Saturday, September 21, 2013

Key West

The run to Jacksonville was easy enough dropping the rental off and after saying goodbye to  my new friend Angela, easily made the gauntlet of security to my gate. A short hop got me to the vast Miami Airport. The flight to Key West was parabolic in that as soon as we got to altitude, the pilot turned on the seat belt sign and announced we were on final approach to Key West International.

Not being sure where Islamadora was became clear when Dianna picked me up. As it turned out, although advertising they were "close" to Key West, the resort was, in reality, about 78 miles north of Key West. Islamadora is a recently incorporated community made up of several small islands at the halfway point between Miami and Key West. So each day we returned to Key West, we had to make a 156 mile round trip, about a two hour drive one-way, along the mostly two laned but scenic US 1 Overseas Highway, always on the lookout for Key Deer (yeah...little cute things live on the island chain), with speeds that vary from 30 to 55 miles per hour. Thank goodness for unlimited mileage car rentals.

Right across the street from our resort, the Islander Bayside, was the  Green Turtle Cafe. First night I had the blackened Tuna and Dianna had the Tortellini and the bread pudding was melt-in-your-mouth good. The wine shop next door, thankfully, had just begun stocking Dianna's favorite Barefoot Moscato wine.

Key West is a fun place with lots to do. The name comes from the Spanish "Cayo Hueso" (Pronounced kayo weso]). It literally means "Bone Island" or "Bone Cay" (a low-lying island). When Ponce de Leon came by in 1513, the island seemed littered with the bones left by the former natives who did battle there. The southern most point in America and a stones throw from Cuba (90  Miles), Key West has always been a destination for tourists and criminals alike. Developing the Keys (and Florida for the most part) was due to Henry Flagler. Mr Flagler was the co-founder of Standard Oil and when he got out of the business decided to become a philanthropist. He did a lot of traveling and at one point made his way to Florida. He fell in love with the place and became it's biggest cheerleader. He decided to develop south Florida and began building a railroad from Miami to Key West.

This was  a daunting task and was frequently interrupted by hurricanes the worst of which was the big  storm of 1935. A giant sea surge and 200 mile-per-hour winds killed about 400 people, 300 of which were out of work WPA World War I Bonus Army vets recruited for the work. Islamadora has a memorial to the memory of those who lost their lives. US 1 is  the original roadbed of that railroad including some amazing over-water bridges the longest of which is the "7 mile bridge"  over open ocean.

Anybody who has visited an old port city will feel right at home. Lots of places to eat and drink and some museums and points of interest along the way. Our first venture was an afternoon run to catch a late lunch so we could get on board the Ghosts and Gravestone tour at 8 pm.

What you find out right away is that parking is at a premium in downtown Key West.  There is little, if any, street parking available and what's there is permit resident parking only. So we had to find pay public lots. I would recommend the parking structure at  the Westin resort. Very close to the main attractions, well lit and secure.

We made our way toward Duval which had most of the restaurant/bars. There we walked into Sloppy Joe's . Not the original restaurant but one of the most famous. The original bar is down the street where Captain Tony's Bar  is now and where Ernest Hemingway spent many a day and night drinking and hanging out with his friends. Ernie spent many years living in Key West where he penned several of his books. His home is a museum. Like most places in Key West kind of pricy but that day the live band was doing nothing but 70s and 80s tunes. Since the kids had gone back to school, there was a much older clientele there and we noted that many of the places we visited seemed to be catering to that generation.

We walked back toward Front Street and Mallory Square. Much of  that  area had been a Navy Base from 1823 to 1974. It began when Key West was purchased from Spain as an anti-pirating squadron to halt illegal trading of prohibited items and human trading within the Caribbean. It ultimately included a Sub base to patrol the straights between us and Cuba. There is also NAS Key West one of the first Naval Air Stations opened in 1917 that still operates today on the north-east corner of the island. Although Key West was part of Florida at the time of the Civil War (TWONA), it remained a Union held area during the war and assisted the Norths blockade of Southern ports.

Mallory Square was also ground zero for an attempt by Key Westerners to secede from America. You may recall the Conch (pronounced KONK) Republics efforts to leave the Union over a grievance with the Border Patrol. The Conch shell is a symbol of the city so much so that natives refer to themselves as "Conchs" and there is a tradition that when there is  a new birth, the family displays a Conch shell on a stick outside the home announcing the birth of a new Conch.

