Friday, October 31, 2008

The Eve of All Hallows

As long as I can remember (and that's a long time, Bubba!) our Key West neighbors have hung these stylized "ghosts" from an overhanging Bouganvillea bush in front of their house, so you'd have to duck on your way over to the local 7-11. It's one of the little things that make Old Town a charming place, in spite of the changes of the last few years.

This picture was taken right after Hurricane Wilma in late October 2005, a situation which accounts for the absence of leaves on the foliage. It's a mute testimony to the spirit of the Conchs. This part of town, where the houses date back to the latter part of the 1800's, was the one part that didn't flood.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Overheard at the Pump

Bunch o' the boys, and one gal with a conspiracy theory were pulled up at a gas station down Fayetteville (NC) way this week. Up until recently North Carolina had the highest gas prices in the nation. Something to do with Hurricane Ike, someone said. Both Barack Obama and John McCain were in town that week. One o' the boys said that the gas prices coming down had something to do with the fact that Obama was up in the polls. The gal said she figured the same thing: somebody was fixing the prices according to the political polls.

All this got us to thinkin'--could there be some connection? It does look like there's some connection between gas prices and which way a state is leaning in the upcoming elections. Just take a look at that red streak coming down from North Dakota, right down to Texas and across the once solid South. The red streak ties in nicely with the greens and yellows on the gas price map, showing that were gas is cheap they're voting Republican. (An aside: we always wondered how the Republicans got the red color, and the Democrats got blue. Someone said one of the TV networks started this, and it stuck. One o' the boys said it should have been the other way around, because as everyone knows, Obama's little better than a Socialist, and Socialists, Bolsheviks, and Communists have always favored the color red.)

The places where gas prices are the highest, like the West coast and the liberal Northeast, are leaning toward the Democrats. Now, an exception is the western states. Arizona and Utah have expensive gas, but Arizona is McCain's home state, and in Utah, as everyone knows, Mormons, like Baptists, almost always vote Republican as a matter of faith. Wisconsin and Minnesota are also an exception, but they've always gotten snookered by the liberal-progressive line, ever since that guy LaFollette stirred up all that trouble way back when. And West Virginia, they're in the red column even though they're on the expensive side gas-wise, but those hillbillies are hard to figure. They have kept a Rockefeller in the Senate all these years, after all.
So what's it all mean? When gas prices are low, people vote to keep the status quo? That makes sense.
Or could there be a committee down in Houston or over in Dubai manipulating gas prices according to the presidential preference polls? That's what that gal thought, but it sounds like a lot of work, especially since they seem to have Congress under control anyway. And both candidates are members of Congress.

It's said that in times of uncertainty, people come up with all kinds of theories to explain events they don't quite understand. And these are interesting times.
I think it's safe to day, whichever way it goes, most of us will be glad when it's over.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes and Sucklings....

We took another informal, admittedly unscientific poll recently, of friends, acquaintances, and their offspring. The sampling included a great range of thirty-somethings who live in all parts of the country and a few college students as well as their parents. A few of the parents are "East Coast Liberals," but most of them are conservative business and professional people, and not a few are Southern Christian fundamentalists.

Here's the surprise: No one under the age of forty is planning on voting for McCain. With one exception all of them are going to vote (or have already voted where early voting is available) for Obama.

The one exception, a young man from the Mid-South, is going to for for McCain-Palin, because "She's hot." (Sorry, folks, it's true....his vote counts just as much as yours does.) Of course this is far from a scientific statistical sampling, and much can still happen in the next week, but the momentum does seem to be on the Obama side.

What does all this mean for the Republicans? There's some evidence that the Republican--Fundamentalist marriage is on the rocks and may soon be as dead as the Reverend Falwell. And there's talk of Palin's "going rogue," and positioning herself for a leadership role in the aftermath of this year's projected loss.

Another possibility: Our poll also showed a number of disillusioned conservatives planning to vote Libertarian this year, to protest the Republican's failure to scale back the size of government despite all their rhetoric. Perhaps, as in the past, the emergence of a credible third force will lead the "out party," in this case the Republicans, to incorporate that party's agenda into its own. If that happens, and if the boys back East don't find a way to blame their loss this year on her, look to Palin to play a major role.

The Weather Witches Hit a Home Run

We told ya so,
We told ya so!

