestead was that the vessel was named “Saints and Sisters” and of Panamanian registry.

There was a chance this meant nothing. Maybe I was just reading something into the article that wasn’t there … there was only one way to find out. I didn’t know how to even begin tracking Frank Matheson down in Miami but, before I start running around like a chicken with its head cut off, let me check out one thing right here in the Stuffed Pig.

The waitress didn’t hesitate at all. She remembered the circles on the Herald article and who put them there.

The Coast Guard Station in Marathon hasn’t got any boats and it’s not even located on the water. It’s more of an administrative post and just happens to be on US #1 and only a few hundred yards from where I had just finished my breakfast. “Captain Martin only comes by this post about once a week but you’re in luck. He’s back in the wardroom and yes, I believe he did go to the ‘Pig’ this morning, he always does.” The Guardsman at the front desk led me back to a large meeting room with a couple of GI steel desks and fifteen or twenty folding chairs. Behind one of the desks, and the only person in the room, was the Captain and he greeted me warmly.

Twenty minutes later I was back on the highway and looking for a pay phone. There may have been one in the Coast Guard Station but I didn’t want to chance being overheard. The Captain was quite candid and told me that he had, indeed, been the one that circled the newspaper piece and that his interest had been totally security related. He went on to tell me that the information given to the newspaper reporter was factual and, much to his pleasant surprise, no Coast Guard regulations had been violated by the officer involved.

The real information that I got from Captain Martin, and the reason I was looking for a phone booth, was summarized in a written report that the Captain was good enough to have given me a copy of. The Coast Guard was 100% certain that the large racing boat implicated in a collision with a small fishing skiff that killed a man and a young boy near South Sound Creek was later hoisted aboard the Saints and Sisters. The report went on to say that the suspect craft was probably stored and covered on the deck of the larger vessel so as to appear to be an ordinary lifeboat. The Captain had gone on to tell me that this was not the first time that Coast Guard, DEA, and Customs authorities had come in contact with this yacht. It was common knowledge that the vessel’s owner was a kingpin in Columbia’s most murderous cocaine empire but, since the vessel was well within International waters and of foreign registry, no attempt at boarding could even be contemplated. It was only when I got to the bottom of the Coast Guard report and read the Vessel Documentation Details that I thanked the Captain and headed for the door.

VESSEL NAME:    Saints and Sisters                  Length:   220 ft.      Beam:    47 ft.

CAPTAIN:     Carlos Smith              OWNER:       Carlos Lehder Rivas

REGISTRY:     Panama                     HOME PORT:       Norman‘s Cay, Bahamas

“Yes operator, I’ve got a pocket full of coins and this is a call to the Caribbean Club on Key Largo …. no I don’t have the number ….. no, not person to person, anyone that picks up the phone!”

“That will be $1.10 for the first three minutes” …….. Bong,Bong,Bong, “damn, wait minute, I dropped it”, Bong, ….. Bing

…….. “Hello, Caribbean Club …. this is Hank” …..

“Hank, are you at the bar or in the office?”

“I’m in the kitchen, nobody comes in to open the office until 4 O’clock.”

“Is Nancy, the barmaid, working?” I held my breath … I don’t know why but I had this terrible hunch–I think I was hoping Hank’s answer would be “No”! … but …

“Can I tell her whose calling? She’s not supposed to take personal calls on this line.”

“Hank, it’s real important! Just tell her it’s Jim and I’m calling about Frank. If she doesn’t remember me, just say … ‘the old Chevy that was parked over at the side of the lot last Sunday night’. I’m sure that will ring a bell.”

There was a pause … then Hank came back with: “I don’t have to do that. It rings a bell with me. She told me the whole story and the manager has told both of us that ‘if he doesn’t come get the damn thing by Thursday’ he’ll have it hauled off! … You still want ‘a talk to her?”

Power Boat                   Norman's Cay

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12 — Chaos and a hot shower

“You ever hear of the butterfly effect? Basically, it poses the question ‘if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, can it start a series of minor wind changes that ultimately results in a tornado in Nebraska?’ Some guy named Lorenz came up with the idea and it forms the whole basis for the theory of Chaos.”

The substance of this conversation had really strayed from your typical Key’s dockside parlance. When, on the rare occasion I find myself tied up in some marina, I usually have a plan for the day and it starts with my morning coffee. Seated in the cockpit of Le Esperance, mug in hand, my solitude had been interrupted when a man had emerged from the aft-cabin of the yawl in the adjacent slip. Larry Brenson was my new neighbor. He was tall, extremely slender and, what stood out the most … as white as a sheet. His pallor would have been noticed anywhere but in these sun-drenched islands it was … my North Carolina cousins would have termed it … “right peculiar.”

After introductions, I found out that voices I’d heard coming from his boat a little before dawn were exchanges he and his wife had had before she departed for work. June was a nurse at the nearby Mariner’s Hospital. It wouldn’t take me long, after our ensuing conversation, to determine that she was, more than likely, also the primary bread-winner in the family. Seated on his own deck with his legs dangling over the rail, I soon found out that Larry spent virtually all of his daylight hours and much of the nights inside the boat’s cabin. He was totally immersed in some commodity futures trading scheme that involved a rich man in Miami, the man’s stock broker, and a few South American business associates. I was told that the only time, during the day, my new neighbor would see the sunshine was when the postman tapped on the deck next to his cabin to hand him his “USPS over-night data package” and pick up one just like it. That’s when I made my big mistake–I asked him about his work.

After confirming that … no I had “never heard of the butterfly effect”, Larry continued with the description of his scholarly but by his own admission, to date, unprofitable pursuit.

“Well, the theory of Chaos centers around the concept that extremely small momentary changes will be replicated and produce enormous future effects. All sorts of analogies have been formulated involving, for example, the cumulative distance between grains of sand in a one inch segment on a given beach versus the commonly accepted length of the Florida coastline. The finer the increments you choose to measure, the greater the outcome will be. People that have studied such patterns have concluded that the changes observed in seemingly random minute segments of time or distance will repeat themselves on a much larger scale in the, not too distant, future.”

I fancy myself as, at least, a pseudo-intellectual but this conversation was off the deep end. I jumped in … “Get to the point Larry, what do you do for these guys in Miami?”

He continued, “Using this theory of Chaos, I work with my new Osborne 1 portable computer to identify patterns in short-term futures trading. Tuesday thru Saturday, I key in the minute by minute trades from the ticker-tape data print-outs they over-night to me from the broker’s office. The other two days I run match queries to ascertain subsequent results. All-in-all, it doesn’t leave me with much free time. I’m not the only one trying this approach but most of the others are college profs and their studies and published results have been exclusively in cotton futures. My guys in Miami want me to hone in on pork bellies. It’s their call and I can’t concentrate on more than one market at a time so, hopefully I’ll be able to, no pun intended, bring home the bacon.”

Realizing I needed to get to a phone and call the office … ” I guess that means you count on your ‘shore power’ account with Lil and Harry quite a bit, ever have any problems?” As I jumped up on the dock and started to walk away, Larry paused, got a questioning concerned look on his face, and disappeared below deck on his boat.

By the time I had gotten the cutter squared away yesterday afternoon, there was no need to try to call the warehouse. Wholesale food distribution is a nighttime and early morning endeavor so most of the drivers and all of floor crews have gone home by mid-day. I had checked in with my wife, got the results of two of my son’s basketball games … he was only a sophomore and seldom saw action. I told her where I was and how best to get in touch; call Harry at Banana Bay Resort–didn’t have the number but she could get it from Information … didn’t mention Lil or Ace Hardware. Love you … you too … bye.

As it turned out this was Harry’s morning to come in early so, once confident that my phone call was indeed “Collect”, he set me up in the back room of the motel office. It also served as the laundry but this early in the morning none of washers or dryers were running. Judging from the lack of cars out front and the piles of dirty sheets and towels lying around me, this may not be wash day … no, judging from the odor in the room, there may not be a wash day … at least not very often.

Now to follow-up on last night …

Every Florida Key has its favorite spot to hang out. Marathon actually has two. Depending on how late you are out, it’s either Dockside or the BM. You have to walk right by the Brass Monkey (you thought it meant something else?) to get to Dockside but, anytime before 10:00 PM, this is where the action is. As its name suggests, it’s by the water. Boot Key Harbor is a very large natural protected anchorage and home to every transient, homeless, or just “down on their luck” vagabond in the middle Keys. Most of the vessels are sailboats that have obviously been “on the hook” for an extended period of time and their occupants fall into a very common Conch demographic … “live-a-boards”.

It’s dinner time, the bar tender asks if I want a menu, and a waitress periodically appears with a tray of greasy creations from a small nearby kitchen. The bar crowd is about what you would expect. They all seem to know each other and, for the most part, are paired off in couples or small groups. The only exception, and seated almost directly across from me, is a white-headed older guy, probably in his 70’s, that seems to be watching my every move. It’s not a creepy or sinister motive he projects with his gaze, just an intense and warm level of interest like a father might have for a son. It’s almost like he’s telling me a story, without a word ever being said, about him being in this same bar thirty or forty years ago. At his age, he knows that the drink in his hand will offer the only exhilaration the evening has in store, but I feel he’s telling me that he just wants to relive some night from the past and maybe, by vicariously swapping places with me, he’ll be able to do so. I just sort ‘a nod my head in his direction and he returns the same. There is, however, one little thing that disturbs me … I think I know this old man … no, just my imagination …

Turning away from my observer, and casing out the bar and the marine parking lot it sits next to, there are things that immediately convince you that Dockside is not your conventional “watering hole”. Sure, they serve food and libations, but it’s a number of other features about the bar and its operation that catch your eye.

