Wednesday, April 30, 2014

As Far As I Could Go Then and Now Able to Return

Missing the Carolina Cup was rather disappointing; missing the Key West Paddleboard Classic will trump disappointment and push the envelope toward level one of traumatizing.

Social media certainly does not help the SUP junkie going through warm-water withdraw. Seeing all the pictures of the masses gathered at Wrightsville Beach, and thoroughly enjoying themselves, made for quite the test when it came to stifling the relentless feeling of envy. Going for a paddle is the only methadone available yet that methadone is rather painful when you  hit the lake without gloves and have to return to shore after a mere two miles due to numb hands. It is nearly May 1 and I am about neoprene-ed out. Sure, any day on the water should be considered a blessing but gloves in the last week of April? That hurts...

In January, on the drive back to Ogden Dunes, my wife had given me the go-ahead to attend the Carolina Cup AND the Key West Paddleboard Classic. She knew I was very disappointed in the fact that nothing about our move to Maryland seemed to work in our favor. The Old Line State, my birth state, had beaten us down and that was tough, especially on me. By the end of March when the ice had yet to melt on Lake Michigan the idea of doing two 12+ mile races back to back seemed more like a pipedream than a vacation. The expenses could not be justified. After my last paddle of just over two miles that left me numb and with the sniffles, I think it was definitely a wise decision save on gas and cheer on my fellow paddlers via Facebook and Instagram.

DANG!  I have been wanting to get back to Key West for so long...that is a special place, or at least it was back when I lived there in 96-97. Had SUP been around I might have spent less time at places like Grunts, Finnegan's Wake, and the Half Shell Raw Bar, might have being the key words. I doubt anything could have set me on the right track back then. It certainly wasn't the right track but it most definitely was a fun track!

Escape had always initiated my aimless wanderings. After college, I worked my way as far south as possible. Getting to the southernmost point was a slow process but eventually I made to the end of the road. I might have never made it to Key West had I been mature enough to face problems head on and gather the determination necessary to correct them. Such was not the case in my life so I checked into places for a spell then experienced something that didn't go my way and checked back out. I even went to sea and headed further east to see if anything might jive but it didn't. In November I flew from Puerto Rico to Key West to visit friends. We went deep sea fishing and I knew what I wanted my next job to be.

I arrived in Key West in the middle of December and started my first day as an apprentice on the Fishbuster Christmas Eve. That was one of the biggest boats on the row with the best gear and I quickly learned how to run the deck and handle the customers. I earned a reputation as a good guy to have onboard after diving across the fishbox and saving a rod from going overboard. By February I had my job as first mate on a boat down at the other end of the dock, where I learned fun went to die.

There was a serious side and a not-so-serious side with a clear line of demarcation dividing the two schools of thought at Garrison Bight Marina. My time on the serious sided was short lived. I longed to be back down at end near the causeway where laughter usually filled the air. There were the drunken arguments full of false bravado and a few coolers destroyed with aluminum bats, but by the next morning there were hugs, 70s disco music, and a quick cold one or two to set things back on an even keel, starting around 6:00am. It was awesome...for a while. This lifestyle took its toll. I'll fast forward through the rest, my Great American Novel, and get on to my Key West demise.

Dancing naked in a thunderstorm near the old City Electric building, is where I found myself on my last night in Key West. Just a few feet away a beautiful young lesbian from France twirled about under a streetlight holding her clothes in her right hand. This had been the way we walked from Garrison Bight Marina to our current location on James Street. Rain soaked yet still clothed we made way from Charterboat Row headed for the Half Shell. Only when we hit the side streets did we decide to disrobe and move about in aimless freedom. There was no music playing, per say. The rain fell heavily upon tin roofs, car hoods, puddles, the asphalt, the concrete, our heads, our skin; it fell everywhere and on that night it coalesced into a symphony for our rum addled minds to interpret as music.

Eventually Sophie began to sing along with the night and I have no idea what song it might have been but it sure sounded fine to me. When she beckoned me to join her in her own interperative dance I thought that this would THAT night, the kind one spends their whole adolescent life dreaming about.  What else would a twenty-six-year-old inebriated male dancing in a tropical rainstorm with a French lesbian think? Unfortunately, in my head, all the reasons why she might beckoned me to her were all way off base, as was most of my thinking then. Sophie held out her hands for me to come enjoy the moment with her, not with her. We were naked, dancing in the streets, living life in the tropics to its fullest. It was a moment to be simply enjoyed for what it was without moving it into awkwardness. The last thing this girl wanted was some drunken idiot dancing around with his boardshorts around his ankles attempting to make the night into something that it could never be. All this was was the definition of fun and to make the moment endure into a lasting memory that was how the moment had to remain...simply fun.

