The Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, and the United States was closer to the brink of nuclear war with the Russians than at any other point in history. The military leaders in JFK's inner circle were almost unanimous in arguing that the country must invade Cuba to stop the proliferation of nuclear missiles so close to our shores.
Few places are appropriately dramatic enough to ponder the near end of the world, but Peanut Island in Palm Beach County is one such locale. At one point the island was slated to house a terminal for shipping peanut oil but ended up as home to a nuclear-bomb shelter. If the Russkies happened to strike while President Kennedy was hanging out at Joe and Rose's place on Palm Beach, Peanut Island would have become his temporary home.
In order to explore this local piece of Cold War history, I grabbed my tent, sleeping bag, a pint of Jim Beam, and a copy of Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy's memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I then headed off to this 79-acre, man-made clump of pine trees and sand just off Riviera Beach. For those who are not among the boated gentry, there are two places from which to catch a water taxi to Peanut Island: the Riviera Beach Marina and Phil Foster Park. The ride will set you back five bucks.
When I set foot on the island, the area around the docks was swarming with boats idling in the water, the passengers drinking beer and soaking up the sun. Pelicans circled the island, occasionally dive-bombing into the water to snap up fish. Hard by the docks were the reserved campsites, cute little sandboxes adorned with cute little palm trees, the camping equivalent of a planned community. One of these will set you back $16.50 per night and afford zero privacy. Of course I, as an explorer, headed instead to the section reserved for "primitive" camping.
This camping area is set in a dense thicket of pines and sabal palms on the northwest section of the island. Depending on the tides, you may have to wade into the water and around the wildly tilting trees just to find a spot. I found a secluded campsite under cover of woods, pitched camp, and went off in search of the Kennedy bunker.
The bunker is run by the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, and tours are offered four times per day. A sign is still attached to the chainlink fence surrounding the bunker that reads, "Keep Out. Magazine Area." This was the official story when the bunker was being built, that it was actually a munitions dump.
I and about a dozen other tourists entered through the steel door, painted in a queer camouflage of green, peach, and tan. The entranceway is a circular tunnel made of corrugated steel. We turned to the left and soon were in the room that would have housed John and Jackie and 18 others if nuclear war had broken out while they were in Palm Beach. The shelter is thought to be made of steel, several feet of concrete, and a lead shell. Nobody knows for sure, because the blueprints have never been found. Ten pairs of bunks used to fill the cozy room, along with enough cold military rations and other supplies to last for 30 days. Kennedy visited the bunker in 1961, along with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Very few of the original furnishings remain from when the bunker was operative. In later years it became a home for vagrants on the island and then was taken over by the museum in 1995.
Back at camp I dug into Thirteen Days (as well as the bottle of Jim Beam), Robert Kennedy's minute-by-minute account of the inner workings of the President's brain trust reads more like a political science primer than a taut thriller, but the essential terror of the time is adequately conveyed. The world was on the verge of all-out nuclear war. Nobody on either side wanted this to happen, but nobody seemed to be really in control. One wrong move and the precipice to carnage might have been crossed.
By the time darkness fell, the tide had encroached far enough that I was stranded within the pine trees, alone. The water crashed on shore, drowning out all other sounds. It was peculiar to be so secluded, yet surrounded by lights. To the north I could see the Blue Heron bridge, to the west the lights of Riviera Beach, to the east the comfy homes of Singer Island.
Then a series of horn blasts shattered the quiet, giving notice that the SunCruz Casino boat moored nearby was on its way out for the night. It shook me out of my reverie, and I realized the Cold War was long over. Civilization had prevailed.
Peanut Island bunker, Palm Beach Maritime Museum, 561-842-8202.
The last place I expected to find magic was in a crackerbox strip of a store on West Sunrise Boulevard. You know the kind: bars on the windows, an empty side lot littered with straws and Materva bottles, a skinny egret picking its way along the store's chainlink fence.
