Christmas Trees

Years and years ago at Christmas our neighbors would go up the Keys and cut down a small pine tree and bring it home to decorate. My father did the next best thing. We went down the street to a little store. He convinced us that we needed to find the poorest looking tree and take it home and make it beautiful. Of course, the saddest looking tree was also the cheapest, my father not about pay a lot for a tree he would put out with the garbage in a few weeks. We dragged it home. My father cut some wayward branches, tied them to bare spaces, turned the worst side to the wall. After the bubble lights and ornaments and tinsel were on, it was quite beautiful.

Our first year of marriage, we were going to Key West for Christmas. We put a wreath on the door of our small apartment, put a string of lights around it and pushed the plug under the door to a socket. In Key West, I took my husband to St Paul’s Episcopal Church for Christmas Eve service. St. Paul’s is very “high church” and when the thurifer came down the aisle swinging a thuribel filled with incense, my Presbyterian raised husband looked shocked and I think wondered what he had got himself into.

We moved to a larger apartment the next year and my husband decided to buy a live tree and use it every year. We went to a live Christmas tree farm and brought a tree home, root ball and all. We kept it in the living room until February and then put it out on our balcony with our parrot Atticus we had bought the previous year and had shipped to New Jersey. A little Bobwhite came and sat on the rail for hours looking at Atticus and the dying Christmas tree.

Then later we lived in a big house that we renovated. There was an 8-sq. ft. opening in the atrium going from the downstairs to the upstairs. We found a good deal on a 20 ft. tree and decided we could put it in the atrium. It looked pretty good on the top floor, but a little truncated below and it was really difficult to decorate.

The next year we put a tree upstairs and decided to light a fire in the fireplace using some newfangled fake log and somehow a conflagration ensued.  Peter grabbed the fire extinguisher and sprayed white fire-retardant stuff all over the fireplace, Christmas tree, presents and adjacent furniture. It was not exactly the white Christmas we had in mind and we had to clean it up. It was a mess.

Then there was the year my husband was deployed for the 2nd Christmas in a row. My in-laws were ecstatic to have their grandson to themselves and my good friend made me a little tree to take with me to spend Christmas with Peter. I made a reservation at a small pensione in Florence across from the Lorenzo de Medici Palace. We took the train from Naples and arrived at the pensione at about 9 PM on Christmas Eve.  There was no one around and the place was closed up tight. Nevertheless, the taxi driver knocked on the door and a man came to the balcony over the door and said they were closed for the holiday. He asked what we wanted. We said a room with a bath. He said OK and showed us to a room. We think it might have been his not wanting to refuse a room at his Inn to a young couple on Christmas Eve. Whatever, it was a beautiful room, old furniture, immaculately clean. It turned out there was a tub, a bidet and a sink and one small towel and enough hot water each morning for one tub of water. It turned out the toilet was across the lobby in the corner of a large room with nothing else in it. We put the little Christmas Tree on the dresser and settled down for the night in our big comfortable white bed. All this for only six dollars a night. We stayed for five days.  On Christmas Day, everyone was out shopping. Beautiful art everywhere. Peter said there were even paintings by renaissance masters in the restaurant bathrooms.

Then years later I talked the florist lady at the grocery store into selling me a very modern outre display tree she had made. I must say it looked better in the store. And as with most things of this sort, the more you mess with it the worse it got. That was when I think my grandchildren started to wonder about me. My granddaughters were speechless. My children I’m sure thought I had gone around the bend. Peter was just glad not to have to mess with boxes, lights, ornaments, tree stand, etc to put up a tree he had just paid $80 for and had to untie from the roof of his car and drag into the house. He thought my little outre tree I paid $20 for was lovely. It warmed my heart.

A few Christmases ago the family was coming to KW for Christmas. Peter went to Kmart and bought a good size artificial tree with LED lights on it. You just had to insert the branches onto the trunk. It took Peter 15 minutes to assemble. I bought cute little Key West ornaments from Fast Buck Freddie’s and left them for the girls to put on. The favorite ornament was a little pair of flip-flops. Times have changed. Sometimes I yearn for the good old days of excitement and delight and Santa. Merry Christmas to all.

Conversation

Remember my blog on civil discourse. Obviously, nobody read it except my dear correspondents. This is so sad, and dangerous.  Since my last blog civil discourse has gotten worse, not better.

So where do we go from here. First, just try listening next time you find yourself with someone who is pontificating. Too many people are in transmit mode, not in listening mode. Transmitting is fun. Listening is hard. What does pontificating mean anyway. Sometimes I find myself using a word I don’t exactly know the meaning of, but it sounds right. I looked it up.  It means expressing one’s opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s not good. Pontificating, not good.

So, what else can I say about this subject. Actually, I can say this. Most people don’t know how to stay on the subject. Now, in casual friendly gatherings, getting off the subject is OK, particularly if you have been drinking, but at least one should try to connect what dazzling thing you’re about to say with the conversation happening in front of you. See what I mean I’m off the subject already. It’s so easy to do. So back to the subject which is civil discourse.

