CHAPTER 15 — Fuzzy’s the mailman

In 1781 Walter Knowles couldn’t walk down the streets of Savannah without everyone knowing who he was. The population of coastal Georgia was virtually all loyal to the Crown but their food supply had been cut off by George Washington’s followers up-river. The Tory families were hungry and Knowles traveled regularly down the coast from his island plantation on the Broad River near Beaufort, SC bringing … rice and beans.

By 1812 Kevin Knowles, along with his aged father and the rest of the clan, had been forced out of the Carolinas and were ensconced on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. They had been welcomed by the Cornish Loyalist that Cornwallis had left behind along with a remnant of the Royal Navy. Their only problem, what with another war going on, was obtaining a source of fresh food. Kevin became the most respected Guinea-man on tidewater’s Eastern Shore because of his nightly ventures. Every morning would find him back on the dock with … crabs and oysters.

In 1864 Zander Knowles claimed Eleuthera as his Bahamian home island and his family had been there since 1815 when they had been forced out of Virginia and awarded a land grant by the English Crown. He was a familiar figure on the streets of Nassau but even more recognized by the scattered population along Florida’s Indian River.

The lighthouse at the Jupiter Inlet had been darkened by Confederate sympathizers and Union blockaders patrolled the coastline but this didn’t slow down Zander. Further north, the Confederacy needed cannon and Enfield rifles and blockade runners brought them in at Wilmington, NC. The plantation owners and their elegant ladies along the balmy Indian River, however, had other desires and Mr. Knowles could always be counted on to fulfill their needs from the fully stocked warehouses and shops in Nassau … Brazilian coffee and fine silks.

By 1925 the land boom in Florida was in full swing and the Volstead Act and Prohibition had rung in a new era. Binder-Boys were trading real estate on street corners like ballpark franks and the juke-joints on Banyan St. in West Palm Beach had been taken over by antique shops. There wasn’t anyone on the Gold Coast that didn’t know Glover Knowles. As a young man, he had settled in Ravera (that’s Riviera Beach for you new-comers) with his parents and siblings around the turn of the century. The reason for the move was the newly dredged Palm Beach Inlet and the lucrative market for seafood being shipped to Northern climes. The Knowles family still maintained their family ties and connections in the Islands and were soon adding to their net hauls by trading with Bahamian fishermen in West End Settlement and down off the coast of Andros.

Seafood craving local restaurant goers, as well as the seasonal influx of well-heeled epicurean snow-birds at the Breakers and the Biltmore had nothing to fear. Every few days, or more probably nights, you could count on Glover to tie up near the Inlet with a few fish and the most sought-after of all Palm Beach culinary necessities … Scotch and Rye.

I had caught up with Avon at one of his stores. On the phone, we agreed to meet in the Mall parking lot because he was “in a hurry to get to the Lantana airport”. We met up at one of the side entrances and headed for a food court.

Walking through the Palm Beach Mall with Avon Knowles was like emerging from a limo at an Oscar Awards Ceremony with the favored nominee on your arm. Everybody knew Avon. Every man or woman our age ran up to greet him and bell-bottomed guys and gals that looked like they had just crawled out of a van in Haight-Ashbury or had a toke at Woodstock were winking thumbs-up and going for high-fives. The Knowles family magnetism had definitely transcended the ages and been passed on down.

It was easy to see why. Avon was single, rock-hard, devilishly handsome, and his “I’m laughing at the world” smile never left his face. He owned a chain of trendy retail seafood emporiums in Palm Beach, Boca Raton and virtually all of the other South Florida enclaves of both “Old money” and the “Nouveau riche” alike. He was a local TV celebrity by virtue of his advertising segments featuring himself, along with other rubber apron clad white booted fishermen, off-loading freshly caught pompano destined for his icy display cases. He always emphasized that they came only from secret locations in the “Bluest of the Deep”. We all knew that pompano were usually found in less than eight feet of water and often in the sandy breaking surf, but … it sounded good.