This mystic botánica is a world away from the ivy-covered cottages found in fairy books, but the place still swells with ready magic. Candles stacked on shelves promise celestial doorways to saints like Santa Barbara or the almond-eyed prankster Elegua. Two skinny dollars, a match, and a prayer could bring me quick cash, true love, or lip-smacking vengeance.
I pluck a red Santa Barbara candle from the ranks. A santero once told me that this saint favored me, that she would protect me from those who'd wish me harm if I offered her red carnations or a candle every now and then. Couldn't hurt. I decide to opt for a revenge candle as well. You never know when a little retribution might come in handy.
Deeper into the store, I find powders with names like Jinx Removal and Fast Luck housed in silver tins and red and black vodou dolls spilling from a cardboard box. Sage incense smolders from burnished pots placed haphazardly across the floor, and finger-shape smoke curls into the air. A crude altar in the back pays homage with pennies, wine, and feathers to Danbala, who's a ringer for Saint Patrick, Moses, or sometimes a green-bodied snake. The owner must love Danbala, because there are sequined vodou flags and spirit bottles bearing his likeness everywhere I look.
A small clutch of men draw stools up to the counter and begin their daily barter between work and talk. One of them pops a tape into a beat-up boom box, and drums and chanting now blend with the lilt of their voices, their Creole rising and falling like another rhythm. Above them, a row of ceramic saints waits for new homes and new disciples to protect or torment. I pay for my candles. The incense now fills the store with its green scent, and I linger by the doorway; it's hard to leave a place where you could get what you wish for.
Saint Pierre Botanica Shop and Spiritual Store, 405 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-767-6251.
I came to South Florida expecting tropical. What I didn't expect was South Seas tropical. But much to my surprise, right here in the middle of the urban jungle that's Broward County, there's a little Polynesian oasis called Mai-Kai. Just a few feet away from the maniacs on Federal Highway, I stepped into another world, and it's the real thing.
That palm-thatch roof I saw from Federal is made from real South Florida palms. And by real South Floridians. Manager Kern Mattei told me that local Seminole Indians are brought in to replace it when it wears out. Inside I found a cavernous A-frame main room with a stage where real Polynesian dancers and drummers perform nightly. Branching off that main room are seven dining rooms, each named after a different Pacific island, lots of genuine bamboo railings and monkey pot wood tables with varnish about an inch thick.
But the real kicker is that each room is decorated with items from its namesake island. The primitive tools and eerie ceremonial masks on the walls of the New Guinea room, for example, really are from New Guinea. It seems the original Mai-Kai owner was something of a traveler, and in the '40s and '50s he accumulated the massive collection on display throughout the restaurant and bar with many items dating back to the turn of the 19th Century. I spot a preserved blowfish hanging in one room, and everywhere there are beautiful hand-made fishing traps dangling from the ceiling, many outfitted with soft lights that transform them into exotic lanterns.
The place has something like three dozen original tiki masks, from the tiny to the titanic, both inside the restaurant-bar and outside in the gardens (but mostly inside -- the South Florida climate tends to take its toll). In one little grotto area just off the trail that winds through the gardens, there's the mother of all tikis, a scarred wooden monster from the '40s that's maybe 12 to 15 feet tall. Mattei tells me the poor fellow once sported an enormous erection, until prudish patrons complained and he was emasculated.
The gardens themselves are quite something. Countless ferns and palms, stands of willowy bamboo. Waterfalls and pools. Orchids bred especially for Mai-Kai by an employee. In one corner there's a strange little structure that turns out to be an outside kitchen. But instead of ordinary grills, it houses huge chimney ovens modeled after the ones used for cooking and heating in ancient Mongolian homes. They burn on Australian oak and are used for virtually all Mai-Kai's meats, which are impaled on hooks and hung on metal rods inside the smoky chimneys.
The whole complex was designed by a Japanese architect named George Nakashima and built in 1956. He used a Thai theme for the ladies' room and the gift shop. For the men's room and the bar, he went nautical. The bar, in particular, is meant to make you feel as if you're on a lower deck of a ship. (The wooden entry bridge from the parking lot to the front door was intentionally designed to be creaky, the better to provide sound effects for patrons inside the bar.) A nice place to sip a mai tai and reflect on the unique design of the Mai-Kai.