The Weather Bureau has access to all kinds of data, from satellite photos to ocean temperatures to computer models. But in recent years their long-range predictions of hurricane activity have been wrong as often as they have been right. Years ago farmers, fishermen, and just plain people who spent much of their time outdoors would develop an intuition about the weather, which often worked its way into local folklore.

Earlier this year we tried an experiment to see how the predictions of the "weather witches" would hold up, compared to the forecast of the experts.

We took a non-scientific poll of old timers, both male and female. There are some that will say the number of hurricanes is related to the relative abundance of land crabs. Others will say it has to do with the migration of land turtles across the road (from Ocean to Gulf, mind you), or the temperature of near-shore waters. And there are others who just seem to have an inchoate sense of knowing.

So here is this year's prediction: there will be two strong storms, both of which will probably miss us. Conditions will be reminiscent of 1979, when Hurricanes David and Frederic threatened the Keys, but passed us by.
Now that the 2008 hurricane season is (we hope) basically over, let's see how they did. Yes, two strong storms did threaten the Florida Keys this year, Gustav in August and Ike in September, and they both missed us. (Now, what happened with Ike in Cuba and Texas is a different story.) Hurricane Fay did pass right over Key West, but it was a dud. Last week's freak rainstorm did more damage than any of this year's hurricanes.

So what's the conclusion? Well, obviously sometimes the experts are wrong, and Aunt Gabby is right. "The Ark was built by amateurs," she would say. "The Titanic was built by experts." Now if we could just apply the same principles to the stock market, or the real estate market, for example....stay tuned.

PS: The original prediction, made in June 2008, is here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

Sometimes things creep up on you. Here it is Halloween already, at least in Key West.

Our neighbors in Key West just sent us a potpourri of pictures taken in front of their house a couple of hours ago (Friday, October 24, 2008).
(Hey kids! Here's Grandpa and Grandma on the right!)

Two days ago Key West was bailing out after a record 7+ inch rainfall. It looks as if the drenching didn't damper the spirits of the annual Fantasy Fest revelers.

Key West's annual "Fantasy Fest" developed from an informal custom of adults donning costumes for Halloween. In the Seventies the city hosted the first formal parade, which developed into an annual week-long festivity of parties, fund-raising events, and outrageous antics, temporarily tripling or quadrupling the island's population of 30,000 or so.

The celebration has only been postponed one time, after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. For locals the event marks the end of the summer doldrums, and a barometer to indicate how successful the coming tourist season will be.

Friday night's parade is only a sampler of what the official parade on Saturday night will be like. (Can you imagine all this going on right outside your front door?)

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Conch Train

A recent post in the Bahama Village Blog (see link at right, List of Interesting Blogs) sent me on a trip down memory lane. In 1971 a big issue in the local Key West paper was the battle between local pol Jerry Hernandez and the originator of Key West's "Conch Train," Henry (or was it Bill?) Kroll.

Bill Kroll, according to my former neighbor Joan Shavinsky, who lived most of her life on Southard Street in Key West, was a handy guy who welded a locomotive-like apparatus to the front of a jeep and attached a few cars behind it, inventing the popular Key West sight-seeing tour. In true Key West form he was granted an exclusive franchise for this type of public transportation.

Before too many years passed, Jerry Hernandez decided to start a rival train, using faux trolley cars. With agressive lobbying (and maybe even the passing around of a little "green stuff," another local tradition), he suceeded in persuading his friends on the city commission that his company, called "Buggy Bus Tours," was a different kind of tour, being a "get-on, get-off" operation, as opposed to the Conch Train, which was an "all-around-the-island-in-one-shot" tour. In the end Hernandez got his rival franchise.

Now both operations are owned by Historic Tours of America, and they have successfully duplicated the Key West Conch Train paradigm in many cities around the country.

Nowadays the drivers follow a set tour and deliver a scripted narrative, (see the entry in the Bahama Village Blog), so much so that if you happen to live along their route, after a while you have that part of the narrative memorized. It must have been around 1993, we noticed a fellow with a clipboard writing something near our house on Frances Street. Since a fellow with a clipboard usually means trouble in a place like Key West, we asked him what he was up to.
"So, are you going to dig up the street again?" we asked.
"Oh, no," he replied. "I'm working on a new script for the Conch Train."

