KEY WEST: SUMMER of JOY

Key West sign Dixie

June, 1970. Free At Last from Langley High.
Dad was assigned to map the Florida Keys that summer.

“Take her with you!” Mom shouted, pointing at me as I loafed around on one of my few days off from being a Junior Ranger at Lake Fairfax Park.

“Mother, I have to work! I’m saving up for college.”

I was saving up for the trip to California, Art school & LIFE. Didn’t want my parents to know of those plans. But the idea of spending a whole summer FREE from Mom, while my father & his survey team trekked around doing TOPO for the USGS was tempting.

After a long discussion, during which I Promised not to drink too much & vowed to help Dad’s survey partner’s wife clean our cottage & cook every day, my parents agreed I’d go South for the Summer.

Kathi helped me pack lightly: shorts, t-shirts & underwear. I always hated wearing a bra. Kathi & I, in a fever of Feminism fueled by the song “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” burned our bras one Autumn day in the incinerator Dad used for paper trash & leaves.

Mom blew a gasket when she did laundry that week. No bras!
“Where are you girls’ brassieres?”

“We burned them,” Kathi proudly announced. 12 year old feminist.  

“You will earn money to pay for new bras,” mother decreed.

That was easy, bras were 2 for $5.00 at the cheap-o store near Lum’s.  Kathi babysat & I worked at Lum’s Tavern & Lake Fairfax. Then I drove us to the shop, where we picked out new matching sets of panties & bras.

We walked around the house in our flower print bras & unders, singing “In Numbers Too Big To Ignore!” until Mom made us put clothes on.

“God almighty, you two will drive me straight to the Loony Bin,” mother fussed.

Now, I was riding south in the Gray Ghost. The station wagon was Dad’s Pontiac with the USGS decal on the back window. He was happy as a lark, like always when “in the field.” He clicked the radio to a jazz station. Usually, that kind of music bothered me. I’d been in a small jazz combo for a short while during high school.

George J. Horan, genius conductor & band leader, inspired some of us to the heights. So a drummer, coronet player, guitarist & I (on flute) took our show “on the road.” We played in a few nightclubs in Washington, DC before the band broke up.

I hadn’t told my parents about the group, remembering Dad’s “hop head” comments about jazz fiends. The clubs closed late & our group was usually last on the bill–midnight or later. I would get into trouble every time I got home after that 10 o’clock curfew. So I quit.

But I could never listen to jazz without mentally fingering the flute keys and being tense that my playing could never measure up to Horan’s standards.

Off we went, hot jazz filling the air. We drove down through North Carolina, South Carolina–where we stopped for Brunswick stew. Through Georgia, where we made a visit to Miss Bonnie in the nursing home.

Then to Hinesville to hang out with Uncle Jack, Aunt Inez & the cousins. Aunt Inez always had good food on the stove, so we enjoyed a massive mid-day meal (“dinner”) with them. Sweet tea! Mom never let us sugar our tea or buy soft drinks.

“You’ll rot your teeth out,” was her hex upon us whenever caught with Evil Candy.

Through Florida, a long, long state. We were in a caravan, gypsy-style. Dad lead the pack & his survey team in separate cars, all headed for the Keys. We encamped near the Everglades, toward Key Largo first. Dad & his team made pretty quick work of mapping that area. I wandered around the beaches, swimming & soaking up the sun–in glory! I have always loved the sea, it’s part of my DNA.

After finishing with Largo, we headed to Islamarado. That tiny island took 3 days to map. Dad was super manic, in fine fettle & his team followed suit. Pal Ralph & wife Gladys were along, Ralph to help survey & Gladys to cook & try keeping an eye on me. She was fun. Her toenails were always shiny red. I took up after her & began painting my own toenails a bright, fire engine red from then on.

