Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sturm, Drang, und Friede

Got a couple of e-mails not too long ago, noting that my old high school German teacher had died. Not that it was too much of a surprise. After all, from what he'd told us he would have been close to 90 years old. Yes, he had been involved in the Late Unpleasantness as a soldier on the Other Side, a situation we 60's youth found oddly fascinating.
Not that any of us had a great amount of desire to study German. Peer pressure and a desire to "skid" led most of us to choose French, clearly the easier language, so we thought. A little arm twisting by the department head led a sizeable minority of us to choose German that year. Of course we were also attracted by the possibility of attending an occasional Abendessen, where the German classes would meet at a local Rathskeller, the idea being to improve our language skills with regard to the ordering of food, etc. Rumor had it that here, far from the parental eye, and under the guise of European sophistication, there was the consuming of an occasional beer, and some said, even the smoking of cigarettes. I made it to one Abendessen before the powers-that-be squelched the activity, and it still stands out as the most fun I had the whole time I was in high school.
It was also that year that someone higher up somewhere thought it would be a great idea to accelerate some of us though several courses, theoretically making all of us two years smarter in one single year, not something I recommend inflicting on innocent youth. I remember waking up one Saturday morning realizing I'd been dreaming all night not about something normal, but the twenty-four forms of the definite article der-die-das! After that the whole thing began to fall in place. The guy was a good teacher--no doubt about that.

Eventually he told us about his early life. At some point he was drafted into the Arbeitcorps, one of the ways Hitler prepared Germany for war despite the terms of the Versailles treaty. Young men drilled with shovels instead of rifles. He saw Hitler only one time, at a rally in Nuremburg, speaking at night in a glass and steel ampitheater. As Hitler spoke, a thunder storm gathered in the distance. He said Hitler would see a flash of lightning and then time the end of each sentence to make each point coincide with the arrival of a thunderclap. "There were not many of us there, who that night would not have done anything this man said."
Of course before too long Hitler's madness became apparent, and he was sent to the Russian front, where he was wounded several times. Fleeing west through Poland, he relied on a knowledge of Latin to ask a priest for directions, "Ubi est via ad_____?" and made it back to Germany, where he was awarded a gold medal by the Nazis for his service on the front. "What happened to it?" we asked. "After the war I sold it for 200 cigarettes." "Oh, and you sold them?" "No, I smoked almost all of them myself."
Toward the end of the war he was assigned to a high ranking officer who later was involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Although he didn't know about it at the time, he was imprisoned for a while, long enough to establish his bona fides with the allies, and later he became an interpreter at the Nuremburg trials, then emigrating to the US and finishing his education. During the war his three or four brothers had all been killed; his parents had died and all their property was leveled in the bombings.
Eventually he ended up retired in Venice, Florida. Sometime in the late Eighties I was near there and stopped in for a surprise visit. He was pleased that we could still converse in German, even though I'd had scant opportunities to use it over the years. And he said that times have changed. "Du darfst mir du sagen."
I'm sorry now I never bothered to stay in touch with him. I'm sure he was active on the internet despite his advanced age.

And a minor update here--if there's any moral to this (vis-a-vis what happened with Germany, something our young people are bound to forget), it's let's not let this stuff get started again, here or there.

On the plus side, almost all the younger Germans I have met opted for the Zivilendienst rather than the army.....und das is auch gut.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Breakfast in Honduras

We're still seeing an occasional article on the crisis in Honduras. Then-president Zelaya wanted to change the country's constitution, allowing him to serve another term. The judiciary, along with certain elements of the military, took exception to his plans, and he found himself on a plane out of the country.
Right-leaning blogs applauded his ouster, citing similarities to a Chavez-type takeover
a la Venezuela, and decried the fact that the White House and Department of State seemed to favor Zelaya's position.

I have no opinion to give except that "we" took a proper and prudent public position, and no information to give, other than the following story:

It must have been around the late of the '80s, my friend Jim and the owner of a construction company based in Ft. Lauderdale flew down to Honduras to see if there were any opportunities for offshore construction work. Jim always considered Ft. Lauderdale a good "jumping off place," and indeed had found work that sent him to Jamaica, Haiti, the Caymans, Bahamas, Virgin Islands, and even Africa. This company had a good product and good track record. They'd been successful in other places, and now they hoped to be able to do business in Honduras.

They flew from Miami to Tegucigalpa, the capital. Arriving late in the afternoon, they checked into a downtown hotel. The boss made a few phone calls to local contacts, setting up a couple of appointments for the following day. They stayed close to the hotel that night.

The next morning they ate breakfast at the hotel. Whether it was to treat himself with the "hair of the dog," or to brace himself with an early-morning "shooter" (something he was known to do), Jim excused himself and went off in search of a barman, or some hotel employee able to be bribed to dispense a couple of drinks at 7:00 in the morning.

Having accomplished his mission, Jim reported, he returned to the dining room to find his boss sitting there with a disturbed look about him, his face suddenly gray and ashen. "Go up to the room and pack up your stuff. We're getting out of here."

Within a few minutes they were in a car heading back to the airport. They flew back to Miami later that day. "So what happened?" I asked, when told about the trip.

"He wouldn't say," Jim replied. "And he was so upset, I didn't want to push him. I surmise, while I was gone, somebody came to the table and told him to go. Exactly who it was I don't know. But I do know he wasn't sure if we were even going to make it to the airport."

So who knows what really happened? Certainly the boss wasn't a wimp who would scare easily; his company had operated in a lot of places, many of which had an "edge."
Whatever was said to him that morning at the breakfast table, for him doing business in Honduras was a clear-cut case of "No vale le pena."

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Strange Case of Antonio Tovar

Did you ever meet someone whose real age was impossible to guess? A number of years ago, working for a construction outfit in Central America, I met a man who was, to say the least, of indeterminate age. If I remember correctly, his appearance was such that he ranged somewhere between a hard-bitten thirty and a nimble seventy.

He was short by American standards, slightly built, with an air of self-assurance about him that was out of the ordinary. He spoke easy-to-understand Spanish, and wore an expression on his face that can only be described as a cross between saintly humility and extreme amusement. His clothes were simple. He might have been any one of the many refugees from the wars in El Salvador of Guatemala who were growing corn and beans on small patches of land they had cleared in the woods around the job site.

“My name is Antonio Tovar. I’m here to see about the chain link fence,” he said. Part of the building under construction was going to get a chain link fence around it, but I hadn’t seen any details about it. Most of the previous crew had been cashiered for going “wild west” on the job. There’s a certain type of American who, when taken out of the country, feels that he’s beyond the law and goes bonkers. A lower level on Kohlberg’s moral chart, perhaps, or as someone said, “Travel makes a wise man wiser, but a fool worse.” For the first couple of months we were finding out indirectly about deals and arrangements that the ancien regime had made with various locals, some of which were legitimate and some of which were not.I referred him to one of the engineers on the job who would know something about the fence. That weekend I saw Antonio Tovar and a group of similar-looking men working behind the building, and shortly thereafter a chain link fence appeared. At the end of the week Antonio came back into the office with a bill. It seemed completely reasonable, so low that I was able to pay him out of our petty cash fund without bothering the boss with it. Off he went with the same inscrutable smile on his face.

