Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An Open Letter To The Conch Republic

I happened to be watching The Today Show this morning which, let's face it, was more or less an hour-and-a-half commercial for Key West tourism. Congratulations on the publicity. Here's a short clip of a couple of official type people making Al and Matt Honorary Conchs.

I only included a little because, frankly, I still need convincing. A lot of convincing! See, I've got kind of a hate/hate relationship with Key West. "Whence, this animosity?" you may ask. Fair enough.

Let's set the WABAC machine to December 1979. I was in my Sophomore year at Emerson College in Boston. I had no particular plans for the upcoming Christmas Break and, if memory serves, my friend David lived in a dorm which he'd have to vacate since all dorms would be closed over the holiday. David and I decided it would be a great idea to drive to my parents' house in Jacksonville, stay a couple of days and then go have an adventure in Key West!

It was a brilliant idea! What could go wrong.

[Before I go any further, I'm not identifying David any more closely since he's not the one who chose to have my massive internet presence. I can find him online, but not much more than practically anyone else who hasn't made a whole lot of effort in that direction. For those of you who were at Emerson at the same time, we're talking tall guy, really long hair (at the time), and (gasp), Canadian! So anyway, I haven't talked to David in more than 20 years and it wouldn't be fair for me to identify him any further here. I will be friending him on FaceBook so he'll know where to find this. He's welcome to chime in and fill in any details I've forgotten...and I'm sure there are quite a few.)

Anyway, we hopped into my 1975 Plymouth Valiant and launched ourselves toward Florida!

Mine was blue, but otherwise, looked just like this (without the WalMart).
I have absolutely no memory of the drive to Florida and very little memory of out brief sojourn in Jacksonville. In fact, the only real detail I recall at the moment is that, I had cash and David had a pile of Traveler's Checks for the trip. For some reason, we decided that we'd go through my cash first and then start spending his Traveler's Checks. (If that last sentence doesn't give you a vague sense of foreboding, it's only because I can't figure out how to overlay an eerie soundtrack.)

So, fine! We stayed a couple of days in Jacksonville and then headed south. OK, I'll admit this first part isn't Key West's fault, but it is one long ass drive from Jacksonville to Key West. This was during the age of 55mph speed limits and the drive to Miami was 6-1/2 hours if you didn't stop at all and never hit traffic. I'm sure it took us more like 9 hours. And, of course, we were young and decided we should just keep driving until we got to Key West...the end of the road!

Uh...it's another 160 miles from Miami to Key West. And this was in 1979 before most of the new bridges were open. There's something like 27 bridges (including the Seven Mile Bridge) between Miami and Key West. At the time, they all looked like this:

You could drive 55mph on the damned things, but I didn't. We'd been on the road for hours and it was really, really dark. And one other thing. Those lanes are just wide enough for a car. Tractor trailers had to keep their right wheels hugging the curb just to have their left-side wheels on the center line. That caused this high pitched screaming noise to come from every truck. The ones passing in the opposite direction were terrifying. The ones that passed me because I was apparently driving to slow were...whatever is more terrifying than merely terrifying.

Fine. Still not really Key West's fault. There are new bridges now that are much wider and allow travelers to arrive somewhat in possession of all their faculties (and dry pants).

Our arrival in Key West seemed to be promising. We got as far as you can drive without going into the Gulf of Mexico just in time to watch the sunrise. We'd been up for almost 24 hours, but we didn't want to waste a minute of the day. We decided to go get breakfast, make our plans for the day and then, check into a motel sometime late in the day.

At breakfast, we picked up a local newspaper and some tourist brochures. Looking through the newspaper first, we discovered that the biggest current civic problem was an overabundance of dirtbaggers. We never did figure out exactly what dirtbaggers were (vagrants? hippies? people who came down with the intention of camping out? Us?), but the Letters to the Editor made it clear that dirtbaggers weren't welcome! We decided that since we planned to get a motel room, we were probably safe from being swept up in some nebulous Dirtbagger Eradication Program. Probably.

Breakfast had us feeling utterly renewed and we decided to go out on one of the boats that take people out snorkeling. Once again, I only remember part of this little outing. Maybe snorkeling and sleeping don't mix well. When us tourists had all had our fill of looking at fishies and coral and stuff, the Captain announced that he was going to get his own dinner before we went back and we should all just hang out for a few minutes. He donned his fins and mask and spear gun and was just getting ready to hop in the water when David asked if he could tag along to watch. The Captain said yes, but that David should stay immediately behind him so he'd know where he was at all times.

So Captain Spear Gun and David swim off and maybe ten minutes later, David is flopping around in the water and screaming. He looked an awful lot like this:

I was sure he'd been speared, and when they got back to the boat, I found out what had really happened, which wasn't a whole lot better. His entire body had been raked by the tentacles of a Portuguese Man-o-War. He had marks all over from where the barbs had stuck in and he was in a lot of pain. Forty-Five minutes or so later, we were back at shore and David had progressed from merely being in a massive amount of pain to being completely in shock. If memory serves, Captain Spear Gun gave me directions to the hospital. Thanks a lot, Dude.

Once I found the hospital, I think he was seen fairly quickly. The treatment consisted of some kind of topical cream smeared all over his body and a lot of drugs. I'm pretty sure that there was some pain relief drug administered, but mostly they just gave him shit to knock him out.

