Monday, July 27, 2020

Noble Hammock - A Letter to My Daughter

Everglades National Park

To Monica

While cleaning out boxes of old photos and I came across these. I didn't know if my daughter had copies of the photos, or remembered the trip, so I put it in writing.


The Noble Hammock canoe trail-marker was difficult to see as we drove toward Flamingo on the two-lane road from the main entrance. We did a three-point u-turn after we passed it, came back and parked on the shoulder of Flamingo Highway. Dean and I carried the canoe the short distance to the short, flimsy, wooden dock that stuck into the mass of indistinguishable, seemingly impenetrable mangroves. We really didn’t know what to expect as we launched our old fourteen foot, fiberglass canoe just a few feet from the side of the road.

Dean sat in the front, you sat on a cushion in the middle, and I sat in the stern, each of us with a paddle. You were nine or ten years old and had the short, emergency paddle. It was too short to push us through the sloughs when we were in the shallow parts, but you helped paddle when we had deeper water. We were in shallow water a lot as it hadn’t rained in quite a while. The trail was so shallow in parts we almost turned around, but we pushed the canoe through the mud with our paddles and made it further and further into the mangrove jungle.

The mangrove hammocks lay scattered in a saw-grass prairie, and the canoe trail connecting the hammocks was marked with PVC pipes and a few wooden markers. As soon as we were out of earshot of the highway, there was no other reference to where we were. It turned out to be a monotonous, boring paddle and we were getting tired of shoving the paddles into the mud to push us along most of the trail. While the water was deeper in and around the hammocks, we could hear the mud and saw grass crunch along the bottom of the canoe as we pushed along the shallow parts. We certainly weren’t paddling between the hammocks.

You and Dean shoving off from Noble Hammock

Somewhere along the trail, after we were all tired and looking forward to completing the seemingly endless trail when I hit something hard on the bottom with my paddle. You turned to look back just as I leaned into the paddle with all my might, trying to get as much pressure as possible on what I thought was a rock or a log, when the object I was pushing on objected wildly and erupted four of five feet into the air right alongside the canoe.

You saw the alligator spin vertically in mid-air and fall back into the water. All I saw was its white underbelly as I lurched unexpectedly forward, looking backward over my shoulder trying to hold on to my paddle as the alligator twisted and fell away from us. Dean jerked around to look just as it crashed heavily back into the murky water. The canoe rocked from the swell then slowly returned to the almost boring silence and tranquility of before. We all sat stunned by the surrealistic event that had just happened. I don’t remember all the comments we made but I know you got to hear words you weren’t familiar with.

And you wonder why I think Disney World is boring.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Key Man

One late, miserable night while Jim Eby and I struggled with the newly installed 2740 terminal at the Dade County jail booking desk, two plain-clothes Miami Beach detectives brought in a hooker they picked up who, it turned out, happened to be a man.

Working the booking desk was among the worst working conditions I have ever worked. While it was mounted in a large circular pedestal in the middle of a huge room, the space inside the circle was cramped and serviced several booking stations at once. It was kind of like going to a bank where the service counter is curved around one teller. It was as bad as the tower at Homestead AFB, which, besides the drive-through at Wendy’s, was the service call I most dreaded. No space to work, impossible for any diagnostics and noisy beyond belief. With constant interruptions, telephone calls and people always reaching over the counter or throwing books or paperwork, it was worse than any product planner sitting in a sterile cubicle could possibly imagine. Two CE’s could not work together without pushing a deputy out of the way. Using an oscilloscope was impossible. A real zoo.

For those of you who think television shows accurately display police stations, you are wrong. Miami’s booking desk at the Dade County jail in the evening was more like Best Buy on Black Friday. On weekends it was even worse. There were at least seven holding cells along one long wall, always filled with noisy, usually malicious, often drunk members of society who you wouldn’t invite into your house. One cell was used for female prisoners who were transported to the women’s facility. The prisoners would get rowdy at times and they would incur the wrath of the real commander of the booking desk: The Key Man!

The Key Man carried a ring of cell keys that must have weighed ten pounds. He would walk along the cells, chatting with repeat offenders many of the jail staff knew by name and generally maintaining a semblance of order.

As Jim and I waited for the two detectives to move out of the way, the jail commander, Lieutenant Armstrong walked up and picked up their booking sheet.

Key Man! Where’s the guy the Beach just brought in?”

What guy?” said the Key Man, a big, strong African American who looked like he should play football for the Miami Dolphins. He walked over and said, “They didn’t bring in any guy.”