It was during the Cuban Boat Crisis where many Cubans were trying to make it to America to escape Castro's Cuba. At that time the rule was, if you could make landfall, you could claim asylum and we couldn't send you back. So the Border Patrol set up checkpoints in Key West forcing people to prove their citizenship whenever they got stopped. This caused a serious backlash and, unable to stop the abuse, many organized to secede and remove the Feds from their shores. There was even a brief battle in Key West harbor between the forces of the Conch Republic and the Coast Guard involving a lot of squirting water and firing of loaves of bread at the Coast Guard vessels. It was all in good fun and the Conchs did ultimately surrender to the Feds but it did bring the issue to the forefront and led to the cessation of the checkpoints. The Conch Republic still lives on with many residents and businesses still displaying the Conch Republic's flag around town. The battle has been celebrated every year since.

Oh yeah, the haunted tour...Anyone who has been to Key West hears the story about Robert the Doll. The doll belonged to artist and writer Robert Eugene Otto. Eugene was given the doll in 1906 by a Bahamian servant who was skilled in black magic and voodoo and was displeased with the family after they fired her. Soon afterward, it became clear that there was something eerie about the doll. Eugene's parents said they often heard him talking to the doll and that the doll appeared to be talking back. Although at first they assumed that Eugene was simply answering himself in a changed voice, they later believed that the doll was actually speaking.

Neighbors claimed to see the doll moving from window to window when the family was out. The Otto family swore that sometimes the doll would emit a terrifying giggle and that they caught glimpses of it running from room to room. In the night Eugene would scream, and when his parents ran to the room, they would find furniture knocked over and Eugene in bed, looking incredibly scared, telling them that "Robert did it!". In addition, guests swore that they saw Robert's expression change before their eyes.

Besides the usual stories of haunted places, our tour guide pointed out the large number of homes we passed that had blue colored ceilings to their porches. He explained that many Southerners suggest that blue porch ceilings originated out of the fear of "haints". Southerners have a name for the ceiling paint used on porches – the soft blue-green is referred to as “Haint Blue” (Sherwin Williams Paint has a listing...if I'm lying I'm dyin').

“Haints" are restless spirits of the dead who, for whatever reason, have not moved on from their physical world. Haint Blue, which can also be found on door and window frames as well as porch ceilings, is intended to protect the homeowner from being “taken” or influenced by "haints". It is said to protect the house and the occupants of the house from evil. According to the guide, a problem arises when people paint the blue prior to checking to see if any spirits are already in the home. also works in reverse. Spirits apparently can't leave a house with Haint Blue on the outside so they get caught inside. Hopefully they're nice spirits....opps.

More about food....A word about Key Lime Pie. Both Dianna and I are big fans of Key Lime Pie since our first trip to Florida way back in the 80s. Now we found ourselves in the birthplace of the stuff. As you may know, the Key Lime, also known as the Mexican lime, West Indian lime or Bartender's lime is in a class all of its own. Much smaller than regular "Persian" limes you get at the store, the key lime ranges in size from a ping-pong ball to smaller than a tennis ball. The peel is thin, smooth and greenish-yellow when ripe. The flesh is also greenish-yellow and full of highly poly embryonic seeds (two or more plants from one seed). The interior is divided by 10 to 12 segments, quite juicy and has a higher acidity than regular Persian limes.

As it  turns out, there are many Key Lime Pie bakers in town claiming to be the best but I think we found the one. The Key Lime Pie Factory  at 412 Greene Street they make them right there in the shop and use 8 eggs in their recipe making them extra stiff, tangy and creamy. The graham cracker crust wasn't squishy and just crunchy enough to require you to push your fork through to snap off a piece. Awesome.

Our second day was to eat, walk and shop. Recalling most of downtown Key West was a Naval Base, there was an interesting stop we had to make. President Truman began a long standing  tradition for Presidents to visit the island. A former Officers Quarters on the base became a vacation spot known as the "Little White House".
Truman really liked the tropical feel of the place and made several trips there to relax and work. The Officer's Quarters had been a duplex but the Navy remodeled and combined the two making a 9,000 square foot home for the President. Truman began vacationing there in 1946 and most of the place and the furniture remain the same today. Several Presidents made it their vacation spot from Eisenhower to the Clintons. It was abandoned for 12 years when the Navy closed the base but was purchased by a private party who refurbished it as an historic landmark and occasionally still is used as a government retreat and meeting place. When the Secret Service needs the place, they station snipers on all the rooftops and make the local residents stay in  their homes with the curtains drawn.

