Friday, May 17, 2013

A Trip Down the Keys Highway


Below is a proposed chapter for the book "A Quest for Counties."   It deals with the Florida Keys (Monroe County) and recounts a real tale from the summer of 1984 in Marathon.  This is indicative of how I would like the other chapters in the book to read and to flow.  Let me know if this works for you as a reader:

                                                                                   11

“If They Shoot, Shoot Back”
Vaca Key, Monroe County, Florida

(Portions of this chapter appeared previously in Faanes, Craig, 2001.  Somewhere South of Miami.  America House Publishers, Baltimore)

About 100,000 people call themselves permanent residents of the Florida Keys.  Some times on weekends during winter when there are more visitors than residents of Florida in Florida it may seem like there are 100 million residents in the Keys.  It seems that a trip down the Keys highway is now a required pilgrimage for everyone; it’s no longer a requirement just of Jimmy Buffett fans.

The Keys hold a special place in the history and folklore and the current-day psyche of Florida.  From the days of pirates there has always been an outlaw meme to the Keys.  No matter who was in charge or from where they were in charge, side stepping the rules and doing things differently was the norm in the Keys.

Henry Flagler and his long-sought Overseas Railroad probably had the longest lasting impression on the makeup of the Keys.  Through the trials, tribulations and travails of tens of thousands of men, Flagler oversaw the building of his dream railroad down the spine of the islands.  Logistics of this endeavor remain an awe-inspiring feat especially when you consider the state of technology in the early 20th century with our contemporary ability to build structures like the Sunshine Skyway crossing the mouth of Tampa Bay and to accomplish that task in just a few months.

Flagler’s railroad opened the door for many to travel where few had gone before.  Originally designed to be a conduit for trade goods to be loaded to and unloaded from ships traveling between Key West and Panama or Colombia, the railroad soon eclipsed expectations with the sheer number of visitors that passed through the Keys.  Marketed early and often as “America’s Caribbean Islands” industrialists and other ultra-rich northerners flocked to the Keys to escape the Arctic conditions further north in winter.

Keys tourism continued to flourish through the 1920s but the Great Depression took its toll in the early 1930s.  Adding more insult to additional injury was the famous Labor Day hurricane of 1935 that completely changed the face and the structure of the Keys for years to come.  Roaring ashore on September 2 1935 and still pumping out energy on September 4 when it moved away, the Great Hurricane left the Keys and Flagler’s railroad in a complete shambles.  Internal pressures recorded with the storm remain among the lowest ever observed on earth.  Topping it off was a 18-foot high tidal wave that roared ashore cleansing everything in its path and leaving utter chaos behind it.

As is the nature of humans, Keys residents didn’t let the Great Hurricane hold them down for long and repairs were quickly made.  A major change from the days of Flagler was that this famous railroad was not replaced.  Instead, built over the bed of that rail line was what is now known as the end of U.S. Highway 1, the “Keys Highway” or the “Overseas Highway.”  Its presence today allows for hundreds of thousands of visitors to pass into the Keys and in most instances to bring along with them the toys of modernity that they sought to escape on the mainland.

Although the railroad is gone and it has been replaced by the highway, Monroe County and the Keys remain a safe haven for eccentrics who enjoy life at the end of the road.  Many Keys residents moved there to get away from the rules and regulations that govern life everywhere else.  Only on their arrival they discovered that despite their protestations, the rules and the regulations still apply.  Long-time residents of the Keys call themselves “Conch’s,” a reference to the Queen conch, a massive marine snail whose flesh is a delicacy.  Referring to someone in the Keys as a “Conch” is like a badge of honor, and referring to that person as “an old Conch” is akin to having been present when Moses found the tablets on the top of a mountain in the Middle East.