About two months later I heard a radio broadcast about a missing person. Friends and neighbors were concerned about the disappearance of one Antonio Tovar. “If anyone has any information on the whereabouts of Antonio Tovar, please contact your local police or this radio station. His friends are very anxious to find him.”
That spring I made the acquaintance of some of the refugees who were living out in the woods. I asked if they knew him. They told the following story. He appeared one day on foot out of nowhere. No one knew exactly where he was from, except that the spoke a Spanish they could understand but not recognize as coming from any particular place. He wouldn’t tell them his age, except to say that he was very old.

When he arrived, he was carrying many seeds in a leather bag. He worked among the people clearing land and planting beans, corn, and vegetables. When the people spoke of lacking certain things, he found work that paid them money. He took very little for himself, but spread most of what they earned around where it was needed most. Then one day, saying he was going to a city, he simply disappeared. When he didn’t return, they made inquiries, first to the police and then later to the radio station. He’d been a big hit with all the people in their community. He brought money in. The women, the children, even the men all loved him. They were worried about what happened to him. He’d now been gone a long time.

So I asked them who they thought he was. The answers ranged from a Communist organizer, a Lakota “road man,” a guerilla agent, one of the Three Nephites of Mormon legend, a Cuban spy, a devilishly clever man from Scotland Yard, a brujo, a saint, to just a nice guy who disappeared in the jungle. A snakebite victim, perhaps.

I asked the engineer who he said had hired him, and he told me, “I thought you did.” Nope.

The ABC’s of Medical Care

The Horror of “Obamacare.”

The Great Unwashed clog free clinics with their endless needs. Aunt Gabby, insured through her job, but who’s never been happy unless she has the latest ailment, burdens the system with imagined complaints. Richie Rich goes to a private cash-for-care facility, which, if necessary to avoid government interference, may be located offshore. “Death Panels” decide whether you or your loved one merits the expense of life-saving medical treatment.

The real horror is that such a system already exists, right here in Hometown, USA. There are three tiers of medical care, not to say there aren’t levels within each tier or that there isn’t a degree of overlap among them, but basically here’s how it appears:

Level C is where you end up if you don’t have insurance or money. You might have a low-paying job without insurance, or you were laid off and lost your insurance. You could be chronically unemployed or homeless. Maybe you’ve just arrived in this country, knowing that you can have your baby in one of our hospitals for free, or that if you need an operation or treatment, you’re much more likely to get it here, eventually, than you are back home in your Third World country. You’ll have to wait in long lines at free clinics and county health departments. You’ll be at the mercy of slow-moving, non-caring bureaucrats. If you’re really sick or hurt, you can go to a hospital emergency room. You’ll wait a long time there, too. But they eventually somebody will take a look at you. And with a little luck they may actually help you out.

At level B you’re a working stiff lucky enough to have some sort of insurance. If something serious happens to you, you won’t lose your shirt, and they’ll take reasonably good care of you. You’ll probably be in a shared room, if hospitalized, but you’ll move down the medical assembly line with relative ease. You may have to wait for elective surgery and for non-emergency tests and procedures, but in an emergency situation, they’ll take care of you before things get out of hand, and you’ll be OK. Still, it’s a good idea to have an intelligent advocate available to help make decisions in case you are incapacitated, or in case they start treating you like a number on a chart.

At A level, you’re likely to have a super-duper insurance policy (the kind they’re talking about taxing to pay for the Level C’s), or you’re extremely wealthy, or you’re relatively prominent in your community. It may help to be a doctor, or be related to a doctor, but it helps even more to be an attorney, or related to an attorney. (A doctor knows the limits of health care; an attorney does not.) At this level you’ll get a private hospital room. You won’t have to wait very long for anything; it’ll seem as if all the procedures are streamlined. You’ll wonder why anyone has any problem with American health care, and you’ll be sure that “we have the best health care in the world.”

“Death Panels”? At level C you may have something to worry about. At the higher levels, the problem is more likely to be that they’ll use extreme measures to keep your body alive past the point where your quality of life has disappeared, just because somebody, whether insurance or government, is paying for those measures.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What It Was Ain't What It Is

Bearsville Store
Originally uploaded by waywuwei
And what it is ain't what it will be. --Old New England Saying

This historical marker, next to a Bearsville, NY, store, is actually the project of a local artist featuring scathing social commentary.

Someone else commented, "...and where you throw away your hard-earned money, (which is really pieces of time, your life, converted into paper) to buy "stuff" you really don't need anyway--"

Yes, those big box operations do tend to run the "Mom and Pop" stores out of business. And some small towns have been left with no commercial activity in their center except for the funeral parlor and maybe a Christian bookstore.

But they sure do sell stuff cheap!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Health Care Reforn: Letting It All Hang Out

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed by President Obama on February 17, 2009, includes billions in provisions for healthcare information technology (health IT).
The idea is to have one unified, computerized system with everyone's complete health care records on it, in one place, accessible by medical professionals. The "up" side is that our records will be available to doctors and/or medical people in case of emergency. We will no longer have to fill out paperwork every time we see a new doctor; everything will be available to him or her with a few clicks of a mouse. And in theory our insurance information should be there as well.
The "down" side is that whoever has access to the system will be able to know virtually all our medical history, including treatment for depression, venereal diseases, drug or alcohol problems, sexual preferences and problems, and anything else that might appeal to a snoop's prurient interests.
"Oh," you say. "That doesn't bother me. I have nothing to hide." And perhaps you don't right now. I can't help remembering that one of the early jobs for the Watergate burglars was to get Daniel Ellsberg's medical records from his psychiatrist's office. Obviously any astute political person would take steps to make sure that his/her personal records stay off this proposed system.
And what about everyday people? I was in a doctor's office recently where I could hear someone on staff blurt out, "He's got AIDS," about a patient who had just left. No, I never went back to that office.
But over the years I have heard stories of Mr. X who has an artificial, well, thing. (Snicker.) I wonder if he has any idea that's public knowledge. Or politician Y whose chart indicates his life expectancy is, well...."He's got one foot in the grave, and the other is on a banana peel." Wouldn't the other guys like to know about that? Or nice young lady Z who came in for testing, because "her former boyfriend developed syphilis lesions." Hmmm...and she applied for a teaching job? And these are the sort things one catches in passing without really wanting to know.
Yes, there are some things that are desirable about a huge, grand database. But wise is he who has a physician he can trust, who will on request keep certain information off the system. No matter what safeguards or sanctions they put in place to protect our medical information, human nature being what it is, there is absolutely no way anyone can guarantee that it will remain confidential.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Health Care and the Hypochondriacal Dilemma

One time, a number of years ago, I was almost flat broke and had to take a job where I worked in a cubicle. I'd known about such things for years, of course, and always had a totally abhorrent picture of them in my mind, sort of a giant nursery school for adults caught in a futuristic 1984-like hell. But I needed money, and was temporarily disabled with a ruptured Achilles tendon (a story for another time), so I went to work in an office lined with cubicles.

