Saturday, December 28, 2013

Eight Days in August by Dana George

Annie Logan didn’t belong in the makeshift Union jail.  When they razed the building she fell unconscious to the street, potentially into the hands of rapacious soldiers.  Despite her peril, Annie is initially annoyed at being rescued by a shady pair of locals, Duncan and Tom.  Duncan is good-hearted, compassionate and married to a suspicious shrew.  Tom is disagreeable, cranky and nominated to give Annie a place of refuge until she can find her way home to the father Tom considers to be a dangerous enemy.  The story unfolds against the backdrop of atrocities perpetrated by both Union and Confederate militias on the civilian population of divided Kansas.  Spies, turncoats and despots who wreak havoc on the countryside overrun the state.  Annie’s plight is complicated by her father’s partisanship, her rescuers’ duplicitous natures and devotion to a mountainous woman who is Tom’s childhood friend.

Eight Days in August by Dana George is a classic Clint Eastwood style western interwoven with the complicated loyalties bred of the Civil War.  It offers the reader action, intrigue, romance and history.  The depth of Mrs. George’s characters draws the reader into a story that moves with an excellent pace toward a timeless and satisfying resolution.  The broad appeal of this book defies categorization.  Anyone looking for good, solid entertainment is going to enjoy Eight Days in August.

78,930 words
Price: $.99  (Well, worth a buck!)

Buy at Amazon

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hamfist Down by G. E. Nolly

Shot down on his final reconnaissance flight over Cambodia, Hamilton Hancock (Hamfist) hangs from his parachute harness in the canopy until daylight when he is able to find his way to the ground, then he has to evade the Viet Cong until Search and Rescue can extricate him.  He almost escapes unscathed.  A burgeoning romance with a Japanese-American beauty helps motivate Hamfist’s recovery and guides his military career decisions.  Then he has one more incident over the clandestine battleground during the illegal incursion into Cambodia and Laos during the Viet Nam War.

Hamfist Down is a gritty, true to life depiction of an airman’s experiences during that secretive and unpopular war.  George Nolly writes from experience in the jargon of the time and place.  Hamfist’s character development portrays him as both hardboiled and sensitive and one suspects that he is the author’s alter ego.  This fast paced, relatively short slice of history succeeds more with realism than drama.  It is an entertaining window into a period of American history that has not always been truthfully told.

37630 Words
Price $3.99

Buy at Smashwords 

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Bad Apple

The weather deteriorated rapidly after leaving Chief Red Hawk in Southampton County, Virginia.  Our next stop was Arlington where we were determined to visit a friend at the National Cemetery.  Once more the GPS bitch tried to kill us.  Sometimes I question whether she is malignant or simply blond, but the conundrum of DC area freeways was more than her geosynchronous brain could handle.  In truth it wasn’t completely her fault that we crossed and re-crossed the same interchange twenty times.  Road conditions were worsened by the snow, construction—ubiquitous construction, trucks and Democrats.  Regarding construction, the whole national highway system is under repair which is a two edged sword.  It certainly needs it after long dark decades of neglect that allowed our once superb roads to lapse to into a bone jarring disgrace of misspent public money.  The downside of highway restoration is the superabundance of those “Fines Doubled” signs.  The offensive things are everywhere.  Construction was completed two years ago, or ten miles ago, but the signs are still there, or appropriation of funds is pending a vote in the next legislative session, but those cunning politicians know they can raise revenue by putting the signs out immediately.  My objection is the concept that highway workers are somehow twice as precious as the rest of us.  Of course the legislators are not the least concerned for the poor muddy schmucks idling behind the K-rails, they are only thinking of money.  Some states are more creative than others.  New Jersey doesn’t bother with the construction zone myth, they double fines if the speed limit is sixty-five.  Other states double fines in “Safety Corridors.”  What the hell is a Safety Corridor?  Are they saying that on rest of the road it is okay to be unsafe?  Texas probably has the most rational rules of the road.  Whoever sets Florida’s speed limits is either bipolar or rolls dice to decide how fast people should drive on any given mile of highway.  New Jersey and New York’s speed limits are totally insane and they are universally ignored, well, speed limits are universally ignored everywhere, aren’t they?  As for our home state, California is just plain stupid.

Enough ranting about the foolishness of state and local government, let’s get back to the cemetery.  Arlington, once you find it, is stunningly beautiful.  The endless identical markers standing in ranks on the rolling hills of Robert E. Lee’s confiscated home strike the first time observer viscerally.  The staff in the visitors’ center was extremely efficient at directing us to the grave we wanted to visit.  Lou Mauro, air force colonel, veteran of WWII and Korea, professional football player and long time family friend, rests near the leading edge of the endlessly growing field of white stones.  We were moved paying our respects, however hurriedly the weather forced us to do it.  That same weather convinced us to skip visiting the Eternal Flame, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Marine Corps Memorial which, at the end of the day, was a wise decision because the ice storm worsened to the extent that the Outback Steakhouse adjacent to the Holiday Inn of Laurel, Maryland closed two hours early.  We were some of the last to dine in relative comfort and plenty that evening.  Everyone else in the elevator clutched pizza delivery flyers.  Presumably pizza delivery boys are braver than the manager of the Outback Steakhouse.

