National Geographic : 1971 Jan
National Geographic, January 1971 the thousands, and year round the town plays host to other thousands of servicemen, most of them from the big Key West Naval Base. When you think about the size of the island only a mile or so across, and built up right to the water's edge (preceding pages)-it isn't surprising that things sometimes become crowded and a bit hectic. You have to let Key West sort of sneak up on you-and, chances are, it will. You'll dis cover quiet little areas of wooden Bahamian style houses, for instance, with distinctive verandas built by ship's carpenters (page 89). Cuban restaurants and the sound of Spanish on the streets will remind you of the fact that, before the railroad came, there was more trade with Havana than with Miami. Bankruptcy Gives Way to Radiant Health You'll step into the peace and beauty of the Audubon House, where the artist lived while he did some of the paintings that later ap peared in his magnificent Birds of America. And if you revere Ernest Hemingway, as I do, for what he taught writers about their craft, you will go often to the veranda-ringed house on Whitehead Street where he lived for eight years with his second wife, Pauline, and their two sons. Since 1931, when Hemingway bought the big house on Whitehead Street, Key West has swung from one end of the economic scale to the other. "We've had our ups and downs," agreed my friend Kermit Lewin. "By the mid thirties things looked hopeless. The depres sion struck. The cigar makers moved to Tam pa for better wages. Blight wiped out our sponge fishery. And then we lost our railroad. Key West was bankrupt." Two men get chief credit for Key West's return to radiant health: a Midwesterner who cared little for the sea and a man of the sea who solved one of its nagging mysteries. The Midwesterner was Missourian Harry S Truman. A trip to Key West aboard the Presidential yacht Williamsburg convinced him there was little joy in the sailor's life. But Key West itself was something else. "It was a real love affair," one old-timer said. "The President took to Key West right away-he put us on the map again by com ing back 10 times, you know-and Mr. Tru man's forthright ways went over big with the Conchs" (page 84). The man of the sea was a shrimp-boat owner from St. Augustine named John Salva dor. "He came into the story late in 1949," Maitland Adams told me. "I was manager of Thompson Enterprises then-we were dealers in fish and turtles, among other things. But not shrimp. Our men couldn't locate shrimp. Yet we knew they were in Key West waters; we'd find them in the entrails of fish when we'd clean them. "Well, John Salvador and his brother and a couple of friends brought their nets and their know-how down to Key West. They tried every trick they knew, but always by daylight. Then, late one afternoon, Salvador made one last pass and caught a few shrimp. On a hunch, he made another pass after dark and brought up the first real haul of Key West pink shrimp. That one night's work changed the whole future of this town." Today, at the height of the season, hun dreds of tons of "pink gold" flow each month from the key's packing houses (page 91), while above the shallow waters west of the city, the black iron booms of as many as five hundred shrimp boats spike the sky.* In the anchored trawlers the fishermen sleep, wait ing for darkness before they lower their nets. Battered Craft Bear Spanish Names Oddly, shrimping still is not Key West's major maritime activity. Submarines line the docks at the sprawling U. S. Naval Base, and a gleaming sub tender towers beside them. SPAR-an unusual 354-foot vessel that can tip itself straight up and down in the water, bow to the sky, lies at a nearby dock. Its instruments, located as much as 300 feet below the surface when the ship tips up, help scientists carry out acoustic research. In all, 30 separate commands and 8,000 men make the Navy Key West's biggest, busiest, and most complex organization. My most vivid memory of the base is of something quite different: a jumbled pile of twenty or thirty small and almost totally worthless boats-wave-battered craft with names like Santa Maria and Isabelita,Jua nita and Elena (opposite). They are graphic reminders of the fact that Key West lies only 95 miles north of Fidel Castro's Cuba. Atop the pile the day I was there perched a fantastic little raft made of bits of pipe and *Clarence P. Idyll wrote "Shrimp Nursery" in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC for May 1965, and "Shrimpers Strike Gold in the Gulf," May 1957.