Mattei admits that the authentic-looking Thai and nautical trappings are replicas, but they've been so expertly aged I would never have guessed. Otherwise the Polynesian paraphernalia that send me into sensory overload at every turn are real. He also tells me that the market value of this dream collection of artifacts has skyrocketed so high that probably no one this side of Bill Gates could ever afford to re-create Mai-Kai.
I believe him.
Mai-Kai Restaurant and Lounge, 3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-563-3272.
I thought it would be a cinch to get a good look at the Delray Wreck, though I had no idea what the hell it really was. Just heard it might be cool to float over and see. So I got to the southern tip of Delray Beach and rented the requisite gear -- a mask, a snorkel, flippers, and a dive flag -- for $10 at a little shop from some guy wearing sunglasses and red trunks. He told me the wreck was about 70 yards out. No problem.
I put on the flippers and the mask and put the snorkel in my mouth with a sense of queasiness. (It had a salty taste to it, and I figured untold numbers of people had clenched it in their teeth without it being washed). Then I started swimming. I swam out 70 yards in the clear, wonderful green water, which was alternately cool one second and warm the next. And I looked. I looked and I heard myself breathe, SHHEEEW SHOOOO. And I looked. And I swam. Nothing seemed to change. The bottom was just sand, that's all. After an hour, nothing. I was exhausted, and even the sparkling water had lost its charm. Dozens of people on sea kayaks and other little water vessels were frolicking nearby, but none of them seemed to be looking for the wreck. So I finally swam back to shore, dejected.
Back on sand I was about to call it quits when I remembered that there was a historical plaque dedicated to the wreck on A1A. Standing before it I read that the Delray Wreck was actually a British steamship called the Inchulva, and it sank in 1903 during a hurricane. Nine men died, while the other 29 made it to shore, where they were taken care of by the townsfolk. Now I was intrigued -- hell, for all I knew, the Delray Wreck might have been a sunken fishing boat from 1978, not a genuine piece of history. And I also read, etched in steel, that the wreck was 150 yards off the coast, not 70. Suppressing my desire to bitch-slap the bastard in the red trunks, I walked back to the beach, put on the goofy flippers, grabbed the dive flag, and started a grueling trip back out to the wreck.
By this time a couple of scuba divers were out in the water, and I figured they must be diving the wreck. So I set my sights on their dive flag. Roughly 30 yards from it, I saw beneath me a dark mass. It was damn spooky, and for a moment I had to fight the fear that this thing might be a man-eating sea creature. But I knew it was no sea creature; it had to be the Inchulva. And it was. There, roughly 15 feet below the surface, were a few coral and seaweed-covered pieces of the fateful old ship. And darting about the wreckage were the most beautiful fish I'd ever seen. (Though I'm an avid adventurer, this was only the second time in my life I'd ever gone snorkeling.) There were striking yellow and blue fish, ranging in size from a couple feet long to the size of a quarter. I won't pretend to know the names, nor will I go to the trouble of looking them up. Who cares? It's enough to say they were mysterious, beautiful, and worth that hour of futility and then some to see. But that wreckage was also daunting in a way and strangely humbling.
I didn't stay there long, because there were bigger pieces of the Inchulva to be seen, including a 110-by-60-foot chunk of hull and a couple of the ship's boilers. So I swam (by then with a great deal of effort as my energy waned from all the swimming) to the divers' flag, figuring they were immersed in an underwater wonderland. But when I got there, I could see no wreckage. When they surfaced, they told me they couldn't find the ship. Of all the damn things, I had a couple of lost scuba divers on my hands. But they decided we should all head west, toward shore, which we did. And that's when I came upon one of the boilers, a round wheel-looking encasement of iron maybe 20 feet in diameter. Again there was a dizzying array of gorgeous fish, and I also saw a huge spotted eel swimming about in there. One glimpse of that monster had me quaking with fright-laced exhilaration.