Gladys made big pots of stew, cornbread & bought beer for the returning survey party. I always thought it was apt that they called it a “party.” My parents’ homes, all over America (as Dad & his teams did TOPO), were Party Central. Cigarette smoke, records on the portable turn-table, loud joking, Mom frying eggs & bacon, pouring gallons of hot coffee “to sober up you drunks.” Rowdy noise late into the night. That was our life.

It was no different now, just no Mom! I helped chop up vegetables, set the table & carried in big bowls full of food. The guys worked up huge appetites, hiking 10-20 miles a day. They drank beer, laughed, sang & joked all night. Started over again at Dawn. After Islamarado, it was Marathon, then Big Pine Key. All gorgeous with gloriously sandy beaches. Guys whistled at me in my white bikini but I paid them no mind. RW was in the Army, now. Not behind a plough! I’d go home to him & we’d run off to California. Dreamin’  

Then: Key West! 1970. Un-freakin’-real. Hippies & beatniks were everywhere. Dad & his team tool me with them to Sloppy Joe’s Bar every night after a hard day’s work. We ate soup, bread & drank beer. Nobody asked for my ID. I was just 17, you know what I mean. I’d put quarters in the juke box & twist. Dad would jump up & start a verision of the Lindy Hop. His pals would ask lady diners to join them. The place was a-jumpin’!

Gladys sometimes warned me, “Now promise you won’t do any drugs or get pregnant on me.” Lord! “No way!” I promised & I meant it.

I’d smoked a bit of pot in my last semester of high school, just to please my fellow anti-war protesters. But I was done with that. Beer, beaches & Hemingway were my Life that summer.

One gorgeous day, I found Hemingway’s house, where he’d lived with hundreds of many-toed cats. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” & other books by him intoxicated my fevered teenaged brain throughout high school. I was nutty for Hemingway, who had lived life to the extreme.

The house was slightly decrepit after years of disuse. A woman opened the door when I knocked. “Um, is this Earnest Hemingway’s house?”  

“Why, yes it is. Or was.”  

“I-I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve read all his books. Can I just walk around outside & look at everything?”  

“Come right on inside.” She opened the door wide. She showed me into a large room with a desk full of papers. There were books everywhere. An old sofa sat near a window, colors faded by bright island sunlight.

“WOW!” I exclaimed. “Are you Kidding me! Hemingway actually lived here!”

The woman showed me into the kitchen. It had blue tiles, many cracked but those which were intact had lovely swallows & other designs on them. Out the door from the kitchen was a patio & a moldy green swimming pool.

“Oh my gosh, can I swim in the pool?”  

“It’s rather filthy, dear.”  

“I’ve swum in swamps & lakes & ponds worse than this!”
She pealed out a laugh & said “OK.” She went back inside.

I took off my sweatshirt, t-shirt, shorts & shoes. I dove into the Hemingway water in my underwear & swam for a good half hour. My manic mind was filled with scenes from his novels. Ingrid Bergman’s tragic voice filled my head with lines from the classic film: “I don’t know how to kiss or I would kiss you.” Gary Cooper would adore me. Ingrid & I would be best friends!

Finally, I dried off with my t-shirt & put on my clothes.  The kind lady offered me a cup of tea. We sat in the living room & talked. She was trying to fix up the house as a museum. She hoped Hemingway afficionados would come from all over the world, pay a fee & get tours of the fixed-up home.

I offered to help her, super powered with energy. I returned every day that summer, to dust off books, scrub the kitchen floor, polish furniture & do what my OCD parents had taught me: Cleanliness is Next to (well, Dad was an atheist so he never said “godliness”) but I knew the saying.

Amazingly, my father & a couple of his pals found a shack on pylons that summer. They were fishing on a Sunday afternoon. They climbed out of their boat, up into the shack. There was an old typewriter on a scarred table. Stacks of papers. Hand-written corrections covered each page. Empty beer & rum bottles were scattered about the one-room, wooden hideaway. Dad took the papers, fascinated. I brought them to the Hemingway House lady. They are part of the museum’s collection now.