The two cops looked at each other in disbelief. We could see the panic in their eyes.

Lt. Armstrong straightened up and said, “Show me where you put the prisoner they brought in.”

The three of them followed the Key Man to the cell being used for the women prisoners. There were at least ten women in the cell.

The Key Man looked around the cell, even standing on his tip-toes as he tried to get a good view of the people in the cell. The women weren’t helping, doing their best to block his view.

There,” he said, finally pointing to the wall bench in the back. “The one in the red dress.”

Working at the jail was never boring.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Stick Shift

 The day started like most others, except this morning I didn’t have to drive to my first call. I met Larry in the office parking garage in Coral Gables, just outside Miami. I didn’t even go inside the office. Larry asked if I could help diagnose a cantankerous communications controller in Key West, and he would drive the one hundred and sixty-five miles down to the end of US Highway One. All I had to do was sit and watch as our world transitioned from urban, glass ensconced canyons of corporate America to the dream world of white beaches and blue water that beckoned sun-starved visitors from all over the world. I didn’t even take my own tool case. I already had visions of a great pasta dinner at Mangia Mangia. Larry and his pristine, gloss-red Datsun 240Z, were famous across south Florida, from autocrosses and gymkhanas to concours d'elegance auto shows. If there was a display of Datsun sport cars, Larry’s car was sure to be there. I wouldn’t have turned down his request to ride to the Florida keys for love nor money. Well, maybe love.

“You know, we’re not going to be alone down there today,” as he pulled into his favorite breakfast stop in Layton in the middle of Long Key two hours or so later. “Jimmy T. is doing a customer call down here with one of his guys, so maybe we can all meet for lunch or dinner.”

I called dispatch in Atlanta to find out if anybody else was headed for the Florida Keys. There were two other dispatches to the keys for different products. It would be impossible for one person to service the entire spectrum of IBM products and systems, so two specifically trained techs – not usually assigned to the keys – were en-route to both Islamorada and Marathon. An unusual day as the Florida Keys simply did not have that much IBM inventory. The whole keys territory had one man assigned for typewriters and copiers, and another for everything else. We all decided to meet at Whale Harbor, in Islamorada, about half way back to the mainland, after we all wrapped up our calls. Mangia Mangia in Key West would have to wait for another day. So would lunch, as it turned out. A typical day with no lunch. It could have been snowing outside and we wouldn’t have noticed. When we finally wrapped up, it was late in the afternoon.

As we walked to Larry’s car at Boca Chica Naval Air Station, Stickshift tossed me the keys. I gave Larry that nickname back when we first met. It has stuck with him ever since. Larry knew I was also a sports car addict and had a German National Competition License while I was stationed in Germany. I raced amateur events and had done hill climbs with my Triumph GT-6. The chance to drive the famous, super-tuned Z-car the seventy-five miles from Boca Chica to Islamorada was a chance I wasn’t going to pass up. I adjusted the seat and the mirrors and the seat belts, and played cautiously with the gear shift. The engine fired up on the first touch of the key, and I glanced at Larry.

“Let me know if I do anything wrong,” I said.

“You’ll be the first to know if I bust your ass!” He laughed.

It didn’t take long to get the feel of the car. The steering was razor sharp and the handling was as balanced as it could be. Not only was it fast and stuck to the road as if it were on rails, but it had fantastic brakes to boot. I’ve driven powerful cars I wasn’t comfortable with, but Larry’s Z was perfect for me. This was a driver’s car. The first time I heeled and toed the car down through the gears, Larry laughed. “Can’t help yourself, can you?” He asked.

It came as naturally as breathing. It was that kind of car. I took it across the Bahia Honda Bridge without going under 110. It was absolutely at peace with the road. I came up on the back of a bright red TR-6 who thought he was speeding just we approached the Seven-Mile bridge. I came up on him quickly, he was probably doing 80 or so, but he had a tendency to use too much of the road for my taste, so I waited for him to make eye contact in his rear-view mirror before I passed him. His look of amazement as we went by was worth the trip. He was the only other car we saw for several miles, but I cooled it a little going across the iconic Seven Mile bridge. No speeding through Marathon, although maybe a little testy with a few of the locals. Back on the throttle headed toward Long Key.

I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant next to Jimmy T’s unmistakable, mustard-yellow 240 Z and reluctantly shut off the ignition. “I thank you sir,” I said as I handed Larry the keys.

“No problem, man, it was a fun ride,” he answered. “You know what you said to the guy in the Triumph?”