We weren’t on Manhattan fifteen minutes before I hated it.  The usurious tolls beginning in Maryland and culminating in a thirteen-dollar larceny at the Lincoln Tunnel should dissuade any reasonable person from proceeding, but we had prepaid reservations at a converted brownstone in the lower west side with a room rate close to twice what we paid for a really nice place on Key West.  Before we could inspect our accommodations we had to unload three-hundred pounds of baggage without the boon of a loading zone.  Double parking on Manhattan is as common as potholes but I wasn’t there two minutes with my flashers blinking and traffic passing freely before one of New York’s finest, finest pig maybe, stopped on my bumper, blocking the street, and honking until I felt obliged to flee.  Barricaded avenues, prohibited left turns and exclusively one-way streets kept me circling for fifteen minutes until I found my way to where Sandy and the innkeeper crouched in the doorway.  Of course there was no alternative to double parking, and in the absence of malicious cops, nobody gave it a second thought.

The room was surprisingly large and tolerably warm if somewhat shabby in its appointments.  One could almost squeeze into the bathroom while shutting the door but there were no surfaces on which to set toiletries.  The back of the toilet was cunningly sloped so that anything placed on it slid into the bowl.  We were naive in thinking that an exorbitant price assured maid service.  We did see her, however, when she brought an armload of towels that we didn’t need but refused to make the bed or rinse the glasses.  A sign outside the window informed us that we were in Historic Chelsea.  I believed it’s historic.  The last time it was updated the Dutch owned it.

Fools that we are, we didn’t linger in the relative luxury of the room, we charged into the rain and gale walking thirty blocks to see the Christmas festivities at Rockefeller Center which would have been nice but for all those annoying people.

We had drinks and dinner in an iconic place called P.J. Clarke’s which was pleasant enough until you tried to move.  Opening the door to the restroom required the displacement of at least a dozen people.  Our effervescent waitress warned me to take note of the ancient urinals which were as tall as I was and must have contained four or five hundred pounds of porcelain apiece.  I tried to photograph them surreptitiously using Sandy’s phone but it was too dark.  The shepherd’s pie was average.  Sandy’s burger with three types of chiles was better—she always makes better choices than I do.

In the morning we took the subway to visit the Ground Zero Memorial.  One might expect it to be easy to find—one unfamiliar with the obfuscating nature of New York, that is.  We slogged around in the freezing rain for an hour, following locals’ misdirection, until we stumbled onto a banner lashed to a construction fence that pointed to the entrance.  One doesn’t simply walk to the brink of the abyss and pay his respects.  No, one must enter labyrinthine queues depending on whether you are preauthorized or hoping the passes aren’t all gone.  Early on a miserable day the passes were plentiful but leaving a donation and receiving a pass is not free passage to the site.  There is airport style security to negotiate.  The only outrage we didn’t suffer was removing our shoes.  In my opinion, making visitors run that gauntlet to see the 9/11 memorial is tantamount conceding that the terrorists won.

The memorials themselves, one covering each of the footprints of the two towers, are eerily appropriate.  Everyone having seen them on the news knows that they are rectangular chasms surrounded by a parapet with the names of the victims incised on the broad, black top.  Curtains of water falling from all four sides are artfully contrived to minimize turbulence when it crashes to the floor of the fountain.  Ultimately the water flowing into a seemingly bottomless pit at the center of the pool is darkly appropriate for what took place there.

More than 1.6 million residents share Manhattan with at least that many commuters and uncountable tourists, but there are only two public toilets—one in Grand Central Station and the other I’m generously conceding must exist somewhere.  A pot of coffee followed by a couple hours in the cold rain is a recipe for urgency.  We had hopes of a warm, comfortable lunch in some cozy tavern redolent with history, but my bladder droves us to Charley’s Pizza & Deli where one serves themselves and waits for access to the only functioning restroom.  It was dingy, drafty and fell far short of our lunchtime expectations.  Later we made our way to Wall Street to shoot the bull, but the famous Charging Bull of those heady days when the Dow closes above sixteen-thousand is not on Wall Street.  It is at the foot of Beaver Street—yes, Beaver Street.  Whose idea was that?