One of the best things to know in civil discourse is when to keep your mouth shut. This is hard to do, especially when something is coming out of your mouth that you have not thought through. At these times, it is good to have someone with you that signals you to shut up, by placing two fingers across his mouth.

This brings us to the subject of lies. Think about how many kinds of lies there are. There is the little white lie, not really a lie, just sort of a mini good natured fib. Then there is “no lie” at the end of a “good story” that means “you can take that to the bank.” Then there is a damn lie which is serous indeed and probably vaguely threatening. There is the tall tale which is probably not true but can be entertaining none the less. A whopper is a lie so ludicrous that it is probably true. And last, an untruth occurs frequently when someone is trying to alter or exaggerate the facts to fit his narrative. It is usually not malicious, just someone trying to over make a point.

Now back to civil discourse.  It is in tatters. I like to know what’s going on in the world but my brain is being drained by the inane chattering of professional pundits. My TV viewing has been reduced to watching the weather report and Turner Classic Movies, and my newspaper reading to the funnies. This regimen preserves my equanimity. I am blissfully unaware of what is happening in the world, but I do know when the sun sets and what phase the moon is in and if it will rain tomorrow or will I be able to go to the beach, important stuff like that. All is peaceful and bright.

I think that the news today is about entertainment and ratings.  A century or so ago, we hardly knew what happened in our own neighborhoods.  Today we hear about all the things that are happening in the world.  I remember being in London in the 1980’s and on TV there was a man talking about the weather in China. I said to Peter, I didn’t know they had weather in China. Sounds silly, but I really had to adjust my thinking to the realities of a larger world.

Back to civil discourse. See how hard it is to stay focused when you have the floor. Seriously, in conversation we really do need to listen to each other and I mean really listen, not be thinking about what your next bright or amusing utterance will be. Comment on what is said so the conversant knows that he wasn’t just taking to the wall, a positive comment if possible or an “I hear you but have you thought about?” whatever you’ve just thought about to add to the conversation. So when all is said, you both come away from the conversation with a good feeling of having had your say, but also possibly of learning something. So, there is my Pollyannaish admonishment of the day.

Speaking of conversation, I’m thinking of starting a  salon made up of a few special friends, meeting monthly. I wish you all lived near.  Alas.

The Audubon House

Previously, I wrote extensive blogs about my Uncle Fred and Aunt Sarah. After meeting and marrying, they lived in Key West for a while in the twenties. You might remember that Uncle Fred was a young merchant marine man when he met my Aunt Sarah in Key West. He later became a Harbor Pilot on Tampa Bay in Florida. But when he was in Key West after marrying Aunt Sarah in the 1920’s, he became friendly with Captain Smith. So, what has all this all to do with the Audubon House? Be patient and I will tell you.

Uncle Fred in later years whisked my Aunt Sarah away from Key West. The family was not happy as they had recently bought them a house for back taxes. You could do that back then. So, Sarah and Fred left Key West and went to live in Tampa. Uncle Fred and Aunt Sarah often visited us; and as a child, I remember oftentimes during the visit Uncle Fred would stand up and say, I’m going to see Captain Smith.”  He said that Captain Smith lived in a small room at the top of a big house on Whitehead Street. This was in the early fifties long before the Audubon House was bought and restored. All these years I have thought that Captain Smith was a caretaker. Today I found out he was a great grandson of Captain John Geiger who built the “Audubon House” in the 1850’s.

In the Key West Citizen ”Today in Key West” section I read something that brought some of the pieces of my past together. It said, “1885:  John Geiger died in Key West. He was born in St. Augustine in 1807 and came to Key West as a pilot for Commodore David Porter in 1823. He was the first licensed harbor pilot In the State of Florida. Geiger, was a master wrecker and built what is now known as the Audubon House.”

I looked up John Geiger on the internet and came up with some sketchy information.  On Ancestry.com one entry said that when visiting the Audubon House the curator told her that when John Geiger Sr. passed on, there were two sons who drank themselves into a stupor and would never enter through the front door. Instead they had a ladder which they used to enter through a window on the second floor. There’s a story there, but I don’t know it.  Anyway, the last resident of the “Audubon House” was William Bradford Smith, the grandson of Urania Geiger, one of John Geiger’s eight daughters. Captain Smith was also a sometime Harbor Pilot which is probably how Captain Enno, my uncle, got to know him in the 1920’s. He became very reclusive in later years, but it is said that he was very sociable with people he considered friends. It’s just that he didn’t have many of them. I think Captain Enno, was his friend and visited him every time he came to Key West.

Willie Smith was the last Geiger to live in the “Audubon House” and he was an interesting figure. He didn’t go out much and lived on the second floor of the house without electricity or running water. When he needed food he lowered a basket on a rope for someone to fill, Who? When it was dark he pulled it up. During WWII, when Willie was a  harbor pilot, German submarines patrolled the Straits of Florida between Cuba and Key West. It  was reported that there were ships on fire out there most nights. There were thousands of ships in and out of Key West in those days.