“Uh, no, was I rude?” I answered.

“You told him to crap or get off the pot!” he laughed. “The dude was in lala land, he had no idea we where there!”

We had drinks and the neckties were soon stuffed into pant’s pockets. Al, one of the other Miami CE's on call in the keys, pulled in about twenty minutes later and we ordered dinner. We were the last customers in the restaurant when we finally paid our tabs and slowly headed toward the parking lot. There had been a lot of teasing and taunting between Larry and Jimmy T while we drank and told car stories, especially about the ride up from Key West. Jimmy T’s 240 Z was pretty much stock, but he loved to rib Larry about how much Larry treasured his immaculate automobile. As we walked through the parking lot, I felt a curious air between the two Z-car owners. I knew this was serious. This was going to be a race.

Jimmy T pulled out first, and it was obvious he was just as serious as Larry was. The first ten miles back through Tavernier were cat and mouse, but Jimmy T was on his toes. He wouldn’t let Larry in front of him. Nothing Larry tried worked. Jimmy T kept his Z-car just far enough in front to maintain his advantage all the way to Key Largo where the highway opened up to a four lane, divided highway. Larry decided to back off and let Jimmy get comfortable. Larry drove as fast as he dared in the 55 mile per hour speed zone. For those who have never driven this stretch, it is one of the most highly monitored sections of the Keys. He was barely over the speed limit, trying not to draw attention as we kept inching toward Jimmy T’s odd colored sports car, cruising in the right lane of US Highway One just barely in front of us. It was a sweet, beautiful Florida night, and one of the few times the four-lane divided highway through Key Largo was empty of traffic. No one out after Midnight during the week. We had the Overseas Highway to ourselves.

The last several miles of monotonous, almost hypnotic driving along the dark, empty divided highway of north Key Largo seduced Jimmy T. He occasionally glanced at his passenger. I joked to Larry they weren’t talking about cars. We were approaching the gentle, left hand turn where the two lanes of northbound US 1 in Key Largo merge into a single lane, headed toward the drawbridge over Jewfish creek. Larry didn’t want to alert Jimmy T he was positioning for our one and only chance to pass him. If we were too early, he could have easily beat us to the apex of the curve. The gentle left curve, besides being a merge lane, also starts the beginning of a double yellow line that runs uninterrupted for the next several miles. A beautiful, empty road, late at night with perfect weather and visibility, and a once in a lifetime challenge. Nobody but us. How long will it take to get from Jewfish Creek to Florida City?

Jimmy T looked to his right toward the old Card Sound Round as we passed under the last traffic signal for the next twenty miles and I yelled “Go!" Larry downshifted to third gear and jammed the accelerator to the floor. The red Datsun 240 Z howled, and snapped my head back in the passenger’s seat. We screamed past Jimmy T, apexing the curve perfectly. Timing is everything and it was a perfect pass. There was no way short of Florida Highway Patrol intervention would Larry lift his right foot. Larry slammed into 4th, then 5th gear and I watched the speedometer hit 120 as we screamed across Lake Surprise headed toward the drawbridge over Jewfish creek. He did slow down a little as we rocketed across the metal grating on the bridge. Jimmy T was right on our rear bumper.

The first curve after the Jewfish Creek bridge was a super fast, left hand sweeper and Jimmy T’s headlights faded further and further behind. Larry lifted a little for the right-hander as we skirted Black Water Sound headed toward the bend just before the County Line Marina. Jimmy T’s headlights were immediately glaring in our fastback’s rear window. Once we were past the Marina entrance it was time to roll, and we did. Except for the Thiokol drawbridge. Larry considered the effect the metal grating would have, so he slowed down to 80 or 85 as we sped over it.

The last chance Jimmy T had to pass us was just after the bridge where the highway opened up to what was known as a suicide street, one of those wicked, three lane abominations that were designed to kill people, but the only thing in sight was the distant glare of Florida City on the horizon. Larry never lifted his foot again. The six cylinder engine was mechanical perfection. The sound of almost seven thousand RPM proved all was in harmony. Every time I looked at the Speedometer it was between 120 and 125. There were no other cars on the road. Not even one. Jimmy T faded further and further back. He wasn’t going to catch us.

We pulled into the Last Chance Saloon parking lot in Florida City just under ten minutes after we crossed the Jewfish Creek bridge. A touch over 19 miles for an average speed of a little over 115mph. We got the famous middle finger salute and a big grin from Jimmy T. His terrified passenger looked liked he had been embalmed.