Rumor had it that Avon held his Bahamian connections extremely confidential and that most of his closest business associates were blood relatives, some of which had never set foot in the United States. It was around these “off-shore” Knowles boys that other rumors circulated. Apparently, they didn’t spend much time fishing for pompano or diving for crawfish. They specialized in a much larger specie … grouper … square ones!

“Sorry I don’t have more time old man. You say you’ve been in the Keys?”

Pausing for, still, another admirer to shake his hand, I responded … “Yeah, left my boat down in Marathon but I hope to get back right away. Have you been down there lately?” He just shook his head …

A diet Coke and a big Orange–Avon got the tab and brought them over to a little table … “So what’s on your mind? You say you ran into Matheson?”

There was no reason to hide anything from Avon. If I was going to get any information from him, he needed to know the whole story. The only part I left out was my meeting with Terry Booth. For some reason–I didn’t think that would help the cause.

Avon, like myself, had lost track of Frank, so my accounting of our reunion at the Caribbean Club and his romantic overtures and reminisces brought back memories and induced one laugh after another. No sooner would I relay one of Matheson’s pranks of yore, than Avon would jump in with still another that I had never heard. We laughingly agreed that there wasn’t a woman alive that … well we agreed.

Once my story got around to relaying Frank’s current life, Avon’s mood began to change. For a long while, he just listened but showed no emotion and made no comment. It was only after hearing the two names that Frank had mentioned, that Avon started frowning and shaking his head. I picked up on it right away. They were the same two names that had kept me awake the past few nights … “Carlos” and “Norman”.

“Hey man, let’s drop this conversation right now.” Avon continued to speak but his face and eyes had taken on a stern and impersonal expression and gaze. “Don’t get tied up in this. Let it go. Get the fuck out of Dodge … Based on what your telling me, I can’t help Frank at all, but I can help you. These guys don’t screw around–they kill people who get in their way. If you’re smart, you’ll run, not walk, to that Exit door over there and not look back. Jim, this Carlos dude, Lehder’s his last name, is a Columbian thug that has every “wig” in Parliament in Nassau paid-off. He’s running cocaine through the Bahamas like an open spigot, and doesn’t give a damn who knows it. Are you sure that Frank is on Norman’s Cay?”

Thankfully, Avon had chosen to continue the dialog and I wasted no time in responding–“If he’s still alive, that’s the only place he can be. If he was on that racing boat that ran over that boy and his father, he’s in big trouble unless he spills the beans. If this Carlos hombre thinks Frank might do that … he’s a dead man walking.”

Bringing his thumb and curled index finger up to his chin and going into a “Thinker” pose, Avon slowly and quietly replied … “This will be the last time ever, that you and I  talk about Frank Matheson. I’m assuming that all you want from me is to find out if Frank is, as we speak, on Norman’s Cay? If that’s the case, I’ve got an idea. None of my people can even approach Norman’s. The Colombians know all of their boats and there’s no reason for any of them to go there anyway. There may be a better way.”

“There is a Club Med at Governor’s Harbour on Eleuthera. The place is a resort run by a bunch of Frenchmen that bring in their workers from all over the world. They all eventually learn to speak French and they have some fancy name for them, “Gentils Organisateurs”, but they just call them GO’s and the bottom line is–they’re not Bahamians and they only stay for six months. All of them … six months and they scatter to the wind. Club Med has something like a hundred of, what they call Villages, scattered all around the world and they continually rotate in new staff members on an individual basis … not as a group. Pick any three or four of the GO’s on Eleuthera right now and, six months from now, they’ll be in Bali, Sierra Leone, St. Tropez, or maybe even a new one they just opened up in Haiti.  It’s just the way they do business–all new faces in every Village … twice a year.”

“From the very start, management at the Club had big problems getting “work permits” issued by the boys in Nassau. They went through the drill with their opening staff but soon were looking for a way to by-pass the system. That’s where Fuzzy came into play. I don’t know his real name but he doesn’t shave very often so … He’s an old-timer that used to be a Royal Mail boat Captain. He knows the Out Islands like the back of his hand and that’s what led up to his ‘French connection’. Rather than go through all the red tape and pay the fee that the Government demands for each new ‘off-shore’ employee, the Club Med headquarters in Miami, they call it ‘Trident Services’, gave Fuzzy a full-time job. They hired him, as an outside contractor, to take guests on two or three-day dive trips out of the Village on Eleuthera. The only catch is–the divers that go and come on these excursions are not always guests on holiday.”

