Into the Sunset

travel-log

(*Note: This log was drafted on the evening of July 28, 2017, but I was only able to polish it and publish it now due to being busy with travel and returning to work.)

The inevitable always becomes inevitable. The trouble with traveling through time in the traditional, linear fashion we’re accustomed to is that effect always follows cause, consequence always follows choice, and the end always—always—follows the beginning.

Tonight is my final night in Key West. The retirement vacation I promised myself in 2002 when I was a junior Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class exploring Key West on liberty is shortly coming to its unavoidable end. I have waited 15 years for this one week. The week was well worth the decade-and-a-half wait. Staying at an all-male, gay resort for the first time was (not to sound too trite, but I’m know I’m going to) very liberating. Never before was I in a place where everyone was like me, and it has subtly, but definitely, reinforced a very real sense of being free to simply be myself (remember, I’m a man who only came out of the proverbial closet in 2014 at 43 years old).

Plus, having the entire pool/hot tub area to myself for a few hours every evening while the guys were out to late dinners was huge plus! Talk about luxury! Organizing and captioning photos, uploading to Facebook and Instagram (@sparks1524), drafting my travel logs outdoors with no interruptions was heaven for a geek like me! And…it was a great way to recuperate after bicycling around the island and being on my feet all day every day during the hottest part of the Key West summer.

But, I have stories still to tell. Sit back, this final Key West log will be a doozy!

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Moored next to an aging wreck of a building dating to before World War II on the property of the former Naval Station Key West (remember, the naval station there has been long gone, but Naval Air Station Key West still functions) is the historic United States Coast Guard cutter USCGC Ingham (WHEC 35). Ingham is one of only two Treasury-class cutters still afloat, and both are very historic ships. The other is USCGC Taney (WHEC 37), now permanently on display in Baltimore. Taney is the only ship still afloat that was in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Ingham has an equally illustrious history.

 

Ingham was commissioned in 1936 and retired in 1988. She is the only U.S. ship afloat to have sunk a German U-boat (U-626 during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942), and to have been awarded two Presidential Unit Citations (both for combat in Vietnam). She served as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s flagship during the 1945 recapture of Corregidor in the Philippines, and was instrumental in saving countless lives during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift from Cuba. She received a personal letter from President Reagan upon her retirement. Stepping aboard the cutter is literally to step back in time to 1988; the ship was largely frozen in that moment, right to the typewriters, early computers, and personnel records still in her filing cabinets.

Originally the Ingham was located at Patriot’s Point in South Carolina alongside side famous vessels such as the WWII carrier USS Yorktown (CV 10). However, the Patriot’s Point Museum used Ingham for parts for the Yorktown and, otherwise, seriously neglected the old lady. The facility just could not care for all the ships in its collection. Ingham deteriorated and actually began to sink. When Patriot’s Point was questioned about their plans for the cutter, they pretty much shrugged and said they were going to sell her for scrap.

That was not the answer certain individuals wanted to hear. Raising money, a foundation got her into dry dock and began repairs. The yard scraped 23 years of marine growth from the hull, dewatered the flooded spaces and sealed the leaks, cleaned and swept and dusted the interior, and repainted the entire ship. And—most importantly—they got her away from Patriot’s Point and back to Key West where she had spent several years of her career. As the only ship in her museum, she is able to be cared for and is still slowly being painstakingly restored even as routine maintenance is performed.

The volunteers on the ship are exceptionally knowledgeable about her history and the history of Key West. One elderly, retired Marine Corps officer I had the pleasure of speaking with was a veritable fountain of stories. We sat under the awning on the fantail as he told me of at least three Coast Guard admirals who began their careers on the Ingham and subsequently visited the ship since she arrived in Key West. One of them even asked if he could see his old personnel record (still in the Ingham’s personnel files) to “clean” it of some embarrassing peccadilloes from his youth. His request was respectfully declined—those records are considered historical documents, after all.

