Veterans Affairs

It takes a lot more than a bumper sticker to support the troops, says a crusty ex-Marine and best-selling author

It was a civic enthusiasm short-lived. In 1999, along with five other cities around the country, Fort Lauderdale made a bid for the U.S.S. Hoga, an antique tugboat that remains one of the last floating vessels to have survived the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The charge was led by a not-for-profit organization Winer headed. The old man garnered support from several corners: the City of Fort Lauderdale, which agreed to offer a mooring spot beside the Nininger statue; the Broward County School Board, which offered the services of marine industry students, who would learn by helping to maintain the tug; the county's historical commission; the county's visitor's bureau; a towing company that offered to donate a tow from the Panama Canal, assuming another company would tow it that far from California; Port Everglades, which offered temporary dockage during repairs; the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association; and Bob Hope, who wrote a letter in support. All that stood in the way was cash: The Navy would want to see at least a million dollars on hand guaranteeing that the boat would be maintained.

Then, backlash. The Performing Arts Center Authority thought better of the plan and asked the city to find another spot for the Hoga; President and CEO Mark Nerenhausen sent a letter saying that "public facilities, parking and the pristine and unimpeded view of the New River" should take precedence. Others followed suit.

Asked about the campaign against the Hoga's Riverwalk mooring, Naugle is conciliatory. "There are some in the community that only want the gleaming white yachts and don't appreciate the character," he says.
Richard Winer's boat is named for his best-selling The Devil's Triangle
Colby Katz
Richard Winer's boat is named for his best-selling The Devil's Triangle

To this day, Winer remains borderline distraught at the way his neighborhood shifted beneath him. (North Little Rock, Arkansas, claimed the tug.) "We could have had a national treasure here, and they fought it," he laments. "Where's the patriotism they're supposed to have?"

Says Willard: "Dick was a doer; he wasn't a talker. Dick is always controversial. Anybody who stands up and fights for their rights in today's atmosphere is controversial. Only the profiteers want to move into our neighborhood. They want to buy cheap, sell to the max, make money, and move on. Like all politicians and developers, they piss in your ear and make you think you're dreaming."

The "fort" in Fort Lauderdale was a fortification built in the 1830s so Maj. William Lauderdale could lead a group of Tennessee Volunteers into battle against the Seminole Indians. The current mayor's uncle, Tex Ellison, taught George H.W. Bush to fly in Fort Lauderdale, and his father, Bill Naugle, went to high school with Sandy Nininger. Today, in addition to the statue, Nininger's name graces a West Point library room, a park at Fort Knox, a Fort Lauderdale Army Reserve training center, a military cargo ship, and the 800-odd-foot street that leads from Federal Highway to the War Memorial Auditorium. In anticipation of the statue's arrival, Gold Coast magazine also noted, among Nininger's memorials, "a plaque across from War Memorial Auditorium, which only someone addicted to plaques would bother to read."

Since then, the state has also named a veterans nursing home in Pembroke Pines after Nininger. All of these are quite nice, certainly, though it is difficult to say a man is remembered when most of those who remember him are themselves forgotten.

In talking about Nininger one afternoon, Winer, wearing a black West Point sweatshirt and a cap with the Spruce Goose emblazoned on it, settles into a deck chair. The railing around the porch he says used to be on the Andrews Avenue bridge; he bought the 500-pound rail sections as scrap, figuring they must have historic value. Under the patio table is a huge Kerry-Edwards campaign sign that Winer's moving around the deck to try to pinpoint a leak. Kerry got his vote in 2004, though he would rather have voted for John McCain.

When time takes Winer, his name will not appear on a brick or a statue. In all likelihood, his home will be looted by well-meaning friends and family members (twice divorced, he has two grown children) who won't know what to do with the Smithsonian-like collection he has hoarded over the years. The first floor alone, which is nothing but a ten-car garage, will require an excavation. What will become of the improbable harmony of bulges and edges that is his 1933 Packard Super 8 or of the 9,000-pound, seven-foot-tall, 12-cylinder 1936 Packard towncar in which media magnates Robert McCormick and William Randolph Hearst used to cruise the streets of Chicago? They, like Winer, are packed into so much classic clutter as to be rendered almost inextricable from their resting places.

Winer has kept a boilerplate from the Mayflower-cum-Malla and a soap dish from the admiral's sea cabin of the sunken Saratoga. He scraped off the sea growth and taped it to the inside of his thigh, to hide it from snoopy Marshall Islands customs officials.

Around the walls of his living room are hung portraits of seafarers battling oceans in all states of fury, boats landing beneath brilliant sunrises, all manner of clocks and steering wheels from ships, old lanterns and diving helmets, and other oceanic artifacts. The very shelves are hatch covers from World War II ships.

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