The script for that part of the tour involved talking about a couple of epitaths on tombstones in the nearby cemetery. On the hypochondriac's: "I told you I was sick." And on the philander's, presumably placed there by his widow: "At least I know where you're sleeping tonight." (Forced chuckles.) After that they would point out the Haitian Art Gallery on the corner, then the historic "gingerbread scrollwork" on the houses on Southard Street, including Joan Shavinksy's house, where she and her husband had whimsically replaced what original scrollwork may have been there with little plywood gingerbread men along the top of their porch. She and her husband actually sold them to tourists for a while, as a gag, until she got tired of it.

The last I noticed, they were still using that same script. Back in the day, however, the operation was a lot looser. Our friend Larry spent a few months driving the Conch Train one year, and took considerable poetic license with the script. One of his favorite variations was used whenever he would see a shorter, bearded middle-aged guy on the street ahead. "Ladies and gentlemen, here's a special treat for us today--right up here on the left--now I MUST ask you, for he's asked us NOT to point him out, is one of Key West's more prominent residents, that's right, playwrite Tennessee Williams! But please don't let him know you recognize him."

With the clicks of a dozen cameras, some poor befuddled guy from Oshkosh would be immortalized in celluloid forever.

Larry finally got fired, after getting the Conch Train stuck between two buildings while on an unauthorized side tour through the Navy base. He had to call his boss for a back-up train to rescue the stranded passengers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Update on the Voyage of the Manatee Sol Part 1: Ventura to Cabo San Lucas

With the disruption of relocating twice since summer, I’ve found that the Muse hasn’t visited as often as before, but I have unearthed a piece of crumpled arcana which is worth sharing.

A couple of years ago our friend Steve, a young aspiring botanist, (who we’ve met in the piece “King Neptune Slaps Steve Upside the Head,” August 2008) sailed with his father down the Pacific coast of Mexico (part of Dad’s “mid-life crisis,” one suspects), and sent back two separate notes detailing his adventures–encounters with pods of whales, venturing ashore at remote fishing villages, and fighting the unusually powerful storms that made sailing along the Baja coast so formidable that year.

The climax of that voyage was a heroic crossing of the Sea of Cortez during a gale, when Steve, like a young Ulysses, single-handed the Manatee Sol for twenty-four hours, as his dad lay disabled in the bilges, a victim of a combination of mal de mere and South-of-the-Border cuisine.

With any luck the crumpled scrap detailing Part II may also soon be discovered. In the meantime I hope Steve will forgive me for reworking his missive slightly, touching up spelling and grammar, correcting a few nautical terms, and eliminating most of his thoroughly obnoxious Spanishisms.

Well, we have now completed the first thousand miles of our journey, and I am writing this from beautiful, tranquil Bahia de Magdalena, about 150 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, at the end of Baja California. We are anchored off of Puerto Magdalena, a small fishing village, whose population is either 295 or 300 (I've seen both on signs). Looking out a porthole, I see a glassy calm bay, its surface interrupted only by an occasional pelican or sea gull. Toward the north is an endless series of uninhabited sand dunes, a perfect place to search for shells or for some discrete sun-worshiping. Just to the west of the dunes are the first mangroves I have seen since leaving Florida, predominately white mangroves with a few blacks scattered in. Many of the coastal plants that border them are the same as we have in Florida, a couple of common coastal grasses, some saltworts, Batis maritima, and sea purslane. The only major differences are the scattered chollo cactus and a prolific aster with Flaveria-looking flowers.
The mountains start just past the dunes, rising up with their desert scrub to form the thin barrier between us and the Pacific. The indigenous spiny Magdalena mouse and black-footed jackrabbit descend on occasion into the dunes, as evidenced by their tracks, visible between the clumps of vegetation. The bay almost looks like an ocean itself. One enters through a narrow mile-wide entrance with thousands upon thousands of sea birds, and then the bay spreads open like an inland sea.
It was first visited by the Spanish in the 1500's, and the small town we are anchored near was founded about 1709 by a Catholic missionary intent on establishing a refuge for fishermen off the coast of Baja.
Whale bones and skulls, boiling tanks, and other relics of the whaling industry still litter the coast. We saw a pair of whale ribs set up in front of the only restaurant in that little town that each measured at least fifteen feet.
The voyage has been grueling so far, no doubt about it. We’ve had few days where the wind didn’t get up to thirty knots. There have been several days with constant twenty to thirty-five knot winds all day. At times we had those conditions for days on end. If sailing during the day has been tough, the nights at sea were correspondingly tougher with the rocking of the boat in the darkness, all of which made reaching safe harbor at last that much more a welcome event. One particularly interesting stop was Bahia de San Quentin. The night before we arrived, we went through a series of squalls, blowing rain and cold sea spray in our faces as we bounced in the twenty five-knot winds. After a truly exhausting night, when we reached the harbor, both of us slept for almost twenty hours.
The next day, we noticed several whales passing by us on their way up into a sheltered lagoon. We were surprised, since the water there was so shallow. Later, when we tried to go into town for food in the dinghy, we were even more amazed. The lagoon was crowded with gray whales; we didn't realize it until we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a pod. One surfaced off our port side, only about thirty feet away. Its back was eight or nine feet wide, about as wide as our dinghy was long. Their breath thickened the air all around us, and we steered out of them as quickly as possible.
Their company continued for almost our whole trip, sometimes surfacing through flocks of a type of drifting sea bird, a beautiful tern-like bird we were never able to identify. Sea lions along the coast barked encouragement. As we looked back, the whales’ breath was like a fog above the water. Although we never did reach the restaurant (possibly just as well), the trip was worth it just for this remarkable encounter with nature.