Ingham is berthed on the old naval station’s Truman Waterfront inside a small harbor guarded by a man-made breakwater dating from before World War II. Another story the old Marine told me was about some short-sighted Navy thinking during the Mariel Boatlift. In 1980 Castro threw open the port of Mariel, Cuba, allowing thousands of refugees to flee to the U.S. in very dangerous craft. Many of those craft were tied up together in an increasingly big artificial island in the middle of the Truman Waterfront harbor that was anchored to buoys and other ships. It was pointed out this was not necessarily a good idea but no one listened…until the rickety fleet began to sink and started to pull down the Navy ships and buoys it was secured to!

But wait—there’s more!

The Navy pulled all the craft out of the sea and stacked them on the breakwater. The Navy didn’t secure them; it just stacked them. On a breakwater. In hurricane country.

Several of the Cuban refugee boats ended up as far inland as Duval Street that fall.

The Ingham is a time-capsule that froze in 1988, but dates back to the Great Depression. The ship served through three wars, one massive refugee crisis, and all the attendant law enforcement and search-and-rescue duties common to Coast Guard service. Take some time to go visit her.

There is plenty of parking at the Ingham, and her location makes it easy if you want to make a day of it. You can tour her early and then drive on a bit further to the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and tour Fort Zachary Taylor before hitting the beach at the state park. I didn’t hit the beach, but I did go back to Fort Zachary Taylor for a while. There is one corner of the “North Curtain” (the north wall of the original construction from 1845) that is quiet and rarely has tourists penetrate that far. With a breeze coming through the empty gun ports, it was a quiet, pleasant area to stop for a few minutes and just sit, thinking about the on-coming future.

I headed back up Duval Street to Mallory Square to watch one more sunset from the daily Sunset Festival. The lively mass of humanity was a joy to behold and move among. In some ways it is wonderful to be alone in a crowd because then one is nearly invisible and, therefore, free to really watch people.

The buskers (street performers) are a site to behold. I had the pleasure of seeing one young man twice (the first time the other day during my first visit to the Sunset Festival). “Blue” (real name Jean Morabal) is a slight-built, tightly muscled young man who can usually be found about ten feet in the air.

Wearing his trademark blue tank top, Blue sits atop a ten-foot-tall unicycle with all the ease of studied indifference as he juggles an odd assortment of knives, clubs, torches, and crowd-pleasin20248136_1872926349623921_6233701291700431319_og jokes. His ability to keep his audience engaged and reach out to connect with people at the far edges of the large gathering is rather remarkable.

Clocking in at his mid-20s, Blue makes a full-time living busking. In Key West (an island with the predictably high cost of living) that is no small feat. His girlfriend is working on developing his web presence in order to expand his range. So far they seem to be succeeding; he was recently hired to fly to Ohio and perform there for a fair raising funds for cancer research.

Blue is typical of the oddly unique stories one encounters in Key West. He grew up on the island, got his first unicycle when he was a child, and taught himself to ride by hanging onto a fence. Once he got his balance under him, it was all up hill from there. Taller unicycles coupled with increasingly expert juggling skills resulted in him facing a choice: go to college or make a living busking. He (obviously) chose the latter. He is a self-made, self-employed young man who controls his hours, works where he lives, and does what he loves.

If you’re ever in Mallory Square, look for Blue about 7:00 in the evenings. Once in a while he takes a day off, but he prefers to work. He loves to perform and his witty skills make an evening in Mallory Square an exceptionally festively fun experience.

Now, though, the sun has set and the stars are out. Scorpio and Sagittarius are still high up there, looking down on us all. It’s time to finish this. Tomorrow I fly back up to Virginia. I have two weeks left on regular active duty. Then I go on 20 days’ of special temporary duty to facilitate house and job hunting. That will end the last day of August, and Sept. 1 begins my 30 days of “terminal leave,” meaning I’ll use up the last 30 days of leave I have on the books until my actual discharge date of Sept 30. I’ll be in uniform here and there during that seven week period as I hit various agencies during my separation process. But…this next two weeks will be my final two weeks in uniform on regular duty.

Key West was worth the wait. I’m glad I came. I’m glad I rented that bicycle. I’ve traveled a lot by myself, but that was always either for work (so I had a mission to focus on) or to actually visit someone (like my parents or brother’s family). This was the first time I ever traveled on a vacation entirely alone. It was an interesting and illuminating time.

I’ll be back. I would like to live in the Florida Keys eventually. I’m a Texas native, yes. But I’m a Florida boy at heart. This is home.

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