Friday, January 14, 2005

Chris: Key West

We motored quietly into Key West at dawn alongside the Empress of the Seas. As we prepared to drop our hook in the channel, the 600 foot, 12 storey high cruise ship glided by and then did a 180 degree turn within her own length, aided by powerful bow thrusters, and parallel parked in front of what used to be submarine pens during World War II. She completely obscured our view of the town.

Key West was founded by ship wreckers, who salvaged the many ships lost on these reefs. The U.S. Navy arrived in 1823 to deal with pirates who preyed on shipping in the Florida Straits. Commodore Rogers and his squadron of "mosquito boats" were only here for a couple of years, but were largely successful, despite frequent bouts with yellow fever. The merchants here have turning these terrorists of the sea into romantic heroes, which makes me wonder how they will remember Al Qaeda in 100 years.

Key West is a giant vacuum cleaner aimed at the wallets of cruise ship passengers. Every second store sells vulgar-shirts; every third sell bikinis (unisex). In the evening the strippers invite customers in to the see the show. Key West has 101 bars, and 12 strip clubs. But then many of the bars have naked waitresses, so the statistics get confused.

Captain Mel Fisher’s museum to the underwater plundering of sunken galleons is mediocre; Hemingway’s house is full of cats, most named after celebrities.
Sixty-one are in residence at the moment, all descendants from two strays Hemingway brought home in the 1930s. Their drinking fountain is an old urinal from Sloppy Joe’s bar, where the author got the locals to tell him stories for his books. The cats have their own houses in the garden – supposedly the only legal cat houses in town.

Key West is overrun with roosters as well as stray casts. There is even a storefront for their protection and propagation. The roosters here are what pigeons and English sparrows are to other towns.

New England windjammers make a good living here doing day sails for the tourists, charging $35 or more a head. At one point we saw the two Appledores from Camden, the Liberty Clipper from Boston, and the America from Newport, all sail by the Bounty within ten minutes of each other. The America fired her signal cannon in salute, and to entertain her champagne drinking passengers. Sea Semester’s Corwith Cramer, a 134 foot brigantine, was also in port, but locked away from public view, and terrorist attacks, at the Coast Guard station.

The old Navy base, where Truman had his Winter Palace, was bought by a developer two decades ago and transformed into a very tasteful collection of town houses and condos. The old commandant’s house, which Truman commandeered, is now maintained as museum by the state, not federal, government. About a mile beyond it is Fort Zachary Taylor, another of the 51 coast forts built in the first half of the nineteenth century. All that is left is the first floor which is definitely not worth seeing. Unlike Fort Jefferson, however, this pile of concrete actually had some strategic purpose, when a quick thinking Army Captain occupied it in the first days of the Civil War. Key West’s harbor remained in Union hands throughout the war, making a full blockade of the Florida coast possible.

The greatest enemy that the Army and Navy had here was not the Confederates, however, but the yellow fever. I used to think that modern Florida was made possible by the invention of air conditioning. That may be true, but DDT and modern medicine helped too.

The students and I met up at Mallory Square at 5:00 p.m. where locals and tourists come to salute the descending sun. From there we took a mile hike to a very good and inexpensive Cuban restaurant, and then hiked back. Most of us returned to the ship on the 9:00 p.m. whaler, but four – I won’t say whom – stayed to explore some bars. They caught the last shuttle at eleven, with nothing good to say about the local watering spots.

The students will be allowed to sleep through the night without standing anchor watches, because tomorrow is the day they crew the ship. Each in her own way is beginning to think about how she will function as a ”mini-mate”, giving commands to brace yards in order to wear ship. “Stand by the port and starboard braces.” “Ease the port brace and sheet; haul the starboard brace and sheet – handsomely.” Etc. We get underway at 8:00 a.m. sharp to begin our journey back to St. Petersburg.