The lagoon has five extinct volcanoes that rise to the north of it, remnants of ancient peaks, which now resemble well-worn hills. It had been unseasonably cold and the inland mountains were wreathed in snow that day. I'm glad to say it has finally warmed up a bit.
The next day, when we left, the sailing was better, at least at first. A couple of hours into the sail, I saw a whale breaching over toward the shore. What an incredible sight, a huge mammal rising up out of the blue and foam to suspend itself momentarily above its aquatic world, almost as if it was saluting the sun. I've heard that they do it to rid themselves of parasites or as an aid somehow to their navigation. But I think they do it just for fun, just because they can.
The feeling of seeing them is such a pure joy. It’s hard to imagine it being otherwise.
Being conscious of the occasional damage they do, unwittingly I suppose, to the unlucky sailboat, I steered offshore to try to stay out their way.
That may have been stupid, but it seemed to make sense at the time. As I headed out, I realized that there were hundreds of them around us, making their way back north. They had the most disconcerting habit of appearing right under the side of the boat or in front of the boat, and I saw at least one pass right below us. Never could get any pictures of them though-- they would just disappear by the time I got my camera out.
As I finish writing this, we have finally arrived in Cabo San Lucas, and we’re enjoying being on land. It's a stark contrast from the rest of the Baja California, which is sparsely inhabited and mostly a windswept desert with Sonoran cactus standing guard over the coast. Down here is the land of yachts and fancy people from California getting their tan on. It'll be nice to get down to the mainland where things are a little more authentic. People everywhere have an interesting story to tell though, especially when you bother to listen, although the Spanish helps, I must admit.

Bueno, amigos, espero que todo esta bien con todos ustedes, y que mi mensaje lIegue a encontrar todos feliz y con bueno salud. iHablaremos pronto!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Treasure Chest

Here's a true story related to me an authentic Keys character. I've tried to retain some of the original language of the account. The names have been changed "to protect the guilty."

Bunch of the boys was out in the Bay pulling traps. A crab trap cost about $20 at that time. Crab season was about over, and it was time to get your traps in, if you was going to do it. It was one of them clear days when you could see the bottom and everything on it. Generally the Bay was churned up, cloudy, not like the water on the Ocean side, which was cleaner and clear, even though the waves was higher on that side generally. The bay had more silt in it, and this is why it was usually stirred up. Also a lot of algae which the fishermen called gumbo. There was a lot of gumbo in the summer. But this was spring, and it was one of the first days that the bay was calm and clear. In close to shore schools of mullet stirred it up, but offshore where we was, the water was deeper and there wasn’t any mullet there. They was closer in, in the shallow creeks and flats in close to the Keys or the islands in the back country.

When it was that clear, sometimes you could see things you couldn’t see most of the year. For instance, large coral heads. A lot of people only thought you would see them things on the reef on the other side, but it’s a fact the bay is littered with them, here and there, where you’d never expect to see them. And they was always full of lobster, fish and other things. Sometimes you’d see the outline of a sunk boat. Sometimes it would be a boat that you knew, or used to know, like the one Cecil Davis lost out there after it burned years ago. (After his boat sunk, they throwed a party for him, a benefit-like, to help him get back on his feet, so to speak. The funny thing was, the son-of-a-bitch ended up with more money than he ever had, and he’d been a commercial fisherman his whole life!) We knew where it was, near Oxbow bank, and sometimes when we was pulling crab traps out near there we’d see it, but sometimes not. Some said it moved around, but I’m not sure about this.

