I had blown through Key Largo some years ago on a work junket. At the time I was driving a convertible on my first field trips out of the office. I landed a new position [redacted] a few months after parting with my old bosses with no uncertain amount of acrimony and having spent the better part of three years locked inside an old filthy sweatshop turned digital tech 2.0 eSweat Platform supporting bad products with worse [redacted].
Fortune had smiled upon me, and I gloated to no audience but the sky gods about my new found freedom and level of escalating responsibility at my new job. But, as I drove on down Route 1, that famous strip of highway that starts in Maine and terminates in the scorching roguish Key West, I didn’t have time to stop in Key Largo.
I practice the philosophy that we may pass through somewhere only once, so one must take full advantage of everything we can see and do along the way. No matter how mundane the place, or ordinary the surroundings, that spot on the globe you are lucky enough to visit but only for a moment. It may only be once, no matter how hard you attempt to return, so make the most of it. This drive to experience a place keeps me up at night and at times runs me ragged, lacking sleep, listless, and jolting from an afternoon nap as I see the doom we must all certainly face one by one to get off the couch and live more life. I cannot travel and relax. So, I was sad to have to pass through Key Largo that fine, proud day and miss The African Queen on the way to somewhere else.
Craning my neck, I whizzed by (by whizz the author means 35-40 MPH as the speed limit, and ample law enforcement provides along old new Route 1 to ensure you don’t go faster) that fabled boat on my way to Marathon Key. But did not see it other than a mark on the map I was using. I had thought I had missed my one opportunity.
Now, I had returned to that same Key. I never expect to be back, but here I was, more than a few months older, somewhat humbled by a few years of employment, and indeed a more practical car. This time, I would see the African Queen.
The African Queen is from the film of the same name with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I had watched the film on an old black & white TeeVee we had sitting in the kitchen on top of an ever more vintage fridge. It was years before I learned the film was shot in colour. For some reason, the film inspired my imagination. Really, not the film, but the boat. I wanted so much to pilot such a craft through endless swamp and on various adventures. So, as many children do, or used to do, I went to play in the backyard creating as much of the story adventure as I could out of the broken bits that littered by then small child’s world.
I had read somewhere (years ago I would have said an old guide book, but those no longer exist) that The African Queen was sitting in a heap in the middle of some chain hotel. Decoration for some sad steaming pile of a business. A terminal display moldering at the likes of a Holiday Inn, a Howard Johnson’s, or Super 8 or similarly apportioned traveler’s residence known for cheap rooms, drug deals in the parking lot, and few or no stars on certain advisors of trips.
I was again en route to Key West. I had been to the Keys twice before, both for work. The last time was an epic debauchery since our company’s clients know how to party and encourage visitors to take off early in time for the Sunset Festival. Key Largo is the first of the Keys of Florida. As with much of the route, the strip is unsightly and doesn’t have an ounce of magic or charm. A goddamn American disaster film in the making. Some smash up of drugs meets poor children meets Godzilla. A thin ribbon cut of the same bastard cloth as the rest of the Geography of Nowhere except the stores vend items to those engaged in boating, murdering fish, diving, or whatever needs poverty dictates. The Keys are this way until you find the right spot until you see a vista that takes your breath away. A sky roiled in storm far out in tropical blue waters, the palm trees and mangroves, a house on stilts looking over waters flat as glass and somewhere a band is playing and a blender churns bad booze into great sex.
Pawn shops and prawn shops, adult entertainment, thrift stores, beer and smoke emporiums and caves. I booked a room in a small cabin complex, the sort one sees when you watch too many Tim Burton films and then close your eyes. Nostalgia suffocated the air and quaint inebriated. The room was small, but everything I needed except for alcohol was there. The free kayaks, the swimming boat dock watching the setting sun. I plugged in my dead phone and called a number of captains looking to book a night time fishing trip, but all were canceled for the season, a sultry hot uncertain time of surprise storms and frantic appeals to the tourists that it indeed is safe enough to spend money here. The second objective, I looked up the location of the African Queen. To my surprise, I discovered that it was just a few short blocks away, within walking distance of my humble cabin. I had a note on my iThingyamajiggy to look for the boat, but I had not planned so far ahead as to know where to look. It was one of those happy mistakes I make when I am not making those million and one unhappy mistakes.
I took my iDevice and went following the metaphysical data representational dot that was me on my phone moving in real space and time (this was before Pokemon Go mind you). I ambled in the heat and stupidity, across the many lanes of constant gushing traffic flowing like a series of angry monsters, truck nuts and Trump signs waving in the exhaust. I walked between the hot parking lots of the Dollar Store Tree Bargain City and the gas station cum beer shoppe and shell emporium. I made my way to the African Queen hotel and then looked about the property. Not unslightly for a roadside motel. I believe people build ugly because they want ugly. Ugly and stupid is simpler to maintain than anything athletic. Let Nature create all that is majestic.