When Willie Smith died in 1956, the once grand house was derelict and on the verge of falling down. It was about to be demolished in 1958 and a gas station opened on the property. A Key West native and Miami businessman, Mitchell Wolfson, bought it and restored it. It was  opened as a historic attraction in 1960.

Most of the people in Key West during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were involved in wrecking or salvaging of shipwrecked craft, either legitimately or as scavengers or pirates. The pirate angle has been played down in recent years, as history often bends to the conceits of the historian; but this doesn’t stop Peter from telling anyone who will listen that I’m descended from a long line of swash-buckling ocean-going smartly-dressed pirates. Faint praise indeed. Many of the old houses in Key West still have lookouts above their top floors where people would watch with spy glasses for ships foundering on shoals. The first rescue boat that arrived got to claim the salvage and take their booty to the powers that be to be sold at auction, the wrecker getting 25 to 50 per cent, depending on the difficulty of the rescue effort. Most of the wreckers became quite wealthy.

So why is the Audubon House not called the Geiger House. Well I guess Mr. Audubon visited there sometime in the 1830s and made some beautiful drawings (lithographs) of birds in the Florida Keys. Actually, I read somewhere that he never visited the house. During the two weeks, he was in Key West drawing birds, he lived on a boat because of the Yellow Fever epidemic raging at the time. A number of Audubon originals can be seen there and furnishings of that era in Key West. The gardens out back are spectacular. You can take a tour.

White Street

Sometime in the late fifties, the County had some leftover money (when does that ever happen?) and decided to spend it on some infrastructure projects. The one they decided on was to build a quarter mile roadway pier out into the ocean at the end of White Street (Picture:  State Archives of Florida/McDonald). For a while some of the locals called it “the unfinished highway to Havana.” When I was a child, you could drive out there and park at the foot-like end, which we often did, taking out our lawn chairs, sitting and enjoying the evening air and visiting with neighbors. At least my parents did. We children just ran wild like all kids do when set loose. Then in the eighties, mainly because of some environmental problems, it was redone, blocked off, a cut under and a bridge over it was built so that water could flow freely along the beach. Lampposts were added and it is now a walking pier. It is a wonderful thing to do to go out there with your morning coffee and watch the sun rise or in the evening to see the sunset. I have done neither, but I hear it’s fun from one who has. Perhaps someday. When my son was young we would often walk down there in an evening and talk with the people fishing along the pier. One night we stopped to talk to a couple and they gave my son a hand line to use to fish. The man took a piece of bait and threw it in the water and a small barracuda came out of nowhere and as quick as lightening snatched it up. As children, we were all taught not to swim in the ocean with rings or jewelry so as not to attract barracudas.

Heading down South Street, the first major cross street we hit is Flagler Avenue named for Henry Flagler who built the railway to Key West in 1912 that was washed away in the 1935 Hurricane. The Casa Marina Hotel which he built was vacant during most of my growing-up years. It has been completely renovated in recent years and is again quite the place to stay.

Further up the street on the left is the new Key West City Hall recently renovated from the old Key West High School built in the 30’s. It has just been completed and landscaped in the last few months. There was a big fight over the name and now there is a big fight over putting the old rusted metal tiger back out front where it was when it was a Jr. High. Oh, oh, last night I saw the newly repainted and renovated tiger on the corner, as quick as that. So, there it is, a fait accompli. What it has to do with anything, only a few know.

Across the street is the National Weather Service. For a real-time map of weather here, look up “National Weather Service radar from Key West Fl.” on the internet.

When I was a child the blocks between United and Truman were my stomping grounds. Dairy Queen was on the corner of White and United (Picture:  State Archives of Florida). Still is today, only one block in from White Street, selling the same ice cream treats they did back then. It is the Southernmost Dairy Queen in the United States. My grandchildren with parents in tow walk over there for a treat after supper. It is always a crowded scene, especially in summer.

Juan Mayg’s was on the corner of White and Catherine. My mother would send me down for kerosene for the space heaters, which we operated when it got cold. They were largish iron contraptions and my mother always had a pot of boiling water on the top vent to humidify the space. We had two of these heaters and they kept us warmish. And no one ever got burned; we knew to stay away from them. We rode our bikes, got sodas and candy, bought Christmas trees there, and cigarettes for our parents. I remember being stopped once by the kid who lived on the corner; he stopped my bike and took my candy. He was a bully and probably became a juvenile delinquent, a term you don’t hear much anymore. Gulfstream was across the street when I was a child. Today it is Fausto’s, the neighborhood store with everything.

At Sandy’s across the corner of Virginia and White there is always a crowd of people sitting on the stools or standing around chatting on their way to or from work. The Cubans drink a single Buchi which is strong espresso with at least one sugar served in a small throw-away cup. It is absolutely undrinkable with no sugar. There is also a double and triple Buchi for real dedicated coffee drinkers, like Peter. And for we more gentle folk a Café Con Leche (espresso with milk.)