As it turned out, my premonition was 100% accurate. Some authorities maintain that fully half the cubicle type offices in our country are environmentally unhealthy. They're kept too cold in the summer and too warm in the winter. The first thing I noticed was that my new place of employment was no exception. Everybody seemed to be sick. I hadn't had a cold for fifteen years, it seemed, but soon after getting into that environment I had one cold after another. (Eventually I had to quit because of chronic sinus trouble.) Another thing I noticed was that everybody seemed to be taking antibiotics all the time, as if it were as natural as having a morning coffee.
Of course the tab for the pharmaceuticals and the doctor's visits was picked up by the employer's insurance policy. (In this case it was the government, i.e. the taxpayer, i.e. YOU) Once one of these office bimbos saw another one getting something on the insurance "dole," they would have to have the same thing: special braces to ward off carpal tunnel syndrome, antibiotics, antihistamines, antidepressants, you name it.

I've also heard that 70% of the patients seen in an average family practice are there for psychosomatic maladies. We all know people who are running to doctors with what seems like unbelievably minor complaints. And all too many doctors are happy to hand out an aspirin or placebo and bill the system for whatever it will bear. So whether the country were to go to a "single payer system," or simply muddle things through like they are now, the question remains: what to do about hypochondriacs and freeloaders clogging the system?
It seems to me that a hefty co-payment would cut down on a lot of this nonsense. It may be the only answer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Odds & Ends: There, But for the Grace of God go....

(CNN) -- Newspaper, magazines, Web sites and a few book publishers are tapping into a curious American fascination: mug shots.
You don't have to commit a violent crime; you don't have to be convicted; you don't even have to be a celebrity (though for some publications, it helps).
Just get arrested -- no charge is too small -- and your mug could grace the pages of a local magazine or Web site

Some people say there's even a word for mug shot cruising now. I don't know what it is, but I admit that for a long time, when I was bored at work (which was every day on that job), I would check out the local mugshots.
What surprised me was not the number of people I knew (it wasn't a huge town), but the number of people I knew who seemed to be arrested for vagrancy, trespassing, or for varying degrees of public intoxication again and again. Not just one time, but repeatedly, every few months or so. Each time their pictures looked a little rougher.

I knew all these guys when they were young. At that time they seemed like average, run-of-the-mill people. They definitely fell into the "normal" range of intelligence. A couple of them, when I knew them, even had their own businesses. I worked with two of them and had friends who worked with the others. Altogether unremarkable it seemed.

One of them did tell me, however, "I'm not like you. You shouldn't really be talking to me." I remember being somewhat taken aback, but when someone says something like that, what can you say or do? I said, "OK," and moved on. The real meaning of his words escaped me, until I started seeing him in the Sheriff's log twenty years later.

You sort of wonder, if he didn't have sort of a predestinarian vision of where he was headed.
If there's any common thread through these lives, you can be pretty sure that it's substance abuse. Whether it's booze or drugs, you might say that a physiological propensity coupled with relative ease of availability led to these fellows' downfall.
As far a crime goes, it appears that the victim (aside from the Sense of Public Order) is the individual himself.

"Who steals my purse steals trash.
'Twas something, 'tis nothing,
'Twas mine, 'tis his,
And hath been slave to thousands.
But he who filches from me my good name,
Steal that which cannot enrich him,
But leaves me very poor indeed."
--Shakespeare in Othello

In these cases the damage has been self-inflicted. For them it might simply have been better to heed Nancy Reagan's "Just say NO to drugs."
Not to condemn, for there, but for the Grace of God, go we all....

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Invasion of the Bow Bugs

I telephoned a Friend of My Youth of a Saturday morning. "What's up?" Stan was not the world's brightest kid, but there was usually something to do around his house. He lived in a middle-class neighborhood at the edge of the city, where development had ended with the housing boom of the 1920's. Behind his house was a glorious stretch of undeveloped farmland, all the way to the new interstate highway. It was a great place to run and explore. In the spring it flooded with a mosaic of small seasonal ponds, brimming with tadpoles, frogs and other critters, a perfect getaway place for a young kid.
"There's something new out back," he said. "Bow bugs." I had no idea what he was talking about, but managed to contrive a ride over there. There were several other neighborhood kids around. In his garage he'd set up numerous bowls and jars with "specimens" of this new creature they'd found in the ponds out back.
We walked out through the flooded fields, and sure enough, most of them held two or three of these primitive-looking organisms. Only the ponds nearest the house, where the first collecting had begun were devoid of this form of life. The neighbor kids claimed that they had somehow appeared overnight.
Stan explained that they called them "Bow Bugs," because they looked like a bow tie. Although, as I mentioned, Stan was far from an intellectual, he had managed to produce a dissecting kit from somwhere and was in the process of demonstrating his scientific acumen to the other kids.

The "Bow Bugs" consisted of two lobes of jellyfish-like membrane, separated by something that looked suspiciously like a rubber band. We all noticed that when "dissected," they gave off a chemical, formaldehyde-like smell. I pointed this out to Stan, who didn't want to hear my theory. He was too busy poking the "Bow Bug" with a needle, causing it to give up more of the formaldehyde smell and bringing small droplets of oil to the surface of the water in the dish.
By now every kid in the neighborhood had been into the garage and had seen the strange phenomenon, and a group of adults was beginning to form.
One guy came into the garage and grabbed his son, a blond-haired kid named Terry who had been in on the discovery from the beginning, by the arm and dragged him home. "I don't know what the hell these things are, but until we find out you're goin' home and staying inside. And no lookin' out either!" The whole thing was starting to remind me of a Twilight Zone episode. When I left a short time later, I noticed Terry's house was all shut up, and all the blinds were drawn.
In a day or two someone found out that the local health department had placed the "Bow Bugs" in the ponds as part of a mosquito control experiment. They weren't "bugs" at all. They were an envelope of semi-permeable membrane filled with DDT (or something similar) and cinched in the middle with a tiny rubber band.
As far as I know, none of us had any ill effects from handling the things. That neighborhood did produce its fair share of juvenile delinquents, but that might be a matter of coincidence. Someone said Stan went on to become a bartender.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pale Horse, Pale Rider: The "Death Panel" Scare in the National Health Care Debate