“The names on the name tags of the staff members at Club Med never change but the guys and gals wearing them do. The GO’s have even coined the concept of ‘Village Crazy Names’ to explain why they might have a three hundred pound Nigerian dude named ‘Blondie’ and a tiny little gal from Sweden called ‘Stud’. Today, every incoming new GO starts out by arriving in the good old USA on a tourist visa. From the Miami airport, they’re all driven down to the Keys where they hold up for a few days before Fuzzy shows up to take them for a little scenic cruse. At the same time, he drops off the ones they’re replacing. The only two Customs Agents at Governor’s Harbour are on the take and Fuzzy covers his tracks by always returning to port with the same size dive crew he departed with and a load of freshly caught crawfish …”

“These bugs are what brings Norman’s Cay into the picture. Since Lehder and his Cuban and Columbian cohorts don’t like visitors, Fuzzy, the old mailman, is the only fisherman they let anywhere near the island. He has the nearby reefs and grassy flats all to himself and that’s not all … crawfish love to hide in old wrecks and under things. Bahamians routinely set traps that consist of nothing but a four by eight foot piece of galvanized sheet metal laid flat on, but held off, the bottom by a few bricks or two-by-four runners. Just show up every couple of weeks, flip the metal lids off the bug’s hide-outs and warm up the butter.”

“On the final day of those special ‘diving trips’, where he’s returning from Florida with a load of new GOs, Fuzzy pays a short visit to the waters around Norman’s Cay and dives on his prey. If he hasn’t made the trip to the Keys and only camped out on, and dove around, some of the little islands in the Exumas for a couple of days with a group of over-weight school teachers from Detroit, he never goes near Norman’s. When he does, the reefs, flats, and sheet metal traps he has working for him around Lehder’s private island would give him plenty of bugs with only a dive or two–but that’s not where he finds most of his haul. That distinction falls to the aluminum super traps that Carlos has furnished him with … large ones that lie just off the beach and have turned into crawfish condominiums.”

“The Columbians are running planes in and out around the clock. They’ve got old C class Lockheeds bringing the cocaine in from South America and Pipers, Beech, and Cessnas hauling it off to, how shall I say it, ‘a neighborhood near you’. The only catch is–there’s no instrument landing equipment on the island’s air-strip nor in any of the smaller aircraft. If bad weather comes in unexpectedly and they can’t find the runway, the pilots have little choice but to splash down and hope for the best. Even if they have additional fuel on board, they have few alternate destinations available. I can just hear it now … ‘Miami International, Miami International, this Coke Hopper 624 requesting clearance to land on runway 105-E …’. There are probably five or six of these downed airplanes scattered in the water around the island but on the books in Carlos Lehder’s operation, the write-offs for a few lost planes is only a rounding error–he probably doesn’t give a shit about the pilots and, unless there’s a stash of coke or some cash on board, won’t even have his men dive on the crash site.”

“So Jim, here’s what I’ll do, and remember this is the last time you and I will ever mention the subject and, if confronted, I’ll deny any knowledge of everything we’ve talked about. I’m flying out of Lantana to Marsh Harbour, my pilot is waiting for me now. Once on the ground, I’ll put the wheels in motion to bring Fuzzy up to speed and make him an offer he won’t refuse. He doesn’t work with any of my cousins but he always tries to ‘get-along’. He should be able to go ashore on Norman’s or, at least, get some info on Matheson. I won’t, but I’ll have somebody contact you with information as to where, and when, you’ll be able to meet up with Fuzzy, let’s call him ‘the mailman’, on his next trip over. It might even be in Marathon.”

Abruptly, it was over. Avon had no expression on his face but his eyes were saying “don’t do it Jim.” He placed the palms of both hands flat on the table, paused for a moment, then stood up … “I got ‘a go. Remember … this is it, this is it!” he patted me on the shoulder, and walked away.