We sought refuge in Starbuck’s for a little warmth and access to another bathroom.  Everyplace you enter to buy something legitimizing access to a toilet seems to have two restrooms but one is out of order so there is always a line.  One quickly learns to join the queue before the matter becomes desperate.  Being close to Battery Park, we decided to brave the tempest to get a look at the Statue of Liberty which was hazily discernable through the mist.  Battery Park is a shambles of construction barricades and fences.  We had to dodge puddles and muddy walkways to reach the ideally framed vantage point to view the statue where we found the ever-present cop idling in his car beneath a sign that said, “No pictures from this point.”  It really said that!  In a public park with a perfect view of one of the most photographed American treasures some miscreant tries to prevent people from taking pictures.  Hurricane Sandy was having none of it.  She got her pictures and the cop was too warm and lazy to stop her.

That night we had a pleasant evening with our friends, Sherban and Christina, California exiles counting the days until their repatriation to Claremont.  Sherban supplied me with a prophylactic dose of gin and Christina showed us how to navigate the subway to a station a few blocks closer to our historic hotel.  Nevertheless, we were still chilled to the marrow before we found our unmade bed.  The problem, at least for a novice, is emerging from the underground without landmarks.  No matter which direction you choose to proceed, inevitably within two blocks you know you are one-hundred and eighty degrees off course.

How anyone could claim to love New York is beyond me.  This was my second visit and I had some slight hope that I would see it in a better light than on a miserable Christmas Eve in 1968.  It was a vain hope.  Aside from the wretched climate, the place suffers from excess and scarcity—too many buildings, too little space, way too many people completely self-absorbed.  To move about Manhattan one must abandon every notion of courtesy, be immune to pushing, obstruction and reeking hoards of simply rude smokers crammed in doorways beneath signs prohibiting their vile habit.  The squalor and inadequate sanitation must not bother you and you must be unconcerned that in all likelihood your car will not leave the island without being sideswiped on the too narrow streets.  The whole place is crumbling and redevelopment aims at property value rather than restoration.  The prices are exorbitant and value imaginary.  Concentrating such an excess of people into such a confining space strips the humanity from the human.  Rats go mad when forced to live in hyper populated pens, apparently so do New Yorkers.

On balance I will say in fairness, Sandy loves the place and can’t wait to return without me.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Passel of Hate

When most people think of pivotal Revolutionary War battles, they focus on Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Yorktown.  In A Passel of Hate Joe Epley shows us the gritty truth about the key battle that took place on the Western Carolina frontier at a place know as King’s Mountain which paved the way for the end game at Yorktown.  The guerrilla war that had been raging in the piedmont of North and South Carolina escalated to a showdown when General Cornwallis sent Major Patrick Ferguson on a mission to recruit a substantial Tory militia in the area of modern Charlotte.  Simultaneously the Whigs were amassing a militia to deal with the threat.  The divisiveness of the times—not entirely unlike present times—saw families taking opposite sides, fighting while hoping not to kill loved ones and returning home to glare at one another across the dinner table.  Husband and wives took opposing sides, as did fathers and sons.  Often objectors were pressed into service on the side they detested under threat of the noose.  Few modern Americans would argue that the Revolution was anything but a just and necessary struggle for freedom, however, this was far from the case at the time.  Loyalists and Rebels were nearly evenly divided with plenty of plenty of the undecided simply wanting to be left alone.  A Passel of Hate tells the story of a decisive battle, and the prelude to it, via the personal viewpoints of the participants, exposing the barbarity perpetrated by both sides as well as the in fighting, primarily in the camp of the Whigs, and the complicating factor of concurrent Indian depredation.  Joe Epley shows us clearly how tenuous and costly American independence really was.

My love of history, and familiarity with the area where the battle took place, drew me to this book and I was not disappointed.  The pace is exhilarating, the depth of Joe Epley’s knowledge of the time and place is astounding and the prose satisfyingly straightforward.  The character development is excellent as well.  I have to say that the reader must pay close attention due to frequent point-of-view changes to avoid becoming lost in the labyrinth of partisan intrigue, but this did not detract from my enjoyment of the story.  I certainly hope Mr. Epley is working on his next offering.

Ebook price: $9.99

Buy at Amazon

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

An American Idyll, Chastened by the Chief

After surviving the gauntlet of the greater Miami megalopolis one might be lulled into the fantasy of an off-season escape to the quiet shores near Jupiter, Florida.  Don’t give it a thought.  Apparently no one ever goes there.  There were three fleabag motels between Jupiter and Port Saint Lucy that did not overtly advertise rooms by the hour, but we knew them when we saw them—not that we had experience in such places.  We finally found a place to stay after blowing through the turnpike tollbooth without a ‘Sunshine Pass’—expecting a ticket to be delinquent when we get home—in the middle of a construction site near Vero Beach with no hope of dining within a five-mile radius.  We settled for a TGI Friday’s with an annoyingly gay waiter who could not take an order without trying to enhance it.

