KEY WEST (1997)

By Jug Varner

One of the few benefits of being older than most of my readers is that I have been able to live through a lot of history that others merely read about. That makes going somewhere I haven't been before quite interesting to me because I have known about it through national events, media reports, friends who have been there or other sources. Key West is a good example, the Truman Little White House in particular.

This refurbished historic site is located on the original U.S. Naval Base here that was closed in 1974.

The tour guide's verbal information and various artifacts seen during our walk-through jogged my memory bank about major events of the post-WWII era. Decisions made during President Truman's twelve visits here, as well as visits by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter, brought a measure of fame to Key West that it might not have had.

Those who enjoy historic sight-seeing will appreciate this inside look at the President historians call the “last common man to occupy the White House.” To me it was reliving history and remembering where I was and what part my own naval career played in some of it at the time.

Being in Key West also completed a geographical feat for me. Having visited three corners of the lower 48 — in California, Washington and Maine — this trip completed the circuit. Looking south from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park into the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico leaves no doubt in one's mind that this is truly the fourth corner.

It was too bad that my long-time friend, Captain Coleman Smith. USN Ret., did not accompany me. He was stationed here on a minesweeper during WWII and would be amazed at the difference between then and now - although he would have recognized most of the historic district, and the many old homes and buildings that have been maintained or restored. A revamped waterfront where cruise ships stop frequently, and numerous hotels, condominiums and other new buildings would also amaze him.

Fortunately, building codes require that new architectural designs blend with the old Bahamian-New England style sea town it has been since Navy Commodore David Porter established a base here in the 1820s to combat the pillage of West Indies pirates.

A good example of this new-old look is the Hilton Resort, where I stayed. Its tiled pier deck along the water offers a great view of the famous Key West sunsets and is a place to enjoy activities of various entertainers. Adjacent buildings new and old offer the ambiance of old Key West.

Tours of beautiful old homes and famous landmarks are also available, along with a variety of museums.

This small island of coral rock became the largest city in Florida in the late 1880s, and one of the richest in the U. S. Its factories produced 100 million cigars each year, and shipwreck salvage, sponging and sea food catches also provided great wealth.

In time, these industries dried up or moved elsewhere, the Navy left, and by the depression years of the 1930s the city became one of the poorest in the nation. Not until the military build-up of WWII did Key West begin to recover.

Today, its economy is based on tourism and the military, which is still active here despite recent draw-downs and base closings.

The diversity of more family oriented tourist attractions throughout the state of Florida may have some depreciating effect on Key West's tourism, especially by those whose vacation budgets are limited, or who think the drive from Miami along the multi-island Key highway will be slow and boring. It is a bit slower than the interstate, of course, but certainly not boring.

This overseas highway includes a seven-mile bridge and traverses some 45 large and small keys, separating the brilliant green colors of Gulf waters from the deeper blue of the Atlantic, and gradually evolves into an environment more Caribbean than Floridian. Some of the larger keys offer a variety of marine activities of interest.

Many families visit here, but they are outnumbered by cruise visitors and young adults, who find it a unique spot offering a plethora of water sports, shops, restaurants, bars, bicycles, and melting pot of people from many areas - traditional Bahamian families known as Conches (Conks), Caribbean, Latin, New England, Cockney, Creole, African overtones, and mainstream Americans.

Entrepreneurs abound with hand-made souvenir items, and prices are reasonable if you shop around.

Among others, I met Jeff Evans at a counter adjacent to Kino's Sandal Factory (where you can buy hand-made leather footwear for $6 to $9 a pair). Jeff has been in Key West for eight years - - long enough to assimilate the laid-back lifestyle typical of most natives, which is reflected in his company's name “Made in the Shade.”

His was one of the most reasonably priced shops I found, offering colorful birdhouses, ceiling fan pulls, conch shells, jewelry and other local items, including a mail-it-home coconut.

Jeff's wife Vicki is an aspiring writer, anxious to complete and publish her first book. She's certainly in a good literary environment.

A number of writers and artists have found Key West to be the ideal place to hone their creativity. Included on tours are the former residences of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, and a host of others. Key West folks seem to revere Hemingway above all others, holding annual celebrations in his humor.

The author's descendants have been in dispute with the festival's promoters because they felt it has become more of an out of hand rowdy celebration for a hard-drinking tough guy, than for a Nobel Prize winner who arose each day at six o'clock to write novels.

The family held a more sedate celebration earlier this year at Sanibel Island, but Key West held another in late July.

My friend Coleman Smith would find it easier to recognize what was then called the Boca Chica Naval Air Station. It is located on the Boca Chica Key - named after a fish. Boca Chica translates to “small mouth.”

Coleman may not have been surprised to know that the current Commanding Officer was a former carrier pilot with more than 300 day and night landings, but would have been slightly taken aback upon meeting Captain Lin Hutton - who was one of the Navy's early female pilots in carrier aviation.

She had not only earned her command assignment the hard way, but was doing an outstanding job of it, particularly in community relations. I was very impressed with her as a person, a naval officer and as a base commander and wondered silently if she would be among the growing list of female admirals in the near future.

Now called NAS Key West, it is the major military command in Key West today and provides facilities for several other activities in the area. These include:

  • Joint Interagency Task Force
  • Army Special Warfare (Underwater)
  • Caribbean Regional Ops Center
  • North Atlantic Meteorological and Oceanographic Detachment
  • U. S. Coast Guard Station
  • Florida Air National Guard
  • Cudjoe Blimp Radar Base (USAF)
  • Navy Fighter Squadron VF-101
  • Navy Campus for college credits
  • Navy Public Works
  • Naval Supply Depot
  • Navy Commissary and Exchange, and other such organizations.

Key West will be more inviting weather-wise during the high season of the winter months, but also considerably more expensive at that time. It was hot in July, of course, but not uncomfortably so. On one particular day it was cooler there than in most of the nation. For one who is used to Texas heat, it seemed quite nice to me!

See also