Given their escapist mentality, many Keys residents believe they should be their own governmental entity away from and in spite of the United States, the state of Florida, or Monroe County.  I’m sure they feel that way until there is a natural disaster like a hurricane and they need financial assistance but that is another story.  In the early 1980s at the height of one of a million controversies created by Ronald Reagan and his disreputable Administration (and quickly swept under the table by a protective media) was the decision by a group of Keys residents to break away from the United States in protest of Reagan and to create their own little country to be known as “The Conch Republic.”  To this day you can still purchase “Conch Republic” license plates and “Conch Republic” flags.  Someone in Miami still produces and sells “Conch Republic” passports so if you want to be a dual citizen without leaving the comforts of America, you can purchase a passport and travel the world as a Conch. 

On the day the Keys declared their independence from all government around them, then-Florida Governor Bob Graham was scheduled to land at the Marathon airport for some function.  When he arrived and was informed of that he was now in a sovereign nation (at least in the mind of those who created this sovereign nation) Governor Graham asked politely at the airport if he needed a passport to be there.  Nobody was sure if he did or not.

My first visit to Monroe County was in July 1984 when I was conducting research on an endangered species of bird that nests in Michigan and winters in the West Indies.  We wanted to put tiny radio transmitters on the backs of the birds and track their movements but before doing so we wanted to practice on a more widespread and more numerous common species and we wanted to do this in habitats and humidity similar to what we would occur a few months later in the West Indies. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains and manages four National Wildlife Refuges in the Florida Keys and we made arrangements to conduct our research on the Big Pine Key and No Name Key units of the National Key Deer Refuge.  Despite this being the latter half of the 20th century there were still all sorts of crooks and thieves and low-life’s in the keys and especially on weekends.  Given the extensive area of open ocean that surrounds the Keys they were (and remain) a prime location for drug runners to attempt to bring their products into the country.  The ever-vigilant U.S. Coast Guard maintained offices at both Marathon and Key West and one of their responsibilities in 1984 was drug interdiction.  To do so they needed to be out on the open ocean looking for bad guys.  I saw this as an opportunity to get out on the open ocean to look for birds I had not seen before that live on the edge of the Gulf Stream.  A quick stop at Station Marathon one day confirmed that I could go along with the Coast Guard on their Saturday foray out into the Gulf Stream from Marathon.  We never got that far.

When I arrived at Station Marathon I was given a quick briefing on how to keep from being thrown overboard if we encountered rough seas.  Afterward we took off to look for birds in the cobalt blue waters of the Gulf Stream. The Coast Guard was out there to aid stranded boaters and to check safety equipment and to look for drugs and contraband.  I was along simply for a Saturday morning of looking at birds.  Not long after leaving the Station, we received a call instructing us to be on the lookout for a stolen boat.  Hearing this, the boat’s captain knew exactly where to look and we changed course for the “Cuban Docks” on Vaca Key.  Apparently if you are going to rip someone off and try to hide afterward the most logical place to try to hide was the Cuban Docks.

We had a description of the boat but to me they all looked the same.  As we made our approach to the docks the Coast Guardsmen asked me to stand in the bow of their boat with my binoculars so I could read the registration numbers on those other boats we passed. This was exciting at first but soon it became boring.  That all changed when we came on to a thirty-foot shrimp boat because sitting in its wheel house was a simple, lone, unassuming marijuana plant that was growing in a bucket.  Not thinking much of it I casually mentioned to the Captain that there was a marijuana plant in that boat and was he interested in it?  He took my binoculars, looked at the potted pot plant, and exclaimed, “I’m going to seize that boat!” 

Our plans changed again when the pot plant was found.  First we docked the Coast Guard vessel next to the shrimp boat and kept it under surveillance.  Then we radioed the U.S. Customs Service and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department to alert them to our find and both groups said they would send backup.  This was followed by the rather dramatic laying on of guns.  Two of the four Coast Guardsmen were designated the boarding party.  It was their responsibility in these situations to board boats and look for contraband.  The boarding party strapped on their .45 caliber revolvers and waited for Customs and the Sheriff to arrive.  In the mean time I stood with the other two Coast Guardsmen wondering what would happen next. 

Arrival of the reinforcements meant that the boarding party could jump into action and as they approached the shrimp boat, one of the two Coast Guardsmen still on the boat went below decks and came out carrying three 12 gauge shotguns.  He handed one shotgun to the boat captain and then loaded a shell in the chamber of the second gun and kept it for himself.  He then turned to me.