"Mind-boggling," an old friend of ours would say when confronted with a complex problem, "mind-boggling."
Those words come to mind when viewing the current health care debate, and the amount of information--and disinformation--swirling about. Town meetings are disrupted by middle-aged protestors, the right screaming "socialism", and rumors abounding of government-appointed "death panels" handing down edicts concerning your loved one's worthiness to live or to die.
We don't presume to be able to offer a solution to the problem here, but we do offer some more pieces of anecdotal evidence which should figure into a thinking citizen's reasoning.
Yesterday the phone rang. The voice at the other end was vaguely familiar yet strange and rasping. It was the guy who used to say "Mind-boggling." It had been months since we had heard from him, and we were starting to wonder if anything had happened to him. He spoke so softly it was hard to hear him over the phone, but here's basically what he said.
(He's 66 years old, so he has Medicare, but most probably no supplemental insurance.) Some time ago he wasn't feeling well, so he had his wife take him to the emergency room. (That's right, no primary care physician, right to the hospital, as the poor tend to do.) He has a fever, and is given an "injection", after which he passes out and is admitted. During the course of his hospitalization, he is placed on a respirator. ("There were tubes coming out from all over me.") At some point, he says, they wanted to "pull the plug." By this time his sister was there. She is a bit of a "bammer," and talked the doctors into performing more tests. (Meanwhile, a priest is summoned and gives the last rites.) Eventually, he said, he was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. He's now home, but in weakened condition.
In the meantime an emotion-tinged debate about national health care rages on. The latest headlines speak of "death panels" as a provision of the pending legislation, conjuring up visions of the movie Soylent Green, with Edward G. Robinson going to his assisted suicide finale to the strains of Beethoven's Sixth.
It appears now that any wording that can be construed as establishing "death panels" has been taken out of the legislation.
But one fact remains: unless you yourself have a strong advocate present during your hospitalization, there is absolutely no guarantee that you'll make it through unscathed or even alive.
We no longer have personal physicians (for the most part). If you are unable to speak for yourself, there's no telling which way your treatment may go. No matter which way this health care debate takes us, it's imperative to make out a living will and name someone you can trust (and who is likely to be available) as your spokesperson when and if you are hospitalized.
Of course no one is going to try to kill you intentionally. But inadvertently.... Your best protection is a living will and an informed and intelligent advocate.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mas Vale Tarde Que Nunca!

Having been waylaid, so to speak, and absent from the tropics with the exception of a brief foray in the month of June, we've been neglectful of putting up our annual, strictly non-scientific (but highly accurate) hurricane predictions.
No doubt there are going to be some who'll say, "That's fine and well, but you've made it easy for youself this year. The hurricane season's almost half over--we're into the month of August already!" That's true, and as the old ditty goes, "June too soon, July stand by...August------?" I could never remember what rhymed with August.
Then I found this late 19th century manuscript on the web which solves that mystery.
August rhymes with "look out you must." At least it does, if you put the accent on the second syllable of August. But I digress.
The first tropical storm, at long last (8/10) is already out there.
So with no time to waste, we've called our old time prognosticator "Typhoon" O'Connor (who otherwise refused to be named or depicted) to give us this year's belated reading on the thickness of caterpillar's fur, the direction in which land tortoises are crossing the road, near and offshore water temperatures and other inchoate observations leading to an accurate prediction of what might come.
"Activity's light this year (obviously)," he says. "But that don't mean nothing's gonna happen. If it comes this year, it'll come late. And if it comes, it'll come hard. I wouldn't want to be on the gulf coast when she hits."
Interpretation: the arrival of El Nino presupposes a less active season, yet the surface temperatures of the Gulf are such that if a system gets into that area, chances are good that it will intensify before landfall. The Keys and Key West: shootin' dice, as usual, a couple of late scares maybe. Keep the shutters handy, just in case.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Technophobia on the High Seas

Dave was a fine fellow and in some ways a legend in his time. He’d served a few years in the Marine Corps, some say during the Vietnam era, but he never talked much about that. He married, had a pretty wife and nice young daughter, and was living an idyllic existence in the Florida Keys, busying himself primarily, it seemed, by mucking about in boats.

His family owned a lot of real estate, although he never talked much about that either. Dave himself drew a comfortable paycheck by managing a shopping center up around Ft. Lauderdale--collecting rents and cleaning up behind the stores once a month, a situation that gave him plenty of time to engage in his hobbies. His family didn’t own these properties outright, the rumor went, but held them through a murky fundamentalist organization in one of the Appalachian states, some say for tax purposes. Whatever the reason, Dave and his immediate family were not fundamentalists. At some point they’d converted to the Bah’ai Faith, and faithfully followed the fast days, feast days, and other disciplines of the Bah’ais.

In some cases it may be said , “His religion takes care of all his peculiarities.” But not so in Dave’s case. While his contemporaries dealt with mundane problems like how to pay their rent and their kids’ dental bills, Dave fretted over decisions like “Catamaran or trimaran? Ketch rig or sloop rig? What to do, what to do?” This is not to say that he wasn’t a good boatman nor fun to be around. He’d spent a lot of time sailing in the Bahamas, and had a wealth of knowledge about out-island Bahamian lore, seamanship and navigation. (This was well before GPS.)

Dave was also a purist, and in today’s terms, you’d call him a technophobe. Discounting one’s need for dentistry and perhaps an occasional antibiotic, he would have been perfectly happy back in the 1800's. He held a romanticized notion of sailing ships and a decided distaste for things mechanical and motors in particular. “Iron jibs,” he called them, making a spitting sound. “One time, just one time,” he would say, “I would like to see what it is like to be totally, totally away from the sound of motors!”
Time passed, as Dave went through a series of boats, never completely satisfied. For a while he had a 27 ft. Wharram catamaran. Then he had one of Jim Brown’s designs, a Searunner 25. In the meantime unfortunately Dave and his wife had been having some problems. They were waiting out the Bah’ai-prescribed “year of patience” before finalizing their split. They’d decided a few months before that their daughter would live with Mom for the school year. She would spend the summer sailing with Dad. She had just turned fourteen.

So many things in life depend on one’s point of view. What red-blooded American boy wouldn’t jump at the chance for an ocean-going voyage with his dad aboard their own speedy multihull, however cramped for space it might be? But what American junior high-age girl wouldn’t be happier staying close to home, hanging with her peer group? It’s said the daughter took one look at the single narrow hull which was to be her home for the next two months, “But it’s even smaller than the Wharram!” and burst into tears. Carried into the cockpit of the small craft, she bade farewell to her equally tearful mother, as Dave determinedly cranked his brand new 25 hp. Johnson outboard (a begrudging concession to technology purchased just for this trip) into action, and the Searunner sped away from the dock toward their first stop in Miami.
(To her credit the girl’s tears dried before they made their first anchorage at Key Biscayne, and she acquitted herself well on the voyage.)

There’s a small harbor on the southwest side of Key Biscayne where cruising yachtsmen traditionally gathered before making the crossing to the Bimini in the Bahamas. There they exchanged information on tides, weather, and possible hazards to navigation. There being safety in numbers, our travelers planned to travel in a flotilla with the other cruising yachts, weighing anchor at 5 in the morning, to take advantage of the outgoing tide.

Imagine the excitement, amid the smell of diesel oil and the slapping of rigging, as seagoing craft of all descriptions started their engines, weighed anchor, turned on their running lights, and one by one headed out into the predawn stillness of Biscayne Bay.