Up the street on the right is the old Truman Elementary School where I went to 4th and 5Th grades in the mid-fifties. The two things I remember is learning how to sing The Star-spangled Banner in chorus which everybody sings way too slow today (my opinion, but where’s the spirit?) And all of us lining up to get polio shots. Today the school building has been renovated and is  a Monroe County Government building.

Now we are going to take a left on Truman for a bit. Down the street is St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church and next to it The Convent of Saint Mary Immaculate. During my growing up years in the fifties, I went to the church many times on Saturday mornings with my friend Jeanne. We rode our bikes and I waited while she went to Confession. We had no discussions about why I didn’t. It was just something we did and then went on to play. We were seven years old.

The Convent with Mary Immaculate School was in an old building, constructed in the 1850’s that had become infested by the late nineteen seventies with termites and needed extensive repairs. It was torn down before anyone could do anything and a new school building constructed. Today the townspeople still consider its demolition a great loss for the town. Here is an old photo of this beautiful building and a picture of the convent school students and teachers in the 1890’s (Pictures:  State Archives of Florida).

We’ll do a U-turn and go back to White Street and hang a left. Down the ways on the left is the old Armory Building. The Armory is a handsome Italianate-style building erected in 1904. During the Civil War, volunteer troops that helped defend Key West from the Confederates were known as the Key West Rifles and then later as the Island City Guards and then later still the Florida National Guard. It was used for training troops during WWI and WWII. And later became a Community Center. Restoration began in the 1970’s and It was turned over to the Historic Florida Keys Preservation Board in 1994.

Further down is the laundromat where my mother and father went to do laundry on Monday’s with two children dragging along. Then they took the clothes home to hang on the clothesline. My father did not help with that. He had done his day’s work in the Navy Yard and my Mom had listened to the radio and eaten bonbons all day. Not really, but that’s the way it was back then.

Early December

Early December is one of my favorite times in Key West. The weather is lovely, temperatures mostly in the high seventies to low eighties. Great for lovely nights of soft air and gentle breezes. It gets a little crazy, but not congested with the crowds that come down after Christmas. My acrostic this week said that “the year was growing old and tired, but she was like the old lady who knew that she could still be charming even with her gray hair and wrinkles.”

In the paper Sunday was an article about the Murials, a trio of entertainers, two women and a man.  They entertain at various charity venues, lip sync and dance. The man says he’s always a little behind in the dance steps, but even so he’s pretty good. They have wild hairdos and wear ritzy flamboyant look alike outfits and have fun.

The Frangipani Tree outside my window is almost bare. The branches resemble a bunch of reindeer in a rumble. It will spring back to life with beautiful large pink blossoms in the Spring. I like to float them in a bowl of water with a few bright Bougainvillea blossoms. The Bougainvillea outside in the front yard is very old and a vivid purple. My brother throws little white lights on it every Christmas. He brought us a couple of papayas off his trees this morning. We sprinkle them with lime juice and sugar. They taste good that way and are so good for you. My brother throws the many large black seeds out in the yard to sprout new trees.

Last week there was a beautiful large White Heron stalking bugs and lizards in our front yard. He was quite striking there among the chickens and a colorful rooster.

The Hometown Christmas Parade was last Saturday.  We actually missed it. I was so disappointed. Peter told me on our way to church the next day. It is usually so much fun. In this largely adult community, it is strictly for the kids. I read in the paper that this year they passed out trash bags so the kids could put their candy wrappers in them. It didn’t work too well. The wrappers are a big headache for the clean-up crew. Next year, I’m definitely going to make a point of going. I love parades.

The decorated and lighted bicycle ride is tonight and goes right down our street. We can sit on the porch and watch it. Hundreds and hundreds of bicycles go by. It is mostly children with some adults thrown in here and there. We wave and they wave back and call Greetings to us. It makes you wish you could be a kid again and join them. The most we ever did with our bikes was put streamers on the ends of the handlebars and playing cards attached to the spokes of the wheels with clothespins which made us clatter as we rode around the neighborhood.

The local theater is doing “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a play by Steve Martin about two giants of the 20th century Picasso and Einstein.  They are having a debate early in the century on the merits of art and science until a surprise third giant of the century arrives. We are going to see it again next week. We originally saw it years ago at Ford’s Theater in Washington; yes, the Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln was shot. In that production Steve Martin played Einstein. I’m looking forward to seeing the play again.

Friday we’re going to see Nutcracker Key West. It was created and founded by Joyce Stahl in 2005 and has been produced every other year since. It combines the rich cultural history of Key West with lots of dancing done by the approximately fifty children in the community which she trains to do the ballet numbers. They are chickens, a school of fish and octopi arms (a local very strong man swings the kids around, scary and exciting). Some of the kids are repeats and train the others. Joyce is a hard taskmaster and brooks absolutely no messing around. She says it’s either her way or the highway. One misbehavior and you’re gone and they know it. They learn a lot and have so much fun.  The scenery is visually beautiful and Joyce always gets professional ballet dancers down from New York and other places. It is a very entertaining evening and for many in the audience their first experience with live ballet.