There is a huge brick enclosed bar-be-que grill at the far end of an adjoining semi-permanent tent enclosure. The charcoal fire appears to be maintained by a bar employee but the men, women, and children that are gathered around it are mostly in bathing suits and, obviously, grilling their own food. No sooner does one family plate their meals and move to a collection of nearby wooden picnic tables, than another group materializes, hand-held coolers are opened, and the process begins anew. While this communal food preparation is going on, there is an ongoing flow of participants, both male and female, adult and children, to and from a large door near the end of the bar where I’m seated. My first thought was that some private party was going on pool-side but where was the pool? … and why are many of them still carrying their towels? If there wasn’t a party of some kind, how can Dockside make a profit providing this “freebie-cook-your-own” and why the bathing suits? No one ever goes swimming in Boot Key Harbor … the water isn’t filthy but the word “pristine” would never come to mind. There’s virtually no tidal flush and every resident living on the hook by-passes any head toilet holding tank their craft may have. Just as well–there’s not a pump-out station this side of Key West.

Looking out past the bar, I saw an 8 foot dingy being tied up at the dock running along the seawall. Only then, did I notice that there was an endless line of both fiber-glass and inflatables … some with little kickers but most with only oars, tied up along the “dingy dock” below me. Getting out of the little boat and walking up the ramp, an exceptionally good-looking but obviously exhausted woman in her mid-20’s, with a 3 or 4-year old little girl in tow, entered the bar pavilion area and proceeded directly to the cash register. Both mother and daughter were in bathing suits and carrying towels. It was only then that I saw the small sign …

SHOWERS    $ .25 per person / $ .50 per family (bring your own soap)

GRILL            Free with shower or beverage purchase

Her raven black hair was back in a short pony tail and her tan was a creamy blend of Latin lineage and latitudinal adaptation. Her canary yellow bathing suit was a revealing, yet pleasingly modest two-piece. While they were paying the cashier for their showers, I caught her eye and, with a benevolently sultry smile, I winked ever so slightly. At first, her expression was more curiosity than chemistry but that soon changed. She sheepishly smiled back at me and lifted her hand in a coquettish, little finger fluttering, wave. That was with her right hand … her left was firmly in her Mommy’s grasp. Glancing his way as I check out the menu, I see a slight chuckle on the old man’s face.

… a cheeseburger, onion rings, and a draft. The band got back from their break, spent a few minutes tuning up, and …

Down to the Banana Republics, down to the tropical sun
Go the expatriated Americans, hopin’ to find some fun
Some of them go for the sailing, caught by the lure of the sea
Tryin’ to find what is ailing, livin’ in the land of the free

Some of them are running from lovers, leaving no forwarding address
Some of them are running tons of ganja
Some are running from the I.R.S.

Late at night you will find them
In the cheap hotels and bars
Hustling the senioritas while they dance beneath the stars ……

at the bar               dockside-tropical-cafe

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 Republics”, 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

CHAPTER 10 — you should have been here yesterday

That was three or four hours ago and I had made good use of Frank’s car. The walk along the highway back to the Caribbean Club was a little further than I thought but I had been in no hurry. Without going into the Club, I hopped in the Chevy and headed back towards town. Being Sunday, I wasn’t sure if I could find a new wench for the mainsail but the Winn-Dixie would be open and Benny’s had a fresh water hose on the dock. I had already paid for the night’s stay so, if I thought of anything else I needed, I had plenty of time to track it down and bring it aboard.

I did find a wench. The only place open was one of those marine salvage stores that dot US # 1 in the Keys like pawn shops and bail bondsmen next to the County Jail. It was so cheap I couldn’t turn it down – especially after the guy threw in the handle for free. I wasn’t sure my old one would fit? Shopping was easy. The supermarket had everything I needed except block ice and that was no problem because I had passed a Gulf Oil station on the way down that had a “block & bag” sign out front. I was going to top off the gas in Frank’s car anyway, so…………

There was actually a real live Benny at the Marina and he lent me an extension cord along with his drill and a 5/8” bit. With the new/old wench greased and mounted, two blocks and two more bags of ice in the chest, and all the provisions stowed, I was ready to hit the town. No need for the gallon jug, Benny’s had a “bathhouse” half way down the dock. A single sink, lone toilet, and the rusty headed shower stall all shared some PVC plumbing running under the dock but there was no hot water and the only drain for the shower was a 2 inch open hole in the floor. Benny’s Bayside certainly wouldn’t qualify for four ****’s in Frommer’s Travel Guide but, for a single-handed cruising sailor ashore on the back side of Key Largo, it was “Livin Large”.

Driving Frank’s car back up to the Caribbean Club, the single northbound lane of the highway was bumper-to-bumper with boat trailers and homeward bound Miamians. The parking lot was almost full but I found a spot for the Chevy over on the side and away from the road. I was hoping I would meet up with Frank later and be able to tell him where it was parked but, if not, he could find it.

I was half way across the parking lot before I remembered the glove compartment instructions and the letter Frank had told me about. Retrieving the keys and opening the passenger-side door, I started to put the second key in the slot, lock the compartment and………..opening it to see if there was a letter……… there was a sealed envelope but I don’t think it was ever intended to be mailed. There was no address and no postage stamp, just “for Frankie” written on it in pencil!

The last time I saw Frank Matheson Junior, he was only two or three years old. He and his mother, Frank’s first wife, had left town soon after the divorce and, after that, I never heard much about either of them from Frank or anyone else. As I locked the glove compartment and car door, then replaced the keys on the tire, I caught myself wondering if I was destined to ever meet-up with Frank’s son again? If so, I hoped it would be a happy occasion and, for some unknown reason, that that envelope never needed to be delivered.

Easing in at the crowded bar, I was determined to get my mind off Cubans named Carlos and my friend’s predicament. Somewhere down the line, there might be something I could do to help him out but until that time came………

I recognized a lot of faces but Frank’s barmaid sweetheart from the night before wasn’t around. In the spirit of the Key’s and feeling like a change, I ordered a double Myers rum, tonic, & lime. The last 24 hours had been non-stop action and good times but I knew it was coming to an end. I struck up a highly intellectual, by Key’s standards, conversation with a head-boat mate named Vinny next to me at the bar. Without my prompting, he had carried an argument he was having with another guy at the bar over to me and began a dissertation on the advantages of lip hooking and feathering the dorsal fins of live bait fish. Vinny was too drunk to realize that the blank stare he got from me in response was not designed to signify awe and amazement – he rambled on and my mind began to drift.

I was alone again and would soon be searching for whatever was driving me and Le Esperance to sail further south. In the meantime I fell victim to the “single guy at the bar dilemma”. I don’t believe any serious research has ever been conducted on the subject but the body language, facial expressions, direction of gaze, and overall demeanor of a man seated alone at a bar surrounded by the fairer sex should warrant study. What we go through ranks right up there with the peacock prancing around with spread tail feathers and the male mountain goat lowering his head to ram a rival suitor. It’s just not as colorful, hurts a lot less and, unless your name is Frank Matheson, seldom produces any results intended to propagate the specie. I decided to concentrate on the ice cubes in my glass, do nothing, and fall back on the tried and true axiom that I had first heard in a seedy bar from an old drunk many years ago. He had just had his amorous overtures rejected by a rouge-tinted lady that had obviously seen better times and, retrieving his beer, had slid onto the stool next to mine. Lowering his head, he had whisperingly slurred to himself : “it’s always better to not get laid early than it is to not get laid late”.

I had been in the Club for about an hour and was on my third drink when it started! As a whisper at first, it moved from person to person. You couldn’t tell where it began and it would almost stop before picking back up again – the steady murmur would rise to a muffled chant before dying down and then coming back an octave louder?

Go down you mother, Go down! – Go down you mother, Go down! – Go down you mother, Go down! – Go down you mother, Go down! – Go down you mother, Go down!

All of a sudden one on the bartenders triggered a little hand held air-horn and announced: “She’s going down and ‘if you aint coming back in, pay your tab before you hit the door’!”

The bar erupted in movement and laughter as the chant resumed……..

……. Go down you mother, Go down!….

Sitting at the bar, I watched as some customers cashed out and everyone made their way towards the backdoor. Most took plastic cups or cans of beer with them and, from what I could see through the window on the other side of the room, the yard was filling up fast. I was slick on my check so, with a little wave to the bartender, I decided to see what the excitement was all about? My newfound buddy Vinny was standing with two other guys under a Buttonwood tree next to one of the picnic tables. Seeing my approach, he motioned with a nod of his head for me to walk over and join them. The yard between the Club and the edge of Blackwater Sound had filled with a raucous crowd. Some were standing while others were seated at the tables or on the ground down near the shore. All eyes were fixed westward out over the water. With my plastic Myers in hand, I didn’t know what to expect but I was definitely part of the group and it was only a matter of time.

What happened over the next few minutes was a beautiful and inspiring experience and the fact that I was sharing and celebrating it with a bunch of rowdy intoxicated strangers didn’t diminish the feeling. The sun was just touching the horizon and the chant began anew, but with different words and an almost reverent tone……..Lie down mother, Lie down! – Lie down mother, Lie down!….. A single white cloud seemed suspended in time over the dying sun and a distant ribbon of red-fringed mangrove and sea. The light breeze moved leaves on a Buttonwood that helped the short wooden dock frame a picture of Paradise. The crowd in the yard fell silent and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one delving into memories and saying a little prayer.

Almost on queue and at the very instant that the sun disappeared, the assembled throng erupted! The “down” chant ceased as cheers, applause, and laughter filled the yard. It was a Conch Republic version of Carnival in Rio, New Year’s Eve on Time Square, and Mardi-Gras all rolled up into one!

Turning to the guys on both sides, I almost shouted:

“This is really something…….really something!”

Standing to my left and without looking my way, my new found friend loudly replied: “This is nothing. You should have been here yesterday……..some ass hole, anchored out there on a sailboat, thought we were cheering for him! He was even taking bows!”

Hearing his comment, the guys and gals around me all nodded in enthusiastic confirmation and broke out laughing.