Plane              cocaine-photo




Ebber-dog and the “fisher”

Ebony was a small black cocker spaniel. My wife and I had begun calling her “Ebber-dog” as a puppy and, as with all pets, the name stuck. She’s buried in her own special place in the yard of our home here in Palm City along with forty-two years of peers, predecessors, and prodigy–both canine and feline. Most of their resting places are unmarked but we know exactly where each of them are.

Ebber-dog’s transition in my life’s passage centered around the late 1980’s and had all of the heart-warming moments we all have in remembering our four-legged life’s partners. With the years falling away, the details of all but one of these treasured memories rests with Ebony … but there was one–one magical interlude, and I can’t get it out of my mind.

In early December of 1988, my wife, Dee, and I had embarked on a sailing trip on Le Esperance, my 24′ cutter-rigged sailboat. Our destination was the St. John’s River and the City of DeLand where our son was starting his freshman year at Stetson. The lack of space on board dictated that stowage be minimal and the crew limited–the only one we had was black, with long hair and a cold nose.


The first day out, with a light on-shore breeze and in the inter-coastal waterway near Vero Beach … Ebber-dog was perched on her haunches in the cock-pit with her fore-paws up on the port rail. Being on the lee side, she was watching the water go by only inches away when it happened–a bottle-nosed dolphin broke the surface right in front of her. She jumped back and, instantaneously, I yelled out: “Look Ebber-dog … fisher, fisher Ebber-dog!” After a short retreat, Ebony hesitantly went back to the rail and didn’t have long to wait. The dolphin resurfaced in the exact location, relative to the moving vessel, and its four-legged observer was mesmerized. The saga continued for four or five minutes, as the dolphin would return to the surface, blow out, and seemingly glance in Ebber-dog’s direction before disappearing, once again, in the boat’s wake. Long after our visitor had lost interest and swam away, the little cocker spaniel sat gazing at the same flowing target off the port rail.

No. This wasn’t the moment I remember so vividly … it’s only what would lead up to it. Dee and I continued our trip. Almost a week later, we reached Crow’s Bluff on up the St. John’s near DeLand and left Le Esperance in a marina. After visiting with our son, we returned home in a rental car–with a lot of dirty laundry … and our dog.

A lot transpired over the next year. 1989 saw the Powell family in America exit the food business, counting farming and excluding wars, for the first time in three hundred years. After selling Powell Purveyors, Le Esperance would, in stages, be sailed north and end up docked at, my college fraternity brother, Willie Goode’s “rivah house” on the Piankatank in “tide-wot ‘a” Virginia. The fall months of leisure were spent in the mountains of North Carolina and only interrupted by Hurricane Hugo’s passage from the coast. In November, with the falling leaves, the crew drove over to the Piankatank, turned in the rental, put on fresh water and provisions, sailed out into Chesapeake Bay and turned south. We were headed home and, yes … Ebber-dog was with us.

They say dogs don’t have very long memories, but it had been less than a year and … somewhere in the North Carolina Sounds … “Look Ebber-dog … fisher, fisher Ebber-dog!” She reacted immediately–ears up and tail waging, she scampered to the same exact spot along the boat’s port rail where she had seen, months before, the dolphin on the Indian River in Florida. The only problem was; the frolicking mammal wasn’t at the rail. It was twenty feet away on the opposite side of the boat. The only way I could bring the new sighting to Ebony’s attention was to pick her up, position her in another deck location, and hold her head in the direction of the next anticipated dolphin surfacing. Even then, she probably wouldn’t catch sight of the breaking and I found that I couldn’t, so much as, whisper the word “fisher” or Ebber-dog would go into a Pavlovian, bell-ringing, struggle to escape my grasp and return to her post in the cock-pit on the port side. We finally gave up. Unless I could maneuver the boat into an alignment that would put a passing dolphin, and there were many, near the exact spot–there was no reason to alert Ebony. I don’t think she saw another of her aquatic friends until …