“You’re a Fed aren’t you,” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “but I’m not in law enforcement.”

Thrusting the loaded shotgun in my hands he yelled “If they shoot, shoot back!”

The last thing I considered that morning when I got out of bed was that I would be in a shootout with drug runners on Vaca Key but that is what it was beginning to appear was going to happen.  I wanted this as much as I wanted a toothache but I wasn’t going to argue.

The boarding party, made up of two Coast Guardsmen, a Customs agent and a deputy sheriff approached the shrimp boat with their guns drawn.  As instructed I stood in the bow of the boat with the 12 gauge shotgun aimed at the wheel house of the boat.  It was my responsibility to shoot if anyone shot first.  Between them the four-person boarding party had enough armaments to support a small insurgency in Nicaragua yet as they made their way to the shrimp boat I maintained my aim at the unseen doper inside.

With guns drawn the boarding party walked up to the main door of the shrimp boat and yelled at the occupants to come out.  Nobody inside moved.  They yelled again and still nobody moved.  At the conclusion of the third yelling session, one of the Coast Guardsmen on the boat kicked in the door.  I flicked off the safety on my shotgun.  The entire scene reminded me of a script for some surreal movie but it was real life and real time.

No shots rang out as the four men entered the shrimp boat to confiscate the lone marijuana plant in the wheel house.  After what seemed like an hour inside they returned to the main door leading a rather disheveled individual who was shirtless and shoeless (this was the Florida Keys after all) man with scraggly hair.  His arms were securely behind his back and his wrists were held together by hand cuffs.  The Customs Agent yelled at us and told us they had found some cocaine on the table along with the supposedly malevolent marijuana plant.  He also informed us that we could take down our arms and prepare to tie off the boat.

With the boat shrimp boat secured to the Coast Guard cutter we slowly made our way back to Coast Guard Station Marathon where it was tied off and guarded by another Coast Guardsman who proceeded to do about face marches in front of the boat.  It was his responsibility to ensure that nobody came near that shrimp boat unless they were personally known to the Coast Guardsman.  Should some nefarious individual attempt to board the boat before the Customs Service could tear it apart, it was this Coast Guardsman’s responsibility to shoot that person.  Hearing this I made it triply certain that no matter where I walked for the rest of my time on the Coast Guard station I had someone with me who personally knew the man walking about faces in front of the shrimp boat.

The shrimp boat incident in the Cuban Docks severely cut into our time on the ocean but the Coast Guard had made a promise to me that they would get me offshore to look for birds.  After maybe two hours of paperwork and interviews we again left the dock headed for the open ocean.  As we passed under Seven Mile Bridge we received a call from Marathon but instead of telling us to go back to the Cuban Docks to look for another boat, it was Coast Guard Station Marathon wishing us a successful trip to find birds.

We didn’t find many birds because by the time we arrived on the Gulf Stream the winds had kicked up and the waves were horrendous and there was little else for us to do but ride out the tempest.  I suggested several times that we return to shore but the Coast Guard had promised me time on the ocean and they were bound and determined to give it to me. After an hour in the rollicking angry ocean we had two Coast Guardsmen down with sea sickness and the other two were beginning to look green. Rather than subject them to more discomfort I begged them to take us back to shore.  I could always get offshore another time to look for birds.

Our return to the station was greeted with high fives and congratulations because on dismantling the inside of the boat, Customs and the Coast Guard found several large packages of cocaine tethered to the inside walls.  Today’s action turned out to be the best bust of the month for Coast Guard Station Marathon and it all started with an off-handed remark about a single marijuana plant growing in a bucket in the wheel house.  As I was preparing to leave Marathon and return to Big Pine Key I asked one of the Coast Guardsmen if they didn’t come off a little too extreme in dealing with the shrimp boat owner at first because on the surface it appeared he had just one pot plant.  The Coast Guardsman snickered a bit and said “When you deal with low life’s every day you have to treat everyone like they’re going to kill you.”

I have had nothing but the utmost respect for the Coast Guard since that day.

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