As anxious as I was to leave the Sunshine State, I had always wanted to see the Spanish fort at St. Augustine and was cajoled by Sandy’s logic that I probably wouldn’t live long enough to have another chance, so we went.  Castillo de San Marcos is a wonderfully preserved stone fort, classically built, in a perfectly defensive position on the Matanzas bay.  Many of you would say it’s just another pile of rocks, but it’s the kind of rock pile that appeals to me.

Charleston was our goal but GPS, Scott’s poor route choices, and weather became serious obstacles.  We found ourselves deep in ‘Bubba-land’ during a downpour with headlights blinding my geriatric eyes for the last forty miles into Charleston.  A night at the Meeting Street Inn and dinner at Magnolia’s soothed our jagged nerves and put us back on the road the following sunny morning without partaking of Charleston’s charms.  It was a stellar day that lured us back to Georgetown to make that library call we had missed the previous Saturday.  It killed about three hours but we left with the marriage certificate of an obscure, long dead cousin, and that’s what genealogy is all about.

However, it made us late for our date with my niece, Wendy, near Williamsburg and we had to postpone it until Saturday so as not to miss our meeting with the Chief.  The Chief, you say?  I’ll get back to that, but passing through Georgetown reminded me of an anecdote that I should have related in the Thanksgiving episode.  Cousin Robin’s oldest daughter, Jean Marie, lovely, feminine blue-eyed blond, with an urge for blood, has been determined to kill her first deer for five years.  She is a fashion plate in the deer blind in her form fitted camo coverall with chic boots, cap and earmuffs, but do not doubt her deadly earnest.  Jean Marie’s Uncle Rockie delivered her and her fiancée, Richard, to separate blinds each dawn and dusk during our sojourn at Suttons—separate because Richard, the fool, considered his future bride not disciplined enough to shoot deer.  As it came to pass, on Friday evening we older folk were clustered around the fireplace when Jean Marie burst through the door floating on an ecstatic cloud of bloodlust.  She recounted sighting, firing and watching her quarry drop, motionless, with one shot, then she had to sit in blind without phone service, gnawing her manicured fingernails until Uncle Rockie returned to retrieve her, Richard and the prey.  There was much recounting of the details of the kill and infinite arguing over whether to photograph or field dress the hapless doe.  Doe?  You cry indignantly!  Yes, there are so many deer in that part of the state that restrictions on does have been suspended.  The punch line of the tale came when long suffering Richard finished the obligatory evisceration of the cadaver and Jean Marie held court around the hearth.  She said with determination, “I’m gonna get over this twinkle toes excitement and get back there to get me a ten or twelve point buck!”  Love those Southern Belles!

Fast forward to the recent past.  Friday night we sat poised for our rendezvous with the Chief Red Hawk of the Cheroenhaka Indians.  “What the hell?” you say.  So, you haven’t read the book!  Family Traits, my debut literary offering, is the story of how the Skipper clan arrived in the New World and their negative impact upon it.  A certain George Skipper somehow ingratiated himself with the Cheroenhaka Indians, aka, Nottoway Indians, and became a ‘Chief man’ of the tribe.

Some weeks ago I mailed a copy of Family Traits to the attention of Chief Red Hawk for his review with the hope that he would add a link to it on his website and/or put some copies in their tribal bookstore.  Shortly thereafter I got an email: “This is Chief Red Hawk, call me.”  Well, when the Chief calls, you reply.  He said that he liked the book very much, but where was the acknowledgement of the Cheroenhaka website?  He had me there.  I had failed to acknowledge anyone, or include a bibliography.  This long after the writing of it I really didn’t remember what came from where, but I did know that the Official Cheroenhaka website was either the source or the pointer to many of the facts I recounted in my story.  I could only dissemble.  Guilt aside, I very much wanted to meet this man.  He invited me to visit the Cheroenhaka reservation if I were ever in the area, and as luck would have it, I was going to be there this December.

We met in a waffle house for breakfast.  We knew the Chief as he crossed the parking lot by his ponytail and jacket with ‘Chief Red Hawk’ inscribed on the shoulders.  Here began a fascinating few hours.  Chief Red Hawk, aka, Walt Brown, is retired as a colonel from a long career in the Army, he has green eyes, a photographic memory and passion for breakfast.  While I nursed my eggs, grits and country ham, the Chief embraced tea, French toast, poached eggs—over done to his annoyance—sausage, grits, hash browns, toast and a big glass of milk.  He is a repository of history who talks fast and intersperses his narration with Cheroenhaka words, being one of five speakers of the language alive today.  My note taking skills could not keep pace.