Lowering my chin, while raising my hand to my brow and being careful not to turn my head – I glanced both ways to make certain that no one had recognized me…………. then quietly murmured:

“Yeah, I bet that was something…….really something……………”

sunsetatthecaribbeanclub

CHAPTER 9 — boys again, with red sails

I wasn’t out on the fuel dock when Frank climbed down onto the boat. He didn’t want to be seen with anyone and, after what he had told me last night, there was no problem on my part. It was probably 30-foot, semi-catamaran hulled, and painted a camouflage like pattern of black, grey, and dark green. I had only ever seen pictures of ocean racing super-powerboats but this had to be one. A dock attendant had rushed out to take a look at the craft and see if he could peddle some gas but the Captain, I assume named Carlos, waved him off and only nudged up to the ladder long enough for his passenger to jump aboard. With a muffled roar the Cuban wheeled the boat around, headed back out the channel and disappeared behind a mangrove point. Frank was standing next to him and never looked back.

Standing at the foot of the dock as the attendant walked back towards the office, I ask him if he had “ever seen a boat like that before?”

“One time, in Nassau last year at the Bacardi Ocean Races – saw three just like it! It’s a Cougar Cat Off Shore. Sucker’s got four engines and can’t slow down! I don’t know how he got it back up in here but what’s really strange about her are the davit points. Racers don’t stay in the water, even overnight. They’re forked and racked, either dockside or in storage, at all times. That boat is rigged to be strap hauled and stowed; probably on another boat – some dingy, Huh.”

Frank and I had spent the morning laughing and bringing back old times. He bailed out on lighting the burner and had, pretty much, turned tourist by stealing a few extra winks and waiting for me to make coffee, break down his berth, and put everything away. After breakfast we decided to try to do a little sailing so, leaving the Avon tied on aft, I pulled up the anchor and let the morning off-shore ease us away from the Caribbean Club. The plan was to just leave Frank’s car parked at the Club. He would give me the keys so I could use it to pick up the rest of the things I needed that afternoon after we split up. He had decided, in his words, to not “talk anymore about what I do because I’ve already said too much and I don’t want to get you involved!”

All Frank had told me was that he was “supposed to wait for some guy on the fuel dock at the South Sound Marina.” The South Sound was on the Atlantic side of the island but my charts showed it was only a half-mile, or so, walk from another marina on Tarpon Basin on the Bay side. I had decided to tie up somewhere along this stretch anyway, so why not there? Besides putting on groceries and more ice, I needed to top off my fresh water and replace the mainsail wench. The use of Frank’s car would let me see if I could find one. We could spend the morning sailing and poking around Blackwater, then just dock Le Esperance and walk across the highway. If everything went right, we might even be able grab some lunch at a restaurant along the way.

Things went better than right! Frank had shucked his street clothes for a pair of my old cut-offs and I had convinced him that a brew in the morning was an old sailing tradition. The air was only 10-15 but it would let us sail lazy reaches back and forth on the Sound.

Blackwater is a unique body of water. It’s almost a perfect square, three miles on a side and, before they cut the Inter-Coastal channel through to the south, there was only one way in or out. The water, as the name implies, is always dark because of the black bottom. It may result from eons of muck run-off – I don’t know?

Manning the tiller on the port side, Frank had the chart book on the seat by his left thigh and didn’t care what color the water was. Glancing down at it, he asked me……….“Hey Jose, is this the map we’re using this morning?”

“Yeah, that’s the one, but it’s a chart Frank – not a map.”

“What’s the difference Jose? On land you’d call it a map so why does the name have to change just because you take it on a boat?”

“Big difference man. A map tells you where you can go. A chart tells you where you can’t!

Frank came back:            “Maybe you better explain that a little, I’m confused.”

“It’s kind of like life in general and growing up Frank. When we were kids, most days all you and your little tree-climbing girlfriends needed was a mental map showing you how to go to school and get home again. The older we got, the more maps we needed. New schools, dating girls, learning to drive, away games, even going off to college – we accumulated a lot of maps and they got more complicated but they were still just maps. The big change came the day we truly ‘cut the cord’ and went out on our own. It made no difference if you quit school on your 16th birthday, got discharged from the Service, or went on to graduate from Harvard; when that day came, you had the whole World spread out in front of you like the open sea. You could see every wish you ever had on the horizon: the Island of Success, the Island of Wealth, the Island of Happiness, they were all there! You had a visual map because you could see all of them and you could just take your pick and sail on over any time you wanted to. But there was a problem – when we picked out the first island we wanted to visit and headed towards it – we ran aground! The expanse of open sea that we needed to sail life’s course over turned out to be filled with reefs and shallows. The obstacles all had different names but many started with “Lack of” and all of them were hidden beneath the surface. There was the Lack of Education flat, the Lack of Experience bank, the Lack of Start-up Funds shoal and, worst of all, the Bad Marriage reef. All of the Islands were still visible and, over time, we might be destined to find our way to some of them and walk ashore. If we only knew where the hidden obstacles were located and could steer a course around them; we could reach all the islands and achieve everything we set out to do in life! We could do it but. in life as at sea, all the maps in the World are useless. What we needed was one good chart!”

Approaching the mangroves on the far side of the Sound, Frank brought the tiller over to head up-wind and I released the starboard jib sheet. No need to adjust the footed stay or main because we were headed right back to where we had come from. Swinging 180 degrees and cleating the jib on the port side, the boom came across and we headed back towards the Caribbean Club.

“That was quite a dissertation Jose, but I got a better idea. If those islands are as great as we think they are, other people will find out about them and some big developer from Miami will tie ’em all together with a causeway over from the mainland. After that happens, I’ll just pick up a map at the filling station and go check ’em out.”

Shaking my head, I thought to myself………so much for that philosophical interlude?

After a couple more beers and another pass across Blackwater, we veered off towards the south and made for the cut into Tarpon Basin. Lowering the sails and cranking up the diesel, I intended to head in and tie up right away but, as we turned towards land and the sun got higher, something caught my eye as it slid by under the keel. You don’t have many coral heads on the Bay side in the Keys but we had just passed over one and I wasn’t going to let an opportunity slip by! The water was clear in the Basin and, after heading up wind, I killed the engine and dropped the anchor. As I watched, we drifted back to almost on top of a big chunk of yellow nestled in the sea grass at about 8 feet. The dingy was still in the water and I had an extra set of mask, snorkel, and fins.

As teenagers, Frank and I used to dive for ’em off the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We’d ride our bikes over, hide them in the hedges and walk right past, as Jimmy Buffett would say, “all those tourist covered in oil”. We weren’t much on conservation………swim out, dive down, gig ’em, break off and discard their front halves, then stuff the smooth rolled-up tails down the front of our bathing suits. By the time we’d caught as many as we wanted and got back to the beach, those sun-bathing little old ladies from New York must have looked twice as two, apparently well endowed, young men emerged from the deep!

We were raised calling them crawfish, Yankees refer to them as spinney lobsters, Florida restaurants insult Bostonians by labeling them Native Lobstas, and to Bahamians and local Conchs they’re just “bugs”. No matter what you call them – they like to hide out under coral outcroppings and they taste good with melted butter and a cold beer!

“Hey Jose, why have you got red sails on this boat?”

We were sitting in the cockpit and had just finished off about a dozen undersized, totally illegal, sautéed tails and the last of my beers.

“They call the sail color ‘tan-bark’ and it was traditional on cutters that operated as pilot boats in the English Channel hundreds of years ago. Ocean going sailing vessels needed to be guided into port, usually by going up a river or over a bar of some kind. There weren’t any radios, so the pilots would have to hang out at sea, for days at a time, outside the harbor entrances waiting for returning ships to come along. It was probably a pretty competitive business and you had to heave-to and wait for customers to see you and head in your direction. That’s where the sail color came in. I think it started with soaking the canvas in some tannin solution, made from tree bark, that gave them a reddish tint. I’m not sure about the details but the net result was that; the pilot boats with the tan-bark stained sails could be seen sooner than the ones with white sails……. I just like them, that’s all!”

Frank grinned and I could tell he was about to impart some Campus Shop wisdom on the situation: “Yeah Jose, those sails were sort of like the red lights you and I spent half the night trying to find in front of cheap hotels down on the river front in Jacksonville that night after our basketball game with Landon High. We needed a pilot that night but we couldn’t find one because pimps didn’t hang out on boats and didn’t have sails!”

Lunch on the boat meant that we barely had time to do our thing finding a slip at, what turned out to be, Benny’s Bayside Marina. Frank kept emphasizing that he couldn’t be late so, after tying up, we literally ran across US # 1 and down the side street towards a cluster of sailboat mast tops that had to be the South Sound Marina.

It was and we had a few minutes to spare. Before walking out on the dock, Frank turned and handed me the keys to his Chevy:………“Jose, I’ll probably be back later on tonight and I’ll try to meet up with you at the Caribbean Club or back at your boat. If I don’t see you again, I want you to leave the car in the Club parking lot. Just lock it up and put the keys on top of the left front tire. Oh, and if those things still have a key hole on the button, lock the glove compartment. There’s a letter inside for my son that I decided I didn’t want to mail until I get back to Miami. The Club never closes so, even if I’m out overnight, nobody will notice an extra car. You better check-out now, I’m supposed to be down here alone so if anybody asks you any questions – just tell them…..you know, something? See you later!”

crawfish

CHAPTER 8 — Carlos

“It’s not a king size bed Frank but I don’t know why they’re called quarter berths. Maybe it has something to do with the crew’s quarters or a quarterdeck – I don’t know. I think it’ll be long enough but, if it’s not, I’ll row you back ashore and you can go find some fleabag motel.”

The 7-ELEVEN didn’t have everything I needed so, with a 10 lb. bag of ice, a pint of rubbing alcohol, a couple of flashlight batteries, and one of those “bakery fresh for 6 weeks” cellophane wrapped breakfast cinnamon rings, we were back in the dingy and rowing out towards Le Esperance. Frank had surprised me when he announced that he had “never spent the night on a boat!” Now he was facing me while sitting on the inflated transom of the Avon, the ice between his outstretched legs and grinning ear to ear. Funny, how we assume that everyone has done certain things only because, for you, the experience is routine. It also occurred to me that, for “Midnight Matheson”, this was probably one of the few places in South Florida that he hadn’t spent, at least part of, some night.

