Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fort Elizabeth Taylor

Greetings from Ft. Elizabeth Taylor State Park
We’re at the beach. You will often find us here. It’s a great place to read, to rest, to avoid the real world. Sometimes we fix burgers at the beach because for my man there’s nothing like firing up the grill and cooking food on it in the great out-of-doors. All men seem to love this. You’d think they’d invented it. It’s silly, yes, but it’s bigger than all of us, so why fight it? 
    When special family or friends come to visit, we entertain with a picnic at the beach. I make my famous Martha Stewart Sandwich. Here’s how you do it. Buy a round loaf of whole grain or artisan bread and cut it in half as you would an English muffin. Dig out the bread until you have a cozy shell of bread and crust, bottom and top. You do this to make room for the stuff you’ll put into the sandwich. Layer stuff like fresh basil, lettuce, Italian salad dressing, salami, ham, smoked turkey, exotic cheese, mayo, tomato slices, mushrooms, or whatever other wonderful things you can pile into a Dagwood sandwich.  Use more salt and pepper than you think is enough. When it’s stuffed wrap it in Saran Wrap. Swaddle it tight, as you would a new baby. Then wrap that in aluminum foil. Put a heavy book, like the Big Book of AA or a Martha Stewart cookbook, on top to weight it down. Chill the whole thing, book and all, in the ‘fridge. After three hours or so, or overnight, the sandwich is ready.  A good Martha Stewart will feed eight people and set you back around $50. Take it to the beach, pull out a bread knife, cut the whole thing down the middle and slice off sandwiches.  You can make it vegetarian, too, easily. Everybody loves the the Martha Stewart Sandwich. Serve with chips and salsa and drinks.
Jennifer and June, John Jay High School classmates
    A few weeks ago we were here at the beach, Michael grilling hamburgers. My busy son Miguel made an appearance. Jennifer Ruger, a girl I went to John Jay High School with, entertained us with harrowing stories of her search for the perfect nest and job in her new home of Key West.
     “You got here too late,” I told her.
    “What time was I supposed to be here?” she asked. 
Miguel Perez and Peter Harrison jamming at the beach
    “About 20 years ago” I said. 
    She doesn’t care. She’s staying. She’s gonna squeeze that famous charm out of this old island no matter what it takes. Determination is one of her strongest traits. Jennifer’s landlady told her that you feel good at the beach because the salt air alters your body chemistry, something to do with charging ions, creating a sense of well-being. Leave it to a newcomer to explain to us why we are so happy here.
    It was a cloudless day. A little yellow airplane flew past the beach, trailing behind it a banner that said “Agate, will you marry me?” The plane made three passes and flew away, leaving us to wonder if Agate had noticed the plane, if she was indeed a woman, and if she was, how did we pronounce her name? Minutes later there was a small commotion a few hundred feet down the beach. It was Agate and her boyfriend!
    “What if she didn’t want to come to the beach today?” Miguel said. “What if she was sleeping when the plane came over?”
    Clearly, Miguel worries too much.
    Agate said yes. We cheered. Miguel played his jambai drum and I played “Here Comes the Bride” on my flute. Michael flipped hamburgers. Agate and her intended happily walked the beach, greeting their fans. People asked questions, as “were you surprised?” But the couple was European and not as talkative as we nosy, noisy Americans. I didn’t get the whole story, but learned enough to know that Agate had been totally surprised, and the whole thing was charming as all get out.
    “It costs $350 to rent that plane and propose to someone on the beach,” Jennifer said. “I asked.”
1997. Our first Thanksgiving at the beach. Hal Walsh's last one on the planet..
Heidi. Little Rocky meets Big Rocky.
    We’ve been coming to this end of the beach for many years. For fifteen years we’ve had our Thanksgiving at the beach, turkey with all the trimmings. It’s called the Hal Walsh Memorial Thanksgiving at the Beach. A great variety of people have shared our Thanksgivings through the years. Once a friend invited for the first time spent Thanksgiving Day searching every beach on the island. These were pre-cell phone days. We don’t lose our guests anymore.
    On one Thanksgiving Day a girl named Heidi showed up at the beach to meet my brother Rocky.  I wrote about Rocky a lot in my columns.  She loved the stories and she loved the name, so when she had a baby she named him Rocky. She brought little Rocky to meet big Rocky.