Dave raised the mainsail on the trimaran and readied the halyard to raise the jib once they were under way. He adjusted the choke and throttle on his new Johnson 25, reached down and gave the starter cord a couple of rapid pulls and....nothing happened. He re-primed the bulb on the fuel line, reached down and yanked the starter cord again. Nothing. He re-primed the bulb again and pulled the cord furiously. He began to smell gasoline. Now it was flooded. He disconnected the fuel line, pushed in the choke lever, hoping to clear the carburetor, and cranked again. Not a sound of life from the motor. He dashed below, retrieving a small tool kit. He took the cover off the engine and, tearing knuckles as he went, reached around and removed the spark plug, replacing it with a spare.

He re-primed the fuel line once again, set the choke and throttle and pulled. By now it was starting to get light, and he could see that the harbor was empty. All the other boats were under way. He pulled and pulled, but nothing happened. The brand new engine that had worked perfectly up until this morning had let him down. By the time he got it fixed , the other boats would be well out into the Gulfstream. He would not have his plans frustrated by the malicious vagaries of an iron jib. “Joshua Slocum didn’t need an engine, and neither do I!”

He unbolted the engine from the transom, and lifting it high overhead, with a superhuman effort, let it fly into a graceful arc into the waters of the little harbor. He hoisted the anchor, raised the jib, and the little trimaran moved out to sea.

Dave later said that everything went all right until they sailed into Nassau harbor to clear Bahamian customs. He eased the tri into a convenient dock in the harbor, but the customs official refused to clear him unless he brought the boat to another dock that was directly upwind. “If you want to clear customs, you must come directly to the customs dock,” he was told.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and somehow he contrived a way to do it. He was an excellent sailor before that trip, but not having a motor, he discovered ways to sail that summer that defied the imagination. A multihull is notoriously difficult to “bring about,” i.e, turn through the oncoming wind, because of the fact that it has two or three hulls which offer resistance to the wind and water, rather than just one.

Since then I’ve seen him tack the boat up a narrow canal against the wind. (Lubbers may have trouble following this.) Although it seems counterintuitive, he would set centerboard most of the way up, with only a foot or so in the water. Presumably this would lessen the drag on forward speed, and make turning easier. Then if he used a jib at all, he would have it set extremely loosely, almost luffing, so there was no chance it would push the bow to leeward. And he would sheet the mainsail in just enough to give the boat forward momentum, not enough to make the boat heel or sideslip.

Reportedly they had a fine trip down through the out-islands and sailed home safely, tanned and happy.

Oh, and the motor. Due to the fact that so many people use that harbor, we can be sure it was rescued by an enterprising snorkeler before too much time had passed. Whether it ever ran again, we can’t say.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Above all, do no harm.

The pastor of our church has a marked antipathy toward “faith healers” who claim they can cure illnesses with prayer in a way similar to the healings described in the New Testament, performed not only by Jesus, but by his disciples.

“I don’t discount the power of prayer. I know that prayer can heal–sometimes. What I don’t like are those who claim they can do this on a regular basis. I’m not naming names, but there are a few in particular whom I have in mind. And, to put it mildly, I take great issue with their claims and practices.”

He might have been talking about another place of worship just outside of town, which holds weekly healing sessions. They appear to have a “charismatic” style of worship, with exhortative preaching, drums, hands in the air, and so on. I found out about it from our local Cable Guy, who claimed, “My wife was cured of diabetes there. I was cured of bipolar disorder.” And his daughter was cured of impetigo, I think he said. He was pretty much sold on the whole thing.

Then there was the Lakeland Revival phenomenon. In April of 2008 Canadian biker-turned-evangelist Todd Bentley started a controversial series of “healing” services in Lakeland, Florida, which steadily increased in size over the next few months, attracting 140,000 people from 40 countries. Eventually Bentley was found to have proverbial "feet of clay," and although there were many first-person accounts of miracles, there were no medically documented cures.

Our pastor also stated that according to the best current estimates, 70-90% of the ailments presented to primary care physicians today can be termed “stress-related,” hence psychological, rather than systemic ailments, the very type of ailment that can be "cured" by psychological and/or spiritual means. Clearly, though, there are some conditions that will only yield to the surgeon’s knife, or to modern, sophisticated pharmaceutical treatments.

With all this in mind I was extremely alarmed when a younger friend of ours, a botanist with a somewhat troubling inclination toward a magical world-view, announced that he had “performed some cures” with concoctions made from Petiveria alliacea, a tropical plant also called Anamu, among a dozen other names. He became aware the herb while doing a research paper on the botanicas (Latin-American herb shops) of South Florida, and later saw it in use among Native American tribes in South America.

“How can you know this stuff is safe?” I asked. “Don’t you know that the first rule of medicine since ancient times is primum non nocere, ‘first do no harm’? Have these people checked with their doctors about this? And aren’t you likely to stir up false hopes? Or maybe prevent them from seeking the regular medical care that they need?”

“No, no, no,” he claimed. “I’ve taken it myself many times, for one thing. And all three of these people are close friends. Each of them begged me to prepare this drink for them. They were quite aware of all the risks.” He went on to explain that all of his “patients” had been receiving conventional cancer treatments, assumed to be a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. One was an older woman from Cuba or Colombia who was already familiar with Petiveria. The other two were reportedly younger men.

Whereas herb companies sell the dried leaf to be made into a tea or to be taken in capsules, the botanist had a different recipe that he’d seen prepared by tribal curanderos. They used only the root, he said. He’d start with a large quantity of the roots, removing the outer bark with a vegetable peeler, like you’d peel a carrot. Then he’d cut the roots into inch-long sections and boil them in water for an hour or so. He’d then cool the mixture and strain out the roots, leaving a yellow, garlicky-smelling tea. The treatment consisted of drinking three approximately 16 ounce portions of this tea in a single day.

In each of the three cases where his friends took the herbs, he claimed, subsequent medical tests showed accelerated improvements in the patients’ conditions, and eventual remission, much to the surprise of the regular medical professionals, according to this fellow.

I pressed him on why, if this stuff was so effective, that the regular medical community had not picked up on it. His answer was vague, about the cost of research, the tyranny of institutional thinking, and so on. I warned him again about the seriousness of playing doctor, and he agreed that he would never present himself as such, but that in the cases cited the individuals had specifically asked him about the herb, and requested that he help them prepare the tea. “They came to me,” he said.

And would the results would have been the same without this modern snake-oil treatment? I don’t approve of what he did, and don’t advise anyone to take this or any other kind of herb without medical supervision. He did explain, however, that the herb grows wild in South Florida, in vacant lots and along roadways, and people have been using it for years. He even showed me three places in Key West where it was growing out of the sidewalks.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Captain Tony International?