The Schooner Wharf lighted boat parade is next Saturday. We haven’t been in a number of years. It can get raucous. Well, it is Key West. The last time we went to Mallory Square a number of years ago we were all mooned by some reveler on one of the boats.

We went down to Caroline’s on Duval Street last night for a bowl of Conch Chowder and a Dolphin Fish Sandwich with delicious French Fries on the side, which we tried to restrain ourselves from eating most of, but largely failed. We had an outside table a few feet up from the sidewalk. There were people and Christmas lights everywhere. The Conch Tour Train came by loaded with revelers doing a Christmas Lights ride through town. Very Festive.

I think I have been talked into singing in the choir by our new choir director. I told him I didn’t know how this was going to work out because I’m a lot of trouble. He said everybody here is a lot of trouble. The Bishop is coming Sunday for confirmation. Then the next Sunday, we’re having a Christmas Concert to benefit the organ which needs lots of work. The humidity in Key West is not good for the pipes. Putting the air conditioning on to control it is too expensive, so it’s patch, patch, patch unless we can eventually get solar power. One thing we have here is lots of sunshine.

The town is all lit up for the arrival of Christmas. We have started lighting the Advent Wreath at church and the Paper Bag Pageant Is coming soon. Everyone gets a paper bag with a costume and then you play the part in a very impromptu but fun Christmas story. Last year they forgot the baby Jesus. That caused a lot of finger pointing and consternation and then a lot of guffaws. It’s good to laugh at ourselves and our frailties every once in a while. Christmas Eve service is always special with the church all decorated with wreathes and flowers. And with the singing of all the Christmas carols which the Episcopal Church waits until Christmas Eve to sing.  All in all:  “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Civil Discourse and Thanksgiving

Common Discourse is deteriorating.

Confrontation is the norm.

Politeness has flown out the window.

Common courtesy no-longer good form.

Manners are deemed old-fashioned.

We have civil discourse, laid low.

Oh Woe!

A better way is needed; to consider other’s points of view and express differences in a calm and respectful way and not by making a spectacle of yourself and causing feelings of discomfort in others.  Lecturing and bullying, especially with an acid tongue is never OK. Children in past generations would get their mouths washed out with soap if a spoken profanity was ever heard.

Judith Martin who writes under the pen name Miss Manners once wrote that laws and regulations have to be made when people have forgotten or never learned how to behave; how to treat people fairly, kindly and respectfully. The trouble with laws and regulations is that they cannot take into account nuances or common sense.  So much better if people just treated each other fairly, kindly and with respect. Hollering, attacking people verbally and physically is not civil discourse.

Celebrating differences kindly and respectfully is what Americans do. Our celebration of Thanksgiving is our real national holiday. In a popular movie “The Blind Side,” the well-off family takes in and eventually adopts a young homeless black teenager who has gone in and out of the school system his whole life.  Thanksgiving happens shortly thereafter and the store-bought feast is set out; the father and children fill their plates and sit in front of the football game on TV. The young man takes a meager helping and goes and sits in the dining room alone. The mother sees this and goes and turns off the TV and tells her family to pick up their plates and go to the dining room and take a seat at the table with their guest, at which she offers a prayer of thanks for their feast.

According to history or story the Pilgrims who were very dependent on what food they could grow invited their neighboring American Indian friends to the first Thanksgiving meal. The Indians brought some of their food to share and they broke bread together.

When I was living in the Scholarship House during college, our Sunday dinner before Thanksgiving was a Turkey Dinner. There were three students from Thailand who lived in a house right across the street from ours. They spoke English and we had gotten to know them a little. We decided to invite them to our Thanksgiving meal. They frankly turned us down saying that it was an ugly bird and they weren’t going to eat it. dg00081We said it’s not an ugly bird. They said yes, it is. We went back into the house and talked about it and decided that maybe yes it was an ugly bird and we laughed at ourselves. No rock throwing. The meal turned out pretty good even though we cooked it ourselves and most of us didn’t know how to cook. (Photo:  State of Florida Archives/Williams – Wild Turkey at Fisheating Creek).

The Pilgrims who came here to a new land, endured a long ocean voyage, and faced a harsh winter. They had to make homes and grow food. They were very religious and trusted that God would sustain them. They had rough times but they endured. We should remember that even with all our differences, America has lasted a couple of centuries as free men who are sovereign and govern themselves without dictators or royalty.  We are a mystery to the world. Our liberty along with our land and each other are our true blessings.

