Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ninety Days in Margaritaville

Before Jimmy Buffet and the Parrot People, his ubiquitous song, his search for his lost jigger of salt, and blown out flip flops, I spent a summer in the southernmost place in the United States—Key West Florida. We blew out our flip-flops and lost our salt before it was fashionable but mostly we flew air-to-air exercises over Dry Tortugas and the exquisite coral reefs that surround the Keys.

Key West was then and is now a beautiful place. It was as funky then and it is now. More so then perhaps, since it was true funk and not some invented anarchistic southern imitation of New Orleans to attract the tourists. Hemingway’s favorite bar was still in operation. A few came just to see it, but most to do serious drinking in it. President Truman’s “summer White House,” was not a tourist site as it has become but rather a modest compound on the Naval Base with a few signs to let you know that was what it was. It was a town of fisherman, artists, retirees, crazy people, and a lot of the Navy. The crazy people were represented in each of the other groups.The main base at Key West hosted submarines, destroyers, frigates and other ships of the Sixth Fleet. Cuba was 90 miles away, still considered a military threat that the Navy took seriously. The Cuban Missile Crisis was well before our time, but some of the older base personnel remembered when foxholes and missile launchers had bristled on the beaches of the main island next to the conch shells and the place was under Martial Law.

The only remnant that remained in my time there were the two fully armed “hot pad” planes on 24 hour “two minutes from launch” status which would launch periodically when some unknown radar blip (usually an airliner without the proper code displayed) came through Cuban airspace and headed in our direction. In an oddity one supposes explainable only by the Pentagon, this “hot pad” was manned by Air Force pilots and occasionally Marines on “vacation” from up the coast at the Marine Air Station Cherry Point in South Carolina, but never by the Navy. Boca Chica Key is one north of Key West in the chain of Keys and the Naval Air Station was located there and went by that name. We did our flying in the Replacement Air Group, or “The RAG” as it was colloquially known.

The RAG was where the young and the inexperienced in a type of aircraft learned how to fly it before being deployed to an operational squadron. Pilots coming out of older aircraft or returning to full flight status after a staff job reentered flight status there as well. We were there after initial training in smaller less powerful aircraft. The Marine pilots had left us and went directly to operational squadrons to be taught the fine points of the aircraft they would spend the next year flying. The Navy preferred this more centralized version, since it made the training the point. They disliked having to train and be operational at the same time. This was, for the newly minted aviator, the last stop before going “to the fleet.” For the older transitioning aviators it was a required stop before returning to operational flying.

Our time then was spent in classrooms or flying reasonably low risk, high excitement flights in good weather. We were now “in type,” flying the aircraft we would fly in the Fleet. In some ways it was the best of times since we knew where we had finished on the ladder of Naval Aviator success and we were flying as much as three times a day to finish a brutal three-month syllabus. Unless we did something incredibly stupid at this point, we had only to worry about surviving the experience to assume what we believed, in the egotism reserved for the young, to be our rightful place. In all, it was a pleasant time. We were young, mostly, I the youngest, most still single with money for the first time in our young lives and except for the insidious heat and the lack of regular female companions anywhere south of Miami, we enjoyed our 50 hours a week of ground school and day and night flying.

We were a mixed group of young and old now, of experienced pilots of other aircraft types and the “newbie” kids getting the first taste of this heady times in our lives. Most of us found our first heroes here among these crusty veterans with their 300 hours of flight time. They were only their late twenties or early thirties, but had already flown many times from carrier decks on earlier deployments, knew wonderful and scary stories, tricks to make it all easier, smoked cigars, and drank with both hands.

My first such hero graduated the Naval Academy. He was several years my senior and many years wiser. He was an extraordinarily cheerful man from Los Angeles California with an infectious laugh and the improbable middle name of “Flak.” It was his grandmother’s family name. His first name was Charles but few knew that since he was known as Flak in our world had been, apparently, since boyhood. It seems improbable that a boy with the given names of Charles Flak would go to a military Academy and end up flying high performance aircraft, but here he was transitioning from an older one to the newest one in the fleet.

He introduced me to a number of wonderful things, not the least of which was how to have a wonderful time while working a 50-hour week and how to be much focused when it was time to do that. He induced a life long passion for the ugly but delicious avocado, which he claimed he used as butter growing up since they had an avocado tree in the back yard. I also met through him the strange looking vegetable that one boiled to death, peeled the leaves, dipped in butter, and then sort of ripped them through your teeth. I still find the artichoke a little strange. Last, since I was the junior officer of the house, he taught me the art of making frozen daiquiris and the now infamous margarita in mason jars. When I came home on Friday nights that was my task, which befit my junior status, so that they would be ready for the others.

There were five of us living in a rented a house in the Old Town section of Key West near the beach. It was a lovely rambling place which was not air conditioned, yet was pleasant enough because of the broad windows, and shutters that regulated the sun and the breeze.