Soon I was envious of the scuba divers, who could stay down there and explore to their hearts' content. I, on the other hand, had to hold my breath and dive down 15 feet to get a close look. Problem was, by the time I got down there, my lungs were already screaming at me to get the hell back up to the surface. And I did a couple dozen times before I realized that I'd spent myself. With both outings I'd been swimming out there for a solid two hours; my legs were starting to cramp up, and the damn flippers were cutting into the sides of my feet. It was quite a relief to get back on sand.
I'm going back to the Delray Wreck, though. I saw only a little sliver of the Inchulva. And I loved it. The remnants of that nearly 100-year-old nightmare provide more than just visual delights: It's a stark reminder that our best efforts can easily be quashed by the tremendous, unpredictable power of nature.
On April 8, 1948, Mort Married Greta. She was 21 years old, the daughter of Russian immigrants, and dressed in silk and satin for the big event. I thought the wedding went well -- nice people surrounded them, from what I could see. The guests were all smiles and also wore some rather elegant costuming that stopped just short of extravagant.
My view came from their wedding album, 52 years later, which Greta ("Like Garbo," she says) opened on a desk at Travel Etc., where the couple operates a travel agency and art gallery. Epstein's their surname, and joie de vivre, along with a love of travel and art, is their real game. That's what they say, but what I say is I instantly got a second mom here in Greta.
She asked me if I'd been eating enough; I asked her what she looked like when she was young, eliciting the invitation to see her wedding album. I noticed, too, that Greta's a sucker for wayward artists. If you're an artist without a studio, you qualify as wayward and should check with Greta. I happen not to be an artist, but a member of that tribe stood before us sporting shoulder-length hair falling onto a white T-shirt. Greta invited him to return and paint in the spacious back room of her shop, where high ceilings, good light, and bonhomie create a good working atmosphere.
Her attentiveness was not just show. The Epsteins rent studio space complete with easels. For $135 a month, you get a place to bring brush to canvas, and if you're good Greta will display your work and try to sell it for you from the crowded walls of her shop. Her front window, tucked between the Lord Nelson Pub and the Stage Door Cafe, sits on the main drag in Himmarshee on Second Street, where some of the highest real-estate prices in Fort Lauderdale exist. Yet the price for displaying four or five pieces on her wall, visible through plate glass from the street is only $50 a month. She'll take a commission as well, if you sell.
The Epsteins' painting-packed walls wrap themselves around the desks of their travel agents like heavy foliage, and the message may be that travel of the imagination is as important as actual travel to the seven continents. Greta displays oils, acrylics, watercolors, and pastels in a dizzying variety of styles that range from Irish rustic to impressionist to postmodern stark. Prices range from $300 to $3000.
I don't have the money to buy, so I've taken to wandering into their space for a look, hoping sometimes to snag a good conversation. It's not like a museum, either, because none of the artists is dead, at least not yet. And many are regional: Vivien Parks has worked in four media; some of it is like clichéd lighthouse scenes, but some of it merits a comparison to Edward Hopper. Parks serves as Greta's in-house teacher, offering occasional workshops. Artist Howard Newman's detailed background brings you vividly onto the streets of New York, where his scenes are set in Greenwich Village.
One of the most appealing paintings I saw arrived in the arms of some guy who works across the street from Travel Etc. at O'Reilly's, the Irish pub. He wasn't the artist, he was just a friend of the artist, who hadn't yet pulled into town from the old country. The artist is Rudock McIlwaine, whose "tranquil scenes depict landscapes and images of the heart of Ireland with an unusual technique," in Greta's opinion.
Maybe he's the Grandma Moses of Ireland. Go see for yourself. And if you want to see the thing that art imitates -- they call it reality -- better still. You can start by buying an airplane ticket from Greta or Mort and traveling to Ireland.
Travel Etc., 310 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-522-6111.