Strange Bedfellows

To say that burial customs in Key West are eclectic is an understatement. After the hurricane of 1846, the Key West Cemetery was moved to higher ground. Before that time the cemetery had been on the beach. To everyone’s dismay, the hurricane had unearthed many of the graves, so the city fathers moved the cemetery to higher ground near Solaris Hill, the highest point on the island at fourteen feet above sea level. Approximately 100,000 people are buried on that nineteen acres in the center of town, and there are approximately 100 more buried there each year. There is a Catholic section, a Jewish Section, and the USS Maine Memorial (Remember the Maine).

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On February 5,1898, The USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor killing 260 American sailors. Whether this was an Act of War or an internal explosion in the ship is still being discussed by historians. Regardless, it led to a declaration of war on Spain. dm3829Twenty bodies of sailors were brought to Key West for burial and are interred in the USS Maine Memorial. Others buried inside the iron fence of the Memorial are several other Spanish American War veterans, some Civil War era veterans, veterans of other wars, two British airmen killed in a motorcycle accident in Jacksonville, a Brazilian sailor, and a woman and a baby. There is a fetching metal statue of a nineteenth century sailor in the middle of the site, that is also a reminder of how young our sailors are when they enlist (Picture:  State Archives of  Florida/McDonald).

My family gravesite is across the way and down the street. The oldest grave is that of my Great Grandfather who came to Key West as a child of five in 1837. In later years he became sheriff of Monroe County and had four daughters, two of which were my Great Aunts who lived with us when I was a child. Their sister, my Grandmother put on her second husband’s gravestone “Gone But Not Far Away” which we always find amusing. Her first husband, my grandfather died in the 1906 hurricane. He and his brother went out to secure a boat and never came back. My father was 6 months old. There is also an unmarked grave of a woman. Nobody knows who that is. The gravesite has been badly neglected over the years. My Mom used to pay someone $2.00 a month to tend the graves. And she would come to our house once in a while to collect the money. A few months after my father died, a bronze plaque came in the mail showing that my father was a veteran of World War II. It was nice to know that the country hadn’t forgotten.

The Key West cemetery is a great site to visit. Easy to navigate by bicycle, it has some lovely statues of angels, cherubs and lambs. dm6500The graveyard’s oldness and quiet feel of abandonment gives it a spooky appearance, great for a ghost tour on Halloween

(Picture:  State Archives of Florida/McDonald).

At Higgs Beach between West Martello Tower and the White Street Pier, there is a marker for a site that experts think is the only African Refugee Cemetery in the United States. dm6467It is a remarkable story. In 1859 President Buchanan ordered American steamers to stop any American-owned slave ships. Three were captured near Cuba and 1400 African men, women and children were brought to Key West for sanctuary where the local townspeople provided them with shelter, clothes, food and medicine. Despite efforts 295 of them died and U.S. Marshal Fernando Moreno paid $1617 for their burial and thousands more for the support of the others. He petitioned the U.S. Government for repayment but none was ever received. The Africans were in Key West for about three months and were then sent to Liberia. Some died in transit, and most of those who arrived stayed in Liberia and did not return to their homes (Picture: State Archives of Florida/ McDonald).

In 2002, archaeologists performed a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey of the beach, where eleven shallow graves were discovered.dm6381 In 2010, 100 more graves were found further inland. There is a nice memorial now and the site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a photo of when it was first discovered. (Picture: State Archives of Florida/ McDonald). The respectful burial of the refuges is a reminder of Key West’s reputation today for acceptance of any person or lifestyle. The motto for the island is “One Human Family.”

 

Museums and Musings

My absolute favorite is the beautiful Custom House. You can’t miss it, a beautiful ornate red brick building just across from the Mel Fisher Museum. rc05738It was built in 1891 as a federal building, the original home of the postal service, the customs office and the district courts (Picture:  State Archives of Florida). Today, it is a museum. There are art exhibits, always entertaining. One time a few years ago, there were life size sculptures of people in scenes from some of the better-known impressionist paintings. You could play act in them and have a companion take your picture. What fun that was. fullsizerenderThere is a movie showing the train coming to Key West in the Roaring Twenties. Those wealthy and adventurous people were dressed in the highest fashion of the times. There is a very nice exhibit with photos of Hemingway’s time in Key West in the 20’s and 30’s. And you can’t miss those two very large statues, one in front, a very stylish couple dancing, and in the back, well, you have to see it to believe it.

The Truman Little White House is located a little ways into the Navy Yard, a part of which in recent years has been given back to the city  (Picture:  State Archives of Florida/Spalding). pr30034Truman came to Key West in 1946 for a brief respite, which turned into a long stay. While here, he set up office and ran the affairs of the United States Government. Through the years, other Presidents have stayed here: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. I saw President Kennedy when he visited with Harold MacMillan during the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Truman when he gave a speech to the student body of Key West High School when I was a Senior.

dm0325Fort Zachary Taylor was built in the mid 1800’s to protect the southeastern coastline of the United States. It was used during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. During pretty much all of my childhood, it was buried under a large mound of dirt and debris, with various iron shapes sticking out here and there.n049946 It was unearthed sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s. (Here are a couple of photos, one from the late 1800’s.) It is now used for Civil War enactments during the Old Island Days Festival. img_1244Next door is the Fort Taylor State Park with one of the prettiest beaches on the island (Pictures: State Archives of Florida/McDonald, State Archives of Florida/Moffah).