When breakfast was done, we retired to the reservation.  Originally the Cheroenhaka received grants from the Colonial Government of the Colony of Virginia in the form of a circular and a square reservation comprising about forty-one thousand acres.  My ancestor, George Skipper and several other Chief men of the “Nottoway”, i.e., Cheroenhaka, were instrumental in selling all those acres to generally unscrupulously speculating, insider trading Indian trustees and their relatives.  Walt and his tribal council are determined to buy back at least a portion of those lands and to win federal recognition of the tribe.  They have already won state recognition and are not likely to fail in attaining federal acceptance given the Chief’s tenacity.

Our private tour of the recreation of Cattashowrock Town in the crux of the Nottoway and Blackwater Rivers where “The People of the Fork of the Rivers,” i.e. Cheroenhaka, thrived for millennia happened on a cold morning with occasional drizzle.  We got to see the recreation of the palisade that I outlandishly attributed in Family Traits to the ingenuity of George Skipper and the long house where I further claimed that George cavorted with Indian maidens.  The Chief took my presumptions with good humor.

The Chief and the tribe have acquired to date one-hundred acres of the former Square Tract where they intend to build a museum and cultural learning center.  As of this writing they have the partially complete palisade, longhouse, two single family houses, a sweat lodge—that would have felt good that morning had it been operating, a ceremonial center and several other examples of Cheroenhaka artifice.  In addition to the construction goals, the Chief and his followers are seeking the repatriation of more than a hundred skeletal remains excavated at the Hand Site and removed to the Smithsonian Institute where they now languish in shoeboxes.

Sadly, I am not eligible for membership in the tribe due a gap in my paper trail between Shadrach Skipper, born c. 1790, and George Skipper, Jr., who died about the same time Shadrach was seeing the light.  I will not relent in my quest for that document, nor will my wife, Hurricane Sandy, let me.  She is convinced the Cheroenhaka will someday have a casino and she wants to get a piece of the cash flow when the slot machines start spinning.

I want to thank Chief Walt, Red Hawk, Brown for his time and his forbearance, and I will rectify the oversight of not including an acknowledgement of the Cheroenhaka website as a source of the historical facts portrayed in Family Traits.  In my defense, I did not acknowledge any of my dozen or so sources and do not now remember what I took from the Chief’s work and what came from primary sources that I discovered independently, however, upon revisiting the Official Cheroenhaka Website, I realize that I didn’t need to look elsewhere.  I would have saved a great deal of time if I had studied it in depth and simply asked for permission to cite it.  It contains the fascinating history of the tribe in rich detail and I invite you to take a look at it at:

Digressing a little, on the way to meet the Chief for breakfast, we passed within a mile of Skipper’s, Virginia, and could not resist stopping at the Good Earth Peanut Store.  The proprietor there is in Skipper denial.  He maintains the source of the town’s name is obscure and that there are no Skipper thereabouts.  However, he has a framed newspaper clipping from the seventies that suggests the name came from George Skipper’s 1685 patent of a piece of land in the area and that he may have also operated a trading post there.  I believe all that is probably true but the strongest evidence of Skipper influence is that the gentleman running the store is the spitting image of my grandfather.


Next time: Who the Hell Loves New York?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

An American Idyll, Key Lime Pie on a Stick

Having bad mouthed the GPS navigation system continually, I must confess to some negligent navigation.  We intended to penetrate deeply into the Everglades, but I was engrossed in writing a book review and I let Hurricane Sandy cross half the state on I75 before I realized my faux pas—she was not reticent in her criticism.  It was getting toward evening as we had a late start due to pausing for breakfast with my niece, Renee, at the venue of her impending nuptials, impending as in a year in the future.  We wanted to see the hundred mile transoceanic highway to Key West in the light of day, so we stopped at the Key Largo Visitors’ Center for advice.  That may have been the smartest thing we have done on this trip.  The major hotels fax the Visitor Center promotional rates when they think they may have vacancies during the low season.  We got a room at the Key Largo Hilton with a balcony above the beach for a good price and for the following night we booked a beach front room at the Southernmost House, a beautiful boutique B&B in Key West—you guessed it, located at the southernmost point in the continental United States.

The Hilton was actually just OK.  It was past its prime and looked very much like a Mexican hotel, but we could hear the waves and enjoy the sea air until some miscreant had to smoke on his balcony forcing us to close the doors.  Our new pal, Kenny, at the Visitor Center raved about a restaurant on Islamorada called Marker 88 which was easy to find even in the dark because, you guessed it—it was at mile marker eighty-eight.  We got to dine in a canopy covered glider, which was delightful and fun to swing as we dined, but the breeze was brisk and by the time we finished excellent meals of hogfish and seafood salad, we were a bit chilled.