The house was below and slightly to the right of the flight path to Air Station’s most used runway. When making radar controlled approaches to it--and we did nearly all the time, even in good weather, simply for the practice of doing it when we would be required to do in the bad weather places to come--we passed over the house. Flak discovered that if you counted to three after you passed over the coastline of Key West, reduced the throttles to zero, and then ran them back up, the aircraft made a distinct and peculiar noise we described as that of a sneezing elephant. He also calculated that it took 30 minutes from that moment to land, debrief, change clothes, and drive home. Whenever one of us flew near time for dinner on a weekend night, someone in the house would note the time of the noise and put steak or chicken on the charcoal grill at the appropriate time. When the flier came through the door, he could be confident his dinner would be ready.

One hot Saturday morning, I helped Flak assemble a scooter in the yard of the house. The scooter had come from his family when he told them how incredibly boring a place Key West could be in summer. It arrived in a box and about ten paper bags and had about a one horsepower engine. My minor mechanical expertise learned in all the service stations I had worked through college help us get it running to Flak’s everlasting gratitude.

Once assembled and tested driven by all of us, we planned a household competition to see who could ride it the farthest without getting stopped by the police. It stood about three feet off the ground so it takes some imagination to picture a grown man (physically grown, that is), in a bathing suit and flip flops, knees out to the side, arms akimbo, roaring down the sidewalk or street on this contraption at it's top speed of 6 mph. It had neither a muffler to quiet the din or the blue smoke from its two-stroke lawnmower engine. We found that afternoons and late evening were best for rides. The scooter was named “Mach 1.” Its trips were usually three blocks to the beach and back and no one much cared. In this funky town, this was tame stuff. Flak, who was about five eight and built like a cinderblock, would don fins and a snorkel mask for the trip. The neighbors found the sight as funny as we did .

There was a group of Peace Corps volunteers training that summer at a school some blocks away. They were to be assigned to islands in Micronesia . Obviously, the Florida Keys was a good venue to approximate the eventual destination. The climate was right and there are many small Keys accessed only by water. Unfortunately in one of its few lapses in judgment now near the end of its heyday, the Peace Corps took about anyone who volunteered into this group without the much screening. At least that is how the Navy people heard it. In truth, this was one of the last groups of the original Peace Corps. They were true “hippies” who may or may not have felt volunteer service was a useful way to spend two years after college, but an excellent way to stay undrafted. Living mere blocks from each other then here in this small island paradise were steely-eyed fighter pilots and weapons officers, and a group of unscreened young folks with peace tattoos and long stringy hair who did not think much of warriors and we not much of them. Few academics could have dreamt up a better experiment in the reaction of oil to water.

Since they moved about and worked in groups nearly all the time, and we were often home at odd hours because of dispirit flying schedules, our opportunities to annoy them were abundant. "Mach 1” was used to make regular afternoon or early evening “low passes” through the schoolyard where classes were in session on the way to or from the beach. Flak had started this ritual because he thought it was funny. He was genuinely astonished that they were not amused. Our association with him branded the rest of us who lived in the house as sociopathic so far as they were concerned. Socialization became out of the question. Flak had thought the scooter a great joke that he only wished to share. Attempts even to say hello were often rebuffed after that. That was too bad. The single men outnumbered single women (if young military dependents were not counted) by a factor of three or more during the months when the contract schoolteachers were not on the island. That number was at least reversed among the volunteer trainees.

Harassing volunteers was not something any of us ordinarily would consider a sport. Some of us had friends who had been in the Peace Corps. This group was strange, however, and we were so wrapped up in the “cause of freedom’ doctrine we were living everyday that we reacted to each other in the worst possible way. Nothing truly serious ever happened. Occasionally a stream of truly ugly words with which we were quite familiar came from a classroom window when a "low pass" was performed. Sometimes a group on the street would yell at us when we passed and we would return the favor. It all seems quite tame now, but our friend had started it so we felt compelled to defend the his right to ride an unregistered, un-muffled midget scooter anywhere he pleased, and were sufficiently annoyed with them that we did it when he wasn’t there to do it himself.

One evening, in the haze of a night spent with margaritas, the five of us were discussing the aerodynamic properties (or lack thereof) and fuel capacity of Mach 1. We decided that whoever amongst us managed to drive the scooter to the bar in town we usually hung out in and back to the house--which was what we believed about the limit of the fuel on board--would be awarded the “The Order of the Scooter, with Combat Cluster.” It had to be done when it was dark to make it more of a challenge. Police contact also had to be avoided. Our RAG Commander didn’t like talking to the police about his charges. If you have ever participated in a group decision made in that state, you know how right and just it can seem at the time.

Flak came home late from a cross-country flight one Friday evening some weeks later annoyed that the plane had broken and he had to land in Pensacola to get it fixed. Hungry and thirsty, he discovered the margaritas, food, and us gone. He had been scheduled to go to Miami that afternoon to spend the weekend in the company of the opposite sex and had missed the trip.

