Sunday, April 24, 2011

Alas, Gumbo Limbo

In 1982, my family killed off an entire animal species: the Florida Woodrat. But I never really knew for sure. After it happened, we just tucked that bit of nastiness way down deep in the quiet crevices of our brains.

But then 28 years later, I began having these menacing, bug-fogged memories invade my sleep. All night, I'd listen as my heart pulsed through my pillow. One day I had to follow my heart and I Googled it. My keyword search: REMORSE, REGRET, RAT

When I was 12, we moved to Key Largo, Florida. Dad was a civil engineer and project manager. He took a job on a proposed luxury resort called Port Bougainville. Key Largo is the first Key in the chain of islands including Islamorada, Marathon, Key West and more (Honkey, Monkey, Dorkey).

Port Bougainville was financed by Fritz Scharenberg, a successful Key Biscayne developer. His project - our project - suffered financial, public, environmental and divine opposition.

But it wasn't the first time a development failed on this site. In the '70s there was the North Key Largo Yacht Club project (aka Solarelle) that had over 400 acres of property on both sides of HWY-905. This was just north of the dividing point of US-1 and CR-905. In 1980, Scharenberg took over and re-christened the effort Port Bougainville. Over 2800 units were planned.

Environmentalists arrived, attempting to save Key Largo and the reef. The matter was eventually solved by the lender bank. In 1984, the Continental Illinois and Trust called in the $54 million construction loan in default and construction ceased. Originally, the loan had a $180 million line of credit. Scharenberg filed a counter suit for $300 million and the project was placed in receivership to control day-to-day functions. The environmental groups rejoiced, but small construction projects continued through 1985.

Key Largo was also a good 1948 movie from director John Huston - a man who would make an excellent Fritz Scharenberg had our family drama hit the big screen.

Humphrey Bogart travels to a run-down hotel in Key Largo to honor a friend who died in his WWII unit. Lauren Bacall is the widow and runs the hotel with her father. Soon all are imprisoned by a hurricane and Edward G. Robinson's gangster crew. Bogart - numb from the war - is reluctant to fight back, but Robinson soon becomes too stormy to take. In one part, Bogart taunts the dirty rat: "You don't like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it."

For Dad, Port Bouganville was his last resort. He was 45 and bored. Happily motoring down the Florida Turnpike in an Artie Grindle customized Ford van, he and Mom whisked me, my older brother and our dogs toward a new destiny. As a reoccurring joke, somebody would start singing this new popular song by Bertie Higgins called "Key Largo."

We had it all (we had it all)
Just like Bogie and Bacall (we had it all)
Something, something
Copyright infringement,
just like we did in Key Largo

Here's lookin' at you kid (here's looking at you)
You get the idea (let's move on)

So we were riding the zeitgeist as you can see. I'm sure somebody else thought that - maybe mom - because I'm 12. What the hell is a zeitgeist?

We moved into the dilapidated remains of an abandoned condo from the previous project. These few empty condos were open to the elements and available for critter occupancy for some years now. Mom fixed up our squatter's den with a little paint and some scorpion remover. She made a home. A safe haven...well, so long as we wore thick-soled shoes. It was rather wild. But we were happy. Other families from the project were our neighbors. A small and sociable group. We'd grill burgers at the marina clubhouse. Take walks along the unused docks. Play tennis. It was us against the world.

My brother and I would swipe beers out of the "Investor's Fridge" and sneak away to sun ourselves on the roof of a vacant condo. Down below, varmints mingled with one of our conspirator's cars - a Ferrari - who parked it in the living room.

There was music: Flock of Seagulls, Foreigner 4, Van Halen's Diver Down, B-52's Wild Planet, Human League and John Cougar's American Fool. Jack and Diane. A little ditty.

We'd take our Dachshund and Basset Hound and explore this strange abandoned landscape.

Alas, Babylon! We're the only survivors after a hushed-up nuclear holocaust. We march through inevitable forests, pushing our way through vines that strangle columns of Gumbo-limbos - the local Conch Republicans call them "tourist trees." In the sun, see a Gumbo-limbo's kiwi-colored, smooth bark flake and reveal pink undertones. Radiation poisoning? Hey, wasn't this the site of that missile silo aimed at Cuba in the '50s?

One time when we were playing tennis, I paused a few minutes to watch this Bigfoot-like creature come up out of the mangroves. We called it Swamp Ape. I watched as the creature killed and devoured a passing hobo. Happening upon our tennis game, the unfortunate homeless man had both the bad luck to wander off the highway and the nerve to heckle my serve. Swamp Ape heard it. During a match, Swamp Ape enforced crowd control with extreme prejudice. The creature finished up the hobo, turned to me, curtsied and lumbered back to his mangroves. "15, love," I called out, regaining my game face.

After that game, on our path of reluctant return, we stomped on the snail shells and limes. Trudging along we would make our own song. Our reveilles spoke eulogies for sea debris, dynamite did move it to hear. Surely that beat we made in the heat would blow away past Bougain-villains. The ocean channels they cut from limestone waited for boats that would never come. And...wait a minute. Oh, rats! The Dachshund has just rolled in something dead by the entrance. It smells. Our journey was over. We would resume a civilized tune as we put foot back on the pavement. Concrete and fissured foundations. Alas, Gumbo-limbo!

In the evenings, snails slimed along our sliding glass doors. And there were lots of mosquitoes. Lots and lots of mosquitoes. They loved me. I'd get to scratching and end up with these ugly sores on my ankles. I was never there long enough to develop a thick skin. To this day, I sleep better if I hear a bug zapper zapping outside my door. Bzz-app!

In August we started school. Me at Plantation Key Elementary. My brother at Coral Shores High School. Four months later we were gone. I've never been back.

I had my first kiss in Key Largo. It felt good. Sure it did. I had a zeitgeist in my pocket. I was in my own fantasy world.

Dad never told me what they were doing to the rats. I didn't know rats could bend like that. It was horrible. Horrible! Oh the rat-tanity.

So why am I telling you this? I run a sanctuary for a new species - a hybrid I've created from mixing a Dachshund, a Basset Hound and an exiled Cuban flotilla rat. Our center is located behind a Chinese buffet in Orlando and the Dach-Bassubas, as they are known, seem to like it. And so do the Chinese. So take that, Fritz Scharenberg! You can't keep a good rat down.

To paraphrase a 1982 Monroe County grand jury report: "proper development of the Florida Keys is the most critical issue facing the people of this county, yet no evidence was presented showing criminal conduct by any public official or anyone involved in the Port Bougainville Development. This grand jury can only conclude that the performance of governmental agencies involved will stand as a landmark in ineptitude."

Port Bougainville is now history and slowly returning to its natural habitat.

Bzzz-app! Bzzz-app!

Lift high your golden bug lamp of destiny and cream your sores with the wretched refuse blasted from the sea. Opportunities come and go. When you think you have it all, remember Bogie and Bacall, just like we did in Key Largo.

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