Fort East Martello was built in 1869 to protect the island from confederate attacks. Although it served during the Civil War, it was never actually attacked. In 1950 the Key West Art and Historical Society turned the Fort into a museum. Because of the U.S. Naval Base, Key West remained Union during the war. My New England friend never misses an opportunity to gloat about this. dm2243There have been several ghost stories circulated involving the fort, so it has become a venue for some Halloween Events during the month of October (Picture:  State Archives of Florida/McDonald).

In 1949, Fort West Martello located at Higgs Beach was thought to be an eyesore to the shoreline and there was pressure on the County to level it. Representative Joe Allen prevailed on the Commissioners to stop the demolition. Today it is the home of the Key West Garden Club and a National Historic Site. dm6602When I was at Reynolds Elementary, I remember going there and each of us making Terrariums with a lot of help from our Garden Club friends (Picture: State Archives of Florida/McDonald). Today the gardens there are heralded as being quite spectacular, with the setting of the white sand beach and the expanse and beauty of the ocean.

Speaking of ocean, we can’t forget the Key West Turtle Museum. Ponce de Leon noticed the many Loggerhead Turtles and named several of the islands near Key West, Las Tortugas. (Spanish for ”The  Turtles”) The later name Dry Tortugas was to indicate to sailors that there was no fresh water on the island. Fort Jefferson is located on Dry Tortugas. I don’t know when the Turtle Kraals were first built, but my father, born in 1906 told me that as a child, he and his friends would ride on the backs of the turtles in the Kraalspr15176 (Picture: State Archives of Florida/Conn). My mother regularly made turtle steak for supper. She breaded it much like you would a veal cutlet. Peter said they served it at the Bachelor Officers Quarters when he was in Key West in the late sixties. Sometime in the 70’s I think, the Loggerhead Turtle was deemed endangered and so, no longer available. The museum on Margaret Street  is free and open to the public.

The rich history, museums and architecture along with the stories of the many famous people who have succumbed to the beauty and comfort of island living make Key West an interesting place to be barefoot, carefree and entertained.

We the People

“We the People of the United States in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.”

In my 8th grade American History class, we had to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution, and recite it to the class. I can mostly still do it.

Peter has recently read several books on the U.S. Constitution. And we have been talking about what we know, and what we don’t know and what we probably used to know but don’t quite remember. When the news people say First amendment or Fourth amendment, I think, ”OK, which one was that?“

Here’s a little reminder. “We the People”, not the legislature or the educated, or the wealthy, or the king or the president, but “We, the people “are the real sovereigns and are setting up a form of self-government that ensures that all people are treated fairly under the law. Of course now we know that wasn’t exactly true and in the nineteenth century, we fought a Civil War that tested our nation mightily. The nation held. But it might have healed more quickly if President Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated shortly after the War ended. So we are still struggling here well into the 21st century.

In 1789, the Constitution was amended by a Bill of Rights based on comments made during the ratification process. I guess the thought was that despite being inherent in the document and in the ratification process, they really needed to be enumerated. For example, freedom of speech and the right to assemble and the right to petition the government were instrumental to the creation and ordainment of the Constitution. Here’s the not so short version of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution:

  1. No establishment of religion, no abridgement of freedom of speech and the right to assemble peaceably and petition the government for redress of grievances.
  2. The right of the people to keep and bear arms.
  3. In peacetime no soldier quartered in any house without the consent of the owner.
  4. Right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  5. Right to not be held for any crime without an indictment by a Grand Jury, nor be held for any offense twice, or compelled to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
  6. In all criminal prosecutions, the right to a speedy and public trial.
  7. In common law suits, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.
  8. No excessive bail, or fines or cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
  9. The enumeration of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People.
  10. The powers not relegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the People.

In order to protect the minority, the amendment process was designed so that the Constitution could not easily be changed by an ambitious single-issue majority. The Constitution provides that an amendment may be proposed by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress or a Constitutional Convention called for by two-thirds of the State Legislatures. Ratification is by the legislature or by ratifying convention of at least three-fourths of the states. In recent years the Equal Rights Amendment failed largely because people did not want women drafted. Now women voluntarily volunteer for the Armed Forces.

A lesson in unintended consequences ensued with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in January of 1920. It soon became evident that a law meant to encourage temperance instead encouraged intemperance and excess. The law had made the problem of alcohol abuse worse. People were drinking more. State revenue fell because of no liquor taxes. Income tax increased to make up for the shortfall and never decreased when the law was repealed. (Well, it wouldn’t, would it?) Corruption in federal and state agents set up to monitor things was rampant. Bootlegging and speakeasies were everywhere even or especially in Key West. Sloppy Joe’s was famously a speakeasy for a time in the 20’s.