I forgot to mention that the good price offered by the Hilton was tempered a little by the eighteen-dollar “resort fee” they tacked onto the rate.  This was ostensibly to cover outdoor parking, internet access and something else that I don’t remember, but it wasn’t toilet paper which was in really short supply.  They also gave us a very odd bar of soap.  Its shape was reminiscent of a Paleolithic stone tool and it had a circle of little domes at one end.  The thing was so kinky looking I turned it over to see where you put the batteries.

Being less than enamored of the Key Largo Hilton, we left in the morning without lingering.  The highway south is, of course, the only way in and the only way out of the Keys, often with just one lane each direction crossing many, and frequently long, bridges.  I don’t believe we were beyond Islamorada when we saw an electronic sign telling us about a “major crash” at marker 63 and to expect delays.  Well, there were already plenty of delays in all the little Podunk towns that hadn’t existed in 1969 when I last made this drive, however, the congestion paled by comparison to the brick wall we hit about marker seventy-five.  It was the sort of traffic jam where you stopped the engine and got out to walk around a little.  I read the National Geographic while the Hurricane played with her phone.  It took an hour and a half to reach the crash site which was on the downhill slope of a bridge.  The participants had been hauled from the scene but we could tell where it happened by the prodigious oil slick on the pavement.  Immediately on exiting the bridge, we saw a truck, actually the tractor of a big rig, spread across a flatbed trailer.  I have never seen a truck cab quite as mangled and I reflected for a moment on having one less truck driver to despise.  As soon as we had seen the “major crash” notification I knew with certainty that the culprit would be a truck driver.  I didn’t guess, however, that it would involve two trucks, or that they would have crashed head-on.  Eventually we overtook the other truck being towed south.  Being much less mauled than the first, that driver might have survived.

The congestion caused by the aftermath of the accident never dissipated and it was a stop-and-go drive all the way to marker zero at the Southernmost House.  At the end of South Street, where it crosses Duval, both terminating on the sand, there are numerous institutions claiming to be the southern most something.  We got confused by the Southernmost Hotel and parked in their lot, but we recognized the gingerbread architecture of the place we were supposed to be on the opposite corner and eventually found our way to the lobby.

Ocean Ten Feet in Opposite Direction

Our room was a building unattached to the historic house but we were not going to complain since it was isolated from the rest and sat on a narrow concrete pad knee high above the water.  Our windows opened onto the sea and the following morning we watched the sunrise from bed.

Sandy was anxious to see the town.  She was excited about seeing Key West for the first time and I felt lucky being to show it to her.  This was my fourth visit.  As I previously mentioned, I had driven to it in 1969 with two male friends of dubious character.  We were underfunded and ill quipped.  My old Chevy Nova was so badly in need of front-end work it wore through a tire every hundred miles.  We made the trip from Ohio on five dollar used tires that we bought along the way.  In those days Key West was a pristine little paradise not much bothered by tourists.  Duval Street was paved but most of the side streets were white sand.  I couldn’t have loved it more.  I visited twice more in the eighties, arriving by air, and of course was heartbroken by the development, but despite the rape of Eden and the huge, inexplicable influx of gay guys, it still abounded with charm.

In the eighties I had been given an insider’s look at the attractions by a dear friend who lived in the historic district, so I knew where to take my favorite hurricane.  We walked Duval from end to end, bought a souvenir tee shirt at Sloppy Joe’s for our long suffering dog sitter, had a drink at Captain Tony’s—the original site of Sloppy Joe’s in the Hemingway era—and we crossed Mallory Square before the loonies arrived for their sunset performances.  I was glad to find the Mel Fisher museum still operating even though most of the treasure salvaged from Nuestra Señora de Atocha has been removed.  When the salvage was in full swing, there was so much gold and silver that they had difficulty housing it.  The loaf of bread sized silver ingots were stacked against the walls completely around the interior of the warehouse.  They were too heavy to grab and bolt so there was no security wasted on them.  The rather smaller gold ingots were pocket sized, so they were behind glass as was the mind-numbing array of jewelry.  I remember a gold crucifix about nine inches long, three quarters inch wide and half inch thick, also a gold chain of three inch long links a half inch in diameter.  The thing had to have been ten feet long.  Today the remaining treasure on exhibit is modest by comparison, but Sandy had no frame of reference so she was delightfully impressed, especially by the emeralds.

On the long weary trek back to the hotel we stopped at Margaritaville for some peel and eat shrimp and a libation.  Sandra had a ‘Perfect Margarita,’ that’s what they called it and she endorsed the claim.  I had a less than perfect Tanqueray and tonic.  For my second I had to specify a much shorter glass.  (Why would a person pay extra for the taste of Tanqueray if it were going to be drowned in sixteen ounces of tonic water?)  We hadn’t been in a Margaritaville since the Kingston airport in 2007 where you could not get to the departure gate without passing through the bar, which seemed strange to me, but I didn’t object.  Invigorated by the excellent shrimp, we resumed our hike to the beach although we stopped in a wine shop where we bought a mature bottle of Hess cabernet that we drained on the concrete apron outside our room while watching the tide rise.