At the end of summer, after joyful days body surfing in the ocean, working at Hemingway House, drinking & eating at Sloppy Joe’s & dancing the night away, my father & I packed up the Gray Ghost. I had tears in my eyes. I was going to miss the kind lady who’d befriended this crazy teenager.

Dad mumbled, “OK” when I asked if I could run down & tell her goodbye.
We hugged & she asked if I wanted one of the many cats. What! Of course I did. But what would Dad think?

I ran back to the cottage & jabbered, 100 miles an hour,
“Daddy, the lady wants to give me one of Hemingway’s cats, not really His cats but a descendant. They all have gigantic paws! It’s a genetic thing. I already picked one out. He’s a kitten, not a baby but young. He’s black & white, his name is Papa.

“Jesus H. Christ, your mother will kill me!”  

“Please, please please. I swear I’ll take care of him!”

I had No idea how to take care of a cat. We’d had two daschunds, Gretchen von Elder & Duffy’s Tavern Schlitz Elder (named by Bob, Kathi & me). Never a cat.

Mom hated cats. They were meant to be in barns, killing mice & rats. Not in the house.  “They remind me of snakes, the way their mouths look when they yawn.” She’d first said that when we lived in a boarding house where I pretended a beautiful gray cat was my pet. I was only four years old then but remembered that kitty so well.

“Oh, all right. But fix up a box of sand for it & clean it out every night! He’ll stay in the back seat. And you’ll pay for his food. Get a bowl for that & another one for his water.”

Gladys stood in the doorway of our cottage, shaking her head. “Benji is going to Flip.” But she came out with two plastic bowls. I put them in the back floor of the Gray Ghost & ran like a catabatic wind toward the Hemingway House.

“Dad said Yes!” I hollered. Cats scattered, frightened by the crazy teen.
“Sorry,” I whispered & looked around for the kitten I’d named Papa. The fine lady came out of the house, carrying him. He posed proudly in her arms.

“Please write & let me know how Papa is doing. I’ll tell you know when the museum is open for business. Thank you for all your hard work.”

I walked gently back to the waiting vehicle. “Dad, this is Papa.”
My father smiled. He was always kind to animals. I got into the back seat & put Papa down next to a bowl of mushy food that had magically appeared.
“Daddy, where did that come from?”

 “You can’t let him starve.” Dad loaded ten tins of cat food into the car. We took off, going backwards from the way we’d driven in June. It was the end of summer. I felt melancholy, leaving Paradise.

I hoped Papa would like Virginia, after spending his first three months on Key West with hundreds of cousins, brothers, sisters, battle-scarred Toms & meandering mother cats.

True to form, Mom went nuts when she saw Papa.
“By God, not in My house!” was her greeting after three months.

“Dixie will take care of it. I told her she could bring him home. She earned him by working at the Hemingway House.”

Dad unpacked his gear: telerometer, tripod, optical rods & so forth. I brought in the cat’s cardboard box filled with sand & set it down in the basement, near my painting easel. I showed Papa the box. Then picked him up to show him his food & water bowls near my brother’s bathroom. Gladys had told me cats don’t like “to shit where they eat.”

Then I ran upstairs with Papa in my arms. Kathi was so excited.
“Tell me all about Key West!”  She danced around the kitchen.

Bob immediately re-named my cat “Pompous” due to his proud demeanor. Papa ran away after only two months in Great Falls. Kathi, Bob & I searched all over the countryside & tiny village for our beautiful feline. No luck. It was my fault. I was at work & taking community college classes all day. Mom probably shut him in the cold basement. No wonder he escaped.  But a year later, Kathi was hanging out with a friend. Her cat had just had kittens. Two were black & white. They all had polydactyl paws! Papa Ruled!! I knew nothing of neutering in those days, so that cat prowled just like Hemingway had.

Papa Cat

Papa/Pompous   Photo by brother Bob

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