We noted a letter to the editor in the Key West Citizen a few weeks ago written by our old friend (and helicopter pilot par excellence), long-time Middle Keys resident Lee Cranmer (pictured at left). Lee's letter suggested renaming the airport in Key West for former Key West mayor and popular Keys character Captain Tony Tarracino. Captain Tony died in November 2008 at the age of 92.
The newly remodeled airport terminal recently opened amid the usual fanfare surrounding such openings, and not a little controversy over design, construction delays, cost overruns, and the death of at least one man in the collapse of a concrete form. Add to this another controversy over naming the airport for a still-living politician, a former county commissioner defeated in the polls last year as one of a dreaded "gang of three," and you have the makings of a proverbial "hot potato" for the present county commission.
Perhaps that's why Lee's letter didn't get the attention that it deserved. But many people we've talked with think it would be a stroke of genius. A Keys resident since 1948, Tony embodied the island's reputation as a refuge for eccentrics and renegades who had found their way to the southernmost point of the continental United States. He was friends with literally thousands of people. And he served an honorable two years as the city's mayor.
And, in contrast with certain others, Tony has now gone on the that Great Dog Track in the sky. (Tony always maintained that he did his best thinking while serving as mayor at the now defunct dog track on Stock Island.)
As we think of the many bed tax dollars that the tourist industry spends every year to keep Key West's economic pump primed, we should consider the advantage of Captain Tony International printed on every travel document, air schedule, and plane ticket having to do with Key West.You just can't buy that type of publicity. Now, you can't blame anybody for not wanting to handle a "hot potato," but can it hurt to let the County Commission know how we feel? If Tony didn't embody the best of Key West, who did? And since when was Key West ever know for political correctness? It's time Lee's idea got some serious consideration.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What's With This? III

Remember this guy? He's the reknowned "Boy Buddha" of Nepal, who first created a stir back in 2005. He emerged from the jungle, so it was said, and spent several months meditating under a tree and dispensing an occasional word of wisdom, a la the original Buddha. It was reported at that time that he attracted a crowd of 10,000 people, many of whom were convinced that he must be the actual reincarnation of Buddha himself.
It was said that he sat immobile, meditating most of the time. At night his "handlers" would cover his place of meditation with a curtain. They claimed he neither ate nor drank. A French news crew was allowed to observe him over a 48 hour period, and they reported that they did see him eating a piece of fruit.
After a few months he disappeared, only to re-emerge in late 2008, looking hale and hearty as in the photo above.
The above photo shows the boy during his appearance in 2005 at the age of 16. He seems to have cleaned himself up considerably for his second appearance. The second time he stayed around for a shorter period, and has now disappeared again.
So what's a skeptic to think? He doesn't seem that he has started a cult, although with 10,000 visitors he certainly could have started one. We're left wondering about his third appearance: when and where, and to what signifigance. What does he do when he's not "on stage"?
And what about his handlers? What's their motivation? Helpful boddhisattvas presenting the young saint to the multitudes? Or perhaps only enterprising food vendors....I mean, with a crowd of 10,000 you could sell a lot of kebabs.

ADDENDUM: "Getting It Honest" (Cynicism, I mean.)
For several years this bumper sticker was seen on the rear of a VW van parked on Southard Street in Key West. Noted, that the people of Conyers downplay this nowadays.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Da Train! Da Train!

I recently had a chance to do something I hadn't done for ages: take a trip by train. I'd heard many stories over the years, some good and some bad, about our quasi-nationalized rail system, Amtrak.

--"Th' unions ruined th' railroads!"
--"Rail travel remains the best and safest way to travel, and will be moreso in the future."
--"The condition of the railroads is a perfect example of why socialism just won't work!"
--"There's something romantic about train travel."
(And so on and so on....)

Ironically all the above statements have an element of truth to them. But the only way to know for sure what modern train travel is like is to travel by train yourself and check it out.
Last week I purchased a one-way ticket from Raleigh to Orlando. The trip would take a little longer by train than by car, 13 hours, leaving around 9:30 PM and arriving a little after 10 the next morning. You'd have to sleep sitting up....

The train was running late, giving me time to check out my fellow passengers. There was a huge family who appeared to be from India, sitting off by themselves. I chatted with an older lady, who said that this was also her first train trip in years. She decided it might be simpler to take the train rather than hassle the parking at the airports. She had rented a sleeping berth. There was a teenage girl and her boyfriend, also both first-timers, who were on their way to meet her family who were already at Disney World. The girl's mother, who was waiting with them, having taken the train before, made sure they were equipped with cell phones, their own pillows, and other necessary supplies.

When the train did show up at the platform about 15 minutes behind schedule, it seemed like the first few people coming off it were having trouble walking. “Sea legs?” I thought. “The train lurches around so much they have trouble navigating when they get off?” The conductors, most of whom were black women, gave everyone a seat number as they got on the train.
I sat next to a young Air Force dude. “Wow, I’m glad that guy that was sittin’ here got off the train. He was really drunk!” Well, that explained the “sea legs” of some of the disembarking passengers. “He had his own bottle with him. I didn’t think they allowed that.” The Air Force guy was a little hyper himself. He kept drinking these "energy drinks," so he wouldn't miss a stop where he could get off and smoke a cigarette. In between times he worked a PPS (portable play station), tried to trade games for it with other people on board, and organized card games in the "lounge." He was here, there, then everywhere. By the end of the trip I was thinking, how can this guy possibly be in the military. I didn't see any i.d. or uniform, but maybe he was....
Amanecer en la Florida. The hardest part was sleeping in the seats. And oh! The get-off-to-smoke deal was a little complicated. The train made about a dozen stops, but only a few were long enough for smokers to indulge their habit. One fellow didn't make it back on, somewhere in South Carolina in the middle of the night. "Hey!" says the Air Force guy. "That bald guy got left behind!"
Apparently this was not uncommon. "The train didn't leave him," said the conductor, breezing by. "He left the train."
Thirteen hours after leaving Raleigh the train rolled into Orlando. The fare was $49, about the same cost in gas if your car got 30 mpg. If the trains were cleaner and faster, it would be a pretty good deal, but I guess "path dependence" says we keep the cars for a while longer, anyway.
Jim Kunstler’s latest rant includes some comments on an article about California’s proposed high-speed rail project, which appeared recently in the New York Times. (See Kunstler’s link at right.) He quotes:

It might have been nice if, say, in the late 20th century, some far-seeing governor had noticed what was going on in France, Germany, and Spain but, alas.... It would have been nice, too, if ... George W. Bush, when addressing extreme airport congestion in 2003, had considered serious upgrades in normal train service between the many US cities 500 miles or so apart...
...The sad truth is it's too late now. But the additional sad truth, at this point, is that Californians (and US public in general) would benefit tremendously from normal rail service on a par with the standards of 1927, when speeds of 100 miles-per-hour were common and the trains ran absolutely on time (and frequently, too) without computers (imagine that !).

It should be noted, too, that Jeb Bush, when he was governor of Florida, vetoed a plan to develop a “bullet train” between major Florida cities. We’re sure it would have been prohibitively expensive, especially in light of the history of Miami-Dade’s Metrorail boondoggle.

Still, with the maxing out of regional airports and the increasing price of gasoline and crowding of interstate highways, it would be nice to think that safe and economical rail travel might once again play a part in the national scheme of things.