After we climbed aboard, Frank began questioning me and watched my every move. He couldn’t believe that such a small boat could sleep four and had something called a “head” with a real flush toilet. The Loran C, VHF radio, sink with foot-pumped fresh water, and even the built in ice chest all got his attention, but it was the gimbaled kerosene stove and two burners that fascinated him most. Lighting a burner to heat the water for our gallon baths required ignited alcohol in a spirit bowl to vaporize kerosene. The technology is centuries old but, to Frank, it was “super neat!” He asked if we were going to do it again in the morning and, if so, could he “give it a try?”

Matheson, like most first-timers aboard, had never tried to shower with only a gallon of water so I mixed him some extra to rinse off with. After we had both scrubbed down and I had made up the port side quarter berth, we used the left over boiling water for a couple of cognac laced hot chocolates. It was getting late but the cool night air and unexpected reunion with one of my oldest friends held too much promise to be short-circuited by sleep. The cockpit was still wet from our showers, so with nothing but towels wrapped around us, we meandered forward with our toddies and sat down on the cabin deck, facing off at different angles and leaning back against the mast. The October sky was a black sea of stars and neither of us said anything for …

“I envy you Jose. Things may not be perfect in your life but you still have a wife that will let you in the house and kids that, at least, care if you’re still alive. We grew up in the same town, went to the same schools, had the same coaches and teachers–we had the same everything but nothing has turned out ‘the same’ – not for me anyway.”

I didn’t say a word. Frank Matheson was not a man that “bared his soul” to anyone but, unless I was wrong, he was doing just that. I crossed my fingers and…

“I’m scared Jose. For the first time in my life, I’m really scared. I’ve never been involved in anything or with anyone that made me want to run and hide but that’s exactly where I am now. This whole deal with Carlos and the Cubans feels like it’s spinning out of control and I don’t know how to get off the carousel. Even if I ran away, I can’t afford it and they might come after me. I’m tired, I’m broke, and worst of all, I’m scared shitless! – I don’t know what to do, I just don’t know what to do…”

I’d never even come close to seeing Frank Matheson cry, but now he made no effort to hide his anxiety or the tears rolling down his face. Turning slightly, I reached my left arm around the mast and griped his shoulder at the nape of his neck. There was nothing I could say but I held tight until I felt his trembling subside. Frank wasn’t Catholic, and I certainly was no candidate for the priesthood, but the foredeck of my cutter had been transformed into a confessional. The only thing that separated my cheek from the back of Franks head was the cold metal of the aluminum mast.

Staring out across the darkness of the Sound but making no effort to face him, I asked:

“What do you think Frank, ……you want to tell me about it, or not?”

Silence…he may have been yelling and screaming inside but nothing crossed his lips. Periodically, he would twitch his shoulders and slide his heels back and forth on the deck like he wanted to stand up and jump overboard. Maybe ten minutes passed before he leaned his head back and seemed to relax.

My guess was that he had said all he was going to say, so I figured we’d call it a night.    “Well, things will probably work out and I hope you feel better now that you’ve got it off your chest. Goodnight old man, I’ll see you in the morning. You can pretend you’re a Boy Scout all over again. We’ll test your new fire making skill and see if you remember how to boil water. That mummified 7-Eleven cinnamon belly bomb ought to be a real treat.”

I reached over, patted Frank on the knee and moved to get up…

“They’re all named Carlos.”

That’s all he said… but Frank grabbed my arm and pulled me back down.

“That’s when I knew something wasn’t right; when I found out they were all named Carlos. After Betty and I separated, I hooked up with the first Carlos. Things were simple. He told me, if I could get a truck, he’d give me a little work and pay me ‘under the table’. That way, I could draw unemployment and not have to worry about any divorce settlement. I even rented my condo under a bogus name to keep under the radar. I didn’t have anything to worry about because I didn’t have anything…period. I was broke and unemployed. All the people that I had screwed over, abandoned, or beat out of money back in Palm Beach had, long since, given up on ever seeing me again. I paid cash for the truck and went through some shit forming an LLC and making the first payment on an auto insurance policy. I had to do all that just to drive off the lot but that’s been over a year now. I’ve never made another payment and haven’t heard a word from anybody.”

Frank had calmed down. The Caribbean Club was only a hundred or so yards away but the band had checked out for the night and most of the customers had probably done the same. Still sitting on the deck and facing our separate ways, Frank continued…

“For the first few months, my routine was always the same. I meet Carlos twice a week at the Carreta Restaurant down on Calle Ocho, he gives me my pick-up programar, I go to the Airport, his guys load my truck, I drive to Dodge Island, his guys unload my truck, or the other way around – you get my drift. Every Tuesday he would give me my pay envelope along with the paperwork. It was always a thousand dollars. Maybe one week was heavier than another because more ships docked or it was a holiday or something, but the money was always the same – one thousand yeats. Then, week before last at the café, he tells me that I have to do something a little different on one of my upcoming runs. Following my instructions; the next afternoon, it was a Saturday, I picked up a load at U.S. Customs dockside and noticed it was lighter than usual. I couldn’t count the suitcases but, before enough time had gone by to even load half my truck, I heard the slap on the door. After a minute or two, to be sure they were through loading me up, I drove off. What was really strange was that this was the run that a new stop had been highlighted in the schedule and plugged into my drive back to the Airport. The address was for a filling station not far from the Port. I passed it every day and I had been told to ‘just treat it like a regular pickup’ – pull over next to the curb, out of traffic, and wait for the slap.’”

Feeling like I needed to see if there was any emotion going along with this narrative, I stood up, laid down on my side on the foredeck facing Frank, and propped up my head. He picked up where he left off:

“I didn’t know what to expect but right after I pulled over and came to a stop at the filling station, I saw a short dark-complexioned guy carrying a large grey suitcase. I only caught a glimpse of him in the curbside rearview mirror before I felt the vibrations of the door rolling up and someone climbing up on my truck. After a minute or two, I heard the door roll back down and the guy came back into view in the mirror. He still had the suitcase and, again on the passenger side, he only walked far enough forward to slap on the cab door before retreating towards the gas pumps and out of sight. After that, I drove on to the Airport and everything was business as usual – pull up to baggage drop-off, the same Cubans unload me, and I drive back to the condo.”

Getting a little uncomfortable lying on the hard deck, I sat upright and wrapped my arms around my knees. Frank’s expression never changed but, with an extended pause, I sensed he was about ready to call our candid séance to a halt. I didn’t want that…

“That’s it Frank? That’s what you’re worried about? Why are things any different than they were after the first day you ever went to work for this guy, what’s his name – Carlos?

“They’re all named Carlos. They’re all named Carlos and I met the second one when I got paid last Tuesday. That night, for the first time ever, Carlos was not alone. At Carreta, he introduced me to a tall skinny Latino with black wavy hair pulled back in a pigtail… ‘I like you meet Carlos’. Not ‘for you to meet’, just ‘you meet’……..they never learn English. Anyway when I asked the new Carlos what his last name was–? He just looked at me with a blank stare and said ‘No hablo Eng…’. The other Carlos, my contact, helped him out: ‘he’s Carlos, just Carlos, same as me’. Over the next hour, the three of us shared some roast pork and Cuban coffee as ‘my Carlos’ explained that there would be different men meeting with me from then on. I was told, if you can believe this, that to avoid confusion they would all be named Carlos and that they would know who I was so ‘don’t worry about being recognized’. He outlined the procedure and assured me that nothing would change and that he would be back from time to time.”

I jumped in… “They never mentioned who they work for or the name of the Company? What about when they were talking with each other: did you pick up on any other names?”

Shaking his head, Frank answered……. “Nothing, at least nothing that I could understand. I heard them mention a few names that are the same in English – like cruise ships and airline companies. Other than that, the only name I heard them mention was ‘Norman’ and I didn’t catch a last name to go with it. They mentioned him three or four times but I’m not even sure they were talking about a person; it could have been a ship’s name or even a place? They just talked back and forth for a while in Spanish then, after the new Carlos handed me my programar and pay envelope, they both walked out of Carreta. It was only after I got home, and checked my schedule, that I found out they wanted me to leave the truck at some Cuban garage in Opa-locka to have some sort of custom work done on it and then drive down here this weekend in my car to meet some guy at a marina. Yeah Jose, and you’ll never guess what the guy’s name is…?

Oh! There is one other thing that has changed… that last pay envelope they gave me had twenty hundred dollar bills inside – they’ve given me a raise.”

On Jockstraps and Driving Directions

2019 ……. not daylight yet and real cold and windy outside. Even in south Florida, it gets this way from time to time. Got the coffee perking but I’ve got to walk down the driveway and bring in the newspapers. I’m still not dressed but it’s not that far and ……… I’ve been there before.

1955 …….. A jockstrap is kind of like a cheap garter belt with no hooks and a pouch in front. Little boys are told to start wearing them about the same time little girls start to wear training bras.

My first jockstrap came complete with a front pocket and slip-in plastic cup to protect my – well you know, let’s just call it my “OOs&====o”. I was an eleven-year-old Little League baseball catcher and Bob Grafton, my coach, told my Daddy to get me one. I got my second jockstrap in 1952 at Conniston Jr. High for football. I was the only 7th grader on the team. Nobody cared whether I had one or not and I wondered why this one didn’t have a cup? For the first few weeks, I never took it off in the locker room! I even wore it into the showers after practice so that Buddy Blount, Abner Bigbie, and all of the other big guys couldn’t see that I didn’t have any hair on my “OOs&=o”. (it shrinks way down in a cold shower!)

By the time I got to 9th grade a number of things had changed.           1) I was now one of the big guys.    2) I had a Miami Herald paper route.               3) I had a Sears Roebuck Allstate (Vespa) motor scooter. and     4) I had drawers full of long-sleeved orlon sweaters, cotton tee-shirts, white wool athletic socks, and a collection of old worn-out jockstraps. Oh! and the hair problem had taken care of itself.