So one day we was out there and it was clear and we saw the outline of another, really big boat. We wasn’t sure what it was, only that it was big, and not one we had seen ever before. We anchored up next to it, and put on masks and swam down to have a look, to see if there was anything still on it that we could take off. Sometimes there would be portholes or bronze fittings that people would pay good money for. But this boat was old, and there wasn’t too much left of it. After a while B comes up and says he sees some kind of a shape on it, square, and he wants to have a better look. He takes a metal bar and goes down and digs around it, like, and says it’s some kind of metal box. Things is lighter underwater. You can lift a cement block, for example, like it’s light like a piece of wood, not like a piece of cement which would be heavy up on the surface. But this box was so heavy that he couldn’t move it, and he was a big boy.

Eventually we got a line around the bottom of it. We have to dig around the bottom to do this. It took a couple of lines around it to get it hooked up, and then we all pulled like all get-out to haul the thing to the surface, but we couldn’t get the thing up into the boat. It was too heavy.

We had to kind of drag it through the water, alongside the boat. B called in to BW, his wife on the CB radio. He was kind of vague about what he was saying because anybody could have been listening, just said he was bringing in something heavy and that they should call C to see if he had something to rig up to get the thing out onto the land and to get it open. That’s all they had to hear. Couple of them bimbos had CB’s in their trailers at that time. They was always listening to what their old men was up to, and gossiping on them things the rest of the time.

So by the time we got in, there was a whole welcoming committee. In the meantime they had been speculating on what we had there, and had decided of course that it had to be some kind treasure.

Writers of crime stories often describe their subjects as being afficionados of treasure hunting magazines, the type that used to adorn the magazine racks of drugstores back in the Fifties. I was surprised to find that some of these are still published in this day and age. I suppose the underlying psychology has not changed, an appeal to the adventure seeking urban wage slave who never actually gets a chance to dive for the elusive flash of gold or any other romanticized activity. The idea of sunken treasure is a major archetype in the public psyche.

Today the same urge might be satisfied with the purchase of a power ball lottery ticket or a trip to the nearest Indian casino, with the lure of instant riches, if not adventure, and a small chance of actually coming away with something.

So they was talking, the way women do, about what they would do with the treasure when they got their hands on it.
“CV has always wanted a Monte Carlo,” one of them said. “That’s one of the first things we’re gonna get.”
“My old man’s gonna take me to Miami,” said another one. “We’re gonna go to the best hotel on the beach, and rent the penthouse suite. We’ll have one of them champagne bottle with the flowers on it.” No mention of who was going to take care of her snot-nosed kids, and no talk of buying anything sensible, or of setting any money aside for anything productive, like basic necessities or school things, or maybe even get her teeth fixed.

(One of the premises of Keynesian economic science is that when you put money into the hands of the poorer classes, they will immediately spend it.)

They keep up their dreaming-out-loud. Then they start arguing about how what was the right way to share up the goods. So-and-so should get more because he saw it first.
“Shut yer whore’s mouth!” says B. "Right now everybody here is gonna get one piece of this. C is gonna get a share because he has the lift to get this thing up on the dock, and he’s got the tools to get the damn thing open."
They sent the bitches over to one side, out of the way where they could keep waggin’ their tongues without getting in the way. C got out his hammer and cold chisel, and started work on the chest. It took almost an hour, but finally he was able to pry the top off.
“What the hell IS this shit?”
Inside was a rusted mess of crystallized metal. They tore off a chunk. The women started to argue again.
“Let’s take it up to C’s trailer. He has a microscope.”

He not only had a microscope but also that basic tool of every treasure hunter, a Geiger counter. “Yeah, of course. You don’t have one?” he would say.

It turned out that the entire contents of the mystery box was a rusted-together shipment of metal sewing needles.
Someone kicked the box back into the water, and it most likely sits on the bottom of that canal today.
As for the treasure ship itself, this was back in the days before G.P.S. No one really knew exactly where it was or what is was. Somebody said it might of been a Confederate paddle-wheeler, sunk trying to run the Union blockade way back when. Whatever she was, she is still out there today.