The younger people I met on board seemed uniformly enthusiastic about train travel. Maybe it was the ability to move around and talk to other people while traveling. There are already a great many “Amtrak” groups on Facebook for fans of train travel.
Would I do it again? Well, maybe. As soon as I recover.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Changes in Blog Links

Jim Kunstler's blog, Clusterf**k Nation, has a new URL. Jim is an acerbic, opinionated son of a gun, but he predicted the spike in gasoline prices right down to the day, almost. Author and speaker, he's been sounding a continuous Jeremiad against American urban planning, or the lack thereof for years. He's also an artist--maybe not a Rembrandt, but his paintings (sample above) evoke a certain sense of upstate New York, where he makes his home. His blog is always worth a read.
Tom Kemper (who I can't remember if I ever met personally or not) has left Key West after a ten-year sojourn. His heart is in the right place, and we'll stay linked to his Bahama Village Blog for a while longer. You can't say he didn't fight the good fight on that crowded island, reminding us that paradise might well be best experienced via a short vacation, or even better, seen at a distance from the surrounding seas. (After almost forty years on the islands, I'm still amazed at how the local political dynamics work. No,if you wrote a book, nobody'd believe it. 'Nuff said: when ignorance, is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.)
Good luck to ya, neighbor.

Oh! Almost forgot! I've added Rock Trueblood's Watchworld to the blog list. He's got a lot of economic news. But scroll down for some great insights into the current real estate situation in Key West. As usual, when the rest of the country catches cold, the Keys get pneumonia. Some heavy info there, and don't forget to check the comments, even if you have to read between the lines.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A DIfferent Kind of Freedom

Recent rummaging in old boxes led to the discovery of a few weathered slides, some of them recording a madcap junket made decades ago, when my friend Capt. Jim Leonard saw an advertisement for a cheap trip to Guatemala--"Guatemala Ganga!"-- in the Sunday Miami Herald. Jim owned and chartered a 27 ft. catamaran in the Florida Keys and avidly followed any news of multihull designs and exploits. Mark Hassal, a friend of celebrated trimaran designer Jim Brown, had built one of Jim Brown's Searunner designs, and had sailed it around the world, heading west, from California to Guatemala.
Things were slow in the Keys that spring. This was the year of the Nixonian gas shortage; you could have shot a rifle up US 1 mid-afternoon and not hit a thing. As not much else was happening, we decided that it would be a worthy adventure to go to Guatemala and check out Mark Hassal and his boat in person.
Guatemala had just had an election, and there was still a degree of unrest in the capital. We headed for the Caribbean side, where Mark was supposed to be living. After driving for miles through clouds of acrid smoke (it was slash-and-burn season) we came to a river crossing. Some boatmen said they actually knew him, and took us to what they said was the only place to stay: a "Stage One" resort on a nearby island, which had purportedly been a training camp for the Bay of Pigs invasion twelve years before.
Word of our arrival went out via jungle telegraph, and that evening we were pleasantly surprised to see a 37 foot trimaran come ghosting out of the shadows to make a perfect landing at the island's dock, and Mark Hassal stepping ashore. After a couple hours of most engaging conversation he and his wife Bonnie agreed to take us down to the mouth of the river to Livingston the next day. Livingston was then a remote Garifuna village, seldom visited by outsiders, although we did meet some German hippies living in stick huts and an Irish nun at the local school.
Needless to say, I'm leaving a lot out in this short narrative. On the river trip Mark pointed out the very few riverfront homes owned by wealthy Guatemalans as we went by. Of course it wouldn't do, we were told, for a foreigner to invest in any such thing. If it were too nice, it might be coveted by a bigwig from the city, and you might have no choice but to give it up to him. Mark himself lived in a simple but incredibly striking native-style structure right on the river, self built with the aid of a chain saw and a few local friends. But in spite of the government and sociological realities of the place, he found his situation on the river to be the most agreeable thing he'd found after a near-complete circumnavigation of the earth. "It's a different kind of freedom," he said.In those days there was an old van up and down the Keys with the words written on the back. "When reality starts expanding, it's time to start truckin'." Although that slogan always annoyed me, I wondered how long it would be before reality started expanding on Mark and Bonnie. We'd hear reports from people who visited down there from time to time that they were still there and doing well, and it turned out that paradise for them lasted a good fifteen years. I stumbled on their exodus story here. It's a interesting tale for those with a little time and patience. The most poignant section (on page five) clearly sums up why the Hassals "...needed to get out of the Rio Dulce. It was time. Past time."
Reflecting back, I'm grateful (and a little amazed) we were able to travel like that on a shoestring budget. And for all our occasional national self-deprecation, I still prefer the type of freedom we have here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Was Gibt's Hier Dann?

Da sprangen ploetzlich in dem “Live Feed” Fenster eine grosse Menge deutscher Fahnen. Warum waere das? Die Meisten kamen aus einem Google-sucht fuer “quem ad finem” an. Vielleicht hat’s was mit Schularbeit zu tun.

So warum nannte ich dieses Blog “Quem Ad Finem”? Zuerst hatte ich die Idee, eine Rede gegen politische Schaendlichkeit (besonders in meiner Heimstadt) zu machen. Und welcher bessere Name waer’s, als etwas von der historischen Rede von Cicero gegen die Schaendlichkeit seines Zeitgenossen Catilina?

Ich entdeckte bald aber, das die Redensarten der zwei ersten Saetzen (“Quousque Tandem?” und “Quam Diu Etiam?”), schon im Gebrauch von anderen “Bloggers” als Blogtitel waren! So musste ich den Anfang des dritten Satz fuer meinen Blogtitel wahlen.

Und das is warum, du “Quem Ad Finem?” hier findest.
Hoffentlich geht’s alle gut aber mit der Schularbeit.

Und nach Jahren auf einem kleinen Floridainsel haben wir endlich auf’s Land umgezogen. Hier geht’s besser, weit von der Schaendlichkeit entfernt. Noch eine Geschichte....

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Country Funnin'

I’d gone up to the house to have a cup of coffee, when the truck from the lumber yard pulled up. Running out to greet the driver and show him where I wanted the lumber put, I saw it wasn’t one of their regular drivers, but a big, younger guy with a heavy Southern accent. He was shouting something over the truck engine. I couldn’t understand him, and came along the side of the truck so I could hear him better. “Beg pardon?”

“I just killed a snake,” he said, coming around the back of the truck. Just then I caught sight of an orange and yellow object coiled up on the open bed of the truck. I jumped back.

“See?” he said. “You don’t like ‘em either.” No, I don’t. I lived in a place in Central America once where there were just a few too many of them for comfort. Sometimes people would be bitten by them. But then again, I don’t go around killing them just for the heck of it. Most of them are shy, retiring, and actually beneficial.

“I stopped up here, right on the dirt road,” he said, pointing behind him, “to check the load. I thought it was comin’ loose. And there it was.”

“It was in with the lumber then?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “it was layin’ there right in the road. So I got him with this.” He held up a steel pipe, used to turn the winches that tighten the straps that held the load down on the bed of the truck. The snake, although badly damaged, was still moving.

