“I’m going to your neighborhood this weekend to pay my respects,” said one of my regulars from two of the three bars I still tend.
“Really?” I asked, knowing this would be quite a trek for him.
“I’m getting on the bus and going there to be alone when I remember,” he nodded. “I don’t think they even have anything planned as a memorial!”
Funny how, without knowing this customer at all well out of the context of my bar, and without his telling me the specifics, I knew him well enough to know exactly where he was headed and why.
“Get one of your buddies to drive you down,” I said, because his buddies drive him around all the time anyway, and the bus would take forever.
“No,” he said, “I’m doing this alone.”
“I don’t think you’ll be alone,” I told him. “I am sure there are events planned.”
“No,” he sort of growled. “There’s nothing going on, and I can’t believe it! So I’m going alone to pay my respects.”
Labor Day weekend marked the 75th anniversary of a deadly, unnamed (because they didn’t name them back then) hurricane that made a direct hit in Islamorada and the Upper Keys, reportedly with sustained winds of 200 mph, and the lowest ever recorded barometric pressure reading of 26.35 inches. Hundreds of WWI veterans working on a nearby project and many other local residents lost their lives in the nightmare storm. A memorial was built in 1937 by the WPA, and the ashes of those who perished are buried in a crypt at what is locally known as the Hurricane Monument.
Of course there would be at least one tribute or ceremony to mark this dark anniversary. Right?
A small canopy tent popped up on Saturday morning. I stopped by to check it out and briefly chatted with a woman from the Matecumbe Historical Trust. She gave me a glossy brochure titled “A Guide to Historic Islamorada” and photocopied tour information and a map with numbered sites and descriptions of each.
We have that much history beyond fishing and Key lime pie and over-played Jimmy Buffet songs?
I am embarrassed to admit that I have never looked beyond the here and now of this area of the Keys that I love one minute for its quiet beauty and barely tolerate the next for its seemingly one-dimensional world of boats and booze.
I bought a hurricane memorial T-shirt to support the Trust’s efforts to educate me, and, tour map in hand, wandered down the Old Road I usually drive and was, quite simply, amazed. That place used to be a hotel? This one was a grocery store and later a restaurant and bar? The Red Cross and WPA built so many of the simple concrete houses that dot the town? There’s a cemetery on the property of that luxury resort?
Later in the weekend, a small crowd gathered for a short wreath-laying ceremony at the Hurricane Monument. I know this only because I happened to drive by as people arrived for it. Later that afternoon, I drove by again, and this time I stopped for a moment–having the place to myself–and watched the ribbons on the flower wreath flutter ever so slightly in the breeze. Standing there alone, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the loss of life memorialized at this very spot. I said a quick, silent prayer.
“I did it. I made it down there and paid my respects,” said my customer on Tuesday following Labor Day.
“Oh good!” I said. “So you saw that they had several events going on, right?”
“No, no they didn’t,” he insisted. “Not while I was there, anyway. But it doesn’t matter. I wanted to be there alone, and I was.”
“Did you see the wreath?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I did,” he said, taking a sip of his beer.
“I thought it was beautiful,” I said, emptying his ashtray.
“I just wanted to pay my respects,” he said, not really to me. “Alone.”
Which he did. And in an unintended, unexpected way, I guess I did, too.