One has to be careful when solving problems. Solutions can turn out to be worse than the problem. The Constitution was probably not the best place for this experiment. The 18th amendment was repealed in the early thirties by the 21st Amendment.

Then there was the separate but equal problem that came to a head when I was a child. I think World War II really awakened a generation. Our parents held to the old ways of separate but equal, but the children of the fifties did not quite understand the concept of separate drinking fountains. We would secretly drink from both. I played with the maid’s daughter across the street until my mother told me I was doing nothing wrong, but the neighbors might talk. None of it made sense. The Civil Rights movement ensued. We have come a long way and have a ways to go still.

What was begun in the arguments between the drafters of the Constitution in 1787 continued with the Thirteenth Amendment (abolished slavery), Fourteenth (persons born or naturalized in the United States are full citizens,) Fifteenth (the right to vote shall not be denied based on race, color or previous servitude), Nineteenth (women’s suffrage), and Twenty-fourth (no poll taxes). In a way it was summarized in the mid-Nineteenth Century when President Abraham Lincoln gave this address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ”all men are created equal.”

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died, that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground – The Brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

 

The Free Show

When I was young in the mid fifties, during the summers we would get out our canvas folding camp chairs after supper and a good group of us would head down to the trailer park on United Street a few blocks from our neighborhood. Most nights they would show a movie on their outdoor large movie screen. I guess in retrospect it was for the residents of the trailer park, but no one ever seemed to mind us kids showing up. We called it The Free Show. The movies were mostly old and B-rated. We probably went mostly for something to do and the popcorn and sodas, which they were glad to sell us. We would get home around ten or so. I marvel today that we were allowed by our parents to do that. Back then it was considered safe enough to allow kids to explore and taste their environment.night-blooming-cereus On the way home, we would stop to see if the Night Blooming Cereus Cactus on the corner was blooming, and we were thrilled when it was. Some of these species only bloom once a year for one night. I think this was one of them.

We children of the fifties had intimate connections with the flora and fauna in our play environs. We were hardly ever inside and when outside almost always exploring. spanish-lime-3There were many tropical fruit trees in our neighborhood. Spanish Limes were a favorite. There was a huge Spanish Lime tree down the street. In August we would climb the tree and collect bagfuls. You cracked the skin of the lime with your teeth. It came off easily and you would suck on the seed pulling the flesh off and spit the seed out. They were rather tart especially if we picked them too early, which we were want to do. Mom would ask, “How are the Spanish Limes?” We would say, “Sweet as sugar” as we puckered our mouths. Our mothers hated them as they left large brown stains on all our clothes. The best place to eat them was in the ocean. Those trees were all over the island back then. But sadly not so today, too many have been cut down.

UnknownIn the vacant lot across the street was a large tamarind tree. It had 4 inch pods that cracked open easily revealing a brown fruit that we would suck on. It was rather sour. We didn’t do it too often, only when we could think of nothing else to do.images-2 In our own yard, we had a Guava Tree. My Aunt Nellie would gather the fruit when they came in and make Guava Duff and there was a Sugar Apple tree. Unknown-1The Sugar Apple had a segmented skin, and I remember it had a white flesh surrounding each big black seed. Both those trees are long gone. The Tamarind tree also. The vacant lot it was in has a huge house on it.

01aacerolatrDown the block there were two Barbados Cherry trees. Not too large so the fruit was easy to pick. One was in Mrs. Hood’s yard. We had to knock on the door and ask permission to get those. They were really good and worth the trouble. The other tree we just took from. It was near the street and I guess we thought fair game.

images-3In my friend’s yard there was a large Sapodilla tree. I remember eating one once, and never did that again. It’s a wonder that we didn’t poison ourselves. Someone must have told us they were edible. And they were, just not by me.

img55403069In the yard next door was a Sour Orange tree. My Mother would marinate a pork roast in the juice and use some juice in the gravy. The oranges had lots of seeds. I guess most wild fruit does. It’s gone too, people buying houses, fixing them up, adding new landscaping. I was horrified to find the tree gone which was not too long ago.

key-lime-tree_12Of course Key Lime trees were all over. Our mothers made pies. We kids would pick them off the trees and peel them and eat them. That ended when my mother told us to stop because the acid was wearing the enamel off our teeth.

coconut-treesCoconut trees were also ubiquitous, several if not more in most yards. The brown coconuts that had just fallen off a tree, we would bounce on the asphalt street until they started to come apart and then with brute strength peel the husk off the coconut. Unknown-2You could then punch some holes in the soft eyes of the baseball-sized seed and drink the coconut milk. Then you could break open the nut and eat the white meat, which didn’t come too easily off the nut, or shred the meat for use in baking. One summer we kids opened a whole bunch of coconuts and put them in our little red wagons to sell. I don’t remember making any money off the endeavor. But we probably learned a lesson in supply and demand.