Now, let me interject a list of facts and seemingly worthless assumptions and hypotheses:

The early morning temperature in West Palm Beach is pleasant 350 +/- days a year.

The early morning temperature in West Palm Beach is not pleasant 15 +/- days a year.

Boys raised in south Florida do not own gloves, mittens, heavy jackets, or and most importantly, ………. earmuffs.

Four or five layers of mixed tee shirts and long-sleeved light orlon sweaters can substitute for a heavy jacket.

A couple of white wool athletic socks on each hand can substitute for gloves or mittens.

The elastic waistband of an old BIKE jockstrap, after it has been washed repeatedly for two or three years, shrinks to about the size of a tight headband. The jockstrap pouch, however, tends to remain unchanged. Need I explain what, with a little strategic positioning and total lack of fashion consciousness, can be substituted for earmuffs?

The morning was extremely cold and I had dressed accordingly. After rolling my newspapers with Howard Shaw and his father while sitting on the sidewalk in front of Lovett’s Supermarket (later to become the Outdoor Store) on South Dixie Highway, I loaded my motor scooter to start my rounds. Howard only had a bicycle and a much larger route than I did so his father often helped him with his deliveries using the family car, especially on Sundays and days as cold as this one.

I loved the early morning hours. No traffic, Alfar milkmen making their deliveries, the smoke coming from Toffer’s Bar-B-Q at Greenwood and Dixie, and closer to home, the wonderful smells from the ovens in Sam Smith’s bakery.

Many of the streets in this part of town caused me to go back in time five or so years when I was at Southboro Elementary. That was where I first started dating girls and, until then, had only heard rumors about the grown-up things in life. I cruised down Greymon Dr. past Patsy Stephens’s house, tossing papers over hedges and into driveways. Patsy was a real hottie – 3rd grade, my place on our first date, numerous hotels, scantily clad participants, big money, a race car, and even jail time involved. Every minute was a roll of the dice and things could have gotten out of hand, ….. it was good that we split up when we did!

The wind was picking up and it was getting colder. Soon I was turning west off Washington Rd. and on to Monroe Dr. More memories as I passed 204 ……. Martha Odom’s house ………. 5th grade, I had wheels, she had great legs, short pleated skirts, nightlife, bodily contact and action with other couples. Those were the good old days!

Around 6:30 I had finished my route and was headed home. By now the sky was showing signs of first light and the chill had permeated my orlon sweaters and cotton tee shirts. I was starting to shiver. As I pulled up to stop for a red light on Dixie at Southern Blvd. my fingers were so numb under my sock mittens that I could hardly squeeze the hand brakes. Waiting southbound on the right hand side of the intersection, it was painfully evident that within my makeshift foul weather wardrobe only my trusty athletic supporter earmuffs had not failed me. The icy wind, now quartering out of the northwest, was blocked not only by the tight elastic band covering my ears but, also, by the jockstrap pouch, now firmly anchored over my right cheek with the leg straps woven around my neck and chin and a spare sock stuffed inside the pouch for added warmth.

With time to think, I was reflecting on why Mr. Shaw, Howard’s father, had recently begun to repeatedly refer to me as “Dick Head” when I was certain he knew my real name? Probably just a memory lapse, you know how it is with old men.

Funny, how you sense things before they happen. I saw the car pull up beside me on my left and, out of the corner of my eye, saw it was a big white Cadillac. I could feel myself being sized up by whoever was on the passenger side. My unknown observer could see only my left profile but, what with the multi-colored, ill-suited, and misplaced assortment of clothing and socks, I was quite the sight! I’m sure that the image I was projecting was, at best, that of some low budget yard sale on wheels .

The car window rolled down and with a squawk like female accent that I had become all too familiar with; the silence was broken.

“Is this the right way to Me am me…..dah link?”

Why I hesitated for a moment, I’m not sure. I guess I was asking myself for the umpteenth time: “just how lung is this Lung Island?” Finally, I raised my sock covered right hand and pointed south. Then, very slowly and with a demoniac smile, turned to face this lady from New York. As I did so, the sock stuffed pouch on my jockstrap earmuffs came into full view hanging off my cheek on the right side of my face.

Wide-eyed and staring at me and my facial adornment, she gasped and her mouth dropped open!

“Yes ma’am this is US #1. That’s how you get there ……..just keep on going.”

The Cadillac sped-off before the light turned green!

Jim Powell

Acknowledgements:

Parker Brother Inc.    for the Monopoly board game played on our screened front porch at 368 Pilgrim Rd. by Patsy Stephens, my mother, myself and my father. Daddy was clad only in his boxer underwear. Doctor Stephens had dropped his daughter off that Sunday afternoon for what turned out to be the first date either of us ever had.

Gayety Skating Rink    for providing rental shoe skates and allowing me to spend magical Friday evenings roller-skating with Martha Odom in her cute little skating outfits. Martha was my first “steady girlfriend”.

monopoly       Gaiety Rink

Love … and 5 little books

There are very few things in my life that I can look back on as true accomplishments of character and will and not just fortune or blind luck. I successfully quit smoking in December of 1976 . Remaining tobacco free has been the result of my steadfast resolve. I got married in August of 1962 but the perpetuation of our marriage has, for the most part, been a testament to one woman’s willingness to overlook flaws and set aside disappointments. But there may be another instance of true accomplishment, yet looming, in my life’s story … maybe even five of them?

The good Lord had blessed me with five healthy grandchildren and they were all boys. The oldest, Charles J. Link, was 12 years old and an aspiring baseball player. Like most grandfathers, I was determined to follow the boy without interfering in his daily life and certainly not to “overstep” the authority of my daughter and son-in-law. I was content to remain silent when Jimmy Link (my moniker for him) told me that his Dad had had to Special Order his catcher’s mitt because none of the stores had one. I didn’t feel it was my place to tell either of them that this was probably because there has been a dearth of left-handed baseball catchers and never one in the Major Leagues.

I use this example only to set the table: It was in the late fall of 2008 that I came up with the idea … Jimmy Link was approaching adolescence and would soon fall victim to his hormones, begin growing whiskers, start looking at girl’s rear ends and, most importantly, stop believing everything I might tell him was true. If I was ever going to have a chance to make a lasting impression on a boy ….. it needed to be accomplished while he was still a boy.

My most enduring remembrances of my mother’s father are from the few hours spent alone with the old man traveling to and from a small farm he had near Hardinsburg, Indiana. We would drive in his Ford pick-up early in the morning from Louisville, KY, cross the Ohio River, and return in the afternoon. Take note of the fact that; I remember the time “traveling”. I remember very little of anything that ever happened during the day while we were actually on the farm. Once on the open road, “Pop” would take great pride in putting the old truck into neutral and then turn off the ignition, all in order to coast down the backside of the slightest little hill. Laughing, he would reach over and, with his strong grip, squeeze my left thigh just above the knee while extolling the virtue of gasoline conservation and evoking the opening line of our personal two-part mantra: POP LOVES JIMMY … and, as I was frantically pulling from his playful grasp, I would faithfully reply; JIMMY LOVES POP.

How could I create some, momentarily insignificant but possibly unforgettable, flash-back like this for my grandson? I decided Jimmy Link and I needed to take a trip. If he was going to remember his “Pop” like I remember mine, we had to hit the road and I didn’t own a farm. I also decided that the adventure we would undertake would be only the first of five episodes. If it was the right thing to do with him, it had to come about for his brother and his three Powell cousins. They were all younger so …

After bouncing it off his parents and a week or so of planning, we set out on our journey and here were the rules and procedures:

1) The primary destination of the trip would be determined by Jimmy Link.

2) Secondary stopovers, night-time accommodations, and routes taken would be left, primarily, to Pop’s discretion.

3) The duration of the trip was open-ended but targeted at 5 to 7 days.

4) Packed in Pop’s duffel bag was a little black book. It was the “journal” for the trip. Since Pop was an early riser, he (that’s me) would open the book from the front and, in the pre-dawn hour over his morning coffee, begin to document the previous day’s happenings and, of most importance, my observations and gut feelings. It was also allowed for me to reminisce and offer advice for the future … I had great leeway.

5) In the evenings before the TV could ever be turned on and probably after Pop had fallen fast asleep, Jimmy Link would open the same little black book from the back and put on paper in his best rendition of the Queen’s English, all that he had experienced and pondered during the day just ended.

6) It was(is), and affirmed by the solemn oath of both writers, forbidden to ever read a single word written by the other in their part of the journal.

* 6 continued) … he last and most important of all: we’ll get to later…

Beginning in 2008 and over the next nine years, I fulfilled my dream and traveled with all five of my grandsons on a trip of their choosing. With the exception of Jesse, each of the boys was at that magic age of 12 and none of the adventures were, even remotely, alike. Jesse, the youngest by a few minutes, was 13 when his time finally came. This departure from protocol was dictated by the fact that he and his twin, Luke, were the same age and their Pop, at age 76, was hesitant to attempt two trips in the same year. Jesse’s trip would have to wait but, unlike his mother’s womb, he wouldn’t have to share it with his brother.

 

Trip #1 – Charles James Link – 11/16/2008 – Pop’s Toyota Camry

Destination of his choosing: a mystery to me until we actually arrived … we only got there on the 2nd day of driving and after a night spent in Tallahassee, FL. It was a remote location just north of DeFuniak Springs, only 10 or 20 yards from the state line, designated as the highest place in the State of Florida. Jimmy Link had picked out the site from some topographical map expecting a mountain top vista. At less than 350 ft. above sea level, all we got was a down hill look at the road we had just come up or, looking the other way, … Welcome to Alabama.