Maybe if I had been a better dancer (as in had more freedom of movement rather than the restriction of boardshorts around the ankles) things might have been different but THAT kind of night was not in the cards for me. To my defense, I was staying prepared as a good mate should and there is an awkwardness that comes with being ready to put wet clothes back in case the cops come. But it was Key West...who calls the cops on people dancing naked in the rain under a streetlight? Only when we saw the faces of those taking their evening meal inside Finnegan's Wake did we put on our clothes and run to the Half Shell to meet up with some of the other motley fools from Charterboat Row.

The rest of the night could not match the fun of walking from Charterboat Row to the Half Shell in a tropical rainstorm. I did my best to try with as much rum as the Half Shell would serve me. Instead of adding to the fun, all I was doing was adding to the amount of sugar my body would eventually reject. The night would end quickly as would my time in Key West.

Would I have changed a thing about that night? Hell yes I would have! There might have been a better ending than waking up alone the next day in sweat-soaked sheets with a case of the delirium tremors that I thought one only read about in Jack Kerouac novels. The self destruction had been building momentum for a while. Only after striking out trying to convert a lesbian to heterosexuality, on a night like no other, does the free fall end with a sudden and harrowing impact. That morning I knew that if I did not leave Key West immediately I would end up in bad place, maybe not dead but I felt my grip on sanity beginning to loosen. I paid my rent for the next month and told my landlords, who happened to be very close friends that I was leaving. That afternoon I packed up a U-haul and left Key West headed in a northerly direction for a month of drying out at mom's.

To put things in a more business like perspective of how bad, or maybe stupid is a better word, I had become let me just say this: I passed the test to get my 6-pac captain's license, had an offer to start running a boat on Charterboat Row, but never got around to filling out the paperwork to finalize the process. I had one year from the date of the exam to get the paper work filled out and just never did. You know what they say about idle hands...it's true! My reputation as a fisherman had grown to the point that I was getting job offers from a lot of boats. I had a captain threaten another if he tried to lure me away again. Looking back on this now I further realize how bad I actually got. Nobody has been so anxious to hire me since!!

Everything happens for a reason. I am a firm believer in this in the Biblical sense. While I may not have always lived as a good example of the Christian walk, I knew I was always being watched over. I am quite sure that it is a good thing I did not get my Captain's license and stay in Key West. I couldn't handle it then...at all.

I sure bet I could handle Key West now! At home I have three wonderful mongrels and an incredible hobby as my support system. Also, I am much older and much more content with who I am, allowing me to just sit back and watch the tide roll in and out of the channel without wondering what I might be missing out on (except when it comes to cool SUP events!). Yes, I can look back on the crazy times of yesteryear in all the wonderful places I lived and laugh at that foolishness. Being strong enough now to laugh off any temptation with the been-there-done-that-and-am-very-fortunate-to-still-be-alive-with-all-my-faculties-in-place attitude gives me a clearer vision of the world. I long to experience the true beauty of such amazing places as Wrightsville Beach, Key West, Charleston, New Orleans, New York, and Miami without the foggy mind. Key West by SUP?? I can't imagine the feeling one must get being able to see the island from that perspective!

My time at the southernmost point still provides me with so much even though I have been away from there for too long. I learned so much about the sea and spent some quality time with a lot of wonderful people. Thanks to social media I am still in touch with a few of the good ones. So many memories from that time in my life are still with me. There are the bad ones that help me make better decisions and there are the good ones like the way starlight cast a warm glow over Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. I feel so fortunate to have spent a few nights in that part of the world. That picture is still as vivid now as it was back then from the deck of the Cha-Cha. 

And now there is SUP in Key West to make it even more of a special place. All I hear about is how awesome the crew at Lazy Dog is. I want to meet these folks! They are everywhere spreading the stoke of SUP and I feel like I am the only paddler who has not met one member of that crew! I wish everyone attending the Key West Paddleboard Classic the best and while I may hate you for a few hours on Saturday I look forward to paddling with you in the near future.




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