“You know what kind it is?” I asked. I know corn snakes and milk snakes were fairly plentiful around here, and have basically the same coloring. I figured a country boy would have a name for it.

“No, I don’t,” he answered. “I don’t care what they call ‘em, I don’t like ‘em.” Apparently he didn’t have a name for it. “I’m gonna have me some fun with it, though.” We went ahead and started unloading the truck. He explained to me what he meant.

“My boss knows none of the boys in the yard like snakes. Kenny and the old black guy both hate ‘em. So he’s always putting them in the truck when they go to make a delivery. Now I never go out without checking under the seats, behind the seats, and in the glove box. Just like checking the oil, fuel and water, gotta check all them places.

“But, whoo-ee, I’m gonna have some fun with this one. Not sure where I’m gonna put it yet, but I’m gonna get ‘em back good.” He got a large piece of plastic out, and picked up the snake with two sticks, and rolled it up in the plastic. It was then I noticed that it had sort of a triangular head.

He threw the rolled up plastic into the cab of the truck, backed it around and headed out. “Y’all have a good one, now!”

It’s sort of unusual for any snake to be out on the road in the heat of the day this time of year. And I’d never seen a snake that looked like that around our place before. I’m not convinced that snake didn’t come out of the load of lumber when he stopped.

When I got back to the house, I looked it up, just to be sure. No doubt about it, it was a copperhead.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Slouching Toward Emmaus

A recent Newsweek article states that the number of Americans identifying themselves as "Christian" has declined by ten percent in the last twenty years.

A young friend of ours was no exception to this trend, even unsure about what denomination his family had identified with at one time. "Methodist, I think we were. Or maybe it was Baptist. No--Methodist--that's what it was." He found out later that it was Baptist, for what it's worth, and he's still pretty much a stranger to the inside of a church. But an unusual happening a few years ago got him thinking, maybe there is something to this whole business after all.

His work with a construction company took him up and down Florida's east coast. One day while grabbing a quick lunch at a fast food place in Deerfield Beach, an older woman whom he described as a homeless person, came up and placed something in front of him. "This old dirtbag gives me a napkin with a bible verse written on it. 'Luke' something. I threw it out and didn't think anything more about it."

"Then get this. A few days later, I'm in Miami, thirty or so miles south of there, and the same woman comes up, and hands me another napkin with the same verse written on it! I remembered it from before: Luke 24:32."

He was going to say something, but when he looked up, she was already out the door and disappearing into the crowd. "I mean, what does this mean?" he said. "Is this old lady going into every fast food place between Deerfield Beach and Miami and handing out the same bible verse written on a napkin? That's a lot of fast food places, man."

He got a bible, and looked up the verse. "It said, 'Weren't our hearts burning within us as he walked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?'

"It's about these two guys meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion and all. He lays out the whole thing for them, they invite him to lunch, and he just disappears right in front of them, like into another dimension. That's when they realized who it was. They were the first ones to see him after, you know, what happened."

"And the Old Testament tells exactly what was going to happen. It's all in there. You just need to look for it."

So, is He still causing hearts to burn on a modern-day road to Emmaus? Or is there an elderly lady who visits fast food joints along Florida's concrete canyons, handing out napkins scribbled with a scripture verse? Or both?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Best of Times....(Updated)

A recent article in the Key West Citizen brought to light something that many of us have been maintaining for years, but that you don’t see in the local media or in broadsides from the chambers of commerce: the Keys are “fished out” and have been for years.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Loren McClenachan compared 13 groups of "trophy" reef fish caught by recreational anglers using photographs taken in Key West from 1956 to 2007. The mean fish size declined from about 44 pounds to 5 pounds, and there was a major shift in species caught. Landings from 1956 to 1960 were dominated by large groupers, including goliath groupers, and other large predatory fish were commonly caught. In contrast, landings in 2007 were composed of small snappers. The average length of sharks declined by more than 50 percent over 50 years. Major declines in the size of fish caught were not reflected in the price of fishing trips, so customers paid the same amount for a less-valuable product, McClenachan said.
(Published Tuesday, March 17, 2009)

Many of the early pictures of massives catches were taken by Charlie Anderson, a Keys photographer who also had a highly entertaining and informative radio show on Marathon’s WFFG for many years. The station’s advertising of the time stated that WFFG stood for “World’s Finest Fishing Grounds.” And the Keys undoubtedly were. A combination of shallow waters, protective mangroves, combined with the proximity of Florida Bay and the blue waters of the Gulf Stream, provided a plentiful assortment of sea life to be harvested.

With the right kind of bait you could be sure of catching enough fish for your dinner. Visitors from the north were amazed when, after a mere five minutes with no action, I would insist on trying another spot. “Hey, you’ve got to give it at least an hour,” they’d say.
“Nope, not here don’t,” I would answer. You could usually manage to catch mangrove snapper, mutton snapper or grouper just by going to specific places, all within a short distance of home. That’s how it was back then: the fishing was that good, and it stayed good right through the sixties and seventies. By 1980 things were changing forever.In the recession of ‘74, instead of doing something sensible like going back to school, I took a job at a fish company in Marathon. The fish business was still good. Local waters provided a living for hundreds, and the abundant Keys seafood was a draw for winter visitors all over Florida. From August through March thousands of pounds of lobster came across our docks. From October to May huge vats steamed stone crab claws on a daily basis. In the fall cold weather brought schools of mackerel, kingfish, and bluefish. Drift netters came down from the west coast of Florida to harvest their share of the catch. Tons of mackerel were shipped to freezer plants in Miami and Tampa every day for months.These mackerel fisherman supplemented their income by selling trophies from an occasional by-catch. (Jaws was in the theaters that year.)

And there was always a steady supply of fin fish: yellowtail, snapper, and grouper. Our company sold first-class local product to every restaurant from Ocean Reef to Key West.
When I came back to visit after having been out of the Keys for a couple of years, around 1982, a lot of things had changed. Very little local fish were being caught, yet they were still busy fileting what looked like local fish. "Nope," said the boss. "All of 'em are flown into Miami from Honduras or Nicarague in these white vats." He estimated the percentage of local seafood being sold in the Keys at about 10%. The change in the situation was due to many things. You'll still hear some people saying it's the government regulations that killed it. "There's still plenty of fish out there." The fact is, because of increasing population pressure and demand, the oceans around there simply got fished out.Even if we do arrive at a "maximum sustainable yield" for some species, there are others that simply will never be widely available again. For instance, when was the last time you saw a pompano on a menu?Still, looking back, I gotta say it was a most interesting time. It was fun working in a mainstay industry of the Keys economy. It was altogether a special time in a special place. Some of the friendships I made have endured for years. And the fringe benefits: excellent, with a little bit of drawn butter.

Oh! Almost forgot! Here's the way the place looks now (compliments of Google Earth).
That's right, it's a condominium development. Gone are the boats, fishermen, mates, traps, trap sheds, bait lockers, freezers, fishermen's homes, the whole shootin' match. O Tempora, O Mores!