I wanted to take Sandy to dinner at the Half Shell Raw Bar which is rather iconic but we didn’t see it during our outing and I had no clue where it was.  My memory of 1986 is extremely selective, but fret not.  The squirrelly night clerk helped us and it was, naturally, at the opposite end of Duval Street which was much more than our aged bodies could manage, so the obliging clerk called a cab that turned out to be driven by a New Zeeland transplant.  The place had not changed in twenty-seven years except possibly that the clientele was considerably more advanced in years.  I got us a dozen oysters to wash down with our Tanquerays while we decided on second courses.

Succulent looking, aren’t they?

Sandy’s calamari rings were a lot better than my conch fritters which were basically hushpuppies alleged to contain trace amounts of conch.  The conch chowder I had at Marker 88 was equally devoid of mollusk meat.  Judging from the number of shells in the gift stores, I suppose they are an endangered species now.

As the exceedingly informal dinner in the license plate decorated bar ground to a close, I was feeling somewhat nostalgic, or maybe it was just plain pissed about the oozing blight on my lower leg that was preoccupying everything I did and thoroughly preventing me from enjoying my vacation, not to mention staining my last pair of clean pants.  Later I got a reply to the latest email I directed at the little Hindu MD back in Pomona.  He said, “How’s it going with the sore?”  I could have choked him.  I didn’t need compassionate concern, I needed antibiotics.

Our Southern Most House sojourn ended soon after the previously mentioned sunrise that I admired with coffee from bed while the Hurricane ran outside in her nightgown to photograph it framed by the foliage.  She got a couple good shots which I will share if she ever downloads them from her camera.

I wanted Sandy to see the Hemingway house so we went straight there after checking out of the hotel.  Of course I’d seen it in ’86 but it reignited some fond memories and I gained capital with the guide when he faltered over where Hemingway bought the shotgun with which he shot himself.  It was Abercrombie and Fitch, of course.  That’s where he bought all his gear.

Walking to the car, Hurricane Sandy saw a place that offered key lime pie on a stick and had to try it.  It sounded like a ridiculous idea to me but I ate one and it was pretty good.  For the uninitiated, there is nothing special about a key lime other than the fact that they are small and have a lot of seeds.  It is the same fruit that in California we call a Mexican lime, but if you’re not squeezing them into your gin and tonic or onto your taco, there is hardly a better use for them than a pie.  I’ve never had a key lime pie, even the one that Sandy made when I received a bag of key limes from my Key West connection, that didn’t look, and taste, as if it could have come from Sara Lee.  For some reason I can’t help but suspect that somewhere in a musty trunk in a plantation house attic lies an antebellum recipe for key lime pie that is as it was meant to be in a bygone time.

In the next installment: Fear and Loathing in Jupiter, Florida.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

An American Idyll, Part II

November 25

Lounging at Baton Rouge, we had browsed for a bed and breakfast inn at Pensacola and found one that looked like our style, so I made a note of the phone number before we hit the road for New Orleans.  Once back on I10 I called the B&B but got a machine on which I left our message.  We did not get a return call and I remarked about five o’clock that they must be full and couldn’t be bothered to tell us.  It wasn’t ten minutes later that my phone rang, since I was driving, I handed it to the Hurricane who conducted what I thought was a slightly strange conversation for making reservations.  It seems there was a vacancy but Russell’s Roost B&B only took cash or personal checks which was OK with us.  We had trouble finding the place because Google Maps navigation for iPhones has attention deficit disorder.  However, we rang the bell and an elderly lady (Elderly?  Listen to me.) answered with her mouth full.  We apologized for interrupting dinner but she would have none of that and welcomed us into the foyer, telling us that she was the only one there.  We thought it nice to have the run of the place but both of us were thinking of the Bates Motel.  In the end we were not knifed in the shower.  It seemed she had sold the place and was waiting for escrow to close, and when she got our call, she thought it would be nice to have some company.  We were not much company that evening as we went to dinner and straight to bed, but in the morning she joined us for breakfast where we had a lovely chat learning her life story and plans for the future.  We thanked her for her hospitality and I gave her my last copy of In the Blood.

