by Randall Beaird
Key West was built for the tourist. Everyone likes to make a buck–at Key West they are quite good at it. There is a lot to see, a lot to do.
In the 1800’s the wrecking industry made Key West the richest city in the United States. Ships loaded with goods crashed onto the reefs a few miles off the beach. Wreckers from lookout towers yelled, “Wreck Ashore!” and the race was on. The first boat to reach the floundering vessel got the largest portion of cargo. They saved lives, but there was a price to pay.
I found a small efficiency room for $50/night. It was only a few hundred yards from Ernest Hemingway’s Estate. Born in 1899, he lived in Key West during the 1930’s and wrote many of his novels there. Considered by some to be the greatest American writer ever, I enjoyed seeing where he wrote. It was a small second floor room behind the house. To discourage interruptions he had a ropebridge walkway leading to his hide-out.
One day the writer returned from overseas to find that his wife spent $20,000 to build a swimming pool, the only one between Havana and Miami at the time. As the story goes, in a fit of anger, Hemingway took a penny from his pocket and threw it in the wet cement near the pool and yelled, “Here, why don‘t you take my last penny!” I saw that penny.
A sea captain gave Hemingway a six-toed cat. His estate now has about fifty of these critters slinking around, about half with six toes. Listening to the stories from the tour guide and seeing that penny was worth the $9.00 admission. In the last years of his life, his physical and mental health deteriorated, and he received electroshock treatment to combat anxiety, depression, and paranoid delusions. In 1961 he took his own life. He was quite a fisherman, an incredible writer.
Meanwhile, five miles north, I found the best spear fishing to be over the sea grass. Paddling around, hovering above the shimmering life below, usually no more than twelve feet deep, I felt my effective shooting range was about ten feet.
At this depth, I was about forty feet from the traffic on Highway 1. I couldn’t see the cars becausethe road was lined with mangrove trees, trees that appeared to be standing on their tippy toes. Their roots spread like crusty arthritic fingers over the water before stabbing themselves into the silty marsh mud.
There was nothing big enough to eat swimming in the mangrove trees, but swimming through their roots produced some of the most vivid memories of my trip. Just for fun, I would tie my dive float sign to a tree and weave in and out of the trees barely skimming above the murky bottom.
Juvenile fish from every family seemed to be hanging out in the roots. Seeing such a traffic jam of fish with a jungle of branches overhead was impressive but not for swimmers against claustrophobia. I could hardly squeeze through the roots and jellyfish left little welts on my arms. They were either baby jellyfish or ones half dead and tangled in the roots–they were either learning how to sting or giving me a good one for the road.
Once in twelve feet of water, over the sea grass, I was stalking a four pound mangrove snapper when it swam right over a five foot sand shark on the bottom. My gaze went from shark to snapper more than once; I pondered the implications of a direct hit and a possible bloody buffet. It could start as a fondue appetizer for the shark if he grabbed the speared snapper, but end as a drive-thru take-out order on my knees. I wasn’t too sad when I missed that one.
Once while snorkeling at the Higgs Beach pier, I came face to face with a six foot shark. It’s the first time I swam backwards for twenty feet, only because I couldn’t see where it went. I think it was a sand shark but a shark is a shark when you‘re from Texas.
After five hours of looking for dinner, I noticed my fingers were looking like prunes. I was wrinkled and starving when a small school of spanish mackerel surrounded me. There was about fifteen three pounders, a curious one four feet away. When you land a fish it flounces, when you spear one it crashes. It wasn’t pretty, but sure looked good on the grill. It tasted even better.