We’d been two weeks in passage. All but a few nights, were spent anchored from cocktail time to sun-up in neat little coves off the inter-coastal waterway. We had Ebber-dog marine potty-trained utilizing a piece of Bahia sod on the fore-deck where drainage was automatic. This was very important, especially when that special day arrived and, as the sun was setting, we were getting ready to set the hook. There would be no “doggie poop park” to dingy in to because there was no dry land. We were somewhere south of Brunswick, GA. The tides are extreme at this latitude and the topography is as unique as it is beautiful. There would be no shortage of anchorages. Where they flow into and out  from the streight cut of the inter-coastal waterway on their way to the sea, they all look the same and none of them have names on the charts. We were in the salt marshes and there wasn’t a structure, another boat, or even a tree anywhere but on the furthest horizon … only a grassy sea of green. The tide was ebbing but only beginning to fall, so I only cozyied up into the mouth of one of the creeks, checked the depth with the lowered anchor rode as best I could, and we settled in for the night. Winter time … no bugs, it should be nice.

As darkness fell, the air cooled, the tide receded, and the mud banks began to appear on both sides of the boat. Whereas, when we anchored, we could see for miles across the grassy flats … my picturesque vista gradually began to diminish from the bottom up. Knowing the depth was sufficient, Dee and I enjoyed a bottle of wine and a simple meal–then crawled up into the V-berth along with our hundred and two degree bed buddy and called it a night.

I’m not sure what time it was. I was awakened by the thump of Ebber-dog’s landing on the cabin sole. I couldn’t remember her ever having jumped off the berth before. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I watched as she went aft and jumped from floor to seat, then to the companion way, and finally outside and into the cock-pit. The moon was near full and beckoned me to see what the commotion was all about.

Quietly peeking out of the opening; there was Ebony–in her favored position, seated with her paws on the rail and looking overboard. But there was a difference … she was on the wrong side–she was on the starboard and making little whimpering noises. Just then, there came the frantic splashing action of fleeing bait fish right next to the boat. I didn’t want to interrupt what ever was happening but I had to see, so I eased up the stairs and quietly ensconced myself where I could watch what was going on.

I suppose it was the school of finger mullet that attracted the dolphin to the narrow flow of water between Le Esperance and the, now moon-lit, muddy creek bank. The shore seemed so close–almost like I could touch it. The tide had reached dead low and the level of the sea grass was fully nine feet above my head. In trying to elude their pursuer, many of the mullet had landed on the bank and were squirming and flopping around helplessly in the mud. But it wasn’t the fish that had Ebber-dog’s attention and it certainly wasn’t the hapless creatures with fins that had my dog whining and whimpering into the darkness below. No it was …

The dolphin wasn’t going anywhere–he, or she, would actually thrust its body up and halfway out of the water to slither up on the muddy bank to continue its meal. After each new morsel there would be a sliding retreat and it was at this juncture, with the dolphin back in the water, that the strangest thing was happening. The dolphin would momentarily remain at the surface and nudge over close to the side of the boat–all the while making an intermittent low whistling sound. To these entreaties, Ebony would respond with a whimper or whine and, it may have been just my imagination, I think there was actual eye contact. I know my dog never looked away from the dolphin and I was sure that the “fisher” below us never blinked.

Eventually, the beached mullet were all either consumed or escaped and the dolphin disappeared. I crawled back into bed and covered up from the chill, but I chose to leave Ebber-dog on her lonely vigil.

When the sun came up–the tide had returned, Ebony was asleep on the cock-pit seat, the mud banks were, once again, hidden below the surface, and the grassy sea of green was … well, let the man who once called Georgia’s salt marshes the “Vast of the Lord” describe them for me …

Salt Marsh

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free

Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!

Sidney Lanier

Flashing forward, and putting this piece together … I’ve struggled with a conclusion. Do I want to infer that the magic of the moon light and our night in the marshes seduced my judgement and convinced me that my dog and a dolphin were actually carrying on a conversation? That might be a little far-fetched … or would it?







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”



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……………”


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… know, something? See you later!”


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


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