    Some people call Ft. Taylor Beach Ft. Elizabeth Taylor Beach. We like that.
    There used to be a lot of weddings at the point. Sometimes four or five couples a day. Brides showed up for the nuptials in traditional wedding gowns and high heels that sank in the sand, veils and bouquets and flower girls. They brought chairs and champagne and photographers who often doubled as wedding-on-the-beach stylists. There was a lot of sweat under those tuxedos, I’m sure. But oh! Those wedding photos were grand.  We had a girlfriend in those days who loved hamburgers made of the organic ground beef you get at Fausto’s. We called it the “good hamburger meat.”  Our friend would watch these proceedings, munch on her hamburger, and mutter “suckers” under her breath. Then she got married. Her new husband doesn’t like the beach. Now you have to pay a fee to get married on the beach. The park decided that they should get a little something when you use their beach as a wedding chapel.
    Michael and I can be ready for a picnic in minutes these days. We buy the annual park pass and even gave one to Miguel for his birthday. If we had a little cabana there it would be perfect. For many years we unfailingly forgot things we needed for our picnics and Michael would drive back to the house to retrieve forks or catsup or cranberry sauce.  But these days that happens rarely. We’ve got this drill down. We need our picnic basket and our cooler. Here’s how I keep the cooler cool. I take a plastic container, and fill it three-quarters of the way with water. I put it in the freezer. Then, when it’s picnic time, I pull my chunk ‘o ice out of the freezer and pop it into the cooler. We travel with our own ice cubes, too.
    When he was a little kid I used to bring Miguel here to play on the beach with his classmates. That was a long time ago. We rode our bikes to the beach and met up with all the other mothers and little kids. We moms sat in a row on the bluff watching our kids, chatting and drinking beers in the shade of the pine trees while our kids grew brown in the sun. One day Miguel’s Scottish Montessori teacher showed up, spread her towel in the sand, and pulled her shirt off to reveal naked breasts.  Miguel was five years old at the time. His eyes popped, but he didn’t say a word. No one did. We thought she was magnificently avant garde. And we didn’t want our kids, most of them breast fed in those days, to associate shame with bare breasts.
It's a bird. It's a plane. It's an invasive tree.
    Today Michael cooked hamburgers on a grill and the flies of May were out in full force. The only other time I saw flies this crazy was when a guy caught a fish, gutted it and gave it to us. Our friend, who owned a gallery in town at the time, wrapped it in a banana leaf and threw it on the grill. Fresh caught fish. On the grill. The men were practically orgasmic. The flies circled furiously. A few months later that guy died of a brain tumor. I’ve seen ashes of the dead thrown from that point on the beach, too. I don’t think they charge for that. Yet.
    There used to a whole lot more trees on this beach, but again the State has determined a better way. These trees are non-indigenous to this beach. Locals have fought for years to preserve the trees and the shade and comfort they provide. They’ve salvaged about a third of the trees that were here when Miguel was a little boy. 
    Michael has suddenly risen from his bench. He has been reading a book by Frank Zappa. He is entranced by something happening high in the trees.
    “Two woodpeckers,” he says. “And here comes another. You don’t often see those here,” he says.
    “You don’t?” I ask
    “Not in these invasive trees,” he says, gracing my yin with his yang.
Elizabeth Taylor closes promptly at sunset. I think this is the photo Jennifer shot when she got the sand in her shoes. You know what that means . . . there's no turning back.


  1. Ooooh, I love Fort Zach! My friend, (who is also a writer) Cricket introduced me to it just last September – I have been coming to Key West for years and somehow had missed this jewel. Now I pedal myself down there every time I visit. (And will again next month when I come down for a long weekend.) What a great, evocative post, June! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…so nice to read your voice again!

  2. Love your stories! Fred flew his plane over our little mobile home on Stock Island in 1991 with a banner that said, "I love you, Sally. Will you marry me?" Hal had brought me out to the dock (we lived on a lagoon facing the ocean near Oceanside Marina) for coffee. Something he never does so I was immediately suspicious... aren't I always? Great day, really fun. Everyone in town saw it, too, of course, lol! Love you.