I have been keeping a secret from you.  On Sunday a sort of a carbuncle developed on my leg.  I know that because I Googled it.  By Monday morning it was ten times as large, swollen, feverish and emitting things you’d rather I didn’t describe.  I was not pleased.  We found an urgent care facility—but it looked more like an ER—in the Baptist/Mayo Clinic Hospital of Pensacola and I began to think in terms of four figure co-pays.  The place was very efficient and they had me in the middle of a rabbit warren of halls and examination rooms before I could say “Obamacare.”  Of course I had to sit and or lie there for about forty minutes before Jeremy, the physician’s assistant who couldn’t have been old enough to have been to med school, arrived to proclaim it a staph infection, wrote a prescription and vanished back into the labyrinth.  Within minutes I was shown the cashier who thought it a long shot, but was willing to try billing Aetna.  I must say that their system of treating the patient before going through the completing forms process makes a great deal of sense, since even if I had been indigent, they would have treated me anyway and stuck the tax payers for the bill, so there was no point in worrying about all that up front.  As I write this a week later, the pills are gone, the sore is worse and my Indian doctor pal back in Pomona returned my email to say that I should try not to think about it.  This is not a happy-making thing.  I’m sure it’s antibiotic resistant, flesh eating bacteria that I acquired by spending way too much time in medical facilities of late.

Tuesday was a long, torturous drive through blinding rain from Jacksonville to our destination in the woods of Williamsburg County, South Carolina.  We were soggy but we arrived at Suttons just as the impenetrable deluge turned to Stygian darkness beneath the Spanish moss festooned oaks.  Our hosts, cousin Bill and Miss Mary, greeted us warmly and fed us excessively.  Thanksgiving was delightful as always with close to seventy people arriving to feast on Bill’s barbecued hog and the myriad of side dishes from chicken and dumplings to smoked chicken rice purlieu.  Chicken ranking second in popularity only to the hog.  We love to visit Suttons and because we come all the way from California, and because we’re old, we don’t have to sleep in the bunkhouse with the little lizards that inhabit the place.  We get to sleep in the guest bedroom of the country house.  The room is very nice but for the cold air return of the furnace.  When the heater ignites, the blower sucks a maelstrom of cold air right across the bed with such force that it pulls open the bi-fold door.  Still it beats the lizards and the all the snoring cousins.

December 1, 2013

From Thanksgiving onward to this writing on Sunday, the weather has improved steadily.  Of course, we’re heading south which might have something to do with it.

I must backtrack to Saturday.  We left Suttons by eleven-thirty headed for Georgetown to take care of a few items.  I convinced Bill to take a DNA test for genealogical purposes, and wanted to put his specimens in the mail, but the post office closed at eleven on Saturdays.  We wanted to see if the library had a census of the Sampit Methodist cemetery because somebody has erected a memorial to my great-great-grandfather, George Washington Skipper, who isn’t buried there.  I am curious as to who did it and why, however, the library was also closed.  I pitched In the Blood to a couple of bookstores, including one that is currently occupying an historical building that is mentioned in the book, Sandy did a little Christmas shopping and we surveyed the devastation left by a recent fire that destroyed seven historic buildings on the riverfront.

Before we made it into Georgia I got a ticket in a hick-town speed trap.  The speed limit sign was behind a bush and the zealous cop came after us with lights and sirens as if he were on a call to get a cat out of a tree.  All the other cars on the street were whizzing past us but that California license plate was just too much for Officer Nelson, a portly black cop—so I didn’t even get the satisfaction of calling him a redneck—to resist on the last day of the month with his ticket quota obviously not yet filled.  Again I blame the malignant GPS, because without her unwaveringly bad council, we would have been on the interstate.

Our goal was Savannah, but we needed to enter Savannah by the backdoor because during the aforementioned deluge we had stopped at Pep Boys to buy some new windshield wiper blades that didn’t work.  Again the GPS led us on a wild goose chase, telling bald-faced lies and obfuscations, but by a miracle, we found Pep Boys again and pleaded our case.  David, a middle-aged black gentleman, offered to solve the problem with a smile.  He gave it the college try, but after nearly an hour, he said, “We’ll refund your money.  Take the damn thing to Jaguar.”  So now we have an expensive pair of new wiper blades that we got for free but they don’t work.  I shudder to think what Jaguar charges for wiper blades.

It was dark by the time we left Pep Boys and the malevolent GPS bitch was in her glory.  She ran us around the west side of Savannah in large circles for over an hour.  I finally got pissed and bought a map which didn’t help much since the street we were on wasn’t listed in the index.  Eventually, after many testy remarks flowing both ways, we found the hotel and realized it wasn’t the one we expected.  However, it was within walking distance of the riverfront, and despite a three-hundred and fifty guest wedding running amuck in the lobby, we stayed.

More to follow.

PS: Face of the Angel is being featured by Indie Tribe as a Christmas Special.  Since they were kind enough to feature me, I should reciprocate by providing their link, and here it is:  You may be surprised to know that Dr. Mengele was fond of Christmas and even played the role of Saint Nicholas once for a Bavarian family’s children.