Whenever we go to a place, we like to visit their cemetery. Cemeteries can give you a snapshot of a towns history and tells you more about how they might of lived. Key West has a traditional above ground cemetery typical of the coastal south. But more importantly it is the resting place of men caught in a terrible moment in history. It contains the remains of 62 of the 266 dead seamen from the Battleship USS Maine (229 are buried at the USS Maine memorial at Arlington National Cemetery).

The Maine had been stationed at Key West. Tensions were high between the Spanish still holding colonies in the Pacific (think the Philippines), Caribbean and especially Cuba. The Maine was anchored in Havana Harbor taking a break from it's anti-pirating and flag waving patrols when suddenly, on February 15th, 1898, the Maine inexplicably blew up and sank killing and injuring most of the crew. Until recently what was thought to be a limpet mine may actually be the result of a coal fire below decks causing an explosion.

Navy Plot
The nearest US military hospital was in Key West and all the dead and wounded were brought there. They quickly filled up the Marine Hospital so the Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church school emptied classrooms and the wounded were cared for there. Those that died were buried in a beautiful plot at the Key West Cemetery. The result was a sense of Spanish treachery and with a cry of "Remember the Maine!, to hell with Spain!" (helped along by the sensational Yellow Journalism of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst), America went to war with Spain, got Teddy Roosevelt up San Juan Hill (well actually, it was Kettle Hill), got Spanish holdings here and all over the Pacific, propped up the new Cuban government and set the stage for the Cuban Revolution and resulting in our continued embargo of that country for the last 60 years.

Definitely worth a return trip, we learned Key West is a popular stop for several cruise ships and that would provide us an easy return without airline tickets, paying for bags, the drive and worrying about parking.

And there is all that uneaten Key Lime Pie to get rid of.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


As some of you know, I recently began working as a Court Security Officer with the Feds.  With my new job came an opportunity to attend training at the Federal  Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. It goes by it's acronym "FLETC" (pronounced "fletsy"). Try Googling Glynco and you may not find it. The address I got, using Glynco as the city, came up as unknown as well as Patty my Tom Tom GPS device. If you use the nearest large town Brunswick, Georgia you can locate it. I can only suppose this is some attempt by the Feds to mask the location so  the terrorists and zombies can't attack.

The Brunswick/Glynco area is coastal Georgia and a one hour drive each from the nearest major airports in Jacksonville, Florida or Savannah, Georgia. There are two major islands that form part of the coast, St. Simons and Jekyll Islands. Interestingly, on the drive up, I noticed a series of "wear your seat belt" signs on the I-95 once I got into Georgia. Is it just me or doesn't this sign kind of look like a sort of Confederate Flag looking thing?

FLETC sits on the former Glynco Naval Air Station established in 1942, a base for the Navy fleet of airships, commonly known as blimps, which patrolled the coast for marauding German submarines during World War II. There are still the tell-tale boxy structures typical of bases throughout the world interspersed with much more modern wood and stucco buildings and some of those temporary classroom buildings you may recall from elementary school. The facility is in the midst of a mature forest of moss shrouded Live Oaks and beautifully tall Southern Pines. But there is a real campus feel to the place with large Holiday Inn like dorm buildings, a student union center, a bank and a convenience store. They sell beer and wine as well as mixed drinks at the bar at the Student Center. Yes...they even have a Starbucks. It's a college for big people who just happen to have guns.

What is revealing is the sheer number of Federal agencies that train here. In  1970, training was handed over to the Department of the Treasury with the mission to standardize law enforcement training throughout the Federal Government. All agencies would utilize the facilities in Washington, D.C. except the FBI. In 1975, Glynco was selected to be the permanent facility and after 9/11 was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security. About 134 agencies use FLETC as primary and recurrent training for hundreds of Federal agents and visiting foreign students from all over. There is a several acre driving tactics track on the northern perimeter as well as at least 6 weapons ranges all over the facility. There is a full mock Port of Entry and town I passed on my way to my Dorm. Everywhere you go, you cross paths with folks with all sorts of different uniforms from US Marshals to TSA, FEMA, NCIS, IRS to the Hoover Dam Police.