I tried to buy something for us to eat at a convenience store before finding a motel, but they wouldn't take David's traveler's checks with him all loopy and shit in the car. He struggled his way into the store, (sort of a Weekend at Bernie's moment), but I guess in his drugged up state, they decided we must be dirtbaggers and told us to get the fuck out of their store. David wished them a Merry Fucking Christmas quite loudly. (Did I mention that it was Christmas Eve?)

Then, still foodless, we went off in search of a motel to stay in. Our reception wasn't much better at the first 3-4 of these we visited. I don't recall any more screaming involved, but they all made it abundantly clear that our kind weren't welcome in their establishments. Finally, we found a family owned motel that not only checked us in, they also went out and got us some food so I wouldn't have to leave David in the room alone. We stayed there for about 20 hours until David felt well enough to travel and we got the hell out of Key West.

So, Key West, I harbor ill feelings about your little slice of America. I'm fairly certain David harbors a similar, if not more violent attitude toward your little island. Now, to be perfectly honest, I had put this entire horrid experience out of my memory until I saw your representatives boasting about the wonders of Key West on TV this morning. And then the whole regretable thing came back to me...like that thing in the refrigerator that really stinks every time you open the door, but you can't quite find out what it is so you can get rid of it.

So, I'm offering you...Key West, the opportunity to rectify this. I'd be willing to come visit Key West again (on your dime, of course) to give it another chance. I'm sure my GF wouldn't mind visiting...she's never been there. And if you decide to fly GF and I down (uh...don't forget the really nice hotel, BTW), it seems only fair that you'd offer David the same opportunity along with any significant other he happens to be spending his time with these days.

I'll be happy to give the place another chance. I may (or may not) like it, but I promise to blog about it. Seems imminently fair to me. I'll wait to hear from you.



John the Scientist said...

You will be hearing fomr my blog partner CW in short order, since he lived in Key West for a long time and still owns a house there.

I don't think he'll be offering you an airline ticket, though, dirtbagger. :D

ntsc said...

I've been to Key West many times and never had any problems. The mast of the USS Maine graces a cemetery there and my grandfather had shipmates buried there from the incident.

We lived in Illinois and my parents would drive to the gulf coast at Sarasota for 2-3 weeks each year, most years. A suntan in Illinois in Feb. was not common.

Those original bridges were railroad bridges converted to auto use. The railings were the railroad tracks, cut up and welded into railings.

Portugese-man-o'wars don't have barbs, basically the tenticles disolve and stick to flesh. I still carry scars from a similar encounter at about age 6, well over 50 years ago now.

My first wife and I used it as a weekend get-away when we lived in Ft. Lauderdale in 73, I worked at a radio station there. We got stuck in traffic on the way back and she and somebody else entertained the milling crowd by dancing on their car roofs, topless. This made the paper in Lauderdale the next day, and while her name wasn't in it, her picture was. My boss recognized her.

Nathan said...


I think we can safely say you had a better time there than I did.


Jim Wright said...

Um, yeah. Sorry about the froth - I get excited.

Great Story, Nathan, I laughed my ass off.

Nathan said...

Jeez Jim,

Maybe they'll offer you a trip too!

Jim Wright said...

I was hoping for a job offer, you know, in the Key West Tourism office or Chamber of Commerce.

And it's really the airport guys who gave me such a lousy impression of the place. Seriously, those guys should be put on a raft and set adrift without paddles or suntan lotion.

vince said...

Uh, the only time I was ever there I was in the Air Force, with friends, and we had a pretty good time. But oh, yeah, the bridges. This was in 1976, and we drove from Biloxi, MS. Meaning someone else drove that 160 miles and I did my bet to keep my pants clean and dry.

WendyB_09 said...

The parents of a friend of mine got a little, um, what's the word...oh, they started swinging a few years ago before they retired. I don't mean from trees, although, now that I think about, that could be involved, but ouch...

They go to Key West every fall for some event called Fantasy Fest. Now, this is apparently a come as you want to be, costumed (or not) event. Not much to the costumes, some even consist of only creative body painting. Sounds like it might be fun if your a voyeur, but think about it, most of these people shouldn't be wearing x-rated costumes, let alone body paint!! Just sayin'.

Anyhow, my friend is usually mortified when the parental units tell her they're attending. Not that she's a prude, but, it's her parents!!

Of course the stories we get from the parents are hysterical. The stories from my friends... priceless... something one year about bail money and a body painting incident! O.O

That's about all I know about Key West.


Nathan said...

I'm watching for the hits from Key West to start pouring in. With comments like these, I'm an absolute shoe-in to get an all expenses-paid vacation (or even an all expenses-paid paid-vacation) there on the tourism board's dime.


ntsc said...

The first time I flew into Key West, I don't think there was airport security. And the flight was under 1000 feet, incredible views.

There was a bar about half way down the road to Key West, Ismoralda is my guess, that offered the first beer free to women not wearing a top. Hey it was the 70s. When we bought the motorcycle my wife had to go buy a bra.

On a recent cruise Key West was a scheduled stop and I was somewhat amused that everyone was allowed off the boat with no passport and at most an indifferent customs check. Think we had to walk through a metal detector, but we had to do that to get back on the ship at each port. I know there were Canadians on board and one English couple.

It is a place I would vacation again.

John the Scientist said...

Jim, have you considered how officious the senior officers at JIATFS may have been on previous occasions at the airport to poison the well for you? :p

Now I know why CW flies his own plane in and out of there.