After a night in Natchez, MS, and all we could eat at a Golden Corral, we drove on to Vicksburg where we visited the battlefield and the USS Cairo (an ironclad Civil War river gun-boat) museum. Moving north through the harvest ready cotton fields of the Mississippi delta, we would drive for what seemed like hours without a word ever being said. It wasn’t me … this boy just never talks! Passing the glow in the night-time sky of the State of Mississippi’s gambling Mecca at the state line, we get into Memphis, TN. This late arrival worked out fine because my main objective was to let Jimmy Link experience Beale Street, the home of the Blues. After driving down the night-club and bar festooned road, I decided to see if we could check-in close enough to the action to, at least, let us have a “stroll down the avenue”… At a motel, just off Beale, I was turned away by the desk attendant who, seeing a young boy in the automobile, probably suspected I was a pervert. I jumped back in the car and told my grandson “well, at least you can tell all your friends that you saw Beale St.” We drove on and soon got lost in a dark warehouse district down by the Mississippi River. A friendly Police officer told us how to get back to the Interstate and we were soon passing the same motel but headed in the opposite direction. The passing scenery had become very familiar when Jimmy Link looked at me, got this sarcastic grin on his face, and said; “now I can tell all of my friends that I saw Beale Street TWICE!”

Cold night in a motel on the Inter-state east of Memphis … drive up to Land-between-the-Lakes in Kentucky to visit maternal ancestors old homesteads and cemeteries, bypass Nashville and cross all of Tennessee before checking into a Motel 8 just outside of Chattanooga. That night, after dinner, turned out to be one of the high points of the trip for my grandson! I took him to the movies, paid no attention to what was showing and sat down in an aisle seat with my popcorn and a 12-year-old. Jimmy Link still likes to catch, just for old times sake, R-rated “Role Model” when the flick comes around on late night TV. (it was years later before his parents ever heard about this part of the trip)

It was Saturday and, after de-touring by Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, GA we checked into a motel near the Atlanta Airport so we could take MARTA back into the City and not have to worry about parking. Paying a visit to the Phi-Delt House, I mingled with a few old-timers inside while my grandson just stood around wringing his hands on the columned front porch. Sensing his shyness, and with a little behind the scenes prompting on my part, Jimmy Link was soon approached by the cute little date of a Phi brother and asked to be her playing partner for a game of Corn Hole … (slang, game names, and the English Language had really changed in the past 45 years). When the time was right and we had waited long enough for the prices to drop, I bought a couple of tickets from a swarthy scalper and, putting my arm around his shoulders, walked with my grandson through the cool night air over to Grant Field to watch Ga. Tech put a thumping on “The U”. (for you Auburn grads … that’s Miami)

The last day … Sunday driving back to Port St. Lucie with very few things to talk about. Tired of Inter-states, I took all the back roads I could find (you know you’re off the beaten path when you pass a sign near Starke, FL that tells you how close you are to the big local attraction… Raiford State Prison. Back in Port St. Lucie but, not wanting it all to end, stopped at a Chinese Restaurant with less than a mile to go … maybe we’ll do it again someday boy?

Every night before bedtime, writing in the little black journal, or the appearance of doing so, was required. Jimmy Link said he did and I took him at his word. Every morning I did my part … sometimes with more satisfaction than others, but always.

 

Trip #2 – William Reid Link – 8/11/2010 – Pop’s Trawler “Blue Heron”  

Destination of his choosing: Willie Reid decides he wants to play Popeye so we’re off on the Inter-Coastal Waterway headed toward St. Augustine, FL. First day totally uneventful unless you count the Manatee that rocked the boat, near bedtime, by scratching his back on the boat along the boot stripe.

The end of day 2 found my young crew getting bored. He had really only taken an interest in one aspect of cruising: he was fascinated by the occasional wreck we would pass. They were of all different sizes and both power and sail but they all had a few characteristics in common … hard aground, full of seawater, and covered with barnacles. He was mesmerized and repeatedly ask me, “how can that happen Pop?” I’d usually just laugh and come back with something like–“just some dummy that didn’t know anything about boats and probably had had a few too many brew skis.” Knowing we couldn’t reach St. Augustine before dark, I deciding to turn off the charted ICW channel and head out the Matanzas River. It’s a natural waterway and the site of a tiny little coquina structure called Fort Matanzas. It’s also the site of two other things ……. shallow water sand bars and a rapidly changing 11 foot tide! My intent had been for us to dinghy in and visit the 17th Century attraction but we never thought we’d be able to do so by walking ashore. Willie Reid and I never got off the boat that night but we spent hours heeled over sideways as the Blue Heron, along with her crew and Captain, lay beached on dry land waiting for the tide to return and the other boaters to quit laughing at us. I noticed Willie Reid had stopped asking me about shipwrecks and looked a little uneasy every time I popped the tab on a new can of beer.

Days and nights of 3 and 4 …….  and we’re put in at the City of St. Augustine Marina. Hook up with an old neighbor and sailing mate: Lew Krantz. Lew, and especially his wife Debbie, took my young crewman under their wings and ….. Ripley’s Believe-it-or-not, Wax Museum, Fort San Marcos, petting Dolphins on the head at Marine Land, the Lighthouse and “The Oldest” of everything else! This was an almost identical experience to one his Pop had had on a 1953 road trip, at age 13, that took me all the way to New York City. (Willie Reid didn’t care but I wrote details and in great length in his journal)

At the end of day 4, our first full one in town, and after the Krantzes had dropped us off at the dock, Willie Reid was promptly adopted by a motley bunch of “First Coast Locals” fishing on the docks near our boat. They were catching giant flounder and my young crew joined them and stayed up until ……. then snuck out again later. I don’t think he was ready to leave but, after only two days, we had to get under way …..

Sailing home on the final day, again on the ICW, we went outside and into the Atlantic at the Ft. Pierce Inlet. We had plenty of time, the weather was fantastic, and …….. put out one line with a feather and piece of pork rind and another with the simple single hook wooden plug given to me by Trent Brown, Earl Stewart’s Captain. Between us, before the day was over, we hooked and landed a total of two denizens of the deep! Willie Reid was first and brought in a good-sized bonito in relatively short order but, some half hour later, it took Pop almost 10 minute to even get his catch to the side of the boat. After the fact, this was very understandable   …… I had snagged a dreaded Sargasso snapper (clump of combination seaweed and discarded plastic)! Considering Willie Reid’s recent dockside tutoring in St. Augustine and my total lack of angling skills, this was about what to expect! But he didn’t have to keep laughing at me. Pop and his daughter’s youngest came in the Inlet at Stuart and were soon back on the St. Lucie River ……. mostly quiet now, I guess everything’s been said?

Every night before bedtime, writing in the little black journal, or the appearance of doing so, was required. Willie Reid said he did and I took him at his word. Every morning I did my part ….. sometimes with more satisfaction than others, but always!

In passing, I would be remiss if I did not mention a confrontation between me and Willie Reid. It occurred after setting the hook in Mosquito Lagoon the first night of our return voyage. The incident was minor and I have, long since, forgotten the details but the happening, and the mutual respect it engendered, will always come back to mind, at least for me, anytime my grandson chooses to utter, with emphasis, only two words ……….YES POP!

 

Trip #3 – Elias Bradford Powell – 6/25/2015 – various Airlines & a rental car 

Destination of his choosing: This kid was expensive and caught me at a weak moment. Eli is a big time sports fan and, since it’s summertime … why not go to a baseball game? Even better, why not go to a Major League baseball game? Better still, while we’re at it ….. if we’ve got 4 or 5 days, why don’t we go to 4 Major League baseball games in 4 different Cities? ….. and, because of the logistics involved, this would all have to transpire over a 4 day period. Economy Parking at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport is closer to LaBelle than it is to the Atlantic Ocean but that’s where I left my car before boarding an Allegiant Airline’s flight to Greenville, SC. Overnight with my son Bobby and his family, then ….. fly off to Chicago with Eli, pick up the rental car at the Airport (no, I don’t want the additional insurance), check in at the Palmer House, where I decide to take a little nap before game time. I turn Eli loose to do a little exploring, but only after his promise not to “leave the Hotel”. Awoken by a knock on the Hotel room door …… a Hotel Security Policewoman …… Eli had been arrested! Minors are not allowed in the roof-top pool solarium without supervision. My grandson was released into my custody but he showed little remorse ….. he told me that he only got caught because he didn’t have any identification to show when he tried to rent a bathing suit. …… One convict and a grand-dad catch the Elevated out to Wrigley. Cubs and Dodgers, Eli gets Clayton Kershaw’s autograph and spends some of his own money in, what will become, a ritualistic 30 minute pilgrimage to the “souvenir shop”. Cubs lose and we eat Chicago style pizza on the way back to the Hotel.

Leave Palmer House and find out it has cost me $23.00 to self-park my car, over night, in the garage across the street. Drive to Detroit in the rain but it clears up by the time we arrive at the Marriott. Nothing but rubble where most of the adjacent buildings used to stand but the sign in front of the parking lot across the street says $5.00 / All Day. When I asked the attendant “how much for overnight?” ….. he laughed out loud and told me to hand the keys to the Hotel valet because the closest guarded lot was 8 miles away ……. $18.50 plus a $5 tip ……. on the way, as we walked to Tiger Stadium, ate one Coney Island chili dog each at both the American and the Lafayette, (In Detroit, the two restaurants are next door to each other and in the same building. Every Motor City resident has a favorite …. Eli and I agreed …. we both go with the Frenchman!), and get to the ball park just in time for Detroit vs. the Chicago White Sox.

Morning drive to Pittsburgh where we will put up with an old business acquaintance and his family. Wade Horigan and one of his sons take us to Primanti Brother’s for one of their World Famous hamburgers and I got to go down memory lane seeing haunts and neighborhoods where I had spent the entire summer of 1961. (That’s a story for another time). The 4 of us get to the twilight game (Pirates & Braves) a little early, giving Eli some extra time to check out the souvenir shop.