Dorm 185

Cool Room
Ok....before you hear it from anyone else, there is the story about my jog on the first morning and the matter of my getting lost. I had decided to continue my jogging while at school. See my first class began at 7:30 so I had calculated my run to include cooling off, showering, getting to the cafeteria for breakfast and arriving on-time for class. When I got there Sunday, I had reconnoitered the area to familiarize myself with my trusty map. Did I mention I had done all this in the daylight? Ok...I think you can see what's coming.   In the dark I began my run about 5:45 am and almost immediately stumbled upon a doe and her baby. I mean like 10 feet away. I was quite surprised to see I hadn't startled them at all. They seemed quite unimpressed seeing me dash by. Although mom did turn to watch me, I wasn't sure if it was out of an abundance of caution or merely Moms curiosity as to why this stupid human was out in the crushing morning Georgia coastal humidity at oh-dark thirty.

As I mentioned, the place is huge. I got well into my run making well intentioned right turns in my grand plan to arc my way back to the dorm.  Well...what seemed like a lot of time passed and now I realize I'm looking at stuff around me I no longer recognized. I zigged and zagged in a vain attempt to find something I recognized  but to no avail. Finally, I could see one of the entrance gates in the distance so I made my way there. I was met by one of the security guards and, not wanting to appear lost (yeah, that wasn't obvious), asked to verify directions back to Dorm 185. The guard (clearly aware of my plight) stifled a laugh and did his best Swamp People accent with a " way off course...(pointing off into the darkness) its wayyyyy over that a got a long ways to go."

I toddled off (I would say "jogged" but that would imply I had some athletic ability) with a renewed sense of direction. My speed increased as I checked my watch to see it was now 6:30 as the darkness gave way to the rising sun. I finally rounded the curve and into the lobby of my dorm as Mickey's hands moved toward 7 am. My carefully laid plan now shattered as I desperately tried to cool off by cranking the room air conditioner down to the "meat locker" setting. Jumping into the shower, I dried off as best I could, dressed and with time ticking away, completely forgot to shave. With my clothes still sticking to me like wallpaper, I got to my car and drove, sans breakfast, to my classroom and still got there five minutes late. Of course, I was the only one late and one of the instructors turned out to be my US Marshal boss for my Federal Court District. Perfect.

Classroom Building 216
Training consisted of the practices needed to keep the staff, the public and ourselves safe and secure within the courthouse. The best (and scariest) class involved the intricacies of identifying explosives and weapons that may make their way into our courthouse. The classroom work brought back to me that there are lots of bad people who use their skill and energy to purposefully injure or kill others to satisfy someone else's or their own agendas. The next morning we got to go to the ATF explosives range to watch and feel the concussions and heat of binary (combinations of chemical explosives), high and low explosives. In relatively small quantities that can easily be hidden on people and in their belongings. A lesson in why the TSA won't let you bring more than 3 ounces of a liquid onto an airplane. Sorry Dianna.

Spectacular as they were, it was both scary and humbling that a mistake on my part could cause some serious injury, death or at the minimum, substantial damage to the building I'm charged with protecting reinforced by lots of post explosion photos of suicide bomber incidents in the Middle East.

There was down time after class and many of us made our way to  the surrounding towns to eat and drink. In class, I met up with another new CSO, Angela Blanchard working at the Federal Courthouse in Lafayette, Louisiana. Angela was, interestingly, the only female in our class and reinforced the  fact our work doesn't seem to attract many women. Not that the Cafeteria (and it's never ending supply of free food) was inadequate, but we had to venture out to try the local fare. I had a rental car so we made our way to dinner on nearby St. Simons Island on two nights. St. Simons (as well as Jekyll Island) are outer bank islands about 20 minutes from FLETC. It is a very scenic place with tree lined roadways shrouded with hanging moss so typical of the south.

We tried a place called Mullet Bay . It was a great place and we decided to eat on the outside patio. Although it was a little warm and humid, it was quite pleasant with the evening breeze out of the east fanning us as we people-watched folks passing on Ocean Blvd. I had the Tilapia and an appetizer of Jalapeno poppers. Angela had the Calamari as an entree and fried green beans (way good).

After passing our written test and preparing to leave the next morning, the last night we returned and took in the Blue Water Cafe. A second floor dining room gave a wonderful view of the bay overlooking the pier. I had the meat loaf and Angela had the Fish Tacos. Margaritas all around. Terrific food and service.