Bethatasitmay, I banished all thoughts and my little drug store philosophical musings to search, selfie, and Snapchat(TM) me and the boat and go about my business. I checked the front, port and starboard; I went to the aft of the hotel, but there was no trace of a boat fitting the description, the image I had in my mind, both from the film and the fantasy world I built. I went into the lobby to check with some actual humans rather than continue to rely on my hand computer and satellites of love beaming an impression of my location. There, beyond the door is a boiler from the African Queen from long ago, so I was close. I looked about at the busy front desk. It was Thursday, so everyone was checking in. Everyone who knew how to avoid working on Friday that is.
I was unable to find any trace of the craft on my own. Next to the hotel was a canal and I followed a path to a stand of palms with a structure behind, however, behind those trees, nothing was there but the hotel annex. I saw a sign on the wharf that the African Queen was there, somewhere. As I was pondering the issue, there, about the bend and between the million dollar yachts and other expensive craft the familiar shape of the African Queen came into view. Very much in the water and not languishing on some pedestal as was described by the out-of-date trip post. I called to the captain as it seemed that today the old girl is back in the water and taking passengers as it has since it was first constructed back in 1912 (incidentally, the year my Grandmother was born). I booked passage for the next morning. This was going to take longer than expected. I had to cancel a great deal of day drinking, but that is the price one must pay for experiences.
The film of the same name was a war film made in the early 1950s and released as was all studio films were in those days in order to fill screens. I don’t know if I recommend the movie. When I was a child, I was captured by the film. I guess living in a suburb on welfare in the 1970s one wished for some adventure. And chartering a sputtering old boat seemed apt. Perhaps a metaphor for my then situation, stuck in a falling apart house. A filthy museum tribute to the lives of my elders, fighting against suburban natives and forces that were much larger than I could ever conquer, the terrorism in the Mid East, the end of the Vietnam War, the opening salvos of the rust belt and the anathema of the middle classes. My sibling and I took to acting out the adventure of the African Queen, but we changed it to our own liking and swapped out human actors for cats since that is what all folk storytelling traditions do. We played that they were kitties, then Cheetahs, since another story device was to imagine the fastest animal in the world confined to a swamp. How true then and to some degree now, although there is no hope of my being again quick. We then changed them to pirates, since pirate Cheetahs are much more interesting, then we changed it to what I would later learn is called the butterfly effect, since these African Queen Kitties in their avarice and ineptitude always set off events that led to a nuclear war. Which, will one day soon enough be brought true.
This was not the boat of my own childhood folktales. This was the real thing. The boat had a captain and me, and a random Italian, a man who worked in the commercial shipping trade on some precise and obscure mechanical device, were the only passengers. Captian Jack was at the helm. He started the tour by recounting the role the boat took in the film and showing the documents of the vessel, old reproduced photos from the movie and recording the film; the first colour film shot on location. Then, the story jigged a little to the story of how this boat came to be, the happenstance of it being used in the film, and the further adventures it had traveling from Africa to almost rotting to death in Oregon, to then being brought to Key Largo, to again being resurrected from close to ruin by the able hands of a few loyal boatbuilders. The story involved missionaries, mercenaries, boondoggles in tourism, adventures in lawyering, and the Queen of England. Perhaps not in that order.
I won’t ruin the stories since it is best to hear them from Captain Jack or read about them elsewhere. Then, the stories turned more personal. Where are you from, why are you here, what the hell did you pay such and such to ride the African Queen. Then the Captian started discussing divorce, drugs, horses, and traveling the Caribbean by boat for years. His story was even more interesting than the how the boat was used in the film, or the harrowing tale about its restoration, rotting, and re-restoration. We chugged out of the canal with an outboard motor since the day before the boiler engine broke, but this seemed fitting, for the African Queen. Always chugging along despite needing repair … I was handed the helm.
I thought about the child me who had time and again imagined that I was driving the African Queen. Then the many Kitties that had taken the helm as part endless imaginary games out in the backyard. And here I was. An old rusted boat, a mangled ancient craft, and here I was, inexplicably in Florida, in Key Largo, taking the helm from the most perfect captain that could guild us, a fitting man two-fisted and full of tales, as one would demand. I stood for a few pictures, a dumb expression on my slowly sunburning face, and turned the boat about to return to the canal. The Italian also got a turn; it wasn’t just me. Then I and the Italian returned to our seats, and waited for the dock, and the continuation of our respective days.
I bid farewell to the Captain and rushed over to my next boat, a snorkeling trip to the Key Largo reef. We have little time each day, and who knows when again one will return, if ever. No missionaries, mercenaries, not even the Queen in our future. No Congo, just get back in our stupid little cars and go in divergent directions. I did not find the adventure I had imagined so long ago. But, in some way, maybe Bogart and Hepburn and the African Queen did propel me outside of my small subdivision, perhaps out of poverty, and certainly to several continents and other adventures throughout this green world and this Great and Storied Nation.