Off mid-morning, after a hardy breakfast at the Horigans, heading east on the PA Turnpike when I get the idea to take a break from all this baseball ….. turn off near, but not close enough to, Gettysburg. Twenty-five or thirty miles of winding mountain road and Eli didn’t pack his motion sickness medicine ……. I wasn’t aware of anything being wrong until I heard a faint plea from my passenger: “Pop, can you please slow down?” ……. it all works out and Eli and Pop spend 2 or 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon looking at graveyards and paying homage at the pink granite monument dedicated to the North Carolina 26th Infantry. (the unit in which Eli’s 5great-grandfather died while serving)

Arrive in Baltimore with just enough daylight left to make us appreciate not having to live in Baltimore. Eli asks me if the streets we’re driving on to reach the ball park were “in the hood”? I forget my answer …. we were soon at the 4th game in four days. Baltimore vs. Cleveland Indians ….. even Eli was worn out so we left after the 7th inning stretch. Another Marriott near the Airport where I find out Eli hasn’t brushed his teeth in 5 days ………

Turn in the rental car and fly Southwest back to Greenville where Pop rests for a couple of days before facing another miserable experience with Allegiant. (how can that outfit stay in business?) Get back to Ft. Lauderdale 4 hours late at 3:15 AM and, after retrieving my car and a 90 mile drive, not in my own bed until sun-up.

There ended up being a lot of frustration and weariness in the week gone by but it only came as the result of an old man trying, but failing, to keep up the pace.

Through all of this; the following still held true …………     Every night before bedtime, writing in the little black journal, or the appearance of doing so, was required. Eli said he did and I took him at his word. The last morning of Eli’s trip was the only instance, on any of the 5 adventures, where I failed to get up early enough to complete my writing. Later, before take-off, I took advantage of our wait time in the Baltimore Airport to do so.

 

Trip #4 – Luke Robert Powell – 6/27/2016 – Pop’s Camry and three boats 

Destination of his choosing: Luker wanted to go fishing. He didn’t care where or for what and that’s what we did!

Luke’s fishing trip with Pop actually started with his Dad , my son Bobby, tagging along. Before even showing up in Palm City, the two of them went to a Marlin’s baseball game in Miami…… drive up and kill a day visiting and planning.

Now’s when the first of my PBHS Class of 1958 gang comes into play in Luke’s trip. Earl Stewart arranges for a 3 generational deep-sea outing on KAIZEN, his 60′ sport-fish. Earl, his son Stu, and grandson Jake welcome the 3 generations of Powells aboard for Sailfish, Dolphin, and Black Fin Tuna. We bring both great memories and a mountain of sashimi back to Palm City at the end of the day.

Finally on our own, Luker and Pop drive south. A quick stop in Homestead ….. my grandson hasn’t spent much time in nursing homes but, then again, Max Gelders doesn’t hang out with many 12 year olds …… After dinner on the way down at Bud N’ Mary’s on Islamorada, check in at the first of what will become a parade of Flee-Bags. This one in Marathon.

Billy Wilkinson has hooked us up with a fishing guide so, after a quick gravy biscuit at the Stuffed Pig, it’s chum’em, hook’em, and haul’em in on both the reef and outside in blue water! Back at the marina restaurant, we have lunch (the snapper we have just caught …. prepared 4 different ways) with Billy and his lovely wife Karen. Gotta go! …….. we got a long way to go and a short time to get there ….US #1….north bound …… “one road in, one road out, that’s what the Keys are all about!” Long afternoon drive ………… Flee-Bag #2; just off I-75 in Ocala ……. got in late and dined Italian.

On the road headed west before dawn ….. barely time to check in at Flee-Bag #3 in Steinhatchee before we’re outfitted with masks, snorkels, and fins and diving deep; 40!, sometimes 50! …………………. inches. Our elusive prey, as we follow our guides instructions, is the crafty and vicious ………. scallop.

With our limit being cleaned back at the dock, Luke and I track down another PBHS grad and invite him to share our bounty. I had run into Steve Davidson (Class of “61”) on Sammy Bigbie and my second voyage on the Blue Heron. Fried, grilled, and sautéed scallop dinner with Steve and a few beers, then Luke and I are off to bed early (what else are you going to do in Steinhatchee?)

Saying good-bye to #3 and our uninvited and undetected bed-buddy, a 4 inch green toad, Luker and I left Steinhatchee and headed north. Breakfast in Mayo, FL where both waitresses on duty claimed to be Kerwin (the “Throwin Mayoan” of U of F fame) Bell’s steady girlfriend in high school. On up the road …… my young charge had never experienced a spring and Florida’s are famous world-wide! On the road, headed towards Live Oak, we turn off at a little sign that read: CONVICT SPRINGS …….. Luke still hasn’t experienced a spring (it was sad); maybe on his next trip down? Sammy Bigbie was out with his chainsaw trimming oaks and killing snakes when we stopped by ………. didn’t stay long and it’s Atlanta here we come! Stop to buy bag ice for scallops we’re carrying in a cooler in the trunk …. late lunch (2 chili dogs, a glorified, 2 onion rings, along with a PC and big Orange at The Varsity), walk around the Ga. Tech Campus, stop by the Phi-Delt House and, finally, check into the fancy digs across Hemphill Ave. from the Coca-Cola International Headquarters, right across from the Tech. campus on North Ave. (no flea-bag, are you impressed?), Dinner downtown ……. bad German.

Next morning ……. the Coke Factory ……… you or I couldn’t do it! Who else but the Coca-Cola Corp. could persuade thousands of people to travel from all around the globe, wait in line for hours, then pay 10 or 12 dollars to see, virtually, nothing but a blatant multi-storied documentary advertisement about Coca-Cola! On the way out of Atlanta and headed towards Greenville, SC, Luke and Pop stop off at 401 Wimbledon Rd. and pay a brief visit to a small cottage that was the first place his grandparents ever called home. This boy has been a Champion to have kept his happy demeanor as I drug him from one old classmate or haunt to another. Looking back, I think I’d taken out many of the frustrations I felt in the aftermath of Eli’s hectic and demanding baseball traveling marathon, on his younger brother ……… someday, hopefully, you’ll understand Luker.

I know it’s getting monotonous but let me repeat …………     Every night before bedtime, writing in the little black journal, or the appearance of doing so, was required. Luke said he did and I took him at his word. Every morning I did my part ….. sometimes with more motivation than others, but always!

 

Trip #5 – Jesse Michael Powell – 8/3/2017 – Pop’s Camry  

     Destination of his choosing: Jesse vacillated between “go west young man” for Pro Hockey in Nashville and St. Louis ,,,, or head east for the beaches. Winter turned into spring, which morphed into summer … hockey season ended, so we packed our bathing suits.

Left Greenville too late to reach saltwater–turned off the inter-state before Columbia and spent the night in the Camden, SC lakeside home of George Corbin and his beautiful wife Joan. George is a fraternity brother and fellow jock from Tech. Mr. Corbin went out and bought some worms and Jesse caught brim off the back yard dock!

Signs along the highway should have been my first clue! The old tourist trap put-down of “cotton candy and hats with your name on them” may have originated in Atlantic City but it had moved south … ONLY 48 Miles to go ….. there weren’t many pine trees along this Carolina roadside; too little room for them to grow between the billboards. Even before Jesse told me his surprise destination, I knew where it had to be …….. Myrtle Beach, the Grand Strand, and Dolly Parton’s “Pirates Voyage”! Checked into a mom & pop ocean front motel. Jesse was disappointed when told it wasn’t retched enough to qualify for “flee-bag” status but promptly hit the sand and surf while Pop took a nap. Can’t sleep too long , we’d be late for ………. 3 and a half hours of water-logged, red-neck, and acrobatic “dinner theater”. Terrible indigestion, a dollar for another pack of gummy bears, and a last minute souvenir shop visit for a red “Myrtle Beach Life Guard” tee-shirt …….. will this day ever end?

“Why are we at the American Legion Hall in Calabash?” Jesse had asked a good question ………. we had spent the last two hours searching for a small bar and marina on the Calabash River that his grandmother and I had tied up to one night in 1989 soon after Hurricane Hugo had devastated the Carolinas. The Legionnaires were my last hope but none of the old soldiers had any knowledge of its location or had even been in town that long ago. Time to move on, more beaches ahead of us. Monumental purchase of the trip at a 7-ELEVEN…….. an ordinary, folded filling station style, North Carolina road map. Jesse wants to track our every turn! After Wilmington and the Fort Fisher Museum came Carolina Beach and some other one, I never got out of the car and can’t remember the name. We soon ran out of coastline road and, heading inland, made for another of “my secret destinations”! Plymouth, NC: the site of the last major Confederate victory in the Civil War and home of the replica of the gunboat, CSS Albemarle on the Roanoke River. So-so room at a Hampton Inn and horrible pizza and antipasto at Mama’s Diner next door ……..ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz

If God ever decided to give the USA an enema, there’s no doubt as to where he would insert the hose! The eastbound 2 lane road leading to the bridge crossing the Alligator River traverses the most worthless land I’ve ever seen …… but let’s call it the Rainbow Highway! It leads to the Atlantic Ocean and the pot of gold at its end is called Nag’s Head! After tiring of counting Lamborghinis parked in the driveways we were just in time for …….. Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers National Park, exhibit, and lecture! (if you ever get the chance, don’t miss it!) Gave up trying to fight weekend traffic on the dead end road headed to Duck, NC and just jumped back in the Ocean …….. remembering how: I tried to show Jesse the Lido Beach method of wave riding and didn’t do bad. But, when the time came to get back to dry land, I had to crawl on my all-fours against the soft sand and undertow. Showered, we got back in the car and headed inland once again. Disappointed that, after going 40 miles out of our way to find it, his roadmap search inspired destination du jour; Powellsville, turned out to be nothing but a Zip code; Jesse and I kept on driving. A monument tour and photo-op at the State Capital in Raleigh, inter-state “40” to Greensboro, NC, a fairly clean Quality Inn and another night of pleasant dreams about our next morning’s Free Breakfast!