Memorial to Fallen Federal Officers
Rising at oh-dark thirty, we loaded up our stuff in the rental then Angela and I made our way back to the Jacksonville Airport. I had re-arranged my itinerary to head to Key West, Florida. See.... several months prior,  Dianna had scored a great hotel deal in Islamadora, Florida on LivingSocial. The online deal called for four days on the way to Key West. It was set to expire at the end of September. But then my training trip to FLETC came up the first week of September. So we decided to travel separately and meet in Key West when I got done in Georgia. Reworking my itinerary was crazy with changing costs and fees but we were able to finally hook up at the Key West airport on Thursday morning.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dallas World Aquarium

Dianna and I are die-hard aquarium people. When the suggestion came to meet with friends at the  Dallas World Aquarium we jumped at the offer. With friends Doug, his wife Betty, son Billy and grandson Owen we slogged our way through lanes choked with baby strollers, phone camera armed giggling girls and throngs of Asian tourists that moved like schools of fish suddenly turning as one on the silent commands of their leaders. Most fun I've had with my clothes on in quite some time.

Baby Owen
The Dallas World Aquarium (not to be confused with the  Dallas Children's Aquarium....well you can't have too many aquariums in one town) started life as a rubber warehouse, a steel manufacturer, a Venetian blind company to the old Tejano Rodeo Bar until renovated in the late 90's into the aquarium. A second building was built next door. The Aquarium exhibits are laid out into regions of the world and the main building houses the freshwater exhibits and the new building has the saltwater stuff. A third building was erected to house the Munda Maya Exhibit of the highlighting the species of the Mexico and Central America.

Now this is no Scripps Birch Aquarium or Monterey Bay Aquarium this baby is a straight up and down winding path of color and surprises around every bend covered from end to end by a huge skylight. It was a North Texas summer and although the interior was air conditioned, there was still a lot of humidity built up inside which was exacerbated by all the flora and fauna which, after all, was supposed to be a rain-forest. Engineering aside, the building and its exhibits are well done and engaging.

Dodging spectators blocking the path and mother's with twin baby carriages was daunting but worth the effort. A word about today's baby carriages, when did they become little Hummers on wheels. We came across a couple that looked like they had been designed by NASA with balloon tires, all kinds of little storage containers and even lights. I think one had built-in GPS and a raft for forging rivers.

As we wound our way down the rim of the open rain forest, we came upon all kinds of brightly colored varmints and birds. There were the Tanagers, Pale-Faced Saki Monkey (obviously not a flavored Vodka guy), the Three-Toed Sloth (not to be confused with the Two-Toed variety we found downstream) and Giant Otters swimming around their tank (really hard to photograph when they are darting about). Apparently the Three-Toed Sloth has an aversion to flash photography but would rather be photographed in natural light. I wonder if he made the sign too. Probably opposing thumbs, bummer.

I got thrown briefly when I caught the "Double Yellow-Headed Amazon Parrot". My Dyslexia kicked in and I swore it said "Double Headed Parrot". My mistake but pretty none-the-less. There were Hawkheaded Parrots and Turtles galore.

In the fish and aquatic department were several species of Penguins. In one of the outdoor exhibits stood a pair of Black Footed Penquins. Hey...does anybody check with the Penguins when they name them? These guys didn't seem very happy with their monikers besides....maybe they have a better name they call themselves. I mean those Empire and Tuxedo guys got cool names. I just think these guys need to be re-evaluated.

Then there were the "fish tanks on the wall" segment. Lots of cool colorful fish whizzing around tanks of poly-carbonate bliss with no predators to be had. The most interesting were the Flashlight Fish.

These folks are deep sea fish who travel primarily in dark spaces or in water so deep there is little sunlight that makes it there. They are known for their large bio-luminescent organs. These are located beneath the eyes and contain luminous bacteria. They turn them on and off by two methods, either a shutter-like lid is raised over the organ or the organ is turned downward into a pouch. The light is used for predator avoidance, to attract prey, and for communication. I think its where GM got the side marker light idea from.

The other cool thing is that the females are the larger and stronger of the species. In fact, when predators are around, they circle the wagons (that would be the males and kids)to protect them. I know all you feminists are out there slapping each other on the backs and high-fiving but anybody that's been in a relationship or married for any amount of time knows this to be true.

Cool Underwater Tunnel

On the way out we got to go by the Jaguar. He just laid there, I'm sure contemplating each of us as a potential lunch ("That that one....oh yeah that one....)

As I said,a little known but great tourist spot in downtown Dallas. Worth a second look when its a little cooler. I'm still trying to wring out my tee-shirt and undies.