When he found "Mach 1” propped up against the steps of the house, he decided to go to the aforementioned bar where he assumed he would find us. We had all vaguely sketched a route one afternoon which we thought the most likely to get us there and back without police assistance. None of us had been scheduled for the Miami run that weekend so the bar was usually where we ended up to ogle the few available local ladies. Despite the clarity of thought in his sobriety, but likely because of his utter disgust with being stuck one more warm and humid weekend on the island at the bottom of the United States, Flak decided to take the honors offered by his noble scooter.

Over sidewalks, through shrubbery and backyards down a substantial part of Roosevelt Avenue he went astride his three foot high unlighted steed sounding like a broken lawnmower and looking as a turtle. He said later that he achieved the parking lot and, as luck would have it, someone opened the bar door just then. Without further thought and to get a "confirmed sighting” to assure his status as the Scooter Ace, he went through the door spewing blue smoke and horrific noise. He made a circuit of the dance floor--to a standing ovation--and headed home on a different street. He told us on his return later that he dropped the scooter near the house before sprinting to the beach just to be elsewhere when the Key West police inevitably showed up. They did, but no one was home and the scooter wasn’t found.

Some days later, in a much less sober state, he was awarded the Order of the Scooter" with appropriate ceremony. He became a folk hero in the squadron. There was some grumbling about the fact that he had done the deed while sober. Yet his sense of whimsy and the driving competitive spirit we all possessed at the time allowed him to dismiss such criticism. To anyone in earshot, he proclaimed that now he was not only The Greatest Naval Aviator Who Absolutely Ever Lived, but also The Best Scooter Driver in The Free World. Humility does not find fertile ground in the minds of the young men who spend a good part of their day driving jet aircraft. Hyperbole does and thus flourishes. If they are very lucky, they survive to learn that such a virtue has merit.

Most of us from the house were scheduled to go to a squadron on the East Coast. The vagaries of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, however, sent some one way and some the other. I got orders to go to a West coast base and my hero and scooter building friend stayed in the East. We lost contact with each other in the conventional sense although the community of Naval Aviation is small enough always to know in some vague way where we all are. I found new heroes. Flak found a career, new friends to laugh with, and then a family with which he did the same. When it was over for him, he retired as a Captain (the same as a full Colonel for those who do not translate ranks from the arcane Navy to the "uniform services") after commanding an aircraft carrier and a distinguished, even heroic career.

I saw him once after I was done. We had dinner when I visited Pensacola where he and many other Navy personnel retire and we laughed and shook our heads over the days of youthful exuberance. Flak was his usual ebullient self and produced the cheesy piece of tin that is The Order of the Scooter. He gave it to me saying only that he wanted me to have it so that I would remember all that was good about our times in Margaritaville.

It hangs here in a frame just over my shoulder.


  1. This only a small taste, I'm sure, of the memories you have of that life. Never have I even stepped inside a plane. Great story of the scooter and its order.

  2. It was great fun and hard work, but there has been much fun and hard work in my life.
    I see that time as a childhood of sorts and there is a time to put away the things of childhood. I did. I do not miss it. Oncein awhile enjoy writing of the interesting and often bizarre characters from that time.

  3. An excellent read - A vivid picture of your household at the time!

    And interesting in that I've been recalling memories of a few times in Key West in response to posts on 2 other blogs.

    It has been 18-20 years since I've been in Key West. Sloppy Joes is the bar I remember as Hemingway's favorite but not sure that is right.

  4. Sloppy Joes is correct, and that is about how many years you would have to go back to find the "real" Key West!

  5. I enjoyed this post! :-) guess we've all got key west on the brain. LOL

  6. Some years ago, I spent two weeks in Homestead Florida.
    I had rented a car to drive around and went down to Key West. I was terribly disappointed as everything had become built up and modernized. I didn't stay long.
    Lovely post. I so enjoy your "stories".

  7. A great story, Reamus! Turn it into a TV screenplay and sell it to Hollywood!

  8. Reamus, so glad you commented on my blog, which led me to yours. What a wonderful story - great post. I look forward to going back and reading your older posts as well.

  9. An excellent tale well told, Reamus. I'm here on the recommendation of Ann from Montana, and a most-excellent recommendation it is!

    Just gotta ask... do you read Lex? I don't recognize your nic... but that doesn't mean anything, as some folks read and never comment. Given as how the Naval Aviation community is relatively small and VERY tight I suspect you have read him. His tales of Key West are pretty good, too. He flew in what we Zoomies call an Aggressor Squadron down there in the '80s (in the F-16N and other jets), and retired as a Captain this past summer.

  10. Buck,

    I have not read Lex, but I will drop over and look.This and one other post have something to do with my days in the Navy. Mostly, it is where I go and what I see now. I travel about five months a year so there is lots to tell about now, which seems more important to me than yesterday...
    Thanks a lot for stopping in. I hope you get back. There is a post in the achives called "Making the Right Stuff" you might enjoy if you liked this one.

    Thanks again for the kind words.