By Blair Lee
My wife and I are down with Keys disease, an infectious fever that strikes Northerners who escape to the Florida Keys this time of year. Fortunately, it’s incurable.
Mainland America’s only tropics, the Keys are a chain of islands (keys) stretching 108 miles into the ocean from Florida’s southernmost tip to Key West. A single road, U.S. Route 1 (“The Overseas Highway”), provides the only vehicle access, and motorists are dangerously distracted by the azure blue/green waters of the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. The sheer beauty makes it hard to stay on the road.
Keys visitors are in for surprise. Because a protective Atlantic reef runs the entire length of the Keys, there’s little wave action or sand (most of the beaches are man-made). The Atlantic shoreline looks more like a lake than an ocean. So, instead of great surfing you get great diving, great swimming and unbelievable fishing.
And, unlike the mainland, Keys oceanfront is plentiful, while land is scarce (much of the development is built on dredged fill). So it’s not unusual to find an oceanfront, gated community with million-dollar mansions and yachts next to an oceanfront trailer park with snowbirds fishing from Route 1 bridges.
But everyone has one thing in common, escaping Northern snowstorms, flu and Norovirus for the Keys’ sun and sea. Winter daytime temperatures range between 70 and 80 degrees (Key West’s coldest recorded temperature was 44 degrees Jan. 29, 1836). And winter is the Keys’ “dry season,” sunny and windy. The local newspaper forecasts the weather as “mostly giddy” and “totally awesome.”
In the middle of winter you see butterflies, bikinis, tans, flower gardens, convertibles with the tops down, swimmers in the Atlantic, kids playing softball and the universal dress code — shorts and T-shirts. Up North, the vacation season is June to September; in the Keys, it’s January to May (you don’t want to be here for hurricane season).
Perhaps it’s the hurricanes that account for the Keys’ overriding sense of impermanence. The whole island chain is only two feet above sea level. But the vagaries of the tourist economy and the general instability of the local population are also responsible. Folks here seem to live with a nagging acceptance that, for one reason or another, everything could go under at any moment. I guess that’s why the telephone /power poles along U.S. 1 are made of reinforced concrete. And it’s funny to see shop signs bragging: “In business since 1988.”
Ponce de Leone first spied the Keys in 1513, but not much happened for the next 400 years until 1906, when Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler decided that the new Panama Canal would turn Key West into America’s premier deep-water port.
So Flagler, who already had opened up Florida by building a railroad from St. Augustine to a tiny hamlet named Miami, spent six years and $27 million of his own money constructing an engineering marvel, his Overseas Railroad (75 percent over water and 25 percent over land), connecting Miami to Key West, the nation’s southernmost point.
Unfortunately, Flagler was mistaken. His railroad opened in January 1912, a year before he died, and was in bankruptcy by 1932. Then, on Sept. 2, 1935, a Category 5 hurricane with 200-mph winds and a 17-foot storm surge destroyed the railroad and killed 400 people. The state bought the railroad bed for $2.5 million and used it to build U.S. Route 1.
Apparently, the early explorers had difficulty coming up with enough names for the scores of Keys they came upon. After naming islands for themselves and their wives and girlfriends, they simply used whatever came to mind.
So we get Bird Key, Duck Key, Pelican Key, Dove Key, Pigeon Key, Water Key, Grassy Key, Hog Key, Gopher Key, Cow Key, Raccoon Key, Deer Key, Fat Deer Key, Little Fat Deer Key, Conch Key, Shark Key, Boot Key, Money Key, Little Money Key, Friend Key, Long Key, Cotton Key, Pumpkin Key, Monday Key, Who Key and, my favorite, No Name Key.
No Name Key, population 43, doesn’t have electricity. Until recently, inhabitants relied on solar, wind and gas generators. When 32 homeowners asked for power, the dissident 11 sued. That was 15 years ago. Last month, a Florida appeals court ruled for the pro-power folks so, while still without a name, No Name Key won’t be without electricity.
There’s a distinct Keys’ ethic that’s part “mañana,” part “we don’t give a damn.” Dependability and deadlines don’t mean much down here.
So, when a big newspaper ad announces “introducing our new gourmet bugers made with 100 percent pure Angus beef,” burgers is misspelled “bugers.” Another newspaper notice announces a concert on “Saturday, January 23rd,” except Saturday was Jan. 26. When we showed up at the local bakery the morning after placing an order for bagels, the salesgirl said, “Oh, we forgot.”
Speaking of forgetting, Key West city let an advertising company place ads on city property in return for a share of the revenue, but forgot to collect — for 10 years. And then there’s the O’Bryant Middle School debacle. Key West built the $39 million school without consulting the handicapped-accessible law or the city’s building code. The new school complies with neither. Oh, boy!
Then there’s the corruption. Marathon (population 8,400), where we stay, was rocked last month by a murder-for-hire arrest of the local Coast Guard commander. And South Florida appears to be the nation’s Ponzi scheme capital.
But in the midst of all this dysfunction and malfeasance live some truly wonderful and unusual people. Take George “Pop” Rocket, age 103. A former Philadelphia typesetter, Pop moved to Big Pine Key in 1974. An avid golfer, he shot his last hole-in-one at age 97 and now runs a biweekly golf tournament at Sombrero Country Club.
Pop, who still lives alone, calculates all the handicaps, collects the entrance fees, computes the scores and hands out the winnings. He says his goal is to outlive his mother, who made it to 104. Go, Pop!
By the time you read this we’ll be back in Maryland with our fading tans, fading memories and a lingering case of Keys Disease.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.