Before Lenore, NC was officially incorporated it was named “Powellton” and the cemetery at Lower Creek Baptist Church is home to 3 generations of Jesse Powell’s male forbearers. Today, Lenore is just a stop off on the highway up the mountain towards Boone, Banner Elk, Sugar Mountain, and eventually ……. Knoxville, TN. Ted Davis was a teammate and fraternity brother in college, a successful veterinarian, and a caring husband and father. Ted had also played 7 years of football in the NFL. His years with the Colts, Dolphins, and Saints had resulted in the surgery scared and pain racked body of an old man who couldn’t get out of bed. I’d been promising to visit with him for years and, at least for an hour or two, there I was ………. me and Jesse! The destinations of these past few days were obviously not my grandson’s choices. I had taken over Jesse’s adventure itinerary but this didn’t diminish our interaction. Our on-going conversations were candid and sincere ……… I hadn’t turned off the Camry’s ignition or coasted down any hills but I had gotten closer to Jesse, and learned more about him, than I had any of the others.

Finally, Jesse got his “Flee-Bag”. The only thing worse than our motel, eastbound out of Knoxville, was the “New Orleans style Restaurant” across the Street! (Try Cuban food in Miami, French in Montreal, or Mexican in El Paso, but Cajun in East Tennessee …..?) Had to give the boy at least one more night on the road but I had developed a nagging shoulder and neck pain ……… one last night, this one with my sister and brother-in-law in Waynesville, NC ………. Uncle John took Jesse rafting as I convalesced ……… my father told me one time: “don’t get old, boy” …. I didn’t listen to him!

Last morning, and down the mountain to Greenville, SC …….

Yes, and for the last time …………     Every night before bedtime, writing in the little black journal, or the appearance of doing so, was required. Jesse said he did and I took him at his word. Every morning I did my part ….. every morning! 

5 books* 6 continued) …….. I have honored this vow and none of the five journals have ever been opened since the day each journey ended. I have even chosen not to revisit my own thoughts and accountings. I am resolved to continue this practice until I departs this world. Soon after that day the boys, now men, will be given their journal to read and share as they see fit and a voice somewhere will whisper to each: “Pop loves ………” and, hopefully, all five will smile and come back with “……… loves Pop”. 

Jim Powell

 

 

Bob Thurbon ….. the Steelers out, the Eagles in, but what’s the difference?

On Sunday, January 6, 2019, the Philadelphia Eagles were in Chicago defeating the Bears in an NFL playoff football game. At the same time, the Pittsburgh Steelers and their terrible towel waving fans were ensconced back home drinking Iron City beer and watching the game on TV. But if we could only turn back the clock ………..

A step back in time:

cir 1950 – 1951     A new boy, his mother, and his little brother, Reid, move into a house in the 200 block of Malvern Rd. in West Palm Beach. I live just across the street, over the fence and under the mulberry tree on Nottingham Blvd. Bob Thurbon’s father is not living with them but the boys’ bedroom is filled with the strangest mementos imaginable. The whole room is a sea of black and yellow and, after opening his closet and putting on a huge leather sleeved jacket of the same colors, Bob proudly informs me that his dad was a “STEELER”. I think I ask him what he stole? I didn’t have a clue but it had something to do with real tackle football and sounded neat. Then we went back outside to play!

1958 – 1960        My freshman and sophomore years at Georgia Tech and the head defensive football coach is a gentleman by the name of Ray Graves. Coach Graves is a very large and impressive man with one physical feature you could never forget; he only had a partial left ear. By football season my junior year Ray Graves had taken the head coaching job at the University of Florida.

2012            Google has turned us all into investigative gurus and spell-check has accomplished over night what six years of “see the dog, his name is spot” and one day a week in 7th grade geography class failed to do fer speling werds.

With all this newfound knowledge, I decided to retroactively check out Bob Thurbon’s story and see if his father really was a Steeler.

When I Googled “Thurbon, Pittsburgh Steelers etc” I was in for quite a surprise. As it turns out, Bob’s father was not only a Steeler, he was also a Steagle! *(If you are an NFL fan you will want to take a look at the excerpts that follow from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Gene Collier).

1943 Steagles1943 Steagles

In the wartime year of 1943 there were not enough non-draft eligible players to man all of the existing professional football teams so the teams in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia(Eagles) combined forces to play their schedule. Right there in front of me on my PC monitor was the team photo and player names of the 1943 Pennsylvania Steagles and, sure enough, there he was:

Half Back……………        Bob Thurbon

It was a name further down the roster that caught me by surprise:

Center……………….                       Ray Graves

Bob Thurbon                Ray Graves

Bob Thurbon                               Ray Graves

It’s a small world Bob Thurbon and it’s good to find out you’re still part of it.

Jim Powell ………the boy on Nottingham that got to “come out and play”

 

*  Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito — in 1943 they were pretty much monopolizing the shock market. The must wins were Midway and Normandy, not Steagles at Redskins. Able-bodied men were on battlefields. Significantly less able-bodied men were on NFL fields.

“The problem the NFL faced was that it didn’t have enough personnel,” said the decorated journalist Matt Algeo, who wrote a book on this topic called “Last Team Standing.” “The Cleveland franchise, the Rams at the time, had to fold. Their owners went into the service. That left nine teams instead of 10, which was very unwieldy for scheduling purposes. What made the most sense was to merge the two teams in Chicago (the Bears and Cardinals), but the feeling was that the Bears were so good that this would only make them better.”

The opposite sentiment pervaded Pennsylvania, where the Eagles were so bad the Steelers would only make them worse.

“But the Eagles owner, Lex Thompson, and Art Rooney were friends, so they made this arrangement,” Algeo said. “The NFL was very close to shutting down in 1943; it was on the agenda. If they don’t agree to merge, it’s very possible the landscape of American football would look completely different today. A lot of these franchises would have just been folded.”

Instead, the Eagles and Steelers became the Steagles and the league went forward with eight teams. The talent pool stateside after 1942 had some limitations. As Bears founder and Hall of Fame coach George Halas explained it, “We had tryouts. We signed anyone who could run around the field twice.”

This is how badly Steagles tackle Ted Doyle wanted to play. He worked at Westinghouse six days a week (everyone on the Steagles worked in the defense industry). After work Saturday, he would take the train to Philadelphia, play in an NFL game there Sunday, take the train home and be at work Monday morning. He later determined he was tangentially involved in the Manhattan Project, code name for the development of the atomic bomb.

This is how badly Bucko Kilroy wanted to play. “Kilroy was in the Merchant Marine, posted in New York, and he would somehow finagle a weekend pass to play,” Algeo said. “That was dangerous work, no easy assignment. He’d be out on sea escorts for war ships. Sunday he’d take the train from New York and play for the Steagles.”

If it wasn’t the $25 or $50 game checks that were so attractive, it must have been the convivial atmosphere between the coaches, Greasy Neale of the Eagles and Walt Kiesling of the Steelers.

“Greasy Neal was a real good coach, an offensive coach,” Art Rooney Jr. remembers. “But Walt and Greasy hated each other and never talked after 1943.”

The Steagles as an entity were heavily weighted eastward. Most of the home games were at Shibe Park, later to become Connie Mack Stadium, the uniforms were green and white, and the Steelers had only about six players under contract for 1943 while the Eagles had 16. The season-ending team photo included 20 men in suits and fedoras.

Art Jr., of course, still calls them “the Stiggles,” because if the Steelers are the Stillers, the Eagles are obviously … right.

The players weren’t a lot more comfortable than the coaches with the whole arrangement. According to an Indiana Gazette article from that period, Neale was instructing Tony Bova, an end who had played his college ball at Saint Francis, on a technique Neale preferred for his offense one day in practice. Bova ran the play exactly opposite of the way it was prescribed. Neale screamed at Bova, Kiesling screamed at Neale, and practice was over.

Bova would go on to lead the Steagles in receiving yards — 419 on 17 catches for a whopping 24.6 yards per catch and five touchdowns — and he would do it again in 1945 with post-war rosters at full strength.

Like most Steagles and most NFL players in 1943, Bova had some identifiable malady — flat feet, poor vision, partial deafness, bleeding ulcers — that the military found highly rejectable. Bova’s primary rejectable was that he was blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, but, as Art Rooney Sr. reportedly claimed, “He could hear the ball coming.”

Resolve to preserve professional football was not seen as a great public service at the time. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had written to the Commissioner of Baseball to urge that the games persist during the war for the morale of the nation, but pro football could drop dead and nearly did.

Part of what saved it were the trolleys.

“Everyone was working six days a week, so the NFL played on the day everyone was off, Sunday, and they mostly played in baseball parks that were along the trolley lines,” Algeo said. “That meant people didn’t have to use their gas rations to get there. Attendance actually went up.”

Outside of baseball, the NFL was among the few sporting events anyone could get to. Golf’s U.S. Open was shuttered. The rubber used to cover golf balls was needed for the war effort. In California, you could not see the Rose Bowl, which had been moved to North Carolina due to fears that Japan was about to attack the West Coast. To preserve gas, there was no Indianapolis 500.

But if you made it to a Steagles game, two of which were played at Forbes Field, you could see former Pitt stars Ben Kish and Bob Thurbon, as well as Bill Hewitt, who had been lured out of four years of retirement only to find that players now were required to wear helmets. He didn’t like it one bit.

It was at Forbes Field that the Steagles established an NFL record that stands to this day, though it’s been equaled three times — 10 fumbles in one game. And they won by two touchdowns.

Al Wistert, a 215-pound tackle out of Michigan who would go on to play on Philadelphia’s NFL championship teams in 1948 and 1949, was asked just a few years ago what it would be like if one of those teams played against an NFL team today.

As Algeo remembered his response: “Well,” Al said, “if we played by our rules, where we had the same 11 guys on the field the whole game, at the end of the first quarter, they’d be winning 100-0. But by halftime, they’d all be dead. You couldn’t have 300 pound guys trying to run down the field on every play for four quarters.”

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